Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Art of Finishing: Write for Yourself First

I just finished the first draft of a new screenplay, about 130 pages long. It’s always nice when you finish something. Finish, by the way, is a relative term. For writers, the key word/s is first draft. Until that first draft is completed what you have is an uncompleted piece of work. Once that first draft is done, now you can really get down to work because you have some­thing to work on. Then draft after draft of rewriting, revising, rearranging you can take your story closer to finishing a final draft.

Chances are, though, this will merely be the first final draft. Later, after the newness has worn off, after there’s been a cooling off period, after it failed to create the huge impact on the world as you had hoped, you’ll take another look at it. Hopefully, you’ve got some feedback along the way, so now you can see it with fresh eyes and start rewriting, revising, rearranging. You may add more stuff, delete some stuff, change the title, change some character’s names or make it clearer what drives them, perhaps by adding some back story or adding a new scene to dramatize some action that solidifies their character. You may rewrite the beginning a dozen more times, or the ending, too, while you’re add it, to create the desired effect.

Of course this all comes later, but first you must actually finish that first draft! Whether it’s an article, short story, screenplay, novel makes no difference. Finishing is finishing.

How do you finish anything? It’s a lot like, how do you save money? Pay yourself first –that’s what I always hear and it seems to be working! Before you spend any money or pay any bills, put part of your income (starting small if necessary) into the bank or into some safe investment. You do this automatically. To make sure it actually gets done, have it automatically deducted from your paycheck!

Unfortunately, when it comes to writing, you can’t automatically write your novel, but you can use the same principle, write for yourself first. Instead of writing for everyone else, which includes replying emails, blog comments, and checking out everyone else’s blogs and adding your own replies, and then cruising the Internet to see what everyone else on the planet is doing, you commit your time – maybe your first one or two hours to what you want to write (and want to finish).

Once you get that first hour in under your belt, you may want to keep on writing. Momentum is everything! And that’s great! Use it! If you need a quick break, or really do need to catch up on your emails and blog comments, then by all means do that, but please make it quick, or the four hours you had planned to write that Sunday afternoon will quickly evaporate.

Like saving money, writing comes down to discipline, but if you make a commitment to yourself, to the writer you wish to become, to the author of the books you wish to write, and if you stick to your plan (and don’t take a quick peek at your email before that first hour or two of writing is done) you may actually get something written.

Because if you do take a quick peek at your inbox (all of them!), you may think, I can clear a few of these in a couple of minutes (and while you’re at it a few more, and few more – a few minutes add up to a few hours, by the way) or you just may stumble upon an interesting, ongoing saga/problem/miscommunication from a dear (or even a long lost) friend. In comparison, even when sorting out a potential email headache, this may seem a lot more interesting than staring at that blank screen to write what you really want to write but lack in discipline to start, let along seeing it through until that first draft gets completed.

I’ve been there, done that, in both squandering precious writing time (I only had two hours to write and it all went to email - which prompted this blog!) or the other extreme of ignoring emails until they balloon to 200. Yeah, I feel really guilty about taking weeks to reply friends, but feel really good because I’ve taken a back burner project from a year ago (my screenplay idea), to seeing it completed, even if it’s merely a first draft. Feels great!

First drafts, no matter how crappy they really are, are, in fact, great! Finally, you got it done! You took it that far, too, and by applying the same discipline of writing for yourself first each day (or each writing opportunity), you’ll soon have a second draft, a third draft. Then it’ll be ready to be sent out into the world. Sure it may come right back, but that’s writing, and as a writer you keep at it until you do get it right and that’s how articles, short stories, screenplays, and books get written and published.

So always write for yourself first! While you’re at it, save some of money, too. You may need it to celebrate that breakthrough sale that sets you on your way to publishing success. Good luck.

***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Countdown to 100

I just sold a short story, “Waiting” to Thema, in the US, my fourth sale to them, and my 96th short story publication. It’s taking me a while to get to 100.

My first sale to Thema, by the way, was “Sister’s Room” back in 2004, where I was at number 83. Then I sold “Following the Cat” in 2006 (88), and “Neighbors” in 2007 (90). 91 was “Malaysian Games”, runner-up in 2007 Wisdom-Faulkner Short Story contest, which I’m led to believe will be published in 2008, but so far they haven’t contacted me (they have the right to publish or not publish it due to its runner-up position). If they pass on this, then I’ll have to revise my tally, which in the past I’ve had to do on numerous occasions, when one publication or another changed its mind (usually when they change editors).

Short stories 92 and 93 are “Transactions in Thai” and “Only in Malaysia”; both published in Malaysia in 2008 in Silverfish New Writings 7. 94 was “The Future Barrister” published in Singapore in QRLS. For 95, I’m not allowed to disclose this since it’s for a future examination (around the world I’m told), whereby they’ll be using one fourth of the actual story.

That brings me back to 96. And four more to go until I reach 100! I still have a few stories floating around in the marketplace so I may get some more sales real soon. Then again months can go by…and nothing. For years I hardly sent anything out (focusing my time on novels and screenplays), and then I had two major and one minor move, from the US to Penang, Malaysia, within Penang, and then from Penang to Kuching, Sarawak (also in Malaysia but across the sea) where I put everything on hold until I had a firm address. Children (and occasionally work) have also turned my writing life upside down.

But now I’m close to 100 and that’s exciting for me! Some stories, I have to admit have been published more than once, in non-competing markets like here in Malaysia and Singapore, where I’m based. I’ve also published short stories in India, Japan, Denmark, France, Australia, United Kingdom and USA.

My first published short story was “Mat Salleh” based on my Malaysian wedding, in The New Straits Times back in 1986. Another story was accepted in 1985 but it didn’t get published until much later. How many different stories have I published? Technically 28, and I’ve been stuck on that number since 2003! Many of the stories, over the years, have been completely overhauled, with new titles and some even doubled in length, but, technically, it’s the same “story”. What to do?

When was the last time I actually wrote a brand new story (as opposed to editing and overhauling old stories, which I do regularly every year, including reviving a few from the dead)? In 2003 I wrote “Father’s Day” and also wrote ‘This is Only a Test”, after I found the long-lost (ten years!), heavily-edited first draft (long-hand) in the wrong desk file. Since it was never completed, I consider this my “latest” story. I've started a few other stories, including one last year, but never got around to completing them.

My biggest year for selling short stories was 1992, I sold 16! Back then I was aggressively marketing them to put food on the table. So why do I keep score? If you don’t, how will you know where you stand? If I include my articles, anecdotes and books, then I stand at 435. Sounds like a lot, right? To put that in perspective, I have friends who are columnists for newspapers and they blow by that number in less then 9 years. And if you work for a newspaper, you can do that number in one year!

Still, I’m happy to be at 96 in short stories publications, and I’m looking forward to counting down to 100. I just hope I can sell my latest two stories, or two other stories that have never been published (I have five in that category, not including the dozens of stories discarded decades ago), so I can finally reach 30! In terms of age, I passed that number a long time ago. And decades from now I hope to reach that other 100. I wonder how many short stories I’ll have published by then? One thing for certain, I will be keeping score.


***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.