Truth or Fiction

The current controversy over the Oprah Book Club pick, AMERICAN DIRT, has made me think about truth or fiction. Specifically, how do we as writers approach material that is either historical or societal based?

We need to do our due diligence and do research. Novelists dig into oral histories and non-fiction books, but do we need to do more? We will need to look at newspaper articles and government records in the archives? Do we need to do our own original interviews?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I have read novels about the Japanese American World War II incarceration experience. Some, I feel, hold so close to nonfiction accounts that the narrative is stunted. I’m not saying that these writers should entirely fabricate watershed events, but the novelist’s work lies in the gaps between history and real accounts. We need to find the places and emotions not explored in nonfiction.

In my own practice, I try to do original research and interviews for nonfiction projects first. It’s important for me to have real people’s names and stories in print. It’s their stories, after all. After I do this work, I feel more freedom to fictionalize a certain community’s situation. I will know the holes, what hasn’t been explored and may not ever be unearthed in nonfiction.




Breathing Life into a Character

(This is a continuation of handouts that I recently distributed at a writing seminar.)

–a part of us is in every character

–who are we called to write about?

(Could be someone in our life, could be someone we see in a news report, someone in a dream/imagination)


Who do you personally root for?

What kind of people do you root for?

How do you or people around you feel misunderstood?

Elements of Voice:

POV and tone

Revealing Relationships:

Co-workers, Team Members

Naming your character:

Something unique and personal
Something meaningful
Something cultural appropriate
Something with a good rhythm
Google to check

Running a Writing Workshop

I’m posting a series of handouts that I’ve prepared for past writing seminars. Here’s one on forming a writing workshop. A workshop can help you to be accountable to other writers and regularly produce pages.

Naomi’s Guidelines for Running a Writing Workshop

  • Determine goals and purpose with first the organizers and then the group.

Is it to help people get their creative works in better shape?

Is it to make them feel more emboldened and encouraged as writers?

Is it to build community?

(It also can be a process—you can start with one goal and then move into another.)

  • Meeting place: safe, neutral, convenient, well-lit with little noise distractions. Should be around a table.
  • The facilitator needs to control and direct the discussions. Set the ground rules and the time. Try to end promptly at the time stated. If people want to hang around, that’s their choice.
  • Ground rules:

People need to treat each other in respectful way.

What is shared in the group, stays in group. (Even domestic partners should not be told about details of someone’s story before its time.)


Should people e-mail or snail-mail their essays before the group? (Usually a week ahead of time is sufficient.)

If you distribute writings before the meeting time, have each person write his/her name of his/her copy and write notes in the margins i.e. good, effective, confusing, etc. If someone is so inclined, they can even make proofreading marks.

During the workshop, you can either have the person read the entire piece or else immediately launch into comments. After the reading, the writer should be in the “cone of silence.” The facilitator should then direct the discussion about the piece.  Always open with the work’s strengths and then move into the weaknesses. After people have made their comments, the writer is released from the “cone of silence” and can respond to comments.

Facilitator should make sure that certain people don’t dominate the conversation. Ask silent people if they would like to comment.

The facilitator can even make a list of questions that will apply to every piece or even individual pieces.

After workshopping a piece, everyone returns his/her copy of it to the author.  Individuals can request copies, but it’s up to the author’s discretion. Otherwise, everyone should erase/delete digital submissions.

How to Find an Agent

I’ll be speaking to the Stanford Club of Pasadena and the Stanford Professional Women this Sunday on the topic, Writing and Publishing in a Text(ing) World. For more information, go here:

I’ll be distributing a number of handouts. Here’s one of them:

How to Find an Agent (updated June 2019)

HOT TIP: Find 10 recent books that are similar (but not exactly like yours) and identify who the author’s agent is.


  • Look at a book’s acknowledgments.
  • Google author’s name and “agent.”
  • Look up Publishers Weekly reviews on (Barnes and Noble) or Google author’s name and “Publishers Weekly” and “review.”
  • Publishers Marketplace now have to subscribe to receive deal details.)

Find the latest information as many authors change their literary representation.

Publishers Lunch (free)


Bookends’ Jessica Faust on bad literary agents:

Once you’ve identified a potential agent, do your due diligence.

  • Research on querytracker (, Absolute Write Water Cooler, and Writer Beware.
  • Subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (or find someone who does) and pull up that agent’s deals over the past year.
  • Find the agent’s list of clients and find a fellow writer who is either on that list or knows someone on that list and get feedback.

Authors Guild’s advice on agency clauses and agency agreements:


Twitter: #pitchwars #pitmad



How to Sell Diverse Books

With the Oscar nominations and in our mystery genre, the Edgar announcement to come in a few days, observers are fixated on awards. But the older I get in the publishing industry, the more I’ve become fixated on sales.

There have been campaigns notably in the children’s literature to publish diverse books. Admittedly, if there are no diverse books to be had, those stories cannot reach readers. But releasing them is half the battle. How do you sell them?

As I cut my professional teeth at a Japanese American newspaper which catered to a niche audience, I’ve learned that you cannot merely use tactics employed by the mainstream and think that they will work for every book or movie, especially a diverse one. Of course, you need mainstream buy-in for a creative work to be a commercial success. But for a book with American non-white characters to truly have legs, I believe that you need to create different “interest tornados,” starting with the very community you write about.

For my debut Mas Arai mystery, I advocated that my publisher, Random House, place an ad in the newspaper that I worked at, The Rafu Shimpo. They did so, securing a quarter-page space that probably would have gotten a few inches in the Los Angeles Times for the same price. I gave the same paper a first-chapter sneak-peek in its holiday issue and held my launch party at the Japanese American National Museum instead of a bookstore.

A friend who used to work at Heyday Books in Berkeley told me her company strove to meet people where they are–at churches, community centers, etc.–instead of forcing them to crossover into places that they were not used to going. There are a number of African American book clubs; in the past, I’ve heard of them being women-centric, but I just learned of a men’s book club here in Los Angeles. It takes a bit of digging, but if you are an author who are writing ANW (American non-white) stories, I think that it’s imperative that you not only look high but also low, on the ground level.