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.

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Publishing Journey, Writing

My publishing journey: Querying agents

In the last episode, I wrote two books and chucked them because they sucked, and then I produced a very rough first draft of a Regency romance/fantasy crossover. This, unfortunately, sucked as well. But I could see within it the bones of something that could maybe not suck, so I thought I’d see what I could do to draw that out.

I put the draft novel aside for a month to rest in its juices, and in that month I researched. When writing the first draft I’d based my conception of the world on all the Regency and Regency-set books I’d read: Austen, Heyer, O’Brian. Now I read actual history books: books on Britain and its inhabitants in that interesting time, but also books about the transatlantic slave trade, Chinese emperors and Mughal India. I also read fiction and nonfiction from the actual period (thank you, Gutenberg!) — one of the best parts of writing historical fiction, IMO.

My head brimming with Regency-appropriate slang, I then re-outlined the book and wrote a second draft, cannibalising a fair amount of the first. By mid-2013 I had a complete redrafted manuscript that was as good as I could make it by myself. I wrote a query and synopsis, made a list of agents, and queried the first eight or so on the list.

(There is an additional step I could’ve taken between completing the second draft and querying agents. I should really, if I’d been properly conscientious, have asked a couple of my smart, generous writing friends to beta-read my manuscript, and done another revision pass based on their comments. I didn’t lor. I was too impatient! Anyway, you cannot escape the work that has to be done, as you’ll see later.)

On how I chose agents to query: I looked in the acknowledgments pages of books by authors I liked, who had careers I would like to have, and whose books were similar in some way to mine. I picked out their agents’ names and googled them to see if they were taking new clients, and if they were I added them to my list. Also, kind of randomly, I looked at QueryTracker’s Top 10 Most Queried Agents list and picked a couple to query, on the assumption that all those other queriers must have done their research and known what they were doing.

There are a couple of things I should mention for context, that happened around this time.

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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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Publishing Journey, Writing

My publishing journey: Networking, part 1 — social media and connection

I’m getting geared up for the posts in this series that are probably what people are¬†actually interested in, i.e. the bit where I signed with a literary agent and eventually got a book deal. But first I have to talk about everything that went before!

— Well, maybe not EVERYTHING. But let’s talk about a couple of important things. One is social media.

“Make sure you have a social media platform” is now hoary advice for published writers and writers working towards publication. I enjoy social media and it’s one of the things I make time for, other than writing and, y’know, actually socialising. It can be a horrible distraction as well, but everyone just needs to work out a way to control that for themselves lah.

But with this and my next post, which will be about conventions and networking, I want to talk about what I think is the real point of going to all the effort of being on Twitter and Facebook and having a blog. The point is not advertising or marketing or boosting yourself and your work constantly. The point is not having millions of followers on Instagram, or making lots of connections, useful as those can be. Those are obviously side-effects you might want to achieve, and there are also the practical aspects of it — you do want some form of online presence which makes your work available, so that people who hear about you can find and read your writing easily if they would like to. But even that is not the point.

The point is connection.

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Publishing Journey, Writing

My publishing journey: Writing with a day job, part 2 — work/work balance

In Part 1 of “Writing with a day job”, I explained why I do it. This post is about the how.

I have a fairly simple rule, which I started when I broke the hold of writer’s block and figured out how to write regularly. I decided I would write a little bit every day — a single sentence would do if I didn’t have time for more — but I would take one day off from writing every week. This was usually Friday, because I’d get to the end of my working week and feel very tired and want to mess around on the Internet or read stuff instead of writing.

I’ve more or less stuck to that basic rule since then. When I have a project that I’d like to get finished by a specific deadline, I’ll work out how many words I need per day in order to finish it and then do that, so there are times I might have a specific daily word count target (usually around 1,000 words/day). Other times I might decide I’m relaxing and just do a bit each day instead of having a specific word count I’m aiming for. Sometimes I’ll decide that editing or proofreading or preparing a story for submission will count as my writing work for the day, but I don’t let myself do that too much as actual writing is the hardest thing for me, so I’m a little worried I’ll just keep coming up for excuses for not doing it.

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Business of Writing, Publishing Journey, Writing

My publishing journey: Writing with a day job, part 1 — why I don’t write full-time

Like many writers, I have a day job. I’ve been asked a few times whether I’d like to write full-time or (put it another way) why I haven’t given up the job now I’ve got a book deal. The answer varies a fair bit depending on my mood and the time of day, but the three main reasons why I don’t write full-time are:

1) I’m quite risk-averse. (I’m a lawyer by day. This is very common amongst bookish Malaysians whose parents want them to be able to cari makan.) Sadly, having one book deal is no guarantee that I would ever get another.

2) I quite like having a day job. Mine is interesting, well-paid and well-regarded, jokes about killing all the lawyers aside. I am good at it and like my colleagues.

3) I’m not sure I’d actually like writing full-time.

That last might need some explanation, given how maniacally invested “passionate” I am about writing. (I’m not an obsessed loser! I’m a passionate millennial!)

To be happy in your career you need three things.

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