Some time ago, I came across an article by a well-known indie author who said that to succeed as an indie author, you'd have to write fast. How fast? Six to eight novels a year. The common advice used to be four. Now the number has doubled! Crazy!Read More
Nanowrimo. When writers around the globe battle to finish a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. Have you finished your novel? How was Nano for you this year?Read More
Wattpad's users are young, so if you write fiction aimed at older readers, you might as well not try. Or so goes the logic. But Elizabeth Spann Craig, who writes cosy mysteries and whose protagonist is an octogenarian, begs to differ.Read More
I used to be a chronic unfinisher of novels. I would start one with great excitement and fervour, then get distracted by the next shiny fiction idea. Rinse. Repeat.
But when I took fiction more seriously, I came across an author who said that authors should finish their shit. Since this wisdom was echoed by many authors I admired, I decided to make it my life mission to finish my shit. (Fiction, that is. I always finished my articles or I don't get to eat!)
Not only did I get big a burst of satisfaction and confidence each time I completed a book, I learned new skills with each one. And guess what, Bird by Bird as Anne Lamott said. After making that promise to myself, I have since written nearly a dozen novellas and short stories, and four novels that ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 words.
If I may ever be so bold, you may take a bazillion writing workshops or get a souped up MFA, but finishing your novels is the No.1 way to improve as a writer. And note that I said novels. Yup, you got it. Write so much that you forget how many novels you've ever written.
May I present to you exhibit A - How I grew as a novelist, novel by novel:
First novel (80k words): An Angel fanfic
Frustrated by a rather painful season cliffhanger, I wrote this one to ease the pain. I wrote on pure instinct, pantsing wildly, and dreaming up plot twists. I posted a new chapter on Fanfiction.net each week (though I didn't keep a strict schedule). It was thrilling to see how readers responded. They cheered me on. Yelled at me to write faster. One even said she cried at work reading a chapter. As a writer, there was no greater achievement than that! It took me two years to complete the novel, and it remains, to date, one of the few works I truly enjoyed working on.
What I learned: Using digital media to interact with readers - there's no thrill greater!
Second novel (50k): A young adult novel
I wrote this on order, meaning, a publisher wanted it and I had to come up with an enthralling story that will sell. Needless to say, I panicked a little, wondering what the hell I got myself into. Then, with only six months left to deadline, I wrote up a storm. It wasn't an enjoyable process, especially compared to the orgasmic experience I had writing the Angel fanfic. I quickly learned that deadlines = stress, especially if you didn't have a method to ensure that you met the deadline. Although I wasn't exactly thrilled by the novel I wrote, I was absolutely floored I managed to reach the finishing line. I may dust it off one day, rework it, and put it up on Wattpad. See? You can't do that with an unfinished novel!
What I learned: Pantsing isn't a great way to write a novel in six months. It makes for lots of rewrites, unnecessary scenes, wasted time and stressss. I need a new method - but can a pantser be a plotter?
Third Novel (60k): Shadows of Corinar
Because the YA novel took so much out of me, I wasn't sure if I could ever write another novel again. Perhaps I loved self-torture, but in 2012 not only did I decide to write another novel, I did it during Nanowrimo. Gah! It was exhilarating to pound out thousands of words a day with millions around the world - I made great friends, some of which are still best friends till this day - but I promptly fell ill at the end of November and was left with a mess of a novel. An incomplete one at that!
Doggedly, I told myself I'd finish this thing. And I pecked at it. And pecked at it. And I swear I pecked at it until my proverbial beak fell off but the granite which was the plot wouldn't give. One night, I moaned/cried at my fellow writing friends' home, convinced that perhaps I should abandon this loveless hunk of words. Hell, I even thought that my main character was a whiny bastard.
What I learned: That sometimes it was necessary to be cold and cruel and abandon your word baby ... and start from a blank page. I was so determined to use the words I wrote during Nanowrimo that I inadvertently blocked myself. When I finally detached from the sunk costs of it all, I waved the Nano zero draft goodbye and wrote from scratch. To my surprise, the words flowed really easily. And it was during the writing of this novel, while typing outdoors during a cool autumn day in Hahndorf, that I discovered a crucial skill that would help me plot far easier: Brainstorming.
Fourth novel: Nexus Point (Science Fiction)
Surely writing this word monster would be easier this time? Like, no. Nexus Point, the sequel to Shadows of Corinar, turned out to be the most complex novel I've ever written. Not only was it the longest novel I've ever attempted, I was also juggling multiple points of view, character arcs, writing more action scenes, which I'm weak at. Oh, how about the fact that I'm establishing what could possibly be a four to five-novel space opera series with dozens of accompanying short stories? This was my most ambitious project to date, and I felt the heat.
On top of that, I was now working full-time so time was of the essence. I decided to learn techniques on how to write faster and sharpen my brainstorming technique to create a more systematic way to plot my novel.
What I learned: I became a student of story structure. Before, I knew a novel was not working but didn't know why or how to fix it. The book that helped me finally get it was Larry Brooks' Story Engineering. I also changed the way I wrote; I stopped editing while I wrote, I began to write as fast as I can in 30 minutes. I also created a novel journal to organise my ideas, adopted a bullet journal system, and created a TODO task list system that enabled me to not only see my progress with my novel but gave me a clear idea what to work on each day.
Phew. Wow. Damn, it's not until writing this blog post did I realise the huge range of skills I've developed since my first novel. Time management, creative skills, plotting ... All because I made a promise to myself that I'd finish every novel, novella and short story that I started.
So, yeah, finish your shit. That's how you learn!
My definition of a writing retreat is this: A time of self care where you nurture your body, mind and creativity so that you can produce words that inspire others. It's not bootcamp or a novel sweatshop where you produce words. Not for me, anyway.
Here's how I go about mine:
First, have a plan
Always be ready with a list of writing tasks so that you won't be at a loss how to meet your writing project goals. When you're in a vacation spot, it's really easy to get carried away by relaxation activities. Great if you're on vacation. Not so great if you're trying to complete your novel. Be precise when describing your tasks. For example, don't just write "Finish chapter 1". Write, "Add scene with monks in chapter 1". Or if you're revising a novel, you can write, "Refine dialogue between Bob and Sarah in chapter 6."
Go somewhere inspiring
When I lived in Adelaide, that place was Hahndorf. I brainstormed a good chunk of the second novel of my space opera series while sipping black coffee and watching autumn leaves fall around me at a cafe in that idyllic once-German town. Nature has an amazing way to inspire the creative mind.
Even if you don't have access or time to go to scenic locales like Hahndorf, you can always take a walk in a park. And even if you don't have access to that, perhaps luxury would do it for you? I use Airbnb a lot, and I often stay in luxury condos with a view of the spectacular skyscape. (And I usually pay about RM80 (US$20) to RM100 (US$25) per night for them!) Somehow, just a look at the neon-lit buildings at night would send me racing to my laptop.
Don't forget to exercise
A healthy body produces a healthy mind. That's why I make it a point to have writing retreats at places with gyms, swimming pools or are near parks. I do it first thing in the morning and then in the evening. If I skip this I often get lethargic, and it doesn't do my writing any favours.
Feed the muse
Sometimes we work so hard to produce something that we forget that we need to supply our brain with raw materials to convert into great stories. Yes, food and exercise is part of that, but I'm talking about creative raw materials. During writing retreats, I make a point to do these: read (usually by the pool), watch TV and movies (yes, really!), or if I'm lucky, go to a museum with works of art.
I'm not saying go on a diet. In fact, going on a diet may add unnecessary stress to your mind and body at a time when you want to relax. Instead, eat food you know will keep your mind alert and your body invigorated. For example, if I eat gluten of any kind, it's usually a recipe for trouble as headaches and stomach aches are sure to follow. So, during my retreats I make sure I have a good supply of fruits and vegetables and lots of water!
Don't work too hard
Say what? Remember, it's also a retreat, not a sweatshop. So allow yourself to be a tourist, sleep and have fun. I made the mistake a few writing retreats ago by working well into midnight. I had set an impossible deadline for myself (always a bad habit, thanks to my type-A personality). As a result, I did not sleep well at all during my writing retreat. My friends thought I'd be refreshed after my vacay, but I looked like I slept in a bin of cactus for days.
In all things, let there be balance.
Hope this little list inspires you to plan your solo writing retreat. Do tell me about it :)
When writing becomes a chore, is there a way to regain the sense of wonder and fun? A little essay on my journey of making writing less like work.Read More
New Year, new blog, new CMS! I've moved from Wordpress to Squarespace and I'm loving it so far. However, this blog is not just getting a new look - it's getting a new direction.
From now on, I will be writing about Social Media (as it pertains to writers) or the Writer's Life (craft and lifestyle issues) on Wednesdays. I will also be blogging about Faith and Wellness on some Tuesdays. (I've not decided on the frequency yet. Perhaps every fortnight to begin with.) For now, just look out for new posts on Wednesdays and Tuesdays. You can also subscribe to have blog posts delivered to your e-mail inbox so that you won't miss a post.
But enough about me. It's the new year, and I'm sure you're planning to bust some goals this year. When it comes to making New year resolutions I like to focus on actions rather than results. Meaning, instead of setting a goal that says, "I want to be a New York Times bestselling author this year", which is beyond my control, I'd focus on goals where I have total control over such as "I will write 1,000 words a day, five times a week".
I think it's far more fruitful to focus on how you get to your dream than the dream itself.
Stumped? Here are some New year resolutions you can make:Read More
Publishers have been compiling blog posts into books for some time now. However, veteran journalist Nina Amir says that "blogging a book" is a different thing altogether. "Blogging a book means composing your manuscript on the Internet using blog technology. Basically, you write, publish and promote your book one post at a time on the Internet,” says the California-based Amir via e-mail.
So, just how do you go about this? Nina gives a few tips in her own words:Read More
Have you heard of the 10,000 hour rule? It is said that in order for one to become skilled at something, one has to put in 10,000 hours of work to hone said skill. Sci-fi writer Brad Torgersen could be an adherent of this rule. No, scratch that. I don't think he believes in the 10,000 hour rule; I have a feeling he won't stop at 10,000 hours. He'll probably keep on chugging past the 100,000 hour mark.
In his blog post, On Not Quitting, he writes that writers must keep on plugging despite getting all kinds of discouragement along the way. He's had many reasons to quit writing before his novelette, “Ray of Light,” was nominated for the SFWA Nebula award. (It's one of Science Fiction and Fantasy literature’s top awards.) But he didn't.Read More
Here's the unglamorous side of journalism and fiction writing: You need to meet deadlines. All the time. Or else. Sure I pursue my dreams through my work, but it's a lot of hard work most of the time. I once wrote an article (Passion for Japanese Culture) about Danny Choo a "full-time otaku" who pursued his dreams until he is living it.
Danny was very systematic in pursuing his dream, taking up Japanese classes and even working in a sushi restaurant to immerse himself in his passion - Japanese pop culture. Everyone should read his article about Pursuing Your Passion, by the way. It'll teach you a few things about how to pursue your dreams.Read More
Everyone has it. That little voice inside them that tells them that they're no good. That they better not even try at all because their efforts will be fruitless. When I interviewed Margaret Stohl a few months ago, she told me how she once went on a writing tour with many "wise writers". She asked them, "At what point did you stop saying that you're a bad writer?"
They responded: "We'll tell you when that happens."
"Everyone I know feels the hater. No one is immune," she said to me.
Yes, I can tell you right away that despite having written professionally since I was 18 or 19 (I started stringing for The Star and was a freelance copywriter while I was in college), that "hater" is still whispering things to me. It's always telling me to stop trying. To just give up and forget about this "writing thing".
Yes, everybody has an inner critic. The difference is whether you give it power to paralyse you.
For many years I gave my inner hater too much power. I listened to it. I agreed with it. It took a personal crisis to shake me out of my stupor. And I found myself asking myself, "Why the hell am I listening to it, really?"
I told the inner critic, "Thanks for your input. But I am going ahead anyway."
And I begin to find my wings again. I dared to dream once more.
So, just tell your inner critic to shut it. You're going to benefit from it, trust me.
This post was originally published in Jan 22, 2012. Due to floods of comment spam I'm republishing some of my old posts rather than delete a comment at a time. Old is gold as they say!
I was 10 when I realised that I loved stories. To read about them. To watch them. But most of all, to tell them. I made my first attempts at story creation on lined exercise books; I drew comics of a dream life I would have when I became an adult.
At first, I wrote stories to entertain myself. But when I was 18, I stumbled on the writings of Catherine Marshall and Phillip Yancey. I was captivated by the power of their words to encourage, educate and effect change in me.
And I remember saying to myself: "I want to write like them."
Over the years, it became clear that this was the calling of my heart: To write words that will encourage people and change the world.Read More
This is a response to Juni's post, Confessions of an Introvert :)
When I was a Creative Writing student at Tabor college, we had a lecture by an Australian writer as part of our education in the world of writing.
We sat and listened intently as she spoke about how difficult it was to be an introvert writer in this extroverted world. There's just so many people pressing around you. Demanding your attention. Poking at you. It's just so hard to get away from all that noise.
I looked around. Everyone nodded their heads in solemn agreement.
I raised my hand.
"What if you have the opposite problem?" I said.
All eyes went to me. There were different degrees of confusion on their faces.
"I mean," I said. "What if you want to be with people all the time?"
She grinned. And then the entire class laughed.
"Gosh, I wish I had that problem!" the author said.
No, you don't really!
Introverts often think that we extroverts have an easier time in the world. But, really, we have our unique set of challenges, especially as writers! If you tell me, introverts have an edge over us in that profession.
I'm ENFP, and they like to describe us as the most introverted of the extroverts. (Frankly, I think we're ambiverts, but that's a whole other post.) Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert doesn't depend on your behaviour. It has all to do with how you get energy. Introverts recharge by being alone. Extroverts recharge by being with people or high-energy events.
Life must be so much easier for us in this extroverted world, isn't it?
In some ways it can be. But we go through tough times like everyone else. (By the way, the following points is based on me as an extrovert; I don't speak for all extroverts. Okey dokey?)
The challenges of an extrovert writer - in no order:
I get bored easily
I often tell people that I need something to anchor my attention so that I can complete a task - especially if it's a tedious one. I get bored very, very (10x) easily. When I write, I need breaks every 30 minutes and amuse myself with something else or else I'd feel drained.
My mind runs at 101mph
I have so many ideas, thoughts, and random bits of mental floatsom running through my head at such high speeds that it's nigh impossible to focus. Extroverts tend to exhaust introverts because we seem to be like ping pong balls bouncing from one topic to another. Worse, I get distracted by every shiny thing (whether it be objects or concepts) I come across. The thing is, people don't realise we too get exhausted by this. ENFPs, for one, are often said to have difficulty with sleep because of their restless minds. Which is why ...
We can't be still for more than 1.5 seconds
Meditation? Feels more like water torture to me, thanks. So resting is a challenge for me.
I need to be with people
Two hours alone and I'll be craving for a shopping mall. I don't need to talk to people all the time, but I would love to be surrounded with them.
So, I write in a place with people. It can get really expensive to use cafes as your writing place!
My biggest temptation: Parties!
You know you have to write 20k words this Friday, but then your friend calls you and says, "Liz! Movie tonight?" The words bypasses your brain and you say, "Yes!"
It's hard to fight that urge to be with people and get to work on a solitary exercise like writing a book.
I do need my alone time
Yeah, we confuse people that way. Hell, I get confused by this too. I will have seasons where I need to be alone to think deeply about my goals.
WE feel outnumbered by introvert writers
Not that it's a bad thing! Yup, there are lots of introvert writers. But us extroverts, we'd love to be with fellow writers who understand what it's like to be us. You know, it'd be so awesome to spend the whole day just talking about writing!
That pitter patter of frantic footsteps? That's the introverts running out of the room in sheer horror.
So yeah. We extroverts have our problems too!
Want to know us better? Here are some articles:
Want to write a novel? Be a journalist? Be a freelance writer? Be a social media consultant? To do all this, you need to take a very important step: take that leap of faith.
Aubrey Andrus wrote a post I heart so much: The First Hurdle: Why Writers Should Stop Being Scared and Take the Leap of Faith. One particular paragraph really stood out for me:
Even the talented ones who are likely to be very successful as a freelancer prefer to dawdle and over-research what it takes to go out on their own. They dream instead of do. But your dreams will not come true until you step over that first hurdle. Take that first leap. Bust your excuses. Start taking action instead of thinking about it.
I was exactly like that! For years I dreamt about writing that novel. So, I read and read and read books about writing. I had shelves full of them. But did I do any actual writing? Nope. I realised I wanted to be as perfect and equipped as I can before I start anything. But you know what? You can never learn until you do the actual thing and make mistakes.
So, I started writing. In the beginning it was difficult to battle my perfectionist tendencies and not listen to my inner critic, but I managed it! I ended up writing a short story and submitting it to the MPH Alliance short story contest. I didn't win or anything, but boy it felt so good to finish a story!
After that, I became bolder and bolder. I ignored that inner critic monster and took a few leaps of faith. I submitted a poem to an anthology. (Didn't get in, but Sharon Bakar gave me awesome feedback.) Then I called up a publisher to find out if they were interested to publish a few children's stories I wrote a couple of years ago. The time it took for them to get back to me was tough for me, but in the end they came back with a yes! That was how the Trixie Koala series of children's books was born. The books are now published in paperback and ebook format.
Aubrey also wrote this: You must do the things you think you cannot do.
Moving to Australia. Getting published. Working as a digital content writer. These were the things I thought I could not ever do because they seemed too difficult, too impossible. But here I am, living my dreams at last because I dared to take the leap and dared to fail. And I did fail a few times. But rather than moan and dwell on it, I picked myself up and walked towards the next challenge. That's what I recently learned. It's not about doing the right things to succeed -- it's about knowing that you're going to be all right even if you fail.
Photo by LarryLens.
I've been waiting for e-book technology to hit the bookstores since I spied Star Trek characters reading off hand-held tablets in the 1980s. And when it finally arrived at the dawn of the 21st century, sci-fi style, I was psyched. But Malaysia did not embrace the technology immediately. I had to visit the United States to get my hands on my first e-book reader: A Sony Reader. It cost me about a thousand ringgit (ouch ouch ouch) but it was worth every penny.
Naturally, as a journalist, I wrote extensively about it.
I began with a major feature article about e-books, which I actually won an in-house award for:
I had a lot of fun meeting international e-book authors such as Ryk Brown, waded into the murky depths of the ebook porngate, and how fanfiction is now made respectable, thanks to Amazon's Kindle Worlds. Ebooks has made the once-stagnant publishing world into an exciting and often volatile field, and readers, writers and publishers are all being tossed around in the constant change.
But for a journalist, it's catnip.
Malaysia's not fully in the game yet, but I see an explosion in the future. And the Malaysian publishing industry better be ready for it.
I'm currently a student at Tabor College's Creative Writing programme. I've found it interesting and fascinating to be studying a subject that I'm passionate about and to be surrounded by people in love with the same subject and to be mentored by wonderful writers. However, although I found my MFA experience enriching, I felt that it wasn't a whole meal, so to speak. I needed vitamin supplementation. That's not to say that it sucked. The programme made me go where I wouldn't naturally go (writing young adult, for one) and forced me to produce on demand. I will definitely complete the programme (because I'm a damn completist and I see value in the programme) but am currently supplementing it with a programme I've designed for myself.
Step 1: Finding the gaps in my knowledge
In order to build my personal Creative writing MFA curriculum, I had to know what I needed to learn. I discovered that while I have completed two novels and several novellas, I did not know:
My writing process
I was a "throw something at the wall and hope it'll stick" kind of writer. I was a pantser, or so I thought. What really happened was that I did a lot of outlining in my head, which is why there were huge gaps in time between writing chapters. It was time-consuming and not very reliable, and worse, I often wrote stories that had no endings. What's my best time to write? Where do I write best? What motivates me to write? What inspires me? These are some of the questions I had to ask myself.
How to write on schedule or at a reliable pace.
I was superb at meeting deadlines as a journalist. But as a fiction writer, my readers often had to wait too long for new chapters to appear. (I started posting my stories chapter by chapter online since 2000.) I pissed off a few readers when I abandoned stories too! If you want to be a pro, this ain't the way to behave.
I didn't know how to conceptualise stories
I started out writing fanfic, where the conceptualising was already done for me. This meant that while I was good at plotting, writing distinctive characters, good dialogue and writing in a way that left readers wanting more, I didn't know how to come up with characters or to build a world. When I started learning this particular skill, I was blown away by the amount of work involved. I had a lot to learn. A LOT.
I didn't know how to market myself or my stories
Unfortunately, if you want to make it as an indie writer, you need to do some kind of marketing. It's not my favourite subject, and I'm a grub worm in the evolution cycle, but I'm heading to the pupae stage at least.
The psychology of the writer
When I started the journey to really dig deep into writing fiction, I was amazed (and maybe a even a little alarmed) that my state of mind played such an important role in my writing. What you tell yourself is so important. Who you listen to is also vital. Lawd, even how you treat your body is of importance. The last three years has been like a drawn-out therapy session, but I've learned so much about myself in the process.
The indie digital writer's ebook production
I had to learn how to format my e-book, design covers and upload my ebook to ebook distributors such as Amazon and Smashwords. I also learned to source for cover artists, editors and beta readers.
Once you've discovered the gaps in your knowledge, the next step is to find study materials or courses to help you fill that gap.
Mark Ruffalo. He was the primary reason why I watched this movie. His characters often hold a cauldron of pain inside their seemingly strong/irreverent facade and the man has a way of making you want to hug him from the other side of the screen. (And to me, his version of The Hulk is the best.) What can I say? I love angsty men.
Dan is a classic Ruffalo character. At the beginning of the movie, we see how he's at the wrong end of the corporate ladder; he's about to be fired from the recording label he started and had suffered through seven years of mental instability, alcoholism and the worst case of marriage blahs ever. And yeah, his daughter thinks he is a loser.Read More
One of my biggest dreams was to earn a Masters in Creative Writing. I know getting one doesn't necessarily mean I'll be a better writer but I've always wanted to rub shoulders with fellow writers and soak in a learning environment where people are encouraged to create and explore. So, when I discovered Tabor College's Creative Writing course, I was psyched. I scanned the curriculum and deemed it a very practical (they teach you to write, hey!) and non-hoity-toity. (I avoid snobbish Creative Writing courses that poo-poo genre fiction and demand that you write book-length exegesis about literary works that put you to sleep.)
However, when I discovered that the first course available was "Writing Young Adult fiction", I thought, maybe I should wait for another subject to come by.
Young Adult is my least favourite genre. Years of Twilight exposure did not endear me to it, self-absorbed teens irritate the frak out of me and I did not have the tiniest desire to write in the genre. I have always found it puzzling that some adults read YA; I felt that it's for kids and felt that I've outgrown the genre.Read More
Sometimes I think that the Malaysia literati should just take a chill pill. Much like kiasu parents who believe that their children should only read books that contribute to their academic success, they are often fretting over the type of literature being written and consumed by Malaysians.
I was reading Daphne Lee's post, Reading Local Lit, in which she said: "In Malaysia, those of us who do love to read have certainly had our tastes and expectations (of what a story/book should be like) shaped by Western mainstream writers/ critics/ literature. This affects the fate of local literature, especially how it is perceived and if it is read."
I can't think how I might define Malaysian literature without referring to styles established in Europe and North America. Malaysian writers, especially those whose medium is English, have European narrative traditions hanging over their heads, so to speak, and it's hard not to be intimidated, influenced (bullied) and judged by these traditions. Readers are in a similar position. Even our exposure to African and Asian literature is controlled by what is available in the West, and translated by American and British publishers.
Here's my take: Rather than think of Western literature as an all-consuming, pulversing force, I think of it as a gem, a wonderful contribution from one part of humanity to another.
The Malaysian literati are far too anxious to establish Malaysia's cultural identity in fiction, and I think it's a bad idea to force the issue on writers and readers.
In the TED talk, The Politics of Fiction, Turkish author Elif Shafak said: "Stories lose their magic when they become more than a story."
She spoke about a time when a literary critic questioned why she only included one Turkish character in one of her novels, and the character's a male on top of that.
"He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happen to be one." Identity politics are affecting how stories are being circulated, read and reviewed, she said.
"Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you're a woman writer from the Muslim world like me, then you are expected to write stories about Muslim women and preferably the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You are expected to write informative, poignant, and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant garde stories to your Western colleagues."
Turkish author Elif urged writers to transcend identity and cultural politics. And I agree with that so much that I want to shout it from rooftops. Identity politics is such a disease in Malaysia; it affects every facet of our lives, don't let it infect our literature too. Writers should transcend that, not play along.
Furthermore, Malaysians have grown up being told what is acceptable for us to talk, write, tweet, watch or read. The last thing we need is for the Malaysian literati to lecture writers and readers on what's acceptable/better to consume!
No, Malaysian writers do not need to write about Malaysian characters leading Malaysian lives on Malaysian soil. Nor do Malaysian readers have the obligation to.
Writers should write what's in their hearts, whether it be bodice rippers, space operas or an experimental literary work that would make New York Times book reviewers swoon in ecstasy.
If you still insist on fretting abou something, then fret about this: We need to instil the freedom and joy that reading and writing brings and leave identity politics where it belongs: In a newspaper gathering mushrooms somewhere.
What we need to do is to give budding Malaysian creatives the freedom to explore what piques their interest and give them the tools to pursue it. Unfortunately, there are not many creative writing classes in Malaysia, and they're often dominated by folks who often tell you that your work is only deemed worthy if it's written in a certain style/genre/setting.
I really believe that once Malaysian creatives embrace this freedom, stories with our unique cultural identity will emerge naturally.
Meanwhile, kick back with a John Grisham or a Dan Brown and don't bloody feel guilty about it.
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.