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.)


Lydia Teh said...

Xeus, thanks for writing about it. Hey, it's nice to talk shop about writing.

We do have a few groups where we're supposed to post our writing but I think when membership becomes too big, it's kinda intimidating to do it. Nobody on Word Up or Msian Writers Digest (the one started by Amir Muhammad) or even Sharon's writing class (other than Ted and Philipp) post any stories.

I'm wary of letting others critique my work. I can count the no. of times I've sent out work to be critiqued. Perhaps it is the fear of getting criticism or laziness in having to rewrite. But then again fresh insight by others can be invaluable in improving a piece of writing. I would want at least two types of people to be in this circle : someone good in writing this genre and the typical reader.

Anonymous said...

Key Lydia, we missed you yesterday. Your suggestion about having 2 different people in the circle is really good.

I think we have to be trained on the way we critique a work as well, so that the writer doesn't lose heart.


Kenny Mah said...

It was a pleasure meeting you yesterday, and I do hope we will have opportunities to work together in the future. Your idea for a beta-reading/critque group is good, but there needs to be a team of committed critics/editors/veteran writers on board.

I believe this helps young writers like myself to know that this team are serious about improving our writing. Fear will be lessened once these would-be writers realise that the feedback is meant to be constructive and not personal.

The flip side of the coin is that new writers must have thicker skin and be willing to accept criticism and not be afraid to put their work out there. Not easy, I know, for it took me awhile before I took my first step (showing my writing to others), but I'm glad I did it.

Jenn said...

Sigh, why all these things start when I'm all the way over here LOL. It's so nice to be able to network and talk with other struggling writers. This is what I lack here, all by my lonesome. The Internet is fine but nothing beats shooting the breeze with the like-minded (and having your ideas shot down) hehe.

Ah well.

Xeus said...

Good points, Kenny. It was great to meet you. I actually have another illustrative proposition for you...I need a couple of strange drwaings for the current book I'm writing - and the drawings have to be kind of like a message to be deciphered. I know exectly what is needed inside...just need someone to render it.

And of course, there's the cover for Dark City 2! Pl email me at my gmail addy and we can talk some more.

Jenn, you can always be a part of us virtually. Critiques are usually done by email so you can be part of the circle as both a critic and a writer.

Lydia Teh said...

Kenny, you may have gotten yourself another career, what fun, and it all started via blogging.

tunku halim said...

This is a really good idea and distance is not a problem. The difficulty I reckon is trying to organise the thing.

I actually favour mentoring. Team up a less experienced writer with a more experienced one for a few weeks. It's more personal, less daunting, more honest.

Jenn said...

Would love to be a part of this. Keep me posted!

Kenny Mah said...

Thanks for your call. I'm real excited at what we can do together.

And yes, Lydia, it's amazing all this came from blogging in such a short space of time.

Tunku and Jenn, it sounds like we have some members on board already. I feel like a young Padawan ready to be guided by my Jedi master... :)

bibliobibuli said...

good girl for posting this. will need very careful organising.

Xeus said...

TH, very interesting idea. Mentorship. I suppose you can mentor from Australia is too easy nowadays.

Kenny, when young directors and special effects people want to break into Hollywood, they are always given one piece of advice - "Work for free." Then the big houses like ILM and Dreamworks and Pixar will take you on. Later on, you will get a job.

Your case seems to be the same thing too! Because you are so generous to design and help Lydia and MPH with the banner and other things, other people began to notice your talent. And this brought you on to more recognition and jobs. See? It is indeed very blessed to give!

Bib, the objective is all there. We all just need to work out the details. Need many brains here to brainstorm on the best path!

Kenny Mah said...

Indeed it is blessed to give! :) And thanks, everyone, for all the support!

JY said...

Hey, I don't know where I stand as I'm not a published author but a former newspaper/magazine writer & copy editor.

However, I can help administrate a writing/critiques circle but someone else has to do the software stuff.

Here's how it can work: Folk have to apply to join for free. Whoever sends in a story or passage to be critiqued and whoever sends in a critique of it - everyone else on the list will receive them by email.

Members can choose which ones to critique, but they'll need to critique at least twice a month and send in their own work (say, a chapter or part of it) at least once a month.

What say y'all? Workable?


Lydia Teh said...

Argus, that's a workable idea. Would members get to read the critiques of the others?

I'd say you're the perfect candidate as administrator given your background.

Sorry, I can't offer to handle software, I'm a techno geek.

Xeus said...

Argus, that's a splendid idea. I wonder if Bib will be the software administrator....hee hee. She's good at tech stuff.

Lydia, Argus is indeed a very good editor. Whenever I need grammar editing, I feel very safe with her, knowing she'll catch the slightest punctuation mistake.

JY said...

Yes, Lydia, everyone would get both the original passages and the critiques.

Thanks, Xeus, for the vote of confidence. ;:)"?!-,. (Pick a punctuation mark, any punctuation mark... lots more where they came from.)

If Bib or someone else would volunteer to handle the software, I'd be happy to oversee the other stuff. Like Lydia, I'm a techno-brontosaurus that's only good for a bak-kut-teh pot.
Best regards to all,