Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Lessons from Sidney Sheldon

There's a lot one can learn from the late Sidney Sheldon.

Study his earlier works: Master of the Game, If Tomorrow Comes, The other side of Midnight. He keeps the pages turning with action, plot and compelling characters. And most importantly, he leaves a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter to keep the reader burning the midnight oil. And even though some of his scenarios are not so credible, they are still astounding with sheer vivacity and page-turning 'now why didn't I see that coming?' flow.

This man, after all, inspired Dan Brown to become a novelist!

But if you are a writer, there's one thing you should focus on if you're 'studying' Sheldon. The BACKSTORY.

Sheldon is the master of the backstory. Each of his characters have a compelling and utterly interesting backstory of how he or she got to be that way. Sheldon is the master of 'show' , not tell. He expands interesting parts, shrinks and fastforwards the rest and focuses on life defining events in each of his backstories.

Most of us have trouble writing the backstory. We end up with too much tell, not show. Not Sheldon. Take a leaf from him.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Star article rant on my reviews

I wrote this for Star newspaper today about how I feel on being the receiving end for reviews:

On the receiving end
Pop quiz: You’re a first-time book writer and you get a slew of reviews. How do you separate the brickbats from the bouquets?

Nothing in my 12 years of writing newspaper and magazine columns and receiving numerous Letters to the Editor (some of praise, some downright scathing) prepared me for my first book review.

You see, I’ve reviewed books before. And I never thought much of the act itself: “Like it”. “Hate it”. “Jeffrey Archer has lost his touch.” “Stephen King is getting more verbose than Tolstoy.”

But what happens when you are on the receiving end?

It takes an incredible effort to write a book. You spend months on it, years even, toiling over every word, fussing, rephrasing. You want people to like your book, or at least to find something to like about it. And then you find out this is not grade school. You don’t get an “A” for effort. In the real world, book reviewers are as brutal as . . . well, you.

Nowadays, before any book is published, most established writers get what they call “endorsements” from their writer friends. You’ve seen them, even on foreign paperbacks.

“I couldn’t put it down!” Dan Brown screams from the front cover of a new writer’s tome.

But it was my first book. I didn’t have any writer friends then. If I wanted those little blurbs for my back cover, I’d have to do it the hard way – getting the book reviewed by every trade paper and magazine.

“You’re very brave,” one of my writer friends said with a shudder. Most Malaysian writers do interviews to drum up publicity for their book; no reviews “because most of our press has a reputation for tearing Malaysian writers apart.” Yes, even Tash Aw. Especially Tash Aw. No offence meant; really, they tear foreign writers apart too.

But I was a pseudonym. I refused photo shoots. No photo shoot, the press declared, no interview.

She likes it, she likes it not

I couldn’t sleep the night before my first review. I tossed and turned, wondering: “Will she like it? What if she doesn’t like it?” And when morning came, I rushed out to the petrol station to get my free newspaper copy.

“What, you don’t have it here?” I lambasted my way to the next petrol station, wheels screeching like sound effects from The Fast and Furious. “What? Not here, either?”

Finally, I managed to grab a copy and devoured every word.
“Ah, she liked it.”
And then, re-reading it: “Gee, I wish she had liked it more.”

You see, you always wish they’d liked it more. In fact, it’s every writer’s dream they should like it “ecstatically”, with accolades like “I was on the edge of my seat, I couldn’t put it down”. Or, “Hail the new Dan Brown”.  (Dan Brown, by the way, gets the most awful reviews from the high-brow press. Not that he cares.)

So far, in the six months since I’ve launched Dark City, I’ve had reviews ranging from the most excellent:

“The author . . . is a master storyteller, with a fine insight into the human condition. This is one of the best fiction books to come out of Asia in 2006.” –

“Why you should read this book: It’s really good, that’s why. Xeus has tapped into urban paranoia and everyday life in KL to produce situations that will leave you uneasy, yet are not too fantastic to be brushed aside as merely unrealistic.” – The Malay Mail

. . . to the “I liked most of it” variety:

“Overall, a good read. Some stories telegraph their ending but remain entertaining. Everything is familiar, yet not so. This is the KL you fear to imagine.” – The Sun

“Even though some of the characters are not so believable, Dark City is a fun read with plenty of thrills to keep you engaged.” – Galaxie

. . . to the downright scathing:

“Dark City was not quite the promised and in turn expected “howl”; in fact, it registered just a notch north of whimper. – The Star (Bookshelf)


You sail gaily with the bouquets. You are crushed by the criticisms, so crushed – in fact – you rant for days to anyone who will listen. There’s this insistent voice in you: “Why didn’t I please everyone? Why didn’t I please that critic . . . the one who mattered?”

Once upon a time, that critic was me. And I know exactly how I felt then about a book – nothing personal. It’s just my opinion about something.

“Look at it this way,” consoles my friend, “you can’t please everyone all of the time. Think of it as your personal Rotten Tomatoes ( Out of 11 reviews, you’ve got nine positive (juicy red tomatoes), one on the fence and one definitely rotten tomato.

“That would’ve been 82% on your personal Tomato-meter. A heck of a lot better than most movies.”

And of course, that – like all critical reviews and even this article – is just someone’s opinion in a sea of opinions.

o Xeus welcomes short story contributions from would-be critics to the Dark City sequel. For more details, visit


Saturday, January 20, 2007

MPH Writer's Circle yesterday

The audience for the writer's circle is shrinking. There were a lot more people at the
last one I attended, many months ago. Now, there are barely more then a dozen. What's
happening? Most people who were there, like me and my husband, were supporting the speakers.

A great pity too, because yesterday's topic "Blogging for Writers" was particularly interesting. David Byke, who brought his family along for support, did a great job moderating the panelists: Sharon Bakar, Nizam Zakaria and Lydia Teh. I was hoping to see Ted too, but he wasn't around.

Anywhow, these are the take away points from the forum:

1. If you're a writer, it makes sense to blog.

2. Your blog can be a forum for you to
a) create publicity for yourself and your book
b) get in touch with your readers
c) solicit comments for yout stories, titles etc
d) run competitions
e) solicit editors and publishers who might be interested in your work. Sharon Bakar got her Star column that way. And apparently, a lot of writers were 'discovered' that way
f) network with other writers who might later collaborate with you. E.g: I met Tunku Halim, Jennifer Tai and a host of others this way.

Other things I have learnt which are supremely interesting to me:
1) Malay girls who wear 'tudung' form the bulk of Malay readers
2) Malay boys don't read as much!
3) The Malay demographic is still largely undiscovered. We know romances sell well, but o9ther genres have not been tried and tested.
4) A lot of people on My Space are Malay girls who wear tudung.
5) They can pay as much as RM 45,000 for a Malay telenovella script, which apparently can take only 2 weeks to write!

It was great to meet Tunku Halim again, though he had to rush off. I asked him if he managed to talk to my agent Jerry, and he did.

After that, Lydia, Eric, my husband and I went off for lunch at the very place Eric and I had dinner last week. I think Eric is stuffed to the gills with Shanghainese food! We talked about future projects and stuff, including some with my husband, and checked out Lydia's life sized standee, now greeting visitors to MPH at the entrance.

Pretty cool afternoon.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Editors and editing

My publisher was complaining to me about an editor he had engaged the other day.
He says, "_________ doesn't really do full editing. He/she just makes some remarks on
the side of the page. That isn't good enough. What about all the grammatical mistakes?"

And you know, he's right. There are many layers of editing:
1. Conceptual editing - where the editor comments on the story, the flow, the relevance of
certain segments and characters etc

2. Grammatical editing

Both are extremely important.

I'm more of a conceptual editor than grammatical one. That's why I still need the publisher
to hire one who can correct grammatical and typesetting mistakes.

A friend of mine was commenting on how one of the writers in Malaysia (with an ego to boot)
was criticising his editor. "If (the editor) was a good enough editor, he/she would have
caught this, and then I wouldn't have to rewrite the whole segment."

I think that's extremely unfair of the writer. Editing, like writing and reading, is a matter of taste.

Then again, I have heard stories of some editors who won't go the mile. And yet they will charge you for going the mile!

Any experiences, either personal or through your friends?

Monday, January 08, 2007

My first royalty check!

Just got my first royalty check today! So exciting. I know what Yvonne Lee meant now
when she
said "It's an immensely satisfying feeling, more satisfying than anything you've ever earned 
in your whole life, even though it's not much."
Know what I'm going to do with it?

After deducting my agent's fee and the part of my medical bills not covered by insurance (transportation, flights etc), I'm going to donate to charity. I have already identified 2 causes, 1 for AWAM, because that's a cause hardly anyone wants to donate to,  and 1 for a friend who has been so brave and has struggled so much with medical bills.

I just feel I have been so blessed with so much, that I never knew what I had until it's been taken away (a.k.a being paralysed temporarily.) So I'm going to help others less fortunate
than I am.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Malaysia Oasis review and Blogger's Breakfast Club correction

Sorry everyone, I made a mistake. The MPH Bloggers Breakfast Club's first meeting will be held on Jan 27th from 11am-12.30pm at the new MPH outlet at Bangsar Village Phase II, 11am-12.30pm, and will feature Yang-May Ooi and Sharanya Manivaran, two successful bloggers-cum-writers.

I cut and pasted the message straight from the email I got from MPH without checking the website. Thanks everyone - Lydia and Anon - who pointed it out.

Anyway, after the WORST REVIEW I EVER GOT (see Star review below), I received a really nice one - yet to be put up - on . This is an extension of the Thai Oasis website I blogged about earlier, only they haven't put up their Malaysian fiction section yet.

This will be what they will put up:

Dark City: Psychotic and other Twisted Malaysian Tales (2006, ISBN 983-3526-25-X) is an apt description of the exceptional fiction of Xeus, the pen name of an MD who has been writing in Malaysia for over ten years. While unmistakably Malaysian in setting, the author draws on tortured minds common to all cultures. “The Scarlet Woman” is a funny, bittersweet, and ultimately Oedipal coming-of age story. Even more disturbing is “The Maid”, only superficially about low-paid immigrant workers. “Monster” involves a spoiled, badly behaved child who receives comeuppance that can only have been described by someone who’s spent some time dwelling on such children. The author, who chooses to remain anonymous for professional reasons, is a master storyteller, with a fine insight into the human condition. This is one of the best fiction books to come out of Asia in 2006. To discover more, visit Xeus’ blog at:

Geoff Alexander, CEO
Oasis Media, LLC

And Eric Forbes was really adamant about liking my writing. I kept prodding him, studying his facial features and asking "Are you sure, Eric? I'm pretty low-brow for what you usually read and like. " But he remained stolidly gracious (what a sweetie) and gave me this blurb to put into my 3rd printing edition.

"Who says the short story is dead? Xeus has concocted a rich broth of a collection in Dark City. These stories are the stuff of everyday life, all written in her inimitable style and with a clarity that is both visual and visceral at the same time. She exposes the murkiness that lurks beneath life's apparent ordinariness."

Eric Forbes, Editor, MPH Publishing


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Not dark enough, hmmmm, and other updates

My publisher just called to say he has to run an urgent 2nd printing to supply the National Library, and unfortunately, he has to use back the old cover, without all the review and endorsement snippets I want to put in. I asked him if he could wait...but apparently not. He has supply within the week, and making new films would take at least 2 more weeks.

So we agreed to limit it to the minimum print run - 1000 copies.

You see, I really HAVE to change the cover and the blurbs, to avoid not meeting expectations like these:

This came out in the Star today. Took me totally by surprise because it's so late.

Not dark enough

Dark City
Author: Xeus
Publisher: Midnight Press, 353 pages
Reviewer: Anu Nathan

I PROCRASTINATED ... hugely, with this book. My only excuse is that I was given the book during the month of the hungry ghost and due to the heavy diet of scary movies, Dark City was left to languish a lot longer than I had expected on the shelf.

Then one day, it dropped from the bookshelf onto my foot, reminding me of its existence. This, I thought, was spooky enough to get me to turn the pages. (If this were a movie, here is where the howling wind sound effects would be played to great effect).

Tagged as “12 psychotic and twisted Malaysian tales”, Dark City promised more by saying, “expect only the unexpected.” The back cover meanwhile screamed, “Tightly plotted with sophisticated savagery, this is a homicidal descent into a labyrinth of bizarre dimensions.” After this quite over-the-top introduction, it was with some trepidation that I flipped the page, only to ... yawn ... because Dark City doesn’t quite live up to these lofty guarantees.

The twisted here didn't necessarily mean warped. In some cases, it was merely an ending with a twist but to those of us (in this case me), weaned on a diet of Edgar Alan Poe and Roald Dahl (his short stories are the epitome of twisted tales, plus September was Dahl month which meant I had been re-reading a lot of his stuff), Dark City was not quite the promised and in turn expected “howl”; in fact it registered just a notch north of “whimper.”

Xeus is an adept writer, weaving the darker elements of society, serial killers, the dangers of a woman walking alone at night, to greed, lust and their five accompanying sins with great effect to tell her “tall tales.” Unfortunately, it didn’t thrill me that I could guess the endings to some of them, in particular the one about the dog and that of the crippled beggar boy. These seemed the likely two that the author had alluded to in her introduction as the ones based on urban legends. I was also peeved by spelling errors (what on earth is “nice dugs” in reference to a woman with ample mounds) and verbose text.

Still, the author deserves credit for trying to tackle a particularly difficult genre, because it is not always easy to work a credible twist into a story, especially in this era where we are inundated with first class movies like Sixth Sense and a mountain of excellent literature in this popular genre. Plus, Xeus gets an extra bonus for publishing her collection, which is in itself a brave act.

I may have not bonded with all of the stories in Dark City, but I did have my personal favourites and these are “Psychotic” – never mess with a lady with a big bag, “One if by Land” where a prisoner finds that his sure-fire way out of jail only leads to another sort of internment, and even though I knew how it would end, “Coup of the Century”. Now, you’ll just have to get the book to see if you agree with me.

Hmmm, I can still take some quotable quotes from this, but there really is such a term as 'dugs', just in case anyone out there doesn't know. It's a vulgar term for breasts. And there are NO spelling mistakes whatsoever, that I can ascertain. (Typesetting mistakes, yes, but not many.) Right, my esteemed editor?

Then again, you see how important the cover and blurb is to manage expectations? That's why I really got to get that 3rd print run sorted out. If there ever will be a 3rd print run after this review.

On to other news:

1. MPH really is going for the Bloggers' Breakfast Club.

This is what I got from them:

The Bloggers Breakfast Club is a support group for book bloggers. Each session is held every fourth Saturday of each month from 11am-12.30pm at our new MPH outlet at Bangsar Village Phase II. This meet will be an informal session where book bloggers can get together and discuss latest happenings in the book world. The first meet is scheduled on 27th Feb, 11am-12.30pm, and will feature Yang-May Ooi and Sharanya Manivaran, two successful bloggers-cum-writers.

So, go for it guys!

2. Malay translators needed!! Since my 2nd Malay translator fell through, I've phoned in a few Malay friends to help with the DC Malay translation. And apparently, my publisher is also looking for one for his other books. Anyone interested? It's quite good pay, so I'm told, especially if you're looking for a little sideline.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Honk! is a success!

Went to 1 Utama yesterday, and Lydia's book had already sold 20 copies within its 1st week! 
That's 4 more than I did during my first week. Honk! is on its way to becoming an superbestseller!!

Congrats Lydia! I'm so proud to be associated with your book. My blurb for it would have been:
"Lydia writes with satirical wit and humour on situations that are clearly recognisable to any Malaysian, or indeed, any family. Particularly poignant and hilarious are her family scenes."

Anyhow, head over to Lydia's blog because she's running this contest

1. If you have read Honk! If You’re Malaysian, say a few nice words on your blog. If they’re not so nice, please make them constructive. If you don’t have a blog, post your mini-review in hercomment box.


2. Just spread word of this contest and provide a link back to this post.

Prizes galore at her blog!

Closing Date

Friday, 19 January 2007. Winner announcement will be made within a week of closing date.

So what are you waiting for? Head on over.