Category Archives: Writing

Writing My Culture for Fun and Profit


Here’s how the question goes, more or less:

Do you think you would be as successful if you didn’t write about Asian/Malaysian characters/myths/folklore/beliefs/spirits?

I don’t blame people for asking. It’s a natural question, in a way. It’s one of those questions white Westerners don’t get asked, though. (“You’re American, do you think you would be as successful if you weren’t writing about American characters?”) And to be totally honest, it is annoying, because the lurking question it implies is:

Are you writing about your culture because it sells?

Here’s what I ask back:

What’s the alternative? What else would I be writing?

But I know what they mean. They’re asking about the fact that I’ve strayed outside the unmarked default. In English-language fiction, this is writing about white Westerners — if you’re a fantasy writer, drawing on their ideas and images of vampires, fairies and ghosts. If you do that you’re just writing fantasy. Throw in a bunian or pontianak and suddenly it’s Cultural Heritage Day.

I always struggle to answer, partly because I want to flip the question over and examine its insides, but also because the answer is complicated. Here’s an attempt.

An answer

Yes. I think I’m quite a good writer. If I was persevering and worked hard, I think I could have written exclusively about non-Malaysian characters in non-Malaysian settings and eventually been published and slowly built up a readership, as I am doing now. (Sorcerer to the Crown is set in Britain and primarily about non-Malaysian characters, of course, but I suppose it’s outside that unmarked default and so doesn’t count for the purposes of the people who ask this question.)

There are plenty of examples of non-white people who write (or wrote) successfully about white people. To take just a few:

Here’s a post by bestselling thriller writer Tess Gerritsen about why she spent much of her career not writing about Asians: “Your English is so good!”

Sherry Thomas writes hugely popular historical romances set in England in English, her second language.

The majority of successful romance author Courtney Milan‘s backlist features white people on the covers. She’s talked on Twitter about realising she could write about people of colour like herself, but I haven’t found a blog post to link to on the subject.

One advantage of doing it this way is that people would probably ask me about things other than diversity once in a while. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s something I think about a lot and am genuinely interested in, but it’s not my ONLY THING.)

Another advantage is that it might be, well, easier to sell stuff. Consider, for example, YA author Natalie Whipple‘s experiences trying to sell books with PoC main characters: Diversity As Trend? Please. Or Cindy Pon’s Guide to Writing Non-Commercial YA Fantasy (tip #1: put in too many Asians).

But here’s another answer

No. For two reasons:

1) Writing, for me, is not about selling books or being popular. (Both of those things are great. I wouldn’t say no. But they’re not really what it’s about.) It’s about doing something that feels important with the limited time I have on this earth. It’s about articulating a worldview. It’s about cheering, soothing, uplifting, enlightening — all those great things art can do. If I wrote only or mostly about white people, Western settings, Western mythologies, etc. I would feel that I was not really doing the best I could do.

I’m not nearly as successful in this regard as I’d like to be, and of course my writing will never be as good as I would like, but I am trying.

2) I think readers recognise truth when they see it. For me, to write using local myths and beliefs is a form of accessing a deep truth. Something like the Regency voice is pure performance — I am doing something sort of serious with it, but it’s mostly play. Writing in Manglish is something else.

I think a book that captures truth is going to be better than one that doesn’t. And I believe that better books have a better chance of being read, of being loved, of helping people, of lasting.

People always talk about wanting universal stories. I don’t think universal means mainstream (meaning white or Western). I think the universal lies in the specific, and we each have our own specific truth. It’s the best resource we’ve got as writers — so we should use it.

Thanks to Tade Thompson for the post title. Check out his awardwinning tropical noir thriller Making Wolf!

My publishing journey: The Year of No

I’ve been fairly quiet on the Publishing Journey front as I’ve been busy, er, journeying. But epic fantasy author Juliet McKenna kindly invited me to write a guest post for her blog, so I wrote about identifying with Jonathan Strange for the first time and learning to say no:

My year of saying no

It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.

Come to think of it, it follows on quite nicely from my last Publishing Journey post on love and resource. Unplanned thematic continuity \o/

On a totally separate note, Sorcerer to the Crown is in the first round of DABWAHA! If you vote for it it might WIN and BEAT THE OTHER BOOKS (or at least it may not FLAME OUT and DIE A DEATH instantly). Vote, vote!

Publications in 2015

I generally manage to avoid reading discussion of my writing, but one time I did see someone describe me as “not prolific”. I was all indignant: how can?! I write so many words, OK, all things considered!

But the melancholy truth is that I’m not very prolific. Given sufficient time I can crank out a decent number of words, but a fairly low percentage is fit for human consumption. Still, in 2015 my list of publications was short but satisfying.

Short fiction: Monkey King, Faerie Queen in Kaleidotrope (April 2015)

This was a hard story to sell, which puzzled me because it’s one of my favourite of my short stories. It’s about Sun Wukong wreaking havoc in Fairyland. What’s not to love? I’m pleased it found a great home in the end.

Anthology (editor): Cyberpunk: Malaysia, Fixi Novo (June 2015)

CyberpunkMalaysiaebookcoverwithtitleI edited Cyberpunk: Malaysia, which was a great experience but way too much hard work for me to want to repeat it! I’m really proud of it — it’s a great collection of stories and as good an introduction to urban Malaysia as you can get anywhere else.

Novel: Sorcerer to the Crown, Ace/Macmillan (September 2015)

IMG_0668My first published novel! It’s been wild having it out in the world. Currently it’s out in hardcover in the US, UK and elsewhere, and I never get tired of wandering into bookshops and seeing it on shelves. I find it even more exciting seeing it in libraries and seeing holds (!!) on the book. There’s also an audiobook, which I’m told is well done: US | UK (it’s the same audiobook, just different versions of Audible). Thank you so much to everyone who’s read it, reviewed it, posted about it on social media, and told me they enjoyed it. I’m very grateful.

Nonfiction: It’s sort of overegging it to call it nonfiction, but I did write a lot of guest posts, email interviews and the like this year, and people seemed to enjoy my Publishing Journey series of blog posts. I plan to write more! But must finish book 2 first. >:| <– this is my determined face

The list will be even shorter this year as the follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown isn’t scheduled for publication till 2017, but I do have at least one thing planned. You can sign up to my new release mailing list if you want to hear about new publications as they happen! It’s very low volume — I just send out an email when there’s something new by me that can be bought/read.

My publishing journey: Love and resource

I know I said I was winding up my Publishing Journey posts for now, but I had another thought: about love and resource, and the debts we owe. It’s quite a big thought, so bear with me.

IMG_0670A few years ago I got a daruma and was told how you draw in one eye when there’s something you want, and you draw in the other eye when you have got it. I drew in one eye and then I waited. The thing I wanted was the same wish I always made, when visiting temples and blowing out birthday candles.

Like many writers, I have wanted to be a published novelist since I was very small. Of course when you are small you don’t really know what that means. You don’t think about the New York Big Five or global distribution or advances or royalties or awards or reviews. What you want is very simple: to be on the shelf next to the books you love. It’s to be as important, as interesting, as true, as a story.

Publication does not give you that. But it comes to stand for that. I grew up devouring Penguin books and now I am a Penguin author. It might not last, but it happened. Imagine that.

Even though publication is no longer what it was — even though I know that’s not what it means — it still feels enormously satisfying. It still feels like a gift I have given six-year-old me.

But that’s not true, is it? It’s been a very busy, though happy, few months for me, and I have been thinking about resource. What an enormous amount of love and time and resource has been poured into me.

Though I do work hard, I’m always conscious at the back of my mind of how little I have to do with anything I achieve. A while ago I realised with embarrassment that I did not mention in my post about revisions how much work my agent Caitlin Blasdell and editor Diana Gill did on the book. Hannah Bowman, who is not even my agent, read the manuscript twice before it went on submission. The post makes it sound like I was the only one working, but of course that is not true. And we have not even got to the people who typeset the book, who proofread it (and had to put up with my nerdy responses: “I think you’ll find the OED says that word has been in use since the 16th century … “), who have been sorting out publicity and marketing and sending advance copies all over the place, etc. etc. etc.

But much as I appreciate all that work, these are, after all, people for whom it is their job. They hope to see some concrete benefit from their work — and I certainly hope they do. Who I really think about when I think about love and resource is my maternal grandmother, my Ah Ma, who passed away earlier this year.

Continue reading

ALL the Publishing Journey posts

I thought it might be useful to have a summary post with links to all my Publishing Journey posts, as I wound them up last Friday. Here they are!

Mission statement: Ten things I believe about writing
Breaking through writer’s block, or, how I started writing and publishing short stories
How I published a short story collection
Writing with a day job, part 1: Why I don’t write full-time
Writing with a day job, part 2: Work/work balance
Networking, part 1: Social media and connection
Networking, part 2: Thoughts on conventions
How I wrote three novels and binned two of them
Querying agents
Signing with a literary agent
My query letter for Sorcerer to the Crown
Revising the novel (again and again and again)
Going on submission
Selling the novel
Love and resource

Thanks to everyone who read, commented, tweeted, shared on Facebook, etc. I did these posts for three two reasons:

1) Because people were asking me about publishing and I wanted to have something to link them to, instead of repeating the same answers to different people.

2) I really enjoy writing about writing, but in kind of an embarrassed way. Some people writhe in delicious guilt over having a chocolate. I eat chocolates by the dozens without shame, but feel luxuriously decadent about blogging about my ~writing process~.

3) Procrastinating on book 2 no what are you talking about I never procrastinate on writing fiction (she said as she procrastinated by doing a blog post)

Anyway, because of reason #2, I’ve really appreciated everyone who’s taken the trouble to tell me that they enjoyed these posts or found them useful or enlightening. Thank you!

I may take a break from doing these on a weekly basis as I really have to focus on book 2, but as I said in the last post, I do mean to keep doing them and am taking requests. So let me know if you have any writing or publishing-related questions or topics you’d like me to talk about, via email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below.

P. S. Selamat Hari Merdeka! Hope you ols enjoyed the public holiday.

My publishing journey: Selling the novel

I ended my last Publishing Journey post about going on submission to publishers on an annoying cliffhanger, in part because the post was getting a bit long, but also because I wanted this post, about selling the book, to be the last one before the book comes out in the US. Never let it be said that I have not been straight-up with you!

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, at the end of the six-week period my agent had set, I got an email from her mentioning almost quite casually that an editor had confirmed that they were going to offer for the book. Whatever happened, the book was going to have a home. That was when I knew it was going to be published after all and I had not lived and fought in vain.

It felt weird, to be honest. I suffer from “feelings never match up to occasion”itis (there must be some clever German word for this), which means that I’m perpetually bored, distracted or hungry at significant emotional moments. I always admire people who cry at weddings: so clever of them to know to have the right feelings at the right time. One of the reasons I like books so much is that they tell you what feelings to have when. Also if you don’t cry at a sad or touching scene, it’s the author’s fault, not yours!

So I read the email a few times, felt a bit worried for no real reason, and went on with my day.

A few days later Caitlin emailed again to say that she had set an auction date and would I like to have a call, because surely I must have questions by then. Continue reading

My publishing journey: Going on submission

After spending a year and half revising Sorcerer to the Crown under, er, challenging conditions, you’d think I’d be thrilled to go on submission to publishers. But to be honest it was sort of an anticlimax!

I’d sent the latest in several versions of the manuscript to my agent and was waiting for more edit notes, when instead she emailed me saying it’d gone off to publishers. She gave me a list of the editors she’d submitted the manuscript to, and said she’d asked them to get back to her in six weeks’ time. My face went from this: @_@ (its habitual expression in 2014) to this: O_O And it stayed like that for six weeks!

For those who don’t know how the submission process works — well, I don’t either, but in my limited understanding, this is what generally happens. Continue reading