“It’s not too late” — and other reassurances a writer needs to hear

May be an image of text that says 'THE FUTURE belongs to those nho believe in the BEAUTY of their doeams'

It’s been a simultaneously eventful and uneventful few months since my last post — with Covid-19 restrictions tightening and easing, vaccination drives rolling out at last, finding and settling into a new job, working from home (yay!), working on structural and copy edits for the novel (watch this space for updates! I’ve got news to share!), rediscovering my love for poetry, planning new initiatives with a writer friend, etc.

Life is far from back to normal, but it’s slowly inching towards a new normal, one that I’m pretty comfortable with at the moment and very thankful for.

With so much going on, my time spent on social media and general socialising has gone down, though productivity has gone way up (double yay!).

I recently came across this Instagram post by Laini Taylor (if you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’d know how much I adore her and her books) on how time doesn’t stop for any writer in pursuit of her publishing dreams — and it made me reflect on my own anxieties as an author in my twenties (granted, that’s not very long ago, but I like to think I’ve grown some in the past few years).

For the entirety of my twenties, I was laser-focused on getting traditionally published and becoming that author who made it to the bestseller list before 30 (which, to me, was akin to making to the Forbes ’30 Under 30′ list). I was wide-eyed and hungry — even at times desperate — for success. I spent days, evenings, wee hours of the night, and weekends writing book after book, and then querying agent after agent, eager to get better at my craft, to put myself out there and get as much feedback as I could.

At the end of every year, I’d ask myself, “What have I accomplished this year?” and feel dejected when the answer was a resounding “nothing”. But I didn’t know then that was not true. I hadn’t accomplished nothing, even if it seemed that way at the time. All that time I had spent slaving over my manuscripts, trying to perfect every word, querying agents, receiving rejections, making new friends at writing conferences and online, and getting through life in general all added up to something — something intangible: experience.

Which author doesn’t dream of being that wunderkind who publishes her first novel and hits the bestseller list at 21? (Yes, there are people who do that. The rest of us mere mortals slowly work our way up.) But I think there’s also something to be said about the grind, the hustle, the years and years of toiling away in silence that makes the journey just as beautiful and rewarding.

Too often, writers (who are 99% worrywarts plagued with anxiety) stress over “missing our prime” — we think that just because we haven’t achieved anything much in our twenties that we are doomed to a lifetime of failure or a mediocre life where our work dies in obscurity and we settle for a drearier Plan B.

But while it’s obviously a dream come true to skyrocket up the bestseller charts and live that coveted #authorlife with the publication of our first book, it’s often not the case. Many authors I know have had to hustle HARD and work their way up rung by rung — to build their readership, build their audience, grow their network, get better with each book they write that, sadly, may never get published.

But their unadulterated passion isn’t easily annihilated by the brutal reality of the publishing industry.

What’s really inspiring is not the fact that they become wildly successful; it’s often their backstory, their road towards achieving their goals, and their tenacity to keep going in the face of setbacks. What’s inspiring is that they continue to forge ahead with their dream cupped in their hands, doing it for the love of the craft, the love of dreaming and telling stories. It’s hearing stories from wildly successful authors who once had to struggle like the rest of us to get their stories out into the world, who almost lost hope and almost gave up but didn’t. Ultimately, they did it for the love of writing itself, and their success came almost like a side-effect of that (and of course, lots more hard work that extends beyond just writing the book).

My 27-year-old self was fraught with anxiety and desperation (will it ever happen for me? should I give up?) and that nearly killed the love I had for writing. Burning out at 27 is worse than getting published at a later age.

So yes, I do believe that it’s never too late to write your first book, publish your first novel, switch genres, switch mediums, hit the bestseller list, what have you. It’s not too late, and the only “prime time” is the time you are ready as a writer, after having grown from all your experiences (be it in your life or your publishing career) and after you have found your voice. You can’t enjoy the destination fully if you don’t go through the journey, after all. And while we’re at it, we might as well enjoy the ride. Plus, you need time to become a better writer — some people take longer, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So tl;dr: It’s not too late. You are right on time. The journey towards becoming a better writer is never-ending, the goalpost is always shifting. We can never reach perfection, but we will never stop trying to reach it. It keeps us on our toes, gives us something to work towards, something to live for — and that’s the beauty of it all.

What are some of your writing goals, and how do you pull through your struggles?

Thursday evening ramblings

1. What happens when a writer interviews herself? Take a look. If the interview sounds completely neurotic to you, welcome to the mind of a brilliant writer like Joyce Carol Oates.

2.

Also known as:

Now that I no longer have exams to contend with in November, I’m more than ready for NaNoWriMo. This will be the first time I’m taking part in it, even though I’ve completed a novel in a month before (LAMBS FOR DINNER) just to see if I could do it. 
I originally planned to write INDIGO TIDES for NaNo, but it’s just not coming along. I don’t see the theme of the story, can’t figure out my characters, and basically don’t understand why I want to write this story other than create pretty prose. But a novel is so much more than just pointless purple prose (sorry, couldn’t resist sticking an alliteration in there). I can’t write a story without believing in it, or feeling strongly enough about it. It has to be a story I am consumed by, whether I’m awake or asleep, where scenes pop into my mind as I brush my teeth or getting dressed, and where characters converse in my head while I’m swimming laps in the pool or on my way to work, where I think about what they would say to the things I encounter every day.
Damon Salvatore (from THE VAMPIRE DIARIES) says it best: 
Yes, a love like that would be nice. But for now, a story like that would do. 
(On a sidenote, hurray for Season 5 of TVD! Something to look forward to every week again, along with SUPERNATURAL and THE ORIGINALS.)
And with a bit of luck, I woke up yesterday with a pretty much completed novel in my head and a ready-made title to go with it: NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND. Yes, it’s the Peter Pan-inspired one I’ve been going on about for months. I have my characters, I have their motivations, dreams, fears and voices figured out, I have the climax for the three main acts planned, and the opening scene is just waiting for me to pound it out. Cause for the happy writer dance? I think so.

In case you need a reminder of the face that triggered my Peter Pan obsession, here it is:
 
(I admit, I might just be looking for a reason to post his pretty face here.)
3. YA writers, here’s an update on the new trends in the YA market.
I’m glad contemporary YA is making a comeback. It’s been a while since books like Sarah Dessen’s have taken up a good part of the shelves, and I’ve been searching for a simple coming of age story in which the protagonist goes through a significant transformation and growth that is gratifying to the reader, preferably with a generous dash of romance. Contemporary YA has always been and will always be my first love. I remember the book that started it all: KEEPING THE MOON by Sarah Dessen. It was the first Dessen book I read and I’ve been a fan of her ever since. Shortly after came Deb Caletti and her book, WILD ROSES, which inspired my first standalone novel that I completed in 2008 (after working on it since 2005), WHEN THE LILIES TURN ORANGE. There are certain books that change your life and influence you and your writing, and these two happen to be of the contemporary YA genre. Which is why this genre will always be my true love, despite how much fun I’m having with urban fantasy now.
But even though I agree that we need more contemporary YA now, I find it a bit of a stretch to say that the time of YA fantasy is coming to an end. While it’s true that the YA market is saturated with paranormal fiction of all things fanged, furry and/or winged, and that it’s understandable for literary agents to get weary of such stories and crave something simple and authentic and grounded in reality, something that can resonate with them and the readers, I believe that a well-crafted story, regardless of its genre, will always have a place on the bookshelf. 
Perhaps the disillusionment with the fantasy genre stems from the done-to-death formulae: forbidden love between angel and human, pact between wolf packs, average human girl is introduced to the mysterious dangerous world of handsome paranormal boy. But writers like Maggie Stiefvater have broken from the norm and created versions of this genre with their personal stamp on them. And writers like Laini Taylor have gone beyond the regular run-of-the-mill fantasy story and brought the genre to whole new levels of awesomeness, with mind-boggling plots and perfect prose and pacing and complete character arcs.
Really, all we need is just a good mix of contemporary and fantasy. Personally, when I get tired of writing contemporary, I dabble with some urban fantasy. And when I feel like I can’t take reading or writing another paranormal story, I go back to contemporary.
Maybe it’s all about shaking things up and attempting the things that you’ve never tried before and that scares you. I think I’m terrible at writing from third-person POV, which is why it’s the challenge I’m going to take on for INDIGO TIDES. For now, though, INDIGO is not the story I’m ready to tell. So I’m just sticking to my first love, what I know and love best, contemporary YA romance told from alternating first-person POVs.
Whatever genre we write in, as Joyce Carol Oates put it, “We write to create the books that we would like to read, that haven’t yet been written.” Fantasy or contemporary, we write whatever is true to us, whatever moves us; we write the story that we believe in. A friend of mine asked me a couple of days ago where I find the patience to complete a novel and all I could say in response was, “If there’s a story you strongly believe in that you want to share, you WILL find the patience for it no matter how much it torments you.”
And maybe we all have a story like that in us. And we might just discover that this NaNoWriMo. Happy writing!

it’s all about people

That’s the National Arts Council-Media Development Authority networking session at Singapore Writers Festival, for those unacquainted with the acronyms. It was the first of such things I’ve ever been invited to, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

It was held at the TCC at the Singapore Management University (SMU), and there were 20 writers and 20 media representatives gathered there. There was a buffet dinner served throughout the 2-hour session, and it was cosy and people there already seemed to know each other well. But it wasn’t as awkward as it should have been for me. Maybe because meeting people is a large part of my new job, so I’m already getting accustomed to it.

The well-known local writers like Verena Tay, Ovidia Yu, Josephine Chia and Jeremy Tiang were there, along with industry experts like literary agent Fran Lebowitz, Francesca Main (editorial director from Picador. Picador!!), Prem Anand (who wrote THE NOOSE, so he’s the one responsible for making us laugh), Jean Yeo (director/film-maker who turned Catherine Lim’s THE LEAP YEARS into a movie), and many others.

And then there are the first-time authors like me. There’s also J, who’s a stay-home mother and wrote a book called THE MAGIC MIXER, where a mother uses this, well, magic mixer to bring together all the traits she would like in her children. And then there’s K, a Korean who used to live all over the world and nis now living in Singapore, managing a lithium mine in South America. No surprise that his book is an Indiana Jones type of young adult action-thriller that sees the protagonist leaping across the globe. I’m actually quite excited to read his book.

Verena Tay brought a seemingly inexhaustible supply of her latest book to distribute to those present, while Ovidia Yu was a ball of energy in her trainers and jogging tights, bounding about the room with her easy smile and wide eyes.

Then Fran Lebowitz hobbled in with a bad leg – some sort of accident she recently had, and Josephine Chia went over to help her settle into a chair. I sat around talking with Prem, Verena and Jean before we started proper at 7.45pm. The first three writers who were slated to go before me all couldn’t make it that night, so I turned out to be the first speaker.

Yes, lucky me.

Not.

I totally had a speech prepared and all. But I decided to wing it and not show that I was nervous (because what spells nervous more than a prepared speech?), so I cut my speech shorter by more than half. Instead of reciting my blurb, I tossed a one-liner about my book and squeaked, “Thank you!” before scurrying back to my seat.

Oh yeah, I was so cool.

But the audience were nice about my being nervous, and after all the writers had finished pitching their stories and it was networking time Francesca and Fran told me I actually did okay with my pitch, though Francesca wished I could’ve talked more since it sounded pretty interesting. Fran Lebowitz*! I read her book, TALES FROM A BROAD, when I was in secondary school and it was so funny and entertaining. Plus, she’s been an agent for 15 years and have met many authors and industry experts from the UK, US, attended and spoke at many conferences, seen many manuscripts, represented bestselling authors.

(*Let me clarify. This is not Frances Ann Lebowitz, the American author. It’s another Fran.)

So to have her tell me how much she enjoyed my story, LAMBS FOR DINNER, was such a huge honour. She said it was “perfect YA” and it was “sexy, gritty, funny with a storyline that flows naturally and strong characters”. Then she told me she was the one who voted for my story to be the top 2 out of all the entries they received for the Beyond Words: Young and Younger 2011 competition organised by NAC. I was completely blown away, but I didn’t want to gush too much in case I came across too hysterical or fake. She said what she liked about my manuscript was that it wasn’t set in just Singapore; it had a setting that was universal, so she could focus on the story rather than the setting, since the setting is supposed to bring out the story, not the other way around.

Also, she pointed out the contradiction that government grants set out with: they want local writers to go international with their stories, but they want their stories to be uniquely local. She said that she, as a reader, is sometimes unable to relate or even understand some of the references or dialogue in the stories.

I think you can retain the local flavour without losing your international audience, but it is true that locally-flavoured stories seem to be favoured by the guys doling out the arts grants and bursaries.

I’m not going to delve into that topic here, because it might open up a can of worms (or at least, spark some debate), and I’m a Libra; we’re peace-loving creatures, so take your arguments somewhere else. I’m just here to relate the things that I’ve been through, and put some of my thoughts out there (because, trust me, you don’t want to know ALL of them).

In all, it was a fruitful session, even if all we did was exchange contacts and sit around and talk. I got to meet nice people, and trade stories about the writing journey with other authors. I think meeting people for the first time is a lot like going for a run. You feel sort of reluctant to do it at first, you have to drag your feet and force yourself not to wimp out. But then you psych yourself up for it, and then you do it, and you’re glad you did ultimately.

Writing itself, though, is like swimming. You just want want want to do it, and you’re always glad you did, even on the days your strokes aren’t as smooth or when your shoulders ache – the more you write, the longer you swim, as long as you keep going the going gets smoother and eventually you won’t be able to stop.

A most-welcomed bout of encouragement

… from literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog: 6 Reasons for Writers to Be Optimistic

Guess what! The sky may not be falling after all. Yes, there are a lot of changes happening in publishing (and the world).


But things aren’t all bad. Herewith, six tidbits to cheer you up.

1. Publishers are still buying books.



If you follow Publishers Marketplace, you know that new deals are being announced every day. Some people even (allegedly) get deals for $4 million (hello Amanda Knox). While that’s not the norm, it’s a sign that big publishers still have money and still see a future for books. Closer to home, it’s nice to note that deals are still being done for books in all genres, fiction and non-fiction.

2. Agents are still taking new clients.



Yes! Believe it or not, agents still read queries, attend conferences, and sign new clients. Who knew? I myself have already taken on two new authors this year. And it’s only February.

3. Debut authors are still getting published.



Since many of you are yet unpublished and finding the road to publication challenging, it probably feels like nobody wants debut authors anymore. Not true! Fresh voices are still the lifeblood of publishing, and every year, many of them make it to the bestseller lists and “best of the year” lists. Debut authors are never a huge portion of the books published, but still make up about 10 to 15% by my (unscientific) estimate.

4. Print books are still about 75% of the market.



I know, I know, you love the smell of the paper, the heft of the book, how they look on your shelves, yada yada yada. You love your print books, I get it. Luckily for you, print books are still the majority of what’s being sold. If you want to see your book in print, you still have that option.

5. People still READ.



And now that everyone’s on the Internet all the time, people are reading more than ever. That means if you write words, chances are, you’ll find someone to read them.

6. There are more publishing opportunities than ever.



As technology drives the changes in publishing, your options for getting your work in front of readers are expanding and multiplying every day. As far as I can tell, there’s never been a better time to be a writer.


Why are YOU optimistic today?

From Nathan Bransford’s blog (7 March 2011):

Let’s look at a back-of-a-napkin breakdown of a print book vs. an e-book (all numbers approximate):

$24.99 hardcover:
$12.50 to the bookstore (roughly 50% retail price) – [me: so half of the amount we pay goes to the freaking bookstore, not the actual, you know, CREATOR, of the stories? Shocking.]
$2.50 to $3.75 to the author (between 10-15% of the retail price)
$1.50 for paper, shipping, distribution (again, approximately. UPDATE this would be for a high-print-run book, HarperStudio cited $2.00 as average)
=
Around $8.00 to the publisher, which is split between overhead (rent, paying editors, copyeditors, etc.), marketing, other costs, and hopefully some profit assuming enough copies are sold.

$9.99 e-book (agency model):
$3.00 to the bookseller (30% of the retail price)
$1.75 to the author (25% of the publisher’s share)
=
Around $5.24 to the publisher, split between overhead, other costs, and hopefully some profit