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.



And we’re back to the rejections

[12/01/10]
Dear Joyce,

I’m pleased to tell you I got the chance to sit down and read the first pages of your manuscript and I’m interested in seeing more. I would love to read the entire manuscript. You can email it to me as a Word attachment or you can mail it to me at the address below. (Please write REQUESTED MATERIAL in the subject of your email or on the cover of your envelope.)

Best,
Suzie Townsend
FinePrint Literary Management
240 W. 35th Street, Suite 500
New York, NY 10001
Office: 212-279-1282
Direct: 858-336-4222

[16/01/10]
Dear Joyce,

I have finished reading your pages of BEDFUL OF MOONLIGHT. After careful evaluation, I have decided that I am not the right agent to represent your work. Unfortunately I just didn’t connect to Kristen or the pacing of the story the way I wanted to. I’m sure another agent will feel quite differently about your material though.

Thank you for considering our agency. I wish you the best of luck finding representation.

Best,
Suzie Townsend

“There are some lessons that can only be learned by getting mid-way through a book and learning you don’t have enough story or character depth to finish it. There are some lessons that are only learned once you box yourself into a certain point of view. There are some lessons only learned by realizing what you have is a great, big steaming pile of quirks and character sketch–but no real character CHANGE and thus . . . hell, it’s not a novel.

The solution isn’t to fake your results. The solution is to start your next book more determined and more aware than ever before. It’s to salute the steaming pile of meh . . . and take what you learned and move on to the next book.”

~ Erica Orloff, Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tell me about it. I remember I was THISCLOSE to giving up on Bedful of Moonlight because halfway through the story (literally – I was at page 154), I realised I didn’t have much of a plot or characters deep enough to flesh out their motivations and desires. I’m glad I decided to push through and dig deeper, though. I’m quite pleased with the end result.

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?

Warning: this post is a trend-of-thought monologue, and may potentially bore you or cause confusion in your head as you try to make sense of my internal verbal vomit.



Why would Caleb want to leave with his mother? Is it because he doesn’t believe he can repair his family any longer? If that is so, something has to HAPPEN to make him realise that. Does he finally get tired of helping his father? But given how loyal he is to him, it is an unlikely explanation. Caleb is not one to complain. He doesn’t resent the fact that he is helping his father hide from the law; he just doesn’t want him to get into more trouble than he already is in.



So. WHY WOULD CALEB DECIDE TO LEAVE? If I can’t give a strong explanation for this, not only will my story not stand, I won’t be able to move on.



The only question I can think of asking right now is, what does Caleb want? What is his motivation? Kristen wants permanence; she fears abandonment. So does Caleb, in a way. He is afraid of being left behind; he is afraid of … irresponsibility, maybe? If that is so, then that’s a new character trait of his that I’ve never established before. Okay. Then I’ll have to SHOW that he’s responsible. How? By the way he looks after Oliver. Yes. Okay, now that that’s established (man, I have a hell lot of revision to do), let’s now look at the way Caleb views his family. We know Reilly sees her family as screwed up, but her loyalties lie unswervingly (is that a word?) with her father, Jade with her mother. Caleb is just trying to protect his mother and help to hold the family together (a distinctly masculine trait, protect and perform – to take the place of his absent father, maybe?). So I also have to show that the family right now, with Gabriel, is not ideal, not the one that the kids are happy in. How? What I’ve shown so far is that they’re both workaholics, too busy to spend time with their kids. They are only politely detached with each other, but the workaholic idea is a little cliched, no?



Oh, by the way, should I make Kristen less weepy? Because Khrish just told me she found her a little too emotional. Which is true. I’d been afraid she’d come off like that, too self-absorbed and unwilling to move on and just too content to stew in her head, replaying her boyfriend’s death over and over again. Maybe I should make her a detached and stony individual when she first arrives at Wroughton. I’ve done the detached thing, but I mentioned that she kept crying after Blake died. Maybe I should make her repress her emotions, empty her out, so that everything only comes out at night. Then I can build up dramatic tension to the climax where Kristen finally allows herself to let go (ie, scene at the craft fair with Caleb).



Back to Caleb. What happens to make him want to leave? I don’t think I want it to be Gareth this time. He’s done too much; too much is centred around and stemmed from him. Let other characters come into play. I’ve been wondering if I’ve created too little characters. In Lilies, there were more characters, more distinct voices, that made the story more interesting (if I may say so myself). Who, though, in Moonlight? WHO?? What makes him realise that leaving Wroughton (and Kristen) is the best option? Why would he want to leave with his mother and Gabriel? Arrrgh, Joyce! Think!



Dammit. I need to lie down.



I just realised what exactly it is that makes me so sad about writing (despite the joy it gives me): I have no-one to share it with.

My dear Yiling wrote a song inspired by Bedful of Moonlight, after reading it all the way from chapter 3 to 11. She said the melody just started flowing. Man, that’s real inspiration. But she told me to go back and work out the lyrics. So I did. Please don’t laugh if it sounds cheesy! Lol.

The Other Side of Here

Verse 1: These are the tears
That I can no longer catch.
I watch them fall quietly down.
Wipe the film from your eyes,
Because dreams are not made of these.
You want to get to the other side,
You think there’s nothing here for you.

Chorus: I know it might mean nothing to you,
But I’ll be here on the porch
With the light on and the mugs set,
Even if it’s the only way through to you,
Even if it’s all I can get.
I’ll see you on the other side of here.

Verse 2: These are the words
That we left between us.
I hear them every night.
You told me once, the loneliest man
Is the one who has lost it all.
You want to get on board that train
That would take you where you were before.

– Chorus –

Bridge: The smallest inch that sits between us
Is a chasm
That I can’t hope to cross.
You’re too far out of reach,
You’re too far out of reach.

– Chorus –