South London, are we ready? I am coming straight out of my garret to read from my new award-winning debut, CRY OF THE FLYING RHINO, at the Brixton Book Jam, on Monday 5 March 2018 7:30pm at The Hootananny. (95 Effra Road, London SW2 1DF) – a large pub with a performance space that can hold 600 people. It also provides cooked food. The closest tube station is Brixton (Victoria line) and buses 2, 3, 415, 432 and 196 will transport you very near to the venue. Guess what, it’s FREE to attend!
This will be the FIRST TIME that I am reading aloud from this book and answering any burning questions you may have about it or about me.
During the intervals, resident DJ Andy Carstairs will spin melodic stylings from his hard drive. Check out The Hootananny. See Brixton Book Jam for detailed biogs of each author and his/her book description.
Somerset Maugham famously said that there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen
should be read with caution. It is, like all other writing books, a How To book that is a How Not To, which means it shows and not tells you via anecdotes and countless examples of great literature, broken down into a structured and systematic analysis what is essentially the magical and unknown journeys we take when we read and when we write. It is a tour de force of all your favourite books in one and why they are. The content page alone is proof that editor and author Richard Cohen has attempted to turn the business of creative writing into practical advice.
Reading about the writing business is an illness that you already know too well, like flu or cold symptoms. For me, it is also a secret and guilty passion because in my heart, I know that you will never know what a great book is until it is a great book so how can this magic, this art be unravelled?
You recognise the symptoms of the infection straightaway. When you start reading a book about writing, they all tell you the same thing, and that is, all books begin in the same way:
“the opening paragraph, the whole question of starting off right. Thereafter the chapters are roughly organized according to the creative process. How characters are created seems paramount – most often, a character will stay with us long after the particular story has faded away – but how does one give them life? What names does one bestow, how much of a back story should be included?”
Can you teach creative writing?
The question is raised in the preface. Hanif Kureishi in the Guardian on 4 March 2014 famously said you can’t. “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” he said.
“A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ “
He also says that 99.9% of his students are not talented and the little bit who are left are. If skill comes with talent, then the skill can be taught and improved but the original talent still has to be present. That is why when all else fails, writing is referred to as a craft, akin to knitting a jumper or wood-whittling. If it is crude and wrongly-made, that’s just tough. You have to make it again and again until proportionally, structurally and aesthetically it is just right. There is no magic in it.
The short-lived Brendan Behan (1923-64) described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem”.
“He was invited by a prestigious American university to deliver an afternoon lecture about his craft. Behan’s reputation as boozer and rabble-rouser meant that the lecture hall was filled to capacity with students standing at the back and perched in the aisles, but the appointed hour came and went, with still no sign of the great man. Time laboured on; the stage remained empty. After forty-five minutes or so, a more than usually dishevelled Behan stumbled in, and the audience waited, in equal parts expectant, curious and alarmed. “Good afternoon,” he crooned. “Now hands up all of you who want to be writers.” Nearly everyone raised an arm. Behan viewed this forest with disgust. “Well, then,” said he. “Go on back home and frickin’ write.” With that, he reeled off the stage.”
Kurt Vonnegut who for many years was on the faculty of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, also believed that one could not make writers. He said he himself was like a golf pro who could at best “take a few shots off someone’s game”.
Hemingway said what must be a classic truism by now: the only way for a writer to learn his craft was to go away and write. Despite hours of tutorials from Gertrude Stein, Hemingway had to write to her: “Isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad. Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.”
This different kind of bad confirms that the teaching of the craft only highlights how difficult it is to stand out or be original. Once you become a writer aware, you become writer beware. Although teaching writing and publishing is a big business now, with creative writing Masters programme costing thousands of dollars or pounds of fees, it always comes down to: but Dickens didn’t do an MA, neither did Hemingway, Atwood, Orwell, nor J K Rowling. In reality, no one did because it was only recently (in the last 20 years) that creative writing courses came to exist. There was no such thing before. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.
My MA in Writing at Middlesex University
From a personal viewpoint, I became a “professional” when I did my MA in Writing at Middlesex University. I was already a writer. Doing the course did not make me a writer (I had been writing since I could write i.e. from the age of 8 or 9). But it turned my writing from a noun into a verb. Before there was such a thing as MA in Writing, I attended a writing group, the City Lit Writers’ Club in the late 1990s. Being “taught” creative writing was the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I am a very small person physically and socially, so I feel I need to be part of a big organisation. It gave me confidence that more than one person (i.e. myself) liked my work. I know that writing is like fine arts, a self-taught interest/hobby/profession/career but I still believe that I need to be self-taught in a group. Most recently, I attended the London Lit Lab’s weekend workshop (a story in a weekend). I am still working on that same story now, editing and perfecting it. However, I would not have written 3000 words in a day had not been for the workshop where I was being “taught” to start writing from scratch after a long period of not writing.
Any university course aims to give you skills or to improve your skills, even more so a Writing MA. Cry of the Flying Rhino was born at Middlesex. Yes! It’s actually a North Londoner! Without having attended the MA at Middlesex, I could not have written the book I wanted to write, nor been granted the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, free of constraints, fear, guilt, grammar, market desirability and proverbial voices over the shoulder, free of boundaries of race, language, culture. A book that experimented with patois, multiple voices, a book that is pure literature. A book that ultimately, after 12 years of dormancy on my hard drive, was submitted for an international literary prize and won. Now that I have written two books and am writing my third, I would not hesitate to say that I was “taught” something: that an MA in Writing is the most freedom you will ever get as a writer.
What about George Orwell?
What about him? He is one of my literary heroes. Perhaps what I liked about his honesty and his writing was what he “taught” me, which is not to aim for popularity but to say what you want to say but make it clear:
“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
He began his career as a clumsy writer. At the age of 24 he moved into cheap lodgings in London, and was befriended by the distinguished poet Ruth Pitter. The two would go for long walks along the Embankment discussing his stories, or meet for dinner of a bottle of red plonk when she would give him unsparing criticism and therefore taught him to compose those stories even though the original gift for storytelling was in fact his own.
is formula, a template. The titular Leo Tolstoy once said all great literature is one of two stories. A man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
Naturally this is sexist and I shall avert my eyes. Man is generic. It could be a child or woman or a living thing. Sexism aside, it is not so simple. If it were, then there would not be so many narratives available.
Carlo Gozzi, an Italian playwright of the 18th century said there were 36 plots. 2004’s bestselling Seven Basic Plots won approval of many writers. Oxford philosopher Roger Scruton called it “a brilliant summary of storytelling.”
Rags to Riches
Voyage and Return
These are just nonsensical hashtags in my view. If there are only 7 then how come all the greatest books have all of the above?
Naturally I turned to this chapter first being someone who can’t, won’t and doesn’t write about sex. As it happens this is a very interesting chapter. It is not about erotica or pornography. “It’s nearly always best to avoid detailed descriptions or elaborate imagery” which is how one turns the writing about sex into erotica or pornography.
William F Buckley liked to recall a dinner with Vladimir Nabokov who told him that he was smiling because he polished off his OSS in that afternoon’s writing session.
What’s an OSS? asked Buckley.
Nabokov explained. Obligatory sex scene.
A depressing scenario is when writers put in a sex scene, badly-written because they hope it will boost sales, or win them popularity or whatever. Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris has a section for erotica and it is aptly called L’Enfer. Hell.
Shirley Conran, bonkbuster bestseller, subcontracts her erotic scenes to Celia Brayfield. Detachment from the characters is still a great way to get attached to them. The irony. Summary about writing about sex?
Writing about sex is a fine ambition but difficult to carry off successfully. Try, but be ready to junk the pages.
The Song of Songs, a long erotic poem, in the Old Testament has been described as the single most instructive example of how to write effectively about physical love. The second most successful love scene is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”:
Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed…
By this these Angles from an evil sprite,
Those set out hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America! My new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d…
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.
The advice in a nutshell is to use poetic licence. Language is still language. Do not describe body parts. Less is more. End of scene.
There is no need to recap or to sum up with a great statement of “wearisome” arguments already made. “When you have said what you want to say,
Thanks for reading this blog post! If you like South-east Asian and vintage arts and cultures, you will love my award-winning novel Cry of the Flying Rhino set in Malaysia and Borneo in the 1990s. It is dark, macabre and thrilling, it has received a handful of five-star reviews already. And of course, it is stylish like you and I.
This is a view of Bako National Park in Kuching, Borneo, home to millions of flora and fauna many of which are still undiscovered and unknown to humans. It seems the opposite of the Hong Kong in the photo below, yet both of these places are where Cry of the Flying Rhino was born.
Check out my SHOP where you can purchase SIGNED FIRST LIMITED EDITIONS of Cry of the Flying Rhino. Find out why this book won outright for the first time in 9 years of the International Proverse Prize competition.
NEWS: I am reading at Brixton Book Jam, The Hootananny, London SW2 1DF on Monday 3 March 2018, 7.30pm, please come along if you can.
Cry of the Flying Rhino LIMITED EDITION, FIRST EDITION, SIGNED is now available! Find out why this book won outright for the first time in 9 years of the Proverse Prize competition. Go to my SHOP for a LIMITED EDITION, FIRST EDITION, SIGNED COPY of Cry of the Flying Rhino and other books.
UK £16.75 including first class postage
Rest of world £22.50 / USD29.81 / SGD40.34
“Anyone impressed, anyone imprinted upon and inspired by Lalwani, Roy, Chatterjee, Burgess, Lowry or Orwell, will be correspondingly affected by Ngeow.” – Professor Jason S. Polley, Department of English, Hong Kong Baptist University
Today’s inspo: just wanted to share these photos of the 1916 venue of the book launch and prize ceremony. This is the Blue Room where the event will be held. I am very excited to be launching my award-winning postcolonial novel Cry of the Flying Rhino here! Originally built for the protection of women’s rights,. I think it’s going to be a symbolic, meaningful and once in a lifetime experience and one that I will treasure forever or at least until I have senile dementia. The Helena May is a historic post WWI building and it is fully restored. It is built in the classical colonial villa style with the articulated frieze consisting of dentil corbelling at the cornice level and the Italianate balustrading on all levels. The entrance portico has a curved pediment and the classical entrance columns are of the Corinthian order. The windows are casement and have no articulation. On the street elevation, There are flattened arched openings on the ground and first level from which the windows are set back in a gallery-style colonnade.
During WWII (the Japanese occupation) the building was used by the Japanese forces as stables for their horses! After the war, in 1947, the Royal Air Force took over the building. Disclaimer: I wrote all this architectural analysis myself, so if there are any errors in terminology, well, tough.)
“The Helena May was founded in 1916 and named after Lady May, the wife of Sir Henry May, Governor of Hong Kong at the time. Funded largely through the generosity of two local philanthropists, Sir Ellis Kadoorie and Mr. Ho Kom Tong, CBE, it was originally established to support women living and working away from home, and contributing to the Hong Kong community. Lady May’s original vision, enshrined in the organisation’s constitution, is central to today’s community outreach programme which focuses on the needs of women and girls living in Hong Kong.”
“From the outset, The Helena May has been an organisation for women led by women. The driving force was Lady May who, as President of the Y.W.C.A and mother of four daughters, was very aware of the lack of facilities for women and girls in Hong Kong. She provided leadership and direction to The Helena May in the early years that set a strong foundation.”
Heart of Glass: Front cover done. Back blurb in progress.
Some delays in August because I was torn between two cover options both of which I liked. Now we’re done being torn. Very exciting. Clue: 1980s! Yes! In sports news, Cry of the Flying Rhino: Hong Kong – the prize giving ceremony and launch is now only 4 weeks away!
I have been living in Hong Kong time and refuelling on carbs, waking at 2 or 3 am to do live edits and emails in order to not lose a day each time an email comes from the publishers. The 4 rounds of edits are done now. I’ve designed the cover, prepared a Sino-Malay glossary, a map of South East Asia (aside: after Illustrator crashed at 5 am, had to have a go in Photoshop). You don’t realise what goes on backstage. Months and months of prep, and before that, years and years of writing.
Forget the lip gloss. This is the harsh terrain of pre-press. I climb a small mountain every day.
Before you say Mazel Tov, this book has some history because it was written 12 years ago, been through 14 drafts, and “many” rejections and you know why? It is a bit controversial. Not very, just a bit. Many, many times I wanted to delete it from my hard drive and throw the damn thing away. What saved me from doing it was the voice over my shoulder. Cry raises uneasy themes like race, religion, class struggle, colonisation, diversity, poverty, capitalism, exploitation. All my pet topics, all-in-one. They are under-represented in English fiction, especially by non-English writers for whom English is a second language. The themes in Heart of Glass are: imprisonment, greed, displacement, cultural identity. I only speak the truth, dressed up in fiction. I express myself best through music and fiction.
Some inciting images. These fascinating images sparked off a million ideas before one or two story threads led to writing Cry. I first saw this image of girls tattooing girls and also a photo of this sign on my one trip to Borneo:
I am thrilled that the judges of the prize can see the truth and my point. That is actually the real prize for me, not the prize itself. There’s a door I’ve opened. Through Heart of Glass, I have gained your support and my voice may at last be heard. The next update on Heart of Glass will be very soon. As usual your comments are welcome.
1/ Someone once said “Writing is Showbusiness for the Shy”.
Events/talks/gigs to promote one’s paperbacks is quite a nice thing to do if you are a) young or b) young at heart or c) have tons of time or d) all of the above ideally. As I am having a déjà vu, this method is not commercially viable, sustainable or cost-efficient for me.
2/ Lessons from Satsuma:
In the good old days of the 90s and 00s, I was gigging with my band Satsuma and in those days people actually bought CDs. I know. At times we played to 5 people and at times 500. You would still put your 110% into it like every gig is your last ever gig. You could sell between 0 to 40 CDs per gig. If you don’t lose money per gig, you’re laughing.
Actual sales, new and old fans, actual gigs, photos shoots, stylists, cover design, interviews, excitement, adrenalin. Remember this is the only thing that the audience sees and wants to see.
4/ Lows (time, energy and costs):
Travel, the hours and hours in the rehearsal rooms, recording your EP, five hour sound checks, the travel time and journeys through every kind of weather, loading and unloading at all hours of night or day, flat tyres at 1 am in the icy rain. Nothing is quick, even when I was driving the van, which saves time and money for everybody else. All of this takes an astronomical amount of time and energy, which I no longer have due to having young children and two jobs and a few time-frittering hobbies.
5/ Sour grapes:
The only worse thing than being a complete non-success is a tiny bit of success because that lured us into the belief that there was hope in any of it and therefore more and more time, money and energy should be recycled and ploughed back into gigging and promotion. At some point the balance must have tipped because I was unable to write any more songs. You can burn out from promotion and marketing (and this is before social media). There is no end to it. As someone from the late Slacker generation which is of course in itself a total farce, I may still uphold an optimistic yet cynical view of promotion because I am still constantly figuring out what to do by doing.
6/ Lessons from Hong Kong:
“Yeah, whatever.” Said the Slacker. Despite being on the Unbound and the HK publisher’s conveyor belts, I cannot figure it out. There is no right or wrong. The HK guys say a different thing altogether from Unbound forum. Their view in one line: Forget social media. Stick to word of mouth. Have more parties, sell more books. If books don’t sell, write more books, have more parties. Wanna be a writer? Write more books. Wanna sell books? Write more books. Wanna win a prize? Write more books.
7/ Lessons from crowdfunding:
The Unbound publishing model works for the author because through crowdfunding an author already has shifted between 190 to 300 books. That is more books than you will sell at any gig!
I have been working on the cover design with the graphic designer who has designed bestsellers like The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. As a designer myself, I find it both easy and hard to take the back seat and let someone do the driving. I’ve even done a moodboard, see below, as the designer inside me always kicks in when you don’t want it to, like at 5 am. The last update I wrote was 24 May just before half term break. I seem to be making updates just before the end of term. Today is the last week of term. Subliminally I don’t know if I will survive school holidays. That is why I have to do my updates just before school breaks up. Question time: “Where’s. Me. Book. Where’s. Your. Book. Where’s. OUR. book.” Answer: It will be out soon – follow these updates closely from now. The clock is ticking. Baby will arrive soon. Parents, be brave! Writers, be braver!