Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Creative Writing Workshop Three in Kota Kinabalu

The third creative writing workshop in Kota Kinabalu was the smallest of the three, but that was to be expected, since it required, ideally, either a first person narrative or a short story from either the first or the second workshop sent in advance.  Some, who had promised to attend, never got around to it, while others seemed under the impression that they had to attend one of the other workshops despite it being made clear in the announcements, that that was not the case.  Ideally, it would be better, but if they had a story to submit, they would have benefited like all the others. 

In fact, there were a couple of new faces, guests brought by others who had no story.  They just came along to learn.  Several of the participants, at least six, did manage to attend all three workshops, including Tina Kisil, whose book Footprints in the Paddy Field had recently won second prize in the 2011 Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards for nonfiction.  This time she was trying her hand at fiction. 

Before the workshop, I found out that several of the participants had been encouraging one another to take advantage of having a published author go over their work.  They even exchanged their stories to get some feedback.  As agreed, I received most of the manuscripts, 3-5 pages, about a week in advance of the workshop (ideally I wanted two weeks and did get some—thanks for those who submitted their work early).  Initially, I didn’t plan to line edit the stories; I just wanted to give them my overall impression and point out story or logic problems and suggest how to correct them as I did with MPH short story contest workshops in Kuching and Miri, but since I was getting mainly first person narratives (some very intriguing), what they really needed was some serious editing!  Especially some of the short stories!  They were almost there, but...

During the workshop, I went over the bigger issues of each (so everyone else could benefit) by projecting their story on a white board and using a marker.  An overhead projector would’ve worked better because every time we moved the text, the old markings got in the way, so there was a lot of erasing.  Now we know (and now we know where to get an overhead in KK!)  With the help of Jude, the organizer, we tried to minimize the movement between paragraphs (that some stories required). 

After asking the participants in advance, many agreed to have their stories sent around to the others so they would have a chance to read them before the workshop.  That helped to make most of us familiar with the story, so I could concentrate on their problems such as generalizing too much at the beginning, or not starting close to the action, or going off on tangents, or creating needless confusion by jumbling dialogue or using pronouns with no clear antecedent. 

I kept stressing that if you anticipate that people are going to ask you questions while reading your story then you should answer the questions such as “Who is this character?  Where is this story taking place?  When did this happen in relationship to the other events?"  By answering these 5-W questions before readers have a chance to ask, you’re not only making it easy on them but you’re also eliminating needless confusion. This allows the reader to get caught up in your story, in your characters, instead of pausing to scratch their heads.

After going through all of the major issues for everyone’s benefit, we broke for tea, and then I gave another jumpstart topic “He/she kicked in the door,” which I brainstormed for them.  While they worked on this and tried to produce a complete draft by the end of the workshop, I then met with each participant who had submitted their story, so we could discuss the rest of the editing that only concerned them.  This way no one was wasting their time waiting for me; they were all busy writing.

For many of them, meeting one on one was an eye opener; it probably felt like they were back in school, though I never experienced any teacher going over my story in such detail until years after I graduated and took a writing course!  It’s not grammar mistakes that I’m pointing out, except when they were present; it was stylistic mistakes of using vague or wrong word choices, or trite expressions, or combining or separating sentences for effective­ness, or cutting out unnecessary words, or rearranging their sentences to increase clarity or effectiveness.

Now and then all writers need to go through this.  I know I sure did when I first set out to make myself a writer, and later even paid someone to rip up my already published Malaysian short stories so I could sell them overseas and produce a better collection of short stories as I did in Lovers and Strangers Revisited.  Now I work with both published and unpublished writers as I blogged about earlier.

At the end of the workshop the writers agreed to meet in the future to push each other in the right direction to improve their writing, something we all need now and then, a push to get started and another, often a bigger push, to keep your writing going.  This is what I set out to achieve in my three creative writing workshops in Kota Kinabalu.

                                                  *  *  *
*Here is a blog about the third workshop from one of the participants. It's always exciting (and scary) to get feedback so fast!  I have my perception of how it went, but what really counts is how they saw it!  (Looks like we even chose the same photos! Decided to add one more...)  Yes, I agree, it can be embarrassing to have your mistakes pointed out but we're all making mistakes, and often the very same mistakes, too!  It's a good way for everyone to learn. 

Here's another blog from another participant.

**Here's my workshop with Malaysian Nurses Association.   Another with International Tuition School in Kuching.

***Announcement latest workshops:  Writing Your Life Stories Workshop—Kuching! 23 June 2012 (with links to other workshops and writing tips!) and also a workshop in KK on 17 June 2012! 

If you wish to contact me for a creative writing workshop at your school (for your staff or students or both) or your association, I can be reached at 

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A French Update and a Tribute to Translators

Here is the revised cover for Trois autres Malaisie, the French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited.   Also, for those who read French, here is the latest update of the book’s French blog 

I’m told that Trois autres Malaisie is still under proofreading and it should go under print by the end of October-early November.  The next post on the book blog will be a short bio of the translator Jerome Bouchard, who I met in Kuching back in June.  According to the publisher, Editions GOPE, too often translators work in the shadow of the writer and don’t get the exposure they deserve.  I have to agree.  Often it’s the translator who finds the writer and introduces him to the foreigner publisher in the first place. 

This is what happened in my case, and this is exactly what happened in the case of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, according to Coelho’s biography, A Warrior’s Life by Fernando Morais.  It was the translator Alan Clarke, an American who came across Coelho’s first book The Pilgrimage in Portuguese and offered to translate it into English.  Coelho was not impresses and told him, “Thank you for your interest, but what I need is a publisher in the United States, not a translator.”
Clarke was not put off and replied, “All right, then, can I try and find a publisher for the book?”  Twenty-two publishers turned Clarke down before someone at HarperCollins said yes.  The book, under a different title, didn’t sell.  Undaunted, Clarke translated The Alchemist and offered it to HarperCollins and the rest is history. 

Sometimes it's a matter of perseverance, even in translation. 


*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, my collection of short stories set in Malaysia

**Update: Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie  E-book orders.  Or recommend it to your friends, especially those who would like to know more about Malaysia or have an interest in Southeast Asia.
Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

***Here’s an update to the French blog about Trois autres Malaisie and my meeting the French translator Jerome Bouchaud in Kuching, and my involvement in a French documentary for Arte (June 2017) on The Sensual Malaysia of Somerset Maugham.

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

1899—A Good Year for Writers

The first novel I ever read was by the German author Erich Kastner, Emil and the Detectives, published in 1929 and set in Berlin.  The book has been translated into 59 languages and made into numerous movies both in German and in English.  Kastner was born in 23 February 1899.

1899, as it turns out, was a rather fine year for writers, including a couple of Nobel prize winners like the American Ernest Hemingway who was born July 21, 1899 and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.  Then there is the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata, born 14 June 1899, who won Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968.   

 Also born in 1899 was the British writer, Nevil Shute, who wrote A Town like Alice, born 17 January 1899, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, born 24 August 1899, and the Russian Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, born in 22 April 1899.   

Not a bad international cast of writers for one year. 

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Congrats to winners of 2011 Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards

I’m a bit late on the news—I think it’s been out about a month now, but congrats to Lee Su Kim for winning the 2011 Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards for fiction with Kebaya Tales, Amir Muhammad for coming in second with Rojak: Bite-Sized Stories, and third, Malaysia-born Singaporean Christine Lim Suchen’s historical fiction A Bit Of Earth.

For non-fiction, the winners were Chan King Nui’s From Poor Migrant To Millionaire, Tina Kisil’s Footprints In The Paddy Field (2010), and Jasmine Yow’s Behind That Shiny Resume.  I’ll be seeing Tina this Saturday (22 October) when she attends my creative writing workshop in Kota Kinabalu, so I’ll be able to congratulate her in person!  



Last year, I did manage to attend the 2010 awards when my book Tropical Affairs was nominated.  Although the book didn’t win (I did win in 2009 for Lovers and Strangers Revisited!), I had a good time meeting with fellow writers Lydia Teh, Khoo Guat Choo, Peggy Tan; and also Christina Chan and the students from SMK (p) Sri Aman, Petaling Jeya, who were adapting my short story “Neighbours” (which I just blogged about yesterday for being used as an assignment in a TESL Masters program ) into a play.

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Short story “Neighbours” used as an e-couse assignment!

This is for those who have always wondered how their short story would look like as an exam question, or in this case, as an assignment worth 40% of their TESL mark!  I’ve been fortunate that quite a few of my stories from Lovers and Strangers Revisited have been taught throughout Malaysia in various universities, private colleges and even SPM literature (secondary school), and one story was even picked up by the University of Cambridge International Examination (CIE), an excerpt from an earlier version of “Waiting for My Father to Crash” from 25 Malaysia Short Stories, Best of Silverfish new Writing 2001-2005.  A check for £170.00 is now on the way, thank you.  (It was supposed to be three times that amount, but I just found out today that the exam question was never used electronically - on the web or for CD's - just as a printed examination paper.) 
Yet, in all this time, I’ve never actually seen the exam question of any of my stories or how it appeared in the actual examination until today when I stumbled upon an online link for an e-course via Asiaeuniversity, out of Kuala Lumpur that used my short story “Neighbours” in their TESL Masters program.  This is the same story that was taught in SMP literature 2008-2010, published in Thema in the US, adapted as a play, and the subject of the 2010 New Straits Times article, “Are you Mrs. Koh?”   Here is the Story Behind the Story link, too. 

Teaching Literature in English As A Second Language

1) This assignment carries a 40% weightage towards the final grade.
2) Your answers should be typed on A4 paper using I Times Roman, 12 font sizes and 1.5 line spacing.
3) Your answers must be submitted to your Academic Facilitator before / on EXAM WEEK.
4) Online students to submit as attachment to email:

This assignment is based on a practical experience where you are required to plan, teach and reflect upon a literature lesson. To fulfill this requirement, submit a bound portfolio to your facilitator based on (a) planning, (b) teaching and (c) self-evaluation of a single lesson based on a given short story. For this assignment, you are required to read the following:
(a) The short story Neighbours by Robert Raymer. [attached]
(b) Material in reading package assigned for the course, as well as other reference texts on teaching short stories to ESL students e.g. Benefits of Using Short Stories in the EFL Context by Erkaya (2005).

As you plan your work you are encouraged to think about the Malaysian ESL learner and how you, as a teacher, can facilitate students’ interactions with the text. You may draw ideas from reference texts on the literature instruction, discussions with colleagues and your own classroom experiences. [40 marks]
B. GUIDELINES FOR ASSIGNMENT Use the following guidelines to complete this assignment. The portfolio that you are required to submit should include all of the areas listed below (1-5) and there is no page limit. Organize your portfolio using appropriate headings and section markers.

1. Identify a group of students
To begin, identify a group of ESL students (minimum 4) whom you can teach for a period of 40-60 minutes. They may be students from your class or young adults who live in your neighbourhood. Write a detailed description of these students, including language proficiency (their grades for UPSR/SRP/SPM), family/socioeconomic background and reading interests.

2. Write a lesson plan
Write a lesson plan to teach the short story Neighbours by Robert Raymer. You can either use the whole story or part of it for the lesson. The plan is for one 40-60 minute lesson, inclusive of one or two activities. Organize your written lesson plan according to the (i) objectives, (ii) steps and (iii) assessment format. Remember to cite references for photocopied or downloaded material.

3. Give a rationale for selected activities
Using your knowledge of the pedagogy of literature and your students’ background, give a rationale for your choice of activities included in the lesson plan.

4. Teach your students
Teach the students using the lesson plan you prepared (as in 2 & 3) above. You are required to make an audio/video recording of the lesson. (Reminder: you are required to use the short story Neighbours for this lesson.)

5. Evaluate your lesson
Write an evaluation of your lesson based on the audio/video recording. Remember that this assignment is based on experience and learning, and that you will not be penalized for having conducted a lesson that has a few flaws. Listen to yourself in the taped recording (audio/video), concentrating on your instructional language, interaction with text, student response as well as pacing. Focus on what happened, and not on what you wish you had done. Present your evaluation in the form of a reflective personal account using the structure below. 

(i) Teaching Effectiveness: What did you do to find out if objectives of the lesson were achieved? What was the most effective part of your lesson? What did you plan or do that worked particularly well for your students? What went wrong? Was the short story appropriate for the students level of English proficiency? What did you do to help students understand the story? Did you explain literary elements well? What did the assessment show?

(ii) Assessment of Learning and Student Response: How did you ascertain that students understood and were able to apply what they have learnt in the lesson? Which literary elements of the story did they understand/not understand? What did your students think or feel about the short story you chose? Did you plan activities that were interesting for your students? How did they respond to the activities you had planned?

(iii) Improvement: If you were asked to do the lesson all over again, what would you do differently? How would you change or improve upon your approach to the teaching of the short story your chose? What advice would you give a colleague about teaching short stories to ESL students?


It is important to always cite the sources of your information in your assignment. Note that if your work is found to be a result of plagiarism and/or copying, it will be rejected and you will be given zero marks (0) for this assignment.
                                                  END OF QUESTION FOR ASSIGNMENT 2

"Neighbours" A short story by Robert Raymer  (New link to the story.  The MPH version has been revised and is now present tense.)

                                                   #  #  #

With the new French version out any day now, should be interesting if any of stories from Trois autres Malaisie gets used in an exam. Just remind me to charge them!

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thanks, Steve, and thanks for your lessons of success

I've been reading so much about Steve Jobs lately, wondering how one man can change the way we live.  I live in Borneo and up to a couple of weeks ago, I was probably one of the the last people on the planet with a college degree and a decent income who had never, ever owned one Apple product.  Not that I didn't want one, just never got around to it for one reason or another.  Then my wife, bless her heart, told me she wanted to buy an iPad.  I scratched my head and thought, why?   Although I knew about them, I had never really seen one in operation.  Besides, my wife rarely had time for her laptop, so why an iPad?  The following week, she came home with one, and I asked her point blank, "What are you going to do with it?"

She had no idea; if she did, she wasn't telling me.  But I knew her, and I knew she would find a way, and the next day, after consulting a friend of hers at work, she started to download things on it, and soon our two boys, age 7 and 4, were flocked around her as they played games, both fun and educational.  They also had illustrated children books read aloud to them.  The possibilities for iPad, even in Borneo seemed endless, and my wife was just getting started.  She even takes it to bed with her like a book and places it safely on the nightstand.

I admit, I felt a little jealous.  I was losing my wife and my whole family to iPad!  How could I compete?

Then Steve Jobs died.  Like any good American (or any good citizen of the computer and internet-connected world), I followed his career from the beginning, the ups and downs.  Amazed that he got booted out of Apple, the very company that he co-founded.  Talk about being stabbed in the back!  Loved Toy Story, and all the Pixar films. Amazed that he was back in Apple, on top.  Then the new products came, changing how people communicated with one another, how they did their work, and how they listened to their music.  Basically, I was extremely impressed how one man can change our world and then be taken from us so quickly!

But Steve Jobs will never be gone.  I felt his spirit last night, as all four of us, for the first time, lay in our bed with the iPad and had Hansel and Gretel read to us.  The children were a little anxious when the birds ate the bread crumbs and Hansel and Gretel lost their way.  Then the witch planned to eat poor Hansel, and all seemed lost.  But, through a surprising turn of events, Hansel and Gretel found their father again.  They had made it back home.  Our boys were relieved, happy and sleepy, too.  So was I, but then it dawned on me this morning that Steve Jobs had made it home, too.  In more ways than one.  He had also made it—before it was too late—into our home here in Borneo as well, and for that I am eternally grateful.  

Thanks Steve for the inspiration.  My children also thank you for Toy Story and for iPad!  Don't worry, Steve, even in Borneo, we'll keep your spirit alive for the next generation.  Our kids will insist upon it..

*   *   * 
Later this morning, call it fate, I came across this article by which I'll share in case you missed it.  Not a bad way to start your day...

Steve Jobs and the 7 Rules of Success

Steve Jobs' impact on your life cannot be underestimated. His innovations have likely touched nearly every aspect -- computers, movies, music and mobile. As a communications coach, I learned from Jobs that a presentation can, indeed, inspire. For entrepreneurs, Jobs' greatest legacy is the set of principles that drove his success.

Over the years, I've become a student of sorts of Jobs' career and life. Here's my take on the rules and values underpinning his success. Any of us can adopt them to unleash our "inner Steve Jobs."

1. Do what you love. Jobs once said, "People with passion can change the world for the better." Asked about the advice he would offer would-be entrepreneurs, he said, "I'd get a job as a busboy or something until I figured out what I was really passionate about." That's how much it meant to him. Passion is everything.

2. Put a dent in the universe. Jobs believed in the power of vision. He once asked then-Pepsi President, John Sculley, "Do you want to spend your life selling sugar water or do you want to change the world?" Don't lose sight of the big vision.

3. Make connections. Jobs once said creativity is connecting things. He meant that people with a broad set of life experiences can often see things that others miss. He took calligraphy classes that didn't have any practical use in his life -- until he built the Macintosh. Jobs traveled to India and Asia. He studied design and hospitality. Don't live in a bubble. Connect ideas from different fields.

4. Say no to 1,000 things. Jobs was as proud of what Apple chose not to do as he was of what Apple did. When he returned in Apple in 1997, he took a company with 350 products and reduced them to 10 products in a two-year period. Why? So he could put the "A-Team" on each product. What are you saying "no" to?  

5. Create insanely different experiences. Jobs also sought innovation in the customer-service experience. When he first came up with the concept for the Apple Stores, he said they would be different because instead of just moving boxes, the stores would enrich lives. Everything about the experience you have when you walk into an Apple store is intended to enrich your life and to create an emotional connection between you and the Apple brand. What are you doing to enrich the lives of your customers?

6. Master the message. You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can't communicate your ideas, it doesn't matter. Jobs was the world's greatest corporate storyteller. Instead of simply delivering a presentation like most people do, he informed, he educated, he inspired and he entertained, all in one presentation.

7. Sell dreams, not products. Jobs captured our imagination because he really understood his customer. He knew that tablets would not capture our imaginations if they were too complicated. The result? One button on the front of an iPad. It's so simple, a 2-year-old can use it. Your customers don't care about your product. They care about themselves, their hopes, their ambitions. Jobs taught us that if you help your customers reach their dreams, you'll win them over.

There's one story that I think sums up Jobs' career at Apple. An executive who had the job of reinventing the Disney Store once called up Jobs and asked for advice. His counsel? Dream bigger. I think that's the best advice he could leave us with. See genius in your craziness, believe in yourself, believe in your vision, and be constantly prepared to defend those ideas.

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach, a popular keynote speaker and author of several books including The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs. His latest is The Power of Foursquare (McGraw-Hill, 2011).