Because it is very stupid. I could be doing a million other things, enjoyable things, non enjoyable things, things which could even make money.
As I am approaching 41K WC of my FD WIP*, I begin question my own sanity again. I do not know what it is that makes me write. I really hate it. Like Dorothy Parker says, I hate writing but I like having written. I did not choose writing. Writing chose me. (why, or why didn’t banking or dentistry choose me???) When I first started doing it at age 8, I thought that this is what everybody did in their spare time and later on, as a youth and as an adult, I did it secretly, like it is drug, or self-harm. I knew it was bad but I carried on.
Why I am trudging along, still another half to go of this new novel:
a) I need more practice
b) I want to meet a community of writers, fellow-sufferers, cheerleaders, like-minded mentally ill people, deluded with same goal but different delusion people. I want to ‘join the club’,
c) I wrote two books and several short stories. My first novel and one of my short stories have won international awards. Other short stories were published. Now only I can see people value what I’m doing (“I think she can write”) therefore it is worth continuing. Readers I do not know in person tell me they like it or they hate it. But I have readers!
d) I need to improve my confidence because each day I wake up I have to start again vis a vis Groundhog Day effect. Ultimately goal is: to write everyday (making it a habit). Doesn’t matter good or bad.
e) it appeals to my vintage and frugal lifestyle. I am not a photographer or painter or classic car collector. You don’t need anything but a brain and a computer to write, so its saves space and expenses.
Yesterday (what wedding? You mean there was a wedding yesterday?) I wrote 821 words of my WIP. Woof! So here you have it. The reasons.
Carefully compiled footnote:
K= thousand WC = Word count FD = First draft WIP = Work in Progress
is an essay by Albert Camus. Sisyphus was the legendary king of Corinth in ancient Greece who was condemned to eternally rolling a rock to the top of a mountain. The stone would fall back of its own weight and he has to start again. They thought that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.
The central theme
of the Myth of Sisyphus is what Camus calls “the absurd” because Sisyphus’ punishment is representative of the human condition: Sisyphus must struggle perpetually and without hope of success. So long as he accepts that there is nothing more to life than this absurd struggle, then he can find happiness in it, says Camus.
What it means to be a writer
is in the last line of the essay: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The perpetual struggle is happiness in itself. There is no more. You roll this enormous, accumulating mass of paper to the top of this mountain and you let it go. And you start again. Camus’ theory is that Sisyphus is happy because what else is he? Camus calls him the “proletarian of the gods”. Sisyphus is the hero of writers and the reason why writers have to live in the absurd and write. The struggle is real.
Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018. She is fond of all struggles but tackles them one boulder at a time.
“A prosthetic leg with a Willie Nelson bumper sticker washed ashore on the beach, which meant it was Florida.” – Tim Dorsey, Pineapple Grenade.
“The Key West airport greeting from the tarmac. They look like mannequins, but are actually overcooked humans who have crisped into a permanent display.”
Never been to Florida? There are some eye-opening and thirst-quenching treats for you in our special photo journey today. I have been to Florida in the days BC (before children). We travelled down from Miami to Key West and Key Largo. I remember having make a few stops during the car journey. One of them was a shop (sorry, store) we found that was also a cafe and all-round convenience store. It was so convenient that it sold both tampons and guns. There were also souvenir key chains made from chopped off baby alligator paws and some incredibly cute ceramic critters of Florida wild animals, no bigger than your thumb, which I still have and admire in my bathroom to remind me nothing is what it seems.
Ready for your dose of Floridian sun? She’s tall, blonde and blue-eyed and she epitomises the all-American girl. Meet Carrie Jo Howe, an American author based in Key West, Florida. Her new book, Island Life Sentence is a fictional account of an American Mid-western woman who feels like an alien in the “one human family” of Key West. Carrie Jo’s first book,Motherhood is NOT for Babies, published in Chicago by Windy City, works wonderfully as a form of contraception.
Carrie will show us her Florida in a journey of 10 Never Seen Before photographs.
1. Key West: lots of water with scattered bits of land.
“I’m afraid to drive across bridges – there are 42 of them to get to mainland Florida.” – Carrie Jo Howe, Island Life Sentence
A horseriding landlubber, Carrie grew up in New Jersey. Her childhood was ordinary (she says) but her claim to fame was that her Junior Prom date was James Comey (ex director of FBI). She lived in Glen Ellyn, Il (suburb of Chicago) for 20 years. Carrie says they ended up in Key West because her husband Tom works for Google and he got a Florida posting.
2. Watch out for killer wildlife. Also elderly drivers.
Peg is unaccustomed to the sight of wildlife in Key West
“Most of the wildlife can kill you, not to mention the elderly drivers, and the sun–MY GOD it’s HOT.”
In Florida it was actually too hot to go to the beach. I remember now why I had to leave Malaysia. It was not the racist, apartheid policies, corrupt third world government siphoning the people’s money, though that has something to do with it. Every time I go somewhere hot which seemed a good idea at the time, I remember why I had to leave. This included Vegas which involved crossing an 8 lane motorway in a 2 minute cab ride (he basically did a U-turn and required the customary $5 gratuity) in 42 deg C heat because no one, except slaves and donkeys, walked anywhere.
Lying down in the 40 deg C (90 deg F) sun in 99% humidity is out of the question. Forget reading. Forget makeup. Forget nice clothes. For me, there is something oppressive, desperate and torturous, about extreme heat and humidity and insects biting and singing in high pitch voices, that make you unable to think clearly or even function in a civil manner. Most terrible things I did were in extreme heat and humidity with insects biting and singing in high pitch voices. To this day I regret them.
3. On Recent Gun Crime
For Peg, it’s downward dog followed by corpse pose.
Speaking of the madness in the sun, Carrie questions why in the world would semi-automatic weapons be legal? Carrie mentors a high school girl at Key West High School and she’s scared.
“Kids should be able to attend school without being afraid. The teenagers are becoming more proactive by lobbying and protesting. The adults need to do the same.”
4. On Island Life Sentence:
Carrie’s new book is about the adventures and misadventures of main character Peg Savage whose husband Clark has signed a contract to move to Key West. She has to fend for herself and her dog Nipper as Clark has taken up a long term post in Cuba. Island Life Sentence was born out of Carrie’s own culture shock:
I’m afraid to drive across bridges – there are 42 of them to get to mainland Florida. I have rashy, pasty skin and frizzy hair- not the best when combined with tropical sun, 90 degrees and 99% humidity. I miss my friends and family and struggle with feeling isolated. All of Peg’s stories are true – other than the persistent hauntings. Our house “haints” do not visit me as regularly. On our Irma evacuation experience, I got to see mother nature at her worst. It was terrifying and humbling. We were lucky that Key West was mostly spared. The Keys north of us were not as fortunate.
Peg drinks like a fish out of water. But can she survive Key West on her own?
5. Surprise! There is very little crime in Key West.
“Fantasy Fest. It’s an entire week every October. My God.”
Unlike the rest of the state of Florida, there is very little crime Because Key West is isolated by the aforementioned 42 bridges, the crime is related to drinking and general dumbness.
6. On Hemingway
“I want to get to Key West and away from it all.” – Ernest Hemingway
“Hemingway is everywhere in Key West. He’s crabby and bossy and Peg wishes he would leave her alone.”- Island Life Sentence
When I was working in Cuba on resort design, the legendary Papa Hemingway was everywhere too. He is the key tourist attraction for the intellectual, the god of modern American literature. In Havana I managed to frequent his haunts, the El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio and I habló y bebió like a writer with all these other tourist writers who were re-living the romantic past. He symbolises the ultimate vintage fantasy of the writer, a beach shack, a typewriter, two three bottles of whisky, a fishing boat. His house is in the Spanish Colonial style, built in 1851 and is at 907 Whitehead St, Key West. He restored it and moved into the house in 1931 with his wife no. 2. The house is also a location for the James Bond movie License to Kill. Of this property, I would mention an interesting point being that half of the cats here are polydactyl, having 6 toes, and most of the cats are believed to be descended from Hemingway’s six-toed cat Snowball. All cats are given the names of famous people, such as Clark Gable and Martha Gellhorn. It was in this house that Hemingway wrote some of his best work, including the short story classics “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, his novel To Have And Have Not, and the non-fiction work Green Hills of Africa.
7. Ghosts of Key West
“The supernatural protection of the blue porch ceiling has long faded away. The haints have taken over this old conch house.”
Haints are spirits or ghosts dating back to African descendants from the West Indies. The blue paint of porch ceilings are a common sight in Key West. The shade is called Jack Frost Blue. It was believed that haints could not cross water and that painting the porches blue acted as a deterrent. Ghost hunting is a popular tourist activity in Key West. Hauntings are rife. Even the Hard Rock Cafe is haunted. The most haunted place seems to be East Martello Fort built in the 1860s to protect Key West against a confederate assault by sea. It is home of Robert the Doll—an eerie handmade doll that many have dubbed “the original chucky”. He was the beloved toy of artist Gene Otto and it is said that whenever Gene, an ill-tempered boy, got into trouble, he would blame Robert the Doll. The Trolley of Doomed will take you round the ghost tours of Key West. Well maybe the blue ceilings kept the haints away but not Hurricane Irma.
8. On Storms
Shel Silverstein’s house
Most likely more terrifying than Robert the Doll are the storms and hurricanes of Key West. On a worldwide scale, May is the least active month, while September is the most active. Hurricane Irma destroyed Key West in September 2017 including Shel Silverstein’s house and “you know he hain’t happy about that.”
9. Key West – Where the Weird Go Pro
This strange sticker motto is the equivalent of the British Keep Calm and Carry On. I have my own which is Shut Up and Deal with It, because, well, I’m not British so why Keep Calm?
Anyway, you don’t keep calm when you are in Key West. The Key West mantra, according to this online tourist boutique which I checked out: is that “Life. Is. Weird.” This is in their own words. Yeah, I know!
This going pro concept comes from none other than the esteemed Dr Hunter S Thompson, whom as we know is the master of weird:
“When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.”
10. OK I’m in Key West. What shall I do, Carrie? I want it all. Weird. The whole thing.
The final photo in our journey with Carrie. If it’s good enough for Papa Hemingway to fall in love with …
“When you come to Key West, I’ll make you a Key Lime margarita from our backyard Key Lime tree. We can sip our cold beverages in the cocktail pool which was the original cistern of the property. We’ll walk to the restaurant Salute on the Beach and dine on the most delicious yellowtail snapper–caught fresh that day. We can watch the sky turn colors over the Atlantic as the sun sets a mile away over the Gulf. Book your ticks now!
Have you been to Key West? Have you read any books set in Key West which piqued your interest? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, or email me here: ivy_ ngeow at yahoo dot com with your comments and feedback. As usual I would love to hear from you.
Carrie’s backyard lime tree. It is thriving post Irma. This is where my Key Lime Margarita will come from.
Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018. She is fond of margaritas, seafood tacos, Americana and all things vintage.
My aim had always been to be a published author. I have achieved my aim. Now what? Writing a novel or two is the biggest time, energy and mental pressure you can undertake. In fact to write this blog post I had to take two Nurofen and a double espresso macchiato in order to steady myself. I have been writing for 40 years on and off, therefore I am not a new writer. But I still put wine, blood, paracetamol, sweat, caffeine, cortisol, endorphins and tears into it. Now I have learned that as a newly-published author, I still have more to learn.
1/ Sales of the book won’t make you a living.
Even bestseller authors have to work another job – usually related to writing such as journalism or teaching and lecturing in a related subject. The reason why writers write is because it is an incurable mental illness, an obsession, a love. It’s like asking the obsessive compulsive cleaner – “hey, why do you clean so much? It’s clean already.” Those who start out thinking this is a fun hobby will either quit or realise it is not a fun hobby, and then quit. If that obsession is there, the writer will carry on writing in spite of everything. That is how you know you have the bug.Therefore no writers can aim to do it as a means of livelihood, as they mostly earn less than the minimum wage. In the Guardian article ‘Most UK authors’ annual incomes still well below minimum wage‘ on 9 Oct 2016,
…life is less than super for many authors in the UK, with average annual incomes for writers languishing at £12,500.
This figure is just 55% of average earnings in the UK, coming in below the minimum wage for a full-time job at £18,000 and well below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s minimum income standard of £17,100.
In an industry that is becoming increasingly unequal, those at the bottom of the income distribution continue to struggle. Only half of the 317 UK authors who responded to the survey said writing was their main source of income, with respondents who offered a figure reporting total earnings from their latest book averaging at £7,000.
This is not a ‘new thing’. Writers we know and love from the past also had to hold day jobs:
Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and other “literary nonsense,” was also a mathematician, photographer and teacher.
Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” taught in New York City high schools and colleges during his entire career.
Jorge Luis Borges Argentinian author of “Ficciones” worked as an assistant in the Buenos Aires Municipal Library, and eventually became the director of the National Library.
2/ What you wanted to publish will not be published and what you didn’t want to publish will be published
Caveat: Unless you self-published. No building is built exactly as the plans, unless you built it yourself. Publishing is a collaborative process. You are only one cog in the wheel and no doubt the most important cog but there are other cogs turning that wheel. There will be changes along the way, usually due to budget, darling-killing and changes of vision. This is down to the contract. The contract is the agreement between you and the publisher to create the book. Both you and the teams will work together and have a say in the end product. You can put your foot down but usually they are right. They are the professionals. My day job is being an architect. I tell my clients what they should do all the time and if they don’t do it, I will do it anyway. Otherwise you will have no overall cohesive design ethos and you will end up with substandard junk which you will get blamed for so you may as well get blamed for something great than some substandard junk caused by them.
When you hand over the manuscript, the multiple levels of editing begin. At the moment I am coming out of editing hell, and this is why it is fresh in my mind and I am well-equipped to inform those who have not entered the seven gates of editing hell. Every sentence, punctuation marks and word will be examined. Every sentence has to flow logically into the next and there must not be a single discrepancy, inconsistency, continuity error or nonsensical or cop-out statement. You must not sound like a madman. Even books about madness are written by the sane, and has to appear compos mentis. The editing process is like ironing. You go back and forth and back and forth between the editorial department and you until the product is smooth. My first book has gone through 19 rounds of editing (not even accounting for the 12 years of editing before those rounds before I made any submissions). My second book is currently on 9 rounds (also excluding the years of my own editing). Sometimes you are blind to your own errors because you have seen them too many times and you don’t realise they are actual errors.
3/ You wrote the book and and now you do everything else
A big deal for little words
Nowadays publishers want to know how many followers you have before they even take you on.This is why anything that Jamie Oliver or Joe Wicks write will sell, will have a publisher. Their follower count is in the millions. If only 10% bought their books, that is still a substantial earner. I had to learn this while pitching my book. The Unbound pitch has questionnaire questions relating to your network, real or virtual. If the publisher likes your brilliant book, they also like, in the back of their minds, your follower count and your social media platforms.
Because of the competitive and declining market these days, in order to be successful, most writers have to work hard at promoting their own books much more than the publisher. This is because there are too many books, put simply. Because they are a business, they have to take on a lot of books in case a few become ‘hits’, the rest can die, no worries. One publisher has to handle between 10 to 40 books each, and though they are spread out through the year, they have to promote all of them. Naturally their focus is divided. If you had 36 children (at the rate of 3 being born a month) you will also not be able to give much attention to each.
4/ You are your own Book and Blog Tour Organizer
Of course you can get on a plane. You will get what you pay for, and touring around the world is expensive and you may only sell twelve copies, if any. You might sell one. I have not much motivation in touring as I have been a musician with my band Satsuma and the gigs take an enormous amount of time loading and unloading, driving around, soundchecking, eating backstage, not to mention hair and makeup and the actual rehearsals, even when you have a cold and in all kinds of weather conditions – all for a 22 minute gig (if you are the headlining act) in which you are not sure if anybody will turn up if the weather is terrible. Therefore authors have to use effective internet marketing such as virtual book tours. There are very few real bookshop or real events being offered by publishers. I am now involved in a ‘blog tour’ with five of my fellow Unbound author whom I see as friends, colleagues and associates. It is a ‘tour’ where we move around and each write for each other’s site in a guest post on set dates. It’s very enjoyable and I am traveling the world from my armchair, involving no Bureaux de Change or visas queues. I have just completed writing my blog about Bill Colegrave’s Scraps of Wool, on the golden age of travel writing focusing on Central Asia, Indochina and the Maghreb (read the blog post here). Scraps of Wool was published recently by Unbound and shares the same publication date asmy debut – 16 November 2017. Also completed is Carrie Jo Howe’sIsland Life Sentence which is fiction set in Florida. You cannot get more destinations than these in four weeks, what more do you want from a tour?
5/ You are your own Launch Party Sponsor/Organizer/Host
Launch parties are for fun and they do not lead to sales. Only because people don’t want to carry a book while munching on greasy snacks with one hand and holding a drink in the other hand. There is no hand left for the book. Even successful authors have to throw their own parties, if they can be bothered. If they are successful they would have been to and done a lot of parties already so they may be partied out.
I put my own money into the London launch of my short story “Funny Mountain” in Hungry in Ipoh anthology held at my friend Sunita’s and Rufus’ art gallery Knight Webb Gallery in Brixton. If you are interested you can read the blow by blow account of how I did It, where I bought cheap drinks and so on. I even brought in the snacks and my friend Sunita kindly heated up the snacks in the vintage oven. Being a writer means there has to be family and friends who care about you being in fantasyland and living the writer life. You are not some banker. Even if you were, they will wonder why you need any help, but still help you. The party will be for them too. It is not for getting new people in, not for selling books, it is for thanking your own loved ones, your publisher. Without them, you would not be a writer. They may or may not buy your books, read your books but it does not matter. Most of all they know you want to be a writer, and they will want to celebrate with you. They will help you with the launch. You only need to ask.
View towards front of gallery
6/ Be grateful… the party has just begun
Being a published author means the party is not over…. the party has just begun! Long live writing and publishing. Do not get sucked in to what other writers are doing or not doing and feel you are not doing enough or you are doing too much. Your job as a writer is to write the best bloody book that you can. Your job is not to sell stuff, do ironing, be a bartender, organize events or do catering. Every writer is different and thank God for that. Know and recognize what you have achieved. Remember how hard it was to get published (camel, eye of needle etc)? For me to get my first novel out took 12 years, 89 rejections and an award. It is a feat and a celebration in itself. Every day I remind myself that I have earned my right to exist as an author, to tell the story that had to be told, in the way that I wanted it told, so that now it exists not just on my hard drive but in the world. It was what I fought hard for.
Are you a published author? How do you think you have been transformed by the experience? If you are unpublished, what are your expectations of being published? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share and do drop me a line. As usual I would love to hear from you.
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.
What were the inciting incidents which inspired Cry of the Rhino to become an award-winning novel? Asian Books Blog ran a 500 word article with answers and much more. I was also covered by the American author Robert Raymer in his insightful and entertaining blog, the Borneo Expat Writer. Robert and I interviewed each recently.
You can also read the article here below:
Cry of the Flying Rhino was written thirteen years ago after I made my one and only trip to Borneo with my mother. I was inspired by the dark, macabre and gothic nature of communal longhouse living and the tribal civilisation and culture which have been around for thousands of years. Two things triggered some ideas.
Firstly, during the trip, I saw a tattoo parlour called Headhunters. It piqued my interest in the traditional art and symbolism of Iban tattooing, performed manually with a hammer, steel pin and ink made from tree ash.
Secondly, long after our trip, I dreamt of a girl in a longhouse with eyes as huge as the “hollows of the benuah tree”. Those words came to me in the dream. I wrote them down. She looked sad and haunted and there was also terror in her eyes. I did not know who she was or what the dream was about but something unpleasant and unusual had happened to her and I set about finding out about the Iban culture, which I later discovered, is based on dreams. That dreams were everything, our hopes, work, happiness and luck.
In exploring the two triggers above, I found out that indigenous cultures are threatened and dying, because of loss of habitat due to logging and deforestation, and due to the conversion of the Ibans to other religions. As a result, orang asli (original people) like the Ibans are forced to leave their habitat for the city because their livelihood, dependent on being able to survive in the jungles on the fat of the land, is diminishing due to the jungles being cleared. Their way of life which is so rich in folklore, superstition and traditions will soon be lost. Ultimately the rapid destruction of the jungles will impact upon the rest of the world via climate change and so on. I also found out that children tattooed children which ensured that the art would never die. If adults were one day wiped out by an epidemic or a massacre, the surviving children would all have learned and mastered all survival and artistic skills including tattooing.
Cry of the Flying Rhino is a modern novel set in the railway town of Segamat, which has already been deforested and turned into miles of plantation, and Borneo, whose jungles are under threat. The Chinese GP, Benjie, has been forced to marry Talisa, a mysterious and tattooed teenager, and the adopted daughter of wealthy crass Scottish landowner Ian. Benjie has to discover for himself his wife’s true identity, when Minos and Watan, two Ibans who leave the jungle and appear in Segamat one day, looking for Talisa.
Cry of the Flying Rhino raises uneasy themes of identity, poverty, religion, race, greed, colonialism and post-colonial struggles, and deculturalisation because I want to convey to readers the issues and conflicts which affect Asia today using the medium of fiction. I hope the story will take them to another world.
“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.
If you missed my reading atBrixton Book Jam, The Hootananny, London SW2 1DF on Monday 3 March 2018, no worries. Watch it here now!
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
I was very pleased to have applied for this course. It was just the thing I needed – the luxury of writing. I am not interested in posh hotel breaks or spa treats. What attracted me was the quality of the teaching staff. Zoe Gilbert and Lily Dunn are not only published writers, they are also lecturers. The venue is an eclectic warehouse conversion and extension in Clapton Ponds, East London. The place itself, which you enter through a subtropical courtyard garden, was quite inspiring and filled with natural light and interesting objets d’arts. There were ten people on the course all at different levels of writing. They were all women so it was like a hen weekend for women writers.
On the first day, we did a couple of word games to warm up, followed by ‘jumping straight in’. You can either use and existing idea or try out a new one using images and articles provided. I tried out a new idea. I originally chose two photos and tried to make up a story but it was already like another story. Cautious not to waste any of my 6 hours of time on that day, I decided to use the other option to generate idea – using articles from newspaper and magazines.
I found a copy of New Scientist and dropped it on the ground. On whatever page it flew open, I read the entire two pages and had found something that sparked an idea. On that day itself I wrote 3,000 words of a first draft I would never have been able to do at home.
Throughout the course we were given plenty of handouts to take away and to study. These are very useful and I will be referring to them again and again as they are very concise and well-written. There were plenty of opportunities for discussion and debate. Zoe and Lily are very encouraging and helpful. They even brought in their own work to crit, so we can learn by doing. On the Sunday morning we were given formal taught lessons in writing. This is all very precious salient stuff and I will revisit my course notes again. After lunch we worked on editing and I edited a story I wrote a few months ago but it was too long to be done at one go (5,000 words) and I also found a way of producing a climactic ending.
Lunch on both days was homemade soup. It was very tasty vegetarian soup with accompaniments of salad, bread, cheese, pickle and chutneys. It was very healthy as there was no dessert! I am a very bad cook so I have no idea what soups they were. After a few days I recovered from the intensity and hard work. I am ready to edit the story I wrote there and I cannot wait to share it once I have got it right. I would recommend this course to anybody, beginner or advanced, who is keen in an intense burst of writing, or to kickstart writing after a hiatus like myself.
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.