Saturday, December 1, 2012

Right brain writing (Part 2)

Seeing the world in clichés and symbols is not a conscious process. Our education and social environment has trained our brain to edit out any data considered superfluous. This is true both in writing and in drawing. Unfortunately, what is required in good writing -- and drawing -- is to go beyond those cliché and the symbols; to describe things as they are actually seen (that word again), perceived and felt.

No writing can be entirely Right Brained. The left side still plays the dominant role in the planning and structure. But, it is the right side that's in charge when the characters start acting as if they have a mind of their own, and the story goes places one never intends. The trick is to be able to switch to your Right Brain mode effortlessly. In this mode, time will stand still. You will not be aware of your surroundings. People may talk to you but you won’t hear them. You will hardly have time to breath, let alone eat. You will be so consumed that you will be in another world. A crude way of putting it would be ‘concentration’, but when you enter it you will know that it is far more serious than that. You’ll be zoned out.

Writing is supremely liberating and rewarding, but it is also very solitary. The irony of writing is that while your writing is ultimately for an audience out there, the journey is lonely. Like an Olympic athlete, you will find yourself declining invitations to all-night yadda-yadda and three-hour mamak teh tarik. Your friends will find you strange. Wah, some people so sombong these days. Play along with a sense of humour. Give excuses.

Unfortunately, our society is such that if you tell your friends that you want to stay home to shampoo your cat, they’ll think you’re crazy, but will understand. But, if you tell them that you want to stay home and write, they'll think you’re pretentious, or stark raving mad. Write what? A report? What, you want to become writer? Can make money, ah? Some people action, man! No time for us.  Or it will be, Show me, show me. Show me what you are writing. Are you writing about me? Don’t you dare write about me.

In either case, the result will be unsettling. The writer-ego is very fragile. Once hurt, it may never recover. So, don’t tell your friends about your writing, unless it is someone very close who understands what it is to write, on whom you can depend, and whose literary judgement you respect. Otherwise, lie. Don’t tell them about your writing; and don’t go on reading circuits either, until you have finished your work. One would observe (and this is by no means scientific):

1.    Many ‘writers’ on book reading circuits don't even have a book, and probably never will. Many are glamour junkies who enjoy the idea of being writers more that writing per se. It's like being famous for being famous
2.    Writers who talk about their novel in progress, somehow don’t seem to complete it. I have heard of novels that have been in progress for more than twenty years. Many, too, are unable to finish the novel because they have painted themselves into a corner by building up such high expectations.

Things to remember:

1.    Writing is about practice, refinement and technique, until they become automatic.
2.    Writing is the ability to express what you see out there, not only in words but also in feelings. Words should fulfil the criteria “necessary and sufficient”.
3.    Writing is not an entirely R-brain activity. The L-brain will need to come in at some stage to clean up some mess.
4.    R-brain activity will include:

•    sense of close connection with the work
•    sense of timelessness
•    sense of confidence
•    lack of anxiety
•    sense of close attention
5.    Say it as it is, and not what you think it should be -- no clichés and personal prejudice. Develop the ability to see from all points of view. You must love even the most dastardly character in your story.
6.    Write what you know. If you have never experienced wind-surfing, don't try to write about it.

Writing is like:
a) swimming -- you will fight against the water and tire yourself out in the beginning, but if you persist, you will become one with the water and be able to swim many laps.
b) cycling – you will fall and scrap your knee before the “aha” moment arrives, after which you will never forget how to ride a bike.
c) a marathon – it will be very long and lonely. It will go on forever. People may not understand you, think you’re mad. But no matter, the fulfilment you get, will be more than worth the pain.
Finally, think:

1.    What will you be 5 years from now if you write every day?
2.    What will you be 5 years from now if you dodn’t write every day?

Last advice: Read, read, read and read. Devour everything in sight. Develop an insatiable curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Learn from the masters. Imitate, don’t plagiarise. If you don’t have the time for that, forget about writing.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Right brain writing – Part 1

It must have been more than twelve years ago, when we were still in Desa Sri Hartamas. A customer asked if we could get the book Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. We did, and got extra copies for the shop. I got curious and decided to see what the book  had to say. It was, to quote a friend who also bought a copy, the only self-help book that worked. Seriously. If a self-help book works, you wouldn’t have to keep buying one after another all the time, right? After reading this book, I didn’t need any other book to learn to draw. In three weeks, I went from one who couldn’t draw at all to one who could draw a recognisable image of me by looking into the mirror! It was amazing! (But, as in everything else, one had to keep at it every day to improve.)

I wondered, for a long time, how it applied to writing. (A nagging feeling at the back of my mind said that it did, that the process was the same.)

Another book that made sense was Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, first published in 1934, and still in print. (That should mean something, shouldn’t it?) There are hosts of other ‘writing’ books but none come close to Brande’s commonsensical approach. One has to become a writer first, before learning tricks and techniques – the old story of the cart and the horse. I tried her techniques, and the result of that was my first book of short stories called The Wedgwood Ladies Football Club. (I was reluctant to publish it initially, but I was persuaded by friends.)

A third inspiration was a recording of a lecture at the University of Malaya that I heard in 1974. (I believe it was by one Dr Gordon Banks and that he was a psychologist, although I could be wrong on both counts. Can anyone out there remember that lecture?) There was a tape recording that went (something) like this (not exact words): “What would you be in five years if you started doing something? What would you be in five years if you didn’t do anything?” That was forty years ago!

One of the key discoveries of a research on the function of the brain is the dual nature of human thinking: verbal and analytical thinking, which is generally associated with the left side of the brain, and visual and perceptual thinking situated on the right. Neuropsychologist Roger Wolcott Sperry received a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his work on the human brain.

By separating the area of the brain used to transfer signals between the right and left hemispheres in epileptics, Sperry and his colleagues demonstrated that the two halves of the brain had independent consciousness and responded to specific tasks. This research was important for understanding the functioning of the brain. This pioneering work was published in 1968.

(The actual locations of the two modes in the brain is still being argued. But it is sufficient for us to say that there are two modes of thinking: a linear, logical mode and a perceptive, creative mode. For our purposes, we shall use the terms ‘Right Brain’ and ‘Left Brain’.)

Right Brain Writing is a skill like cycling, swimming or driving, which once learned will not be forgotten except, but unlike cycling or driving, you can continue doing it even when you are eighty! Of course, like any other skill set, the more frequently you do it, the better you get.

You can learn to write in a relatively short time, but beginning will be hard. Along with the struggle will come that ‘ah-hah’ moment, when you will suddenly stop in the middle of whatever you are doing and say, “So, this is what it’s all about.”

Most people are willing to admit that they can’t draw. Drawing is often viewed as a God-given talent that one either is born with, or not. But few are willing to admit that they cannot write, although the last time they wrote anything creative (apart from office reports and accounts) was when they left school at 16 or 17. (22 if they have college education.) So the truth is that most adults, professionals and non-professional, have the writing skills of sixteen or twenty-two-year-olds who have not written anything since they left school or college, although many may get upset by this statement. (Betty Edwards says in her book that most adults have the drawing skills of a twelve-year-old. Why is that easier to accept?)

The brain grows lazy from lack of use. Visual, auditory and even olfactory data are observed, analysed and classified according to our past experience. We observe what we expect to see and classify the information according to common symbols we have learnt. In drawing, examples of these symbols are: the stick man, the smiley face, the square car, etc. In writing, an example of these the symbols will be a nice man, a bad smell, a beautiful view, etc – all the adjectives being judgmental (in one way or another) without giving the reader any idea of what is actually meant. What is so nice about the man? How does the bad smell affect the character? Describe the view. Visualise in your mind’s eye, and describe to the reader. Make it come alive!

(To be continued.)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Read, read and read.

We have heard it said that in real estate, the three most important factors are location, location and location. In writing, the three most important factors are reading, reading and reading.

I don’t believe there is a writing programme anywhere in the world that does not emphasise reading as a prerequisite for writing, but it amazes me how so many people still think (and even boast) that they do not. One never hears of a musician who does not listen to music (good and bad), or a movie maker who does not view other people’s work, or dancer who never learns from watching others, or a sportsperson ... and so on. But with writers ... one hears of it all the time.

Then, of course, there are those who did a couple of classics for literature when they were in school some 25 years ago, and subsequently believe they know everything there is to know about writing; or those who have read only one book in their entire lives, namely, a Harry Potter adventure, and consider their education complete.

Why do people think that they can write without any effort, even if they have never done it? One is reminded of the famous story in which Margaret Atwood said she’d like to be a brain surgeon when she retires from writing!

The number one reason for a writer to read voraciously is to learn from others. It’s not about copying, though it could be. Example: I’ve come across versions of Borges’s universal library (in different forms) in the works of Umberto Eco and Carlos Ruiz Zafon (just like the works of Kurosawa pop up in movies like Star Wars). Throughout history, writers (and artists) have influenced one another, and have copied and learnt freely. (The current copyright regime was introduced only in the 20th Century and is an aberration, but that’s another story.)

The second reason: if you don’t like to read books by others, why would anyone want to read yours? Because you have some sort of earth-shattering idea that no else in civilisation has ever had? Get real!

One point that is particularly (and bizarrely) true of many Malaysian who want to write (if they actually read) is: they prefer to read ‘imported’ books, because Malaysian writers are not good enough. Certainly, there are many bad writers (like anywhere in the world), but there are many good ones, too. Besides, one learns as much (if not, more) from bad writing as from good.

One suspects that it’s got more to do with fashion than anything else. A look at the shelves of major bookshops in the Kelang Valley, and the number of Caucasian (and African-American) faces in our newspapers and magazines, and the ubiquity of skin whitening creams available in pharmacies, sort of reinforces that point. But then, these are people who like the idea of writing far more than the act of writing, and they exist all over the world.

Still, if you don’t read books by Malaysians, why would any Malaysian want to read yours?

Malaysian writing in English faces another major problem. Silverfish hosted two writer’s events in September, one of which comprised three Malaysia/Singapore authors who have been writing since the fifties (a remarkable feat), and one of whom had claimed in Singapore in 2009 that modern English writing in Malaysian is dead. This is an unfortunate sentiment, but is quite widely shared by writers of that generation; if not dead, then it’s not relevant.

The converse view was expressed by a young writer who said that he has read some of the oldies, but questions their present output. “They complain that no one respects them anymore; yes, they were relevant during their time, but what have they done since? There is only so much whining about the past one can take.”

So there is this mutual disrespect thing going on.

When Silverfish Books began in 1999, we had some thirty titles of Malaysia writing in English (including the ten-book Rhino Press edition). At present, we have over 1500 titles and we, certainly, do not have every title in print.

As for the oldies: respect is a two-way street. The relevance of their work is not questioned, but it’s also time to move on. Robert Yeo has edited a book of Singapore short stories spanning a period from the forties to the current millennium, called One: The Anthology. That's a good start.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

First let's save the book

To start, let's get the cynicism aside: publishers want a manuscript that will sell millions of copies and make them tons of money. Period. Ditto, literary agents.

This blog is based on the experience of reading hundreds of manuscripts (and letters of introduction) sent to Silverfish Books, a tiny indie publisher from Kuala Lumpur. The industry has gone crazy, has lost the plot and is on self-destruct. There's plenty of whistling in the dark, but the big boys are floundering like fish in a drying river. They have no idea what they want, and hope to be saved by a messiah, magic, or miracle. Writers are bailing out by going electronic, by self-publishing. But that doesn't change anything much. It remains the same frying pan and fire story, because both this too is controlled by a set of 'big boys'. That mass market success that some writers look for does not exist, or is one in a billion.

We'll start by declaring what this blog is not about. This is not about writing for publishers run by marketing departments, namely the big four, or five, or even some of the bigger indies who have totally lost their way. This blog is not for you if you're looking for instant fame and fortune. Sorry, it does not exist, nor does magic, nor tooth fairies. You'd have a much better chance of winning a lottery; so, go buy a ticket. It's not about writing another Fifty Shades of Grey. It's about writing what you have to write; what you absolutely must write.

This blog and forum is for book lovers who want to save the book (electronic or print).

Here's something from Charles Bukowski (from Factotum):

"If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery — isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine ... you will be alone with the gods ..."

At Silverfish Books, we are publishers in a very niche market -- we only publish books by Malaysians for Malaysians. We figure there's no other way to survive in this big bad world. We don't make tons of money, nor do we look for million sellers. We publish books that are important, and relevant. If you're still interested, here are some rules:

  1. Forget big publishers, they are not worth your time. They are run by their marketing departments that wouldn't know a good book if it bit them on the nose.
  2. Literary agents: ditto.
  3. Self-publishing is good, but it's also a black hole and the chances of being discovered (or selling more than 18 copies) is, again, like winning a lottery. Besides it is controlled by marketing predators.
  4. Go small. Look for success in your own little neighbourhood, for that little shop in the corner that also does limited publishing. Show them your work and make a deal with them. Hold readings and talks, and run workshops and courses there. Go to your community, door to door if necessary. Visit libraries, schools and colleges. Become a household name in your village, your town, your city, your district, your state. It's okay if you sell only 1000 or 2000 copies, though you'd probably sell much more. (It's better than 18). But, if you persist, you may even get noticed nationally, or internationally. Then again you may not; so don't hold your breadth. Be happy with your that small-town following, and the status of the writer who lives down the road. (You can still put your books on Amazon, and leave it to the gods, but you'll at least have a fall back position.)
  5. Pick a niche, and pick a publisher who also loves that same niche. Do your research. Too many wannabe-be authors don't even know (or bother) to write a polite letter to the publisher. We have received some emails with just the word 'attached', and some that sound like wedding proposals. Publishers are human; write to them nicely and they will reply likewise.
  6. Don't give up your day job. You write because it's something you have to do. You'll still have to pay your rent, though. (Maybe, at the same small shop that has agreed to published your work!) Teach writing. Write copies for companies even if you hate it, as long as it pays.
  7. The tree most important tips for writing are, one, read; two, read; and three, read. Imitation is good (at least, initially). Plagiarism is bad.
  8. Please get your work edited (and critiqued, if possible), but beware of the sharks; they are the ones with those popups, and advertise in a dozen different names all leading to the same website and use the word 'free' a lot. Nothing is free, but you can get good bargains from honest indies and freelancers. There are many good people out there. Learn how to spot them.
  9. Consider tupperware styled marketing of your books in the neighbourhood. 
  10. Work very hard.
I was discussing the state of the current publishing industry (because that's what it is, an industry) with Ian (an American) who is now working on his third novel after having tossed the first two. At first it appeared as if we were talking at cross purposes. Then I realised we were both on the same side. He had used a metaphor of a table with many legs and how, if one was removed, it would still stand. That didn't sit well with me, the engineer: anything with more than three legs requires exact engineering. I prefered the biodiversity (or ecosystem) metaphor: if a virus kills one strain, it will not destroy the entire population. I think he didn't get that at first. But, in the end, we agreed.

Conclusion: small is good; and diversity is better. Help the world get back to basics, and save the book.