It had been a long buildup until I wrote my first novel back in in 2004. I'm A Writer Or Something took over two years to write. There was endless research, late night sessions, revisions, more research, rewrites--- the process had been a painful one. Although I had taken a Creative Writing class, I was far removed from knowing how to write in long form.
In 2009 I had decided to try my hand at NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month contest). The premise behind the contest was to write a novel in 30 days.
I completed a novel in 2009 through NaNoWriMo called Storybook. I completely winged this book, with no prep, no direction, and lots of chance taking.
In 2010, I entered into NaNoWriMo again, but this time I had a much clearer plan going in. I would use some characters that had been floating around in my head and in various short stories I had written. I would base the story in their world. I borrowed an older version of a character my wife had created for some stories she had written. And finally I created two more characters from scratch. With all of this ready, I started writing my next novel. This one flowed easily and with a better pacing. I completed my novel ahead of schedule.
Here is one of the chapters from the novel in which I introduce Sulan, an older creation of mine, and her beginnings in the story.
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Sulan lived in mainland China until a few years ago. She was raised by a traditional Chinese family. Americans would view this as being strict. She had daily chores, school, and more chores when she got home. She worked until she went to bed and woke early the next day for the same routine.
She loved her parents and the discipline was a good thing. She had a rebellious nature and this did get her into trouble. She had been punished by her parents, usually in the denial of meat in her Saturday meal. The family was poor, but her father made sure they ate meat once a week in the form of fish or chicken. Saturday was the day to treat yourself he said.
Her father was a good man. It was because of his job that Sulan and her 8 siblings had to work so much. She didn’t see her father much during the week. He came home from work at nine or ten in the evening. Occasionally Sulan would still be awake and greet him. She looked forward to these times.
On the Saturdays, Sulan’s father spent time with the family. It was his only day off. She noticed the continuously stern brow of her mother lightened on Saturdays. Sulan and her siblings looked forward to Saturdays, which is part of why they worked so hard to reach that day. If all the chores were not finished by Saturday, that meant their father would usher them out to harvest the land. That meant they all worked while their father rested inside.
When they were caught up on their chores, their father played games with them while their mother sat down and read her books and wrote her journals. Their father worked with an American who kept their father up on the latest goings-on in America.
The American would lend their father games he had brought with him, and lend them out to his family. There was always a surprise game to play. She suspected her father rarely knew the rules of the game and made them up. The instructions were written in English and no one in the family spoke it. Sulan didn’t mind though. Her father’s rules for the game were more fun.
Their mother also looked forward to the Saturdays. Sulan knew she loved them, but Saturdays she let her husband look after them all. Sulan knew her mother was being selfless. She knew her husband loved the children, which was when he worked so hard to provide for them. Saturdays were his time with the children.
When Sulan was eight, she had stolen. It broke her heart to do so but it was impulse she couldn’t stop. She had snuck into the larder and stole the smoked fish her mother had laid out for the Saturday meal. It was her favourite kind of fish. All week her mouth watered as her mother prepared the smoking of it. She had noticed her mother nibble on a couple of bits of the fish as she prepared. Sulan thought no one would notice if she took a nibble herself.
One nibble, became another. The rest of her siblings were working the fields. Her mother had fallen asleep at the kitchen table. She continued until she ate the entire batch of fish. It was a lot of fish. She became ill and her mother had to look after her. Her mother showered her with affection which left Sulan feeling guilty for what she had done.
When Saturday had come around, her mother entered the larder to bring in the fish. Her mother realized what had happened and instantly took out a wooden spoon. Sulan was still crying when her father had come home. Sulan stayed awake for him and started crying when he came home so he would hear her. She heard him come into the house. The too familiar creek in the floorboards meant her father was coming to her room to check on her. She had stayed awake many a time because she knew her father checked on all the children when he came home. This time his footsteps stopped just before he reached her door. She stifled her crying to overhear her mother talking with her father. Sulan caught enough of the conversation to know her mother was telling the story about the fish. She waited for her father to come in and put a reaffirming hand to her brow as he so often did. But he never came to her room that night. She stayed awake most of the night waiting for him.
Sunday, The next morning Sulan was very tired. In the fields Sulan was making no progress. She was moving slow and breaking the vegetables she was pulling. The other children avoided her. They were angry with her for eating the fish. Of course they knew she had done it. She was the reason there would be no meat at the table that week.
One of her sisters told on her. Their mother came out and dragged Sulan in the house. She would not work the fields that day, her mother told her. Instead she would stay in her room until she cried the evil out of her soul.
She received a crust of bread and some water for dinner, which she was made to eat in her room. For the next two days, Sulan was not allowed to speak with her siblings or her father. She remained in her room, being fed bread and water. She didn’t go hungry, but the bread was dry and crusty.
When she came out of her room after the two days, her mother spoke sternly with her. “You have stolen the Saturday meat. This is a crime most heinous. You have taken the one reward we give ourselves each week for working so hard. You have committed a crime against each one of your brothers and sisters. You have committed a crime against your mother, who had prepared the fish for several days. The reward your mother gives to her children and your father was stolen from me. You have stolen from your father who paid for this fish. You have stolen his special day with the family. This week, your father was troubled by having a thief for a daughter, who in one action has taken from each member of the family. You stole the meat from his plate and you have stolen his love to all of us this week.”
If Sulan had cried when her mother had used the wooden spoon on her behind, it was nothing compared to the crying she experienced from this lecture. Sulan wished her mother had used the spoon on her. It would have hurt less.
For the next several months, Sulan worked harder in the fields than any of her siblings. After school, she didn’t walk home with her siblings, she ran home in order to squeeze in more chores. After a time, her siblings had forgotten about the incident. Her father showered her with love as if nothing had happened. Her mother, however, always looked at her knowingly, as if to remind her that she had not forgotten.
Walter had moved to Vancouver, British Columbia on a scholarship to the University of BC. The family had been so proud of their son. He had studied hard through all his years of school. Now he was in Canada. Sulan was proud of her brother and envied the opportunity he had been given to leave their village and go to a real school in another country. She had dreamed of America from her days playing those board games her father’s co-worker lent to the family.
Sulan had not kept up her studies as well after the fish incident. She had found her skills were more artistic, which her mother saw no need of. She hoped for her daughter to work on her etiquette. She was a beautiful enough young woman, her mother thought. Since she had no real skills in school, she could at least make a good wife for someone.
Some of Sulan’s siblings joined their father in his work. Others, found jobs in Hong Kong.
In the years that followed, their father’s friendship with the American faltered. The American had made a name for himself in Hong Kong. The man’s fluency in the language was unparalleled and his natural business instincts had brought a couple of windfalls to the company.
The American had been promoted within the company ahead of Chinese men. This had greatly angered many. Sulan’s father had abandoned their friendship as he felt the American had stolen money from deserving Chinese workers.
One day, the American had decided to move on to a job outside of the country. He visited Sulan’s family. Walter was already in Canada. He spent a moment with each of her siblings. He had heard the stories from their father about each child. He knew all their names, and each of their personalities.
He visited on Sulan last. When his eyes fell on her, he had a look of surprise on his face. Sulan didn’t understand. She thought he thought she looked strange. He put a hand on her arm which at first made her uncomfortable. But then he spoke, in English, and told her something. “You are gifted, Sulan, despite what your parents may think. Your aura glows with a strength I have only seen in a handful of people.”
He took his hand away.
Although she spoke very little English, she understood what he said with a strange fluency. As he walked away to speak with her mother, he noticed a glow around him too. Like a bubble of soft colors around him that lingered where Sulan was. It left a lazy trail behind him. When no one was watching, she reached up and touched the trail just before her. It felt like a current flowed through it, although it was soft. As she looked around, she saw her other siblings had this aura too, in differing colours.
She didn’t really understand what this meant, except when the American left, he looked back at her knowingly and winked at her.
She never saw the American again.