Haley M. Hwang
2020 Writer's Games Winner
Individual Portion 1
The Writer's Workout conducted the following interview with Haley M. Hwang in July, 2020. The Writer's Workout is represented as "WW" and Haley is represented as "HH". Interview responses are published as received.
WW: What made you want to participate in the Writer's Games this year?
HH: I participated in Portion 2 last year for the first time. I belong to an absolutely wonderful online writer’s group, and one of the members who has competed for a number of years told us about it. So a group of us participated. And I have to say, I had a total blast. I placed three out of the five weeks (two 5th-Place and one 2nd-Place) and finished 8th Place overall, and I felt like I won the Olympic Gold. It was one of my proudest accomplishments because this is truly a competition about what you can accomplish completely on your own—with no beta readers or input from anyone else on what you write. So that 8th-Place finish against hundreds of talented writers from all over the world made me believe that I can write good stories.
I absolutely LOVED my experience competing last year, so there was no chance that I would not come back. I told everyone who would listen that this is the best writing competition. Making it free opens the competition up to writers who may not be able to pay steep entry fees. And the feedback that we receive on our stories are, bar none, the BEST feedback I’ve ever received on my competition stories. I feel it helps us to make our stories so much stronger, so that they are ready to submit for publication somewhere.
I do a lot of short story and screenplay writing competitions because I’m a former journalist and I need deadlines in order to get anything done. After competing in 24-hour and 48- hour competitions, having 72 hours for Writer’s Games feels like a wonderful luxury. But I also love the fact that this competition doesn’t force you to write a particular genre and gives you up to 5,000 words to write a story. I’m used to writing short stories that are around the 1,000-word range, so it’s nice to just write a story until you feel you’re done. I’ve learned to write longer and longer stories from last year’s Portion 2 and this year’s Portion 1. I love most of the stories I’ve written for Writer’s Games, even the ones that didn’t place. I wrote one story last year (a non-placing practice story) that I want to expand into a YA novel, and I wrote one story this year (one of the stories that won 2nd Place) that I want to expand into a feature screenplay.
Even if you don’t win, this competition helps you establish the habit of writing every weekend. When it’s over, you want to keep going, so it’ll inspire you to keep writing!
WW: Was there anything that you were worried or nervous about coming into this year's Games?
HH: I actually came into this year’s competition with the attitude that I was just going to have fun with it. I’m not gonna lie and say there wasn’t a part of me that wanted to see my name on the winner’s list. But my goal was to just try to place in two out of the five weeks, and I did that the first two weeks of the competition. So the pressure was off, and I really did try to have fun for the remainder. A group of us from my writer’s group also competed, so it was just as exciting for me to see their names on the winner’s list every week.
WW: What kept you motivated to participate in each Event?
HH: Like I said, I belong to an online writer’s group, and a group of us competed in the Games together. So we created a Facebook Event. Although we couldn’t talk about our stories at all, we gave each other pep talks during the Events, posted our progress, when we submitted, or if life got in the way and we weren’t able to submit. It’s so much more fun to be live writing with other writers who are writing the same prompts you are.
I put a priority on this competition, so I didn’t need motivation to get myself to write a story each week. It truly was so much fun, and my kids saw me doing something that brought me so much joy. I hope they see my passion for writing and try to find something in their own lives that makes them just as happy.
WW: Did life ever get in the way during the Games? How did that affect your writing?
HH: Actually, the pandemic and my family circumstances worked in my favor in terms of giving me plenty of time to write for this competition. My husband is an ER doctor, so he’s been in the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. I also have three children, ages 20 (who came home from college at the beginning of the pandemic), 16, and 8. When my husband was working, there was less pressure on me to make a full dinner, so my daughter helped out a lot by cooking for me and my younger children so that I could write (aren’t I so lucky???). When my husband wasn’t working, he actually spent a great deal of time on the computer tracking COVID-19 statistics and data and putting together a pandemic update for his nursing staff. So we sat at the breakfast table together, each of us on our own laptops doing our own thing. I was very fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time on my stories (except for Event 5, which I will go into below).
WW: What was your favorite Event and why?
HH: I can’t pick just one! I honestly loved the first three Events. But I was very proud of the story I wrote for Event 1 (“Don’t Look,” in which a character is afraid of a mundane object). It was inspired by a news article I read years ago of something that actually happened in a restaurant in Chicago that made me profoundly sad when I read it! I also absolutely loved my Event 3 story (“Just This Once,” write a tragic story without including death), which did not place. I chose to write the story in the form of a letter, which didn’t lend itself too well for the core concept of foreshadowing, but I thought the story was very moving and I cried every time I read the ending. I want to work on that story first to submit somewhere.
WW: Was there an Event that was more challenging for you than the others?
HH: Yes, Event 5 (“Cliché Story”)! LOL. I think a lot of people had a tough time with that one because they thought they were being asked to write a “bad” story full of clichés. That wasn’t the reason I had a tough time, though. Once I came up with my idea, I had a really fun time writing it. But I was in the second round of a screenwriting competition that weekend at the same time as this Event. In the other weeks, I tried to brainstorm my Writer’s Games stories on Friday night to Saturday, write a draft on Sunday, and fine-tune on Monday and submit. But the 8-page screenplay took much longer to finalize than I had hoped, and I was working on it right up to the 11 p.m. deadline on Sunday.
So I didn’t start writing my Writer’s Games story until Monday, and I had to make a big lunch for my husband before he went to work a PM shift that day. So I was only able to sit down and really focus on writing in the last four hours before the deadline. I loved the funny narrator voice I came up with for my story, and I loved the beginning and the middle. But ten minutes before the deadline, I was still writing my climax scene. So I literally ended the story in one sentence and submitted three minutes before the deadline. The judges said that my ending felt rushed, and it certainly was! I still love that story, and I hope to go back to it to put a proper ending on it and see if I can submit to a satire magazine somewhere!
WW: What inspires you to write?
HH: Long story short, I immigrated to the United States when I was 7. So English is my second language. I flunked third grade because I didn’t know English. During my second year of third grade, I had an amazing teacher who gave us writing assignments and told me I was a great writer and even collected our stories and “published” it in a book. So I guess those were my first published works (a short story and a poem about a rabbit), LOL. From then on, I was determined to become a writer. Math came easy to me but writing was a challenge—and I didn’t want to take the easy road. By fourth grade, my teacher wrote notes home to my parents saying I had to practice my times tables!
So my life goal was to write a book by age 30. But life happened. And when I was younger, I didn’t feel like I had the life experiences to really write the kind of stories I wanted to write. But two years ago, I felt I was ready and started down this road. I’m turning 50 this summer, so I’m 20 years behind schedule. But I’m doing final revisions on my debut novel and hope to send it out to agents by the fall. And thanks to Writer’s Games, I know what my next projects will be after I finish my current WIP!
WW: What genre do you normally like to write in? How did that help or hurt you during the Games?
HH: My favorite genre is historical fiction! That’s what I love to read, and I have come to discover that that’s what I love to write as well. And I also have discovered in the past two years that my passion is Asian historical fiction. I can write non-Asian stories, but I feel that my writing voice is stronger in Asian stories because that’s my background, life experience, and world view. Three out of the five Events from last year were Asian historical fiction, and two of the Events this year were the same, although two additional stories had multicultural characters that included Asian characters. As a POC, I feel a sense of responsibility to develop stories that feature multicultural characters. But I think I tried harder this Portion NOT to write Asian historical fiction because I didn’t want to appear limited in my focus. There’s also a running joke among my writing friends that I love to write about concubines. One of my winning stories from last year was the memoir of a concubine. So I wanted to stay away from concubines this Portion. LOL.
But if you discover your passion in writing, go for it. The world needs your voice and your unique angle that only you can lend to your stories. The two stories from Writer’s Games that I want to expand into a novel and feature screenplay are both historical fiction.
WW: Whose work do you find most inspiring? Why?
HH: John Steinbeck is a writer that I aspire to be like. It was an impossible goal that now seems a little less impossible. I don’t think I can ever reach his level of writing, but I want to keep trying to improve my writing to see if I can get closer, maybe.
WW: What is the best advice someone has ever given you and who said it?
HH: I started reading Grit by Angela Duckworth to see if grit can be taught to our kids. But I have been getting so much more out of this book for myself! I quit my job two years ago to pursue this dream of writing a novel and becoming an author. And I wasn’t prepared for the emotional roller coaster of the life of an aspiring author. I can feel great one day and think I wrote something fantastic, and then turn around and feel like I’m writing Dick and Jane sentences that really suck. It’s been amazing to witness myself becoming this insecure person who feels all these major highs and lows of being a writer.
I’m not a very descriptive writer. My background is in journalism so I am much better at writing very direct, informative sentences. But the examples given in this book say that you don’t have to start out being the greatest writer you know. The mediocre writer who spends his days learning and growing and becoming better—and never giving up!—will eventually become a more successful writer than the naturally gifted, brilliant writer who doesn’t work on his craft and stagnates or gives up. That’s what I’m trying to do: write as much as I can, learn something new every day, and not give up. It’s exciting to see how much my writing has grown in just two years. When I started two years ago, I didn’t know what POV was, I didn’t know what a story arc was, I didn’t know more things about writing a story than I knew. But I know all these things now! And I’m learning something new every day. Years ago, when I read award-winning books, I used to think, “I could never write like this.” But now, I read award-winning books, and I think, “I can write this someday! Maybe not today, but some day in the future, I can write something that can win an award.” It doesn’t feel so far out of my grasp anymore. It’s an exciting feeling.
One particular thing that I just read in the book is this Japanese saying: “Fall seven, rise eight.” That means no matter how many times you fail, you just have to try one more time after that. That’s definitely a doable goal, right?
WW: What advice would you give to people thinking about participating in next year's Games?
HH: DO IT! It’s free, and you will receive the best feedback on your stories that will help you to become a better writer. And the prompts for Writer’s Games are specific enough to direct your story but not so narrow that you can’t be creative and write the type of story that you want to write. The generous word length also helps to push your storytelling to new heights! I highly recommend this competition for anyone who wants to develop the discipline of writing every weekend and wants to grow as a writer.
It is the policy of The Writer's Workout to publish interview responses as received.