How to Cry and still be Happy during a Crisis

Yue Minjun, The Execution, 1995, oil on Canvas

[…] laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has placed on us.”

Yue Minjun

If your emotions are all over the place and they’re riding you like a roller coaster, take heart, you’re not alone. This is a trying time and even the best of us who are optimistic, a tad panglossian, and always see the glass as half-full, are at the moment feeling all sorts of emotions that we have no words for.

Overwhelmed. Anxious. Depressed. Impatient. Inundated. Horrified. Irritated. Annoyed. Irascible. All these Thesaurus-friendly words don’t even begin to describe how I really feel. 

The trouble is I don’t even know how I really feel. Does anyone? Apart from the above emotions, I feel nostalgic too. On top of all this, I also feel like I’m becoming someone else. I feel that when this crisis is over, I’ll be in a state of novel-normal. I feel hopeful that life will really change; my life will really change and that fills me with excitement. Yet, there are days that I feel like crying—like today. But, I can’t cry though, which causes that lump in my throat to grow bigger making swallowing hard. I find something to do.

screen grab of Nadiya’s summer salad

I start to cook. I feel that any minute now if I drop a bowl and it crashes to the floor, I’ll cry. I’m so weepy but the tears stay at the base of my throat, hurting my eyes while I wait for the floodgates to fling open. But they don’t. I rattle them but they won’t budge. So I leave cooking (I’m all over the place now—the kitchen is a mess) and flick through Netflix. I find a cooking programme: Nadiya’s Time to Eat. She’s British and everything takes place in her culinary Kingdom far away. I want to be there. Her accent makes my heart ache. I miss this accent so much. Her recipes using favourite British ingredients hit me hard: I miss Marmite, Golden Syrup, Scottish Salmon and Smarties. As I watch her cooking hacks, the tears start to flow. They stream down my face. I feel deliriously happy. I imagine that I’m in my garden in London again and it’s summer. We’re having a barbecue. I’m making a rice salad filled with edamame beans dressed with sesame oil and soya sauce; I add a spoonful of harissa to spice the dish up a little. I throw in some chopped coriander and drizzle some tahini over the top. A squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of lemon zest and this piece de la resistance is done. I set it aside and turn my attention to the meat. The ribs and butterflied lamb will hit the hot grill soon and I’ll be throwing tubers of sweet potatoes into the charcoal to bake. I’m in food heaven. I wait for friends to ring the bell. I’m so excited. Then, I sob like I’ve never cried before. The floodgates are wide open. 

My daughters panic. “Mummy, are you alright?” They rush to my side, the teenager hugs me and the adult one strokes my arm. I’m watching a cooking programme I say. “Mum!!!” They think I’ve definitely gone over the edge now. Then, I laugh. I’m so tickled pink that there are so many cooking hacks that can save busy folks who love cooking time so that cooking does not become a chore but remain a joy. I’m chuckling hard now. “Mummy, you ok?” The girls asked hesitantly. They’re now convinced I’ve flipped. 

I’m so happy now. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I return to the kitchen. I make a salad. I cook some rice and marinade the meat for a bulgogi. In between, I sip a glass of crisp Chablis. After I’ve wiped down the work surface, I open my laptop and I write. Et voilà—here’s a new blog post. And I wrote this with relish and a glass of wine by my side. I’m ecstatically happy now. 

You’re looking at Yue Minjun’s ‘The Execution’ painted in 1995. It’s an oil on canvas and depicts a scene where a laughing man, Yue himself, is being shot by a row of executioners wielding imaginary guns. This style of painting has become known as Cynical Realism, a term coined by art critic and curator Li Xianting in the 1970s. Yue says of his work, “[…] laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has placed on us.” There’s no more apt a quote than this encapsulating how I feel right now. So, I laugh because I’m a cynical realist. [This image is courtesy of Jeffrey Say, Art historian and lecturer at LaSalle College of the Arts.]

How to Write During a Crisis

In my last post, I spoke about how for some people this COVID time has opened up opportunities for living and working differently. Today, I’m going to talk about how to do just that. 

Since some of us now have a bit more time on our hands, this is a great opportunity to write. (But if you’re a carer of young children and aging parents, please do not be hard on yourselves; do what’s best for you and find other opportunities to stay creative.) Recently, I spent one and half hours with Heidi Stalla free-writing using modern images as prompts. Free-writing is a great way to get your writing juices flowing. I do this all the time always using art works as prompts. Here’s one story inspired by an artwork at the National Gallery Singapore. Do note that this story is the cleaned-up version.

Right. When you’re free-writing, put your woes and insecurities aside. Let your words flow from your consciousness to your fingertips as you write away. I recommend writing because in the act/art of orthography, your brain releases joy hormones as you put thoughts to words. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, and those practical things that an editor takes care of. Just write. 

The other thing you can try is automatic writing. This type of writing takes one on a spiritual journey. You don’t have to be religious or believe in psychics or things of that nature. You just have to channel that psychic in you. Automatic writing is an ancient art form. Casting any inhibitions aside, just write automatically. 

The other thing you can do is blog. In one of my Instagram stories, I shared a note on how to use your blog to help readers connect to you. [see image] Much like what I’m doing here. Blogs are fun to write. You don’t need to use luscious poetic language when blogging. But nothing’s stopping you from doing that if you wish. And, you can blog about anything. So, if you follow my blog posts, it may seem a little bit all over the place. But there is order in the chaos. You’ll see that I blog mostly about art, books, and writing. So, blogging is essentially about whatever that interests you and something you want to have a conversation about with your readers. 

Then, there are newsletters. Newsletters require less creative writing and more informational writing. It’s business-like language if you will. But, again, nothing’s stopping you from using luscious poetic language to engage your readers newsletter-wise either, It’s your newsletter and you’re a writer. Here’s a great one that I love reading cos the way it’s written is just yummy. I signed up using the sign up box on the right hand column and each time David blogs about something—ping, it goes to my inbox. That way, I’m up to date on his latest recipes. I love the apéritif hour, so Swampwater was just the right mouthwatering juice for me. Here’s another that I love. This one keeps me up to date on the children’s books I love. As you’ll see, this link takes you directly to the sign up box. 

Speaking of newsletters: Over at Picture Book Matters, Debasmita Dasgupta and I have created our own newsletter to keep our readers and followers informed. If you’d like this newsletter to be sent directly to your inbox, you know what to do—just click here. If you think that this newsletter can benefit your friends, please send it on. 

Right. Write away, folks. Pen those thoughts and ideas now and inform your readers what you’re up to. This newsletter tells you what some people are doing during this COVID time. 

Hindsight 2020, Oh Captain! My Captain!

The COVID has reignited my love for poetry. There’s so much poetry in motion these days as people reflect on what this virus has brought us and then pen their thoughts in verse and metre. 

What is Poetry?

I’m aware that poetry isn’t for everyone. And many have asked, “What is poetry?” 

Technically, poetry is a rigid form. But when done right, following poetic rules, therein lies freedom and rhythm. Many think that rhythm is found in words that rhyme. Here’s some food for thought:

Not all poems rhyme, so readers beware. But all poems have a rhythm, which the ear catches even when listening to blank or un-rhyming verse

If rules don’t stick, then there’s free verse where poems are written with no specific rules or patterns. Here’s an example

Now that you know what poetry is, here’s what you must know.

Why Poetry? 

Oh Captain! My Captain!–maybe this might jog your memory. This poem by Walt Whitman spoke to the people of America in 1865. It was 7 months after Lincoln’s assassination. After Lincoln’s death, the people were caught up in a state of shock and grieve. For those of us who’ve lost loved ones, there are no words that can describe how we feel. There’s nothing anyone can say that’ll make sense. However, poetry can offer people respite, acknowledgement and affirmation. Poetry moves people. Poetry cuts to the heart. It’s a balm in times of crisis as Poetry changes lives.

I’m always a little envious of poets and writers who can write across genres with poetry being one. Alas, I can only sit back and enjoy the sounds of their words because no matter how hard I try, I just don’t have it in me—come virus or high fever—to write poetry. So I listen as people read. I cogitate on the phrases. I ruminate on the metaphors. I tap my feet to the rhythm of the musicality. And, sometimes, I cry just a little. 

Like to this beautiful piece, Hindsight 2020. Written to be read to a future child who wants to know why The Great Realisation took place, this poem is why poetry moves people. It’s so beautifully done, my heart tugged and the flood gates opened up.

Yet, the words were a balm to me as I stay home safe, even as the subject matter is poignant and the truth hard to reckon with…“sometimes, you got to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better.” 

Meanwhile, “lie down and dream of tomorrow and all the things we can do. And who knows, if you dream hard enough, some of them will come true.”

Poetry brings Hope.

What’s a poem you’d like to share, my friends. You can comment below.

How to Find Opportunity in Crisis

As history repeats itself, so will art. Revisiting the books, stories, and paintings created after past plagues can help contextualize our lives under the specter of COVID-19—and predict the stories we may tell as a result.” 

JANE BORDEN, Vanity Fair

A friend and mentor asked me today (April 17), “What is your opportunity in this crisis?” That got me thinking lots.

Those who know me, know that I’m not one to brag. I keep my achievements and my successes  quiet, tucked at the back of my mind, contented that I have beaten myself at my own odds. Tenacity was something I learnt as an adult and making lemonade with the lemons you’re given something I didn’t do cos I’d always thought orange juice was better and I made lemon custard pie instead with the lemons life threw at me. And, I can tell you life has thrown me more lemons than I care to remember, and also lots of curve balls too. Sometimes, I miss out and other times, I make lemon custard pie. This post is not about being successful or being an opportunist. This post is about what this strange time, when we’re locked down, forced to work from home, made to stay socially distanced, is doing for us. 

For me, it has created opportunities for more learning. It has extended the time that I get to spend with my adult daughter, who flew the nest but is now safely home from London, and my teenager, who finds every opportunity to keep mum at arm’s length. Having an aperitivo on the balcony is something that the Italian and I look forward to most evenings. The lock down has opened up more space and time to connect with friends in far away lands: we’re connecting more than ever online but really connecting through Zoom, Skype, Hangouts—whatever the mode—rather than posts and tweets when we don’t see faces. Don’t get me wrong, the twitters and the posters are still doing their thang all the same. But the rest of us who shy from social media, we’re taking to connecting through social media cos this is the option we’re given right now. 

Human beings are made to connect. This is one of the many human conditions we live with. It’s vital that we stay connected to the people we care about and this goal is the impetus that drives us all online during this period.

Human beings are also made to communicate. Again, one of the many drivers that keeps us ticking. The channels of communication are varied. Some choose to write, others paint, while some others make films. Many are even doing this online, like I am.

Munch, Edvard, The Scream, 1893, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design

Edvard Munch (born 1863 in Løten, Hedmark, died in 1944 in Oslo) needs no introduction to those dwelling in the art world. His most famous painting ‘The Scream’ has been shared virally in so many ways that nobody is counting anymore. But this painting, ‘Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu’ painted in 1919, is lesser known. Look at how the colour palette—an over-usage of greens—reflects the moment. There is a blanket draped on his leg, signifying the subject as an invalid. A gaping hole for a mouth, a gaunt blurry face are signs of a sick man. 

Edvard Munch understood pandemics. He understood diseases. He understood loss. His mother, Laura Cathrine Bjølstad, died from tuberculosis when Edvard was five. The year was 1868. After her death, Edvard and his siblings were cared for by his aunt from his mother’s side. Tuberculosis claimed Sophie, his sister, in 1877. Edvard himself was a bronchial child, suffering from chronic asthmatic bronchitis. These traumatic experiences would influence the way he made art. 

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait After Spanish Influenza, 1919, Oslo, at the National Gallery.

Munch was a prolific Norwegian artist. He was part of the Symbolist Movement in the late 1800s, a pioneer of Expressionism from the 1900s onwards, and he was tenacious in experimenting with different art genres—sculpting, graphic designing, drawing, even photography and film—throughout his long career (60 years). Munch took all the opportunities proffered to him at every uncertain moment to advance his craft. He made crises his premise for self-reflection and expression. 

Munch did train as an engineer but his focus was art and he chose to make art his career. He travelled widely and made many friends in the art world. He networked with intellectuals, literary luminaries, philosophers, and musicians. His long and prolific life as an artist is outlined here

In 1919, Munch was infected with the Spanish flu. [See the connection to the self-portrait?] This pandemic destroyed millions of lives world-wide and the current pandemic is being compared to it. Out of the Spanish flu came this self-portrait. This was Edvard Munch’s opportunity. Then, more opportunities would follow his way. In 1930, he took to photographs as an art form, taking a series of self-portraits while convalescing from eye disease. The thing is that Munch never let down turns or pandemics stop him from creating. He found opportunity in the worst of times and made the best out of his time. Munch wasn’t the only artist who did this. Before Modernism in art was developed, artists in the Renaissance were documenting the Plague through art. 

But art for art’s sake isn’t what making art is about. Art is a conduit for expressing other connected issues. This article explains the situation well for what opportunities COVID-19 will produce in the near future. Our world has turned upside down but we can turn it around again because the learnings that we will take from the virus will change us and lives.

My life has changed since December 2019. I returned from a wonderful family Christmas in Italy to not knowing when I’ll be seeing them again. First I was disappointed, then I was despondent, and finally after despairing, I calmed down and hunkered down. I thought I would follow in Munch’s footsteps: find opportunities in this crisis to create, to innovate, to make art. I’ve started to document these various confluences of art-making on social media: picture book reviews, teaching the craft of writing picture books, and talking, talking to people about art and writing. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram doing this. Remember, it’s not about being an opportunist. It’s about finding the opportunities to help you move forward and stay positive (sans virus) in these COVID times. 

On Authors, Agents, and Editors

courtesy of the lit hub

This post comes to you amidst a global pandemic. Many of us are working from home at the moment, staying safe indoors and away from crowded places. The book industry is working hard as always to bring respite and joy to the many safe at home in this trying time.

I’ve recently been asked my thoughts on getting repped by an agent. While explaining what an agent does, I had to go into the whole shebang of what the publishing business is about. As a fairly newbie children’s book author, I’ll admit that I’m still learning about the business. But what I’ve learnt, I’m very happy to share. You’ll see that at this moment, many in the writing community are sharing and helping gratis those who are emerging or aspiring writers. As I’m not super good at being on videos, especially when it’s unscripted, here are my thoughts written out. 

The Agent

An agent is someone who works for the author. Let’s assume the author is you. It’s not that you employ the agent, it’s more like you’re the agent’s client. An agent is the middleperson between you and the publishing house or publisher. To get repped, which is ‘represented’ in publishing parlance, an author needs to submit their manuscript (one at a time) with a query letter introducing yourself and the book. This is also called a query. But before you query, do check on specific agent websites what they’re looking for and how they want to be queried. Let’s just say that agents seem to hold a lot of power in the publishing industry, especially in America and the United Kingdom, and many will auto reject your manuscript if your query letter isn’t the way it’s suppose to be. There are a lot of resources on the net for those interested and you’ll likely find that one person may contradict another. You just need to know that there is sort of a formula when it comes to query letters cos even though they want you to be creative when pitching or when writing your pitch (gotta have hook and all), they don’t want you to be too creative, changing the order of the query letter format. Agents also want you to be be business-minded about your query, but not to bore them with overly business-like language. Finding a balance is key. Remember, agents read a lot of query letters a day cos being repped is one step closer to publishing if you work in America, so you’ll have to captivate the agent with your creative but formulaic query letter. Here’s one blog post that I like on how to write a query letter that shines

Once an agent likes your query (after you’ve jumped through many hoops to get their attention), they offer to rep you where you’ll then sign a contract, and that’s when you become the agent’s client. Hang on! Don’t get too excited for the mo’. Being repped is still a couple of steps from being published. But let’s go back to the agent. Once an agent takes you on as a client, and before they submit your work to the publishing houses on your behalf, they may ask you to make some editorial changes, polish up your manuscript, so that your final work looks great. Once your work goes to sub, which is submissions in publishing lingo, the agent negotiates the publishing contract with the publishing house on your behalf, always working out the best terms for you. Hang on another minute. It’s not cos the agent is so altruistic. The higher the price she gets for your manuscript on your behalf, the more money they’ll eventually get; it’s a win-win situation. The agent’s commission is 15% of any money that the author makes from the sale of their book, for as long as the book is in print. But there’s more. For foreign subsidiary rights, the agent may hire or generally work with sub-agents in the foreign countries they’re wanting to sell rights to. So there are agents in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, India, Italy, France, so on and so forth, who will be assisting your agent to sell your foreign rights to their countries’ publishing houses; if everything goes well, you may see your book/s in Korean, Arabic, Chinese, French, so on and so forth. So what happens when a foreign sale is done?  The agent takes an additional 5% from the author’s earnings of the foreign sale. So you’ll see why it’s not always an altruistic gesture on the agent’s part to negotiate the best deal for you; like I said, it’s a win-win. But an agent is also worth their weight in gold. Agents also help the author track advances and royalty payments. They help authors promote their books. So, if you see on Twitter Jenny Morgan, agent at Golden Ticket Literary tweet “so happy for @susanwong for her debut picture book EATING DUMPLINGS IN AFGHANISTAN”, it’s a promo on behalf of the client or author. As an author, you should have your own Twitter handle too but it’s not the most important handle to have, really. The best handle is to have a handle on writing the best book there is. 

The Publisher

These are, as the name suggests, people who publish books. They are sometimes known as houses because they are publishing houses and not just one person, although there have been publishing houses that start with one person and maybe their wife, like Bloomsbury Press, for example. There are about 5 known houses that most authors would like to be authors for. They are Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster—not in any order of importance. But these houses have many imprints. Here’s what wikipedia says about imprints.

An imprint of a publisher is a trade name under which it publishes a work. A single publishing company may have multiple imprints, often using the different names as brands to market works to various demographic consumer segments.

Wikipedia

Imprints basically allow publishers to create a brand image or identity around different types of books. So for example, Hachette Group may have an imprint that publishes cook books. Here’s someone I know with a cook book published by an imprint. My friend, Jean Hwang Carrant had her debut cook book, Cookie Love, with recipes on various cookies, published by Hardie Grant Publishing, which has an imprint–Hardie Grant Books–that publishes cook books and non-fiction books, with Hardie Grant Egmont, the imprint that publishes children’s books. Penguin Random House Group will have an imprint that publishes classics or books written by women. You get the idea. Take a look at this image, which I’d borrowed here, that lists all the imprints of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. [Please note that this could’ve changed since publishing houses are constantly merging and consolidating.]

So, my picture book, Sahara’s Special Senses, was published under Little Knight, the imprint of Armour Publishing that publishes only children’s books. As an author, all you need to know is that publishing is a business and a publishing house is like a big fashion house/ departmental store on several levels, and an imprint is like a department in the departmental store where you can find all sorts of socks in one department and all sorts of shoes in another. In other words, an imprint in a publishing house deals with one aspect of the whole business; children’s books is one aspect, with books in general being the whole business. For more on imprints, read here cos it’s just too complicated for me to explain it without complicating you either.

The Editor

Editors work for the publishing house. The Editor’s job is to read all the manuscripts that they receive either directly from the authors, or from agents on behalf of authors. So, an editor reads lots and lots of manuscripts. It’s alright if it’s a picture book, imagine a 60,000 + word novel x 10. Hence, editors need to like reading. Well, all this reading leads to perhaps one or two stories that the editor likes and wants to publish. They then make an offer of a contract. If you’re agented, then it’s the agent who negotiates your contract and gets the best deal for you, as explained above. If you’re unagented, you’re responsible for your own back and pocket.  As soon as the author signs the contract, the editor will work with the author to revise the work, even if the author has already revised the work with their agent. You get it, it’s just to make your writing better! If you’re a picture book author like me, the publisher will find an illustrator for you. Then, they will work with the house’s art director on managing and overseeing the artwork. As a picture book author, you’ll not be part of this process, unfortunately. You’ll just have to trust in the process and wait to see how the illustrator has magically transformed your words into pictures. More than this, the editor is responsible for introducing your book to the sales and marketing team at the house. They’re also responsible for the book jacket. Editors are often seen at book conferences or conventions, where they may talk to foreign publishers about the list of titles the house is publishing, including your book; they’ll also speak to librarians about your book and find as many networks of sales as possible, in order words, they will promote your book. Since the editor works for the house, you don’t have to pay the editor for doing all this.

However, if you decide to find a freelance editor before you query agents or the publishing editor, then you’ll have to fork out some money in order for an expert (who has worked in publishing before, or who has experience of editing for publishing) eye to go over your manuscript. You can look at this as an investment, since agents and editors do regularly reject poorly edited manuscripts. 

The Author

The author is the person who writes. In this equation, the author is the most important person because no author, no agent, no editor, no publisher, no book. Horror! The truth in the equation lies in the general treatment of authors. The word of mouth says that the author is the most important person in the publishing business, yet, the action often indicates the contrary. So mouthing something does not always result in action that is indicative of respect for the author. Now, as an author, I should be fearful of saying this cos all agents, editors, and publishers will protest vehemently and vociferously. I don’t blame them. It’s their business to defend themselves after all, and of course to publish books, so they can’t be seen disrespecting the people who keep them at their jobs anyway, can they? It’s good to know that the author:agent:editor equation is a relationship that is built over time and trust. Agents and publishers know how important authors are, of course. But, they work with many other authors other than you, so you’ll just have to be patient, keep your channels of communication open, and trust that something good will come out of your relationship with your agent and publisher. The business requires that you do.

Authoring is a tough business. It’s not a business you want to be in if you’re aiming to make a million bucks per annum. That’ll be banking or lawyering. Maybe, the best job is heiring. Alternatively, you can try impersonating J.K. Rowling. But this is still a dream and delusion for many. The reality is that humans have been scribing stories for the longest time and since the advent of the alphabet system, humans have been reading for a long time too. So, the business of the author is to write books that entertain, engage, educate, and enlighten the public. For this, you’ll need talent. That’s another story for another post. Failing that, you’ll need lessons. That’s when writing coaches become people you want to know. Nature or nurture aside, an author really should, hopefully, be able to do all this–write books that entertain, engage, educate, and enlighten the public–for a living. 

So, how does an author get paid? Authors are usually paid through an advance or through royalty. The former is a lump sum that you’re given when the contract is signed. This can either be the whole sum altogether or paid in tranches—50% on signing of contract and 50% on submission, for example. The advance is paid against future royalties. This just means that your book has to sell well over the amount you’d received as an advance before the subsequent royalties start to kick in. You can look at the advance as the projected earnings of your book—the publisher pays you in advance of what they think your book will make them within, say, 5 years. That leaves the royalty. The royalty, is a percentage of the author’s earning on each book. The standard is usually 10% based on either the net or cover price of the book. Whilst it’s great to get an advance, which is usually the norm, it’s also good to bear in mind that you may not see any royalties until your book has sold way above the advance. I’ve heard of authors telling me that they haven’t been paid royalties for their books for the past 2 or 3 years. So, for example, since The Boy Who Talks in Bits and Bobs has been published, which was in March 2018, I haven’t been paid yet. And, I won’t be paid until next year. That means, by the time I’m paid, I’ve had waited at least 3 years since the book’s publication to be paid. Now, it’s also good to know that this is Singapore. The market works differently here. [Here’s an old article on how the Southeast Asian book markets work.] It’s also not as mature a market like those in the U.S. and U.K. For this, to get published in Singapore, you’ll not need an agent. However, you’ll still have to produce books of good quality. It may sound as if it’s easy to be published in Singapore, since there are not as many hoops to jump through like there are in America or Britain, but take note, it’s not.

The Market

A market is where you sell and buy goods. The book market is where you sell and buy books. The American and British book markets are the biggest markets for English books. Other English book markets are India, Canada (North America), Australia, and New Zealand. These countries are predominantly the markets for books written in English, with India also publishing books in various Indian languages. Singapore and Malaysia are secondary English-language book markets, both also publishing non-English books in languages like Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. They are relatively smaller English-language book markets compared to their western cousins, and behave a tad differently to their wealthier western relatives too. This has caused me as an author much grieve and annoyance, I’ll admit, though I’m grateful for this market for giving me the space to be published sans being repped. The market in Singapore does not require an author to be agented. An author can submit directly to the publisher. In addition, although a query letter is required, there isn’t this fuss around the query letter as there is in the United States. America just has their way of doing something and it’s their way or the highway. This is the reason why you’ll see so many resources available, and many for free, on how to write that query letter.

America makes a big deal of being agented. It’s how their market behaves. Agents are the gatekeepers to the books that American children and children in the rest of the world read and will read. Agents, as explained above, provide a bigger service to the publishing indusity than simply repping an author. Agents make sure that by the time the editor at the house gets a hold of your manuscript, it’s so shiny that they can see their faces reflected from it. But don’t despair if you’re not able to find an agent. There are other ways to get published if this is your purpose as a writer.

Publishing is a huge business with many people sharing the pie, in my view, often with the author taking the smallest slice. And, to be published by the 5 houses mentioned earlier, an agent is someone who can make you or break you. Of course, there are independent houses, like Armour who’d publish you too. These are also known as indie publishers. These exist in America too if being published in America is something you dream of; indie publishers also exist in the U.K., and for that matter, in other parts of the world that do not publish predominantly in English. It’s good to dream big but remember that there may be someone out there willing to pop your bubble, and they could see it as their jobs to. I’m not saying that agents are meanies, no! They’re in it for the business too, and they do know what the business is about. Unfortunately, in this commercialised and very subjective world of book publishing, an author simply cannot write what they want. But if you should choose to write what you want, an agent isn’t your answer. Your answer is self-publishing. But, that also means that you’re in charge of distributing your own books. This should bring me neatly to the distributor. But I’ve run out steam. I shall leave you on a cliff-hanger. What does a distributor do?

If you’d like a face-to-face chat about publishing your book, I’m available on Skype.

Life Movements

Liu Kang, Life by the River, 1957, oil on canvas, 126 x 203 cm (National Gallery Singapore)

When Liu Kang painted Life By the River in 1975, it had already been a little over 20 years since he discovered Bali’s charms and colours. He didn’t plan on starting an art movement but Bali made him an inadvertent advocate for painting local and owning the local visual narrative. 

Liu Kang was a Chinese émigré who arrived in Malaya in the mid 1900s (then Singapore and Malaysia under the British) with no recourse to return to the Motherland because the Second World War had begun. The irony was that he had escaped China for Muar, in Malaysia, where his family had a business and home, due to the escalating Sino-Japanese war. The Liu family had thought that Malaya would be a safe haven, not realising that Japanese soldiers were hot on their trail. No, Liu Kang wasn’t a spy, he was a painter. 

Fast forward some years and WWII ends. Liu Kang decides to remain in Malaya for personal reasons and to make Nanyang his home. To the mainland Chinese, anywhere south of China was known as Nanyang — the Southern Seas. Nanyang included Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia, and the Philippines. 

Having lived in Nanyang for some time, I feel a sense of emptiness […] I also feel an unspeakable aridity, as though trudging thousand of miles in the desert, unable to find any dewdrops and greenery, or any villages.” Liu Kang, The Voice of the Motherland, 1937.

Liu Kang, Essays on Art and Culture

As an artist, Liu Kang found Nanyang arid and devoid of aesthetics. He was dismayed at the lack of artistic education, and the lacklustre efforts at promoting art in Singapore by the colonial government. However, Liu Kang plodded on and formed an art collective where he gathered artists like himself for dialogues and discussions. In many essays written in Mandarin Chinese, later translated into English, he outlined his feelings and his thoughts on the art scene in Singapore. In these essays, it’s clear to see that being a pioneer is never easy, especially when one’s vision doesn’t align with the status quo. 

Liu Kang was trained in Shanghai in Traditional Chinese landscapes and in Paris, where he learnt European-style paintings. In Paris, he was enthralled by Gauguin and Cézanne and other Impressionists. He really wanted to go to Tahiti like Gauguin who painted the landscape and locals there. But the war thwarted Liu Kang’s dreams. He had big dreams for himself and for art. 

As some dreams have a way of coming true and manifesting themselves differently, Liu Kang found a new kind of hope when he travelled with 3 fellow émigré artists to the island of Bali in 1952. There, he found another way to paint that would revolutionise the art world in Nanyang. Fast forward more years: Liu Kang founds the art movement known as the Nanyang Style. Since then, generations of art viewers have been privy to a large body of work on display at the National Gallery Singapore, where Nanyang-styled art works can be viewed. 

Movements begin and Movements end. But Movements start because communities or collectives of people want to find a way to manifest their desire or their hope for change. A Movement is a revolution, if you will. 

There is a need for a Movement in Singapore to promote and elevate the literature that is being written and produced on the island-nation, or the Little Red Dot, it’s friendly moniker. I speak about KidLit in particular. I’ve mentioned many times before that Singapore’s KidLit production and market is still in its infancy. It’s young but not green as there have been some people writing for children since the late 1990s. There are also many self-published KidLit authors in Singapore or those whose work have been commissioned by various organisations. Organisations do use picturebooks to reach out to their target audiences and to raise awareness of causes and the work they do. 

I believe some 12-15 years ago, the government of Singapore offered grants and awards or prizes to encourage people to write children’s books. This started a small movement of writers lured by the rewards to write for children. Many have become established children’s book authors and their books are selling well locally and some even internationally. However, these children’s books are not reaching the kind of international audiences that books produced in America and the United Kingdom are. Why? 

A Movement takes concerted effort. It takes a village. In Singapore, the various governmental organisations who promote the arts work disparately and often competitively. The village is divided but the people are all striving for the same thing — to elevate their status. As one knows only to well: “divided we fall …”

Then, not everyone knows about the plans and policies (unless you’re an interested or curious party and go looking; many of the government’s plans are online anyway, and can be found) that the government is putting into action or wants to put into action; these plans are the guidelines that stakeholders are encouraged to take note of and follow. This just means that the stakeholders or the target audiences aren’t being reached, unless they take it upon themselves to look out for these plans and policies, and remain in the dark while attempting to do the job of elevating the state of the arts in Singapore. The result is that everyone’s trying to build a town hall in the village but the builders are lacking guidelines or instructions. 

Recently, I came across the National Arts Council’s (NAC) ‘OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2022’ for Literary Arts. Yes, I know, it’s 2020 and this plan was my new discovery! See what I mean about plans not reaching target audiences? In this plan, the arts council, essentially a governmental body, as all arts councils are, put forward solutions to encourage reading and steps to increase literacy on the island-nation, focusing on Singapore Literature as texts to develop empathy and develop a sense of the Singaporean identity. Note that it’s simply Singapore Literature with no specific mention of Singapore KidLit. And, it is also Literature that is Singapore-centric and Singapore-related. 

The OUR SG ARTS PLAN begins this way “Literature is more than just words on a page. It captures our stories, experiences, aspirations, and cultures — in short, literature is an important expression of our Singaporean identity.”  Then, it goes on to mention a large amount of money being injected into the “first Literary Arts Plan in 2020”, we’re talking SGD$24 million. 

Ethnic Fiction

Stories and novels whose central characters are black, Native American, Italian-American, Jewish, Appalachian or members of some other specific cultural group. Ethnic fiction usually deals with a protagonist caught between two conflicting ways of life: mainstream American culture and his ethnic heritage.”

Writer’s Digest University

As a children’s book author who simply writes and not write ethnically, I find this plan rather short-sighted. Its focus on only Singapore Literature is limiting since the Singapore KidLit scene is a fairly new one, with only a handful of authors writing specifically Singapore-centric and -related literature. If I were to be more specific, the Singapore KidLit scene is newer still compared to the generic Singapore Lit scene. (And, if I were to be brutally honest, not all Sing KidLit being produced is of good quality. There is such a desperate drive to produce Sing KidLit that publishers are taking in anyone who can write and then rewriting or revising their manuscripts just so that these are publishable.) Besides, debates about ethnic writing and writers are also very America-centric, where writing has become so politicised. While it’s good to heed and take note of what’s going on in the writing world at large, it’s not good to mimic a movement that has no semblance to the reality of what’s going on in Singapore. And, the irony is that most Singaporeans would buy and read KidLit which is America-centric or Euro-centric over Sing KidLit, which is Sing-centric and good for developing a love for the nation and self. Goes to show, doesn’t it?

Although the literary scene is now more vibrant, awareness and appreciation of Singapore literature is low — just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature. We need more quality literary arts experiences to interest Singaporeans who are not familiar with Singapore literature.” 

OUR SG ARTS PLAN 2018-2020

On the other, I do understand the NAC’s focus on local literature since the diet of books fed to local children seem to be Eurocentric or America-centric, these book markets being more mature and aggressive. Secondly, with so much western-centric media influence be it TV, social media, movies,and/or music, local anything in Singapore does get a poor following. Research undertaken by government agencies in Singapore also points to a pitiful 44% of the public reading (Singapore literacy rate is 97.05%), and these readers are not always reading fiction. Singapore’s obsession with reading falls into the tight brackets of self-help books (mostly to do with how to make more money and/or mental health since living in wealth-obsessed Singapore is very stressful) and nonfiction tomes about notable personalities. I guess like many reality-TV obsessed viewers, the average Singaporean loves the minutiae of important people’s lives. Yes, people do read but it’s not quite KidLit and fiction. Then, there is a section of the population who specifically seek moralistic books that teach their children good values instructionally. A lack of imagination stops many well-intentioned parents from seeing that all children’s books teach good things and more often than not are wells full of solid good values, even the funny ones. I’ve also been asked to write educational books that will help local children improve their English language learning. This indicates to me that fiction is not the main interest of result-oriented local parents who do want their kids to read but are often not discerning enough to know the difference between good writing and great literature, and that it is literature that develops the critical thinking often needed to ace in exams, not merely pass them. As I say this, it’s also fair to mention the many parents out there in the tropical forest of Singapore’s literary woods who take a profound interest in pointing their children to quality writing; I applaud these parents for their mindfulness in swimming upstream with the salmon. 

So back to what I was saying about the SG ARTS PLAN being limiting. Where is there wiggle room in the plan for writers like me—a Singapore-based children’s book author, with books that aren’t always Singapore-centric or -related, who write fiction and am never didactic—to march in unison with the rest of the local (KidLit) writers? I ask this because the ARTS PLAN specifically states that “[w]e need to work hard at articulating a Singaporean identity and to enlarge common spaces for diverse communities.” All this, I understand, is to accommodate the many new Singaporeans who’ve taken citizenship but do not as yet identify Singaporean. It’s also to be inclusive, I understand, as Singapore is really a melting cauldron of cultures and ethnicities. And, here’s the irony: When I do submit a Singapore-centric and Singapore-related manuscript to local publishers, it gets rejected because it’s too Singapore-centric. [LOL emoji appropriate here] The frustration, folks! I digress. Back to the PLAN.

Then, the PLAN goes on to mention positioning SG as a global literary nation in the region and finding ways to collaborate with literary agencies and organisations in the Southeast Asian region. It’s an ambitious plan it must be said. But Singapore is not a nation of insipid planners. It’s a tiny nation with big dreams. And this plan highlights the nation’s dream of being great literary literally. But, I find yet another caveat.

If books are containers of stories that help children and adults develop empathy and find a sense of their places in the world, then it should be books that’s the focus rather than only Singapore books or literature. Yet, I do know that courtesy begins at home. So, in all this focus, it is also the Singaporeans themselves who should be reading and buying SingLit, and not only because the government says so. Where’s the home team support? The National Literary Reading & Writing Survey (2015) tells us that only “ […] just one in 10 Singaporeans read Singapore literature.” It’s not a want of trying on the government’s part, I should say. But Singaporeans need to be told what to do in order to do what they should be doing sponteneously. So, it’s time to cheer for the home team, folks — the G needs ya to and Sing KidLit creators need your support. The PLAN says so!

#BuySingLit is a local Movement that takes place in March annually. The government injects a.lot of money in the form of book vouchers and initiatives in terms of events to encourage local readers to buy SingLit. This spans all genres and age-related Singapore literature. However, year on end, the “take up” rate is less than 40% island-wide. Buy SingLit is still in its infancy and only in its third iteration as far as my sources tell me. I’ve taken part a couple of times and will take part again this year in a privately organised story concerto to entice young readers to read through music and play. In my experience, the S$10 vouchers with an expiry date hardly gets utilised. And, buyers ask if they can buy other books apart from “just” SingLit. Where is the courtesy, Singaporeans? 

All said and criticised, the OUR SG ARTS PLAN is a positive move towards encouraging reading and literacy. But the work is not even half done yet. As with any plan, a lot of the work is in getting folks to “buy in”. As I write this, a quiet Movement is beginning to take root on this island-state. It’s a ground-up Movement as most movements are. The Movement took shape when a bunch of local writers or those of us who identify ourselves as such got together to discuss how we can make some noise about what we write about and what we’re planning to do to change the KidLit scene in Singapore. Like superheroes, the KidLit S.E.A. Community (KLSEAC) will be rescuing locally- and regionally-written stories and helping young readers in Singapore and the region to “own our narratives” and to appreciate all the good books produced locally, even those non Singapore-centric and -related ones. As courtesy begins at home, KLSEAC will start with Singapore produced KidLit. Books lovers stay tuned.

Like Liu Kang and the Nanyang style, KLSEAC will find a way to move the people with locally produced KidLit. Forging an identity is only one aspect of reading. The biggest aspect of reading is reading itself and when Singapore starts to produce better quality KidLit, discerning parents will flock to BuySingLit, to buy SG KidLit. It will take a village and a village is what we have. Watch this space, Singapore readers.

On Life and Finding A Way

Life has a way to meander and lead you to places that you’ve never thought you’d go or imagine going. Life finds a Way, as the saying goes. 

On Viruses and Finding a Way Around

A virus is also a type of life form that finds a way, in my view, but according to medical experts, whether a virus is a life form or not is highly debatable. In truth, nobody really knows if a virus is alive or not. But a virus needs a host to stay alive and to recreate itself. A host is infected with a virus, which lives in the body symbiotically, until such time that the virus takes over its host. I understand all this in layman’s terms only. I am no medical expert nor am I percolating and/or passing on false information. I’m trying to understand how a pneumonia-like virus could be this deadly because as I write this, a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is spreading virulently across the world, with its epicentre in Wuhan, China. I’m trying to make meaning of what I’m reading in the news and as I do this, I also start to think about why it’s important for human beings to understand the inter-relationship between human culture and the structures that cause us to feel, think and act the way we do.

Thinking about viruses and hosts made me wonder too about how stories are passed on. I know that a virus is not like a story and a virulent host is not like a storyteller. The mind meanders, though. My mind is now meandering and taking me places I haven’t imagined going to before; it asks me to probe the meaning and significance of stories as viruses that get passed on orally and textually, and to think of storytellers as hosts, where the story-virus resides. I’m excited as I allow my mind to do its thing, to make meaning through metaphors.

On Characters and Finding a Way Out

All this excitement about viruses and hosts is happening simultaneously as I take part in global writing challenges, writing lesser-told stories of inspirational women, and learning about storytelling through genres like (informational) non-fiction and creative non-fiction, though there’s really nothing to be excited about any sort of viruses as the Wuhan virus meanders its way around the world. But excited I am, not for the virus, of course, but for a little character who’ll be bursting her way into the world any time soon, infecting everyone with her get-go attitude and positive spirit. 

Sahara Khan is my latest invention. As a fiction writer, I get to make up characters and invent stories. I like how fiction churns the imagination; how the mind meanders and wanders. I love imagining what little people in books can do. I love how picture book characters always find a way out. Out of trouble. Out in space. Out of the ordinary. Sahara as you’ll see will find a way out of her own narrative and create a new one, despite being differently abled. How I love that narratives can change and be improved. One’s narrative is never deterministic or static.

On the Whole Book Approach and Finding a Way to Infect Children with the Love of Books

The more I immerse myself in the learning, writing, and teaching of picture book creation, the more I’m enthralled by just how much more than images and text a picture book really is. I’m currently re-reading Megan Dowd Lambert’s enlightening book, Reading Picture Books With Children. Lambert created an inquiry-based model of storytelling, asking children to look at the whole picture book, beginning with its jacket/cover, the illustrations within, and how these images contribute to the story as a whole. It’s meaning-based approach, encouraging children to find and make meaning of everything that forms a picture book — text, visuals, design — looks at picture books holistically. This has brought back memories and my mind meanders to a place where I used to teach literature in schools. The children were older but the whole book approach never strayed far from my teaching methods, even though the students were making meaning from more text-heavy books. These books — middle-grade, young adult, plays and poetry anthologies — had jackets that were filled with images, some with busy jackets, others minimalist, that attracted our attention, brought the stories and poems within to life. How a jacket is designed also tells a story, and my students and I would spend precious time talking about the artwork covering the books they were studying. Fast forward and years later and I would read Jhumpa Lahari’s, The Clothing of Books, a thin and minimalist-designed book of less than 100 pages that explores and asks us to probe the complex relationship between text and images. This is Structuralism at its core. In remembering this, I see that Life finds a way to remind us of the meaning that we look for; the power of attraction, if you will, as my friend and Michelin chef, Matthieu Escoffier, calls it. 

On Dreaming and Making Sense of it All

Sahara dreaming

I love sharing sneak-peeks of the images that fill picture books. Here is this wonderful creature, Sahara, a little girl my mind created, inspired by so many structures and systems that I’ve tried over the years to make meaning of. Dreaming is my favourite thing to do, day-dreaming especially. It’s my dream to write meaningful picture books and to help children answer questions that they’re eager to find out. Of course, in writing my picture books, I’m also busy answering the questions that I have; questions like: Why are female chefs mostly overlooked in the culinary world when cooking is a job placed on the female shoulder in the house-hold kitchen? How do our senses impede or expedite our culinary experiences? How can I, a writer of children’s picture books, encourage young readers to taste what they eat, feel the food that they put into their mouths, and see with their other senses what textures and tastes food produce? Readers, I present Sahara’s Special Senses. Please allow Sahara to show you the answers to these questions.