Publishing Journey, The True Queen, Writing Process

My publishing journey: How to write second book?

I am really nervous, sitting down to write this — almost more nervous than I am about the fact that The True Queen is out today. (You can buy it! Please do!) But I promised myself I’d do this once the long nightmare was over, because it’s helped me when other writers have talked about the hard parts.

Second book syndrome

I had second book syndrome in spades. Two things contributed to this. The revision process for my first novel Sorcerer to the Crown had been extensive and emotionally challenging. Now, I have absolutely no doubt it improved the book, and it also developed writing muscles I hadn’t even known existed. But by the time I was done with the book — or by the time it was done with me, which is more how it felt — I had spent so long considering external feedback, working in a way that I found quite counter-intuitive, that it was very hard to find my way back to the inner voice that tells you what you want in your writing, what you are trying to achieve.

The second thing was the attention. Sorcerer wasn’t a huge bestseller or anything like that, but it did receive a measure of buzz and it led to far more people reading my work than ever before. This was great and what I’d been working towards, of course, but it was also stressful. Suddenly I had to contend with the pressure of reader expectations. I really, really wanted to get the second book right. I was terrified of putting a foot wrong, and that’s death to creativity.

What happened

I started writing the second book in January 2015, right after turning in final edits on Sorcerer. I’d originally written Sorcerer as a standalone and we sold it as the first in a loose trilogy — the next two books were to be standalones set in the same world but focusing on different main characters.

I slogged through the first draft, trying to avoid googling “how to write second book???” more than once a day. I never really got to grips with my new protagonist, but I kept working, hoping this would remedy itself in the next draft. (It often takes me a whole draft to work out what a book should be about.) I completed a 120,000-word “this is not for showing ANYONE ever” zero draft in June 2015, then started revising.

As I revised, though, I started to worry. I still didn’t know my protagonist and that didn’t seem right — I had felt very sure of Sorcerer‘s Zacharias and Prunella from the start. I spoke with my editor, who suggested among other things that readers would want to see Zacharias and Prunella again.

All right, I thought. This draft and protagonist clearly aren’t working. Maybe the answer is to go back to the characters I — and my readers — already know and love.

So I decided to put my 120,000-word MS in the bin. It was painful, but I hoped I’d got all the wrong words out of the way, so I could write a good book now. I outlined a completely new version, with a new plot. This time it was a more traditional sequel, focusing on Zacharias and Prunella’s further adventures.

Between October 2015 and March 2016 I produced a new draft. I turned it in, keenly conscious that it was more holes than cheese, but hoping I’d be able to work it up into something decent with my editor’s help.

A couple of weeks later, my editor was let go.

I was passed on to my (great!) current editor, but before my former editor left the company, she very kindly sent me her notes on my MS. They required a significant rewrite of the book, but I’d known that was coming and it was a relief to have specific feedback after spending so long flailing in the dark with my draft. Sure, I was in for a lot of hard work and the publication date would need to be pushed back, but at least I had a place to start from and an idea of what to fix. Apprehensive but determined, I dived into the revision.

In total the rewrite took six months; I turned the revised MS in in August 2016. The draft clocked in at just short of 124,000 words. I told myself that it was all right that the draft felt terrible. It probably wasn’t as bad as I thought, and they could help me make it better, right?

In September 2016, my agent rang and told me that the revised MS I’d turned in was not publishable.

What it felt like

I felt like my head had been kicked in. I felt like I was failing over and over again, with no end in sight. I felt like a total loser.

At some point during the almost 4 years when I was working on this book (these books? they were not really the same book), I asked an author who’d published a trilogy what it had been like writing her second book. She said, “Have you watched The Night Manager?”

I had not. She said, “There’s a scene where someone gets beaten up, a torture scene, and it’s really brutal, really gritty. This person gets absolutely battered, and it just goes on and on and on. That’s what it felt like.”

We’ve got to go through it

After some discussion my publisher agreed to grant me yet another extension to allow me to start again from scratch.

There was something freeing in having been broken down so completely. This time I tried something I hadn’t done before, that I hadn’t quite dared to do. I stepped outside Regency England. I started from home — from Janda Baik, a fictional island in the Straits of Melaka, the stretch of water along which my family has lived and died since our forebears left China for Malaya. And I started with a protagonist with no memories and no magic, embarking on a perilous journey.

In the course of 2017 I wrote the book that would eventually become The True Queen. In 2018 I edited it and now, in 2019, it has been published and the thing is done.

The True Queen felt better than the previous versions from the outset, but that didn’t mean the process of writing it was not painful, full of stops and starts, clouded by doubt and uncertainty. At least once I had a screaming meltdown and had to be talked out of emailing my agent to say I couldn’t do it, I had to pull out of the contract.

But somehow I made it to the end. My feeling for the book now is like my feeling for its ordinary, long-suffering, well-meaning protagonist — Muna, who must leave her home and almost everything she cares for to set off on an adventure with an uncertain end.

I tried my hardest with the book; its aims are worthwhile aims. Whether the book achieves those aims is for readers to decide now. I hope they find in it what I always try to put in my stories — entertainment, reassurance and heart.

The True Queen is out today from Penguin Random House in the US. It’s due out on 21 March in the UK and Commonwealth, published by Pan Macmillan.

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Personal, Writing

Cakap Angin, a newsletter

In my last email to new release mailing list subscribers, I asked people to email me if they’d be interested in a chattier newsletter — like a blog post, but sent direct to their inbox. (I only send out emails about new releases to the new release mailing list and given what an enormously long time it takes me to write anything decent and get it published, it does not get a huge amount of action … )

It turns out when you ask people to email you, often they do! There was enough interest that I’ve set up a new mailing list for anyone who’d like to receive a longer newsletter, with general life, writing and other updates. I’m calling it Cakap Angin, which literally means “talk wind” and is a Malay idiom meaning “idle talk”, and the newsletter will do what it says on the tin. (I was really tempted to call it Omong Kosong, but I felt that was even more self-deprecating even though it means the same thing, and then I thought of calling it Omong Penuh but that seemed too up myself.)

I’ll still have a separate new release mailing list, so that’s the one you want if you only want updates on new fiction I’ve published. Cakap Angin is for other stuff, at irregular intervals. You might ask, “Why don’t you start updating your blog again instead of setting up this newsletter you refuse to commit to updating regularly, ZEN” but I would just look vague and refuse to answer, so you might as well reconcile yourself to the existence of the newsletter. And sign up if it sounds interesting!



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Sorcerer to the Crown, Writing

An update

Just a brief post to say Happy New Year and apologise for the radio silence here! I’ve been travelling, as you’ll have seen if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, and I’ve also been working on my book.

This is a follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown and it’s not going to be out before 2018, notwithstanding reports elsewhere (including by me /o\) that it was due out this year. Sorry! The delay is entirely my fault, but I am working steadily on it and it will get done. I’ll post about the details when I can.

Till then, there’s not likely to be too much activity on this blog, though I do plan to start posting more about writing and publishing and all that sort of thing once I’ve got the MS in a state I’m reasonably satisfied with. Consider it a fallow period — I gotta build up my nitrates!

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Malaysian writing, Other People's Stories, Personal, Publishing Journey, Writing

Writing My Culture for Fun and Profit

Question

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!

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Publishing Journey, Sorcerer to the Crown, Writing

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!

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Cyberpunk: Malaysia, My Stories, Sorcerer to the Crown, Writing

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.

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My Stories, Personal, Publishing Journey, Sorcerer to the Crown, Writing

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

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Publishing Journey, Sorcerer to the Crown, Writing, Writing Process

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.

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