Tag Archives: Writing

Freedom or Theft?

Until recently I had not given a second’s thought to the problem of pirated books. Rather naively, I assumed that piracy was limited to music and software. Until I stumbled on an article in the Sunday Telegraph of 19 June 2016.

In it Robert Colville, a British journalist, author and commentator, describes how he felt when, two weeks after his book The Great Acceleration was published, he discovered that an illegal version had been uploaded onto a website. His first reaction was a sort of flattered bafflement – that anyone should wish to pirate his book – followed closely by anger. Being a journalist, Mr. Colville naturally did some digging. It did not take him long to find other authors with similar stories.

I was stunned to learn of people who indulge in stripping e-books of their software protections and who then distribute the stripped files over the Internet because they think they are making “information” freely available. Excuse me, but since when did Stephen King and Tom Clancy become “information”?

You do not need to be a bestselling author to be pirated: when Mr. Colville’s book was illegally copied onto a website, it ranked 309,607 on Amazon!

The more of his article I read, the more agitated I became. The subject is a salient one, now that I’m on the verge of having my first novel published. Getting to this point has taken five years of toil and persistence and much investment, emotional as well as material – research trips, developmental editing, not to mention forgone earnings. All of these costs were sunk before I was even signed up by a literary agent and a publisher. Yet there are people who seem to believe they should be able to read my novel without paying for it.

My agent Thomas Colchie confirmed that some of the other authors he represents have seen their books illegally uploaded onto a host of websites. Fortunately in the US and UK, large publishers are able to force stolen versions of books to be removed from websites, which contains the problem somewhat. However, this still means that 10% of e-books in the UK – or 7.2 million books – are read illegally. A whopping number, and one for which I fail to see any justification.

Do the people who pretend to be freedom-of-information warriors also refuse to pay at supermarket check-outs and in restaurants? Do they help themselves to Boots’ shelves? Because it seems to me that that is what book piracy is: theft, pure and simple.

Many of those who benefit from versions of illegally downloaded music, movies and books probably don’t think of themselves as stealing. Some may not even understand what I’m talking about. As a youngster in Malaysia, I routinely copied songs for other people and listened to music that had been copied by friends. Back then, I had not heard of intellectual property, I did not understand the consequences of my actions on the singers or songwriters. The same cannot be said of these so-called book pirates.

According to Mr. Colville’s article most of them are aged between 35 and 55 and sufficiently educated that they know how to strip e-books of their software protections. These are not teenagers who cannot afford books. Even if they were, let’s be clear about one thing: books are not an essential item like food or medicine. There can be no moral justification for stealing them in a wealthy country like the UK. If you want to read a particular book and you can’t afford it, take yourself down to the local library.

Lurking in the midst of this troubling phenomenon is a warped sense of entitlement. Some of the modern book thieves apparently believe that “writers are wealthy and publishers are wealthy and therefore, it’s okay to steal from them”. This line of reasoning is both factually flawed and morally disingenuous. First of all, the average writer is not rich. In 2013 authors earned on average just £11,000 – well below average earnings in the UK at the time of £26,500. In my own case, it took two full years to complete my first novel; if I hadn’t already been comfortably off, it would have taken a lot longer. As for publishers being wealthy, this completely misses the point. It isn’t as if my publisher does nothing and then suddenly reaps benefits. In my blog-post The Things that go into Creating a Book, I mentioned that I had not appreciated how rigorous the editorial process would be. My publisher is putting in a huge amount of care and professionalism into ensuring not only that every sentence in my book is as good as it can be, but also that every semi-colon is in the right place. Publishing a book is a huge enterprise that involves large numbers of people and their time.

So, when next you are offered a pirated copy of a book, please spare a thought for those who have put so much of themselves into making it available. That labour must be rewarded appears to be tacitly acknowledged by one of the piracy websites quoted in Mr. Colville’s article, which actually offers to pay its programmers! Apparently, even anarchy has limits. Not everything should be free after all.

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At Last, a Publishing Contract!

I have exciting news – I finally have a publisher for my first novel. Readers of this blog will know that the journey has been a long one. I commenced writing my first book five years ago. It took two years to complete the final version, including the multiple edits which were needed, the polishing and refining which went into making ordinary words more poignant in places, sharper in others. I then had to wait another year before being signed up by a literary agent in New York, Thomas Colchie, a well-established agent who specialises in representing international authors. He and his wife loved my book. Despite that and despite their agency’s credentials, it took him nearly two years to find a publisher.

This delay is not unusual. The prize-winning Irish author Colm Tóibín had to wait nearly three years before his agent was able to secure a publisher for his first novel, The South. By then, Mr. Tóibín had almost completed his second book. His story is a good illustration of the crucial role which an agent plays. I followed my own agent’s advice, and was well on my way to completing the second book in my trilogy when Thomas called with good news. It really pays to have an agent who believes in you, who is persistent and at the same time, able to think outside of the box.

My publisher and I have now signed a contract. There is still plenty of work to be done: the final editing touches, the design of the cover, not to mention the actual title of the book (which we will need to agree upon). Such details may seem trivial, but they are what give a book its tone and feel. Titles are particularly important; choosing one is an art form, and while I have a working title, we may not use it in the end.

I have also just written a page of Acknowledgements, and it dawned on me how many people I needed to thank. There are my Malaysian family members of course, as well as the many friends who generously shared their life experiences as I set about doing research into a host of eclectic subjects. For the record, this research ranged from childbirth to the colour of elephants’ eyes, so some of my friends had to be quite tolerant of quirks! There are also my guinea pigs to thank, the beta readers on whom I unleashed drafts of the novel at various points. Not forgetting my developmental editor, my agent and his wife and of course my partner Svetlana. But I did not want the Acknowledgements page to be a mere list of names; in order to make my thank you more meaningful, it took over a day to perfect the prose.

Fortunately, when it comes to creating the final product, I will have the support of a whole team of editors and designers from my publisher. This is one of the advantages of having a traditional book publisher. It is quite exhilarating. At present I cannot reveal other details, such as when my novel will be launched. However I will give readers of this blog a heads-up as soon as I am able. Watch this space!

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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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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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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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