Blind spots, plot holes and other landmines

So my book is in the thick of the editorial process, including going around to a few early readers, mostly my friends, for comments/editorial feedback, as well as with the editor at the publishing house.

I’ve always found taking feedback to be an excruciating process. I’ve never really taken criticism well, from my years in school where my essays rarely raised much negative comment, to job reviews and meeting with dour HR people with impassive faces. So taking feedback on my book, a labor of love for over six years, is definitely not one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. This, despite the fact that it’s far, far better to get feedback on a manuscript before it’s published than after, when there isn’t much you can do to change it, and I really should be feeling better about this process than I actually am. However, reading marginal comments and structural edits is almost physically painful for me. It’s just my subjective experience of it.

Sometimes it’s because I do have a massive plot hole there which I was hoping my reader wouldn’t pick up on. Sometimes it’s because there’s a blind spot of mine which I hadn’t noticed before and which now seems terrible and glaring and which I’m not even sure I can wholly fix without completely changing my worldview. It seems to be a moral failing, almost. For example, when one of my readers who is one of the SJW persuasion (I say this with only the greatest affection) pointed out potential racial tokenism or even (surprisingly, as my book has a female protagonist) a preponderance to give males action roles, I immediately started to question whether I was in fact being racist or sexist without realizing it, which leads me down the whole rabbit hole of questioning my woke-ness or liberal/feminist credentials.

The fact is that, having imbibed the literature I imbibed, having been brought up in the society that I was, and despite my best efforts, perhaps I am unconsciously racist or sexist. On the other hand, I am trying to fight the battles of representation for people who are like me in literature at all, and I can’t fight on all fronts of the battle. I can’t be all things to all people, and I shouldn’t have to apologize for not doing so. Every author shows a slice of life and not every project is about depicting every sector of society or representing every experience. Even so, I feel disturbed and wonder if I should be cringing at my own work.

Going through the editorial process has been intense. Although I have never given birth, it is a little like what I imagine giving birth is. Sometimes I feel nauseous, I’m constantly worried whether the book will have severe defects, I wonder what people will think of it when it comes to exist. Xuwen, my best friend and a computer programmer, says the process of taking in feedback and taking it into consideration sounds a lot like the process of debugging. You soft launch it (let beta readers read it) and then people come back to you with a whole list of problems, which you then have to order in order of priority and fix one by one to the extent that you can. And then you go through the process again. And again. Until you run out of time, and then it’s print date, and that’s it.

We haven’t gone to print yet, but it is getting increasingly (worryingly) closer. I worry about not getting enough feedback. I worry about getting too much. I treasure my beta readers and also resent them when they point out a problem I hadn’t seen before. I’m a mess. I hope I get this thing in shape before this thing sees the light of day.

11k words written! or, a deadline lights your ass on fire

by David Hayes

So my second draft (as far as Epigram is concerned – as far as I’m concerned this is my fifth draft) of my novel is due on the 26th of March, and I have been going at this thing like a veritable machine. Today I just sat back, printed out everything I’ve written since the start of the month when I got my editorial letter, and counted – I’ve written 11,000 + words since then. So where did all that motivation come from? Fear, partly, that the book won’t be as good as it could be, and vanity, that, since my name is going to be attached to the thing, it be as good as it possibly can. Writing new material is perhaps more enjoyable than wading through old stuff and trying to make it better, and that’s what I’ll be focusing on in the next weeks. But it’s very good to know that I can go at a 1k/day clip if there’s a fire lit below my ass.

 

Two months to go and not making my word count…

So the book is slated to drop in May, and I’m right now trying to do the edits my editor wants to the manuscript. It’s honestly kind of overwhelming. Having the deadline hanging over my head is causing me a minor panic as well. However, what has to be done has to be done, and no amount of fretting is going to actually get me over the line the way that sitting down and solidly churning out the word count will. It is moments like this that I need to watch what is probably my favourite video about writing in existence, one which I posted here back in 2013 when I first found it and which I’m reposting again today because it’s just too good to remain buried in the archives:

Yes, Neil Gaiman. I will continue to put one word after the next. I will build that dry stone wall. Even if it isn’t the most beautiful wall, or the most brilliant wall that ever existed in the world, it will still be there and it will still stand. That much I can look forward to. OK, enough of a rant, it’s time to get back to work!

 

Sofia & the Utopia Machine available for pre-order!

My first novel, Sofia & the Utopia Machine, is now available for pre-order from Epigram Books! This means you’ll get it shipped to you once it drops in May 2018! A great option for anyone who wants to get it as soon as possible.

Sofia and the Utopia Machine cover

Click here to purchase. I’m so excited about the cover as well! I think it looks wonderful. Thanks to Epigram for the lovely design.

Add it to your Goodreads to-read list and help spread the word about the novel!

My novel has been shortlisted for the Epigram Book Fiction Prize!

book stock image

I’m thrilled to announce that my book, The Utopia Machine (working title) has been shortlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize! There are four finalists, all of whom will have their books published by Epigram, and the final winner of the prize will be announced at a gala dinner on the 23rd of November.

I am incredibly grateful for the validation this gives me for my writing, especially my fiction writing, which is relatively new, and both excited and nervous about the final result. It hasn’t been an easy year for me, with health problems and other difficulties, but I am grateful for all the twists and turns that led me to complete my novel in July. Every writer wants to see their work in print and for readers to crack their books open, so one of the best parts of this news is that the novel will be published. Am truly looking forward to holding it in my own hands.

The Utopia Machine longlisted for Epigram Fiction Prize 2017!

I am thrilled to announce that my first novel manuscript, The Utopia Machine, which I’ve been working on since 2011, has been longlisted for the Epigram Fiction Prize 2017! I am beyond happy at the news. Congratulations to everyone on the longlist and I’m keeping everything crossed for the shortlist coming out Oct 21! Check out the Straits Times article here.

In the meantime, I have dug out the first draft of the novel, which I wrote out in longhand before typing into the computer in these two notebooks:

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Here’s a peek into them – I basically wore out my Parker Sonnet writing this book. It is now in pieces.

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IMG_2346 It’s interesting to see what has changed and what hasn’t changed between the first draft and the version I sent to Epigram for the prize on August 1. There are definitely whole passages and chunks that remained the same since the first draft, but where the plot goes essentially deviated hugely from my initial outline. There are whole chapters I had to discard, and characters that I got rid of an reinserted again. I wonder how many people still write their novels longhand before typing them out?

The novel is done!

I’m not sure who still reads this blog, because writing on it has felt a little bit like publishing into the void lately, but I just wanted to update people who are following my (very belabored) progress on the novel, The Utopia Machine. I started the novel at the end of 2011, more or less abandoned it, came up with another draft in 2014, and then traipsed off to China for a couple of years during which nary a word of the novel was written. I couldn’t even bear to look at it.

Well, it is now finished! At least, it is in enough of a shape for me to feel like it’s done, complete, in some way. And this is in large part thanks to my best friend, Xuwen, who kept nudging me to finish it. Even when I hated the thought of it. Even when I thought it was absolutely rubbish. I know that she got tired of saying that it’s actually pretty good, in her estimation, after a while, thanks to my petulant nihilistic rantings that it was all absolute drivel. But I always needed to hear that, and as of today, she is my first reader.

Yesterday, I printed off six copies of the thing (it weighs in at 77,201 words, and 316 A4 pages) and one of them was for her. Because even four weeks ago, I wasn’t sure I was going to do this thing – finish. I would say it was worth finishing just for the feeling I have right now, which is one of gratitude and relief. Relief, because for the first time in six years, I don’t feel guilty about not doing something. For the last six years, I have lived under the shadow of “I should be writing my novel”. Now I am free. And all because Xuwen said, “You should finish your novel. Stop writing whatever you’re writing (I was working on a short story I had started on a whim at the time) and work on your novel.” So I did.

And for the first time in a long time, I actually like the darn thing again. It’s impossible for me to be objective about it, of course, because so much of myself was poured into it, so much emotion and so much…investment. But yes, I like it. My characters are real to me once again, they have lives which I care about, and the world I created is before me. It may not sell, that’s a whole other journey I’ll have to take, but for now I am basking in the happiness of having finished. Thank you, Xuwen. If this thing ever makes it into book form, it will be dedicated to you.

New Norcia: A Retreat is not an Advance

The above is a quote that my college chaplain said when I was on retreat with the Episcopal Chaplaincy in New Hampshire, and it is very true. I packed myself off for a four day three night writing retreat at New Norcia, a monastic town two hours away from Perth, and just got back yesterday. It was a productive time, being by myself in the great Australian loneliness, and I got on track with my novel, The Utopia Machine, again. I’m on my fourth draft now, and I have been working on and off on it since 2011, so it’s been a long haul. However, for the first time in a long time, I’m feeling optimistic about it.

New Norcia is filled with 200 year old buildings in the Spanish style – it was settled by Benedictine monks seeking seclusion in the desert and in order to convert the aboriginals and educate the local population – it ran four schools altogether in its heyday. Although there are murkier patches in its history (including being involved in housing “orphans” who were not actually, part of the Stolen Generation), it is a peaceful and beautiful place today.

The monastery runs a guesthouse, where people are offered traditional Benedictine hospitality – room and board, for a suggested donation of $80 a day, which is eminently reasonable. The food is hearty fare, with thick soups and roasts and breaded fish and potatoes, as well as pudding during lunch.

I spent most of my time in the reading room, an upper room lined with books and comfortable armchairs. Mostly I glued my butt to a wooden chair and desk, typing away or scribbling in my notebook. Although a little cold in winter, it was excellent for concentrating on the work at hand! No wifi, which is a plus in my book, as it prevents Facebook timewasting…

This armchair is incredibly comfortable. I got through about a third of Liu Cixin’s Death’s End, the third book in the Three Body Problem trilogy, in this chair. Yup, one can’t write ALL the time, even at a writing retreat.

Here is the view from the window of the inner room of the reading room, of the little church that is in front of the guesthouse.I even managed to take a break from novel writing and pen a poem…

From New Norcia

 

I hear a Kookaburra

going hoo-hoo-hoo-haa-haa

 

I hear a passing car

like a shooting star

 

arcing suddenly across

the cross

 

of New Norcia.

 

I have no guitar

to serenade these stars

 

but wide

is their silence.

 

I have no breath

to describe the depth

 

of how far

they are

 

from New Norcia.

 

The bunny and the erhu

 

My little friend Jane came over again tonight during my dinner break to play with and cuddle my bunny, Momo. It may be one of the stranger friendships I have struck while here in China.

My friend Marcelo from my Bible study told me he had a student in his English class who was completely mad about bunnies and he had told her about my bunny and showed her pictures of him. He said she needed a bit of cheering up, and asked whether she could come visit my bunny.

Why not, I thought. I am still flush in the new joy of having a bunny and have been showing him off at every opportunity, and if I could bring someone a little happiness, that’s nothing to sniff at. So naturally we got connected on Wechat, and set up a date for her to visit me.

According to Marcelo, Jane was a high school girl, and when she arrived at my doorstep I instantly understood why he had been mistaken. Even though she is really in university, Jane dresses and acts like a high school kid. She’s tiny, has Chinadoll bangs, hides behind her glasses and has a habit of sticking her tongue out whenever she feels awkward – which is almost at the end of every sentence.

Her bunny mania was also readily apparent – she had cartoon bunnies embroidered on her jeans, a bunny on her backpack and even her water bottle was shaped like a carrot. She came bearing three large carrots as a gift for Momo. Each carrot was larger than the bunny itself.

The moment she got into my apartment, she instantly leapt towards the bunny, eager to pet it. She cooed at how soft and cute it was, and longed for it to stay still to let her scoop it up. As we fussed over the bunny, I got to know a bit more about her.

She is studying at Minzu University of China, the ethnic minorities university in Beijing, and her major is erhu, that most difficult of traditional Chinese instruments, named for its two strings from which any melody may be coaxed with a bow.

She is Tibetan – her Chinese name is Hua Dan Zhuo Mei – and has been playing the erhu from the time she was a preschooler. But she lamented that it was difficult to make enough money playing the erhu. Whereas Western music lessons were in high demand, traditional Chinese instrument lessons were less than half the price, at about 200 yuan per lesson (of which half goes to the music school). And it was fiercely competitive to get into an orchestra, so most music students have to make a living as a teacher.

I begged her to bring her erhu the next time she visited, and she did. After fussing over how my bunny had grown and following him around my apartment for twenty minutes, she sat down and pulled the little instrument out.

It was as diminutive as she was, and rustic looking. Its body was made out of python skin. She had mentioned that her father made erhus, and had even sold some when the family was a little worse off, but she said this one was bought from an instrument store. The little instrument looked humble and unimpressive, but the moment she drew her bow across it, it began to sing in the most winsome of ways.

There was something aching, something yearning about the strains that came from those two strings. As a lilting Chinese melody filled my apartment, the shy little girl swayed with confidence and grace as she drew the bow horizontally across the strings.

There was something exquisitely elegant about her movements now, something bold and abstract. The music vibrated the air around us, the air within us, speaking of something both far away and incredibly close.

The moment the last strains of music ended, Jane rounded her shoulders and instantly stuck out her tongue, the bashful little girl once again.

The bunny, who was in my arms throughout her performance, was completely relaxed except for his ears, which were extended fully. His eyes were wide and alert, and I whispered to him that he was probably the most privileged bunny in China, to have a private erhu recital performed especially for him.