Saturday, February 24, 2007

The first Malaysian lit bloggers club (and other stuff)

I came to the first Malaysian lit bloggers' club (check out the wonderful poster design from Kenny Mah) to meet Yang May Ooi and other friends. I arrived late because I'd been stuck in the bank earlier, but just in time to hear Yang May Ooi wrap up with some words of wisdom. After that, Sharanya came on. I don't know much about poetry, but she sure writes beautiful and emotionally impactful prose.

After that, it was all networking and gleaning words of wisdom. Things I have learnt:

1. The UK publishing market - ah yes, they love Asian fiction. But they tend to pigeon-hole you. They want the exotic east. They want chinoiserie. They want the requisite English or semi-English guy caught in the middle of a war in a distant country. Write that well (see the 'Gift of Rain' by Tan Twan Eng) and you stand a good chance of being published in the UK.

2. Yang May Ooi's book 'The Flame Tree' has sold 10,000 copies worldwide to date. After H and D stopped reprinting it, she sought permission to publish it under her own imprint. She says "You can't make a living from writing, even if you're published in the UK." So she's gone back partially to do law.

This brings to mind John Grisham's first book, 'A Time to Kill', which only sold 5000 copies at first run. And Dan Brown's 'Digital Fortress,' which only had 10,000 copies in print at first go. And then 'The Firm' and 'Da Vinci Code' exploded. 'Digital Fortress' subsequently sold 10 million copies.

So hang in there, Yang May Ooi. It didn't happen for Dan until the 4th book!

You know what happens when a bunch of writers and editors get together? They talk shop and - wham! - ideas happen!

I was telling Sharon that after receiving 40 over entries for Dark City 2, when I gave feedback to the young, would-be writers on how to improve their stories, many of them were surprised. "No one ever told me!" "Oh, I didn't know I was doing this." "I didn't know we were not supposed to do this."

Sharon was very concerned over the quality of local writing. "We're not at that level yet," she says. When you pick up a UK book, you know it's gone through fire. It was picked against all that slush, and so it HAS to be good. When you pick up a Malaysian book, you're not sure if it's gone through that fire.

So the two ideas melded but the objective remains the same: TO RAISE MALAYSIAN WRITERS TO THE NEXT LEVEL, AND THEN THE NEXT.

What do we do about it?

ANSWER: We have a critic's/beta-reading circle. Aspiring writers can send their work to this circle, be critiqued and then set (hopefully) onto the right direction.

There are still so many common mistakes I find that writers make when they send their work in (having turned editor myself):

1. They send something that is not grammatically perfect
2. They fail to outline their plot, so it's all over the place
3. They fail to start at the most exciting part. (Only in Chapter 2 should the Back Story of how the character got there come in).
4. Their opening sentence fails to grip the reader.
5. They tell too much, not show. (Even the most experienced of writers are guilty of this, meaning we always need a fresh pair of eyes to look at our work.)
6. They meander, writing passages that have nothing to do with the story. They put in too many words and sentences, not realising that 'more is less.' And that you should tell the story in as few words and sentences as possible.
7. They pack overly complex sentences, thinking that as a writer, they are compelled to do this. (one sentence, Eric says, lasted an entire page!) They fail to understand that unless you ahve reached the level of a Faulkner or Fitzgerald, simple sentences work best.
8. They write out of their dept. They want to write about things they don't know that much about. The answer is research. For example, when you want to write about the Vatican, you'd best make sure you've either a) visited it, or b) researched it thoroughly in books.
9. They have characters throw tantrums and scream at each other all the time, not realising this is a no-no in fiction writing.
10. They are very cliched in their similes, comparisons or even building characters. A wife should not always be nagging. A boss should not always be snappy. A villain should not always laugh maniacally at the end of each threat.

There are many, many more.

And so, would you be interested in such a circle/cum writing class? There is one on the net, but it requires you to publish your work online. (Which might not be so acceptable to some publishing houses.) Because the only way to improve is to be critiqued. And be critiqued by someone who understands YOUR genre, who'd stack you against the best of the best. (And this can only happen in a CIRCLE, not with a single editor.)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Multi character story arcs

I must say I've gotten addicted to Heroes on StarWorld. The premise is simple - a selection of everyday people suddenly find they have superpowers. What do they do with them? Do they tell their best friend? Do they try to do good? Or are they more involved in using their newfound powers for their own gains?

As the series evolves, the heroes find they are not the people they started out as, and they are part of a greater evolutionary whole.

What makes Heroes so compelling is that you can see yourself or your friends in a bit of every character. You have:

1. characters who use their powers for personal gain - the funniest of them all, Hiro Nakamura from Tokyo, who speaks only Japanese (subtitled), teleports into a women's toilet and uses his time freezing abilities to cheat at casinos. But all the same, he genuinely cares about stopping
New York from Armageddon.

2. characters who are genuinely concerned about helping other people - the LA cop, Matt, starts off as a do-gooder. But his telepathy lands him into trouble instead. The other cops think he's the 
serial killer who has been removing people's skulls, otherwise how does he know so much 
about what's happening around him? Later on, he gets smarter, decides do-gooding is not all that it's cut out to be and uses his telepathy to help him understand his wife better (thus, personal gain.)

I like the way none of these characters are pigeon-holed into their niches.

So what can we learn from the multi-character arcs in Heroes?

1. Establish wonderful, identifiable characters, all with good points and flaws of their own. You reader must be able to identify with them - the worried mother (who happens to be a stripper), the cheerleader who just wants to be normal and to find her real parents, the druggie painter who chooses to do something about the future, the good-hearted hospice nurse and his sleazy politician brother etc.

None of them are larger than life a.k.a Batman.

2. Don't reveal too much about the backstory of each character from the onset. Part of the suspense for the viewer is discovering them. Heroes has an episode titled '6 months ago' where much of the backstories are explained. It only comes on after Episode 10!

3. There must be a central unifying character with all these other characters. In Heroes, this is the dishy Indian professor from Calcutta, Mohinder Suresh, who flies to New York to uncover the secrets behind his father's life and death. 
He introduces us all to the concepts and characters of Heroes so we're never lost.

4. After the 2nd episode (or chapter), your characters all have established themselves and you 
can fly them off on their own story arcs without worrying that the audience will be lost. Hey, this works too for the Amazing Race!

5. There must be one major overlying story arc for all the characters to work to. In Heroes, it is New York going into Armageddon on Nov 18th, 1 month after the story starts.

There is so much we can learn from hit TV series.

How would you establish your book with multi character arcs?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Are author appearances useful for marketing your book?

I'm still divided about this really. You see, the most useful marketing tools I have found in 
marketing my book are:

1. Bookstore display - you've got to get your books out there at shelf eye level.

2. Cover art and review snippets - goes without saying.

3. Newspaper exposure - not even magazines have the impact of a Star newspaper article.

I have never really sold very much from author appearances, such as from book talks or other gatherings. Lydia will blog about her book talks later (and oh, she's appearing today in MPH MidValley at 3 pm, so be there if you can).

Your friends turn up to support you, and they already have your book. (Or else they buy some more copies to support you, and then you feel pai seh.) But you don't really attract the bookstore crowd unless you're telling them about how to read face feng shui or Sudoku or if you're a famous children's writer. And even if you do attract a crowd, it's not guaranteed they buy.

Meanwhile, you end up spending more than you get. Don't forget, you have to drive to the shopping mall (petrol money $$), pay for parking, probably buy a few trinkets to give away. And you're doing this all to just earn 10% of the very few books you sold.

You can argue that the bookstore will give you more visible display for that day and order a whole lot more of your books. This is true, but then it comes down to DISPLAY again, and not your actual author appearance.

I don't know. I'm still terribly divided about this.

On the other hand, I have received over 25 entries already for Dark City 2. I'm taking some of them after fine tuning. Closing date is Feb 28th. Please keep them coming.