I was never one of those precocious, assertive kids who knew what they wanted to be at age five. It took me quite a while to figure out what I really loved, and that was to write.
I love stories, have loved them since my dad brought me to the Central Lending Library every Sunday (back when it was still at Stamford Rd, instead of Bras Basah) ever since I’d learnt to read and my kindergarten teacher told my dad I had the potential to start reading earlier than my peers. (Maybe that was a ploy and she told all the parents that so the kids in her class would be early starters, I don’t know. But let’s not get cynical here.)
I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who share my love for stories, and who probably love them more than I do (goodness knows I’m a picky reader). But despite how much I love to read, how much I enjoyed English lessons and how it was the class I was most enthusiastic about, being a writer didn’t occur to me until I was eleven. I had never considered the possibility of creating stories myself, stories that I would love and would want to share with the world, stories that chronicled the changes in me and the way I regarded the world.
Maybe it was because I never got sufficient encouragement that helped me believe I – like anyone who believes him- or herself capable of it – could weave an entire story out of my limited imagination. But when I was eleven, change came in the form of my English teacher, Mr Martin Chan. Now, I don’t mean for this to turn into a thanks-giving post, but hitherto, I’ve believed that he was the one who, if you wish, ignited the flame of passion in me for creative writing. (Sorry for the horrible cliche!) He introduced me to Shakespeare, through giving us a watered-down version of Macbeth (which remains my favourite play to date), and recommended stories like Lord of the Rings (even playing the cartoon version for us) and Lord of the Flies (which remains my favourite book to date, no lie – Golding is a genius). He made us practice flash-writing, which are exercises where you write a passage where the action or emotion are the most intense. It’s a drill for concise and tight writing, and after that we’d share our writing with our peers, and I felt like I learnt so much. English lessons in primary 5 and 6 were so rich.
And that was where I fell for creative writing – head-first and hard. I started with writing journal entries because then, I was under the influence of Princess Diaries, which I had started reading. I would turn up to class with a notebook under my textbook and scribble furiously about everything that was going on around me and within me.
With the Budding Writers story-writing contest that Mr Chan encouraged me and several others to take part in – along with other writing contests – I began to appreciate the craft of writing. How do you look at things the way other people can’t? How can you express the way in which you look at things? How do you make that way connect with your readers? The first complete story I wrote was of the detective/mystery genre, because we were all into Nancy Drew then and plot-driven stories were easier to write. I didn’t win, of course – my writing was hardly any good – but the experience of working on a story, crafting a plot, thinking of the appropriate words that would convey the meanings concisely, was enough of a prize.
When I went to secondary school, I continued writing, and wrote several trial novels, which I often begged my friends to read and tell me how they felt about it. I remember how Yvonne liked reading my diaries (I never really had much to hide, so keeping a diary wasn’t really about secrecy to me) and Stace and the rest would ask me about my progress for the novel I was working on then. All through secondary school, I kept notebooks and filled them up sooner than I expected. In upper secondary, I started watching The OC and attempted to write a third-person POV series about a girl who goes to a hoity-toity school. And then the idea for When the Lilies Turn Orange (then, it was still titled An Old Scent) came about, raw and unpolished and waiting for me to tap into its reserve that was overflowing with potential and possibilities. Because of the O’levels, I only properly began working on it in JC. In the meantime, I wrote short stories, tried my hand at poetry (which will never see the light of day, if I can help it), and read, read, read, taking in ideas and imbibing various writing styles and understanding, step by step, how writing, such an arbitrary art, works.
In JC, I was swamped with schoolwork. I was lucky if I had time to think about my stories, let alone write them. So I only properly immersed myself in Lilies after the A’levels. In the three months after A’s, I worked relentlessly on Lilies, so addicted to the writing process was I. I brought my notebook and pen everywhere (that was when I was into walking, and trekked all over Singapore for the fun of it), and wrote, wrote, wrote. I even woke up at 3a.m. to write till dawn broke. My dad was so worried I was losing it.
I consider Lilies to be my first official novel, one that I’m satisfied with enough to want to see it published.
Towards the end of Lilies, the idea for Bedful of Moonlight came half-formed. But despite finishing Lilies, I couldn’t tear myself away from Wroughton, the private estate in which the story takes place; I couldn’t bear to part with the characters – Raven, Connell, Reilly, Tate, and the motley crew. So I set Moonlight in Wroughton as well, with main characters completely disparate from Raven and Connell. This time, the going was tougher, maybe because all the research on writing I’d done while writing Lilies had left me feeling more cautious, more stifled (in a way), about approaching my work-in-progress (WIP). I was left confused, bewildered even, as to what my characters really wanted and how they were trying to go about getting it, and how they changed in the end as a result of doing so. How could I make them seem real, with genuine flaws that we can all relate to and therefore sympathise with? How can I make their motivations strong enough to fuel the story?
While I was sorely dismayed – depressed even – after completing Lilies, I felt a sense of relief after finishing up Moonlight. All that with a huge dose of satisfaction, of course. But finishing a story leaves you bereft, exhausted, over-the-moon, exhilarated and relieved all at once. I call it the writer’s high. That’s what I experienced when I first started writing, when my characters surprised even me by saying the things they said, doing the things they did, and thinking the way they did. That’s what I experienced when the words flowed from me so quickly I barely had time to tap on my keys to keep up. That’s what I experienced when I wrote from 9am to 3pm once (when I was in secondary school, working on High Grounds), and looked up to realise it was 3pm and my stomach was growling.
My third attempt wasn’t quite as smooth. If I thought Bedful of Moonlight was a bumpy ride, Mint was a road riddled with potholes and death traps. I had the setting, I had the characters, but I just couldn’t dig deep enough into them to find out where the conflict lay and where their motivations clashed. I had committed the mistake many amateur writers make, and that is plunge headlong into a novel without laying out the basic structure of it. Much as you’re excited to delve into writing your next novel, you have to do what you need to, even though it’s painful. You have to find out what drives your novel, and know very clearly how your character changes – for better or worse – by the end of the story. All these I have learnt from working on Mint. I abandoned it at page 166, halfway through the story. Perhaps someday I will return to it. But for now, I’m thankful for the experience regardless of the time and effort spent (sunk costs, as any economist would declare!) on it. For now, I’m thankful for what it has taught me.
So right now, while working on my current WIP, Red December Skies, and writing short stories on the days where the words just can’t flow. It’s a much smoother writing process for December, and though I haven’t published anything yet, I believe I will one day. One day, I will dare to put my work out there. One day, I will write well enough to get a solid offer, instead of the almost-misses from literary agents.
In the meantime, I will keep writing, keep reading, keep honing my craft by studying how other writers write. After all, as Monica Wood (author of The Pocket Muse) said, Money schmoney. If you write, you’re a writer.