My Writing Journey (unabridged)

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.



I’m working on my New Year’s Resolution now. I don’t usually put much stock in it, because I end up breaking every one on the list anyway. But this time, I will become a vegetarian.

I know. It’s laughable. Me, a vegetarian? I can’t go a day without meat. But eating less meat brings about two benefits:

a) Less demand for meat – although this is rather insignificant, because I’m just one person. But if everyone ate less meat, less land needs to be cleared to rear cattle or other animals that provide meat. That means less forested areas need to be cleared. That means more trees and more wildlife!

b) Meat contains lots of carcinogens, which increases one’s risk of getting cancer. Enough said.

So, yes. Vegetarian. I’ll still eat fish and all that, of course. But no more chicken or pork or mutton or duck (I don’t eat beef).

Anyway, I had a desperate desire to go to the Marina South Pier yesterday, so I dragged my butt all the way there. Had to take two buses to get there, one of which made me wait for half an hour. But I was dying for some sea air. Plus, it would be good inspiration for my work-in-progress, Red December Skies. I’m at page 120 now, still as excited about it as when I first started it. That feeling so reminds me of working on When the Lilies Turn Orange.

Just finished rewatching Mars yesterday. Am feeling empty now, because there are no other dramas that can match up to it. It’s like reading a really good book, one of the best, and then not being able to find another that can quite match up to it. Ugh. Don’t like this feeling. Can anyone recommend any other drama or book that has madness and romance in it? See why my first standalone novel (Lilies) is about madness and romance? There’s not enough of such stories, which is why I’m writing them, if only to satisfy my own craving.

Dear Joyce,

Thank you for sending me these sample pages of WHEN THE LILIES TURN ORANGE. I shared this with a colleague, and while we both really liked your characters and enjoyed the backdrop of the flower shop, we felt that it took too long for the story to really get started. I wanted to know, earlier, what the mystery about Connell was (or at least to get more significant clues).

So, please think of us with your future work. And best of luck finding the right home for this one.

Warmest,
Kelly

Kelly D. Sonnack
Andrea Brown Literary Agency
kelly@andreabrownlit.com

Just played Runaway World, and experienced a bout of nostalgia for the days when I was working on Lilies. I know you’ve heard this many times, but it never gets old for me.

It’s just, I tried so hard for Lilies, you know? I truly believe I did the best I could for my first proper novel. I actually love my characters. And yeah, I know, it’s melodramatic, but I don’t know, that’s how I like it. Don’t writers write the stories that they would want to read? But of course, I would want my readers to like the stories I like too. Too bad they don’t.

But you know, in my life, I’d always gotten what I wanted if I tried hard enough for it. I guess this is the first instance where I tried so hard but reaped nothing. I guess I’m just not used to it.

In Mint, the setting is different from Moonlight. Mostly because Moonlight takes place, well, at night. But Mint is sort of like Lilies, in terms of setting. It takes place in a butterfly farm, a herb garden, and of course, Wroughton. I’ve never been so in love with a place I’ve created (did that come out sounding conceited?). It’s just all light and open, bright and colourful, vivid and passionate and full of life. Okay, I’m gushing. Maybe that’s why I prefer Lilies more to Moonlight. The setting. Also, Moonlight isn’t half as funny as Lilies, if I do say so myself.

In Mint, I’m going to make Reynold (the male lead) a funny, laidback guy who drives Leigh (yes, Jerm, I know it sounds like the name of a reindeer – sleighbell, sleigh, Leigh – but it’s growing on me), the protagonist, nuts.

The only problem is, what is at stake for them? What are their character motivations? Leigh is strong-minded, independent and is trying really hard to prove herself and be the responsible one in the family. Reynold, well, isn’t. The only thing or person he remotely cares about is his trouble-seeking younger brother, Kyle. So I guess Kyle is the one at stake. I decided last night that Leigh, being goal-driven and everything, shall have her achievements at stake. And what better than her job at the herb garden and her volunteer work at the butterfly farm? If her job were at stake (not to mention her credits for community service), would she trade Reynold’s brother for what she wants?

Now, there’s your story. Anyone who is nice enough to read the first few pages I’ve come up with can contact me at jcxw2590@yahoo.com.sg and request for the pages. Tell me if it’s working so far, okay, before I go any further? (Ie, too much backstory, too much rambling, too much dialogue, too light-hearted, etc?)

Now I just have to, in the words of Tim Gunn, make it work.

Just received another nice rejection letter (sounds oxymoronic, doesn’t it?) yesterday, by Eleanor Jackson:

Dear Joyce,

Thank you for letting me consider WHEN THE LILIES TURN ORANGE. You are clearly a talented writer, there’s much to be admired here. Raven is a great protagonist, intensely likeable despite her few flaws, and her relationship with Connell is both sweet and complicated in all the right ways. You deal with the angst and drama that comes hand-in-hand with a girls teenage years with subtlety and grace, and it was nice to read a young adult book about a romantic relationship where both characters felt like real people with real problems, for a change.

That said, I just can’t see a way to market this successfully to a general trade publisher, nor can I see a way to revise it that wouldn’t compromise some of the elements I liked here. My instincts tell me this is something that’s better suited to a smaller/ independent publisher, and I’m afraid those circles are just lesser known to me.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, and to pass on work by a writer who is clearly gifted. Others will surely feel differently, and I certainly wish you every success in finding the right agent and publisher for your work.

Best,
Eleanor.

Eleanor Jackson
Elaine Markson Agency
44 Greenwich Avenue
New York, NY 10011
t 212 243 8480 x304
f 212 691 9014

Oh, well. You know, after a while, you just get used to the crushing sense of disappointment in your chest. At least she gave me feedback, and was really nice about it. I just wish I can find someone who believes in my story enough to want to see it published.

Okay, so today I opened my Inbox and saw the reply from Michelle Andelman (the aforementioned literary agent who seemed stoked about my manuscript for Lilies and requested for the full thing). Strangely, I wasn’t clicking on it with trepidation. Somehow, I knew it wouldn’t be good news. Maybe it’s because I didn’t wake up smelling a lot of hope and change in the air.

But yeah, she turned it down eventually. But she was really nice about it. She gave me lots of honest, genuine and focused feedback, for which I thank her profusely. Here’s her full email response:


Dear Joyce,

Sincere thanks for sharing your full manuscript for WHEN THE LILIES TURN ORANGE with me. I do love the concept, and the set up for Raven & Connell’s relationship – I do feel there’s something very emotionally & psychologically compelling, and very special for the market, in the troubled therapy boy profile you’ve given Connell, the questions your story asks at the intersection of trust and love, but I found the actual plot movements here – the story’s step-by-step execution on it’s fabulous premise, that is to say – a bit too over-the-top and melodramatic [Oops! Really?? Okay, maybe I DID try to make it really dramatic and dark], for me at least, right down the Rox/shovel moment, and I had trouble connecting to – really feeling rooted inside – both Connell & Raven as characters, and thus able to root for them. So, for this reason, I will step aside at this juncture.

Certainly this is just one agent’s take, and I must stress that I think you have obvious writing talent (though I will say in the same way that perhaps I thought the plot was a bit overwrought, do keep honing your craft and reigning in your tendency, I think, to overwrite/over-state the emotions/thoughts of your characters — trust yourself to accomplish your story’s and character’s reveals with more subtlety, & your readers to grasp more emotionally without needing to be *told* quite so much by your narrators). [Ah, yes. The old ‘show, don’t tell’ adage. I should have revised it one more time before sending her my full manuscript. I had, after all, written it when I was 17. As I’d mentioned before, when I read back on it now, the writing seems cumbersome and juvenile.]

In any case, thank you for letting me share this feedback with you, in turn. [Hell, thank YOU for sharing that feedback with me.] I hope you’ll take this as a candid note of encouragement as you continue to work towards publication. I would be happy to hear from you again in the future on this or on other projects, but for now I wish you all the best for success.

Regards,
Michelle


In a way, I kind of expected this. (No, actually, I’d expected her to send the typical generic ‘I don’t think I’m the right agent to represent this project’ spiel that literary agents give to reject aspiring writers, but she didn’t, which was nice.) I thought it was too good to be true. I mean, so far, Lilies hasn’t received the kind of response I’d hope for. Practically everyone who has read both Lilies and Moonlight (not many, but still) tells me the latter is better. And so far, I haven’t had a really enthusiastic response from anyone who’s read my stories (apart from maybe Yishi – thanks, babe!). So it makes sense that one more person doesn’t believe in it, right? Why would she, after all, when no-one else does? I’m not being insinuating or cynical, if that’s what you’re thinking now. I’m just trying to pull my dreams back down. A girl can dream, yes, but not if it makes you completely lose sight of reality.

This just renewed my vigour and determination to complete Moonlight and revise, revise, revise (as Nathan Bransford said) after I’m done with it, so I can try to interest Michelle in it. This time, I’ll make it good or die trying. Nobody publishes their first novel (well, okay, Lilies isn’t my first, but like I said, those I wrote before it are considered trial runs only, anyway), anyway. Joanne Harris (author of The Lollipop Shoes, Gentleman and Players, (her best yet, in my humble opinion), Five Quarters of the Orange, Chocolat, The Evil Seed, Coastliners and many others) only published her first novel, The Evil Seed, recently after the success she’s had with other others novels.

Yes. That’s the spirit, I suppose. In the meantime, I’ll just get back to my Word Processor now, shall I?

Later, yall.

Is no news good news? Do I really have to place my faith in that cliche? It’s been four weeks since I sent my manuscript to the most enthusiastic literary agent I’ve queried to date, Michelle Andelman. Most agents usually require 4 to 6 weeks to read a complete manuscript, so once 6 weeks are up and she hasn’t replied…. *Sigh*

Please let her be interested in representing me. That is all I ever want. I can hear desperation in my voice. Can you?
I’ve gotten some feedback (mainly from Ger and the rest) that Bedful of Moonlight is nicer than When the Lilies Turn Orange. That is both good and bad news. Bad new because, obviously, not only is Lilies not the phenomenal debut I’d hoped it would be, my readers are unable to feel the same way about as I do. But the good news is that if my second novel is better than my first, that means I’ve improved in one way or another … right?

One comment I’ve gotten was that Lilies has too much backstory that made the beginning rather draggy. Okay, fair point. I guess I can see where that came from. Seeing as how that was my first novel that took place in the slightly-Utopic-almost-dystopic estate of Wroughton, I felt the need to firmly establish the setting so as to set the tone and mood of the story.

If Michelle Andelman decides to represent me and wants me to get rid of all that backstory, I’ll hack it off, no question. (Again with the desperation. You hear it? It’s almost embarrassing. I’m like grovelling.
The reason why I prefer Lilies is because of the setting, and the romance. For Lilies, I always draw up the image of a grand wrought-iron gate flanked by high hedges, with vines curling all over it. And inside the Garden, there’d be a stone fountain, and a maze that eventually leads to the nursery and gift shop, and Raven’s (the story’s protagonist) favourite hideout: the statue of Venus, where she brings Connell on his birthday…
And the garden would be wild and buzzing, full of life and secrets, and the sweet, heady perfumes of flowers are witnesses to the dark romance between Raven and Connell.
It’s just really dramatic for me. Which is how I like it.

As for Bedful of Moonlight, I imagine a quiet cemetary, full of lush greenery everywhere, serene and restful. A quiet lane runs around the cemetary and into the heart of the estate. The rain is over, raindrops slide off the leaves, and the world is cleansed, left cool and gasping, reborn. Just like how moving to Wroughton represents a new life for Kristen.
(I trawled through a hell lot of pictures to find that cemetary one. But it still isn’t quite like what I picture. The lane isn’t there, for one thing. And for another, I didn’t picture so many tombs so closely packed against one another. The cemetary I have in mind is spacious, open, full of light and wind.)
Thoughts, anyone? Feel free to comment.