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

My publishing journey: Revising the novel (again and again and again)

There is a certain trend within the huge volume of writing about publishing on the Internet, which I think of as being the writing advice equivalent of grimdark. The people who give grimdark writing advice point out how incredibly difficult it is to get a foothold in publishing. They explain at length how small the rewards are, how disheartening the challenges, how huge and cold and indifferent the world is when you are a writer who is just starting out — and even worse, when you are a writer who is getting established. When you are a writer who was successful but whose sales have begun to decline. When you are a writer full stop.

When you read this type of advice you get the impression that in order to be a published author you need to be made entirely of bones and steel. You need to be willing to rip out all your own tender feelings with your own teeth and burn them on a pyre along with every first draft of everything you have ever written. You basically need to be a sort of combo of the meanest Transformer and Godzilla.

I don’t mean to suggest that this type of advice is not true. But as with all single depictions of the world, it only shows one aspect and it’s only true for some people some of the time. (The triumphalist stories of glorious, easy success are also only true for some people some of the time, of course.) If you’ve read my fiction it’s probably pretty obvious that I’m of the “pine woods are as real as pig-sties” school of thought, but I’m also conscious that nobody will believe in the scent of pine unless there’s a smell of pig-sties lurking underneath it. Because the real world has both — but probably more pig-sties.

Anyway, this is a rambly way to say that I’m going to talk about the hard part. I have tried in this series to be encouraging and optimistic, because I feel like the kind of tough love that is all “suck it up! become a killer writing machine! you will never make it if you don’t write every day while swallowing raw egg yolks and juggling live babies, all at the same time!” is often likeliest to discourage people from traditionally marginalised backgrounds, who are more likely not to trust themselves and their abilities. If the approach lights a fire under anyone’s ass it’s probably going to be the asses of privileged entitled people, which, frankly, are warm enough already.

But I guess part of being encouraging is being honest about the hard parts. If you have ever said to me, “I’ve always wanted to write but I’m too busy” and seen my face twitch slightly, I will explain why here.

I mean, I totally know how you feel! You have my genuine sympathy! I know balancing life and obligation and art is hard! But here is how I feel.

Continue reading

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

My publishing journey: How I wrote three novels and binned two of them

After I figured out how to write regularly and how to sell short fiction, I decided I wanted to write novels. There was only one minor hitch to the plan. I didn’t actually know how to do it.

It seemed like it should be a straightforward exercise. After all, I’d read enough of the damn things. (It might give you some idea of my childhood when I say I don’t remember any of my classmates from Standard 4, but I remember the books I read. I also don’t remember anything I learnt in Kemahiran Hidup in secondary school, but I remember the book my Form 1 KH teacher confiscated because I was reading it under my desk while she was trying to tell us how often we were supposed to change our bedsheets. It was Dickens’s Hard Times and I was only halfway through. >:( Now I write novels set in 19th century Britain and I never change my bedsheets, so take that, cikgu!)

But I couldn’t work it out. It took me three years to complete a 25,000-word fanfic I’d started when I was 16: length was not my strong point when it came to writing. But your average novel is a little longer than 25,000 words and I knew that was what I wanted to do, so I resolved to write a drawer novel. (A drawer novel is a book you write and then put in the drawer, rather than selling it or letting anyone else read it.) It would be a bit depressing investing all that work and time in something that would never be seen by anyone else, but I knew I would never start if I had the pressure of thinking, am I going to sell it, how do I make it good enough to sell, who do I submit this to, etc. I just needed to know I could write something of the approximate length of a novel.

So that’s what I did.  Continue reading

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Other People's Stories, Writing, Writing Process

Blog hop: on writing

I am doing a blog hop thing! I was invited to do it by Shannon Phillips, who has a story in a new anthology from World Weaver Press. It is like a promotional meme — you answer a bunch of questions about writing and then you link to other writers and tell people about them — so here goes.

This is Shannon Phillips:

Shannon Phillips lives in Oakland, where she keeps chickens, a dog, three boys, and a husband. Her first novel, The Millennial Sword, tells the story of the modern-day Lady of the Lake. Her short fiction has been featured in Dragon magazine, Rose Red Review, and the upcoming anthology Fae from World Weaver Press.

And these are the questions she sent me!

 

1) What am I working on?

I’m working on yet another revision of my Regency fantasy of manners about England’s first black Sorcerer Royal. This has been my main writing project since late 2012, but in intervals between working on it I’ve also been working on Space Villette (not its real title), a novella based on Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, but with a space opera setting influenced by the early kingdoms (or should I say mandalas?) of maritime Southeast Asia.

Well, I say it is a novella, but it’s almost 30k words in and the Lucy Snowe character hasn’t even started to make googly eyes at the M. Paul equivalent. That said, I plan to rewrite the whole thing from scratch once I’ve got the first draft done, so pretty much everything I say about it now should be discounted!

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

All of my stories are about colonialism. I guess the most obvious point of difference is that the main characters are usually non-white. To the extent that I can, even when I am playing with very Western/Eurocentric genres or tropes, I try to infuse my stories with a non-Western sensibility, to refocus the narrative around characters who aren’t as often in the spotlight in English-language fiction. I don’t know how successful I am at doing that, but I keep trying.

Of course, when I am actually writing my main goal is not to make some big political point or other. My main goal is to write as many long rambling conversations and dumb jokes as people will let me get away with.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I remain profoundly shaped by my childhood reading and am processing it the best way I know how. I got told a lot of stories by my mom that I want other people to hear. I like reading long rambling conversations and dumb jokes myself. I think comfort reading shouldn’t come in just one flavour, or have just one kind of character as the focus. I’ve got a niche and I might as well keep going with it. History is interesting. I can’t write other stuff — I mean, in theory I could write a baseball economics book instead, but I don’t understand baseball or economics.

Lots of reasons!

4) How does my writing process work?

(i) Do anything except writing for as long as I can.

(ii) Bash out some hasty words just before bedtime, when I can no longer put it off.

(iii) Repeat the next day.

I generally take off one day a week, and don’t tend to write on holidays or if I’m travelling.

 

I’ve tagged the following authors, who will be posting the meme next week:

Alexandra Singer graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Creative Writing. The is the author of the ongoing independent comic, Sfeer Theory. An avid fan of historical fantasy and fairy tales, her short stories have been featured in publications such as Chamberton Publishing’s Spotlight anthology and Crossed Genres Magazine. Her blog is at http://moonsheen.dreamwidth.org.

Eve Shi is an Indonesian writer. Her YA supernatural/horror novels are available in Indonesian bookstores. She’s working on more books of the same genre, as well as planning to write books in other genres.

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Writing Process

How writing long fiction differs from short fiction

pendrecarc: How is writing long fiction different from short fiction?

Oh, long fiction is just more complicated! For me, anyway. I am still figuring it out, to be honest — I’ve only written one novel I can regard with any complacency. (I wrote two lurching horrors before that one, which I may rip up and do over one of these days, but in their current form they barely merit being called novels.) Maybe ask me again in 5-10 years, when I will hopefully have written more than one novel I am satisfied with!

But long fiction can also be more satisfying. I enjoy doing short fiction, and there is a focus and economy about the form that is very rewarding, so I don’t mean to imply that it’s a lesser form than the novel. But the things I’m really interested in as a reader and writer are things that are probably better developed within the larger scope of a novel. I’m interested in people and the dynamics between people, and for spending time with characters and getting to know them there is nothing to beat a book or series of books. I am also a big fan of the carefully chosen superfluous detail — the paragraph or six about someone’s dress or meal that helps immerse the reader in the world of the story — and there’s more space for that sort of thing in longer fiction.

On the complications, the main thing I’ve noticed is how difficult it is to pull >80,000 words into a continuous, coherent story! Firstly it’s hard to keep the story on track when you are only working on it for, say, an hour on average every day for several months. And then when you finally somehow manage to reach the end (keenly conscious that you have completely forgotten about several minor characters on the way, you haven’t wrapped up at least one key subplot, and your protagonist has undergone extraordinary unsupported transformations in her characterisation), you have to fix the mess. And every time you pick one bit of story to fix, you pull up a whole string of connected things you also have to fix. It’s like playing Jenga or something. /o\

I am hoping this will be less of a messy process once I have figured out how to outline before starting a novel. But I suspect it is always going to be quite iterative and involve me suddenly thinking, months after I have written the first draft, “Oh! That’s why Character X did that thing in Chapter 3!” and rushing around looking for a pen and piece of paper.

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Writing Process

My approach to editing

pendrecarc asked about my approach to editing.

It differs as between short stories and longer form fiction. With short stories I like to put a first draft aside to stew in its own juices for at least a couple of weeks. Then I print it off, go through it with a red pen, input my changes into the Word doc (usually changing the formatting to Standard Manuscript Format, if I haven’t already done that), and send it out. Between submissions I sometimes do edits, e.g. to reduce word count so it complies with the requirements of a particular venue, but otherwise I don’t do many passes on a short story.

Which isn’t to say I don’t do relatively major edits — I have cut out whole scenes and put in new ones, but that’s generally done on that single initial pass. I also don’t use any tools except the hard copy manuscript of the story itself, and maybe some paper to make notes on, if the notes can’t fit on the margins.

In my experience editors haven’t tended to ask for major edits to short stories. Which makes sense, I guess, because with a short story there is only so much you can change before it stops looking like the short story you bought in the first place.

With longer stories my approach is broadly the same, but I do more passes — a couple for The House of Aunts, spread over several months (though I wasn’t working on it continuously all those months) and a couple for Jade Yeo, but not really structural edits. The novel I’m currently working on has involved more editing than I’ve ever done before, and it’s been very educational! Continue reading

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Business of Writing, Writing, Writing Process

On writing for publication, and just plain writing

I’m trying to get back on the writing-for-publication bandwagon (not to mention the just-plain-writing bandwagon). Since mid-2010 I’ve tried to write something every day — even if it’s just a sentence; even if it’s just a terrible sentence — because I knew productivity was the main thing for me. I do measure my writing achievements in word count, and I try to focus on that. The other sorts of rewards or recognitions of progress — sales, feedback, award nominations — are too much out of my control, and to be honest they are too random. All you can do is keep plodding on.

The daily writing habit has fallen by the wayside this year, twice — once when I had three months off my job and was travelling and having a generally lovely time, and more recently as I got closer to my wedding(s). I did have my wedding blog writing gig to keep me honest, but I don’t really count non-fiction writing since it’s less difficult for me than fiction.

Vengeance for falling off the bandwagon has been swift. It’s been kind of a hard year for me in terms of writing confidence. One always has wobbles, but I’ve only sold one thing this year (not counting Jade Yeo, since that’s self-published) and only completed two stories. Admittedly one of these stories was a novel, but it was a really bad novel!

I’m now working on an outline for a new novel and am going to go through my submissions log and edit and submit, self-publish or kill the various stories that have been hanging around waiting for something to be done with them. I’ve also been planning to query publishers in Asia — preferably Malaysia or Singapore — about whether they’d be interested in putting out a collection of my short stories, so I ought to go through my contracts and put together a query. (I know short story collections don’t sell all that well and lots of publishers won’t take them from anyone as obscure as me, but I think the scene is a little different locally since we don’t at the moment have as many novelists as short story writers. At any rate, one can but try!)

I’m trying to remind myself of something I’ve talked about before and do basically believe in, which is the importance of failure. I’m not going to write good stories all the time because most people don’t — and even if they do, I’m not one of those people. I’m not going to be able to sell all of my stories because most people don’t — and again, even if they do, see previous statement. People who succeed are people who fail more than other people. (There’s a lot of “people”s in that sentence, aren’t there? Bit cheeky me trying to pass myself off as a writer.)

That’s a thought about writing for publication — and also about external success generally. The other thought I had recently is more about writing in itself. I’ve been thinking about how, in writing stories, you need to focus on the concrete, the particular. Stories shouldn’t be about the abstract because then they become manifestos, cartoons. I do strongly believe in stories having meaning, but not in their having particular messages, because if you wanted to be preached at you would read a self-help book or a sermon. Also shaping a story around one message limits it — any good story should be able to have lots of different meanings in it, so that you can draw out a different moral (or state of confusion, depending on what the story is like!) every time.

I don’t mean to decry cartoons; sometimes that’s what you want. But you should be aware that they are nothing more than that. One of the things I look for in my reading material is truth — and truth can come in many forms and be told in many ways, but the truth adheres most strongly (and most interestingly) to the concrete and the specific, to the details as you live them.

In my head all this links to writing about different cultures — the pitfalls thereof, and why I’m both more forgiving and unforgiving about people writing the Other than others. But perhaps that’s for another post!

Rather dull all this navel-gazing, but I am a believer in writers writing about their struggles — provided they don’t moan too much, which maybe I am! It’s a thin line: you don’t want to whinge and be a bore, but I know I’ve been comforted by reading frank accounts of self-doubt etc. in writers I admire. Anyway, let’s keep trying our best!

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