Last call for people who want to be trained as writers; my latest Hong Kong writers’ group starts soon – click here to download the form
Well, you can keep the meal, but how about letting the book out?
Your Humble Narrator is doing another one of his book groups over the next two Saturday afternoons. It’s a sort of crash course in how to write a non-fiction book or memoir.
I’m delighted to say that these have been rather successful in the past. Indeed, I will be handing around some copies of books published by previous students to show that it really works: you can get your words into print.
If anyone reading this fancies learning how to get non-fiction books published, drop me an email as soon as you can, and I will save you a seat – but be quick, please – we start on Saturday September 13. It’s being run by Merecl, the creativity lab spin-off of Hong Kong Polytechnic University and costs HK$3,200, which is about US$500.
If you can’t get to Hong Kong, apologies. We’ve been experimenting with the technology to be able to offer these professional training courses long distance, but we’re not yet confident of being able to provide genuine value, so at the moment, it remains a turn-up-on-the-spot course.
The syllabus is below:
Other news: In response to requests, we have added two features to this website. You can know link to any page, instead of just the front page. For example, if you are mentioned on a particular page, or have a favourite piece you want to forward to someone, each page has its own address in the address bar.
Second, we have added a search-this-site box, powered by Google, so you can find specific references easily -- there are literally hundreds of postings not listed in the columns at the sides of the main page.
Once upon a time there was a Master Race
By Nury Vittachi
It told the story of a fair-haired princess and her eleven fair-haired brothers. What a happy, idyllic, blond life they led, running around the palace gardens, their blond hair flopping around blondly!
But then they get a wicked stepmother. Oh no! How do we know she is wicked? She has black hair. She tangles up the princess’s blond hair and puts walnut juice on the girl’s face to make it brown. Her horrified father, now repulsed by her looks, banishes her from the palace.
I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story, but suffice it to say, the princess washes the brown stuff off her face and becomes pale again. All the fair-haired people in the story end up united and happy, and live blondly ever after.
My daughter had earlier brought home a picture book from school called “The Three Brothers”. Two of the brothers have black hair and turn out to be evil slime. The other has blond hair and turns out to be a god-like hero.
Now here’s a thing. I have a creeping suspicion—not sure where it comes from—that children’s books are actually produced by a secret group of people furtively espousing neo-Nazi ideology.
Feeling uncomfortable about these tales (after all, my children and I all have black hair), I reached for a textbook. First off the shelf was Naima, Daughter of the Desert, a volume from Adventure Box, a monthly educational series given to my child from school.
The story was about four siblings from a dark-haired family. That seemed hopeful. It opened by telling us that the children all had dark eyes, except Naima, who had blue eyes. “Everyone loved Naima,” it said. “Her parents loved her much more than her three older sisters who had black eyes.”
The dark-eyed children turn out to be evil and cast the blue-eyed girl into the desert. She gets picked up by nomads (yes, with dark eyes) who treat her as a slave until she is rescued by someone with green-eyes. A handsome prince then marries her after noticing her “big blue eyes”.
Yes, once more, people with the characteristics of the European Master Race defeat evil, sub-humans, ie, people with dark hair and eyes.
The following morning I went out to buy my daughter a book set in Asia. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling is about an Indian kid, right? Even in the Walt Disney movie, Mowgli has black hair and brown skin. So I bought a copy from the bookstore—but in the illustrations of the recent editions, Mowgli’s brown skin has turned pink, and his black hair has become brown.
I hate to sound like a whiner, but is it unreasonable to ask that children’s books don’t have a subtext Hitler would have loved? The books mentioned are not anomalies from small presses: they are randomly selected volumes from some of the world’s most successful publishers of children’s books: Usborne, Bayard Press and Ladybird.
I decided I’d have to make up a story. “Once upon a time, there was a planet where most people had dark hair.”
“What was it called, Daddy?” my daughter asked.
“Like this planet?”
“Yes, dear. Like this planet.”
Learn to tell stories without going to jail
By Nury Vittachi
The same guy got out of jail and decided to spend yet more time telling stories. But this time he received a contract worth several million US dollars and was sent on a world tour!
It just goes to show: the storytelling business is all about getting the details right. Ask Jeffrey Archer.
When I was a kid, I once wrote: “Teachers are witches and practice dark magic” on a note and sent it around my classroom. My teacher hailed my creative genius by enthusiastically declaiming: “Stand in the corner, loathsome wretch.” (At least she didn’t turn me into a toad.)
Yet history shows that a certain woman wrote more or less the same thing, but a bit longer, and sent it to a publisher, and got a completely different response: “Thank you for your story, Ms Rowling, where would you like your billion dollars sent?”
So unfair! These days, I still spend my time making up stories. But instead of being sent to the corner, I get feted and celebrated and paid real money—almost enough to live like a pauper (my ambition).
The mysteries of storytelling and the life of an author are going to be examined at the Singapore International Storytelling Festival which starts this week and runs until September 9.
The biggest mystery, of course, is how storytellers eat. You see, there’s not much cash in the publishing system these days.
It is a known fact that JK Rowling was paid all the money in the world for her Harry Potter books, triggering the credit crunch, the subprime crisis, and the global meltdown of the world financial system.
And she apparently wants MORE cash for her next book. Her desperate publishers are negotiating with various planets in nearby galaxies to see if she will accept alien currencies such as the Floatable Liquid Hyper-Shekel of Betelgeuse III.
People often ask me: “Is there any serious fiction-writing going on in Asia?”
I reply that more creative fiction is written every day in Asia than any other region of the world. Only we call it “news” and print it in newspapers. Most Asians, by necessity, become highly skilled in reading carefully-worded stuff and then trying to work out what is really going on. Thanks to the limitations of the Asian press, we have developed generations of hyper-analytical readers. Now all we have to do is write decent novels for them.
The other question people ask me is: “Are there markets for fiction written in Asia?” The answer is: yes, all over the place—they’re called “landfills”. That’s where most local manuscripts are lovingly filed. Asia has lots of publishers and readers, but little good fiction yet. One hopes the workshops and seminars of the storytelling festival will do something to change that.
Then it’s only a matter of time before some desperate writer in Asia receives the long-awaited response: “Thank you for your story: where would you like your billion dollars sent?”
Novelists are easy-going people and we accept any currency including the Floatable Liquid Hyper-Shekel from Betelgeuse III.
Come and see me at the Storytelling Festival and that pile of shekels may be yours.
By Nury Vittachi
Although your humble narrator is a frequent visitor to Beijing, I sadly had to miss the spectacular opening of the Olympics. I consoled myself with the knowledge that others were missing it too, including the Prime Minister of Britain who was “otherwise engaged”, and the Dalai Lama (real name Eddie “the Finger” Donahue), who was inexplicably left off the guest list.
But I enjoyed watching it on television, especially since the opening dances celebrated three out of my four favourite interests: writing, the press and Asian wisdom (my fourth major interest is the extended sleep-in, but that’s a tricky subject to express in dance).
I couldn’t be there because I was appearing at the world’s biggest book festival. Now who do you think was top of the bill? Salman Rushdie? Salman was there, but no, he didn’t get the top spot. JK Rowling? The festival was held in Edinburgh, just down the road from the café where she wrote the first Harry Potter book, but no, it wasn’t her.
Top spot was Anonymous. Taking a gamble, organizers offered tickets for a speaker described only as a “mystery guest”. Punters were so surprised to be asked to shell out without knowing what they were getting that they immediately obeyed, causing the session to sell out. (Memo to self: remove name and face from books and posters in order to increase sales.)
The other hot ticket was a session that featured Sean Connery, better known as James Bond. The local listings magazine put on its cover a slightly dated (okay, 40 years old) picture of him. This was a bad idea, since it accentuated just how much 007 has changed. Sir Sean’s neighbour last month said he looked like “a rude, foul-mouthed, fat old man”. However, this description could apply to almost everyone I know in their late 70s, and not just the men.
Sadly, Sir Sean’s autobiography skims over his past. His family was so poor when he was born that his mother, whose name was Euphemia (not a joke), put him to bed in a drawer.
Now fabulously wealthy, he talks endlessly about how enthusiastic he is about his glorious motherland Scotland, although his bottomless love for the place doesn’t stretch as far as persuading him to live in it.
Sir Sean also tells people he doesn’t know where tales of his stinginess come from, but also tells folk he won’t sign autographs because he doesn’t get paid for it.
Former James Bond girl Britt Eckland was also present, promoting her new book Britt on Britt by Britt Eckland (no egotism there). She was suitably eccentric, as is expected of movie stars. When not talking about herself, she and her dog Tequila ran backwards around the park. Running backwards “is better for health” she explained. (Clearly, she meant her health, not the health of people who had to get out of their way.)
When the session featuring the mystery guest opened, I was intrigued to see that it turned out to be Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of Britain. He had decided that instead of partying with George W Bush and other bigwigs at the Beijing Olympics he would instead hang out with a load of bookish types and watch it on television, like me. A wise man. I wonder if he enjoys sleep-ins, too?
I’m starting one of my periodical attempts to kickstart a new generation of writers in Asia. If you are fancy being a fiction writer and are free the next two Saturday afternoons in Hong Kong, email me IMMEDIATELY at firstname.lastname@example.org. The “professional writers’ masterclass” will run on August 23 (part one) and August 30 (part two).
I’m starting one of my periodical attempts to kickstart a new generation of writers in Asia.
If you are fancy being a fiction writer and are free the next two Saturday afternoons in Hong Kong, email me IMMEDIATELY at email@example.com.
The “professional writers’ masterclass” will run on August 23 (part one) and August 30 (part two).
We meet from 12.30 to 5.30. We spend two Saturday afternoons together, and you receive modules by email between the two live dates.
It costs HK$3,200 to be part of it. That's less than US$500. I reckon it's an amazingly good investment. The money goes to Merecl, an amazingly successful creativity lab set up by Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Members of the lab's team have a great record in working with the world's big publishers, major movie houses and game design companies, and I'm delighted to be working with them.
By the end of the course, you'll be producing fiction publishable in literary journals worldwide, and working on publishable novels. Talented writers will be introduced to book industry people such as agents and publishers as part of the course.
Topics covered include:
1. How to create stories that sell
2. Techniques for generating ideas
3. The secret of the perfect story
4. How to create believable characters
5. Plotting for perfection
6. Taking inspiration without plagiarism
7. Building creative tension into your story
8. The secret of generating believable dialogue
9. What you need to know about layers
10. Point-of-view techniques that transform tales
11. Dealing with publishers and contracts
12. Writers’ tours, publicity and promotions
If you are interested fill in the official form at this link (find the word "enrol" or "enrollment" to get the form) and you can be guaranteed acceptance: click here
We’ve done groups like this before, and have a good record of helping people successfully become published authors.
If you are interested in writing non-fiction, or screenplays, or children's literature, click here for other groups to be held later in the year.
Relaxing with a coffee, a book, and a pile of cash
By Nury Vittachi
The opportunity to test this scientifically came when I was asked to judge a major book contest. I like books. I thought it would be easy. 1. Read a few books. 2. Strut around like an obnoxious know-it-all, and 3. Hand over the dosh to the lucky winner.
How hard could that be? I do the first two items on that list all the time anyway.
The prize turned out to be A$110,000. Forget the novels, I just wanted to sit there and lovingly leaf through the banknotes. The title was supersized, too: in fact, I wondered whether the initial award should go to the organizers of the Western Australian Premier’s Australia-Asia Literary Award for their novella-length name.
Day one: The books arrive. My heart sinks. The pile of boxes is taller than I am.
Day two: I pick up the first book. My heart soars. It starts so childishly I decide I can safely throw it out. One down, a zillion to go.
Day three: It occurs to me that the writer could have been writing in naïve style for literary effect. I put it back.
Day five: The next volume is a long poem, not a novel. I throw it out.
Day six: I discover that a book-length poem qualifies as a novel. I put it back.
Day seven: The next book turns out to be a collection of short stories. I throw it out.
Day eight: I learn that a string of short stories linked by a plot-thread qualifies as a novel. I put it back.
Day 13: The pile of books is now slightly shorter than I am. This is a huge psychological boost. I have defeated my literary K2!
Day 14: A box of additional books arrives. At this point I’m thinking you can have too much of a good thing.
Day 16: I start to enjoy the job. Having read three historical novels in a row, I find my speech patterns changing. Someone said: “Good morning,” to me today, and I replied: “Indeed, fair Sharon, but I sense a mysterious darkness at the heart of this seemingly perfect idyll.”
Day 18: Walking along a road reading a novel of a rural community deeply riven by dark secrets, I walk into a lamppost and end up with a forehead deeply riven by metal grooves.
Day 21: The bus is late. Everyone at the bus stop is seething and uttering imprecations under their breath. Except me. I am far away, having amazing adventures on an uncharted island.
Day 23: I realize just how important this prize is. Stories of the eastern hemisphere are way more interesting than those of the western one. My brain is on fire.
I was reminded of the time I judged a coffee competition and drank 24 espressos in one afternoon. I didn’t sleep for four days. I had so much energy I could have supplemented the national grid. I was so alert I had to tell my houseplants to grow less noisily.
I was so thrusting and dynamic that I was Not Suitable For Children, although my wife was rather pleased. In that instance, you couldn’t have too much of a good thing.
THE LITERATI of Hong Kong gathered at a private dinner at the China Club last night to welcome Ian Jack, ex-editor of the legendary Granta journal to the stable of the Asia Literary Review. It was the famous pen-man’s first visit to Asia. “I’ve never been east of Dakkar before,” he said.
Granta is famous for spotting world-class young talent -- in 1983, it published a list of writers it tipped for the top -- the list featured Martin Amis, William Boyd, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwen, AN Wilson and so on. Today, all are legends.
The Asia Literary Review has brought Ian Jack, 62, to this part of the world to perform the same magic here.
THANKS FOR THE great feedback you sent me from yesterday’s piece. Clearly there are lots of creative, talented people in this community, and there’s an element of frustration at the fact that so much rubbish from obviously untalented people gets produced.
Well, I’m here with a message.
YOU CAN WRITE A TV SHOW OR NOVEL THAT MAKES THE CUT.
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live.
THRILLED TO REPORT that Tan Twan Eng is on the shortlist for the Man Booker prize, which was announced yesterday in London.
Tan is a very fine writer of Malaysian origins. He sent a piece in for the Asia Literary Review recently and it blew me away -- head and shoulders above most of the other pieces I get from East Asian authors.
The list this year is unusual -- few big name authors and four first-time names. The judges change regularly so the contests sometimes do have a different feeling to them,
I was pleased (and not surprised) to see Mohsin Hamid in the list for his very fine new book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Click here to see the full list and comments by top Malaysian book blogger Sharon Bakar and click here to see the views of Singapore's Deepika Shetty.
All this reinforces my argument that the world is in a receptive mood for new authors and new voices, particularly Eastern-tinged work. Get to work!
“My book deal ruined my life”: that’s the title of a good piece in the New York Observer this week. Reporter Gillian Reagan interviews a host of authors and gets them to talk about what it’s really like. The feature is a welcome antidote to the authorial superstar puff pieces we constantly get in the press about JK Rowling’s millions and the latest successes of Stephen King and John Grisham.
THE DAY started beautifully. I was picked up from a very fine hotel by my publicist, a bright and attractive young woman named Sonia, and placed into a car (with VIP written on the side!).
Our task for the day was to meet our adoring public. It was a dream come true.
As we scooted down the road towards the Sydney Writers' Festival theatre where the audience was waiting, I remarked that I was interested in meeting Jacqueline Wilson, who was also due to appear at the same theatre that day.
Sonia smiled and assured me that we’d meet the celebrated British author. “Now there’s someone you don’t want to be sharing a signing table with,” she laughed.
I laughed too. Jacqueline Wilson is wildly popular, having sold 20 million books in the UK alone –-- which is staggering when you think the entire population is 58 million and many of them don’t read books. Her signing queues are legendary --– they stretch, sometimes literally, for miles. On one famous occasion, she signed books for nine hours before the crowds finally thinned.
We arrived at the theatre, and I was very happy to meet Ms Wilson offstage, and I sneaked into the theatre with several hundred children to listen to her speak – she was great: unassuming, natural, and very easy-going. This was a pleasant surprise for me: I think of her in the author superstar bracket, not quite JK Rowling, but only one step lower.
All the “performances” if we can call them that, went very well.
And then all four authors were ushered into the foyer to sign autographs.
“You’ll be sharing a signing table with Jacqueline Wilson,” a theatre staff member told me.
What!? I opened my mouth to speak but no words came out (rare for me). I did a passable impression of a gobsmacked trout.
Two of the authors had been placed at one end of the theatre, and two at the other. I was sharing a table with Ms Wilson at the front of the foyer.
Within seconds, so many children had surged in front of us that the whole place seized up. We were told by staff the crowd was blocking access. Our table was lifted up and moved back as far as it could go, almost into the next hall, which was a restaurant.
A massive queue built itself up in front of “Jackie” as we referred to her by then.
I realized that I would just have to make the best of it. All authors fear book-signings to some degree – perhaps no one will be interested and I will be sitting there all alone, my lack of appeal on display in the most blatant and humiliating fashion. But when you are sharing a table with a superstar, extreme humiliation is guaranteed.
Oddly, I found myself not caring in the slightest. Why was this? I did a bit of introspective thought.
First, I was so thrilled to have established a quick, easy acquaintanceship with someone who was a long-term hero of mine, that I was feeling great. I was caught up in the same wave of worship as were the kids in front of us.
Second, you can only be humiliated if there are people looking at you, thinking (or appearing to think): look at that poor guy, sitting there all by himself. But almost no one was looking at me, and no one was thinking negative thoughts. The crowd was all children, and youngsters don’t have the sort of political, over-sensitive, over-analytical way of thinking that adults have.
So I found myself happy and relaxed as teachers marshalled flocks of children into lines.
And then I was delighted to find a queue building up in front of my bit of the table.
I realized that I had been saved from complete abandonment by two factors. Ms Wilson was not nearly as famous here in Australia as she was in the UK, so her queue was long but not obscenely so. And then there was the fact that she is a straightforward speaker: she spoke well, but her talk was a rather calm, didactic chat about her writing and her career; in contrast, I approach audiences as an entertainer or comedian and had managed to get the kids shrieking and high as kites. So the more excitable youngsters raced for my autograph instead.
In the end, I had to stop signing well before she did – not just because her queue was longer, but because the bookshop had sold out of my books.
The journey from dream to nightmare and back to dream again is surprisingly short.
WHO'S GOING TO WRITE the next Harry Potter? It may be you. And I don't mean the next popular book sensation. I mean the ACTUAL next Harry Potter, after Deathly Hallows. That's what I surmise from the gossip I heard today from contacts at the London Book Fair. Borders has agreed to distribute two Harry Potter books which are unauthorized and have no connection to JK Rowling. One is called The Great Snape Debate and the other is The Unauthorized Harry Potter. Look out for legal fireworks! It's an exclusive deal to Borders only until September, after which other bookshops can get them.
CHINESE AUTHOR CAN XUE's work is going to be made available in English, I heard today. The author of strange, Kafka-esque novellas, she has been writing since she changed career in 1983 from tailor to novelist. Yale University has set up a fund to translate authors into English, and Can Xue, 54, has heard she is going to be one of the first beneficiaries. Her book "Five Flavor Grove" will appear in the series, to be launched in 2008, with Umberto Eco and Orhan Pamuk as consulting editors. Incidentally, her real name is Deng Xiao-Hua. Pseudonym "Can Xue" means Slush, as in "dirty snow".
MY FORMER COLLEAGUE Stephen Leather has been nominated for best novel in the International Thriller Awards, I learned just now. It is due to be presented in New York in July. Well done, Steve. He and I worked together on the South China Morning Post, many years ago. He was business editor and I wrote a column called Lai See. A couple of times he gave me a manuscript to read through -- it was fascinating to see a pre-edited thriller. His new book is called Cold Kill -- but he's up against tough competition, including the much-praised new book from Jeffrey Archer.
Mr Jam, tell me if I am completely mad.
I've been doing research for a thriller/mystery novel set in Hong Kong and have spent a few nights "doing" the bars on Lockhart Road. As you probably know, there are a mixture of venues there. Some are normal restaurants, others are trendy bars that attract the young, single set, while others are establishments filled with women in bikinis, aiming to extract money from sad, lonely men.
THE NEW HARRY POTTER book is going to have three different covers. Which you do like best?
BLOOMSBURY BOOKS is playing hardball with bookshops over the new Harry Potter book. Retailers are likely to lose money over it.