Without risk of cultural appropriation or misrepresentation or just being plain offensive.
Diversity is a buzzword we all may at some point encounter. I have written from white, mixed and Asian people’s viewpoints and can say I am fairly comfortable now. My published stories or novels have a mixture of different cultures and it is something that I grew up and am familiar with because I was born and raised trilingual in an urban environment in Johor Bahru, the industrial southern city of Malaysia. To me it is more normal and natural that everybody is unique and different than everybody looking and acting the same, eating the same food, going to the same places, speaking the same language. Writers, if you have not had the privilege of a diverse upbringing, I will give you the secret now on how to absolutely crack the code of writing your diverse characters.
1. Switch off your spell check.
This is very important. Do not proceed until you have done this. Do yourself a big favor and free yourself of all Judeo-Christian terminology, grammar, language, spelling. You will enter foreign now. Food, words, culture, syntax and they will not be underlined in red wavy lines and they will not be removed or changed by auto correct. Train yourself to always listen to real conversations, on the bus, in restaurants, on the streets, and write them down phonetically. I had listened to probably hundreds of Aunties (who are just women older than you by at least 16 years and not really aunts) which made writing the character of Auntie in my novel Heart of Glass a breeze.
‘Siu-cheh, if you wan’ lunch, I fix now.’
I stared at her. Threw my hands in the air. She knew everything.
‘What you wan’ eat?’
2. ALL culture is appropriation
We all learned it, right? Our families and our communities gave us our culture and traditions. Now find out what culture means to YOU as a writer and you do this by working with BIG themes. Jot down the themes in each culture that you know. The themes in Asian families, for example, are the 4 Fs: family, food, frugality, freedom. When you realize that many cultures including white cultures (eg Jewish, Italian, Arabic, African etc) have these very same themes, you will realize what we know and are close to is infinitely what is called the human condition, why we are here. It’s the cliched phrase which comforts writers that we are not as different as you think and that we should find the similarities in each other not the differences. Books bring people of the world together. Our job as writers is to bring the ideas which bring books together.
3. Embrace, don’t avoid stereotypes
It is the only way to challenge and smash them. For example, in Heart, I’m writing from the viewpoint of an American girl of Chinese origin, Li-an. At some point she was bound to eat Chicago hot dog, especially when Paolo suggests it to her.
‘Gimme a dog wid everythin’,’ he said. ‘Make dat two.’
At some point also, Li-an was bound to eat Chinese food. She was in Asia and she’s Asian, right? So why would that be a stereotype?
I hung up and put my feet back up again. I had jasmine rice, peppers
and fried monkfish with a coriander sauce for lunch. I played
guitar all afternoon. I wrote down melody lines and chord changes.
I wanted to be happy here, but I struggled to imagine just playing
the piano and living in a gilt cage called the pavilion.
Your reader is not interested in something ordinary or bland but the context of the detail, even if it’s a poor man’s meal like burger and chips or rice with soy sauce, it has to glitter. I especially like Crazy Poor and not Crazy Rich characters because the poor have so many more things to crave and die for. What keeps them craving for something?Your reader is interested in the finer detail of what it it means to be white, mixed, Asian or whatever, and what it means to be alive. All details will add to authenticity of the character and the voice. You can show they are poor or rich or mean or kind by the detail in the stereotype that you are challenging.
4. Practice writing a few characters
Some may work, some may not, and some may come to you easier than others. In Heart I had three main characters, Ben Mizrai, a Jewish DJ from NY, Paolo, an Italian businessman from Chicago (Chi-town, Windy City etc) and Li-an, the main character who is half Irish and half Singaporean Chinese. All have their own quirks and language. I made sure that I practiced a few times to make sure that everything that they said or did or ate was in character and not just because they were Jewish, Italian or Chinese. For your practicing, you could try a young Japanese soldier or an elderly Chinese lady. Or a pretty Chinese girl student looking for fun. These are all characters which you may find easy or hard to get into, depending on how it comes out in when you figure out what they say or do. Try on a few hats. It is just like being in a costume shop in front of a mirror.
5. Ready, SET, go
Use settings and movement between settings to inspire and arouse your imagination for the depth of your characters. For example, try a huge modern Japanese city, a tiny rural village in China, or in my case, Chicago’s Chinatown and Macau’s seedy casinos and Docklands area. Already you have a sense of the characters needs, conflicts and culture. This is because of the hybrid element in the cultures of diverse characters. As Li-an says, she is living in her fifth culture. Her first and second are Irish and Chinese as she is of mixed parentage, she has never been either countries of her parentage. She was born in Singapore – that would be her third culture, moved to Chicago – that would be her fourth, moved to Macau – that would be her fifth.
We as writers are all these places and all these things, we just turn them into stories. What all humans crave are stories, stories to inspire, to move, to teach, to entertain. If your stories work, you would also know that it would not matter what ethnicity the characters are. Bring them to life. Writing diverse Asian characters is just another way of writing an aspect of yourself, whoever you are.
Are you writing Asian characters and did you find it pretty easy or tough? As usual I would love to hear from you. All feedback and questions are welcome.
Ivy Ngeow was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She is of Malaysian Chinese origin and the author of two novels. Cry of the Flying Rhino (Proverse Hong Kong), winner of 2016 International Proverse Prize, is her debut set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass (Unbound UK) was set in Chicago and Macau. She is fond of margaritas, seafood tacos, Americana and all things vintage. She lives in London and is in her ‘third culture’.
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.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas
Lulu Allison is a Brighton-based artist and writer. Before she started writing she had already been an established artist.
Twice the Speed of Dark
is told from the viewpoint of Caitlin, killed by violent boyfriend Ryan. Ten years on, her mother Anna is still burdened by suppressed grief. Dismayed by the indifference in the news to people who die in distant war and terror, Anna writes portraits of the victims, trying to understand the real impact of their deaths. It is only through these acts of love for strangers that she can allow herself an emotional connection to the world. Anna’s uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Ryan is released from prison. As her anger rises will Anna act on her desire for revenge, or will she find freedom at last from the terrible weight of grief? And will Caitlin reclaim herself from the brutality that killed her?
Lulu Allison’s self-discovery
unexpectedly made her transition from visual artist to a writer as an indirect result of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. It was triggered by her curiosity for why the news offered reasons to care about victims of the Boston bombing when the names of those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan were not released. Why were some victims unseen and others offered up for public grieving? Lulu began what she thought of as an art project, writing portraits of the nameless victims in the news. It became clear that writing offered a means of expression that didn’t exist in art. She expanded the portrait writing; the result was her first novel, Twice the Speed of Dark.
Art by Lulu Allison
in a gallery in Cardiff, from her pre-writing days. They are site-specific installations, newspaper and bamboo structures, part of a series called Vagabond Palaces because they are made of waste newsprint.
“I liked the idea that waste becomes something valuable because something is removed from it (the cut holes) and I thought too that it is a vagabond material, transient, overlooked.”
Vagabond Palace 1
Vagabond Palace 4
There are three types of art in literature:
1/ art for art’s sake
Is the purest form of art. There is no one best to represent this than Shakespeare whose literature was to entertain, and not just the esoteric few, but the masses. Shakespeare’s plays were exercises in realism. There was no intention to reform or to revolt against the evils of society or the ruling party. Yet being a true artist, his insights and portrayal of the human condition and the conflicts in his tragedies, histories or comedies are true to character and filled with empathy.
2/ art for social purposes
is for spreading or instilling social ideas. In poor countries, with corrupt, inept governments, art is used as a device through which social ideas are spread, through billboards, public art, printed material such as leaflets. Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe are of the view that society is influenced by propaganda, which is when artistic licence is taken to spread social ideas.
3/ art for morality
is the positive end of art for social purposes. Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Victor Hugo; Goethe; Cervantes; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky speak the truth through their fiction: the truth being their despair and opposition of oppression, fatalism, passivity, and submission to the societal flaws. Twice the Speed of Dark by Lulu Allison is a novel which comes into this third category as there are themes of grief, domestic violence and disorder which ultimately examine the moral and emotional conscience.
This is another example of Lou’s site-specific non-gallery based art from a series called Entropy: Value-Added.
“Again, it was thinking about value, and I loved the bombastic idea that I was adding value to decay. There is something beautiful in that for me. This is essentially street art, but I called it feral, because I felt it had escaped from the studio back into the wild. I guess it suits Anna’s interest in the accidental too.”
Entropy: Value Added
Anna, the grieving mother in Twice the Speed of Dark seeks solace in the viewing of public art at the Tate, but makes the weary re-discovery that her “passion for art has gone” and that “Twentieth-century art… looks tired, more tired than her even.” Yet she stands back, passive, she feels she has outgrown that passion and is unmoved by the passion invoked by one of the trustees, energetic Eva, of the arts organisation.
Also in the same chapter, we see from the viewpoint of the late Caitlin bonding with her mother Anna in a flashback.
“It was easy to absorb her joyfulness, and soon Dad and I were as elevated as she… Today’s happy evening was brought to you by the colour purple.”
Caitlin describes her pride for her mother being an art history lecturer, who
“spent her life looking at paintings, artworks, filling her eyes with arrangements that had been created, if not inevitably to please the eye to fill it.
“…But she did offer the chance to share in her looking. Look, Caitlin how beautiful it is! It might be a distant view… it might be something I couldn’t spot at all.”
These scenes in Chapter 4 are firstly symbolic of art which bring people, in this case, family together. It is something that grows up and grows old with us. Secondly, these scenes depict also that in literature, art becomes a habit, a theme, an inspiration both for memory and storytelling.
Lulu Allison has spent most of her life as a visual artist. She attended Central St Martin’s School of Art then spent a number of years travelling and living abroad. Amongst the bar-tending and cleaning jobs, highlights of these years include: in New Zealand, playing drums for King Loser and bass for Dimmer. In Germany, making spectacle hinges in a small factory. In Amsterdam painting a landmark mural on a four storey squat and nearly designing the new Smurfs. In Fiji and California, teaching scuba diving. After a decade of wandering, she returned to the UK, where she had two children and focused on art. She completed a fine art MA and exhibited her lens-based work and site-specific installations in group and solo shows. In 2013 what began as an art project took her into writing and she unexpectedly discovered what she should have been doing all along.Twice the Speed of Dark is her first book, published by Unbound. She is currently writing a second novel, called Wetlands.
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.
Robert Raymer is an American writer and writing facilitator from Grove City, Pennsylvania, who now lives in Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
I have met Robert just once. I mentioned him in another blog post called “My First Prize-winning Story was typed on this typewriter” about when I first started submitting my work to competitions and won a short story workshop as a prize for a story I entered. I was 17. I had travelled to the big city of Kuala Lumpur for the first time as part of the prize was attending this workshop. I had never been to KL on my own before. I was totally naive and he was the first American I had met and I thought hey, this glamorous guy must be a movie star from Hollywood as all Americans were movie stars, were they not? The only other white people I had ever met were three women preachers or missionaries from my mum’s home church who played the church organ, wore frocks and sandals and sang gospel hymns all in harmony. They were not film stars. They were Methodists from New Zealand.
It was thirty years ago. I am now 47. About twelve years ago, Robert was the editor for an anthology of short stories called Silverfish New Writing 4. He selected and edited my short story entitled “Friday Night at the Pheasant”. I have lost touch and found him again, thanks to the internet. It seems that life has its circular way of making sense.
I am really honoured that I got to interview Robert here. I have read most if not all of Robert’s stories and what comes across is that he really loves writing and his work is accessible. He writes with kindness, passion and humour. Here he shares with honesty his invaluable experience, hard work and expertise as a writer which he has gained over many decades, his lessons learned and re-learned, the dedication and sacrifices he and his family have made. Warning: This post is a treasure trove. Look away now if you do not wish to know the skill, hardship and labour of love that is the writing life.
1. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Usually once you publish a book, you move onto the next one, but when the publisher, Heinemann Asia got bought out and the buyer got bought out, too, and dropped their whole line of fiction, I found my three-year-old collection of short stories orphaned. So I kept revising the individual stories, trying to sell them to markets outside of Malaysia/ Singapore. Then a Malaysian lecturer wanted to use my now-out-of-print book for his course on post-colonial writing, so I contacted another publisher that said yes. But first I took a hard look at the stories, hired an editor to rip them apart, and then I overhauled the stories, adding back-stories, changing endings, even doubling several stories in length. After moving to Sarawak and not finding the book in the stores, the Malaysian publisher blamed it on the Singapore distributor refusal to ship the books because of the additional costs, so with his blessing I switched to a third publisher, and revised everything again. That third collection, with the addition of two stories, won the 2009 Popular Reader’s Choice Award and was translated into French. Those original 15 stories (minus one, plus two) have been published 80 times in twelve countries. I even blogged a story-behind-the-stories series, pointing out the significant changes for each story that led to their publications locally and overseas.
The lesson, even though a book is published, doesn’t mean you can’t improve it.
That surely applies to unpublished novels that I felt could’ve been published a long time ago— I’ve had offers, but I didn’t think it would ever get out of Malaysia or Singapore. The heavily-revised books are so much better than what they would have been had I settled for a local publisher.
2. What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Investing in myself by moving to Malaysia to write full time (and taking the slow route, backpacking nine months until I got dysentery),
after writing “Mat Salleh”, a short story about meeting my Malaysian-in-laws, later published in the UK, and completing the first draft of a terrible novel to prove that I could at least stick with it. As a footnote, that “Mat Salleh” story attracted the attention of Ohio University (USA) twenty years later who wanted to film it; instead they opted to film another story of mine, “Home for Hari Raya” in Malaysia.
3. How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?
That’s a tricky question. I was a part time writer for a few years in the US but chose to move to Malaysia in order to write full time, though I was mostly living off savings. Once that money ran out, I went back to working/teaching full time and writing part-time for another twenty years.
Although I write full time now, I’m also a house husband looking after two boys, age 10 and 13.
For now, I’m not making enough to support myself full time, but that is a trade off we made….Living in Malaysia, in Borneo, as a writer is a lot cheaper than living in the US or the UK. Now and then, when my wife has a really bad day, she’ll ask me for a progress report to keep me honest…Luckily, one of the perks for her job is travelling every year to Germany and then taking an extra week to travel in Europe while I stay home with the kids…
4. How many hours a day do you write? Tell us about your day.
Writing full time when you have children rarely means writing full time.
Since my elder son started to attend afternoon school my day has become topsy-turvy. On school days I’m up by 5:30 and by 6:00 the children are en route to school and I’m free to write until about 10:15. Then I have to cook and feed my elder son and take him to school and pick up my younger son and feed us both lunch. By 2:30, I’m back to writing. On the evenings that I cook, I stop around 6:00 and if I’m lucky, I can get back to work by 8:45. By 10:00 I’m usually in bed. The days I don’t cook dinner, I can work from 2:30 until about 7:45 and be back to work by 8:30 until 10:00. Of course not all of that is sole writing time, since I do have children,
but when I’m pushing a self-imposed or a real deadline, I’m surprised by how much work I can get done when I focus on the work and ignore distractions, including my children, who naturally take advantage of me….
Weekends depend if they have any school activities (swimming) on Saturday morning or tuition in the afternoon and our plans to watch a movie or go out for dinner. Sundays, after cooking brunch, I usually write all afternoon, often into the evening, especially when pushing a deadline.
5. What advice would you give writers who are facing only rejections?
If you are getting rejections that means you are writing and submitting your work and that is good.
No rejections, usually translates into not writing or not submitting your work. It’s all about perseverance and writing better stories and revising and outlasting those rejections. They say you only fail as a writer when you stop writing, so don’t stop writing! Remember that every best-selling author, every published writer started out getting rejected again and again! They didn’t give up; they persevered. The question you have to ask yourself: will you give up or will you persevere? Also read widely and read successful books you would not normally read to see what makes them successful. Read, learn and apply what you have learned to your writing. Self-help books do help!
6. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Rarely do I read any book that doesn’t make me think differently about fiction.
When I read good non-fiction it can read like fiction, if it has a good story to tell in an interesting way. This used to surprise me, but good fiction can also read like non-fiction (think memoir—James Frey, anyone?) if your characters and setting and all the details ring true and seem real to the reader, even if you’re making most of it up, so long as the story is good.
7. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Other than financial, it is patience and knowing when your work is ready for publication and not just because you are tired of monkeying around with it and can’t wait to become rich and famous. It’s having the courage to accept that maybe it’s not the best it could be and then rolling up your sleeves and revising it yet again.
Having gone through it again, if done earnestly, you’re often glad that you did, surprised by how much you were able to improve the manuscript on nearly every single page!
So keep doing that! I now go through each chapter three times whether it’s my 5th, 10th or 20th draft, after I’ve printed it out and line edited it, and the changes I keep making are immense….And I thought it was already good, ready to be published! So you can either blame the agents and the publishers or get back to work and find out what’s missing or what could be fixed or improved.
8. What are you working on now and what are you planning on writing next? Tell us about your next project.
I have sequels planned for three novels that I wrote, including one set in Penang, which will be sandwiched between two other novels, part of a trilogy.
Originally I hadn’t planned a trilogy, or even a sequel, but when I realized both novels could be related, I changed the character in the second book to match that in a much earlier novel, and reconciled the dates, the back-stories; but then I realized that I had always planned to write a third novel set in Penang based on an incident that happened to me and I thought, this might work between the other two books, involving the same character. Since I had purposely introduced a new character at the end of the first book who would be one of the main characters in that now third book, she could be in the second book, too, along with several upcoming characters. So that second book is starting to feel like a prequel to that third book. Also, I had written a novel set in the US about a shooting incident involving a child, and I have two novels planned as sequels. Then last year I adapted a screenplay into a humorous novel about a hapless spirit helping a boy find a new mother. Of course, I have a sequel planned for that….In fact, I was itching to start either that or the other set in the US by mid-July while waiting for the results of the Faulkner-Wisdom contest where I have submitted five novels.
But two weeks ago, while showering, I suddenly found a way to begin another novel idea that I had been collecting notes on that I felt was more marketable, so I put everything else on hold.
Since I’m still in the early stages of writing the first draft, I don’t want to let the genie out of the bottle before I finish writing it. Based on past experience, the drive to write the story is gone once you start talking about the story. You can talk the story right out of your system. Write it first, talk about it later when the story is written or it’ll always be just another idea that you never got around to write. I figured if never got another new idea for another novel, I could spend the rest of my life happily writing sequels based on the notes I already typed into my computer (dozens of pages for most, others a whole lot more) and that’s not a bad feeling….I admit, at times, I do feel like that donkey that starves to death because it can’t decide between two stacks of hay. So finding a third stack can be a real life saver…
9. If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Edit…which I do now and then. Having taught creative writing for thirteen years at two universities and having line edited about a thousand manuscripts, I know I can help other writers because I can see what they are missing. Of course, it’s always easier to see the flaws in someone else’s work than your own, but after a while, you see similar flaws in your own work and because you were able to fix their work, you can now fix yours….
And if you had stopped writing for any reason, you would think, hell I can write better
than that, and this would lead you back into your own writing and editing your own
Thank you so much Robert for the incredible interview! I can’t wait to hear the results of the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition and please join me in wishing him every success. I hope he starts on the seeds of his new novel imminently. Find him at www.borneoexpatwriter.com. Read his entertaining and insightful blog here.
Named as one of the “50 Expats You Should Know in Malaysia” by Expatriate Lifestyle magazine (January 2010), Robert Raymer’s short stories and articles have appeared in many publications including The Literary Review, London Magazine, Thema, Descant, The Writer and Reader’s Digest. One story from Lovers and Strangers Revisited has been used for the Cambridge International Examinations and others have been taught in Malaysian universities, private colleges and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia literature in secondary schools, as well as in a high school in Canada. He was the editor of Silverfish New Writing 4. Three of his novels have been “short-list” finalists in the 2009 and 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel Competition.
Recently I became absorbed with Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Make Something Up”. I hadn’t read anything like these for a long time. They have some similarities and although I definitely preferred the latter so I will have to spill my guts out and start with .
“Make Something Up” by Chuck Palahniuk
I heard that Fight Club: The Musical is being made. Might be a rumour, might be a contradiction in terms. Edward Norton has a beautiful warm voice as seen and heard in Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You” (1998). But Brad Pitt? I am not sure. What would his audition piece be? I did not read Fight Club the Book I still do not think I can read it as it is quite male-dominated and bare-knuckled. I liked any movies with Edward Norton in it. If anyone can do bare knuckles, it’s Edward Norton.
“Make Something Up” is like literary devices on crystal meth. I just adored this book of novellas and short stories. It’s literary, it’s Americana, it’s art, it’s gothic, it’s retro, it’s dark, it’s kitsch, it’s noir. It is all of these and still worth devouring. The writing style is savage and slick. I would love to write like Chuck Palahniuk.
How does Palahniuk do it? Each story is wicked in both senses of the word. The power of his observation and nuances struck a chord with me. He has famously said “I like to write in verbs not adjectives”. I can see how motto has driven his punchy amoral style. I am actually scared to turn the pages. Something bad or good or crazy will happen and there is no telling what or when this will take place. Palahniuk has a way of dealing with violence and unexpected surprises with dark humour. His female characters are all like caricatures, blondes with big tits and miniskirts or grannies with fake teeth and sweatshirts. I don’t know. Maybe they are all like this in America? But I forgive him his sexism which is understandable due to the kind of characters he writes about, none of which are likeable. They are all mad, bad or sad. Great stuff! Who wants to read about goody two shoes?
In the opening story, ‘Knock Knock’, a son tells one dirty joke to his dying father, who in turn had told him bad taste dirty jokes all the years of his childhood when he didn’t even know what dirty jokes were or what the names of female private parts were. This has poignant repercussions. In ‘Zombies’, a high school craze of detaching cardiac defibrillators from walls to self-inflict electric shocks leads to a iop student’s downfall. Another story that stood out was ‘Tunnel of Love’ in which a massage “therapist” administers an unusual “relief” to dying patients. Fight Club comes back in ‘Excursion’ with the original character Tyler Durden.
The truth about the visceral style is that I feel very greedy and hungry after consuming Chuck Palahniuk’s books. They really waken the senses and the guts.
“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang
Due to my own naivete, I actually thought that “The Vegetarian” is about a vegetarian. It is and it isn’t. The title is a cautionary poetic description of the mental degeneration of the titular vegetarian. As we know, this is literary fiction in translation. What happens in literary fiction is just by the by. The plot is not crazy or twisty. It is totally linear.The most interesting thing about this book is the structure. It is traditional, linear and in three parts. The type of plot is: Transformation. Or Downfall.
The first part is in the viewpoint (VP) of the husband of the said vegetarian. Starts off well, Murakami-like, then strange things happen. At no stage is the vegetarian’s VP known or discussed. The first part is my favorite as it is the least literary. It is plainly written from a blokey bloke’s point of view and devoid of poetry, literary devices, metaphors or symbols. You actually sympathize with him because his wife has not only become vegetarian she has started to mentally unravel, unable to look after herself let alone him.
The second part is in the VP of the brother-in-law, a video artist who fancies the pants of the vegetarian. Although he is an annoying arty tosser, this part is not too bad and still quite digestible because he is trying to make art and in the meantime shag her. In the process he takes advantage of her and his own marriage falls apart when they are caught in the act.
The third and concluding part is in the VP of the vegetarian’s sister. Her marriage has fallen apart so she is now the carer of the vegetarian who has to be incarcerated in a mental home. This is my least favorite part It is thick and gooey with poetry which I secretly enjoyed reading because it is very heady, gutsy and “visceral” (that word again). I am not scattering this word carelessly. It is literally visceral because it relates to the guts of the vegetarian in the subject matter. You won’t feel squeamish and it won’t hurt because the language is so highly-styled and artistic. Nothing is done in poor taste. Yet I am and remain clueless about the conclusion. I really would like to have a spoiler alert here for those of you who like spoilers but I have none. In itself that is a spoiler.
relating to the viscera.
“the visceral nervous system”
relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect.