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. In 2011 I buckled down and cranked out a novel-length story. It was sort of chicklit/romance, about a disaffected yuppie-turned-creative who goes on a date with her high-flying sister’s boss’s son and ends up managing his secret cross-dressing career as the front-runner in a reality TV show beauty pageant called Klang Valley Girls. (Looking back on my list of completed fiction for 2011, btw, it shows what for me now would be extraordinary levels of productivity: 14 short stories and an entire novel in the space of a year. The novel was not publishable, but several of the short stories were. It was probably all the writing energy I’d stored up for years while being blocked.)
Klang Valley Girls was really terrible! It was mostly conversations, the point of which even I did not know. But it was more than 85,000 words long. I had achieved my goal. I chucked it in a notional drawer and started another book.
This second was a YA fantasy about two teenagers in KL who meet two apparently teenaged sibling demon hunters, who turn out to be deities in exile from another world that has been taken over by evil elves. The two actual human teenagers then travel to that other world and help the gods wrest back their country from the colonists. I had vague hopes of this one not being terrible, but those hopes were not borne out. Describing the premise now, I can see it was never really going to work: I am not sure there is any sort of market for a paranormal that turns into a portal fantasy halfway through, and its marketability was not going to be helped by all the other weird things I was doing with it. (Set in KL of all places; the two gods who were the teenage protagonists’ love interests were going to change gender partway through … )
I spent 2012 writing it and then put it in a drawer with Klang Valley Girls with a sigh. It was about 70,000 words, a good length for a YA novel, but I no longer doubted that I could produce enough words to fill a manuscript — it was just a question whether I could actually turn those into a functioning novel. I had only finished one short story in 2012 and felt like I was drying up. No new stories, hardly any sales … I couldn’t write novels and could no longer write short stories, my writing career was going nowhere, and everything was terrible.
This series of posts would look very different if I were writing it in 2012. But in every story there has to be a part where the hero gets punched up and it looks like there is no way for him to win, like in a Jackie Chan film. Like that only fun mah!
In October 2012 I was ready for a new project and I found 10,000 words of an idea I’d written in early 2011 squirrelled away in my hard drive. (Until I started writing this post, I’d totally forgotten that I’d started mulling on Zacharias and Prunella that long ago!) It seemed to me that they had promise. A frothy magical Regency romance with an earnest dude protagonist and a reckless female counterpart — it sounded fun. It sounded potentially easy: clearly I didn’t know what I was doing when it came to plot and structure, but I could just steal the structure of a standard Regency romance here. So I spent some time outlining the novel and in December 2012 I started writing the first draft.
This was the book that eventually became Sorcerer to the Crown.
I have wondered why it was this book that worked out, when most of my previous published work was set in Malaysia/primarily about Malaysian characters, and I think it’s because of the structure thing. I really did not know how to construct the shape of a novel, and this is something I’m still learning. (It’s probably no coincidence that many of my favourite books have weird shapes and are often episodic, like Anne of Green Gables and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubreyad.) When you adopt a trope or subgenre like a Regency romance or, say, cosy mystery, that gives you a shape to work with. You make it your own, but you get some help with the bones.
I don’t necessarily feel guilty that my first published novel isn’t set in Malaysia or primarily about Malaysian characters. It’s not like I didn’t try bloody hard to do the alternative! And you tell the stories that are yours to tell. Sorcerer is hopefully a book that, despite comparisons, influences and homages, no one but me could have written. But I’d certainly like to write a more Malaysian book some day.
Now I know a very tiny bit more about writing novels, I think the two drawer novels I wrote are probably not totally hopeless. They are just about six rewrites away from being something I’d show anybody, much less try to publish. I could probably rework them into something approaching decency if I had the time and energy. But life is short and there are always new stories to write!
When I finished the first draft of Sorcerer, I had a feeling it was the book I was going to be able to query agents with, if I could fix it in the rewrite. (The first draft was an appalling mess — all my first drafts are.) Once the rewrite had happened, and I had made it as good as I could on my own, I started querying agents. But that is a story to continue in another post!
Previous Publishing Journey posts
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