Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Deadlining My Way to Success

I've been wanting to write this blog for three months, but I have three good reasons why I kept putting it off – three deadlines (four actually), and an even bigger want. When I decided back in January to start a second career in writing and this time to get serious about it, I had to set my priorities. Time is mutually exclusive. You can’t write five things at the same time, so if you only have 15 hours a week to write, which is what I budget myself and keep track of in a log book to make sure I have at least that, then you have to decide what will advance your writing career. What will take you closer to your goal? And, by the way, what is your goal? No specific writing goal means there’s no way to reach that goal! Being a “writer” isn’t enough. It’s too vague.

My goal is to be a best­selling novelist and award-winning screenplay writer. These are my new writing priorities. Yes, I also write short stories (mostly rewriting the ones I’ve already written), articles, and the occasional blog. But since January I’ve decided to put the bulk of my writing time on novels and screen­plays. Then something magical happened, I started to find more time to write because I had more reasons (or a stronger desire and a bigger want – I want to publish my novel!) and more importantly I have some deadlines. I started to squeeze in 25 – 30 hours a week.

Deadlines, over the years, have been my chief motivating factor. Self-imposed deadlines or deadlines for novel contests, in particular. Nearly every short story that I wrote for my forthcoming, third edition of Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH 2008), were written for one short story contest or another. The stories got written and entered and some even won prizes. Later, knowing they were often written in a rush, I would rewrite them again and again and they would get published again and again.

At the beginning of each year I think, okay, The James Jones First Novel Fellowship ( has a deadline on March 1st, and they only want the first 50 pages. 50 pages – I can mange that. Thanks to James Jones, I’ve started several new novels and I’ve resuscitated some old novels. Or I coax out yet another rewrite, as I did for this year’s contest. I took a hard look my novel The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady and thought, let’s do it. Instead of yet-another superficial edit, let’s see what I can add to it to make it better, stronger. The novel was previously written third-person, past tense. Two years ago, I made it present tense, which seemed to work. Then I started toying with the idea, can I make it first person, present? Would it work? What would I gain and what would I lose?

With the deadline getting even closer, I needed to make a decision fast. It’s not just a simple matter of changing “he” to “I”. Changing this led to other changes. I was rethinking each sentence, each paragraph, shifting paragraphs around (and between chapters), dropping a lot of wordiness and implied stuff along the way. I liked what was happening so much that when I finished those 50 pages I was itching to tackle the other 300 pages. But first, I wanted to apply this third person past tense to first person present tense to The Girl in the Bathtub, a novel-in progress that had been on hold since my move to Borneo. I still had time to enter that in the James Jones contest, too, thus doubling my chances to win, and more importantly jumpstarting the rewrite of that novel, too and then using that momentum to finish the novel by the end of the year, one of four major goals that I set for myself for 2008. If either novel makes it the finals, they’ll want an addition­al 50 pages, so I need to be ready for that, too.

After both entries were mailed out in time, and after I wrote a 1,400 word article on Kuching that I was under contract to write for a US-based publication with a mid-March deadline (thankfully, too, or it may never have gotten written), I looked at the next novel deadline, The National Writers Association Novel Contest ( on April 1. So I wrote like crazy to complete the overhaul. It was important to reach this deadline, though more important for me than for them. Because if I can reach that deadline, one, I have a novel entered, and two, I have a novel in great shape for yet another print out and edit and rewrite for a third novel contest due on May 1, The William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition (

When working under a tight deadline, there are bound to be mistakes or better ways to write a passage, which I now had time to correct for this third contest (which I wouldn’t have had if I had not made the deadline for the second contest! Not to mention catching each “he” or “Brady” that never made it to “I”.

Being highly motivated and with both impending deadlines, I was focused and most every­thing else in my writing life fell by the wayside (including this blog). At the same time, I was also working with Janet Tay, an editor at MPH, who was suggesting needed changes in my short stories for various reasons to make the short stories even better. Editors, I’ve come to learn, are my friends. They want to help make my writing even better so I was glad to hear from her and together we dealt with the issues at hand, some give and take, too. (The proofs are already starting to come in and I’ll be working on the next batch as soon as this gets posted.)

So in four months, thanks to these three contests, I ended up submitting six entries and writing one new article! Two fifty-page beginnings for James Jones, one 340-page novel for NWA, one 340-page rewritten novel for Faulkner-Wisdom, one rewritten 50 page novel-in-progress (The Girl in the Bathtub), plus a rewritten short story. (My short story “Malaysian Games” was runner-up in the 2007 Faulkner-Wisdom Short Story Contest.) Plus, an article, “Kuching: A River town with a Romantic Past”. Not bad.

Now I’m itching to get back to The Girl in the Bathtub, but that will be on hold for one or two months because I’ve been planning to write this new screenplay starting later today (I have four days leave to jumpstart it, and over one years worth of notes that I’ve been collecting in a box) for, you guessed it, a screenplay deadline. Even though the new screen­play may not be polished enough to win, I’ll have it written and can re-polish it later. And I have these other screenplays that I already wrote that I’ll be going to clean up and enter, too, and this is how I’m deadlining my way to success in 2008.

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. 


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