Author Interview: Abigail Hing Wen on Point of View, Dialogue & Expanding a Short Story

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By Mitu Malhotra

Spotlight image: Abigail Hing Wen on the news, Asian Pacific America, NBC Bay Area

Today, we are super excited to welcome Abigail Hing Wen to Cynsations to talk about her new book Kisses, Codes and Conspiracies (Macmillan, 2024) which releases in August this year. New York Times and Indie bestselling author Abigail was a graduate assistant during my first MFA residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in January 2019. Since then I have literally devoured her fast-paced YA romances steeped in Eastern sensibilities, something I totally relate to as an immigrant to the U.S.

Her debut Loveboat, Taipei (HarperCollins, 2020) was adapted into the Love in Taipei film now streaming on Paramount+, AmazonPrime, AppleTV & Vudu. Below Abigail gives us a sneak peek into the process of creating KCC (Kisses, Codes and Conspiracies). Here’s the KCC book trailer and the preorder link.

You mention in the acknowledgements that Kisses, Codes and Conspiracies was based on your short story, “The Idiom Algorithm” that appeared in the anthology Serendipity edited by Marissa Meyer (Feiwel & Friends, 2022). What was the process of transforming this story into a longer piece of fiction? What was the spark that you wanted to retain from the original and how many drafts did it take for you to arrive at the final one?

Yes! After the anthology launched, Liz Szabla, our wonderful editor at Macmillan, reached out and asked if we might consider doing a babysitting story with the characters from “The Idiom Algorithm.” She loved their unusual living situation — Winter Woo and her recently widowed mom rent out the back rooms of Tan Lee’s family home, and Winter and Tan attend the same high school. Liz had been thinking about a babysitting story for a while, and the set up was ripe with possibilities.

I was intrigued — it was indeed a perfect setup for a babysitting story, especially since Winter was already looking out for Tan’s younger sister Sana. The high concept was easy to come by — Tan and Winter’s parents cluelessly head off to Hawaii leaving them to babysit Sana, not realizing the two of them are attracted to each other.

From there, the story developed. This was the first novel I’ve ever written where the idea was pitched to me, so the process was a little different. I wrote a detailed Save the Cat outline, which I shared with Liz for review and comment on, then I began to write. I write by iteration, finding the story as I go along. I often work backwards from the climax, and have to take a stab at the opening, which is always the wrong place, because I need to start somewhere. That false start can make it hard for people to beta read my early drafts!

Tan’s ex-girlfriend, Rebecca was the focal point of the original short story, and even though she was out of the picture, she was too much fun not to bring back. So after their parents take off for Hawaii, she shows up on Tan’s doorstep with money stolen from her billionaire father and thugs on her heels — and from there, the story turned into a thriller/romantic comedy! I am grateful that Liz still let me write it that way! At its heart, it is still very much a sibling and babysitting story, with Tan responsible for not just his sister’s safety, but the safety of his family and friends.

Kisses will publish at about draft 16, not including copy edits. As usual, I changed the opening chapter, which originally began with the Hawaii shoe dropping, until I realized we needed to spend a little more time with Tan-and-Winter first.

One of the major writing decisions for an author is to choose the point of view for the narration. Could you tell us what prompted your choice in this matter with Kisses, Codes and Conspiracies?

Great question! Both the short story and the novel are written in a close third person past tense. I think that’s just how it came out! Loveboat, Taipei was originally written in the same third person past tense, alternating among the four main characters. But I changed it to first person present tense when I changed the whole book to Ever Wong’s POV, because I found I was able to access her character more deeply in that voice. But for Kisses, this tense worked well for Tan’s voice.

Some images from Abigail’s Pinterest board as she envisioned and revised Kisses, Codes and Conspiracies.

What was striking while reading this ARC was your dialogue to exposition ratio on the pages. So much of the backstory for the three main characters comes to the reader via the dialogue. What is your process to weave this heft into the chit-chat between characters? What tricks of syntax and diction do you employ during drafting and revision to build authentic sounding high school age chatter? Any tips on dialogue writing for beginners?

I’ve never had anyone point this out, so thank you for the close read! I don’t have an intentional process here, but I definitely try to use dialogue in a show-not-tell way, and what characters say has to be in real-speak — things these characters would actually say. Learning to write authentic dialogue was a process for me, and in my earliest works from some fifteen years ago, I had to learn not to use dialogue for an info dump.

But in real life, characters do recall the past in conversations. So Winter reminding Tan of his past dynamics with Rebecca, especially since she’s protective of Tan, was a conversation authentic to her and to him.

For a tip on dialogue: listen to the world around you. Eavesdrop on high school chatter, but also give your characters permission to speak like themselves. I remember reading a book where a teen boy was accused of sounding “condescending” and he had to defend himself saying, “this is just the way I speak!”

On the other hand, people often don’t always speak in complete sentences, and most people don’t say the other character’s name when they speak, although my characters Xavier and Victor in Loveboat do, on purpose in Victor’s case. Dialogue is messy. Sometimes people start and restart, or drop the opening word, or trail off, or interrupt themselves, or someone else supplies the word.

The key, I think, is really getting deep into your characters’ heads and hearing their voice.

Not just your main characters—Tan, Winter and Rebecca but also minor ones like Sana and Lucia are well rounded and their interactions believable. During your writing journey did you use freewriting exercises or journaling to develop these characters? Do you have a favorite character development cheat sheet?

Character charts with details about their physicality, family, birth order, home town, etc. are all very helpful as a starting point. But asking the deeper questions is where I really find my characters. What do they Love, Hate, Fear, Want and Need?

What key moments have shaped who they are today? Was there a childhood moment when the character felt scared, brave, abandoned? What did that first glimpse of the magical world look and feel like for the character? What were the main characters’ first impressions of each other — especially if that moment isn’t in the book! What happened when they went home? What was their mental state this morning, after the events of the previous day?

Writing these key scenes for yourself, even when the character isn’t on the page, is one of the most effective ways of ensuring you know who the characters are when they do enter the scene. And it’s equally powerful to go through different character POVs within a scene. Even if the only parts the reader will get is dialogue and action, viewed from the main character’s POV, this exercise can help you ensure those are coming through authentically. I often hear my first VCFA adviser AM Jenkins’ voice in my head as I write and revise: “Did she really do/say that?”

Somewhere in the process of writing a story, I will also do the bigger exercise of writing the key storyline from each character’s POV. It paid off in Loveboat when I did it inadvertently, and it continues to pay off with other novels, so it’s worth the work!

Abigail loves visiting museums and researching venues to create authentic settings for her novels. The Palace of Fine Arts located in the Marina District of San Francisco is the backdrop of a major scene in the book KCC.

In Kisses, you have created a fast-paced story with a conspiracy and a heist layered with a complicated yet tender romance. What is your method for plotting and tracking all these twists and turns?

The backbone of a story is the emotional journey of the characters. So that’s the most important arc to be tracking.

For the rest of the plot, I usually get the big picture down in a fast draft. Then as I layer in more twists and turns, I often write myself mini-outlines along the way, to remind myself of what threads I should be tracking.

I frequently include bubble comments on the side with the word “follow”, or ideas about how that point will be further developed as the story progresses, to remind myself there’s a plot point that needs to be tracked and resolved. Fortunately my agent and editor know I do this, so they are used to seeing those open threads (and knowing parts are still missing) when they read my drafts!

But it’s still easy to miss a thread or two, so eagle-eyed beta readers are critical before you publish!

Abigail in front of the artificial lagoon and rotunda of The Palace of Fine Arts.

How has your work as a lawyer involved in Venture Capital and Artificial Intelligence informed your writing, especially this book which deals with current issues about encryption and cryptocurrencies?

An important passion of my career in tech was making it accessible to lay audiences. I enjoy tucking tech into my stories, partly so my young readers can get familiar with the cool innovations of our time, but also because the tech is just plain fun!

For Kisses, Codes and Conspiracies, since the characters are Silicon Valley based, they are all somewhat tech savvy. I enjoyed creating a scenario where Rebecca steals cryptocurrencies from her dad in Shanghai, instead of generic stacks of dollar bills. Cryptocurrencies are more modern, something I haven’t seen in books and movies much. It’s also very much in character for her father to hide his money in a form of currency often used to avoid regulation. Then, since the keys to the cryptocurrencies are encrypted, this created a key opportunity for Tan to step up, as he’s exceptionally savvy about codes and encryption.

I also drew on my family’s life — as my kids were growing up, they enjoyed reading various books of codes, and as a family, we loved playing logic and other math puzzles like the 10,000 lightbulbs problem Tan poses to Winter. Those experiences inspired the Codes part of my novel, and I enjoyed showing how the Tan family bonded over cracking codes, even down to little Sana with her basic ciphers.

In Loveboat Reunion, Sophie Ha is trying to bring together her interests in fashion and artificial intelligence by creating a smart fashion app. Her girl-in-tech journey draws inspiration from my community in Silicon Valley. I love that my most flirtatious character is also a tech badass!

Loveboat grew into a sprawling universe of three books and a film set against the backdrop of Taipei because of the expansive cast. Similarly, in Kisses you have created quite a few characters with interesting back stories that seem to have room for future growth. Do you think Kisses will spawn a sequel?

How fun would that be! We don’t have plans for one at the moment, but I have endless stories in me and this question is sparking all sorts of ideas. And of course, “The Idiom Algorithm” is the prequel, so a universe has already begun.

As an Asian immigrant to the U.S. myself, I can relate to the narratives in your writing about family dynamics, balancing identity and cultural heritage. You effectively convey the teen world complicated with parental expectations that are typical to Asians; since your first book how has the conversation in the publishing industry changed regarding diverse stories and the depiction of different cultures?

I’ve worked in four major industries, and I can honestly say that when it comes to cultural diversity and forward thinking, the field of publishing for young people is leading the way, truly! It’s thanks to open minded gatekeepers coming into their own power, to movements like #wndb and to the growing track records that show readers want to read stories about different people and cultures.

The bar for authentic representation also continues to go up, which has been wonderful to witness. I’m so impressed with how much effort goes into ensuring everything is as accurate as we can make it, while of course leaving room for humans. Also, more people are recognizing that there are just so many different kinds of stories and characters, and that no one story can or should represent everyone in a community. That helps take some of the pressure off!

In Kisses, Codes and Conspiracies, the characters don’t fall neatly into any typical categories when it comes to parents. Tan struggles with a different kind of parental expectation than any in the Loveboat books. He genuinely underestimates himself, so his parents’ encouragement is actually helpful for shoring up his self-confidence.

Winter’s family is even less traditional; since her father grew up in a teen shelter, he had a different outlook on life and the opportunities it brings. Not to mention losing him to an early death greatly impacted Winter’s and her mother’s own outlooks.

Rebecca’s parents are Asian and very hands off, but not necessarily in an enlightened way. They are very busy with their high powered work and social lives, and Rebecca grew up craving their love and attention, until she realizes she’s not going to get what she wants. Each of their relationships are specific and unique to them, and I’m glad they get to just be themselves.

In Kisses, Tan and his younger sister Sana’s relationship is real and endearing in the way it evolves through the novel. Like Tan in your book, you are the elder child in your family. Did you draw on your own experiences as you crafted his fictional character arc? What stories or games did you share with your own siblings? Any favorites?

I used to tell stories to my siblings, about us kids going on adventures in a world without grownups. As I was writing Kisses, I realized that’s exactly what this story was for Tan and Sana — adventures together in their own backyard.

My brother, sister and I often played make believe. We made up stories with our My Little Ponies. My brother was a good sport and played along as either the dragon Spike or the boy pony, Lucky. When our cousins came to visit, we played “rob the house,” which was much more interesting than just plain “house.” And now that I’m remembering that game, I can see the parallel here: a babysitting story that evolved into a story with thugs attacking Tan’s home!

In writing Tan’s character, I definitely drew on my experiences as the eldest child, who feels responsible and protective, but also inadequate to take on the adult role of looking out for the younger ones. Mistakes happen and can be consequential. I think these themes are very much what my editor Liz was hoping to explore in a babysitting story!

Abigail’s dog, Bear

How do you balance the time you spend on your daily writing practice with the other demands of being an author in terms of marketing and promotion for a new book? Was it challenging to write this book after the success of the Loveboat series?

I can edit for 15 hours straight if I have to, but generating new material has a cap per day. Most authors I know don’t write more than 3-4 hours a day.

So in that sense, the other work doesn’t compete: I usually write in the mornings before lunch, then take my marketing / promo and producing meetings in the afternoons. Social media is harder, because it’s best to post early — I try to aim for 9am EST, and if it spills over, it can cut into my morning writing time. I’m making better use of scheduling posts in advance now.

But do I wish I could do less marketing overall? Def. But it comes with the territory. And so I’m extra thankful for opportunities like this one to share more deeply and widely.

And yes, for sure writing Kisses is a challenge after the Loveboats! I get questions all the time like, do you want Kisses to be a movie too (answer: yes, of course! Doesn’t every author?)

But every book is truly its own journey. The Loveboat series is very much a story of cultural identity. Kisses is a thriller romantic comedy, in which the main characters happen to be Asian and Asian American. It’s less a deep character study with deep interiority and angst and relationship issues, like in the Loveboat stories. Tan, Winter and Rebecca all do experience growth arcs, but the primary baddies are outside the family, and their journey a caper. I’m hopeful even more people will pick up Kisses and find their way into my other novels, whether already in the world or yet to come.

As a VCFA graduate with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adult, how did that experience impact your literary journey? What long term writing goals have you set for yourself?

VCFA revolutionized my writing. I learned to write to the emotional core of every scene as well as every novel. I learned to plot along the main character’s emotional arc, and to create an external plot arc that would be in support of that first and foremost.

Getting one book deal had always felt like such a huge goal, but now I feel so blessed to have many more novels coming. Long term, I’m working on a novel that I think of as my magnum opus, as it brings together things I’ve been passionate about my whole life and studied as a student at Harvard. I’m also writing original scripts, which push me as a writer to write dialogue that zings and really tighten emotional punches.

Abigail loves to travel. On her website section titled Abigail around the World you can see photos from her trips to five continents.

You mentioned in a previous post on Cynsations about dancing to music when no one is looking. What kind of music do you enjoy listening to? Do you craft a playlist for yourself as auditory inspiration while penning a book?

I love the music created by my younger kiddo, a wonderful modern classical composer (with a hint of jazz) who gave us the opportunity to go to Vienna, Austria together during the year before my Love in Taipei film launched.

And I do have a playlist as I write! The songs come to me over time and I continually add to it. Now many of the songs are reminders of moments in the writing journey.

What are the ways in which readers can support a book launch by an author?

In my case, it would help my book launch if interested readers mark KCC as want to read on Goodreads and preorder KCC (Macmillan link here) before August 13, 2024. Also, it would be great if readers can rate the three Loveboat, Taipei books on Goodreads and Amazon. In addition educators, teachers and librarians can check out the Loveboat, Taipei series curriculum here.

Cynsational Notes

Author Abigail Hing Wen, photo by Olga Pichkova

Abigail Hing Wen holds a BA from Harvard, where she took coursework in film, ethnic studies and government. She also holds a JD from Columbia and MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Abigail Hing Wen works at the intersection of storytelling and technology. She is a New York Times Best Selling Author, producer, woman-in-tech leader specializing in artificial intelligence, as well as a mother of two.

She writes and speaks about tech, AI ethics, women’s leadership, implicit bias, equity, and transforming culture. Loveboat Forever, the Loveboat trilogy’s finale, out now, Kisses, Codes and Conspiracies coming August 2024. Follow Abigail on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

Mitu Malhotra holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the 2021 winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Literature for Young Adults and Children. Her short story Toxins is part of ELA curriculum.

In previous avatars, she was a textile and fashion designer. When she is not writing, Mitu paints, sews, and builds miniature dollhouses out of recycled materials. More on Follow her on Instagram @mituart or Bluesky @mitumalhotra.