Is Writing Viable, and Other Questions: Answered

A: “You’ll never make it as a writer, mark my words. You will never succeed.”

B: “You should be more involved in your son’s studies instead of doing this. You only care about your own success. You’re selfish.”

C: “You sit home all day writing stories? How many copies must you sell for this to become a viable career?”

D: “The theme is too continental, the spelling is too American, the premise is too international.”

Since I made the announcement about my book deal(s), I’ve received overwhelming support that’s really touched and humbled me. Most people who’ve been around since the start of my publishing journey are aware that I worked very hard on these projects, especially the sequel. But many who reached out were also curious if “being a writer” would be as smooth-sailing as I made it appear. “You make it look effortless,” one said.

Really? I thought. I have to confess that hearing such remarks made me reflect on my writing journey, even way back before Tea in Pajamas, when I was just a young girl who was hungry to write anything and to get a byline in any publication.

I don’t think many people know that I wanted to be a journalist when younger. Unfortunately I didn’t do well enough in my A-Levels to get into a certain course at a certain local university (the only communications degree available at the time). And so I got my B.A. degree in Sociology and European Studies (which I don’t regret one iota) and took a “we shall see” approach when it came to writing as a full-time job.

A was a magazine editor who’d taken a look at some press releases I’d written and thought I had a flair for writing. I was 23, fresh out of uni, and working at a PR company until I could find an opening in the media industry. When she offered me a freelance gig to write an F&B listing in her magazine, I was ecstatic. All I needed was a pseudonym and an Internet search engine, right? That’s what I thought anyway. Unfortunately, Google back then wasn’t what it is today, and I had not thought to fact-check contact information with an alternative directory. When the article was printed, readers had apparently called in to the magazine to complain about a few wrong phone numbers, which made A as editor look bad (and me like a complete noob). I received her call in the middle of a work day and sat through a venom-laced tirade about my unprofessionalism, her regret at trusting me in the first place, my idiocy, and how I was never ever going to make it as a writer—not on her watch anyway.

Even though I proved her wrong by going on to write for several magazines after that encounter, I took special care never to apply for any opening at the company she worked for. That deep sense of shame stuck with me throughout my brief stint in magazine journalism, and always made me feel as if I were an imposter pretending I could write.

As it turned out, my zest for a journalism career burned out pretty quickly when I realized I didn’t enjoy churning out copy about things I didn’t particularly care for, nor interviewing personalities I wouldn’t even read about, let alone talk to. The disconnect I felt from the only passion I’d ever known made me both confused and depressed. That’s when I made the choice to step back from writing. Perhaps that’s why I went into editing after that (it’s still what I do today).

Writing Tea in Pajamas was my coping mechanism when trying to come out of some disordered behaviors around eating, exercise and body image. It was the first time I was writing something I wasn’t commissioned to, and to be able to do so on my own terms, with no deadlines or no expectations, was liberating to say the least. Through this creative outlet, I found my groove again.

But not everybody gets why it’s so important to me.

Such as B.

B is a family member who never could and still cannot understand why I write if it’s not a 9-to-5 job that pays the bills. To her, any time away from work should be purposefully devoted to ensuring my children excel at school. Because I don’t have it in my DNA to be a Tiger Mum (believe me, I’ve tried), my parenting skills are regularly called into question. The fact that I would take things further by nurturing my own passion is entirely inconceivable—selfish, even. Growing up, all I ever wanted was for B to be proud of me. But as a 38-year-old grown woman, I’m finally ready to let go of my need for her validation to feel like I’m “enough.” I suppose at some point I woke up to the truth that if I don’t believe that I’m enough, then I’ll never be.

And we have C, who represents how some people react when they first hear I’m an author. I get that the whole idea of writing can seem shrouded in mystery, but come on. Firstly, I don’t “sit home all day” churning out content like someone would have a marathon Netflix session—I write whenever I can. More importantly, stories aren’t conjured from thin air: a lot of thought and prep goes into anything I put out—even on this site. Next, I have no idea how many sales I have to make in order for “this” to become viable because the truth is, I’m writing because I want to, and not because I need to. If I ever gave up my day job to write full-time, maybe I’d start seeing writing as a career and consider if it’s viable, but something tells me I’m not going to enjoy it if it becomes a job. You know what I mean?

I understand where D (who stands for a few publishing insiders) is coming from. I can recognize immediately what is unsaid because I’d thought about it even before the words were uttered. I’m a Chinese Singaporean author: what business do I have writing a story about Caucasian or mixed race characters in a European-esque setting, doing very strange things that are far removed from my own country and culture? Plus this US spelling of “pajamas”? Nobody will get it.

These are all valid points, and I get it 100%. But the whole spirit of Tea in Pajamas is about breaking the mold—drinking coffee out of a teacup and wearing PJs in the middle of the afternoon, and going against the grain. Who cares if it doesn’t play by the rules? As for my race and ethnicity, I never believed it prevented me from telling a good story, though if that’s a problem for readers, I can only hope they are a minority. My point is, if I ever wanted to write a novel about Singapore and Singaporeans, I would. What I wouldn’t do is try to change a story into something it’s not.

But notwithstanding remarks in the likes of A, B, C and D, I acknowledge that I’ve been very blessed in this writing journey. I remember each and everyone (friends, booksellers, schools) who opened doors of opportunity for me when they could’ve just as easily shut them in my face. And I’m so grateful for my small but supportive community of friends and readers who are my cheerleaders in this mostly-lonely endeavor that is writing.

In the sea of noise, things are far from smooth-sailing. Most times, I struggle just to stay adrift and not lose sight of my end goal which, for a long time, I’d believed was publication. Lately, however, I think that’s changed.

I just wanna keep on writing.

Photo: Pinterest

Advertisements

What Now? Five Things I’ve Learned about Writing

832 days.

Exactly the number of days that elapsed between publication of the first book and completion of the sequel’s first full draft. That works out to 2 years and 102 days, most of spent not writing anything at all.

Anyhoodle, I wouldn’t call 832 days a long time (I mean, Anne Boleyn had a longer stint in her famously short reign as Queen of England), but it was during this period that I learned a good deal about writing, and about the kind of writer I am.

Here are five of them for a start.  Continue reading

The Storybook Villain

Image via Pinterest

So I’m twelve chapters into my sequel and something is bothering me—there is no obvious villain in the story. Or should I say I still haven’t decided who, among the many characters, I want to assign the role to.

Literature is littered with too many cases of cardboard villains who, for reasons unknown, have decided to exist solely for the pleasure of thwarting or doing harm to the protagonist. These days, however, it’s hardly enough to be a baddie, just because. One’s gotta be a good baddie, complete with a credible backstory, unjustifiable yet understandable motivations, a dangerous but persuasive personality, an underlying vulnerability, and so on.

Given the implications, and how I’ve grown to care deeply about every single character, no matter how minor or major a part they play in the story, I’m going back and forth on several possible scenarios. Even the possibility that the baddie is everyone and no one.

Stop overthinking it, just write, I tell myself. But to pull off a convincing showdown between opposing forces, I first have to be convinced—and I’m struggling with the struggle because I’m a toughass critic when it comes to these things.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to have a villain simply for the sake of having a villain, especially the sort that everybody loves to hate. And then I wonder, more generally: in life, do we even need villains in order to overcome obstacles? Granted there are many irritating people in our lives who’ve made difficult situations almost unbearable—but are they the issue itself or just the catalyst that forces us to face a more significant, pre-existing problem?

Pondering on the subject of villains has got me a little introspective, I’ll have to admit. Revisiting my history of run-ins with ‘baddies’—and dredging up memories that are tied to specific times and places—has not been easy. Also, in order for me to reframe these unpleasant individuals within a larger narrative, a fair bit of reconditioning is involved.

That’s been an interesting exercise, to say the least.

As I unpacked my memories (especially ones I’d much rather forget) and reconsidered their place within my mental catalog, I was able to detach them from the emotions that went with the particular encounters. As a result, many horrible people of my past started to look less like the powerful and enigmatic villains I’d made them out to be, and more like, well, people. Yes, they were manipulative, calculating, opportunistic, and mean-spirited, but still just people.

And as I examined the various instances in which various ‘baddies’ made my life hell, I noticed that my fears and insecurities—and how I responded to them—were a common thread.

These same fears and insecurities were the real villains, whose rules everyone played by, me and my tormentors included. The ‘bad guys’ only won because they recognized this fact, and I didn’t. As a result, even if I believed myself to be on the side of ‘good,’ I lost. Every single time.

As someone who grew up reading any book she could get her hands on, and being thoroughly acquainted with every storybook villain imaginable, I always assumed the bad guys came to bad endings. The evil character was always, always vanquished, no matter how seemingly weak the protagonist was. Because that’s how it is in fiction. Good always wins.

But frankly, since I began to write my own books, this whole villain conundrum has made me think twice. Why did I always assume a novel’s main character was ‘good’ just because they narrated the story, and that the antagonist was someone outside themselves?

So what happens if the villain lies both without and within? I guess I’ll have to keep writing to find out.