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.



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This is what I’ve been doing for the past week, preparing for my Sociology exam (3 essays in 2 hours):

http://write-raven.livejournal.com/4162.html

http://write-raven.livejournal.com/4499.html

Despite the an-essay-a-day routine in the week leading up to the most dreaded SC2210 exam on Tuesday (24/11/09), my writing still left much to be desired. Maybe it’s because I was required to churn out 3 essays instead of the 1 that I was used to, in JC. For GP, we had an hour and a half to write a properly thought-out essay that you could spare maybe the last 20 minutes editing. But the SC2210 paper was like a Human Geog essay, where I was scribbling so furiously my hands cramped up pretty badly. Not fun. Really, it took away all the fun of writing an essay. Plus, I noticed the length of my essays gradually got shorter and shorter. I was so drained by the end of it. Maybe I’ve fallen out of the essay-writing momentum. Writing Geog essays is good training. Makes you hardier, because you’ve endured the agony, the hardship. Builds up your mental stamina … that falls to bits after a year of slacking.

But the Philo and New Media exams were MCQ, and so is English (this coming Monday), which gave me some breathing space. After the rigour of the JC curriculum, uni feels like a huge relief (apart from the tiresome projects). For now, at least. I don’t want to jinx the coming semesters.

Anyway, I’ve decided to put off Mint for now and focus on Patches of Blue Sky (need to change title soon!), because Mint doesn’t seem to have much of a solid plot despite my upbeat note not too long ago about the summary-equals-strong-foundation bullshit. It wasn’t quite as painful as I’d expected it to be, probably because I’ve neglected it for so long (thanks to schoolwork) that I was practically detached from my characters.

Still, good news is, Patches is taking shape very nicely. There’s a proper pacing thanks to an element I’ve decided to incorporate, and the words flow relatively easily (for now – not about to jinx anything!), more easily than for Bedful of Moonlight, almost as easily as When the Lilies Turn Orange. Yiruma’s music is a drug, is all I can say.

Triv told me she’d read a couple of my ‘stories’ that I’d written prior to my first proper novel, Lilies. The word is in inverted commas because, as aforementioned, I don’t regard anything I’ve written before Lilies a proper, publishable story that I’m particularly proud of. So she read High Grounds – which I wrote when I was 15 – and said she could see the improvement from that to my subsequent novels, which is one thing good that came out of it, I suppose. Writing High Grounds was actually fun, despite the many cringe-worthy bits. I enjoyed creating the drama, weaving the romance and spinning the catty betrayals. But in retrospect, it is too run-of-the-mill teen series, very OC-ish, The Clique-ish in my book and very 90210-ish in Triv’s (I don’t watch that show, so I don’t know). Still, when I was writing that, I didn’t have being published in mind, because then, I was still under the impression that you needed lots of money for start-up fee to get published: paying the literary agents, the editors, etc. So I was writing that purely for my own enjoyment.

But later, after writing Lilies, I decided I wanted an audience, or at least some people to tell me how they felt when they read my story. So I researched more on publishing, and found out – whaddya know – you don’t need any start-up fee, just loads of dedication, perseverance, a tough hide and a willingness to learn – and, of course, the discipline to actually crank out those words.

That’s what NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is all about, isn’t it? I did think of taking part in it this year, but because November is a hectic month for those in uni, I didn’t have the time to embark on the 50k marathon (the idea is to write a 50,000-word novel in a month – that, as they say, involves lots of caffeine).

But that’s okay. I’m not the type who forces myself to stare at the computer screen till my eyes bleed, just so I can write the 5 pages I tell myself to write everyday. Some days the words just get the better of you, and some days you can grasp them in your palm. Ultimately, the writer is the one in absolute control of the way his or her novel turns out. And the best thing is, there are so many possibilities. That’s scary, in a way, but also what makes creative writing so exciting. I realised it’s the only – well, one of the only few – things that actually makes me feel like life is worth living. Some people work hard for the money, for the designer Coach wallets, for the photos of them clubbing that they can stick on Facebook and have everyone comment on it. Others prefer staying at home, Yiruma replaying on the stereo, and creating a world that is entirely their own.

Guess that is the main reason why I am, to quote Chooyan, ‘so single I don’t even have a has-been’, ‘as evergreen (a term uni people fancy when referring to themselves or others who have been single since forever) as Bukit Timah Reserve’.

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.

Okay, Bedful of Moonlight‘s completed. I actually finished the last page last Thursday, and was late for my meeting with the gang because I was still trawling for quotes to stick on every chapter. It’s really difficult looking for them. They have to go with what the chapter is about, and I wanted them to be quotes from writers, because, you know, the characters are voracious readers and all.

So, yes, I’m done. Well, with the first draft, that is. But I’ve been working on editing it since then. I’m on page 165 now. Hopefully, I can finish editing it by the end of this week (even more hopefully, today or tomorrow), so I can query Michelle. Omg, please don’t let her reject me again. I can’t take it.

Oh, and I’ve come up with a semblance of a plot for my next story! Yupp. I spent my weekend scribbling furiously in my notebook (“Why do you write everywhere you go?” cried my exasperated dad, who, thankfully, did not demand to see what I was writing) and delving into the characters I’ve just created. She someone really different from all the others I’ve come up with. She’s not really a loner, or someone with fantasy romantic ideals; she’s not reeling from someone’s death, or falling for someone with a dark secret. She is, in fact, quite self-sufficient and assertive. I can already see how tough it’ll be to write in her POV, because goodness knows I’m nothing like her, but it’ll be interesting, I’ll bet.

And, of course, there is a boy (more on him in a bit). There always is, like what Sarah Dessen said. I think all writers write books that they would like to read. I mean, I like dark dramatic romance stories and flowers and books and quiet nights and a quiet little estate with trees and winding lanes, so I write about them. Writers, I suppose, live out their fantasies through their writing.

And you know what? I just realised something, on my way to help my grandmother with the groceries on Saturday. My neighbourhood actually reminds me a lot of Wroughton. It’s true! Every day when I walk back from the swimming complex near my house, I see this pavement that runs along a quiet narrow road lined with matured trees and a row of low houses. The sky is always blue (okay, at least for these past couple of months) and there are butterflies flitting about and birds calling. It’s just so peaceful and pretty. Also, on my way to the market, there’s a grass patch near the community centre where several bicycles are parked to a few short stumpy trees. And you know in Wroughton, hardly anybody drives around. They walk or cycle (my ideal estate), and that just reminded me so much of it.

So, how about that, huh? Who knew I’d drawn so much inspiration for Wroughton estate from my own neighbourhood. By the way, for those of you who don’t know, Wroughton estate is a quiet little private estate where my stories take place. It’s quite an isolated but close-knit community where everyone knows everything about everyone (that’s the downside).

Okay, so the boy. Wait, you know what? I’m not going to talk about it here. Not when it’s not really all that developed yet. I do know the title of the new story will be Mint, though. Yes, just Mint. I know, hard to believe, that for someone as long-winded as me, I actually came up with a one-word title. But I do have my reasons for coming up with that title.

But I do need, once again, some help with names. In Lilies, the characters were Connell and Raven. In Moonlight, it was Kristen and Caleb (and it took us all a long time to come up with those two names; blame it on my pickiness). So, in Mint? Any suggestions? No Marthas, or Emilys, or Davids, or Joshuas, or Jasons, or Christinas. I want something memorable and nice-sounding, but not too outlandish. Like Raven. Or Caleb. You know?