Kat Cho got us all excited when we first found out about her Korean mythology-inspired YA book GUMIHO, even though we have to wait until 2019 to get our hands on a copy. Kat generously answered our questions with some great information about beta readers, critique partners, and community-building. She also shares her fascination with darkness, which we are looking forward to seeing in GUMIHO!
Set in modern-day Seoul and based on Korean mythology. A girl who must kill to survive falls in love with a boy after she rescues him from a goblin, changing the course of her immortal life.
What were the books that inspired you to become a writer? What was it about them?
The first was probably the Animorphs series because it didn’t shy away from the dark parts of what it means for kids to fight an intergalactic war. Yea, I know, that sentence probably sounded really funny and weird. But in context it totally makes sense, I promise! Animorphs was about five kids (and eventually an alien) that are given the power to morph into animals for a couple hours at a time. They need to use this power to fight and insidious secret invasion where evil parasitic aliens are trying to take over Earth. It’s really dark if you think about it but of course it’s a kids chapter book series. So at first you’re just thinking, “Cool they can be ANY animal they want!” But there’s so much psychological trauma that can go into a prolonged secret battle with no backup and no idea when it will end. Plus as the series goes on it expands to show how other alien species were totally conquered by these aliens. It’s a lot of responsibility to put on the shoulders of teenagers. But I loved that the stories allowed these kids to have this responsibility and gave really good reasoning for why they had to go it alone for so long. They didn’t know who they could trust because anyone could be secretly controlled by the evil Yeerks. I devoured these books and I was able to see that stories can be more than good and evil. There are hard things that even heroes have to do and they have to deal with the fallout of those decisions as well. When Young Adult grew and we got books like The Hunger Games and Darkest Minds and The Hate U Give, I was so ready for books that explored the gray areas we occupy. And I had so many ideas for how I could explore those same spaces. Because I remember being young and really latching onto the exploration of dark topics, I was so happy to see that these stories were not niche or “too dark” but being celebrated within the young adult space.
Then, right before I decided to write with the goal of publication, I read The Prophecy trilogy by Ellen Oh. It was a huge deal for me to read these books. My cousin recommended them to me by saying, “She’s a Korean author who wrote a Young Adult trilogy based on Korean mythology!” I was immediately sold. I had never hoped to see my own culture represented in young adult fiction, let alone told in an authentic way by a Korean author. It mattered so much to see this representation on the page. To know WHY the main character said or did certain things because they were things I’d have said or done in her situation. There was so much cultural nuance in the story and so much that I could immediately recognize and latch on to. It opened my mind to so many possibilities with my own stories. Before, whenever I had an idea that was rooted in my own culture I’d immediately dismiss it as unlikely because who would understand? It would take too much to explain the cultural context. But here, in front of me, was a book that did that and did it well! It was possible and I just had to be brave enough to take that step. So, when I finally wrote my debut novel, GUMIHO, I didn’t hold back. I put everything that I love about my culture and my heritage into it and I’m so lucky that others have been supportive of the story.
Can you tell us how you came up with the story for GUMIHO? Was it difficult to write the story or did it just flow out?
GUMIHO was a story idea I had for over a year before I was able to put anything down on the page. It took the encouragement of family and friends before I was able to let go of my fears and start writing it out. But because I had let it marinate for so long, I had a lot of ideas to explore for it. I knew by that point that I wanted to incorporate elements of korean pop culture that I loved, specifically elements of Korean dramas. I always watch them and think that there are so many tropes and elements in K-dramas that could be directly compared to elements of Young Adult, K-dramas just come at them from a different angle. So I wanted to use the Korean lens to rediscover things like forbidden love and teenage angst.
The way that I write is that I’ll fast draft a whole version of the book. Then when I do my revisions I often end up throwing away a lot of elements I just wrote and completely re-imagining the story. Backstories changed, personalities changed, family and friend dynamics changed. In an earlier version of my book, my main boy character, Jihoon, was a sullen and quiet boy. He is definitely not quiet now, haha. But I needed to go through those old iterations because I was still learning about him and what made him someone worth following through a whole book. I like the exploration of drafting a new book, but I think I really thrive in revisions because it’s where I can see if changing one or two big elements can bring the whole story together in a more cohesive way. It’s like experimentation (and I have a background in science and research so I love experiments).
On your blog, you mention that you had beta readers and critique partners who were helpful to you. Could you give us the most important quality of a good beta reader and/or critique partner?
So, beta readers and critique partners (CPs) are very different (at least for me, I’m sure people see everything a bit differently since writing is such a subjective journey). So, my CPs will often see my writing at all stages. I have one CP who was so great at encouraging me to finish my drafting process. She’d read chapter by chapter when I was writing really messy first draft words and she was great at picking out parts she liked and reasons why I had to keep writing. I definitely think that helped me since this story lived so close to my heart and I was always worried I would do a bad job. Then I have CPs who would read whole versions in preparation for a big deadline (submitting to an agent or submitting to editors). They were looking at everything from big picture to character arc to world building to make sure everything worked together.
Beta readers were people who were reading more “polished” versions and giving me feedback on the general story as readers. Because of this my beta readers were often not writers themselves but family members or friends who just loved a good story. It was good to get non-writer perspective because they pick up on things that writers might not when their mind is filled with craft-focused thoughts. My favorite feedback was definitely from my older sister because she gave me the nitty gritty on what worked and what didn’t for her. I am the type of person that needs to know everything–the good, the bad, and the ugly–in order to be fully confident of a project. I’d rather know at a point where I can fix it then when it’s too late.
What was your querying process like? Is there anything you wish you’d done more of?
I queried more than one project and I am forever grateful for that experience because I think failing with a manuscript and learning to move on was an important lesson for me. I am a person who likes to look at all angles and doesn’t want to give up. But in publishing and writing it’s important to have good intuition for when something just isn’t working for you (I think what helps is knowing that in a few years I could try to pick the project up again and see if I can rework it). It also took some of the fear away when I queried again. Even though when I queried GUMIHO I had an extra layer of fear because it was a diverse story based on non-Western mythology, I was happy that I had a good idea of what querying felt and looked like. And I also already knew what rejection felt like so it stung a bit less.
One thing that I’ve learned since querying is that there’s always more sources of information but you have to be willing to take your time to look for it. I don’t think you need to be doing research about agents for years, but the more research you do the better fit you can find. I’m really happy that I took the time to do research on the agents I queried because I was confident that all the agents I sent my manuscript to felt like a good fit. Another lesson I learned (and have solidified after the fact) was that the relationship with agents are a business partnership, which means even though we often see agents as these larger-than-life people, they are here to help advocate for us as authors. So when you have a call with an agent don’t be scared of asking a lot of questions and making sure you are comfortable with the relationship. I had a full list of questions that I put together based on blogs I read and suggestions from agented friends. It was amazing to have because I was so nervous on my calls and would not have been able to think of things to ask off the top of my head.
You’re part of a great community of writers who support each other. How did you build this community and do you have advice for our readers on how they can start their own communities or how to join existing ones?
Over a lot of time! I remember when I first joined the writing community and I saw all these authors interacting with each other and being friends and I really wanted to find my people, too. Sometimes in the beginning when you see other people cheering each other on you can think, “When will I find friends of my own?” But the thing is that a lot of these friendships took awhile to form.
One way I found critique partners was through blog-hosted CP match events. Almost everyone in my critique group found each other by participating in a blog CP match event. It’s actually why we decided to host one of our writer group blog, Writersblockpartyblog.com, as a way to pay it forward. I think we also became such a large and diverse group because we didn’t care what step of the journey someone was on as long as we could all gush about each other’s stories.
One of the best decision I ever made was that I decided to just start talking about my work and people who liked what I was writing and saw my passion started interacting with me. Another thing I’m glad I did was I didn’t hide it when I was excited about another person’s book. Writing is such a solitary activity and we often work really hard with no positive reinforcement. So, when someone loves your story pitch enough to reply to a tweet it can mean a lot. I met my best friend and CP by just gushing about her pitch in a twitter pitch event (DVPit). Finally, I try to never lose sight of my gratitude at the support I receive and acknowledging that there’s always more to learn. I never want to close myself off from receiving advice from others who’ve been around longer than me. I never want my experience to act as the end-all-be-all to people who are just joining the community. The best part of the writing world is that every journey is different but we can still come together through our love of a good story. Being yourself and seeing the magic in the act of writing has helped me relate and connect to so many other writers.
My advice to someone looking to build their own community is to find a couple of people you trust above all others to be your support system. It’s okay if you only have 2 critique partners as long as they’re good friends who are there to support you through the downs and celebrate the ups. The main purpose of community is to help guide you in your writing career and to help you overcome the ebb and flow of publishing. It’s a hard industry and as artists, facing rejection of our work can really stab at our hearts. So, community helps us heal.
No matter how you find your community, I think that it’s important to feel comfortable with them. You should be able to have a closed group of friends and confidantes to talk about the hard stuff with. Though I love social media it’s not really the best place to air our complicated feelings as there’s a lack of nuance in 280 characters. I love that I can go to my friends and be irrationally sad about a rejection and know that there’s no judgement there. I also like that I can be excited about something small and seemingly insignificant and know that they’ll understand why it means so much to me since they know me through and through. It’s a great feeling to have someone who can understand you and support you on your journey to publication. And it’s also a great feeling to be able to be that friend for someone else.
About Kat Cho:
Kat Cho used to hide books under the bathroom sink and then sneak in there to read after bedtime. Her parents pretended not to know. This helped when she decided to write a dinosaur time-travel novel at the tender age of nine. Sadly, that book was not published. She currently works in NYC as an editorial assistant. Kat’s YA contemporary fantasy debut, GUMIHO, comes out with Putnam Books for Young Readers/Penguin in 2019.