Friday, October 31, 2008

Building characters in an extraordinary setting

I thought this was really interesting:

Amazing stories need great characters. And when you're writing a story set in a futuristic or fantastical world, it's more important than ever for readers to be able to relate to your characters. It's also harder than ever, because your characters' lives and experiences will be totally different than your readers'. How do you make people identify with someone who lives in the future, or on another planet? How can your main character stand out, against a bizarre and colorful backdrop? We asked six great science fiction authors for their advice.

1. Get to know them as individuals, rather than types. If your characters are cut off from all the present-day cultural references, like "lawyer who went to Harvard," then it's even more important to think of them as individuals, says Elizabeth Bear, Campbell- and Hugo-winning author of Carnival and Undertow. "Try very hard to know them as people," she urges. "That goes for any setting, past or present or future — or alternate reality."
In particular, you should think, "'This is a person who happens to have the following traits, and all that they imply,' rather than 'this is a nuclear physicist who grew up in Iowa.'"

2. Try making your characters scientists. Or at least, have them be obsessed with stuff that's relavant to your storyline, advises Kim Stanley Robinson, Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of the Mars trilogy and the Science In The Capital series. Having scientists as your characters lets you "explore the setting and the character at once." And it helps if your characters obsess about the mysteries and explanations in your story. They can also be obsessed with a planet, spaceship, new procedure or alien.

3. Base them on people you know. The most realistic characters are often based closely on your friends or people you've met, says Rudy Rucker, Philip K. Dick-winning author of the -Ware novels and Postsingular. That goes double for your aliens, A.I.s and robots, he adds. It's always better to copy your friends than to lift from "received ideas about how SF characters might behave. Who wants to see yet another a humorless talking head with a BBC accent? The absolute worst thing in Matrix III was when Keanu gets to the virtual office of the Big Computer Mind, and he meets, like, a tweedy professor with a white beard. Ugh! At the very least it should have been a fat hacker in a T-shirt, preferably high on pineal extract." Also: to make your characters stand out, try having them say quirky, unexpected things. "Forget your Star Trek memories, and remember your wild and crazy friends — the ones who say things that Make No Sense," Rucker advises.

4. Give them a thought-out world. The more carefully thought out the world you're placing your characters into, the more we'll be able to believe that they live there, says Tobias Buckell, author of Sly Mongoose. And that also makes it easier to "contrast them against this imaginary place."
Figure out what they love, and what they fear. Try to find what drives your characters, including what they want and need, Bear urges. And understand what traumatizes them. "I tell people I like to know what they'd want on their tombstone: that seems to give me a really good handle on who they are."
She adds:
Characters we can relate to have fears and damage, but moreover, for me they have to be devoted to something — an ideal, a person, whatever. Even villains become much more sympathetic when we're introduced to whatever it is that they love.
Kage Baker, author of the Company novels, agrees: "It isn't the way a person relates to his hovercar that makes him memorable; it's what's going on in his heart." No matter what planet or time you're living in, there will be "certain constants in human existence: struggle against poverty, rebellion against authority, love and desire, loneliness, curiosity. Any reader can relate to those." Make sure your character has loves and hatreds that readers can see themselves in, and the rest will take care of itself.

5. Don't aim for larger-than-life — and overshoot. One pitfall with science fiction characters is that authors sometimes make their characters "bigger than life, or archetypal" to let them compete with the big, brash colorful worlds they live in. A common mistake is veering past archetypal, all the way into "over the top, or maybe somewhat cliche." If you do try for archetypal characters, think of the classics from all genres, like Sherlock Holmes' quirky genius or Captain Ahab's drive.

6. Don't obsess too much about setting and toys. If you spend pages and pages on dense descriptions of your settings and how exactly your hovercar works, you're distracting the reader from your characters, says Baker.
It's enough to say "He climbed into his hovercar" and your reader will get the idea. You don't need to give a geography lesson: "They were sitting in the courtyard drinking fire-palm wine" or "She trudged back from the well, balancing her water jar" or "They looked out across the desert and saw the yellow mountains of Califia before them" all give brief, intense impressions of a place, without stopping the narrative in its tracks or drawing focus from the main character.
Find out who's hurting. If your story involves a new situation or technological breakthrough, figure out who suffers as a result — maybe that should be your main character, says Robinson, quoting from Damon Knight (who was quoting James Blish in turn.)

7. Keep your characters grounded. The stranger the setting, the more ordinary your characters should be, says Terry Bisson, Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of Bears Discover Fire. "For example, in my most recent story, the narrator 'had a job and an apartment, but that was all.' The story wasn't about the setting but about the character."
Your characters should be "totally convinced they live in the present, rather than the future. Because, of course, it IS the present to them," says David J. Williams, author of The Mirrored Heavens. Make sure your world, and your characters, both have a believable past, that anchors their present. "As Gibson said, the future's already here, it's just unevenly distributed. Same is true for the past: it's always with us, but sometimes beneath the surface. How one handles that is the key to character."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Myanmar experience

Count your blessings
Cyclone-ravaged Myanmar changed our writer’s perception of life. She compares and contrasts life in Myanmar with Malaysia.

I take my life for granted. I do, I really do, and this is not meant to be another mouthpiece about how great it is to be Malaysian.
But we have been bitching recently about how hard our lives are without joyrides from Kuala Lumpur to Kajang in our 3,000cc four-wheel drives and European holidays that I thought I’d do a reality check.
It struck home when I visited Myanmar. Life in pre-cyclone Myanmar was tough by Malaysian standards; life post-cyclone is even harder. In Yangon, collapsed roofs and grates of government buildings remained unrepaired. Fences were smashed by trees. Pavements had holes as big as rain puddles.
“When are they going to be repaired?” I asked a Myanmarese friend.
“When the government has money,” she says, “which is not likely to be anytime soon.”

On electricity

I never realised how much we take electricity for granted. At home, whenever there is an outage, we’re on our phones immediately to Tenaga Nasional, screaming murder.
While visiting a shop in Yangon, the overhead fluorescent light suddenly dimmed. It sputtered, went dark completely, then came on again.
“Electrical outage?” I said knowingly.
“It’s our generator,” the shop owner informed me. “It’s been giving problems of late.”
“Why do you have generators?” I asked.
“Because in Myanmar, electricity is erratic. Not all areas have electricity and most of us have to pay for our own generators. There’s enough electricity to go round during the monsoon when the rivers swell and there is plenty of water to turn the hydroelectric turbines, but during the dry season, there isn’t enough power to go round. Even water is erratic. During the cyclone, there was no electricity and water for days. We had to depend on well water.”
“When looking for an apartment or house,” my friend chimed in, “we always try to seek a location where there’s water and electricity. You have to pay more for those apartments.”
The good thing about those apartments is that they are not costly by Malaysian standards. An average apartment in a good area costs around US$20,000-US$40,000 (RM64,600-RM129,200). But most people don’t earn that kind of money.
The government sector doles out a measly pay, as little as under US$3 (RM10) a month, although they don’t tax you. The private sector pays better, though you’d have to pay significant taxes.
There are no bank loans in Myanmar. Everything is paid by cash. To pay for an apartment, most sellers prefer to see money on the table — take it or leave it.

The kyat

The highest denomination of Myanmar currency is 1,000 Kyat, roughly equivalent to US$ 0.85 (RM3), though the rate fluctuates daily.
To get around the city, you’d have to have plenty of banknotes. The price of meals is roughly the equivalent of what you’d get in Malaysia — a bowl of curry noodles costs around US$1.20 (RM4), depending on its size. But if you contrast that to what the average Myanmar citizen gets, it’s a wonder anyone gets to eat out.
But most Myanmar people don’t go out much at all.
“It’s a habit from our curfew days,” said my friend. “You go to work and hurry home before it gets dark.”
Though homeless, this Myanmarese boy manages a smile. - AP
No expense, however, is spared for the temples — the ones I’ve seen in Yangon and Mandalay have Buddha statues and pagodas adorned with gold leaf.
You can buy four tiny wafer-thin ones for 1,500 kyat. Devotees stick these gold leaves onto statues. Collection boxes are rife everywhere, especially temples — Myanmar is a country of charity.
“And no wonder,” remarked an acquaintance, “if our government is not going to help us, who can we depend on but each other?”
But do not begrudge the temples and monks their relative wealth. The monks are everywhere, helping the needy. Foreigners are not allowed into the Irrawady Delta, the hardest cyclone-hit, but the Myanmarese showed me video clips. The monks are there, tending to the sick, swathing bandages over leg ulcers as big as saucers.
When my Myanmar friends asked me what I thought of Yangon and Mandalay, I told them truthfully both were beautiful cities, and the palaces and pagodas were splendid in the clean, relatively haze-free air. In fact, Yangon reminded me a lot of Penang and Ipoh.
The streets are broad, the houses colonial; there are plenty of umbrella trees providing much-needed shade. But that’s where similarities end. In Myanmar, the cars are sparser and there are few traffic jams. The roads and pavements are bumpy and broken; I have to watch where I tread every step of the way.
“There is no maintenance whatsoever,” my friend declared. “There simply isn’t enough money.”
Nor is a car easy to own. A normal sedan is costlier here than in Malaysia.
“If you want a Honda Accord, you’ll have to fork out US$70,000 (RM226,000) for it. On top of that, you have to pay US$80,000 (RM258,000) for a new car licence.”
That is why most citizens drive ancient, sputtering cars.
The concept of car maintenance is virtually unknown.
“When your car breaks down, then only will you repair it,” said my friend.


There are no motorcycles in Yangon. A top Junta general’s car got hit by a motorbike, the story goes, and he outlawed motorbikes in Yangon from then on. Public transport is extremely bad — buses are frequently late, dusty and dirty.
Tuk-tuks ply the road, ferrying passengers in the dust; sometimes as many as 20 people cling on to an open tuk-tuk meant for 10.
How is it, if one earns as little as US$3 a month, that one survives at all?
“Government servants take on extra jobs after hours,” my friend said. “It’s common to work two or even three jobs just to make enough to feed your family.”
Corruption in the government is rife; most do it just to survive. There is not enough government money to go around because of the economic sanctions placed on the Junta by lofty countries.
When there are sanctions, it is the average citizen who suffers.
I commented on how nice and polite most Myanmar workers were.
“They have to be,” my friend said. “They’re afraid of being sent back to Myanmar, so they’re always on their best behaviour and try to make themselves as ‘untroublesome’ as possible.”
In the end, the average Myanmar citizen still survives.
“We do not need much to be happy,” someone told me. “We are content with what we have and do not ask for much. And we are still happier than what most people in some so-called richer countries are.”

Friday, July 11, 2008

Galaxie review

My editor Nitha kindly sent this copy because as usual I missed it as I was not in the country.

GALAXIE MAY 15-31, 2008

For a brief moment when I got this book, I thought Dark City 2 was a collection of horror stories. So it was an unexpected treat to find it was anything but and so much more. This collection combines stories that are decidedly macabre (Till Death), suspenseful (Strong Chemistry), fiendish (Death Dealer) and most of all disturbing. The stories contain many surprises and twists. What's really cool about Dark City 2 is how familiar Malaysian scenes are ordinary things are creepily skewed. One peculiar story about a vengeful Hawker Man will ensure the next time you pass one i a dark alley, you'll make a hasty retreat. Reading Dark City 2 is like spinning a wheel of good fortune in that you're never sure what's coming next. You could be reading about a Good Nurse who goes beyond the call of duty for a modest extra income one minute and a photgrapher (open Shutter) who captures the unexpected the next. Even the easiest reads like All in a Day's Work and Dad have perplexing plot twists. So go ahead and take a walk on the dark side...if you dare. Geraldine Jeremiah

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chick lit

Haven't blogged in a long time, I know - too much travelling, too tired. Doing this right now in Schilpol Airport while waiting for my connection to Spain. This article is published in the Star today and involved me interviewing Cecelia Ahern's publishers. Dunno if the sidebar showed up.

Happy lite lit


In place of our monthly focus on literary titles, we turn our attention to what is, according to our writer, a sorely misunderstood genre: chick lit. Trashy and vapid? No, no, no, insists the passionate fan.

THERE are plenty of misconceptions about chick lit, such as that it’s “fluffy, trashy, shallow, mind-numbing, formulaic” and “something only a vapid woman can enjoy”. (Oh dear, that just about confirms my husband’s suspicions about me.)
Chick lit, for those of you who haven’t tuned into the world since 1992, is fiction written by women for women.
These books differ from other women’s books by almost always being humorous, appearing in bright, fluffy covers, usually featuring funny, fluffy caricatures, and being written, almost uniformly, in an extremely personal style, as though the reader is a gnat hovering around the female protagonist’s flat, eavesdropping on her conversations and life.
Chick lit is believed to have originated in the mid-1990s with Adele Lang’s Confession of a Sociopathic Social Climber. That kind of intimate, “I’m confiding in you, dear reader” sort of writing skyrocketed in popularity with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary – and, with money to be made, everyone started jumping on board, of course.
Chick lit was also originally written for single working women in their 20s or 30s, but has since expanded into sub-genres that include mum lit (featuring the perils of young mums and mums-to-be), glamour lit (of glamorous social climbers and heiresses), mystery lit (think Desperate Housewives), wedding lit (self-explanatory) and fantasy lit (where something otherworldly happens to the protagonist, such as tripping into a different world – Cecelia Ahern’s There’s No Place Like Here – or different time zone – Sophie Kinsella’s Remember Me?)
There’s another burgeoning sub-genre called multi-cultural lit that can be further divided into Indian, Latina and other Asian. In these books, perky ethnic women try to carve out a life for themselves in a Western land, such as in books written by Nisha Minhas on Indian women living in Britain who are choked by cultural traditions and yet still manage to land spectacularly gorgeous Caucasian men. (Who are also very good in bed and initially have white girlfriends whom they will dump for said ethnic heroine.)
Phew, bet you never knew this was such a complicated genre, right?
What makes chick lit so enduringly popular is that there’s something for Everywoman to identify with. Chick lit heroines (tick characteristics you see in yourself):
1. Are usually single (even if you’re married now, you have once been single and kind of desperate, right?).
2. Are usually stuck in a job she doesn’t want to be in.
3. Are usually stuck with a boss she doesn’t want to be with.
4. Are usually fairly attractive but not stunningly so, and usually possessed of physical attributes she hates and totally wants to change (being overweight, snaggle haired, button nosed).
5. Have a gaggle of roommates/girlfriends/gay guy friends who are extremely supportive, promiscuous, and chatty.
Chick lit is also not exclusively romance, although a guy seems to trip into 99% of it since we women can’t seem to exist without men (I’m rolling my eyes, here).
Male love interests in chick lit are also attractive but the majority are also not panty-meltingly, heart-stoppingly so. If there are any superlatively handsome male characters, they usually turn out to be cads.
Chick lit protagonists also have a lot of other stuff going on in their lives, such as juggling careers, dealing with bad habits like being a chocoholic or a shopaholic, balancing their bankbooks, cooking bad food, and basically going through the exhaustive process of finding themselves. It’s Sex and the City, only with a lot less sex.
In other words, the writers of chick lit seem to be saying – to me, anyway – “This is you. You can totally see yourself in this. We are writing you for you.” (And also to make a lot of money.)
Chick lit stories end well, usually with the heroine getting the job of her dreams and landing her true love, a fact that also contributes to the genre’s appeal.
At the end of the day, when you pick up chick lit, you want a happy, humorous story you can laugh over and see yourself in (with chagrin), you want to find solutions to trials and tribulations you yourself have been through, and you want to know that if a fictitious someone else can have a happy ending, you can have it too.
And that’s all we really want in our lives, happy endings.

And these are a few Q and As from Penguin which I did an email interview.

1. What do you look for in the writing when you decide to publish something in the genre of chick lit?

We look for lots of things but most importantly it is making a connection in a fun way with the reader using the themes of love romance
and fidelity in relationships. The tone should be light and highly readable and a touch of devil may care mischief always goes down a treat.

2. On average, how much does a chick lit title sell?

Our bestselling authors sell over 100 000 copies

3. What is your biggest chick lit title? How many copies has it sold?

The answer is SUDDENLY SINGLE which has done 320k since 1999. Best since then is YOURS FAITHFULLY at 272k. Jill Mansell is usually at about the 200k level.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I'm still extremely low-lit, I've discovered. It took me ages to finish this book with the deceptive chick/guy-lit cover, which turned out to actually be lit in disguise.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Oh Malaysia, I love you

That's why when I voted in my old school, Sri Aman, I went in with a vision of you in my mind. I went in visualising:

- a Malaysia where no corruption exists, where my hard-earned money going into considerable taxes would fuel a world where open tenders are declared, the best man gets the contract based on merit and funds are well spent on education, health and good transportation for the masses

- a Malaysia where there will be a minimum wage so that the hardcore poor will forever be eradicated

- a Malaysia where scholarships and promotions are awarded on how well you do, not who you know

- a Malaysia where the colour of your skin is no longer of consequence

- a Malaysia which can compete in the world economy, where investors are not given the runaround of endless red tape

- a Malaysia that is safe, where we can go about our business without physical threat to our safety, where the police exists to serve us, the people, and are given a minimum wage to exist so they will no longer feel the need to take bribes

- a Malaysia that is tolerant to newcomers from other Asian and African countries, who might one day be Malaysians too, where citizens do not feel the need to treat other people from less fortunate nations as though they are pariahs

Malaysia, I voted for you.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Misdirect

Ever read a story or watched a movie when the plot threw you a curveball suddenly that had you gasping, "Wow! I didn't see that coming!"? You are of course bowled over by the audaciousness of the writers: "Wow, how did he/she come up with something like that? I wish I can do it too."

Actually, you can.

The plots that twist and turn and throw you curveballs and hardballs and anything else that would have you grasping balls (pardon the language) have a common ploy -- the Misdirect. You've probably used it yourself, only you didn't realise it was called a Misdirect; the same way you wield the English language without realising you're using pronouns and verbs and adjectives, all in the same sentence. (The fact I'm perpetually using all these still continues to leave me speechless.)

A Misdirect can be summed up like this:
1. Come up with your plot twist/ending first.
2. Now lead your reader away from it by leading them down another direction, so when it hits them, they'll say, "Wow, I didn't see that coming!"

Even Booker Prize winners do it too, which is why Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassin' is so satisfying. Basically, what she did was: (Warning, I'm going to spoil 'The Blind Assassin' here)

1. The big knockout twist at the end was that the 'I' character was the one who wrote the science-fiction stories and had the affair with her sister's lover

2. So Margaret starts out at the very beginning of the book, even before the first chapter, to lead the reader down the wrong path. The 'I' character is introduced receiving news of her sister's sudden death. She goes to retrieve her sister's artifacts, finding some old exercise books.

3. The very next chapter has some newspaper clippings on how her sister's posthumous science-fiction book is published, leading to worldwide fame and recognition. Therefore, the reader immediately 'assumes' that what the 'I' character found was her sister's manuscript in the old exercise books.

4. The rest of the story is about their lives, interspersed with excerpts from the science-fiction book, to help the reader understand why the 'I' character did what she did.

In short stories with a twist, 'Misdirect' is also a trick employed very often. I've been guilty of doing it myself over and over again before I even understood the term 'Misdirect'. But if you want to employ a Misdirect, you have to map out your plot point twist/ending first. How can you lead the reader down a wrong path if you yourself don't know which path you're heading, right?

Next: Doublespeak and Doublethink

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Interview with Chua Kok Yee!

Here's from author Chua Kok Yee of 'News from Home' fame. He also write 'The Penalty' for Dark City 2, which has been highly acclaimed.

1. What inspired you to write?

I have strong inclination towards creative pursues like drawing and writing since I was young. In my younger days, I spent more time drawing and doodling than writing. Actually, I didn’t start writing with an intention to produce any stories in word form. It was supposed to be brief plot and synopsis for my comic stories. It was during that process I accidentally discovered the joy of writing, and I have been addicted to it since. Besides, writing is a very therapeutic activity against the stress and pressure of corporate life.

2. Without giving too much away, how did you get the idea for your story, 'The Penalty'?

The idea came from the famous Michael Chong of the MCA Public Complaint Bureau. Not directly from the man, of course, but from those numerous news reports on loan sharks and their victims. It made me wonder why there are still so many people out there that resorted to Ah Longs despite the repeated warnings from the authority. I was also wondering about the reaction of the ‘ah longs’ to these reports. In a way they are the ‘victims’ too because the debt was a consensual business agreement between two parties. Yet, the borrowers went crying wolf when they defaulted on the loans! That was how the seed of the story was planted inside my head.

3. You have a book out, 'News from Home'. Can you tell us more about it?

News From Home is an anthology of short stories from three new authors; Shih-Li Kow, Rumaizah Abu Bakar and me. Each writer contributed ten stories in this collection, and the book is the first book to carry the Silverfishbooks’ ‘Malaysian Literature in English’ sticker. The thirty stories of various genres would introduce the readers to each author’s own distinctive voice and style. It’s available on all major bookstores or you can get it online via

4. Which authors inspire you? Which genre do you prefer?

Stephen King, Haruki Murakami and Neil Gaiman. I like stories with a touch of supernatural or fantasy.

5. Do you have any advice for budding authors?

First advice is to read a lot. The second advice is to cut down the talking about writing, and spend more time actually doing it. Lastly, do have thick face and open mind to accept criticisms.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

MPH LitBlogger's Club yesterday

So finally it was Tunku Halim and me on the podium. There were about 25 - 30 people there, quite a full house and standing room only (with the usual empty chairs in front and in the inaccessible middle) . . . thanks to TH who really pulled them in, yay! (Okay, I must admit I arm-twisted at least 8 people to be there, including my colleagues.)

MPH also took the opportunity to launch TH's novella, Juriah's Song, which really had a great faux book gimmick to go with it, along with string cutting and all.

For my session, I dragged Lydia Teh, TH and Chua Kok Yee up with me because I was afraid of boring everybody if I were go by myself. We spoke about writing and rewriting and what a horrible taskmaster I am for making everybody write and rewrite.

RTM2 was there also for 'Hello on 2', which is I presume a morning show. So they interviewed each of us individually - TH, me, Lydia and Kok Yee - and I was so glad I wore something decent to appear on TV and that I didn't go in T-shirt and slippers. I don't actually remember what I said because I had to talk non-stop for 10 minutes, but I remember holding up my 2 books and shaking them ever so often, and even filming a little teaser in which I went, "Hi, I'm Xeus, and you're watching 'Hello on 2'. "

Then of course we all went for lunch and gabbed about everything and everybody. I realise Lydia and TH are so much more prolific and ambitious than I am - they have so many books and projects lined up, and when they asked me what I had in store, I had to admit I had only 2 :(

Ah well, it was great to meet up with everyone again. (And yes, Kenny too although he was late!) Thanks Grace for being there in spirit although you couldn't physically be present, and I wrote you a lovely message in your personalised copy of DC2. It was great to see Lyrical Lemongrass and Daphne there too and I thanked her personally for plugging DC2 in Star, and she had news for me - Michael Cheang is reviewing DC2 for Star. (And I went 'Yikes! He's tough!')

Okay, what do you think of this title for a humorous anecdote collection type of book: 'Don't stand too close to a naked Malaysian'? I tried it on everybody there and they hated it!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Borneo Post review

Courtesy of Georgette...

"The first Dark City was a compilation of short stories by an author who goes by the pseudonym Xeus. She returns with the sequel, together with 14 other writers. Some are names you've heard before if you're paying attention to the Malaysian writing or blogging scene, while others will come as surprises.

Ahmad Azrai's "Death Dealer" stands out for its unusual setting. As it opens in the era of Sultan Muzaffar Shah, a boy strikes a deal with the Angel of Death. I have to admit that this is the kind of story I've envisioned to death (heh) myself, which is why it attracted me. I only wish that there was more of a middle to go with that beginning and ending.

Lydia Teh, whose last book was the very funny "Honk! If you're Malaysian", told me how she pulled "Hin's Moment of Truth" out of a dusty archive somewhere and reworked it for DC2. Probably still her only fiction piece to date, her story is about a gambler who is about to get lucky in a nasty twist kind of way.

Xeus has this knack of making me burst out laughing with the conclusions of her stories and "Signature Spa" is no exception. (It only shows what a sick individual I am.) Spas are at every corner now, fighting for customers and the self-centred protagonist of this story finds herself a deal too good to be true.

Jennifer Tai has a story about a banker's encounter with a mother and her son; Noor Bebe brings us a half-touching and half-creepy tale of a woman looking for her missing husband in "Trapped"; John Ling provides a knife-twist of revenge in "Zero Sum"; and Chua KokYee's "The Penalty" brings us into the world of football gambling.

With 17 stories, there is something for everyone looking for a taste of the macabre and plenty for anyone who enjoys a wicked sense of humour. While most of the stories appear to be set in metropolitan KL, there are a handful of tales that take place outside it... like the one about the photojournalist who works in Kuching.

Dark City 2 have not yet been sighted in local book stores. "

Saturday, January 19, 2008

NST snippet and article on local books

I'm so glad that NST decided to run this feature on local books yesterday - a very positive one. I wouldn't have known it if Yvonne hadn't texted me when I'm overseas and told me about it. Thanks Yvonne!

Chuah Kok Yee and Tunku Halim are also featured.

By : SU AZIZ 2008/01/18

Shame on you if you do not read our local authors, especially when SU AZIZ shows you the best picks.

THE resolution to read more local authors is not a recent one. In fact, it is one that has been festering at the back of my mind for years.
At the beginning of this year, I was resolute on keeping it. Hence the myriad of books below produced by our own writing talent from various backgrounds, age groups and genres.
I am most certain you will be able to pick one that will appeal to you. Well, here goes!

Short stories and compilations:
DARK CITY 2Compiled by Xeus
A sequel to the bestseller published a couple of years ago, this one consists of 17 thrilling short stories by 15 authors.
Some are first-time published authors while others are more known and experienced writers.
The likes of Lydia Teh, Tunku Halim and Xeus fall into the latter category. A perplexing page-turning read for those dark, stormy and rainy nights.
Most of all, it is a terrific book for bite-sized samples of styles from our local authors.
This one is published by Midnight Press and available in major bookstores.
Variant 1: For a more relaxing bite-sized samples of local authors, Silverfish Books has just published News From Home, featuring 30 short stories from Chua Kok Yee, Shih-Li Kow and Rumaizah Abu Bakar.
Not quite local but close to home. Read Wena Poon’s collection of short stories on displaced Singaporeans living abroad in Lions in Winter.
Variant 2: For a touch of poetry dedicated to, as the author wrote, “love”, is Diver & Other Poems by Alina Rastam.
This compilation of 20 poetries is published by Cricket Communications Sdn Bhd.
Variant 3: Or grab a copy of Young Women Speak Out, a compilation of essays and poems by the participants of AWAM’s (All Women’s Action Society) Writers for Women’s Rights Programme.
An interesting sample of works by our young women highlighting their issues and concerns.

Latest works by our experienced authors:

GLIMPSESBy Adibah Amin
On a brighter note, this one holds colourful accounts of Malaysian habits, written in a style that is vintage in Adibah Amin.
A name synonymous with good English, Adibah is no stranger in the literary world.
In this one, her sense of humour and power of observation are both lucid and tangible.
A favourite? Chew on this, “How could a local product be any good? He must have been sent overseas for ‘manufacturing’, to return to triumph as an ‘imported’ item”. Published by MPH Publishing, this one’s available in all major bookstores.

This one entertained me as much as the story itself. The author, in the introduction page, admitted that it was inspired by two incidents.
One was when band members that had been playing at a hotel lounge joined him for a drink.
The other was an unsettling tale of a friend.
Known for his thrilling dark tales of suspense, this is Tunku Halim’s ninth supernatural thriller. It tells of a rock star who is pursued by a female demon.
Published by MHP Publishing, it is available in all major booktores.

Self-help books right here:

The title of the book is self explanatory. It basically helps you to learn how to better your communication skill, get others to listen and acquire the gift of the gab.
The question is, who is Michelle Lian? Is she an authority to preach on this matter?
For starters, she authored TEAMWORK! Rebuilding Winning Team Spirit and has held seminars or workshops that help people “discover simple truths to better their lives and careers with greater success”.
Besides, her books have been translated into other languages. The English version is readily available in MPH bookstores or online.
These final three books, which are easily available in either MPH or major bookstores, are designed to inspire and better the environment in which you have chosen to live in.
The first one is where you can “acquire secrets of formula feng shui” to “get the kind of results you have always wanted” in finance, health and even better exam grades!
It can be no other than a book by Lillian Too, Flying Star Feng Shui Made Easy.
I can neither make head nor tail of it but a colleague has already snatched the book off my desk, even as I write this.
The second is a result of an enlightenment during the author’s battle with fourth stage terminal cancer relapse after a 12-year remission.
Shery S.L. Lim’s There Is Hope carries all her faith in the big guy with “comforting and encouraging words” for those going through tough times in their lives.
A touch of solidarity is always welcome, no? It sure makes the world a less lonely place.

Lastly, carrying on the theme of solidarity, this slim, pink book, published by MPH Publishing for PRIDE Foundation, highlights personal accounts of cancer patients.
Take Pride In Your Life! also provides with coping tips for cancer patients as well as for those around them to “better manage the illness”.
Included is an audio CD featuring motivational speakers such as Datuk Dr Fadzilah Kamsah, Rene’e Aziz Ahmad and other experts.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The word 'No'

I wrote this in The Star today:

The word 'No'

For her second collection of short stories, Dark City 2, writer-turned-editor XEUS learns what it means to say ‘No’ and to give heartbreaking feedback to writers.

NO’’ is such an ugly word, compressing rejection, indifference and the fragmentation of dreams into so many petals of dandelion puff.
Goodness knows how many times I’ve been at the receiving end of it, only, I’ve heard it in other forms: “I’m sorry, but there’s another candidate more suitable for the job.” (Translation: “Your interview sucked big-time and the only way we’d want you working for our company is hauling trash cans.”)
“We love your writing, but we’re not currently publishing ?” (Translation: “We lied. We hate everything about your writing.”)
“You’re a nice girl and all, but I’m not ready for a relationship . . .” (Translation: “I wouldn’t go out with you even if my rich parents bribed me with a Bandar Utama semi-D and you wore a paper bag over your head.”)
I used to think “No” meant all that until I found myself on the other end of “No” – the giving end.
Last December, I ran a nationwide contest in The Star calling for submissions to a sequel for my first collection of short stories with a twist, Dark City, which would be imaginatively titled, after an exhaustive nationwide title search, Dark City 2.

Writing is like Math, kind of
I received over 60 submissions, some of them multiple ones, from not only Malaysia, but all over the world.
Ah, the wonders of the worldwide web and interactive blogosphere. Then I started to read them, and I went: “Hmmmmm . . .”
No, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of people who can write, and do it very well. There are also plenty of people who can tell a story, and tell it very well. But unfortunately most of the time, the two groups don’t mingle. It’s just as my math teacher used to envision it:
“Kawasan tindihan dua subset ini sangat nipis.” (Translation: “When the two groups collide, you get thunder and lightning and J. K. Rowling.”)
A lot of the time, I’ve discovered that those would-be writers with great grammar and wordplay don’t often tell a story well. And those who tell a story well don’t often have great grammar.
Remembering all those times I heard “No,” I thought long and hard about how I was going to couch the dreaded word.
I mean, I wanted my “No” to be spiritually uplifting and enriching. I wanted my “No” to be the pivotal turn in some writer’s life. I wanted my “No,’’ to go down in EQ 101 books as “Now, that’s the way to say ‘No!’ “ Oh boy, who was I kidding? So I chickened out.

The editor who is a chicken
I didn’t say “No.” I said, via the anonymity of e-mail, “Dear _______, I think you are a very good writer and you have the makings of a wonderful storyteller. But the problem with your story is blah, blah, blah, as I’ve outlined very carefully in Microsoft Word red. But not to fear, it can be fixed! Would you mind rewriting to include the comments on blah, blah, blah?”
Most of the time, the writers do acknowledge this by rewriting (some multiple times) and e-mailing back: “Thank you so much for taking the effort to go through my story with a fine-toothed comb. I’m very grateful for this.” And of course, I never hear from some again. (Translation: “If you don’t like my work, fine, I’ll take it elsewhere – YOU SUCK!”)
I must admit to turning to my writer friends for a lot of the stories in Dark City 2. After two months. I was getting desperate because I didn’t have enough stories in the can. I shot off a note to my friend, Malaysia’s own Stephen King, Tunku Halim, and begged, “Help me and I will give you my firstborn child!”
Which of course he promptly did by contributing one story, Hawker Man, about the perils of looking soybean sellers too long in the eye. I then shot off a note to another famous friend, Lydia Teh (Honk! If you are a Malaysian), who refused all offers of my firstborn children because she already has four.
Lydia wrote this in her blog: “I pulled out Hin’s Moment of Truth and e-mailed it to Xeus. Hey, I like the story, she said, but you need to expand it. I reworked the story according to her suggestions.”
So you see, even famous published writers rewrite and rewrite! But among the first-time writers, I found a lot of gems.
Former Star2 assistant editor, Lou Joon Yee, got wonderful reviews for her Till Death which she wrote and rewrote. It's a story about a husband and wife who fantasise about killing, and re-killing, each other (Don’t we all, at some time?)
So the moral of the story is that a “No”, when couched in the emphatic package of caring feedback to help a fellow writer, can be turned into a “Yes.” That is, with multiple rewrites.

Xeus is the author of Dark City and the conceptual editor of the newly released Dark City 2, an anthology of tales with a twist which features 14 authors who are used to rewriting multiple times. For more stories on these agonising rewrites, you can visit her blog at