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.
But 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?
Even 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.
I 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)’)