Wednesday, May 23, 2018

My Being Interviewed on Short Stories by Terence Toh

Here is the full interview on crafting, writing and selling short stories that I recently did for Terence Toh for his article “The Long and Short of it” in The Star.  Some of the best stuff was left out since it featured several other writers and readers. 

1. Why do you enjoy writing short stories?

When I first began to write, I would spend 15 minutes every day randomly describing something by carefully observing my surroundings, whether I was at home, eating outside, waiting at a bus stop or inside a bank.  Most of the short stories that I wrote for my Popular Readers Choice Award winning collection Lovers and Strangers Revisited began that way.  I didn’t set out to write a short story, yet by merely observing my surroundings, an idea would take hold and I would stay with it for as long as it took to rough out a first draft.  What an unexpected joy — turning an exer­cise into a short story in a couple of hours.  Now that you have a new story, you got something to work with…which is a whole lot more enjoyable than staring at a blank page.

2.  How is the process of writing and editing a short story different from other forms of writing, eg. novels?

A short story, like a good poem, has a singular effect, a singular voice.  Novels can by rangy and loose.  Short stories are taut, no wasted words are allowed, no digressions.  Being short, about 8-25 pages, it can be roughed out and polished in a matter of days, weeks, whereas a novel takes months, years.  It takes a lot of patience.  Sometimes it feels like you’re digging a ditch, day after day, week after week, month after month, but you just got to keep on digging until you reach the end of that novel, then you got to revise and edit it, draft after draft.  Far too many writers give up after the initial inspiration dries up.  God, this is taking forever!

3. In your opinion, what elements should a great short story have?

A well-crafted short story has it all:  tight writing, great imagery, apt descrip­tions, resonating mood, controlling theme, memorable characters, plus a logical, well-thought out, plausible story even if its fantasy or science fiction.  It has a singular effect driven to an inevitable conclusion even if we never saw it coming, leaving the reader feeling utterly satisfied.

4. What is the greatest challenge of creating a memorable short story?

The biggest challenge is creating an effective story with a unified theme that holds it all together, something that resonates deeply with the reader.  We have to show this (as if we’re watching a play or a movie unfold), not tell, and the reader doesn’t often see this over-arching theme until the final resolution, something else they didn’t see coming, despite it being a logical cul­min­­a­tion based on what came before….Too many begin­ning writers try to trick the reader to show how “clever” they are; but in fact they’ve cheated the reader by creating an im­plausible ending that leaves the reader scratching his head and thinking, “Huh?”  Whereas, a memorable short story is based on logic, even if the ending is unexpected, yet the clues, the inner workings of the story, the cause and effects of the characters’ actions, were all in place.  We’re left thinking, “Wow, great story!”

5. How is the reception like for short stories in Malaysia? (compared to other parts of the world, if you are familiar with them?)

I think it’s wonderful what Amir Muhammad is doing with Fixi Novo, creating outlets for local writers.  It’s one thing to be published online, another to hold a book with your story in it.  On-line publishers, however, often have a greater reach….Markets in Malaysia (and around the world) have always come and gone.  Back in the late 80’s/early 90’s many of my short stories were published in Her World and Female and other local magazines here and in Singapore that published short stories every month; but then they dried up.  Others would appear and disappear.  Recently Esquire Malaysia published fiction, but then stopped.  I used to go to newsstands and scour local magazines to see if any new markets have appeared; now writers can do that by Googling….It was great when Raman Krish­nan came out with his Silverfish anthologies and then began publishing short story collections by Malaysian writers.  MPH has also been very successful.  The markets and publish­ers are there; they may come and go, but the writer has to look for them, just like writers do all over the world.  Malay­sian writers can even submit their stories overseas online.  I’ve had Malaysian-set short stories published in twelve countries. 

            —Borneo Expat Writer

My interviews with other writers on their first novels:

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, finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009. 

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

Five part Maugham and Me series

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The long and short of it by Terence Toh, The Star 6 May 2018

Do short stories get short shrift in Malaysia, or is brevity really the soul of wit? We find out what authors and readers have to say.

Malaysian authors, publishers and readers discuss the long and short of short story collections.

THE greatest short story in the world is only six words long: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”.

The author of that punch to the gut has never been officially identified but the story is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, the American author renowned for succint prose expressed in short, declarative sentences.

Sometimes, less really is more. These words are the mantra of the short story writer, who often manages to create wonderful worlds, with their own beginnings, middle and ends, with the same number of words a novelist would use to introduce a single character or describe one scene.

Compared to novels, however, it seems like short stories are often considered “lesser” than longer works.
So what exactly goes into the creation of a good short story? And do readers like them?
We asked some local short story writers, publishers and fans to find out.

The editors:

“Short story collections have played second fiddle to novels for a long time, whether in Malaysia or international markets,” says Chua Kok Yee, author and co-editor of the recent horror anthology Remang And Other Ghostly Tales.

He points to Fixi, one of the popular imprints from indie publisher Amir Muhammad.

“Using Fixi’s topsellers list as the bellwether, we can see that novels are outselling collections of short stories. That said, it is heartening to see five out of 10 nominees for fiction in this year’s Readers’ Choice Awards are collections of short stories. It was the same number in last year’s edition of the award, so maybe local readers’ acceptance of short stories is on the rise,” he says.

Chua is referring to this year’s Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards for which 10 fiction and 10 nonfiction titles have been nominated; nominees are chosen from last year’s bestselling local titles in Popular and Harris bookstores nationwide, so we know that Malaysians bought a lot of anthologies in 2017.

But could that be because the industry is simply not putting novels out?

Amir, whose imprints Fixi and Fixi Novo publish Malay and English fiction respectively, says not many people publish novels in Malaysia, which results in many short story collections floating around.

Despite this, however, he thinks that most locals prefer longer and meatier works – “It’s the difference between having an entire self-contained nasi lemak versus eating 20 keropok,” as he puts it.

Many of the short story anthologies he publishes don’t sell even 5,000 copies, Amir says, though he adds that there are exceptions, such as KL Noir: Red (2013), which sold 18,000 copies, and Tunku Halim’s Horror Stories (2014), which sold 32,000.

Famous names and popular genres tend to sell more copies, he points out. “Names that are unknown now can always become famous later, just due to one book published later. Mankind needs hope to survive,” he says, tongue-in-cheek.

The writers:

According to author Robert Raymer, markets for short stories in Malaysia often came and went.

“Back in the late 1980s/early 1990s many of my short stories were published in Her World and Female and other local magazines here and in Singapore. They published short stories every month; but then they dried up. Others would appear and disappear.
“Recently, Esquire Malaysia magazine began publishing fiction, but then stopped,” Raymer says via e-mail from Kuching where he has been based for 12 years.

A more globalised world, however, means that Malaysians are free to promote their short stories in many more exciting venues.

“The markets and publishers are there; they may come and go, but the writer has to look for them, just like writers do all over the world. Malaysian writers can even submit their stories overseas online. I’ve had Malaysia-set short stories published in 12 countries,” Raymer says.

He has written several anthologies, including Lovers And Strangers Revisited (2008), which was a winner in the 2009 Readers’ Choice Awards.

When it comes to writing short stories, you probably can’t get any shorter than the works in Micro Malaysians (2017), a book of micro-fiction: none of the stories in it is over 150 words long. Editor Anwar Hadi, who curated the works, says it takes a tremendous amount of skill to do well in so little space.

“I think writers are freer to explore their weirder ideas in short stories than they are in longer forms of writing. They don’t have to dedicate as much time to writing short stories as they would novels, so greater risks in writing can be taken.

“The cost in terms of time isn’t as heavy, and I think we readers can be on the receiving end of those riskier pieces and be more expansive in our reading in the process,” Anwar says in an e-mail interview. Chua agrees with this.

“For the reader, short story collections require less of an investment in time and emotions compared to a novel. We can finish a story within 15 minutes or half an hour, and then do something else before starting the next one.

“It is much harder to do that if you are reading a good novel. Many readers would have experienced this; you start reading a novel, and then have to say goodbye to your social life for the next few days or weeks!” he says.

Raymer feels that one of the delights of creating short stories is how they take less time than novels.
“A short story, like a good poem, has a singular effect, a singular voice. Novels can be rangy and loose. Short stories are taut, no wasted words are allowed, no digressions.

“Being short, about eight to 25 pages, it can be roughed out and polished in a matter of days, weeks, whereas a novel can take months, years even. It takes a lot of patience,” he says.

The readers:

As it turns out, Malaysians are also fond of short story anthologies. Some readers, however feel that anthologies often get the short end of the stick compared to longer works.

“I do think short story collections are generally less celebrated and less effort is put into marketing them. I think they are unfairly dismissed as a gateway medium for novice writers. There’s a certain privileging of the novel format as the ultimate medium of literature,” says avid reader Diana Yeong, 43.

Yeong says while she doesn’t actively seek out short story collections, she doesn’t shy away from them either. Some of her favourite collections included Patricia McKillip’s Dreams Of Distant Shores (2016), Ted Chiang’s Stories Of Your Life And Others (2010) and Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories (2011). “Collections can be hit and miss and more often than not will have at least a couple that miss the mark, and only one or two in the entire collection that have that ‘wow’ factor,” Yeong says.

“There’s an element of delicious surprise going into each story, which is a nice contrast with the immersive nature of novel reading. I like diving deep into characters and places and situations with novels, but short stories are a refreshing change of pace.”

Honey Ahmad, 41, thinks that short story collections are a great way to get to know a new author. She often reads collections online, especially when in the mood for a break. At the moment, she’s reading Miranda July’s Stories and John Connolly’s Night Music. Among her favorite collections are Jhumpa Lahiri’s Intepreter Of Maladies, Lara Vapnyar’s Brocolli And Other Tales Of Food And Love.

“Annie Proulx also writes spare and beautiful short prose. For horror I love Joe Hill’s stuff and in fantasy George R.R. Martin writes some of the best fantasy shorts out there. I also love Ted Chiang’s shorts too as he melds sci-fi, fantasy and the human condition so well in a short story form,” Honey said. “It is a different skill writing short stories. Often they take you down surprising places and I love how a good story can be told with few words. That takes mad skills.”
 --Borneo Expat Writer