Read a profile of Mark Oshiro on the WNDB blog here!
By Mark Oshiro
In the writing community, we often seem to be split right down the middle when it comes to editing. About half of us prefer drafting, while others prefer editing. I remain one of the few people I know who likes a dreaded third part of a possible path from draft to publication:
It’s kind of a joke of mine: I can’t seem to write a book in the right genre the first time around. Anger Is a Gift began in 2012 as the first book in a planned trilogy, and my goal then was to write a series where the third entry would reveal a dystopian world. It seemed such an edgy, exciting idea at the time: What if you got to experience the formation of such a world over the course of three books?
As much as I appreciate my own ambition, the attempt did not land me an agent for nearly two years after I started querying the book. It wasn’t until I got a rewrite and resubmit from the agent who would eventually represent me (DongWon Song) that I began to think of the story differently. In short: I had written a scathing, electrifying contemporary story about one teenage boy’s battle with grief, police violence, and finding power in community, and then I had also written the beginning of a techno-dystopian science-fiction mystery, and they were jammed together in a single book. His advice?
Pick one book and write that one. Don’t put them both in the same manuscript.
It was the kind of feedback a writer both dreams of and despises. That one piece of advice cracked the story open for me, and I was finally able to look at it as a whole in a new light, one that revealed a much better version of the novel I had written. But it also meant I would have to rewrite every part of it. The science-fiction elements were so tightly woven within those initial drafts that I had to take the book apart piece by piece in order to save the things that made sense in a contemporary story.
How do you put a book back together with so many missing parts? I had to find the heart, and deep within the wreckage of Anger was a new story of resistance. Of found community. Of rage. Of complicity. I began to stitch it together, and I remember working on the contemporary outline and realizing how I could definitively end the story. Going from a trilogy to a standalone is absolutely daunting, make no mistake. Changing genre? At times, it seemed impossible. But I found beautiful freedom in that: I could make Moss’s story complete. I could deliver on the premise in just one book.
That being said: It wasn’t how I saw my career beginning, either. I’d spent so much time within the science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction community that it was just assumed my first novel would be genre fiction. Who was I if that wasn’t the case? Was I dooming my career before it even started?
Obviously, I wasn’t, and the unbelievable success of Anger Is a Gift continues to thrill and humble me. So how did I overcome the doubt of such a massive undertaking? To answer that, I have to talk about how I did the exact same thing for Each of Us a Desert. In late 2017, I turned in my second novel to my editor, Miriam Weinberg. I knew fairly early on that I didn’t want to write anything similar to Anger. This drive came from my love of music, actually. The musical artists I have loved the longest and the most intensely have all changed over the course of their careers. They weren’t willing to repeat themselves, and I loved that sense of reinvention and ambition.
So, inspired by my twin brother and I searching for our biological father, I came up with a sprawling, dystopian horror novel about a teenage girl, Xochitl, searching for her missing parents alongside her younger brother. I wanted to dig into the idea of how borders separate us, how these invisible lines are deeply violent things, how some people will traverse impossible distances in search of a better life.
I still like what I wrote, even though I did come to agree with Miriam that it wasn’t the best book to follow Anger. However, the rewrite wasn’t necessarily because of that. See, I wrote this nightmarish journey, full of mysterious creatures and monsters, to be in conversation with a long, terrible history at the border between the United States and Mexico. This horror novel had a huge twist two-thirds of the way through, and I’m spoiling it for you now:
Xochitl’s parents were deliberately coaxed by a shadowy country in the north in order to exploit their labor. And when Xochitl and her younger brother arrived at the place where they were being kept, they were separated from their parents and kept in cells.
By the time my first edits arrived for the novel, Miriam was stuck. She could give me notes about the story, but the entire last third was so unfortunately on-the-nose in comparison to the news coming out of the Border Patrol camps along the US-Mexico border that it seemed futile. If I wrote this story, the assumption would always (and understandably) be linked to this awful reality. No one would be able to separate the two. I don’t think my novel was prophetic by any means, for the record. This shit is cyclical, and my country has a long history of perpetrating this exact kind of violence against those it deems The Other. Still, this book I had written was now a complete bummer in an entirely new, unexpected way.
So instead of the traditional edit letter, Miriam and I sat down over food at a (now-closed, unfortunately) Le Pain Quotidien. This location had a gorgeous patio that shielded us from the sun, and it was there that I had to answer some incredibly difficult questions: Was this the book that I wanted to publish after Anger? Was I prepared to deal with the ramifications of writing a story that seemed ripped from the headlines, even if it was speculative fiction? Anger was always deliberately a combination of real-world commentary and autobiography, but was that what I wanted to address in another book?
No. I wanted to change. I wanted to show the world that I had other skills, that I could tell a damn good story in a vastly different way, that I would never be bound by genre. It was both exciting and terrifying. It was through this conversation and another one, months later, that the story that is Each of Us a Desert came to life. All of it, though, derived from one pivotal query from Miriam: What was it that I liked writing in that first draft? And how could I pull those threads and weave them into a new tapestry?
I can’t tell you it was easy. It was agonizing, especially once I turned in the second draft. Miriam’s feedback that time was: Hey, this story is finally right, but now Xochitl’s voice is all wrong. It didn’t feel like a young adult book and, frankly speaking, it was kinda lifeless. (She did not use those exact words, but I’m perfectly fine doing so.) So, over the summer of 2018, while touring in support of Anger, I rewrote Desert a second time in a few months.
It all came alive. This was where Miriam pushed me to abandon the dystopian aspect and just build my own world, to fling myself utterly into fantasy. This was where I came up with the mythology of the cuentistas, something that was rooted in my experiences as a teenage Catholic who struggled with the sacrament of confession. This was where I had the most ambitious, absurd idea of my entire writing career up to that point. I remember sitting at that same Le Pain Quotidien in July of 2018, and I literally interrupted my conversation with Miriam to intone, “WHAT IF THE ENTIRE BOOK IS A PRAYER FROM XOCHITL TO HER GOD?” And just like that, I found Xochitl’s voice. I found the spark that had been missing all along.
In many ways, this is the hardest project I’ve ever completed. Nothing even remotely compares. But it was in those rewrites—of both Anger and Desert—that I found the joy of discovery. There are few things as thrilling as a writer than to stumble upon inspiration, to find the aspect of a story that pulls everything together. That is what allowed me to conquer the doubt that threatened to overpower me. I don’t want this to make it seem like any of this came easy. Again, I had to rewrite Each of Us a Desert twice before I nailed it. That’s a lot of work and a lot of words that will never see the light of day. Yet it was in rewriting these projects that I was reminded of the joy I get from the act of writing. In a way, it was like discovering my own magic was buried deep within me. I had to unearth it by making mistakes, by being misguided, by accepting dissatisfaction. Yet once that magic was released…
Well, there’s nothing quite like it.
Xochitl is destined to wander the desert alone, speaking her troubled village’s stories into its arid winds. Her only companions are the blessed stars above and enigmatic lines of poetry magically strewn across dusty dunes.
Her one desire: to share her heart with a kindred spirit.
One night, Xo’s wish is granted—in the form of Emilia, the cold and beautiful daughter of the town’s murderous conqueror. But when the two set out on a magical journey across the desert, they find their hearts could be a match… if only they can survive the nightmare-like terrors that arise when the sun goes down.
Mark Oshiro is the queer Latinx, Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and TV series. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015, and is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors. When not writing/recording reviews or editing, Oshiro engages in social activism online and offline. Anger is a Gift is his debut YA contemporary fiction novel.