“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?

On meeting Alwyn Hamilton and resisting the siren song of Shiny New Idea

I know. I KNOW it’s been two whole months since I last blogged, and if you actually visit this blog and aren’t in regular contact with me you might have wondered if I died in a ditch somewhere.

No, I just died in my writing cave.

i need help

Because while I wasn’t blogging, I was busy working on that fantasy novel. Once or twice, I did feel guilty for not updating this blog and toyed with the notion of posting something. But I didn’t really have much to say that wouldn’t bore the lights out of everyone anyway. Plus, I feel even MORE guilty for doing anything other than writing that novel. Like, all this time I spend blogging can actually be spent upping my word count! Do I really need to blog?

But now that I’ve hit word count for the day, yes I can and yes I shall. (Need is a very strong word, after all.)

So updates:

  1. Meeting Alwyn Hamilton!!
    The most squeal-worthy one, of course, is that I got to moderate a session with ALWYN HAMILTON, THE ALWYN HAMILTON. Best-selling author of YA fantasy trilogy Rebel of the Sands, which I’ve gushed and swooned over everywhere!!!

 

Yes, so I got to meet her and pick her brain and she was incredibly sweet and candid as she shared about her writing process and journey to publication and I tried not to wet my pants in excitement.

(If you haven’t read her books yet, DO IT.)

 

 

 

It’s always so inspiring to see other writers living the life I’ve always wanted, and to know that they came from the same place before too (in a job they weren’t entirely committed to because they didn’t see it as their actual career). It makes me that much more determined to get to that place too.

So with that event done and dusted, I promptly went back to work.

 

2. Working on LAND OF SAND AND SONG

I’ll admit. I ALMOST caved in to the YA romance that was calling out to me as I ploughed through LAND.

But then I told myself that if I succumbed to this sexy new project – looking all glorious with its cutesy premise and alluring character arcs – I would be letting LAND down (what, you don’t regard your works-in-progress as actual sentient beings??) and making the mistake that many amateur writers make: write, get stuck, abandon, move to new project, get stuck, abandon… You see where I’m going with this.

And – surprise, surprise – that’s not how writing gets done! The only way to finish a draft is to, well, FINISH THE DAMN DRAFT, no matter how shitty it looks right now.

The current WiP may look like me when I first wake up in the morning with my hair all over my face and my skin blotchy and eyes bleary and basically a giant mess; whereas the Shiny New Idea may look all seductive and make eyes at me from across the room. But I’d be an idiot to follow it out the room when it sidles close to me and asks if I want to go get some air.

prince eric hello.gif

Prince Eric may be hot, but he’s also an idiot easily fooled by an octopus woman. Just saying.

Because guess what? That Shiny New Idea will lose its lustre halfway through LIKE ALL FIRST DRAFTS DO. It will gurgle and splutter and flop like a dying fish on land (WHO’S LOOKING SEXY NOW, HUH?) before you decide to take pity on it and toss it back to the sea.

So no, I’m sticking to the “I woke up like this” WiP, blotchy skin and all. Even if I sometimes feel like stabbing it, even when it blinks innocently back at me when I scream at it to work itself out, even when my brain produces word vomit instead of a stream of lyrical prose like I want it to.

And the good news is, writing has a funny reward system. The more you do it, the less stuck you get. The more word vomit you produce, the more momentum you gain, the less shitty the writing gets.

Oh, the word vomit will still happen from time to time. But eventually, that clears up to become prose that is somewhere between not-too-bad and lyrical. And then, finally, hopefully, one day we might look back on all that drivel we wrote and realise that we’ve actually written our dream book.

 

HANDS UP, those of you who are resisting “the siren call” (as Alwyn put it) of Shiny New Ideas at the moment! How are you staying loyal to your WiP? 

enjoying the journey

 

“It’s impossible to put all your energy into something really difficult if everything is riding on the result. The people who are the best at reaching big goals have an obsessive drive toward the goal, but also, they are able to break down the process of meeting the goal into tiny, bite-sized pieces and then take pleasure in completing each part.

When someone is unable to relish the small steps, they just stop, because process starts to seem hopeless if you constantly focus on the end. You have to have a proclivity for hard work (which might be as crucial and inheritable as talent) combined with the ability to take joy in the process itself.”

I came across this article recently, and was struck particularly by the quote above.

It is, in essence, what writers and other creative types have heard often enough. But to glean this advice from a story as poignant and sweet as this helps to drive it home.

a little progress every day

I’ve been told often that this writing journey is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to enjoy the journey itself rather than sweat over how soon we reach our destination – partly because there’s always going to be a new ending point, and partly because focusing on the destination instead of the journey means we are losing sight of what really matters. Not whether we publish our next book or make the New York Times bestsellers list, but why we write and what keeps us going. Whether we enjoy writing our stories, whether we love the process of creating something out of nothing (which is basically what art is), of pulling our random ideas together painstakingly to form a coherent and moving story.

I’ve been so caught up in the fact that I haven’t completed a manuscript, haven’t hit the word count, haven’t had anything that I can pitch to agents, etc, that I’ve stopped making it fun for myself. And how fun any endeavour can be is mostly – if not entirely – within your control.

focus on the journey.jpg

Before, I agonised over the numbers, the outcome, instead of the process of creation and storytelling. In chasing the outcome, I’ve forgotten to let myself indulge in the joy of imagination, of pursuing ideas, in wonder and play.

But those are the things that will inspire us to write, not having a deadline constantly breathing down your neck and screaming at you to write, dammit, write! Because you can’t write a good story with that kind of negative pressure and guilt-tripping yourself when you fall off the bandwagon. All you’re going to do is make yourself miserable and crush your self-esteem and question your self-worth and identity as a writer. You’ll end up churning out pointless scenes and useless pages for the sake of hitting word count. You will plod along at a lacklustre pace for the banal sake of progress, when in fact you’re going nowhere at all.

So I tried to shut out all of that – all the doubts and anxiety and self-inflicted pressure – go on a partial technology detox, go stare at the sea for a bit, spend a weekend doing absolutely nothing related to writing or the manuscripts, drove around town with the stereo on full blast, belt along to songs like these:

And it’s not only been completely liberating (everyone should try screaming along to 2000’s pop punk hits on a drive if they get the chance to), it has also cleared so much more head space for thought and imagination. I’m watching dramas and TV series again, reading more extensively (instead of focusing on material that’s related to my works in progress), discovering new songs, and dreaming up new scenes instead of rehashing tired old ones.

In fact, I’ve found a way out of the fix that is NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND. Not entirely, mind you. But I’ve circumvented several roadblocks that have kept me scratching the dirt at the same spot for the longest time. All because I decided to take a step back, take a chill pill, and then come back with a new outline! And since then, I’ve been working through Draft 7 bit by bit every day. But every bit counts, and I know I will arrive at a manuscript I am entirely satisfied with no matter how long it takes.

So deep breaths, baby steps, fellow (figurative) pen-wielders. We will get where we need to be in the time we need to get there. Trust in the journey. Relish it. Your writing will thank you for it.

enjoy the writing

(Also in the vein of self-forgiveness, I’m not going to sweat about the frequency of my posts. There are far more important things to concern myself with, like, you know, the quality of my posts.)

Hope you’re having a Zen hump day!

when existential angst seizes you on a Thursday night

WAIT.

It’s been more than A MONTH since I wrote my last blog post? Not just, I don’t know, two weeks?? Where did all that time go???

I honestly thought it’s only been at most three weeks since I last blogged. The past month, like all those before it, flew by with deadlines and events and the mad rush at work to clear my Inbox (when will I ever have zero unread mail?) and check things off the never-ending to-do list.

Every time I realise how quickly time has passed and how completely oblivious I have been about that, this suffocating sadness settles over me.

And along with it comes even more panic.

On top of worrying whether I’ve replied all the urgent emails and cleared everything flagged as top priority on my to-do list and accounted to all the relevant people, I also worry about all the time I’m wasting NOT doing the things I love or actually care about.

Sometimes, I don’t know if this anxiety and sadness (I won’t call it depression because it would discount what true depression sufferers are going through) is normal, if everyone my age feels the same way, as though we’re juggling multiple things in our lives and may lose our grasp on any one of them any second, or if things will get better as soon as I make the bold leap out of my current circumstance.

What if I’m just leaping into another big mistake?

What if this is as good as it gets, and I just need to grit my teeth and get through it?

What about all the other unexplored possibilities out there?

What am I giving up by staying in my comfort zone?

What if I sacrifice safety by venturing out?

Is there any guarantee at all for anything??

Okay, that just got way too heavy for the night. I’m not here to mope and moan again. This was supposed to be a quick update on the WIP, the short story blog, and other (frankly, nonexistent) life updates. I just got triggered by the time that has lapsed since my last post.

I’ll leave the trend-of-thought rambling for sessions with my therapist. For now, there’s always Rilke and his sagely advice

Okay, updates.

  1. On Neverland

On the writing front, I’m still working my way through draft six of NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND. It’s slow-going, especially for Act II, and I understand why some of the agents I queried pointed out the saggy middle. Because the middle IS saggy. I got bored reading it, which means my readers will too.

The question, now, is how to create more tension in Act II and keep the story plodding along. And I can’t move on until this is resolved. Hence, a brief stalemate.

2. On the short story blog

The four of us have decided to take down the pace a notch over at our short story blog. I explained it in this post, but basically we felt that one short story a month, on top of other posts every week, was too hectic given our respective commitments with our day jobs, family, our own WIPs, and everything else.

So instead of a weekly short story, we’ll be posting one fortnightly. Better a short story that we’ve spent time and effort on than one that we churn out for the sake of meeting deadlines, right?

3. On life

Well, what more is there to say? I’ve been cooped up in a bubble, ricocheting between work and writing, work and writing.

Thank goodness for steadfast friends who keep me sane and are unfailingly patient, ceaselessly encouraging, and immensely kind. (And you, dear reader, for being forgiving of my liberal use of adverbs).

A friend of mine said that we, as writers, need to feed our soul in order to create stories that in turn feed others’ souls. That we shouldn’t see the time we spend not writing as wasted, but as nourishment for when we do sit down and write.

Another friend told me that we shouldn’t see life as a race to the destination. Even if we have a goal in mind, the journey itself is worth paying attention to, and we need to live in every single moment that takes us to our destination eventually, even if that means watching YouTube videos or taking a day off just to roam around the city.

(Seriously, how are my friends so wise and in the know?!)

It reminded me of a quote from one of my favourite YA authors, Sarah Dessen:

sarah dessen the truth about forever.jpg

And of course, that Rilke quote about living the questions now so that we might one day, finally, live into the answer is a timeless source of comfort.

Looking back on 2016, I was sooo hung up on not having completed a manuscript. I kept feeling like I had wasted an entire year. And I put so much pressure on myself because I told myself I have big plans for my life and can’t afford to slacken.

But if I hadn’t spent my time reading those books, watching those dramas, pursuing those ideas, attending orchestra concerts on weekends, going through the necessary angst, or giving myself the time and space to do things outside of writing (i.e. living), I wouldn’t have come up with two new novel plots that get my heart racing and my fingers itching to write every time I think about them.

Sometimes, I think my gaze is so fixed on the finish line that my view becomes entirely blinkered and I ignore everything else around me. Still working on that.

I guess what I’m trying to say, after all this rambling is, I will learn to trust in the journey. I hope you will too, dear reader, and I hope you’ll find your forever in the moments you’re living right now.

steve jobs connect the dots.png

when life crowds out everything else

don't put your dream in your pocket

You know how when you get too caught up in the daily grind and its nitty-gritty demands that everything else falls by the wayside and suddenly you glance at the calendar and realise weeks have passed and your brain is still stuck in two weeks ago — no, 2015?

Yeah, that just happened. Again. Actually, it’s happened too many times before. And weeks, months, YEARS can pass just like that. When you stop to take a breather and realise that all this time has fled and you’ve done pretty much nothing that you can show for.

2016 was like that for me. A year where everything was a blur, weeks blended into each other and I had no idea when one ended and another started. My calendar was full of deadlines, and the to-do list for work jostled for the most space on my phone and desktop.

We get caught up the snare of day-to-day life unwittingly. It creeps in, slow and insidious, beginning as just regular ol’ anticipation for the weekend, when we have some alone time, some room to breathe, at last. We try to survive through the week, and then anticipate the next weekend.

rinse wash repeat.jpg

Pretty soon, the brief reprieve offered by weekends is the only thing that’s keeping us afloat.

Weeks can fly by when we’re counting them down like that. We can lose grasp of our time, our goals, our dreams, when we let real life rob us day by day. Commitments like the day job, socialising, chores, errands… Something’s got to give, and more often than not it’s the thing that asks the least of us that gets sacrificed. The thing that asks the least of us, but gives us the most joy.

For artists, it’s our art.

It sounds frivolous and indulgent, but it isn’t. Living isn’t just about survival. On top of that, it’s about finding a purpose, a calling, a reason for being, what the Japanese call ikigai.

ikigai.jpg

Everyone would have, by my age, typically found theirs by now. Otherwise, we’d all just stay in bed and wonder what we exist for.

For artists — at least, for this artist — the drive to create is what keeps me going. I can’t break down yet, I can’t give in yet, not until I publish another book, reach one more reader, finish writing another novel.

Therefore:

writer court insanity kafka.jpg

When there is no space in our lives to create, or at least (in Liz Gilbert’s words) pursue our curiosity, life dims into a dreary pool of watery light. When our minds are so preoccupied with keeping up with the demands of everyday life to venture into the realms of creativity, we become ravenous, mercurial beasts, snapping at everything in our way and not understanding why. We grow heavy and lethargic in our hearts, to the point where we can’t seem to breathe, or where everything comes out in tears.

What Laini Taylor said in this blog post (which I keep going back to) was right:

You can be convinced you’re following your dream, or that you’re going to start tomorrow, and years can pass like that. Years.

The thing is, there will be pressure to adjust your expectations, always shrinking them, shrinking, shrinking, until they fit in your pocket like a folded slip of paper, and you know what happens to folded slips of paper in your pocket. They go through the wash and get ruined. Don’t ever put your dream in your pocket.

I let 2016 pass me by. I’m not going to let real life rob me of my time this year, I’m not going to put my dream in my pocket any longer. I will unfold it. I will find the time and space for it, if only because it is growing too restless sitting in my pocket and sitting in my heart and it’s manifesting itself as tears, despondency, night-time despair, and a bone-deep restlessness that is crowding out every other thought in my head.

But I don’t have time to go insane. I don’t have time for a mental breakdown (although physically I have, what with a high fever, sore throat, and the flu I’m just slowly recovering from). I don’t want to be lost and depressed anymore. Because there’s work to be done, and only I can get it done.

If nothing, I can at least say I tried, and it was all worth the effort.

I think the passion for an extraordinary life, and the courage to pursue it, is what makes us special. And I don’t even think of it as an “extraordinary life” anymore so much as simple happiness. It’s rarer than it should be, and I believe it comes from creating a life that fits you perfectly, not taking what’s already there, but making your own from scratch.

~ Laini Taylor

 

 

on self-care and forgiveness as a writer (and human)

take-a-break
So from the 17475957274 things to do at work, Trump’s inauguration and the departure of the Obamas (goodbye to the last shred of class, grace, and decency in the White House!), to insufficient rest because of new working hours (those researchers are not kidding when they say interrupting ones circadian rhythm causing them to display the effects of being mentally and physically tortured – more on that in a bit), I think it’s safe to say that the past week has been a little rough.
At work, we’re getting started on all our 2017 sales campaigns and launches now and February and March are when EVERYTHING seems to be happening all at once – school collaborations, our very own style awards, trend campaigns, brand campaigns, birthday anniversary campaign … And on top of that I have a writing residency and writing festival to prepare for. I don’t even know where to BEGIN. Last Thursday, I found myself just slumping back in my seat in shock and resignation and waiting for an answer to hit me on the head.
The end of the week could not come soon enough. Except it did, and it knocked me over in one punch: I fainted on the train home.
I just closed my eyes for a minute there on the commute home and the next thing I knew I had blacked out and was sprawled on the floor, dazed and confused. When I opened my eyes everyone was in my face. This lady helped me up and someone else picked up my stuff, while and guy kept asking if I was okay. I leaned against the train door for a while to shake off the vertigo and we soon reached my stop. The lady kept holding on to me and followed me out of the train. She asked me if I could get back home on my own and I said I’ll take a cab. But I took a bus home and promptly crashed into bed. My body was breaking out in cold sweat when I woke up 15 minutes later (set my alarm clock for that so I wouldn’t oversleep).
This is completely unprecedented – I had never fainted before and it’s a scary feeling to not be in control of your physical and mental faculties. I’m the kind who whizzes around everywhere and works out without fail. You wouldn’t think I’d ever FAINT out of exhaustion or whatever the reason was.
Besides, it’s only JANUARY! Who gets burned out in January?! I haven’t even really gotten started for this year yet.
But I guess our bodies don’t demarcate time into years and think, Oh okay 2016 is over so I’m starting anew in 2017, like our brains do. The stress you pile onto it accumulates over time and your body doesn’t have a yearly quota or automatic Refresh button that it hits on 1 Jan.
It was probably the amalgamation of everything that had been going on in the past week. And that glass of wine I had on an empty stomach while meeting a content partner to talk business probably didn’t help matters much.
But I finally managed to grab 7.5 hours of sleep that night (wasted the whole of last night not writing though) and woke up feeling slightly better rested. But it kind of made me wonder if I’m really, like what everyone around me keeps saying, pushing myself too hard. Maybe I don’t realise it (because it’s my norm, the routine and structure that I’m used to) but everyone else sees it more clearly?
A friend of mine told me that my days are so structured and I’m so disciplined that I don’t allow any excuses for myself. For some reason, I started tearing up.
Why do I keep hanging on so tightly to this kind of routine? Why don’t I dare to step outside and explore things beyond my comfort zone? Maybe I’m more of a perfectionist than I thought, and the fear of slipping up, of being judged, of being seen as incompetent?
Still, though, this incident has put the fear in me. Not the useless kind of fear I usually carry around that hinders how I do (or NOT do) things, but the kind that makes me sit up and pay attention.
self-care-is-survival
Another friend of mine advised, “You may want the world to be a certain way. You may want your life to be a certain way. You may want the people around you to be a certain way. And you are, of course, responsible for working hard to bring all that into reality. 

“But there is one primary responsibility that comes before all that. And that is to take good care of ourselves first. Because we have only one piece of sophisticated equipment we need to get the work done – and that is our physical body (and the brain that comes along with it).

“If this critical machinery breaks down, there go all our chances of creating the reality that we want.”

He – and Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert – also said that self-love and forgiveness are two things that writers badly need but often don’t give themselves enough of.

“That fainting spell was your body telling you to take a hint,” said my friend.”Also, when you find yourself becoming accident-prone … hint, hint. It takes a measure of wisdom to recognise these limits and learn to respect them, before your very self starts to break down.

“It’s possible that your blood sugar may have dropped below a certain threshold, triggering the fainting spell. Digesting wine on an empty stomach burns too many calories and your body probably went into deficit. If you keep it up, the catabolic process will break down the healthy tissues in your body and burn those for energy.”

Which basically means I need to start treating my body right and stop thinking it’s invincible (sure feels like it when I’m working out, though).

So here’s me trying to block out the white noise of everyday life and paying attention instead to what my body is trying to tell me. The accidents – little or big, sustaining at least one injury every other day – the bone-weariness, the fainting … Maybe while being masters of our own body  we also need to serve it well.

I might have been doggedly pursuing that one major writing goal, to the extent that I’ve been leading a blinkered one-track life, for too long. And in the meantime, life happened; the day job continued to take its toll. Add alcohol to the mix and you’re probably not surprised things turned out the way they did.

I’ll listen more carefully from now on. And may YOU continue to be kind to yourself as you chase your dreams. You are all you have.

self-care

Have a good week ahead! :0)

How to Revive that Dying Manuscript

Last week, I came thisclose to giving up on that memory erasure novel. THISCLOSE.

This would not be the first time I gave up on a manuscript. In fact, it’s always around this part (the middle of Act II) that I contemplate abandoning this piece of shit that has sputtered and stalled towards the end of Act II. Like NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND, I tried dragging it on for a while before admitting to myself that the story isn’t working and that it’s not going to turn out the way I want it to. It’s commonly known as the “dark night of the soul” for writers, where we languish in the pits of inferiority and debilitating self-doubt.

writers-block

I came across this article recently, How Writers Mourn Their Dead Novels, which perfectly describes what it’s like to have a dying novel in your hands and it’s up to you to bring it back to life.

You’ve spent years falling in love with an idea, working out its intricacies, populating its contours with characters that become like family. And now, after months building it word by word, you have a thick manuscript, mostly finished, that flops about on the desk like a dying fish. “Save me,” says the fish. “I can’t,” you say.

And then it dies.

I’m standing at that point between the flopping and the dying. And as someone whose manuscripts have survived several near-death moments, here are a few tips I can offer to those who are in the same boat as me right now:

1. Keep Your Eyes on the Finish Line

Some days, it feels like you’re never going to finish the damn story. It feels like it will never be done, and that you’re just crawling your way to the end with a boulder tied to your back.

I know.

when-the-words-flow

Snoopy knows too.

The only reassurance I have – and am clinging on to – right now is the knowledge that I’ve been through this before. I’ve had to contend with several flopping novels on the brink of death before, and somehow managed to salvage. NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND is something I’m sort of proud of (even though it’s still not perfect), partly because it was a manuscript I had almost abandoned but managed to COMPLETE (at last).

Think about what you first set out to do with this story, think about what you’re trying to say. Think about the magic that first inspired you to write the novel, and forge your way towards realising that magic.

2. Enjoy the Ride

Yes, it’s painful.

The whole process of creating something from scratch is like carving out a piece of your flesh with every word you type.

The first draft is ALWAYS shitty. Because that’s when we’re still figuring out the story as we go along, even though we may have plotted it extensively before diving into it. We can never know for sure EVERYTHING that we want to say until we actually say it. So a lot of what we’re saying the first time round comes out garbled and incoherent.

It’s verbal diarrhea.

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But it’s the process – that journey towards The End – that makes the destination that much more beautiful, after all. Why else would you want to keep doing it, story after story? Knowing how far you’ve come since page one, seeing how different – better – the finished product looks from your first draft, realising that you somehow managed to find your way to the end eventually makes everything worth it – the blood, the sweat, the tears.

3. Work on Something Else

Instead of tearing your hair out and squeezing your brain dry while you agonise over the WIP that is just not working (which NEVER works for me), maybe a distraction might help to get the writing juices flowing again. No, not Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest.

Another WIP.

A Shiny New Idea.

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How those other Shiny New Ideas are calling out to me right now.

I’ve found that it helps for me to work on another story simultaneously, so whenever it’s going terrible for one you can take a break and turn to the other. Sometimes, you just need some distance between you and your WIP to approach it again with fresh eyes. It usually works, at least for me.

The whole idea is to not lose momentum. Keep writing – another WIP, a short story, a poem (if you’re into that – personally, I make a terrible poet) – and you might just find a diamond in the rough.

4. Time for a Change of Scenery

do-something-worth-writing

Benjamin Franklin

Artists are anything but drones. We’re human beings who are constantly seeking new experiences, new scenery to reignite that spark.

Which is why my upcoming Beijing trip is well-timed. Not only is it a change of scenery (all! those! palaces!), it also provides a reprieve from REMEMBER, and I can focus on plotting the Oriental-inspired historical fantasy novel I’ve had brewing in my head ever since I watched Sound of the Desert and read Rebel of the Sands. Shiny New Idea, let me give you some loving!

5. Stay Inspired 

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Image from Hoover’s Corner

How do you write a novel when you’re stuck in your own head? Keep reading new stories, watching new stories, listening to new music, and experiencing new things, and never stop asking what if questions to keep the stories coming!

 

So tl;dr I’m not going to give up on BEFORE I REMEMBER YOU just yet. And if you’re thinking of abandoning your WIP, don’t. Just give it some time and space. It’ll get better. Trust that it will!

keep-calm-and-edit-later

By the way, I’ll be in Beijing for a week, so I won’t have access to conventional social media and texting platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp (*cries*). I can, however, still be found on Skype (joyce.chua259) and Instagram (@thewritesofpassage), where I will spam travel photos!

It’s going to be crazy times, y’all! Stay inspired.

 

Until we meet again,

Joyce xx

On Working and Over-Working

Today, just this:

writer at work

Well, not quite. I’ve been encouraged to blog about this. This being what’s been going on lately on the writing front.

I woke up last Thursday morning experiencing the strangest jitters and shakes. I was tremble-y and weak all over. My body was warm, but my insides cold. It turned out to be a result of stress. I know, who would have thought I’d be stressed out, right? I mean, I may seem antsy and highly-strung most of the time and have no patience for the waiting game, but I also do things to help de-stress, like swim or listen to Joe Hisaishi and Nell, or play a musical instrument. I promise I’m chill! (Except it’s usually the neurotic ones who proclaim that.)

But no, apparently I was having an allergic reaction to work. Not just work-work, but the other work I do after office hours. In short, my writing. I was stressing myself out because of the thing I love most.

Accomplished writers always tell us aspiring writers that in order to make it, we need to treat our writing as our second job, one of equal importance as our official one that pays the bills.

20130114 Laini Taylor writing advice

I don’t dispute that – writing requires discipline and effort. The only way through is to devote the time and energy necessary to creating the best possible story you can pull out of yourself. So after the nine-to-five (so to speak), I dive straight into my manuscript the minute I get home. No time for dinner. Just munch on some fruits as I pound out the words. Keep going until my eyes can’t stay open anymore. Next morning, wake up at the crack of dawn to swim before going to work.

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This routine seemed to work just fine for a while. I mean, I was hitting word count, getting shit done, living and breathing my story, doing what was required of me at work, and staying healthy. Right?

But it seems I might have been going about this the wrong way, if the recent bout of adverse physical reaction is any indication. Insufficient sleep, for one thing. And an all-consuming obsession to squeeze that story out and hating myself whenever I couldn’t get it going.

write all the words

This led to general frustration and resentment and other unpleasant emotions that, needless to say, made the problem worse. The stories stalled, and ideas spluttered to a halt. I kept trying to crank up the engine, but it just groaned and refused to cooperate. I made note-cards, drew three-act structures, tore down each manuscript to its bare bones, rewrote synopses, trying to get to the root of the problem and understand where I went wrong so I can pick up from there again.

When I wasn’t writing, I felt restless and guilty. (Even right now, as I’m writing this blog post, there’s this voice in the back of my head nagging at me to stop procrastinating and return to the manuscript!) But when I was writing, I felt stuck. Nothing was working.

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My dad remarked the other day that my modus operandi is unusual and not very efficient. “You work in sprints, two-hour bouts of manic energy and then you crash,” he said. “Regular people work at a consistent pace so that they can last longer. A slow-burning flame will keep you going further.”

This is in line with what I overheard a swimming instructor tell his student the other day in the pool: “No one is pressuring you; only you are pressuring yourself. You just need to try. Trying and failing is how you learn.” The kid he was coaching tried and failed gloriously, but managed a perfect length of backstroke by the end of the session.

I didn’t realise that I was creating my own problem until that moment. I was burning myself out because I was too impatient to get what I want. No one is pressuring me; I’m just hurrying myself to get the next book published. And the thing about publishing is that it takes a loooong period of time – years – from conception to publication. If there’s ever one job you need patience for, it’s writing.

We think that, because we’re in our twenties, we need to make shit happen already. It’s been almost four years since I graduated. Why haven’t I achieved something yet? (Okay, yes I published a book, but what about the next one? And the next? And the one after that?) When am I actually going to start living the life I always dreamed of?

But maybe our twenties is the time we lay all the groundwork for the career – and the life – we want in our thirties and forties and beyond. Maybe we need to work at our craft now with consistency and devotion, and focus on putting one foot before the other instead of staring off into the distance and wishing we were at the finish line at this moment. (Where is the finish line anyway? Don’t we just keep setting new goals for ourselves?)

Because like Rilke said,

have patience rilke quote

And like Hermann Hesse preached:

hermann hesse seek too much

And when all else fails, like Elizabeth Gilbert said at her TED talk, maybe all we really need to do is simply return to the one thing we love more than ourselves, “put our heads down and perform with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from us next”.

 

For all the dream-chasers out there, are you sprinting towards your goals or running a slow and steady marathon? Do you occasionally feel burned out? How do you restore equilibrium in your life? I’d love to hear about your writing journey!

 

[Related Story: How Wanting Makes Us Want More]

5 Writing Lessons from Sound of the Desert

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You know me. After watching a good show, I can’t resist analysing it deeper to find out what worked so well for it so I can apply that to my own stories. (That fangirl-y post I wrote previously doesn’t count as an analysis!) So here are some lessons about writing a swoon-worthy story Sound of the Desert has taught me:

 

1. Backstory give your characters depth 

… and makes your readers/audience more empathetic to your characters.

All the main characters in the show – particularly Xin Yue and Wei Wuji – have fully fleshed out backstory that isn’t served to the audience in huge doses (the equivalent of rambling expository passages in a novel).

Xin Yue is a very compelling protagonist. Her past is complicated – when we first meet her, she is living among wolves, her adoptive father was killed, and she’s roaming the desert, lonely and lost. It is only when she decides to travel to Jian An, of which her father had always told her wondrous stories, that she is filled with purpose.

xin yue

You immediately want to root for this brave, free-spirited girl from the desert.

Wei Wuji, too, is an illegitimate child who rose quickly among the ranks of the military to become a general at a young age and win every battle he ever fought. As the emperor’s favourite, he has to contend with gossip and people waiting for him to fail.

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In a way, those two are similar in that they are outcasts, underdogs. They don’t quite fit in where they are. Xin Yue neither fully belongs in the desert (she was roaming freely but aimlessly with her wolf pack), nor in the city with all its social hierarchy and rules and palace politics. Wuji distances himself from everyone because he doesn’t know whom to trust, and focuses on winning every battle because that’s the only way he can shut up the naysayers.

When two lonely souls meet, you know that’s a love story waiting to blossom.

Wuji 8

 

2. Everyone has a flaw

… and how they regard that flaw determines who they are and who they will become.

Xin Yue’s most notable flaw is that she chooses to stubbornly turn a blind eye to Wuji’s love, instead choosing to chase Jiu Ye and demean herself to the extent of begging him to love her and getting herself drunk when she is rejected over and over.

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Many times, I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. Get over it, you idiot! But I’m sure we all know what it’s like to to be in a one-sided relationship. Moving on is easier said than done, but we are SO MUCH happier once we decide and manage to – as Xin Yue is when she finally accepts Wuji and lets go of Jiu Ye.

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And as mentioned earlier, Wuji has trust issues because he feels that everyone around him in court is a fucking two-face. As such, he appears cold, arrogant, and aloof. But it is only when he’s around Xin Yue that he can be entirely himself and reveal his warm, romantic, playful nature. Even so, at the beginning, he is wary of her and didn’t give her his real name, which would eventually become his biggest regret because Xin Yue couldn’t find him when she reached the city and he thus couldn’t be there for her in her time of need (Jiu Ye found her instead). This thus makes him chase her harder to compensate for the lost opportunity.

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Jiu Ye is indecisive as hell. Which makes him one of the most frustrating characters to watch in the show. Make up your mind, for crying out loud! Here’s a girl confessing to you time and again, and if you’re going to reject her harshly then make a clean break and stop leading her on. Also, the fact that he keeps her at a distance and doesn’t tell her the truth about why he’s unable to accept her love is a recipe for heartbreak down the road. So we can all safely conclude that his wretched ending was entirely his own fault.

jiu ye

 

3. Supporting characters bring out different facets of the protagonists

Where would Xin Yue be without her sister-from-another-mother, Hong Gu, who first took her in when she entered the city and had no job or connections? And how would she come to appreciate her father’s parting words for her to always look forward with hope in her eyes instead of remaining stuck in hatred in the past had she not met Qin Xiang, who enters the palace just to exact revenge on the royal family?

And if it weren’t for Jiu Ye, she would not have grown into the strong, confident woman whom Wuji regards as his equal. She blossoms under his love, and is free to be herself unapologetically.

xinyue jiuye

That look of longing hits a brick wall.

With Jiu Ye, she always has to second-guess herself, and is uncertain of what he’s thinking even though she tries to read the books he reads and bond with him over flute-playing. Jiu Ye was a necessary part of her life so that she could figure out what she needed and wanted to be.

For Wuji, his uncle plays the father figure in his life (after his actual father deserted him and his mom married another man), so a large part of his upright, loyal and honourable personality, unsullied by greed for power or money, is thanks to his uncle’s upbringing. Meanwhile, his uncle’s son is a snivelling little weasel who plays underhanded tricks and serves as a stark contrast to Wuji’s character.

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That powerful gaze! Eddie gives life to the character.

 

4. Scenes need to vary in intensity and length

Pacing is everything. Or at least, one of the most crucial factors that can make or break a story. A well-told story balances long, introspective or intimate scenes with punchy, high-octane ones expertly.

Between Xin Yue and Wuji’s cute banter and Jiu Ye’s mopey staring out the snowy window and flute-blowing, other subplots unfold. Scheming court officials, battles with the fierce nomadic Xiongnu tribe (Jolecole explains the history a bit more here, and also lays high praise on Eddie), et cetera.

Subplots are a great way to break up the main narrative, which can grow tedious on its own. If woven skillfully in, they can and should also further the main plot and add more dimensions to it while teasing out more character dynamics.

 

5. Character growth is one of the most gratifying journeys

Xin Yue had been adamant about having Jiu Ye right from the start. She only had eyes for him, and didn’t give a shit about Wuji always being there to comfort her when she gets her heart trampled upon by Jiu Ye, to protect her from the people in her past she is hiding from, or just there when she needs a friend in a new foreign city.

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Xin Yue is stunned by Wuji’s sweetness when he tells her she’s not alone in Jian An.

It was only after she decided to let go of her past – her hatred for the people who killed her father and her unrequited affection for Jiu Ye – that she manages to bravely move on to a new chapter in her life.

xinyue

As the audience, we grow together with her. We empathise with her predicament, understand the struggles she goes through to make her final decisions, and experience the same catharsis when she chooses to embrace a new life with Wuji.

 

And lastly, this lesson isn’t about writing, but love.

6. Love is about timing

As Dreaming Snowflake said,

(Sound of the Desert) has always been a story that tells us that love is about timing, however, also that love favours the brave and those who fight for it and never give up and Wei Wuji is the epitome of never-say-die attitude be in it love or in war.

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Gotta love a man who would fight valiantly for what he wants.

 

So while appreciating a mighty fine specimen like Eddie Peng, these truths are what I gleaned. Writing lessons can be derived from anywhere and everywhere, especially in the stories that move you. And the best lessons come unexpectedly, like from a drama like Sound of the Desert that I never thought I would ever watch.

What did you derive from Sound of the Desert or any other stories that moved you?

The Write Life – Staying True to Your Craft

I’ve been hooked on TED talks by writers and creators lately. It was this particular one [Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating] given by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love that got me started. I come back to this speech every time I need a pick-me-up while lost in the wilderness of creation or in the pits of despair when things are out of my control.

In her speech, Gilbert talked about the struggles every writer faces: rejection, failure, feeling stuck in the same spot for years, being powerless in the publishing arena and facing things that are out of our control, like market forces and book sales.

On rejection and pushing through:

I failed at getting published for almost six years. So for almost six years, every single day, I had nothing but rejection letters waiting for me in my mailbox. And it was devastating every single time, and every single time, I had to ask myself if I should just quit while I was behind and give up and spare myself this pain. But then I would find my resolve, and always in the same way, by saying, “I’m not going to quit, I’m going home.”

And you have to understand that for me, going home did not mean returning to my family’s farm. For me, going home meant returning to the work of writing because writing was my home, because I loved writing more than I hated failing at writing, which is to say that I loved writing more than I loved my own ego, which is ultimately to say that I loved writing more than I loved myself. And that’s how I pushed through it.

On “going home”:

… the remedy for self-restoration is that you have got to find your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can, and if you’re wondering what your home is, here’s a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service, it might be raising corgis, I don’t know, your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.

On staying true to your craft:

The only trick is that you’ve got to identify the best, worthiest thing that you love most, and then build your house right on top of it and don’t budge from it.And if you should someday, somehow get vaulted out of your home by either great failure or great success, then your job is to fight your way back to that home the only way that it has ever been done, by putting your head down and performing with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from you next.

I’m a born worrier. People around me always tell me to stop overthinking. So it’s no surprise that I drive myself crazy going in circles in my head, thinking about potential outcomes (most of them not very pleasant) and obsessing over what I’m doing wrong to remain stuck where I am.

But I often find that losing myself in the story I want to tell not only takes my mind off these worries, it also reminds me of why I’m even doing this in the first place: because, like Gilbert, I love writing more than I love myself. It’s something I would do even if I weren’t getting paid for it; it’s something I do when I’m happy or down or troubled or angry; it’s something I will always do and can’t help but doing because making up stories is already a part of me — it’s in my blood.

I think there are some people who wander in life for years, not knowing what their purpose is, and lucky are the ones who find their calling early in life and therefore have years to work on it. So when you do find your calling, you need to hold on to it, nurture it, and keep in mind why you love it even when there are moments – many of them – when you feel like giving up.

So onward, storytellers. May you always manage find your way back home to what you love, and not waver in the face of failure.

rilke quote