June 30, 2012, was my last day at The Star, the newspaper that I've worked for as a journalist for 12 over years. This decision did not come easily as I loved my colleagues and bosses and the work that I do. I was also hugely aware of the privilege I have - that I could work as a journalist at a time when thousands of journalists are losing their jobs left and right in the West.Read More
She was sleeping at the corner of Spencer Street and Flinders Street, her back to the wall of the 7-11. She had curled up in a fetal position under her bright blue sleeping bag. Beside her was a red suitcase. It looked new.
I could see the tear tracks on her pale cheeks. The sign she had with her was nearly covered by her sleeping bag, but I could read the message. In fact, I don't think I'd be able to forget what she wrote on that piece of cardboard:
"Help. I'm 21-years-old and pregnant. I need $150 to sleep somewhere safe tonight."Read More
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.
Wow, I have to say that I have been extremely tardy with my blog writing. Life has really taken over me in an insane way. But I was looking over my old post, Why I quit my job to move to Australia, and realise that I need to seriously update you with what's been happening in my life.
In that post I wrote some of the goals I want to achieve during my time in Australia:
1. I will be studying and upgrading my skills: Goal achieved!
I am now a qualified nursing assistant/care worker. I work around 80 hours a fortnight. Although I feel so blessed (in Australia, you're happy to get hours to work!) it's a physically demanding job. In an eight-hour working day, I can easily walk up to 7km! I have to also lift a lot, so I sure have a good workout on the job. Needless to say, my body ached so much when I first started as a care worker!
Now, we are not nurses per se (though the residents/patients often call us that!) but we support nurses in their jobs. We basically do things like catheter care, pressure area care (patients need to be turned so that they don't develop bedsores), feed patients, change their continence aids and help them with showers etc. Some people think it's a dirty and lowly job, but I found that it has given me a good idea how nursing works and has given me invaluable experience in helping others.
I now know how to deal with people suffering from dementia and how to give palliative care. Seriously, I don't know what job that exposes me to the workings of healthcare without years and years of study! If you want to gain experience before embracing a health care career, being a care worker is the way to go. Many of my colleagues went on to study nursing, medicine, pathology and yes, occupational therapy, something I hope to do one day.
While my new career is occupying most of my time, I'm still developing my writing. I've been taking online writing classes with prolific writer Dean W Smith because I like his practical lessons and no-nonsense approach to writing. Writing is not something you do when "inspiration hits". After 13 years as a journalist, I realise it is also very much about time management, learning new techniques and overcoming your personal demons, believe it or not. Writing fiction, however, demands a whole new set of skills. And to my surprise, I had to get over a few psychological hurdles before becoming an effective fiction writer. To be honest, I am not there yet, but I have managed to speed up my writing considerably.
2. I would like to get Australian working experience: Achieved!
Best of all, I have colleagues from around the world. China, Nigeria, Botswana, Australia, Indonesia ... it made me realise how underexposed we Malaysians are to people from other countries. I'm such good friends with my African colleagues that when I read articles like this (Profiling Africans is crazy, says Minister) I feel really ashamed of being Malaysian. I also remember how suspicious Malaysians are of foreigners and realise that Australians are extremely welcoming in comparison. Dear Malaysia, we have a long way to go.
3. I want to travel: Sorta!
I was too busy working to travel too much, but I visited places such as Carrackalinga, Hahndorf and McLaren Vale. Gorgeous, all of them! Next year, I plan to take a few weeks off to visit New Zealand :)
You can listen to the interview in its entirety at the 891 Book Club Archives.
It was an interesting experience, being on a radio show. Especially if you're the one being interviewed! I'll tell you the truth - my heart was pounding when they asked me questions about the book because I read the book over two years ago and had to refresh my memory about the details.
(The interview happened because 891 Afternoons presenter Sonya Feldhoff came across my post about my visit to the set of Life of Pi when I was a journalist.)
The ABC radio offices is quite polished, and it was fascinating to watch the studio operate. On one side is the presenter and guests with their mikes and earphones, on the other are these people operating switchboards and computers.
Outside the glass-encased studio is a regular office where I assume the journalists work. Ah, how I missed that world!
I was ushered into the glass-encased studio, asked to put on the headphones and sit in front of the mike. I felt as if I was going to sit for an exam!
Still, my bestie in Malaysia said she could see me via the web telecast of the show and said I was just fine. Well, you be the judge!
You can listen to the interview at the 891 Bookclub archives here:
This is what this episode is about according to the 891 Bookclub website:
It was a special thrill in our 891 Book Club to welcome one of the authors whose book we are focussing on this month. Karen Lord from the Caribbean was in the studio to personally discuss her book "Redemption in Indigo", which has been described as a modern day fairytale.
And it was interesting to hear her describe how she fleshed out the fool in her book, a character rarely afforded such attention.
Our other book in the spotlight is now a much loved modern classic.
I must be one of the few book lovers who somehow missed reading "Life of Pi" in the first few years after it won the Mann Booker Prize but it's been wonderful to finally catch up on it for our 891 Book Club.
Timely too, with Ang Lee winning the Best Director Oscar this week for his movie version of "Life of PI". I managed to track down and welcome to the studio Elizabeth Tai, a freelance writer, who has not only reviewed the book before but visited the movie set in Taiwan to interview Ang Lee.