May 23


A Calculated Process by Malia Maunakea

Every writer has their own method for crafting a story. Mine might be a little more math-based, a little less creative than most folks. In college, I majored in civil engineering and old habits die hard. My mind loves equations and spreadsheets—making order from chaos. When I began to write my middle-grade Hawaiian mythology-based story, Lei and the Fire Goddess, I returned to what I knew best: formulas.

Based on research, I saw that a reasonable number of words in a MG book was about 50,000 so I made that my goal. I googled beat sheets and found Jami Gold’s that had the feel of an excel spreadsheet, which I absolutely loved. I printed it out and got to work literally engineering a story, calculating the Hero’s Journey in a 3 act structure coming out to about 10 scenes in acts 1 and 3, and 20 in act 2. This computed to roughly 1250 words per scene, which I decided would be my forty chapters. I calculated the number of words to get to all of the beats on Jami’s spreadsheet, marked out the main events, then used Scrivener’s word count tools for each chapter to stay on track, melding it with what Jami suggested I needed to have happen in each of the scenes on her beat sheet. It wasn’t an outline, but it gave me a plan and a formula, which was what my brain needed. 

Once I put together my formula and saw that I could actually do this, I wanted to see if others had done it before me. I’m an avid reader and am used to turning to librarians as keepers of the knowledge. So I headed to my local library andmentioned that I had a cutting-edge idea to write a story like Percy Jackson but flip it to a different culture and maybe make the protagonist female. My librarian smiled and said, “Oh, like Aru Shah?” I was stunned! She showed me that there’s an entire Rick Riordan Presents grouping that was exactly what I had in mind. My heart climbing in my throat, wondering if I was too late, I asked, “Is there already a Hawaiian one?” Dear readers, there WASN’T. I left the library that day knowing that there was a market for my idea.

I drafted from April to August, following the beat sheet, then began revising. I joined a local writer’s group and paired up with critique partners—one working on a young adult and one working on a chapter book. They helped me revise, revise, revise. I learned so much about character development, but I still felt like the book had a long way to go. The number one word of advice I had seen on Twitter was not to query too early, so I held myself back and instead appliedto mentorships that I learned about on Twitter and through my local writer’s group. I had the absolute privilege of being selected to work with both Andrea Wang through our regional SCBWI chapter and Alan Gratz through We Need Diverse Books. These authors are outstanding and gave me a tremendous amount of guidance on how to slow down and let the story breathe, how to further develop my characters, and how to write an all-is-lost moment (I shy away from sad things, so I hadn’t actually put that crucial beat in there). The programs started in January of 2021, and I rewrote key pieces of my story, trying different entry points and cliff hangers, until May rolled around.

May is Asian Pacific Islander month, and I decided that the Twitter pitch event #APIpit would be the perfect opportunity to release my story into the wild. I worked to create a spreadsheet of agents I thought would be a good fit for my book using their Manuscript Wish Lists and Query Tracker. When the pitch event rolled around, I pitched my story and commented on as many of the other participants’ pitches as possible. I tracked the agents who expressed interest, researching each of them and seeing if they were on my own list before querying both them and a number of others from my spreadsheet.

This is where my writing process ends, and market determiners come into play. However writers decide to approach their story, leaning on resources like libraries and intentional time on industry-specific social media can aid the process. Using spreadsheets and formulas to construct a story may not be intuitive for others, but for me it provided the scaffolding to build my book on.


Malia Maunakea is a part-Hawaiian writer who grew up in the rainforest on the Big Island before moving to a valley on O’ahu in seventh grade. She relocated to the continent for college, and when she isn’t writing can be found roaming the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband, their two children, and a rescue mutt named Peggy. You can find Malia online at and @MaliaMaunakea on Twitter.