My year of writing dangerously

In 2012, I not only moved to Australia, I also started a new career, wrote a Young Adult novel, worked with a Malaysian publisher on two children's books and started a new column about e-books called Reading Revolution with The Star. Oh, and on top of that I was taking Dean Wesley Smith's online writing courses. To say that I had a busy year was a massive understatement.

I can honestly say this: Don't ever do what I did!

Boy, although I did get quite a few things accomplished (move to Australia was a success, I'm now a nursing assistant on the way to becoming a nurse or perhaps occupational therapist, completed my YA novel, published the children's books and Reading Revolution is up and running, having recently migrated from iPad form to online) - it was by far one of the most stressful years of my life. Fulfilling and perhaps satisfying at times, but I had many sleepless nights and anxious moments where I felt that my house of cards was going to fall down on me.

But my year of stress was not wasted. I learned so many things about writing fiction:

✔ I have sped up my writing speed (in terms of writing a novel) considerably. I wrote my first 80k novel a few years ago and it took me two years to write it because I "discovered" the novel along the way. (In other words, I was a pantser.) However, this time, I defied my pantser inclinations by planning in advance.

It's really important to develop your writing process. Unfortunately, every person's process is different. I'm still trying to discover what mine is, though I now have a rough idea. Around my 10th year as a journalist, I developed a system which helped me write my features very quickly. At first, I thought it was an inferior process - robotic, even. I would write the skeleton of the article very quickly. Then I would shift bits of dialogue from my interview transcript into relevant sections. Later, I would write in bold things that need to be researched, clarified or further questions. After I fill in the gaps, I write. It usually takes me about 1-2 days to write a 1000-word feature (excluding interview and pre-interview research time). Now, I realised that fiction writers, especially professional ones, write the same way.

However, it's critical to discover just what suits you. For one, I realised that detailed story plans are not for me. All my plans fly out the window because my characters have a mind of their own and often do things outside of my plan, the naughty buggers. Still, I also realised that having some kind of outline helped me immensely.

It's important to understand that mental clutter/distractions/negativity can affect your writing. For example, I realised that my perfectionist tendencies have been huge barriers to my writing (fiction, anyway) and was the main reason why I procrastinate. I had to learn to ignore my devillish inner critic and just bloody write. Oh, and get some counselling or read some self-help books. And I'm not saying this in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

I am thankful for my 13 years as a journalist - it has given me the discipline to write even when I don't feel inspired. For six months, I wrote at least 5000-10000 words a week.

It's best to write with your editing mode shut off. Meaning, don't write and edit at the same time. You're forcing your brain to switch functions and it slows you down considerably. And it can be stressful too. So, during your first round, write free flow without fixing spelling or grammar or going off to the Internet to research bits of stuff. Just write. Which brings me to the next point:

Shut off all distractions. Multi-tasking isn't a good thing when you write. For a person who was proud that he could study, watch TV, surf and maybe eat at the same time, it was a revelation :) The NYT article, A Focus on Distraction, calls this "rapid toggling between tasks". Your brain takes longer to gear itself from task to task. So, let's say you're writing, then you notice an email pop up. You go check the email. When you return to write, it'll take your brain a few minutes just to get back to the groove. I learned a fun trick from Dean Wesley Smith: I would set my timer at 30 minutes and write my heart out. It became a game - I loved seeing how many words I could finish in 30 minutes!

I learned to work with publishers. Egad, contracts. Not one of my favourite things, but certainly eye-opening.

In the end, you can only learn by writing that novel/short story. And another. And another. And yet another. This is one thing my years as a journalist taught me: Write again and again - that's how you improve. Sure, you can take 1001 courses and read 1002 how-to books, but you won't be able to discover what works for you as a writer if you don't put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Practise your writing but also learn from the experts at the same time. As important as writing to learn is, it's equally important to learn from the experts. So join workshops, read blogs and interact with other writers.