Tag Archives: Isabel Allende

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!


Filed under Novel, Writing

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.


Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Writing

The Truth about how I Actually Started Writing

In my last blog, I made it sound as if I simply sat down one day and began to write. I must confess that was a slight simplification. It’s true that when I sit down now with a blank page, ideas come to mind and I fill the white space with little trouble. But getting to this point has taken hard work.

Because knowing that I wanted to write a book was the easy part. Thinking how and where to start proved more difficult. First was the question of genre. What sort of book would I write? Historical memoir, fiction or even fantasy? I quickly decided on fiction, as it offers scope with the added advantage of poetic license – my family is full of scandal after all. 

Still, until then, I had only written whenever the mood had grabbed me, which is to say, infrequently. Given those inauspicious attempts, how was I going to embark on a novel?

That was when my partner stepped in. She announced that she knew just the right person: a friend, Dr. Nathalie Teitler who at the time worked as professional editor, poet, sometime academic and consultant. Unbeknownst to Nathalie, we decided to deploy a tried-and-tested Chinese strategy: ply her with food and get free advice (try it!). This strategy only partly succeeded, because when we invited Nathalie to our favourite dim-sum place, we discovered she was a salad lady! We ended up eating all her dumplings, while she did a lot of the talking. She said a good many things, the most memorable being that I had to write every day.

I remember being so shocked that I gulped.  In my own head, writing was something I would do for fun, and certainly not every day!

So initially, I resisted. At the time I was spending my weeks on the “real” business of trading, and I opted to write only on Saturdays. But Saturdays being what they are, things always came up, in the form of meals with friends which my partner would arrange, or invitations to the opera. Fabulous, except I made zero progress on the novel.

On top of that, because writing was on my mind, I suddenly noticed references to the way others worked. For example Isabel Allende, one of my favourite authors, writes between 9 am and 7 pm from Mondays through Saturdays and finishes her first drafts in four months! Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have kept four desks in his house in Cuba, each facing a different direction and used at different stages: one for first drafts, another for the first edit and so on. And Nathalie kept on telling me that even an hour a day was better than none at all.

The more I pondered it, the more I realised she was right. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not only inspiration but also iron discipline and gritty determination, coupled with the crazed belief writers have that people will want to read what’s produced (!), which expel books out into this world. For the first time, I tried to get under the skins of my characters, living and breathing with them. I imagined how they talked, the clothes they wore, their homes, the walks they took, and all this in Malaya of one hundred years ago.

It became an intensely personal journey, because it’s impossible for me to write the story of an Asian woman and not confront the bond which unites us: we are all born into cultures that don’t value girls. I found myself overwhelmed by memories, for example of the many occasions when I heard others tell my mother what a shame I wasn’t a boy. That is a story for another time. Suffice to say that I had to find a way of somehow harnessing this raw energy for literary ends.

That was the moment I asked Nathalie to be my editor. It was a decision which transformed my writing schedule. For the first time, I incorporated writing into my daily routine and gave myself deadlines. I would give Nathalie a chapter as soon as I completed it, and we then met to discuss her feedback. The more immersed I became in my characters’ lives, the more natural it was to sit with them every day.

Of course working with an editor isn’t always easy. Mine happily throws out entire chapters (only once but I’m sure she would do it again), forces me into the type of writing I like least (description in my case) and has never yet admitted she made a mistake (presumably because in art, mistakes are impossible, unlike the real world). On the other hand, she is invariably supportive and gives me wonderful ideas, and I know my book would be poorer without her input.

No sooner had I learnt how to divide my time between trading, writing and going to the gym, than a new challenge presented itself: how to write and keep a partner. This is especially tough given the house rule I’ve instituted: that she cannot speak to me before 3 pm. Fortunately my partner has been amazing so far, despite the odd tweet about her travails. Here’s my favourite:

“Living with a writer means only seeing a 3D picture of them sitting at the table with a laptop. They are far away and cannot be disturbed.”

Oh dear…let’s hope I finish this novel soon.

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