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


Lydia Teh said...

Xeus, thanks for the mention in this entertaining article.

Xeus said...

Hey, any time! You come too ah for LitBlogger's Club.

Argus Lou said...

Ha ha, funny publicity-generating feature. Thanks for the plug, Xeus.
Let's see if I manage to get a story into MPH's 'Urban Odysseys' next.

I'm a-thinking of visiting M'sia in July -- anything planned for then?

Xeus said...

Yes Argus, you saw thru me! It is a publicity generating feature, ha ha!

I'm sure you'll get a story in, no prob. Looking forward to reading it.

I might have a new book out in July, not sure if they want to launch it proper. But guess what? I'm 'forced' to visit Swtizerland in mid April. You around?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your confidence in my stories.

Yes, do come visit in April. We have plenty of room and will show you the sights and tastes of CH. ;-)

Xeus said...

But Arg, I will be in that boring town, Basel!!How far is that from your place?

Argus Lou said...

A bit more than an hour's drive (maximum speed 120kph). Basel-Lucerne train (every hour) takes about 2 hours. Return ticket: CHF35.