Stories of the Third Culture Kids

READ Research English At Durham

Transect-LogoIn a multicultural age, people’s passports do not necessarily convey the full picture of their multiple origins, ethnicities, or national identities. Rather, the lives of Third Culture Kids inspire more complex stories that cross cultures and languages. A new magazine offers a home for fiction and poetry of the TCK generation, transecting the barriers of traditional English publications. We caught up with the founders, Justin Lau and Alexandra d’Abbadie.

Where did you get the idea for Transect from? How did the editors come together to find a vision for this new magazine?

Justin: As with all my best ideas… in the shower! In my final year
as a Durham English undergrad in Jan 2015, I received a Facebook
message out of the blue from Alexandra, a fellow Durham English
student whom I hadn’t met before. She had found my blog and wanted to
connect so we met for a cuppa at Vennel’s Café –

Alexandra: Possibly the…

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Write for yourself, or for others?


© Fusion

This was Sam Smith’s speech at the Grammy Awards last month. It may seem clichéd, even cheesy, but there’s truth to what he’s saying. And it’s not restricted just to the music industry. You can apply the same principle to every type of art.

All writers are aware of the conflict between writing for yourself, and writing for others.

When you were young and naïve and the only world that existed was your own, you wrote solely for yourself (and maybe for your parents who read everything you scribbled). But the moment your eyes were opened to the big, big world out there, and you felt the overwhelming dread and necessity to stand out in the crowd, it’s likely you started writing more for others than for yourself.

So which is right?

I have nothing against writing for others, especially if you want to entertain or have a particular message you want to convey. But you must never ever write without writing for yourself.

You’ll lose credibility because there is no ‘you’ in your work. You’ll never please everyone, and if you try to do so, you’ll only find yourself failing over and over and over. Despite whatever reaction I may get, I believe in writing things I’m proud of.


Honestly, I’m writing this post more for myself because I need this necessary reminder—especially since I’m an English Literature student, and I study and examine and contemplate and analyse the ins and outs and backs and fronts of every text, carefully scrutinising formulations and frameworks and foundations. That isn’t to say all this is bad, but if you get too focussed on these aspects—particularly as a writer—you end up trying to impress people with style, to please people with content.

A short story I recently wrote for a literary magazine has received rejection after rejection. My initial thought was: how can I tweak it to make it ‘accessible’ and ‘likable’? But this was not exactly the right question; rather, I realised the source of the problem lay in my attitude when I first wrote it—I was trying too hard to please the editors, and it showed.

If you write more for others than for yourself, you’re very likely to produce adulterated writing.

And you also risk writing something that has been said again and again by countless others; no one is interested in regurgitated reiterations. But if you write something original, something bold and even foolhardy, which you believe in 100%—now that’s something worth reading, worth listening to.

Take my latest joint blog, Our Isle Sketches (for an explanation: ‘New Blog: “Our Isle Sketches”‘). I’m proud of how it looks: the layout, the format, the content; and I want people to view it. But when the response wasn’t as huge as I expected or desired, I felt disappointed.

That’s precisely what I’m trying to avoid. If I let such trivial matters get me down, I’m never going to progress or improve—because I’m essentially forming my writing identity through the recognition and admiration of others. This will prevent me from writing about what I’m passionate about, what I love, what excites me to no end.


In a recent article ‘Kazuo Ishiguro’s turn to fantasy‘ on The Guardian, he recalls once being asked to write a piece about the atomic bomb’s relationship to literature:

© Matt Carr/Getty Images

© Matt Carr/Getty Images

I sat down and I thought, well, I don’t really feel strongly about anything, but I’d better work myself up into some position, and write a piece as though I do feel very strongly about something to do with it. I came up with this concept of the pornography of seriousness, that some people would often bring in issues like the Holocaust or the atomic bombs into otherwise fairly ordinary stories, so that the stories would be given a serious dimension.

But he reveals how ultimately it wasn’t him. It was well-written and sounded plausible, but it wasn’t him. And he realised:

if I keep doing this, I won’t know who the hell I am. I’ll just be a sum total of these positions that I’ve taken up to fulfil commissions.

Instead, he’s spent the last 30+ years working out what really interests him:

I’ve managed to stay relatively pure. I stick to what I really want to write about […] I write novels. I try and write films. I write songs. That’s all I can do.

And sometimes, I feel, that’s enough, that’s really all we writers need to do. Or at least, we mustn’t forget.

Kazuo Ishiguro on Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narrators. A term describing a certain literary technique. If you’re an English Literature student, you hear it thrown around all the time.

What is it? According to Wikipedia: ‘an unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction.‘ It often leaves readers wondering ‘how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.’

I’m not discrediting it. The concept makes sense and it’s an apt explanation.

Stevens in The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro) is an unreliable narrator. So is Kathy H. in Never Let Me Go (Ishiguro). We mustn’t forget Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children (Rushdie) too. Fight Club (Palahniuk). American Psycho (Ellis). Time’s Arrow (Amis). Gone Girl (Flynn). Even films such as The Usual Suspects and A Beautiful Mind.


© Matt Carr/Getty Images

Last month, Kazuo Ishiguro did a live webchat interview on The Guardian website in promotion of his upcoming novel, The Buried Giant. One commenter asked him a question about unreliable narrators:

BabyH: Many of your books depend on a self-deluding or otherwise unreliable narrator. What is it particularly that interests you in this device?

And his answer just blew me away. Or rather, made me realise just how stuck I was in the academic mindset (emphasis mine).

There are a few questions in this chat about unreliable narrators, and so this is in answer to some of the others as well. When I started out, I never really thought specifically about ‘the unreliable narrator’. In fact, that term wasn’t thrown around back then nearly as much as it is now. I just wrote my narrators up in the way I felt was authentic – the way I felt most people would go about telling a story about themselves. That’s to say, any of us, when asked to give an account of ourselves over any important period of our lives, would tend to be ‘unreliable’. That’s just human nature. We tend to be ‘unreliable’ even to ourselves – maybe especially to ourselves. I didn’t think of it as a literary technique. That’s kind of how I think of my narrative voices now, today. I wouldn’t want my narrators to be any more unreliable than the average person would be in a similar context.

Profound, insightful and oh so true. This is why I love Ishiguro, because he is so down to earth and genuine, humble and sensitive, and such a fine, talented author.

Though I doubt my examiners would be pleased if I wrote that as an answer in my exams…

(The entire interview is fascinating. I recommend reading the whole thing. He briefly talks about writing Japanese dialogue in English, something I personally struggle with. He says:

[I]n my early books, I was obliged to create the impression that the characters (even the narrator, in my second book) was speaking not in English, but in Japanese. But the book was somehow reaching the reader in English. So I had to create a kind of subtitles effect. I couldn’t let loose with Japanese people going ‘cor blimey’ or ‘what ho’. So I had to invent a kind of careful, ‘foreign’ language.

I would have loved for him to elaborate more on this particular topic, but unfortunately he ran out of time before I could ask my question. But I do have his first 2 novels set in Japan sitting on my desk waiting to be read. I’m excited to see what secrets and techniques I can glean from them!)

The Act of Creative Observation

My first post of the year was a rather dry and serious academic essay called ‘Effectiveness of Literature: Marxist Relationship Between Art and Ideologies‘ (which you should still read). So today, I’m posting something a little more lighthearted and fun, but still related (albeit slightly) and hopefully helpful for writers, or artists, out there.

As writers, we must be observant. There is no excuse not to be. We must be observant.

If you read my post ‘The Five Ws for Ideas and Inspiration‘, you’ll remember my remarkably ingenious and witty and groundbreaking maxim: Be curious. Be observant. Be lieve. (Hah.) I explained how the act of observation was one of the most important tools of my creative arsenal.

Regarding people:

© vladm / Shutterstock

Every person in this world has their own story. I do. You do. As much as I love talking about myself and my story, it’s only 1 out of 7 billion, so I make it a habit to observe and listen carefully to others.

Who is that person? What does she or he do? Why does she or he say those things in that way? I try and notice things people usually don’t notice, or things people don’t give a second thought to because it’s so familiar, so routine. Next time you’re travelling to school or work and see that boy who’s always playing alone in the park, instead of ignoring him, wonder with genuine curiosity: what’s his story?

Regarding places:

© jusco15 / Instagram

I consciously notice my surroundings, assigning colourful descriptions to everything that comes into sight. On a train in Japan, staring out the window, observing every nook and cranny of beautiful buildings, both modern and traditional; walking down an unexplored street, noticing hidden landmarks and garish signs; sitting on a bench with a cup of peppermint tea staring at the sunset, orange with vivid blue shades, serving as a backdrop to the magnificence of Durham Cathedral.

In order to write descriptive passages, we must know, inside and out, the physical scene we’re detailing. In order to convey messages of value and morality, we must know the psychological workings of our brains: the thoughts, emotions and sensations we process.

We must think outside the box. And often times, that box is created by ideologies (I use that term in a general sense to mean our conscious/unconscious ideas that have been shaped by the way we were nurtured) which naturally limit our views and perspectives.

It is our job to break outside of that box, to remove and distance ourselves from it, to view common and familiar occurrences with an exceptional sense of objectivity in order to add another dimension to our outlook, usually comprised only of our confining subjectivity. Don’t get me wrong—subjectivity is just as important when we draw from our personal experiences (and arguably, nothing can be more powerful) but it does limit your scope of being able to see, write and convey valuable truths otherwise overlooked.

I’m going to introduce 2 artists:


© 2014 hamahouse / Instagram

1. Hama-House is an illustrator in Japan whose Instagram account is an absolute joy to follow because of his speed sketches. To pass the time as he sits on the train or in a cáfe, he takes out his notebook and pen, and draws the very scene in front of him. He’s an expert at capturing a moment in time, a slice of life, and expressing the typically mundane in a creative way to provide meaning and emphasis not usually associated with such moments.

2. Johnna Slaby is an artist born and raised in Japan (sister of Reylia Slaby, whose photograph inspired my short story ‘The Arrangement‘). She has posted various illustrations on her Twitter, of which my favourite is her series The Japan Cards. Similarly to Hama-House, she goes out into the city equipped with pen and paper, spending hours in one location at a cáfe, restaurant or street, sketching the scene in front of her. Check out all of her beautiful sketches here or purchase them on postcards here.

This is a great exercise to do as a writer. No, not with illustrations, but with words. Sketch the scene unfolding before your very eyes. Paint the picture with descriptive words and phrases. Notice every single little detail—there are hundreds, even thousands, in just one snapshot. You can do this while travelling to work or school, on the bus or train. You can do this while waiting for your friend at Starbucks, sipping your caramel macchiato.

(It’s not as interesting, but you can do it with a picture or photograph too. These are often called picture prompts, but I find the hustle and bustle of real life more fascinating. However, if you can’t afford this luxury, pictures will do just fine. That was how my descriptive flash fiction piece ‘The Girl by the Lake‘ was formed.)

To finish, here as an example is one of my observation pieces (I was more concerned with capturing the details rather than writing beautiful prose) from 3+ years ago, written while I was sitting in a Starbucks in Singapore:

29 October 2011

My outdated MacBook on a wooden table, old and worn but kept clean diligently by the workers here at Starbucks, the one downtown beside Wheelock Place where Borders used to reside but is now closed due to global bankruptcy. My double shot caramel macchiato to my right, clenching the neatly folded receipt underneath, almost empty but still begging me to enjoy it, as I always do. To my left, a man, who had politely asked me if he could sit there (I, of course, replied to go ahead), ate a sort of pastry which has been cleanly cleared and now sits comfortably in his stomach, and is now pouring over the colourful pages of a graphic novel, from the looks of it Marvel and one of its many superheroes. Speaking of Marvel, the guy sitting opposite me (though he’s currently somewhere else and his girlfriend sitting next to him and studiously working through assignments is watching over his items) owns a MacBook—much newer model than mine—and has an Iron Man sticker pasted on the top, with the Apple logo in the middle of his red armoured hand; ingenious, really. Since the guy is temporarily gone, I can see the lady sitting at the counter right beside the glass windows overlooking the streets of Orchard Road, her long black hair streaming down to the middle of her back and wearing a flowery tank top with purple straps, also diligently studying. Further to my right is the sofa section, where a cute, middle-aged American (maybe European, I’m not so sure) couple is sitting, lovingly laughing over a newspaper article; maybe it triggered some precious memories from their lovey-dovey days. Just an hour ago, a gay couple was sitting there, one white with blonde hair and the other Asian with black hair—I venture, Filipino—their arms on top of each other and reading their respective novels and sharing a drink with the same green straw. It’s pouring outside, the rain appearing rather suddenly and just a few minutes before, people were frantically running for shelter; although some people are still waltzing in the rain, as if it were no hindrance to them. A good way to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. An extremely skinny girl just walked through the door, drenched, heading over to her friends. This particular Starbucks is known for housing a lot of international people; it’s often that you hear international students speaking American English, and the students who come here to study have a more sophisticated grasp of English, which is always a relief to hear. Once in a while, you can hear a couple speak Japanese, and in turn, I just smile inside, and a bit outside, but not enough to draw attention to myself. It’s a respectable atmosphere, the temperature maintained at a sufficient level, the jazz music loud enough to be enjoyed but soft enough not to distract from individual intentions and passions. It’s a good mix of popular jazz standards, and more minor but still beautiful tunes that do not at all detract from the quality. Fly Me to the Moon, Feeling Good; good old tunes never cease to relax, to put you in the mood and flow of indulgent meditation on the complexities of life turned simple and carefree to an extent. My coffee’s gone cold, I’m getting a bit chilly, and my left arm is a bit numb due to the unnatural height of the table (maybe I’m just short) but its been a while since I’ve written so much, and I’m enjoying it. Let me enjoy it a bit more, thanks.

Recommended Writing Program: OmmWriter


Today, I’m going to introduce my favourite writing program ever. I’m open to discovering new programs if you have any recommendations, but so far, out of the many I’ve tried and used, OmmWriter is, hands down, the best. It’s just lovely.

A brief introduction: OmmWriter is developed by Herraiz Soto & Co. and is what they call a ‘Writing Environment for Mac, PC, and iPad’. Essentially, what it does is help transport you, the writer, into a distraction-free zone where the goal is to single-task (I know, that’s almost heretical in this multitasking day and age). They accurately sum up our modern lives:

As mere mortals, we also face the usual challenges of daily life: a multitude of windows open on our computer desktops, messages, emails, calls, meetings, and those crazy thoughts that pass through our minds.

Take my word for it. As a multitasker who has an impulsive disorder to switch between the plethora of windows on my laptop screen every 2 seconds, OmmWriter successfully helps to transition me into my writer mode where I can churn out thousands of words on end without once checking my email or Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or… you get the idea.

I’ll be running through the program in this post with various screenshots to give you an idea of what it’s like. Yes, that’s right, I will be trying very hard to persuade you to purchase this program. No beating around the bush. It’s good, it’s worth having. So, to begin, here’s what you see when you first open the application in full screen:

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 12.08.54

There have been various version upgrades over the past few years, and currently it’s Dāna II. Notice the ‘Better Experience with Headphones’—the built-in soundtrack provides ambient sounds which helps block out ‘the humdrum noise’ that threatens to disrupt our ‘Concentration and Creativity’. Also, the moment you’re in OmmWriter, it stops all notifications (as it says in the top right), allowing you to disregard temporarily all the work you have to do which your computer tries so desperately hard to remind you of every bloody second of the day.

After the simplistic opening, it gets even more simple, and you’ll find yourself staring at this beautiful screen of white with a few bare, sparse trees. Isn’t it lovely?

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 13.04.22

If you move your cursor, you’ll see this pop up:

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 13.04.34

What you see is the text-box. Notice the ‘0’ at the bottom: that indicates the word count (fun tip: click the number and it’ll change to letter count). The buttons on the top right are the various features contained in OmmWriter, deliberately minimalistic to make writing the utmost priority.

As you begin typing, the text-box outline and the feature buttons will all disappear, and you’ll see the words magically pop up onto the screen, accompanied by typing sounds and background music (which you can mute if you choose to). It’s actually quite surreal and exciting. You can also drag the text-box into whatever shape or size you desire (be conventional, or be funky!):

ommwriter 1

Let’s walk through the feature buttons. From top to bottom:

  • Text font: choice of 4 fonts

ommwriter 2

  • Text size: choice of 4 sizes (00, +1, +2, +3)

ommwriter 3

  • Background colour: choice of 8 colours (4 of which are shown below)

ommwriter 4

  • Background music: choice of 7 sounds + mute
  • Typing sounds: choice of 7 sounds + mute
  • Document: 3 functions (save, save as, open)

And that’s it! Simple, minimal, bare, and a program/processor/environment highly conducive for writing. If until now, you’ve been burning with the wonderful ambition to write, but have found yourself unable to concentrate, give OmmWriter a shot. I highly recommend it.

Whether you write stories for fun or articles for newspapers or essays for school, it’s bound to help. Out of personal experience, I’d say OmmWriter is perfect for producing that first draft, which for me, is always the most difficult step in the entire writing process. I wouldn’t necessary say it’s great for editing, though it’s definitely possible. What I prefer is to start and finish a first draft in OmmWriter, then switch over to a more editing-friendly program to work on subsequent drafts.

Here’s the link where you can purchase and download it: Download – OmmWriter. It’s extremely affordable, and well worth dishing out the money for. They suggest a minimum price of US$4.11—that’s only £2.63 or ¥488! Best investment of my writing career.

Well, what are you waiting for? Go OmmWriter, go write!

[I’m very, very sorry for being MIA for so long. It’s the end of term and I’ve been frantically reading, writing essays, preparing for my dissertation to meet all my deadlines. 2 more weeks till Christmas vacation, during which I hope to post more! Thanks always for reading.]

Webucator Interview: An Ode to Novel Writers


It’s NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writing Month, in which the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November! Which I’m not participating in this year, for various reasons, namely university. In fact, my last attempt was 2009 which resulted in a failure (I reached about 10,000 words). But I have successfully completed it twice, back in 2005 and 2006.

Webucator LogoBut why, do you ask, am I talking about NaNoWriMo when I’m not involved in it this year? Well, Webucator, a national training company, is also aware of NaNoWriMo and sent me an email with several questions regarding the fiction writing process, particularly for novels, which I’ll be answering in this post. They’ve already asked several authors the same questions to gather various perspectives on novel writing, including two of their trainers-cum-published authors: Janie Sullivan and Roger Sakowski.

I feel honoured to be asked to participate in this interview and gladly accept, especially if it’ll be helpful for newly-budding writers. Though I don’t have as much experience as others, hopefully I’ll be able to produce some constructive insights into the beautiful art of fiction writing.

What were your goals when you started writing?

I honestly can’t say for certain because I was only 5 years old when I started writing, and as much as I’d like to, I can’t recall what was going through my mind at that age. But I realise, that’s maybe because nothing was going through my mind; and what I mean by nothing is a lack of an underlying perverted sense of accomplishing something for my own benefit or profit.

All I do remember is that I enjoyed it tremendously, whether that was a journal entry about playing football at the park with my dad, or writing a book review, or creating an entirely new fantasy world. And that was the simple reason for my motivation: it was enjoyable.

I wrote for myself, for my own pleasure, for my own indulgence. In a recent rediscovery of my love for reading and writing, I recalled those very days:

Remember your fascination with grand fantastical worlds, which seemed more realistic than life itself? Remember being ecstatic at the fact that you were also capable of creating such a world? Remember the eagerness to detail out your universe elaborately, not necessarily for the sake of others, but first and foremost for your own thrill?

51TCX4JGV0LEven when I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2005, publication wasn’t even on my mind. I don’t think I even meant for anyone to read it. It was a challenge for and to myself, desperately pursuing the overwhelming sense of achievement that would accompany the 50,000 words. Sure enough, upon completion, I felt immensely proud of myself. In fact, an excerpt from my (incomplete) fantasy novel The Bones of Tears was subsequently published in an anthology called So You Think You Can Write A Novel?; but even that seemed minor and secondary. All that mattered was that I had in my hands a 100 pages detailing my fantasy world and characters, unravelling the plot I had conceived.

That ‘writing solely for myself’ ceased when I entered high school, replaced by a ‘writing for others in order to receive affirmation’. No longer was I purely satisfied with the act of writing; instead, I sought a boosting of my self-esteem and confidence through (empty) words of praise from friends (do understand, this was at the peak of teenage insecurity). This was the Dark Ages of my writing life, when I lost track of why I was writing in the first place. I sought to entertain others, make them laugh and admire me, and in the process, fuel even further my unfounded belief that I was a good writer. This didn’t last long. No matter how much my friends commended me, I knew I wasn’t happy with my writing precisely because it wasn’t my writing.

But one thing a friend said to me still resonates in my mind today: ‘You have a way with words!’ That was when I realised I had a gift, and I could use that gift for good. Even though I had always known I would write till the day I die, it was then I was filled with a passion and desire to pursue my writing aspirations seriously, to write novels and get them published, to share with the world insights and epiphanies and revelations, to influence humankind for the better.

What are your goals now?

It was actually only this year when I started taking practical steps in my endeavour to become a published author. I began researching various literary magazines to which I could submit stories and made a conscious effort to learn more about the complicated and difficult process. I’m currently planning for my début novel which I’ll start writing after I graduate from university next summer (I hope to publish it by 2020). In the meantime, I’m working on several short stories which I’ll continue to submit to various literary magazines and competitions.

Thankfully, I’ve now managed to strike a balance between writing for myself and others. I try to be satisfied and proud of what I have written. At the same time, I do have messages and ideas I want to convey. But what do I want to write about? Ultimately, it boils down to two things: 1. Japan, 2. TCK identity.

photoI was born in Singapore but I grew up in Japan. I want to write novels about the beautiful country I call home, so that the world can better understand and appreciate it. Too few books have been set in and deal with contemporary Japan, and being both an insider and an outsider gives me a particular advantage in not only being able to highlight the positive aspects of Japanese society, but also constructively criticising the things I wish to see changed. (Here’s my short story ‘Seiko’s Minor God‘ published by Inkapture that is representative of the stories I wish to write, to bridge the gap between Japan and the English-speaking world.)

I also plan on giving voices to characters of mixed identity since I’ve gone through the crisis myself, and I’m sure there are plenty of global citizens out there who desire to see their personal struggles represented in fiction.

What pays the bills now?

I’m still a university student so my parents are graciously helping to fund the costs of living. I worked for several months before I entered university, and I plan on finding a job back in Japan after my graduation (hopefully utilising my bilingual proficiency of English and Japanese, probably something involving translation and interpretation). I highly doubt I can write and publish the next Harry Potter within the next 8 months, so I’ll have to find a realistic way of earning money. Not once have I ever foolishly believed I’d immediately be able to live off my writing, but it’s definitely a dream which I’ll continue to pursue.

Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

The only pay I’ve received from my writing is the royalties from the aforementioned anthology So You Think You Can Write A Novel? (25 Singaporean dollars). I also won a Twitter fiction competition hosted by 7×20 (£15 Amazon gift voucher). That’s about it. Despite getting several articles and short stories published in magazines, most of them aren’t accompanied by a monetary prize; and I’m still working on raising my level high enough to submit to competitions which are more rigorous and selective, but pay handsomely.

I have things to convey—that’s what keeps me writing. I know, it’s vague and ambiguous, but ultimately, isn’t that what all writers wish for? To entertain, to induce laughter or tears, to introduce a new perspective, to broaden someone’s mindset, to encourage and comfort, to represent and advocate, to change the world for the better?

I’m not just saying them as idle remarks. I truly believe writing can change the world, can change lives. Hasn’t your life changed—multiple times—after reading something profound and exceptional and inspirational? Mine definitely has.

And optionally, what advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

Go for it! Believe that you can! Dream big!

No, that doesn’t mean you throw everything out the window, e.g. school, jobs, etc. Unless you’re one of the few J. K. Rowlings or John Grishams or Dan Browns, it’s never wise to base your life solely on the hopes of a fiction writing career (which differs from other forms of writing careers, such as journalism). Even Stephen King worked as a teacher to pay the bills while writing three novels, finally able to concentrate on full-time writing after receiving the payment for his fourth written and first published novel Carrie.

But what I do mean is never to pursue a fiction writing career halfheartedly. If you want to make it work, you’re going to have to put in a lot of effort. It’s striking the delicate balance between hard work and faith. Believe in your work, believe you can do it—and once you acquire that determination that will not break (do be warned, you will bend and be stretched to your limits, particularly by the indecent amount of rejections), work, or rather write hard to achieve it.

Practically speaking, do your homework. Educate yourself about the publication process. Research appropriate literary magazines, agents, etc. that suit your style. Read about and interact with fellow authors—we need all the support we can get; remember, (cue High School Musical soundtrack) we’re all in this together.

As clichéd as it is, I’m going to reiterate it just to drive home this point for young authors who still have difficulty believing it: you need to write, write, write, write, write.

It seems remarkably obvious, yet many writers think they can skip this step and go on immediately to publishing success. I’m sorry to say but there aren’t any shortcuts in this field. You have to write, finish a first draft, edit it over and over, repeat. Even trashy novels (apologies to those who enjoy them) like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t appear out of nowhere—they required effort to write.

Neil Gaiman wrote everything he possibly could: journalism (interviews, book reviews), biographies (Duran Duran), comics (The Sandman)—and look at where he is now. Again, I reiterate, things didn’t just magically happen with the snap of his fingers. It’s gruelling work, but if that’s where your passion is (then you don’t need me to tell you), it’s worth it.

I’ll end with a direct quotation from Gaiman’s pep talk for NaNoWriMo:

You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.


I hope that was (remotely) helpful and entertaining. Let me know if you have any questions, thoughts, comments!

(Shameless plug: If you want more advice on writing, check out the other posts on my blog under the category of ‘Writing Process‘. These include posts such as: ‘Submitting to Literary Magazines‘, ‘Constructive Criticism and Personal Editors: Advice from Stephen King‘, ‘Purple Prose: Grandiloquent, Orotund, Highfalutin (aka Bombastic and Pretentious) Musings‘, ‘The Five Ws for Ideas and Inspiration‘, ‘Word Count Goal vs Time Goal‘, ‘Story Beginnings, Middles and Ends: To Plan or Not To Plan?‘, ‘Writing Voice: Am I Not Speaking?‘)

(Also, here are other authors’ responses to this interview: ‘The writing life (Mary Pat Hyland)’, ‘Writing: It’s Not Really About the Money (Charles Ray)’, ‘On Writing Motivation (Ruth Stearns)’, ‘Interview: An Ode to Novel Writers (Jennifer Greenleaf)’, ‘What’s the Point of Writing Fiction, If It Doesn’t Pay the Bills? (Holly Robinson)’, ‘Why We Write… (Layla AlAmmar)’, ‘Being an Author: Motivation (Gina Hunter)’, ‘On My Writing Motivation (C. Hope Clark)’, ‘Why Do I Write? (Jennifer J. Chow)’, ‘Interview about my writing life (Donna McDonald)’, ‘10 Tips for Writers (Jenna Kernan)’, ‘November Is National Novel Writing Month (Anna Schmidt)’, ‘National Novel Writing Month: An Interview (Kate Bridges)’, ‘Writing: Pleasure or Pain? Hobby of Job? (Pamela Fagan Hutchins)’, ‘So You Wanna Be a Writer? (Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff)’, ‘Writing and Motivation: An Author’s Blog Tour (Marie Lavender)’)

Writing Voice: Am I Not Speaking?

WritersVoice_003-500wWhenever I wrote essays back in high school, I remember being given a rubric explaining the rationale for the grades we received. There were various categories including organisation, word choice, etc. But there was one category which I never understood, and that was: voice.

My initial confusion stemmed from these questions: wasn’t everything I wrote written in my voice? Was it not me who was speaking?

I was always unable to achieve the highest grade of 5; how did my teachers know this wasn’t my voice? Were they trying to impose an ideal voice onto me? As a result, I felt denied, my existence invalidated. Well, if my teachers believed this wasn’t my true voice, and I adjusted it to write in an accommodating way that would allow me to attain a 5, wouldn’t that mean I’m being unfaithful to my voice?

Kurt Vonnegut makes this insightful (and humorous) remark about writing voices other than his own:

What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

5 years later, I still don’t quite know how the ‘voice’ category on the essay rubric works. But thankfully the ‘voice’ for creative writing is different from academic writing, the former allowing you more freedom, more flexibility. The Wikipedia article on ‘Writer’s voice‘ defines it as ‘the individual writing style of an author, a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc.’.

First, you can breathe a sigh of relief because your voice is your own, no one else’s. Your ‘individual writing style’ which no one else can produce. But secondly, ‘a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc.’ reveals that it’s a lot more complicated than I’d like it to be.

People keep telling me, and thus I keep telling myself, I need to ‘develop my voice’. What exactly does that mean? I don’t know for certain, but I have a hypothesis.

  • You cannot be a writer unless you’re a reader. When you begin writing, you very naturally construct your writing style through a replication, or a respectful mimicry, of a book or author you found particularly brilliant. As you read and write more, you begin to discern, pick out, and adopt bits and pieces of various styles which feel natural to you. You begin to combine them in an original and unique way wholly your own, and possibly unlike any other voice out there; after all, despite the common building blocks, there are endless amalgamations.
  • Think of it in terms of speech. When you begin speaking as a toddler, you imitate the words coming out of your parents’ mouths. As you grow older, you’ll still be strongly influenced by the way people speak around you, by the cultural environment you find yourself in. But once you reach a certain age in your late teens or early 20s (and with dreaded puberty a thing of the past), you speak with your own voice: a certain tone, pitch, accent, word choice, etc.

So the question is: have I already found my writing voice? I’ve been reading and writing for as long as I can remember, for about 20 years. My voice has changed, transformed, been mutilated and restored. Yes, even the most critically acclaimed writers say you’ll never stop improving until you die. But is that referring solely to the technical aspects, or also voice? Does that mean one’s voice constantly and continuously evolves for the rest of one’s life?

In addition to being a writer, I’m also a musician. I began singing seriously when I was 15, and it took me 5 years to find my singing voice. The thing is, that was only the beginning. The 5 years were essentially spent imitating and experimenting. Once I had a better sense of my own singing voice, I began honing it through practice and experience, and naturally, there’s always space to improve.

What about my writing voice? If I consider the 20 years of reading and writing as my experimental phase, it means that I’m still near the starting line. In fact, I might still be standing at the starting line. How much longer will it take for me to discover my voice; or have I already found it and just don’t realise? The whole prospect is rather daunting, to be honest.

On a positive note: ever since starting this blog, I’ve had a decent number of people inform me they enjoy reading what I write. I’ve received comments that my voice is engaging and easy to read. It’s true, I’m confident in telling stories or anecdotes when I talk to people, and I guess that manifests itself through my blog posts, the majority of which are written in first person. The challenge for me is to develop (or find) my voice when I write in third person. Or is the point of writing in third person to allow me to write in voices not my own?

Neil Gaiman gives this indispensable advice:

(I've used this photo too many times on this blog.)

(I’ve used this photo too many times on this blog.) © Kimberly Butler


Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.

There are better writers than me out there, there are smarter writers, there are people who can plot better – there are all those kinds of things, but there’s nobody who can write a Neil Gaiman story like I can.

I spent much of the past 3 or 4 years worrying endlessly (and needlessly) about whether or not I had indeed ‘found my voice’. It’s important to develop one’s voice (whatever that might mean exactly) but if it is your first and foremost concern, you need to change your mindset. It’s stifling. It prevents further progress and improvement.

The moment I let that worry go, I felt completely free, free to write without inhibitions and fear. I trust that the more I write, the closer I’ll come to finding my voice. I’d just be wasting time if I waited till I was certain before I began writing; in fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever be certain. I doubt any published author had a specific turning point, a sudden epiphany where they thought: ‘Hey! I just found my voice right this moment! Now I can write whatever I want and it’ll be perfect and indisputably brilliant!’ They just wrote, and wrote, and kept writing.

And that’s what I have to do. Nobody can write a Justin Lau story like I can.

That’s what you have to do. Nobody can write a [insert name] story like you can.

Writing is like growing up. No matter how old you get, you never stop learning, never stop improving, never stop discovering who you are and were made to be. Don’t ever stop communicating what you and you alone are wholly capable of expressing.