Category Archives: Writing

By Serendipity, I Have an Agent!

Many things in life happen by chance.

I met my partner by chance. Russian-Malaysian combinations are rare; we met only because, while attending a networking event for professional gay women, we found ourselves seated next to each other at a lunch. Seating was on a first come, first served basis along an extremely long table; if either of us had turned up a few minutes earlier or later, or if anyone else had come in at a different moment, we might never have struck up a conversation. How serendipitous is that?

And now I have just returned from New York, holding in my hand a signed contract from a literary agent. This too, came about by chance.

At the start of Chinese New Year celebrations in February, my partner and I invited a Russian family to her house in France. There, over a meal of Malaysian-Chinese fondue, otherwise known as steam-boat, I got to know our guests – a couple and their son. I had not met them until then, even though they live in Paris. I had heard that she was a respected psychologist, he a journalist and published author, but I had no idea quite how well-known he actually was in his native country.

This is just as well, because it meant I felt no inhibitions. Malaysian steam-boat is a very interactive meal; basically, you cook what you eat – meat and vegetables, seafood, tofu and noodles – in a boiling vat in the middle of the table. When your food is ready, you fish out the tasty morsels with metal nets. The smell is wonderful and so close to your nose too, which always puts everyone at ease.

Being writers, Sergey and I began to discuss books. When Sergey asked about my novel, I told him how it had been inspired by my great grandmother, and that the story contained a unique mix of family drama, history, business, food as well as mythology. I’m sure I must have sounded passionate – I can’t help myself. Before I knew it, Sergey was asking for a synopsis. He casually mentioned that he had an American agent who might be interested in my novel. Would I want an introduction?

I jumped at the chance. As fate would have it, our dinner guest turned out to be Sergey Kuznetzov, whose novel Butterfly Skin achieved cult status in Russia and has been described as ‘Russia’s answer to Silence of the Lambs’. There I was, happily fishing out bits of chicken and pak choi leaves and dropping them into the bowl of a Russian literary star, and I didn’t even know who he was.

In turn, Sergey’s American agent is none other than Thomas Colchie, who specialises in representing international writers. Could I have had better luck?

Of course, there was always the possibility that Thomas and his wife would not like my work. Fortunately, they loved my manuscript and immediately offered to represent me.

Suddenly, I had hit a milestone in this journey of my novel.

I now have as advocates two people who are passionate about my book and who are highly respected in publishing circles. The Colchie Agency has represented and continues to represent many great Latin American/Iberian authors, among them Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate), Reinaldo Arenas (Before Night Falls), Manuel Puig (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind). It has notable Asian authors too, including Shazaf Fatima Haider (How it Happened). I am proud to be their first East Asian novelist and short story writer.

There remains a long road ahead: the path to publication is slow and not without pitfalls. I’ll be sure to keep the readers of this blog informed of progress. Meanwhile, it’s back to writing, this time a work of non-fiction – about the many surprises of France!

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When do you Stop?

In just a few days, the Snake will give way to the Horse (in the Chinese zodiac). It was roughly a year ago, before the Snake had even entered, that I finished my tome of a historical novel.

Here’s what I mean by ‘finished’: I planned it, did my research, wrote the first draft, and then ‘edited’ that draft twice – from the first page through to the last, where editing included the heavy re-writing of particular chapters. I was aided throughout, even in the early stages, by Dr. Nathalie Teitler, poet, director of The Complete Works II and a professional developmental editor. Some writers think this unusual, but for me, feedback is invaluable while I’m still crafting a story.

Ultimately, the whole endeavour took two years. This, I was told, was not that long, given the scope of what I attempted: a story commencing in 1878 and ending just before the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 (a period which spans sixty three years), where real history is incorporated into a fictional setting.

Writing my book made me look at art and artists in a different way. Most of us see only the finished piece, be it a book or play, opera or painting; we don’t usually think about how much effort a ballerina or opera singer, actor or painter, has had to put in. Now I know.

My novel Spirit of Kueh contains roughly 145,000 words. To give you an idea of what that means, the first two paragraphs of this blog-post contain approximately 100 words. Imagine writing 1,450 more paragraphs like those and then editing each twice, and you will perhaps see why it took so long. By the time I finished, I had reached the point of exhaustion. I closed the folder on my PC marked ‘Manuscript’ and could not look at it again. There was no way I could have edited my novel a third time – not then anyway.

In this age of bite-sized concentration and 140-character sound bites, I’m aware that a novel of 145,000 words is deemed long, especially for a first-time novelist. A published novelist I met (who hasn’t read any of my work) claimed I would never find a publisher. We shall see.

I don’t doubt the challenge, but having put a lot of thought into the way my story should be structured, I believe it hangs together as a coherent whole and some impact would be lost if the story were to be split up. Also, we’re not short of drama: the female protagonist, who is illiterate, starts her own business while raising a family of ten children. Ten children! How many of us could imagine raising ten children? All of this takes place against a backdrop of a rapidly westernising Malaya. Hence the themes in my novel are rather contemporary : the ongoing conflict between modernisation and tradition, and especially for those of us living as minorities in a foreign land: what is the true cost of (our) cultural assimilation?

My next step then, after three months of research, was to send off query letters to agents, together with a synopsis and the relevant pages or chapters. Each agent, incidentally, is different: writing to them is like applying for a job; there is no ‘standard’, and everyone asks for something slightly different, which means that each query takes time to prepare. I wrote to five agents, received one response – a no – and was ignored by the others.

Fortunately or unfortunately, life then took over. I became bogged down with managing a house renovation project in a new country (France) and my routine went kaput. In snatched moments, I wrote. Not being able to focus in the same way, I turned my hand to non-fiction, jotting down hundreds of snippets about the many surprises France laid my way. I also wrote two pieces of flash fiction (published in Litro Online and Postcard Shorts) and several short stories (now under consideration for publication). Without a proper routine, it was impossible for me to even think about what Helen Dunmore, the award-winning author who visited us during the one Arvon Foundation course I attended, called ‘writing biz’: the process of dealing with the commercial, non-creative side of writing. Agents and publishers fall into this category.

Now that we are about to enter the Year of the Horse, it feels to me that the time has come. I have looked again at the folder marked ‘Manuscript’ and have, inevitably, begun further editing. This time, I bring a fresh eye and new skills, skills I could only have gained by writing short fiction. Indeed, I find that many of the published novels I read today could use further editing. In art though, there is no right or wrong; you could continue editing a story ad infinitum. When do you stop?

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Truth and Compromise

What do you do as a writer if you are asked to substantially edit a piece you have written? To change its nuance, remove paragraphs, and substitute them with anodyne words to which no one could possibly object? Do you comply so that you can be published, or stand firm at the risk of not adding to your writing credits?

This was my dilemma recently. While trying to publish a piece of non-fiction, I walked into a minefield. It was a strange experience, because the handful of words to which objections were raised seemed so innocuous to me. Here is what I wrote:

“While there are excellent foreign-trained practitioners, my overall experience has been that UK-trained general practitioners are more thorough than foreign general practitioners.”

The editors didn’t like that sentence. A British friend argued that what I wrote could be regarded as inflammatory. I read and re-read the piece many, many times, and failed to see what could have been inflamed. The sentiments conveyed seemed to me to be pretty innocuous. After all, I did not mention race, colour or religion, diminish anyone or incite hatred and violence.

If we cannot say something as mild as this in the United Kingdom, just what can we say? It seemed crazy, especially since I am also a foreigner (a point I made in the article).

For twenty four hours, I thought very hard about complying with the suggested editorial changes. The possibility of adding another publication credit was tempting. It would have been so simple…all that was needed was for me to change a single paragraph in the middle of the piece. The prose already flowed well and few adjustments would have been necessary.

But whenever I returned to the sentence above, the idea that such harmless sentiments had to be wiped away always made me choke.

Now, if the editors of the journal concerned ever read this blog-post, they will protest that I have not provided enough context. They will say that they had good reasons for recommending their changes. And of course they did: we humans can rationalise anything we wish. But equally, there is no denying that what I faced was censorship. And it felt wrong.

It’s not that I believe in the right to absolute freedom of speech. Words create our reality, and when we use them carelessly, there should be consequences, especially in this age of bite-sized concentration and click-of-the-button diffusion. Freedom of expression should not extend to protecting the arrogant young men who threaten women on Twitter with rape and other abuse. Freedom of speech should not protect the Front National candidate who last week compared France’s sitting Minister of Justice, a black woman, to a monkey.

But when all that you are doing is relating your own experience in as thoughtful a way as you possibly could; when you have taken great care not to insult – are you not entitled to share your view?

Granted, there could have been someone somewhere who may have taken offence at what I wrote. A lot of what we say has the potential to cause offence, rightly or wrongly. But, aside from making sure that we are not abusive, slurring anyone or inciting violence and hatred, do we really have a duty to protect everyone on this planet from being offended? Where do we stop – should we also avoid speaking what we believe is the truth? And who do we really protect in the end – others from being offended, or ourselves from being attacked?

I kept imagining the article the editors wanted to see, versus the one which I had wanted to write. If I compromised on such a simple point, what hope was there that I would ever be able to stand up for any principle?

A quote from the novel The Powerbook by British author Jeanette Winterson describes what it felt like:

“The body can endure compromise and the mind can be seduced by it. Only the heart protests.”

It was my heart which protested. My eyes looked at what I was told I had to cut out, and my heart would not let me rest. If I had to choose again, I know I would make the same choice, even if it means another opportunity forgone.

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The Garage, the Maestro and the Wardrobes

I took a holiday from this blog during August. Post the near-completion of our French house project (see blog-post Oh Interfering Life!), I was exhausted. The time was perfect to bask in the sun. I then planned, after a short break, to continue searching for an agent before commencing work on another book – the second in my intended trilogy.

But when you spend time in country that is not your own, even the simplest interaction can contain the unexpected. My brain became full of impressions of France which begged to be recorded. Once I began writing them down, I found I couldn’t stop; other forces took over and stories leapt onto paper. France seemed truly able to surprise. Here I present: a simple story about wardrobes.

(Copyright: Selina Siak Chin Yoke).

These were no ordinary wardrobes, having been designed and made-to-measure by Jean-Paul, a Frenchman who has been supplying customised wardrobes for twenty five years. He visited my partner’s house not once but twice to take detailed measurements. Everything about Jean-Paul was elegant; even his moustache seemed to grey elegantly. ‘I want to be complètement sûr,’ Jean-Paul said while stroking the manicured tuft over his lips, ‘that I have the exact measurements.’ With such precision, my hopes were high for his wonder wardrobes.

France

Their components rumbled towards the house one Friday afternoon. The neighbours, already accustomed to trucks and vans and strange workers outside my partner’s house, peered out of their windows. What more could these foreigners be doing?

For an hour, the neighbours were entertained by the sight of Jean-Paul, slim and standing six-foot tall, side-by-side with a squat truck driver whose obligatory pot-belly must have got in the way. Little and Large battled with sixty pieces of doors and shelving. They panted and yelled and heaved until eventually, our not-inconsequential garage was three-quarters full.

‘But,’ I asked Jean-Paul, ‘will all the pieces stay there over the weekend?’

Mais oui,’ he replied, giving me a strange look.

‘Won’t you start putting up wardrobes today?’

Bah non!’ Jean-Paul exclaimed, steely blue eyes flashing. ‘The parts are heavy, vous voyez. Besides, there is a lot of work to do.’

Quite, I thought; why not start now? But no, Jean-Paul shook his head adamantly. His sole task that day, he insisted, was to receive the goods and make sure he had everything his fitters would need; assembly would wait till the next week.

The following Monday, Jean-Paul duly turned up with a man and a boy. The boy, who looked all of sixteen and was called Robert, turned out to be Jean-Paul’s son. Thankfully, the man was a seasoned worker; I could tell this from the lines on his face and the muscles etched into his arms. Jean-Paul introduced him as Georges. Georges, Jean-Paul announced, was un vrai artisan, the best in the business. Georges would put our wardrobes together, aided by the young Robert.  ‘I give you my best worker,’ Jean-Paul crowed before leaving. ‘Georges loves cupboards!’

Georges did indeed love cupboards, as I discovered two days later. After an enormous amount of drilling and knocking from the principal bedroom, spiced by the odd shout of merde!, Georges finally invited me to view his handiwork. His normally serious face broke into a grin. ‘It was very hard,’ he said. ‘Your floors are not level. I had to make many adjustments. But we succeed!’

Georges slid the wardrobe doors open with a flourish. ‘Regardez! Rollers on both the top and bottom,’ he told me proudly. Georges pulled what he called the ‘beautiful’ drawers in and out. He pointed eagerly to the hanging spaces he had made, all the while caressing the smoothly lacquered doors like a man in love.

By lunchtime the following day, a more sombre mood had settled. Georges shuffled into the study to see me. ‘You have to come,’ he said, ushering me towards the guest room. ‘We have a serious problem.’

I followed Georges. Shelves were up in the guest room, wardrobe doors already in place. What on earth could the matter be? Georges slowly pulled one of the doors all the way to one side, so that the cupboard it fronted was ostensibly closed. ‘Look what happens now.’ Georges released his hand. We watched as the burnished white door slid – and continued sliding until the cupboard was half-open. ‘Your floors are too uneven,’ Georges muttered. ‘I managed a trick in the main bedroom, but here, non! The doors won’t stay shut. I’ve tried everything. Incroyable!’

‘But…how can this be?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Jean-Paul himself came twice to take measurements. And now we have cupboards…THAT CANNOT STAY CLOSED??’ I looked at Georges, who merely gave an almighty Gallic shrug of both shoulders. But I saw that his brown eyes were troubled.

I stared at the wonder doors. When I pushed one for myself, it felt as if we had doors on skates. I knew where the problem lay: the rollers Georges had installed were simply too good. ‘Georges, you must give us shittier rollers,’ I said, and his eyes nearly popped out from behind metallic glasses.

Non non Madame,’ he shouted, ‘I have a solution! Des amortisseurs!’

The decibel level in the room rose as Georges described the shock absorbers which could be fitted to the end of every door. Each would apparently have its own magnet, and it was obvious Georges could hardly wait. ‘You just give a gentle push,’ he explained, tenderly pushing a door shut to demonstrate, ‘et voilà! This solution is le top!’

Georges was so pre-occupied by the phenomenon of doors gliding on their own that he overlooked an even larger problem: four of the doors that had been delivered were of the wrong type. He didn’t spot the mistake, and neither did I. It took my partner’s fresh eyes to point out the error. ‘How are they going to stick the glass onto the fronts?’ she asked innocently.

I looked down at Jean-Paul’s plan, up at the glassless doors in front of us, and back down at my paper again. Yup, there was no doubt: we had the wrong bloody doors. So much for Jean-Paul’s process of stock-checking; shouldn’t he have picked that up?

There was nothing else to do but to call in yet another Frenchman: the door maker himself. France remains a country of artisans, which by and large is a good thing, so Jean-Paul knew Pierre – the man who had made our doors – personally. Pierre rolled up, coiffed and perfumed and dressed in hip black. He was a short man adorned with the paunch of the well-fed. In one hand he carried a note-pad. ‘Enchanté Madame,’ he said, offering me his free hand.

As Pierre toured the rooms, Georges and Robert tagged behind. An animated discussion ensued which sounded as if the men were coming to blows. It was like one of the many French radio talk-shows which seem to work on the principle that whoever shouts the loudest gets heard. Listening to them, you would have thought you were at l’Assemblée Nationale (the French parliament) during a contentious debate on a matter of national importance. I tiptoed carefully into the guest room, and entered just in time to see Georges pointing a triumphant finger, ‘There! Vous voyez! She won’t stay closed!’

Pierre frowned. You could almost see the numbers carved all over his smooth forehead. He was going to have to replace the wrong doors and give us the vaunted shock absorbers – le top, as Georges had described – for free. This project would be costly. But the door maker rose to the occasion.

Madame, I will make them for you as soon as possible, in any event before the holiday season.’ Pierre was referring to August, the month when France shuts down. It was then the third week of July. We were running out of time.

—————

September 8, 2013 Our glass-fronted doors were finally delivered on August 30 and were stored in the garage. Georges was meant to fit them on September 2, but he was felled by a trapped nerve in his back. Meanwhile the correct doors lie on their sides in our garage, but the wrong doors remain where they were at the end of July and still don’t shut.

With so much real-life drama, how could I possibly write about anything else?

(NOTE: the above story is based on true facts but all names have been changed).

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Of Gates and Gatekeepers

A bird with yellow and black feathers and a blood-red beak rises into the air off the lawn. I have no idea what sort of bird it is, but its beauty is astonishing. I hold my breath; the sight makes three months of effort worth every minute (see previous blog-post Oh Interfering Life!).

As always, great things come at a price. And the price I have paid is that for three months, I took my eye off the publishing ball.

After sending parts of my manuscript to five literary agents in March, I’ve done nothing else with regard to getting my novel published. In case you’re wondering why I’m contacting agents, it’s because in most Western markets, it is virtually impossible for a novelist to approach a publisher without an agent. An agent’s job is to represent a novelist and to sell that writer’s work –  first and foremost to publishers, but also to film producers and others. Ergo, to get my novel published, I need an agent.

Like potential employers, every agent demands something different: some ask for the first 10,000 words, others the first three chapters; many accept electronic submissions but some still require manuscripts by post; yet others require that you upload material onto their private electronic platforms, accompanied by assorted information about yourself. Each is thus like a separate job application, and takes thought and care to prepare.

Unlike employers though, agents do not tend to reply. Of the five to whom I wrote, only one provided a personal letter of rejection. Another agent acknowledged receipt of material – for which I was immensely grateful – but sadly, this agency did not come back with anything else. As for the remaining three, I can only assume that they received my emails.

The experience has been educational. I’m assured by writer friends (including those already published) that not hearing back is the norm.

In this electronic age, I find that extraordinary. I don’t expect feedback (though that would be wonderful); what surprises me is not even receiving a simple automated reply to tell me that my material has reached its intended destination. That much, surely, should be possible?

In contrast, I’ve received an electronic acknowledgement of receipt – of the kind described above – for every short story submitted, whether to a journal or a competition. Short-story journals tend to be lean, so if they can acknowledge receipt and send messages of rejection, I see no reason why everyone else cannot.

Granted, this bold statement is based on the tiniest of samples (so small that it would not qualify statistically as a sample). I only began writing short stories in earnest last November after an Arvon course with the wonderful Tania Hershman and Adam Marek (see blog-post Trapped in Totleigh Barton! which describes my experience of writing in this pre-Domesday manor house). Between them, Tania and Adam and my fellow-participants managed to transform the way I felt about short fiction. And so far, my sojourn into their world has been thrilling.

From each of the four competitions and three journals to which I submitted, I received an acknowledgement which I could file. The seven emails thanking me for my submissions were heartwarming, following as they did on the heels of my first round with literary agents. Even the rejections were encouraging, since they showed at least that the stories had been read.

Of the competitions entered, I wasn’t placed in one, was long-listed in a second and am waiting to hear on another two. One of my journal submissions, Night of Falling Stars, was accepted by Litro Online and published on 21 June 2013. (Incidentally, the same story was rejected just days previously by another publication, which shows that there is always hope.) I never thought short stories could be so much fun! I even enjoy the submissions process.

What then, of my novel?

If I want to get it published conventionally in the West, I will need to contact more agents. But I may not restrict myself to conventional publishing. Or indeed, to the West.

Then, there is the lure of short fiction. And even a piece or two of non-fiction which, thanks to this blog, I’ve been invited to embark on. If I amass a collection of published short stories before I hear back from an agent, I may yet focus on the short, including the micro and the nano. Trying to construct a story in 140 Twitter characters is challenging and, would you believe, there is a home for them – One Forty Fiction – where a story cannot exceed 140 Twitter characters! For someone who not long ago was convinced of the impossibility of this genre, my change of heart has come as a surprise, especially to me.

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Oh Interfering Life!

William Golding, the renowned British novelist, poet, Booker Prize winner and Nobel laureate, once wrote:

“Novelists do not write as birds sing, by the push of nature. It is part of the job that there should be much routine and some daily stuff on the level of carpentry.”

I’m learning this the hard way, having come through a period when routine all but vanished in my life. Instead of sitting at a desk as soon as I woke, I found myself fielding calls, traipsing to shops, and generally dealing with crises.

The reason? My partner bought a house in France a few months ago and I set about managing its renovation remotely, little appreciating what a mammoth task this would be in the land of foie gras and insane bureaucracy. (The wonderful picture below is taken from another blog, that of an American who has lived in France for many years, Anne Stark Ditmeyer.) pretavoyager-francebureaucracy

Let us take as an example the hiring of skips. Only in France could the humble skip, that unadorned metal crate into which junk is placed, tell a story. In practical countries like the UK, you don’t need permission to have a skip unless you wish to place it on a public road, or in a spot which obstructs someone else’s path.

Which makes sense, right? Not in France.

This straight-forward Anglo-Saxon approach would be too simple for a people who revel in creating complexity where none should exist. To have a skip parked on your private driveway – where it inconveniences no one but you – you need the local mayor’s permission. Not only that, but you have to notify him or her in writing via a letter which you must sign. In that same missive, you are expected to give precise details of why you need a skip, which company will provide it, as well as the dates and hours it will remain on your driveway. Such detail obviously satisfies the Gallic obsession with minutiae. Moreover, before permission for a skip can be granted, the local policeman must question you – ostensibly so that he can verbally clarify what you have already told him in your long letter of explanation. I can only assume that the policeman is undertaking due diligence at the same time, assessing whether or not you are a person who could be trusted with a skip. After the policeman talks to you, he issues an arrêté, a decree which announces to the world exactly when you will be blocking your own garage! This worthy paper is autographed by no less a personage than the local mayor.

Thus, what should be a simple commercial transaction between two parties, namely you and the skip operator, turns into a convoluted chain involving five and more people: skip operator, local policeman, every worker in the mayor’s office, the mayor himself and you, the poor person looking for a skip. Yet, such administrative zeal brings no benefit to anyone. Decrees flutter in the French wind, desperately trying to attract the attention of the passers-by who willfully ignore them.

Now imagine the same complications extending to every aspect of a house renovation and you will understand why my routine was decimated, despite having an excellent project manager on-site. The unexpected invariably happened, which led to new problems, which resulted in yet more decisions…and so the loop went. During the days, I was interrupted whenever I tried to work, and during the nights, I couldn’t dream – except about tiles and wood and the bloody-minded French. The result was that I no longer rose with fully-formed sentences of fiction, but began waking up having conversations in my head with the many people I wanted to shout at.

Not that I wrote nothing. In the brief moments I could snatch, I completed a short story that had been on the back burner, wrote the first draft of a second, and finished two entirely new pieces of flash fiction. One of these was actually long-listed in The National Flash Fiction Day 2013 Micro Fiction competition, the first flash fiction competition I ever entered. But I couldn’t write anything very long.

Thankfully, my period of turbulence is about to end. I will soon have a regulated life back, a life in which I know when I will rise, when I will eat, when I will trade and when I will write. At that point I shall finally breathe. I can then collate the many tales I’ve picked up, a whole new genre I had never planned. The stories are sure to feature decreed skips and broken bathtubs and men called Jean-Marie. I can hardly wait.

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I’ve Finished, Now What?

Many readers of this blog have asked when my novel will be published. A few even assumed, after my last post, that it had already been published!

Ahh, if only…

Two years ago, I attended one of the conferences organised by a unit of Bloomsbury Publishing (of Harry Potter fame). The conference was temptingly called ‘How to Get Published – the Insider Guide to the Media’.

Several hundred of us hopeful writers made our way into a hall at the Wellcome Collection in central London. It was a typical conference hall, with seats on an incline that pointed towards a stage at the front. From their vaunted podium, the first thing senior executives of Bloomsbury did was to greet us. Then they proceeded to say that at any point in time,  a million manuscripts were floating around in search of a publisher. Thanks for the welcome, I thought. The message was so razor-sharp, it could have sliced stone-hard bread: British publishing didn’t need us; it already had enough backlog.

During breaks, I heard other people’s stories. A few delegates, having lived through multiple rejections, had been attending the same conference for many years. Some had been told by agents that there was ‘no market’ for their work. While listening to such war stories, I could see the attractions of self-publishing, though none of my fellow writers showed much enthusiasm. They wanted the prestige of traditional publishing. Others didn’t feel they had the business background to self-publish.

While at the conference, I bought a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook without knowing whether or how I would use it. This tome not only lists agents and publishers in major Western countries, it also gives detailed suggestions for how pitch letters and synopses should be written. Covered with such plaudits as ‘The one-and-only indispensable guide to the world of writing’, this from William Boyd, who could resist? It seemed a snip at £18.99. (Older editions are even cheaper on Amazon). For a fleeting moment, the conference on How to Get Published made me wonder whether I even wanted to be published, but this lasted all of a nano-second before natural ambitiousness took over. I could see my Chinese and Nyonya ancestors standing over me, wagging fingers, tsk-tsking. I left armed with a resolve to complete writing my novel. I decided to worry about publication at a later date.

That crucial moment has now arrived. I have to decide how best to get my novel published and into the hands of the readers whom I believe will be there. This may seem presumptious for a first-time novelist, but on the other hand, I’m supposed to know my audience – and I do. My target readership is Isabel Allende‘s, the Chilean-American writer who has sold 57 million books world-wide. That’s a nice number,  not at all bad for a target audience, I’d say. I think my novel would appeal to her readers because I write in the same story-telling style, and also because my work is a multicultural historical epic family drama, as are many of hers.

But I’m looking to attract new readers too, especially those with Asian roots. While writing my book, I consciously set out to portray Asians as we see ourselves, and to weave as much of South East Asia – be it place, ancestral stories or folklore – into the story as possible.

Knowing this is all very well, but what the hell should I do now? Previously, I would have had little choice but to go down the route of traditional publishing. That would mean fighting for the attention of an agent, because with the million manuscripts floating around, agents too are inundated. Even if I succeeded in finding an agent, there would still be no guarantee of publication – the agent would have to place the manuscript with a publisher willing to take on the book and the risk of a new writer.

But we are now in the digital age, and I have the option of publishing and selling the novel myself. Yet, when I think about what this would entail – all of the copy-editing, proof-reading, lay-out, design, printing (since not everyone in my target audience would have an e-book reader) and most of all, the marketing which a traditional publisher would undertake for its authors – I shudder. It would take me light years away from the creative process. I baulk, despite having a business background which equips me well enough to grapple with rankings on Amazon, persuade reviewers to read my book, even trudge from store to store to sweet-talk them into stocking copies. Because I do have business experience, I realise that this would be a very long-term project for a new writer. Not impossible, just extremely tough for my genre. Though it is a perfectly legitimate route, and one which would give me complete control over my work, as well as (in principle) the lion’s share of any royalties.

Whenever I think about publishing, it becomes abundantly clear that writing was actually the easy part!

For the moment, I have decided to pursue traditional publishing. This is mainly because my first novel is intended as the start of a trilogy and – call me mad – I’ve already started the second. Only a small part, mind, and there’s still a lot more research to do. But a start has been made! This second novel will continue the epic family saga beyond 1941, when the Second World War reaches Malaya.

One way or another, I intend to get published. Meanwhile, if you’re in London over the next two months, I’ll be reading extracts from my novel at two events:

16 February 2013 at the Islington Chinese Association, as part of a Cultural Day to celebrate Chinese New Year

8 March 2013 at a lunch to be hosted by the Hong Kong Society Women’s Group, where together with Kerry Young, author of the acclaimed novel Pao, I will read and explore perspectives on the Chinese spirit for International Women’s Day

Do come if you can!

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I’ve Finished!

Six days ago, I finished my novel. Yes! It has taken four drafts and almost two years to hone the 150,000 or so words of my historical epic family drama.

Given that I completed the first draft in just twelve months of furious writing, I find it amazing that I then spent another eleven months editing my work, word by precious word. In the early months, when I sat before my personal computer in full narrative flow, I naively wondered why some books took their authors seven to ten years to write. Now I know.

Looking back, I can see that the first draft contained mainly bare bones. It was as if I had to pour the words out onto a page, so that I could tell the story to myself. Many writers say they don’t share their first drafts with anyone else, but perhaps I’m more thick-skinned. Besides, I find I need feedback to get those creative juices flowing. I therefore showed my first draft to my partner, and also to a professional developmental editor. If I had to do it again, I would do exactly the same thing. I was fortunate in having Dr. Nathalie Teitler, formerly a tutor at Spread the Word, among other organisations, as my editor. The drama I’ve written takes place in Ipoh, Malaya (see map), within a complex multicultural setting, and I needed an editor who would be sympathetic to such material. Right from the start, I became used to criticism, to having chunks decimated, even a whole chapter rejected. I write to be read, and I needed such input. ipoh

In that period, I also sent my early draft to two literary consultancies. Both are reputable and advertise themselves as ‘leading’ consultancies, yet they gave opposing feedback: one very encouraging, the other much less so (I had not told either that this was a first draft). The experience confirmed what I had already suspected – that whether your writing is deemed ‘good’ is highly subjective. Much in the writing industry seems a matter of taste.

When I started the second draft, Nathalie worried I would lose momentum. It happens to many, she said. With me, the opposite was true: ideas came quickly and not always in tangible form, often at night in half-dreams from which I awoke, unsure of the words that had been churning in my head. I was in Malaysia at the time. Something about the heat, the food, family and the way people speak there  (Wahh! Like that also can ah?) stirred my imagination. Thanks to a prolific subconscious, large chunks were added to and taken away in the second draft. A major edit, I thought, until I began the third draft.

That was when I really did sharpen every word in every sentence. It is now quite a different book to what I had at the beginning, or even after the second draft. By that, I don’t mean that the underlying story has changed, rather, that I’ve told it using many more motifs and metaphors.

Editing, I was to learn, is an art. An art which I resisted, until I started to enjoy it. Editing is hugely time-consuming, and anyone who has put together a presentation in the corporate world will understand one of its frustrations. Changing a phrase in the third paragraph of the second chapter could impact the flow of what came before, as well as what comes after. Often, you have to re-read a lot more than just the short paragraph you are changing.

Late in the editing process, I discovered a critical tool: reading aloud. I found that if I could not get my tongue around a sentence, it was usually because there was a problem with that sentence. When I re-wrote it in a way that made it easier on the tongue, the prose invariably became clearer. But reading aloud an entire epic drama of 150,000 words twice from start to finish takes a lot of time. It has a cost on family life too, if your partner happens to be your first reader, which is the case with me. Every time I re-wrote a piece, she was asked to read it. This was especially true of the beginning and end, which I re-wrote, re-read and re-wrote many more times than five, in fact, so many times that I fear I may have lost my first reader in the process. I worry she won’t bother to read the published book! Be that as it may, I can finally say I have completed my first novel. Hallelujah!

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Trapped in Totleigh Barton!

The blurb had advertised Totleigh Barton as a ‘thatched, pre-Domesday manor house’. On looking up Wikipedia, I discovered that the Domesday Book was completed in 1086. Did I say 1086? Even modern British houses are cold, I find, especially their bathrooms. What was a house with a thatched roof built before 1086 going to be like? And in November…Totleigh Barton

Worse was what I had actually enrolled to do: learn new techniques for short stories, and actually write them. Short stories were not ‘my’ genre, I told myself, while wondering what the hell I was doing there.

But it was too late to turn back. Not least because we were in the middle of nowhere. Literally. Having tried to find Totleigh Barton on googlemaps beforehand, I realised we would be heading for a dot in the middle of an ocean of fields. The nearest town, Sheepwash, was two miles away. There was no wi-fi, not even mobile reception. To get mobile reception, you had to walk up a steep hill – which I couldn’t do because I was still using a crutch, thanks to an ankle sprain six weeks previously.

Then, there was the rain. We were in Devon after all, where rain falls in biblical proportions. devonI heard it in my slumber and would wake up with ready-made sentences. A short story I wrote began like this: “Winds like the dogs of Cantelabra howled through the night. Rain dropped in pellets, hitting the window panes of Sheepwash. The sheep in their pens were soaked; their clothes turned into mink, pink like the rain.

These aren’t my finest lines, but they are an example of what we were encouraged to do: let our imagination meander anywhere it cared to go . There are no rules in the short story, we were told. We gave ourselves permission to write whatever we wanted, in any way we wanted. Otherwise, I would never in a million years have come up with the dogs of Cantelabra or sheep in pink mink.

Our tutors, Tania Hershman and Adam Marek, were extraordinary. The whole course was extraordinary, as you would expect from Arvon, the UK’s premier writing foundation, which has perfected its recipe over many years. Our tutors’ seemingly crazy exercises undoubtedly produced results, because within ten minutes of our first session, we had all written a piece of flash fiction (a very short story of generally fewer than 500 words).

Equally important, we had great fun. So much so that on the last morning, when we were supposed to have free time, we asked for more writing exercises. How masochistic is that? We were simply hooked – not even the cold of the beautifully restored barn could stop us. When Tania and Adam complied, everyone came. We stretched out on sofas in the barn, then after a break, moved into the mediaeval dining room to huddle along benches, our shoulders hunched over a banqueting table the celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal would surely covet (see photograph below from the Arvon website, reproduced with their kind permission).

TotelighdiningroomSo just why had I been so afraid of going on an Arvon course?

A clue came in the middle of the week. That evening, we had a guest writer to visit. We were sitting at the mediaeval dining table, warmed by sips of wine and a roaring fire, when Oliver Meek, who with his wife Claire Berliner runs Totleigh Barton, mentioned that Arvon was thinking of ways to attract a more diverse audience. Arvon, he said, wanted to reach out into new communities. To do this, it had expanded its courses to certain cities; ethnic minorities, it seemed, were intimidated by secluded rural centres. As Oliver spoke, something clicked in my brain. I identified immediately with his words, which may sound strange to some. Fear of the countryside? Why would anyone be wary of sheep and rolling fields?

Only much later, after I had left the calm of Devon, was I able to reflect on this. I too, had been put off by where Totleigh Barton is situated. Though Sheepwash is beautiful, my mind associates seclusion with few people, all very similar but different from me, whose view is limited to a tiny piece of the world. I expect danger. And hostility. I didn’t fancy being stuck in such a place with strangers, unable to escape. Sweeping generalisations these may be, but they are the things we cannot rationalise away. Or even articulate to ourselves: until Oliver spoke, I wasn’t fully aware of what my fears had been about.

Such baggage may be stereotype and pre-conception, but it has power. I nearly didn’t book myself onto this Arvon course. And if I, with my privileged Oxford and City background, had been anxious, how much more would others be.

I’m so glad Arvon wants to reach beyond its traditional catchment. Oliver’s words made me stupidly happy. I walked on a high all evening. Perhaps it was also the Dunmore effect: the fabulous Helen Dunmore, prize-winning poet and novelist who spoke to us after dinner, is nothing if not breathtakingly eloquent. She could put anyone on a cloud. If you ever have a chance to hear her speak, grab it.

For anyone reading this who is hesitating over an Arvon course, especially if you come from an ethnic minority group – don’t be afraid, just do it. The magic will come. Arvon cares about everyone who comes through its doors. Its formula works. But you have to be open, and be prepared to give of yourself.

There was something in the air over Totleigh Barton, a magic which came precisely from being secluded in a beautiful place with others who loved words and stories. There was another kind of magic – the kind that comes from being cared for all day long. I had never expected to enjoy it so much. Even sleeping in a building which had once been home to pigs seemed exotic (see photograph below of my bedroom in the Pig Stiles, with windows on the other side overlooking green fields). The Pig Stiles

When it came time to leave, we discovered that Devon was covered in water and trains were only running from the next county. But I didn’t care. I had learnt about dribbles (micro stories of 50 words) and drabbles (micro stories of 100 words) and had finally found my short story voice. What did it matter that England was soggy?

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What does it Cost to Write a Novel?

I have now been writing my novel for 580 days. How many hours would that make? I haven’t counted, but given that there are 13,920 hours in 580 days, a rough estimate must yield a number in the thousands. A sobering thought…

With my business background and Chinese heritage, I can’t help thinking about what people in business call ‘the opportunity cost’. In other words, what else I could have done in that time, and how much more income I might have generated.

In a year and a half, the total package garnered by a senior manager working full-time could come to a few hundred thousand pounds (if we included bonuses, healthcare and pension contributions). I chose to leave the corporate world, and I don’t for one nanosecond regret that decision. Not because I hated it, but because in my time, I survived two life-threatening illnesses. Writing was integral to my recovery (see blog-post The Miracle of Writing), and I believe I need to continue telling stories for my well-being.

While I would love to be commercially successful as a writer, I have to be realistic: I’m writing historical fiction, not Harry Potter. My aim is to be both accessible and literary at the same time. In the process, I hope to entertain many, and to touch a few. Although my novel is historical, it carries themes of contemporary interest, such as the invisible cost of cultural assimilation – what it means to lose a heritage, and the ongoing tension between modernity and tradition.

It took me twelve months to write the first draft of this epic drama. That is fast, I’m told, for 150,000 words. (In comparison, the average book now has 100,000 to 120,000 words). Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I worked like a fiend. It helped that I could work at my second job from home, which gave me plenty of flexibility to write. I also had a wonderfully supportive partner who agreed not to speak to me before 3 pm each day. Although this was the subject of constant jokes amongst our friends, I can happily say there is no substitute for discipline.

At that whirlwind speed, I expected to be finished in no time. But my editor shook her head after the second draft. Nope, not ready yet, she told me in no uncertain terms. It is only now, well into my third draft, that I fully appreciate how much work has to go into polishing each and every word. I sit thinking about tenses and grammar. I stare at commas and semi-colons, the presence or absence of which could subtly change a sentence.

When I gave the second draft to a book-loving friend for a lay-person’s opinion, the work had grown to 170,000 words. I’m very grateful to my friend for her patience and her many comments. But what is a writer to do with wildly opposing feedback?

The bone of contention: the fact that my characters talk like Malaysians. (By that, I mean the dialogue between characters, not the narrative flow itself). Here’s an example. Instead of saying “How can that be?”, a Malaysian in real life might say, “Like that, how can-ah?”

To me as a Malaysian, the words written in that way simply jump off the page. I can hear the sentence, “Like that, how can-ah?” in all three of Cantonese, Malay or Malaysian English (Manglish). While creating the dialogue between my characters, I realised that when Malaysians speak English, we often just translate from our own languages.

By changing the order of the words on the page, I hoped to convey some of the cadence and intonation of Malaysian speech. It would have been easy to stick to the tried and tested Malaysian favourites: ‘lah’ and ‘ah’ and even ‘ai-yahh’; I wanted, perhaps ambitiously, to capture more of Malaysia’s atmosphere in my novel. If you haven’t been to South-East Asia, this may be lost, and the speech could seem trying. This is why I’ve restricted ‘Malaysian-isation’ to only the dialogue between the characters in my book. A matter of style, but it has already proven controversial. My editor loved it, and my friend hated it. Their reactions told me that other readers were also likely to fall into those two camps. As the writer, I will have to make the final decision.

Writers are always encouraged to read as widely as possible. Yet, while writing my first draft, I found that if I read any work written in a style dissimilar to mine (a story-telling style à la Isabel Allende), my own writing became affected. The sentences would cease to flow. In that period, I was forced to read and re-read Isabel Allende. Not a hardship, since I love her writing. In contrast, reading widely has helped me with my second and third drafts. I’ve read a string of novels recently, including The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a sad story set in Japan in the late 1700s, in which David Mitchell displays wonderful techniques with dialogue.

Latterly, I’ve discovered a trick I wish I had used earlier. Now that my work is nearly ready to be more widely exposed, I have a number of readings planned. While preparing for them, I began to read passages of my work aloud to myself. That was when I realised I could use reading aloud as a tool to weed out unwieldy sentences. If my tongue couldn’t get around a sentence first time, it was usually because the sentence didn’t work, and I had to change it.  Reading aloud also helps when you’re trying to spot repetition. Gillian Slovo had mentioned this at a writing workshop at the Faber Academy, but once I arrived home, I promptly forgot her advice. She was spot-on though.

Soon, it will be time to think about how to get my work published. I’m not looking forward to the process; why that is the case deserves another blog-post. To return to the question I asked at the outset: what does it cost to write a novel? Answer: many years of a writer’s life. And what does it take to get to the finish line? Discipline, determination and an insane belief that you have a worthwhile story to share with the world.

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