Dear Writer, How did You start your writing journey?


 Today, I’m thrilled to welcome on this blog  Suchen Christine Lim, one of Singapore’s best known authors and also a kind, cheerful personality when it comes to teaching creative writing.

In October this year Suchen’s latest novel, The River’s Song was launched in Singapore (click here to watch Suchen read dramatic excerpts from her novel at the launch and answer audience questions). As part of the ongoing writer’s guest post series in this blog, she talks us today about the beginning of her writing journey (all emphasis below are mine).

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Thank you to Damyanti for inviting me onto Daily (W)rite.

I didn’t start writing till I was in my mid 30s.  As a child, I’d wanted to be a hawker selling chicken rice porridge or be an astronaut flying to the moon.  My writing adventure began one hot afternoon with a mindless doodle. I was a college teacher invigilating a 3-hour literature exam when I found myself doodling. The doodles turned into words and the words into sentences. I wrote one page that afternoon. After that, I continued to write, usually an hour or so stealthily before or after school.  I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing because I didn’t know what or why I was writing.  

At first, I thought it was a story for young people, but the story grew and changed as I wrote. Finally I left teaching and returned to the university, not because I wanted another degree, but so that I could have more time to write. This was my secret motive.

Every morning I left home at 6 am with my Olivetti manual typewriter, and took the bus to Adam Road where I could walk past the Chinese cemetery and be alone with my thoughts before I took another bus to the university. By 7.30 am I was writing /typing in the students’ canteen until my first lecture of the day. I did this every day even though I didn’t know where my writing was going.

Looking back, I’d say that the start of my writing journey was like love at first sight. It’s like you’ve never met this stranger called the Muse before, yet you desperately wanted him/her.  It’s crazy.

One day, a visiting professor who had observed me typing in the noisy canteen, offered me the use of her room. She was going away for 3 months.  I was thrilled. For the first time in my life, I had a room of my own to write in. But my joy didn’t last. One evening the door of ‘my’ room banged open. ‘Clear out!’ the Head of the Sociology Department yelled. I had broken a rule. Students were not allowed to use a professor’s room. ‘Get out and clear out!’ he shouted.

On the bus home, tears streamed down my face. I was 36 years old, the mother of 2 sons and an only daughter. No one, not even my mother, had ever yelled at me like that before. At home, my tears turned to anger. My family urged me to ‘return the anger’ to the uncouth professor. So the next day, accompanied by my friend, the former editor of the Singapore University Press, I banged open the professor’s door! Just like what he did to me, but I didn’t shout. He demanded to know the purpose of my visit. I can’t remember exactly what I said to him. But I remember pacing up and down his office as I delivered my speech. ‘So? You want to complain to the Vice-Chancellor?’ he sneered. ‘Yes,’ I said and marched out of his office.

He rushed after me and came face to face with his former classmate. ‘Ros,’ he smiled at the editor of the Singapore University Press. ‘Your friend. So impulsive.’ he pointed to me. ‘Ros,’ I pointed to him. ‘Your friend. So rude.’ Then I told him that one day, I would write about this incident.

So thank you for giving me the chance to get it off my chest. I detest men who shout abuse at women and children.

I finished writing what turned out to be Rice Bowl, my first novel, in the storeroom of the Singapore University Press.  You can say that I wrote my first novel surrounded by all the unsold books of the university’s professors. If that was not passion laced with madness, I don’t know what is.

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The River's Song by Suchen Christine Lim

The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim

About The River’s Song: Ping, the daughter of Chinatown’s Pipa Queen, loves Weng, the voice of the people, but family circumstances drive them apart. Ping is forced to leave suddenly for the USA, while Weng is sent to prison for his part in local protests. Many years later, Ping returns to a country transformed by prosperity. Gone are the boatmen and hawkers who once lived along the river. In their place, rise luminous glass and steel towers proclaiming the power of the city state. Can Ping face her former lover and reveal the secret that has separated them for over 30 years? A beautifully written exploration of identity, love and loss, set against the dramatic upheaval unleashed by the rise of Singapore, about which The Sunday Times Singapore wrote: ‘ – unashamedly details Singapore’s past and present in gripping stories – The River’s Song – is among the best prose to come out of Singapore.’

The River’s Song would be published by Aurora Metro Books, UK in spring 2014.

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Suchen Christine Lim

Suchen Christine Lim

Author Bio: Born in Malaysia but educated in Singapore, Suchen Christine Lim was awarded the Southeast Asia Write Award 2012. In 1992, her novel, Fistful Of Colours, won the Inaugural Singapore Literature Prize. Critics have described her first novel, Rice Bowl, as “a landmark publication on post-independence Singapore”, and A Bit Of Earth as “a literary masterwork as well as a historical document” that was “un-put-downable – a sure sign of a master storyteller.” A short story in The Lies That Build A Marriage, was made into a film for national television.
Awarded a Fulbright grant, she is a Fellow of the International Writers’ Program in the University of Iowa, and its International Writer-in-Residence. In 2005, she was writer-in-residence in Scotland, and has returned to the UK several times as an Arvon Tutor to conduct writing workshops and read at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Her new novel, The River’s Song, will be launched in London and New York next spring.

(This is the first part of her interview. The next, in which Suchen Christine Lim talks about the various genres she’s written in, her take on a writer’s role in history and her views as a creative writing teacher will be published coming Thursday.)

So, to the writers amongst you: do You have interesting stories to share with us about your writing journey? Did You face challenges in your writing journey like Suchen Christine Lim?

 

On what I learned from an #Author and an #Agent


Two days ago, I finished a course by Curtis Brown Agency, UK a three-day bootcamp for aspiring novelists in Singapore.

The Singapore National Arts Council  flew down Anna Davis, an author of five novels and a Curtis Brown agent who runs Curtis Brown Creative; and  bestselling author Jake Arnott, known for books like The Long Firm and The House of Rumor, to conduct this workshop.

Curtis Brown Novel Workshop Singapore

After the Curtis Brown Boot Camp Singapore

Between them, they chose 15 candidates out of 60 applications, and I got lucky. When I caught glimpses of the work of my peers, I realized how lucky– the room brimmed over with talent. I learned as much from their questions and answers as I did from some of  Jake and Anna’s comments.

In the three-day workshop Jake and Anna covered everything from Characters and Dialogue to Rewriting the Novel– they helped reinforce a lot of of my attitudes on technique.

But what helped me most were the sessions on Story, Structure, and weirdly enough (because I’m not ready for an agent by a long shot), the Agent Query letters.

Jake gave us an interesting theory of what a story is : Story occurs when character and plot meet. Story is itself the driving force, the very DNA of prose fiction. We do not tell stories. They tell us.

This led me to think about my novel– its plot which seemed to be doing too much and leading the story by the nose.

While writing the query letter (Anna surprisingly thought mine worked, though I had spent less than  two days writing it!)  and the pitch, I kept wondering what my story was about.

Anna Davis and Jake Arnott

Curtis Brown Bootcamp by Jake Arnott and Anna Davis

The 20-minute in-person tutorials with Jake and Anna told me exactly why it can be crucial to get feedback from the real pros in this business– while I’ve been flapping along like a fledgling stork with my first draft and second, they swooped in immediately like ospreys on just what the story was. Kind and perceptive, both Jake and Anna merely asked me a lot of questions– never forcing their point of view, but helping me see my work in a way I hadn’t before.

As a result, I’m now considering sweeping changes in my work, which might mean yet another complete change of direction and rewrite. And though that means a lot of new work, and a lot of old work possibly binned, I’m thrilled.

No matter what direction I take with my novel, and irrespective of whether it ever sees light of day, I learned to ask the right questions when it comes to a novel. To me, that’s invaluable.

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What workshops have you taken part in? Have you ever participated in a Curtis Brown Workshop? Has a workshop ever led to major changes in your work?

Dear Writer, Have You Ever Been on the Point of Giving Up?


Ten Things I've Learned About Love

Ten Things I’ve Learned About Love in the United States

 Today, I’m very excited to welcome on this blog Sarah Butler, an acclaimed author, and also one of the kindest, most perceptive creative writing teachers ever, who helped me with my first ever published story.

In January this year Sarah’s debut novel Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, was published by Picador in the UK. It has sold in 15 other countries, and was Book of the Week on Oprah.com when it was published by Penguin Press in the US in July.

Her journey towards publication with Picador is nothing short of a fairytale in terms of the amount of perseverance it required of her. If you’ve ever thought of giving up on your book, or finding an agent or  a publisher–  you might like to read her story below, in her own words. (All emphases in the post below are mine). Take it away, Sarah!

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Thank you to Damyanti for inviting me onto Daily (W)rite.

Sarah Butler at Picador

Sarah Butler at Picador (Photo credit: Paul McVeigh)

Damyanti asked me to write about my journey to publication, which has been long and obstacle-strewn. I started writing seriously in 2003, and took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2003-2004. The year after graduating I finished my first novel, got an agent, but didn’t get a publishing deal.

I worked on some short stories and focused on getting them published, in order to raise my profile and give myself a bit of a boost, and then I industriously started writing a second novel (I was working 3 days a week for a youth literature organisation and writing 2 days a week). When this novel was finished, my agent wasn’t keen on it. We parted ways, and I spent months trying to get another agent to represent me. No luck…

This was now 2007. Two novels down. No publishing deal. And then, in October 2007, I was on a residential writing course in the UK when a new novel (which would end up as Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love) fell into my head – complete with plot and character names – like a gift. It took me four years to write (while I was also working and studying for an MSc in Urban Studies).

In the summer of 2011, I started sending my new manuscript out to agents. I got rejection after rejection after rejection. However, that August I was teaching creative writing at an international summer school in Cambridge, UK, and met Francesca Main (then editor at Simon and Schuster and about to start a senior editor job at Picador) at an event.

Extraordinarily, she asked me to send her my novel. She read it, and a few weeks later sent me a lovely email, saying she loved it, but that “it didn’t quite feel ready yet.” She asked me some very helpful questions which enabled me to look at the novel afresh and see – quite suddenly and quite clearly – what I needed to do. I restructured the book, cut 15,000 words, and sent the revised manuscript back to Francesca in January 2012.

Three weeks later Francesca offered me a two book deal, and two weeks later Picador had sold rights in 7 countries (they’ve since sold the novel in a total of 15 countries).

It has been a long journey to where I am now, and there were times when I felt I would never get published. However, I think if you have the drive to write and tell stories that gives you something to hold on to. First and foremost it has to be about writing the best book you can write, and then persevering when it comes to getting it out into the world. I learnt a huge amount by writing those two novels which weren’t published – so nothing was wasted!
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Ten Things I've Learned About love

Ten Things I’ve Learned About love

Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love tells the story of Alice – a wayward, wandering young woman – and Daniel – a homeless man on a quest. Alice is in many ways more homeless than Daniel – called back from a worldwide trip to her dying father’s bedside she is forced to face the things that made her run away: a failed relationship, her two difficult sisters, and a sense that she’s never quite belonged. Daniel is at home in London, though he has no physical space to call home. Driven by the desire to find the daughter he has never met, he paces the streets of London creating messages from things other people have thrown away. The death of Alice’s father brings Alice and Daniel together and they gradually discover just what they are able to offer each other. The novel celebrates the everyday and the overlooked. It is an exploration of love and loss and what home can mean.

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Sarah Butler- Ten Things I've Learnt About Love

Sarah Butler- Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love (Photo credit: Eva Sajovic)

Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love has appeared in the New York Times, The Independent on Sunday, and the Metro.

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Sarah Butler writes novels and short fiction, and has a particular interest in the relationship between writing and place. She has been writer-in-residence on the Central line and at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Her novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, is published by Picador in the UK and in fifteen languages around the world. Find Sarah on twitter @SarahButler100 and also on the Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love Facebook page.

Have you read Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love? (If you haven’t I suggest you change that immediately– it is a book that would appeal to everyone who likes to be moved by the books they read). Have you ever been on the point of giving up in your writing journey? Does Sarah Butler’s story inspire you?

 

Are you a Just Do It Person?


This is so true when it comes to writing fiction.
No matter what, showing up on the page is important. I did this scribble of colors on a blocked day, and it works as my reminder. Letting it go and expressing yourself is all you need on some days.

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Do you ever get blocked? Or do you write through your blocks?

Do you warm up before you start on your #WIP ?


Today, I’m posting one of my warm-up sessions, unedited. Do you warm up before you start writing on your #WIP ?
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When writing becomes second nature

Writing warm-ups

I write often at a food court in one of the shopping malls in the neighborhood. Today I have 600 words already under my belt when I set off, so I do not feel that fear which always accompanies an empty page. But I do have to start a chapter, and that is hard.

Sometimes the best way to write is just wait for it to come, and surround myself with the hum of conversation, with the clatter of cutlery thrown against ceramic plates, the muted screech of chairs drawn out from under the tables, the whir of the food processor as yet another milkshake is born.

At a table near me sit four Chinese women, animated over their cups of black coffee, all short-haired, middle-aged, frumpily dressed, with big smiles as they discuss some achievement or the other in Hokkien. Must be related to badminton practice, because I see pink and blue and red racquets poking out of each bag.

The Hong Kong Roast stall near which I’ve picked my table is the most eye-catching. Red-browned, glazed piglets, ducks and chicken hang motionless under yellow incandescent lighting, the queue is witness to the stall’s skill at cooking and the reasonable prices. A large portion of roast duck noodle sells at SGD 4.

They’re not shy of promoting their culinary efforts either—each plate of sliced roast pork comes with a pink or orange or yellow plastic rose and plastic green leaves, which later lie sad and abandoned on the plates amongst a pile of bones. The elderly cleaning lady (all cleaning staff at the food court is elderly, the young generation mans the sales counters), cleans off the plates with brattles of sound off stage behind a screen, and I think of the poor crushed petals of plastic roses lying under chewed-up bones.

I pick at the pile of pineapple slices on my plate with a toothpick the fruit-seller served them with. Why you eat so many fruit, ah? he asked me today, by way of conversation.

Rare in Singapore, to be addressed about anything other than your food when eating at food courts. But he has seen me off and on for weeks and months, and with no waiting queue behind me, threw me a question.

I smiled back. Love fruits leh, but too lazy to peel them one. I mangled my English on purpose. I knew I didn’t get the slang quite right, but they say, Ha? if I talk with all the conjunctions and prepositions I learned in school. The fruit-seller smiled back, Healthy one, ah, and handed me the change. I’ve used this sort of conversation in stories before, but my novel isn’t set in Singapore, so today’s exchange at the fruit counter isn’t helpful.

In all this time today, I’ve just sat and typed at random about where I am, about the Indian man gobbling up his chicken rice, dressed in striped shirt and office gear, a red backpack beside him, fake golden Rolex watch glinting under the light.

Or the elderly Chinese lady in glasses, coaxing strands of noodles on to her ceramic spoon, garnishing each mouthful with a slice of pickled chili, and popping the whole thing into her mouth while swaying with the music from her headphones.

Beside her sit two white women, one of them making inroads into her vegetable and rice with fork and spoon, the other making a mess of it with crossed chopsticks. The Chinese lady doesn’t look at them, not once.

Now that I have warmed up again, written my way through the Food court and waited, I’m hoping the Chapter will come to me. When I go home I’ll upload this on my blog, and tell you all about how I sat down today and waited to write.

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(P.S: I got in 1056 words after my warm-up, which, though not scintillating, is still much better than nothing)

Do You #Write Down Your Dreams?


Pablo Picasso's Woman Dreaming

Living in Your Dream 

Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.

—Anais Nin

I’ve talked about living my dreams before, and lately I’ve been doing a fair bit of dreaming on the page, where dreams pass into the reality of action. Writing fiction is the best form of daydreaming, but sometimes I find my dreams at night intriguing, too.

Last night I dreamed I was a teenager again, and beside me sat a small child, who was trying to be helpful.

I was trying to give her a ride on my bike, but the pedals wouldn’t move, so I took them apart (something I would never do in real life), and then, I took the plate in which the pedals sat and thought of (what I imagined) a wonderful idea.

I would put in cake batter, shut it, and as I pedaled away, the plate would warm up and at the end of a few miles, we would have this  cake to eat!

The child helped me break the eggs, whip the batter, and stir in raisins and  walnuts. And then off we went, but instead of the cake, of course we had goo pouring down the pedals and into my shoes.

I was so upset when I woke up. All that batter gone to waste, and that disappointed child at the end of the trip.

I know I have a little girl in a current WIP who doesn’t have much good in store for her, so my subconscious is possibly trying to make her happy in its own weird way, and failing miserably. It is my book leaking into my dreams, and now the dream has leaked into my day.

What do you dream most often about? Do you write down your dreams?

Have You Tried Writing First Thing in the Morning?


Each morning I wake up fresh from dreaming and spill it out on the blank page, coloring it with emotions, anguish and joy, be as it may, with no direction, purpose or censorship.

Frequently called the morning pages, it is a warmup practice adopted by many fiction writers. I sometimes fill the notebook with nonsense. Actually, most times. But amid the gibberish, I sometimes find gems, kernels of stories, or characters.

Have you ever tried writing first thing in the morning before you’ve really woken up properly? Or like I asked in my other blog, have you ever written in the dark?