Thursday, January 22, 2009

Interview, Borneo Post 19 January 2009


Borneo Post, 19 January 2009
Georgette Tan

See the following blog post for the extended judging tips, workshop details and other writing advice.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

**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.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

MPH-Alliance National Short Story Prize 2009: Judging Tips, Writer’s Workshop in Kuching, and Other Writing Advice to Win

MPH-Alliance National Short Story Prize 2009: Judging tips, Writer’s Workshop in Kuching, and Other Writing Advice to Win by Robert Raymer

Judging MPH-Alliance Bank National Short Story Prize 2009

As one of the judges for the MPH-Alliance Bank National Short Story Prize 2009 (along with Sharon Bakar, Eric Forbes and a representative from Alliance Bank), what will I be looking for in deciding the shortlist and the winner? It’s a given that the story has to be well written, but how effective is the story? What insights do we gain from reading it? Worse, is it a same-old, same-old, or a so-what story? Regardless of how well it is written, if the story is overly familiar, utterly predictable, or merely forgettable, it’s not going to win.

Ideally a story should linger, even haunt you in some way (not in a scary way, but bother you, perhaps; at least make you think about life) so that even a year later, you’re still thinking about that story. Also, I’ll be looking at character motivation, development and change (no change, no story!). Are there conflicts on more than one level? Are the characters memorable? Settings clearly defined? An opening that hooks the reader? Any tension that’s pulls the reader from the beginning to the end? An ending that I didn’t see coming or that resonates in a way that I wasn’t expecting?

Then I’m looking at language, turn of phrases, similes and metaphors, use of irony and symbols. A tall order for a short story, but good stories do that all the time, including children stories, and that’s what makes them effective, significant and timeless!

What I don’t want to see (I know we’ll get a lot of them) is what I call thinking-out-loud-but-doing-nothing-about-it-stories. Whereby all you get are good descriptions (sometimes) and interesting thoughts (occasionally), but no forward action, no character development, no sense of anything happening. In other words, no story!

Workshop in Kuching

For my upcoming workshop at MPH, titled “Improving the Story”, I’ll be focusing my attention on the beginnings. How ideas can lead to stories, how to start stories, where to start them, viewpoint options, mood, dialogue, as well as some pitfalls to avoid on both ends of the story, including carelessness! Why begin­nings? Well most writers don’t get past the beginning (they run out of stream or get bogged down, feel frustrated and give up!). Readers, often don’t get past the beginning either. If it’s bad, why torture yourself to the end? For contests, you can tell within the first two pages (first two paragraphs, really!) whether the story has any merit.

From teaching creative writing for a dozen years, I’ve learned that most unpublished stories (even those completed to the end) go wrong at the beginning! They start in the wrong place, or use the wrong point of view character, or the wrong narrative voice, or their descriptions or settings are vague or non-existent or the opposite, overblown with tons of adjectives and adverbs, with absolutely no forward movement in the story, or its all telling; nothing is being dramatized! Fix these and carry these changes through the story and the story improves tremendously!

I'm recommending that each participant bring the first two pages of their story, typed, which we'll workshop. That means we’ll be reading them aloud and discussing their merits, the good, the bad and the ugly! We’ll also be discussing options and solutions to make the story better, to give it firmer ground to stand on. This will benefit everyone, because a problem in someone else’s story may be your problem, too, and a solution for them, might spark an idea on how to fix your own story. It’s a win-win situation, so long as we keep the comments positive, yet realistic, and our goal is to improve the story.

The more the participants add their own gut level reaction, their views and ideas, the better for everyone. One crazy idea may spark a good one and then an even better one, and suddenly a story that was heading for the trash now has a fighting chance! I use this technique in my creative writing class and it saves the students’ hours of rewriting the wrong story! By the way, if you don’t have a story beginning, how can we improve it? So get working on that story and bring it along!)

Challenge for Malaysians Writing in English


The biggest challenge for Malaysians writing in English, especially those just starting out (and this applies to all beginning writers around the world, including Americans), is that they need to read more. Many of their stories are clichéd, been done-to-death, overly melodramatic, or it’s some watered-down movie or TV program that they saw. Or, it’s purely an imitation of some other writer. Where is the originality? Yes, you can learn from imitating other writers as you learn your craft (many great writers started out this way), but you need to start being you.

Learn from great writers, apply their techniques; just don’t copy their style to the point that you’re a poor imitation of the real thing. Who needs that? Be original, and never, ever plagiarize someone else’s work in an effort to win a prize. Yeah, you might get away with it for a short time, but you will be found out, and it will haunt you for the rest of your life. You’ll be branded a cheat, deservingly, so!

I shamelessly ask my creative writing students to read Lovers and Strangers Revisited mostly for the various viewpoints (Indian child, Malay woman, Chinese woman, elderly Chinese man and the occasional mat salleh) to show them the possibilities in writing modern short stories set in Malaysia that do get published overseas. Plus they can ask me, as the author, questions about the writing of the stories that can be insightful even in itself, or I can refer them to my blog series, The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Initially they all want to set their stories in Paris or in Chicago, and what they write is so clichéd and truly awful, that now I insist that they set their story in Malaysia, unless they’re writing sci-fi or fantasy. Recently I was chided by my colleagues for doing this, but they don’t teach or write short stories! I do. I publish them, too. Because the students know Malaysia, they know their characters, their settings, their culture, and their stories are so much better! It works!

Also, they need to get over their reluctance to revise their stories, get past their egos when an editor or a teacher makes a suggestion. They have this, how-dare-you-touch-my-perfect-story! It’s like the way first-time parents see their babies – as perfect. Others see the blemishes and the snot in the nose (not to mention the smell emanating from the diaper), but the parents only see perfection! Whether you choose to ignore the flaws in your story or not, they are there! Editors, from my experience, want the best published version of that story published. They have their reputations, too; and it’s their job! Editors are here to help you – they are not the enemy!

Benefits of Joining Contests, Creative Writing Courses, and Workshops


The prize money that contests usually offer is a huge incentive (plus the opportunity to publish) and the deadline makes sure that the stories actually get written! All the stories that I wrote for Lovers and Strangers Revisited were written or rewritten for one short story contest or another. Even if they were written in a rush, they got written; so later I would go back and revise them.

Creative writing classes also help the writer with their craft. They can learn from their own mistakes, from their instructors, someone who can point them in the right direction. What beginning writers need most, regardless of their age, is encourage­ment. Someone who believes in your story and who can guide you through the writing process is essential.

But you must be willing to work, to revise, and to listen, and to read the materials and read other short stories. You can’t expect your instructor to take your vague story and turn into something publishable. We can point the way, sometimes edit your work, but you have to do the actual writing, draft after draft. Writing is a process – you have to write and take your writing seriously. If you don’t believe in your story, why should anyone else?

Like most things, writing is a trainable skill. If you add in inspiration and a lot of perspiration and if you find a compelling story that you must write, and write in style that moves you and the reader, nothing can stop you. With enough persistence, you can even publish your work. Talent is one thing, but many talented people give up.

So if you want to write, learn how to write, write often, and enter those contests. Take whatever classes on writing that you can, and attend workshops! It’s a great way to get inspired; being around all those other writers – people with the same interests as you – will spur you on to keep writing. You may even forge friendships and exchange critiques of each other’s work that will benefit both of you for years to come.

Learn from Other Writers

Whenever you can and in whatever way that you can, learn from other writers as to how they achieve their craft. Some writers can be aloof, others overly mysterious. Still there are those who will take the time to break down their work, to strip away some of the magic, just enough to give you a glimpse of the writing process. Gobble this up! That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for my revised collection of short stories Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH 2008), in my blog series, The Story Behind the Story.

Because the stories were written and originally published about twenty years ago and had been revised for the original Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia 1993), overhauled for Lovers and Strangers Revisited (Siverfish 2005), and revised again for the MPH 2008, I decided to take a closer look at the writing process for those stories myself. I’m amazed by how much the stories have evolved, matured. At a glance, it may look like the same story, but the differences, are both subtle and stark! Some of the stories had doubled in length. There have been changes of titles, of characters, of beginnings and endings, of point of view, and shifting from past tense to present tense.

Comparing the MPH stories with the story’s blog would be invaluable to writers just learning their craft or wishing to break out of Malaysia. It would also be interesting to readers to see how much the stories, over a span of twenty years, have evolved, and why the stories, like “Neighbours” being taught in SPM Literature and several other stories taught in universities around Malaysia (as well as the collection at USM), still feel timeless today, as has been noted in several recent reviews.

Final advice for entering the MPH-Alliance bank contest

Get an entry form and go to MPH (or any bookstore in your area) and pick up some collections of short stories in the local fiction section, including Lovers and Strangers Revisited (*this went on to win the 2009 Reader's Choice award). Learn from those writers and their stories, and let them inspire you! Ask yourself, what is your story really about? Why only you can write it? Then write it! Add your own unique culture and heritage into your story; the stories are so much richer for it! Then write the very best that you can! Write from the heart! Even if your story doesn’t win, you’ll still be a winner because you have enriched your own world! Later, you can always improve the story and even get it published! Good luck!

*If you find this article helpful, pass it along to your writer friends.

Details for MPH, Kuching Workshop:
Title: Improving Your Short Story (for those planning to enter contest)
When: Saturday, 31 January 2009, 10am-1pm
Where: Conference Room, level 2, The Spring, Kuching.
Register: MPH, The Spring (082 244 800), for age 13 and above; first come, first serve; first 25. (If more, another date may be arranged) Cost: Free!  Sponsored by MPH
Bring: First two pages of your short story, typed, double spaced
Contest: 27 October 08 – 31 March 09

Update:  One of the participants went on to publish two novels, Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

**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, January 16, 2009

“Dark Blue Thread”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers

For “Dark Blue Thread” I thought what if an expat writer found out that his Malay wife was cheating on him? Although my ex-wife, whom I loosely based my character on, as far as I know never cheated on me, the idea stuck. The story went on to be published four times (while we were still married), under its original title, “The Watermark”.

I used the Penang terrace house that I was living in back then as the setting, which made it easy since it was familiar territory. When it first appeared in The Her World Annual 92, the main character’s name was Dennis. A year later, when it was published in Singapore, I had changed the name to Eric, then to Eric Heywood in the first Lovers and Strangers collection, and back to Eric in London Magazine (January 1995). Although I liked the name Eric, I felt that the name Alan better suited the character, so I took the opportunity to change the name once again for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Alan’s wife also went through several name changes. She started out as Fatimah, then Sheela, and finally Salina in the original collection. Thankfully, Madison, our cat’s real name, remained the same.

The story was first published in the present tense, but soon afterwards I switched to past tense, which I felt worked better for this story. The biggest change was the ending. After cutting back on the various excesses in the early versions, for Lovers and Strangers, I settled on:

“Although he knew it was time to ask her about the letters, he was afraid of the answers. Afraid she might leave him. His crying woke Madison and she began to stir. He tried to hold her back, but she bounded over him and rushed for the opened door.”

While I was revisiting the story, I felt I needed a final confrontation with the wife. So I had her return to the house on the pretense that she had forgotten her office desk key. To set up this final confrontation, I added a lot more details about their backstory, their life in Malaysia, the financial sacrifices he had made, and the options that he was now facing.

It was becoming clear to me that the story wasn’t so much about “the watermark”; it was the dark blue thread, the main symbol of the story, too, which I felt would make a better, less confusing title. In Malaysia, bond paper isn’t all that common. The thread had also served as a constant reminder as to how fragile his life had become. Once he severed the thread with that knife, he was ready to face reality, no matter the consequences.

When the wife did come back, I had him slap her, which had not only surprised him, but also me as the writer. Until that very moment, I never thought he’d slap her. It was not something I was capable of doing, or would do, but for Alan, it was something he had to do. He had to make a point, even if that point backfired by losing his wife for good. But he had to take that risk. At stake was his very existence in Malaysia. Then in that final dialogue, he finally said what he had been holding back for the past two weeks.

The new ending thus became:

“He walked past [Madison] and went up to his office. He grabbed the paper. He didn’t care which way the watermark went. It really didn’t matter.”

With the expanded ending and all the additions I made, the story nearly doubled in length. For the MPH version, I added a couple more lines at the ending. I didn’t want the emphasis to fall on the watermark, but on him, as the writer and on his marriage:

“He began to type, but when he came to the letter p, he paused. Who in the hell was this P? Was it someone he knew? He decided right there and then that he didn’t want to know. It didn’t matter. He wanted to put these last two weeks behind him. He typed some more. Tears began to fall, but he kept on typing.”

This was the effect I was going for; he didn’t know what was going to happen to their marriage, now that she knew that he knew. It would all depend on her. She may leave him for this other man, or she way give up her lover and stay with her husband, and somehow they would work things out, whether returning to America or remained in Malaysia.

Note, I had now written in that final paragraph “It didn’t matter,” twice, knowing full well, the opposite was true.

As a footnote, I saw hope in this story. Hope in my own marriage, too, but alas that too came to an end, and it was time to move on. Unlike the character in the story, who was contemplating returning to America, that was never one of my options. I had decided to stay put in Malaysia. In real life, we had another factor to consider, a child, who came after the story was written. After our divorce, we shared raising our son (I had him during the week and she had him during the weekends) until my new job took me to Sarawak. My ex-wife got Madison, who was seventeen when she passed away, but in “Dark Blue Thread”, she still lives on, waiting to be fed.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

***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.
Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

“Waiting”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

I was attending a Chinese funeral at someone’s house with several Malaysian Toastmaster friends, when my friends started swapping “death” stories. One lady told about the time that her father had died; for several days afterwards, out of habit, she would wait up for him to come home from work, only to remember that he was not coming home anymore.

In the back of my mind, I played with that idea.

Earlier that evening, I had been fascinated by a lionhead goldfish, having never seen one before, so I worked in some details about the fish into the story and added some additional details about another Toastmaster friend who, on another occasion, told me about the goldfish that he used to raise and sell as a boy.

Also, around the same time, there was a construction site close to where I was living and there was this constant metal hitting metal sound that was driving me crazy, so I incorporated that into the story as well.

Sometimes that’s all you need to get a story going: a few random details, a few elements of truth to anchor the story, and then you’re off...

Shortly after “Waiting” was written it was published in 1988 (the fastest that any of my stories had been published, except for maybe “The Stare”), not once but twice, in Her World in Malaysia and Hot in Singapore. It was published twice again in the 1990’s in the UK and Australia, and then twenty years after it was first written, it was published in the US, in Thema (Autumn 2008).

Maybe because it got published so fast, I didn’t make a lot of changes in the story, compared to all the others in this collection; some having undergone massive rewrites where I introduced new scenes, backstories, and totally revamped the endings by adding several additional pages! I did change the main character’s name, which started out as Miss Lai and remained so in the original Lovers and Strangers. Since she needed a suitable, “important” job, I made her a secretary for a legal firm.

An editor in the UK made a comment about the “Miss” part of the name, which he felt sounded a bit dated; however, it’s very common among the working class in Malaysia. Either way, I dropped it for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, since I was using Miss Valerie as a title of one of the stories. So I changed Miss Lai’s name to Agnes Chen.

I also revised the ending of “Waiting”, which hadn’t changed all that much from the Her World ending. Below is how it appeared in the original Lovers and Strangers collection:

Why doesn’t Dad come in? Why is he making her wait? Edward made her wait. Doesn’t dad know? Doesn’t he know she hates to be kept waiting?

When I revisited the story for Silverfish, I wanted to break up her thoughts with some action. I also wanted her to say exactly what she was thinking about Edward all along. I kept this same ending for MPH and also Thema:

Why doesn’t Dad come in? Doesn’t he know it’s raining? Agnes waited a little longer. She got up and went to the door, but Paul stopped her from opening it. “Sis, you have to accept this.” “But we made plans. We planned to get married. Edward promised me. He promised me!”

As a footnote, 21 years after I wrote “Waiting”, I got an email from a Toastmaster who, coincidentally, read my story at a recent Toastmaster meeting in Shah Alam as part of the Interpretive Reading module that she’s doing, thus bringing the story full circle. She also said, “The tingling tone of suspense and Agnes' helplessness and waiting in vain kept the audience focused on the story from start to finish.” For a writer that’s quite an honor to have someone (who I don't know) not only read your story but also to present it a way that I had never imagined.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

**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.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Malay Mail, Cyberspot 5 January 2009


For me, thanks to MPH, 2008 and cyberspace has been about publicity and helping other writers write. I stepped up my blogging and gave writers (and readers) a glimpse into the writing process with my on-going Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited series, which also gave me a real-world look at my own progress as a writer, something I had been doubting. Now I could see the difference!

Then Sharon Bakar nudged me into the world of Facebook and I decided to use the new MPH cover – it’s prettier than my own face – as my “face”. Besides being interviews online, I even got Youtubed by Krista Goon (Mayakirana) when she visited me in Kuching. She and her husband Nic are nudging me to turn my website into a business, so that may well be in my cyberworld future.

The downside of cyberworld is that it eats into real world writing time. It’s all too tempting, seductive, even voyeuristic, peeking and delving into everyone’s Facebook, blogs, and websites, and replying those blogs that strike a chord – Sharon has far too many of them, which means she’s doing something right! It’s that perfect balance between cyberworld networking, family time, and producing publishable work that I’m seeking for 2009

Wish me luck, and I wish everyone a Happy, Healthy, Productive, Prosperous, And Sexy New Year!

***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.