The Storyteller’s Tool Kit

Where do I get my ideas from? 

Here, There and Everywhere. 

Random image of tentacles taken at Pompeii

Welcome story geniuses. I thought I’d write a post about the storyteller’s tool kit. Like most toolkits, you’ll see that my toolbox is filled with the usual tools. You know, the common ones like inspiration, structure, research, tech. I add a couple of personal ones in there too like music, movies, and people. 

#Tool 1 Inspiration

As you know, all stories come from an idea. Yes, just the one. This one idea can fragment into many. Think of a lightbulb with dozens of light rays spreading out across a dark room. Imagine a mosiac art work, the whole made up of  splintered ceramic or stone pieces, and if you isolate one section, there is another story there. What about a kaleidoscope and as you turn the dial, the fratal changes into another pattern. 

But as a writer, you mustn’t forget your central idea for that story you’re writing at the moment. 

So, I am working on a YA novel, my first. I was inspired by a central idea of the master and servant relationship. I wanted to explore this through the lens of an indentured servant. 

#Tool 2 Research

It all started with my curiosity about how societies treated their help. From that broad question, I narrowed it down to a culture and heritage I know well: I wanted to explore an oppressive system that originated in China, where poor girls were sold to wealthy families as servants. 

Indentured servitude is not uncommon as there are many forms of slavery as well as different notions of perceived freedom. Indentured servants have existed in Southeast Asia for the longest time in various forms and guises. In particular, I wanted to find out more about mui tsai or young girls working in the homes of wealthy Straits Chinese or Peranakan-Chinese. Then, this got me thinking about migrant workers and their plight, which led me down the rabbit hole of finding out as much as I could about the migrant worker situation around the world. 

My mind was going full speed everywhere but to nowhere. So, I reigned myself in. What is my central idea?—the master and servant relationship. What was my focus?—indentured servitude. 

#Tool 3 Setting 

Since all stories have to take place somewhere—real or imagined—I picked British Malaya because I know this landmass far better than Hong Kong or China. I am a Peranakan-Chinese because my ancestors braved monsoon winds and sailed across the South China Sea to Malaya, so what better place to start from than examining the cultural history and lives of the Straits Chinese, my ancestors? 

But Malaya was connected to the Empire, with its headquarters located on an island situated between the the  North Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. 

My mind was going places again. But hang on, I need to focus. So I returned again to Malaya, in particular Singapore, country of my birth. 

#Tool 4 Structure

All stories have a structure. This Aristotelian idea is an ideal and as storytellers we must let structure guide us. There’s a beginning, middle and an end to every story—always. 

My novel starts media res—in the middle. Funny how the middle became my beginning, hey? I only came to this decision after redrafting the initial structure and I can tell you, it wasn’t funny because I had to rewrite almost 10,000 words of the original manuscript. This consisted of my making a developmental change and then rewriting the parts to fit in with the change. Mind you, developmental editing is what editors do for authors all the time. So I switched a couple of parts around, rewrote some bits, and the story took another shape of its own. 

Think of structure as a squiggly line that moves up to a point of climax and drops again and ends at the point of resolution which leads us to what is known as the denouement. That’s French for the final outcome and it’s a literary term used by industry wigs to show off their prowess. Literary theory and criticism aside, we need to remember that all journeys must come to an end and it’s no different for stories. But where is the end? Most would consider the end as the part whre the hero of the journey finds what they were looking for or found the answer to their quest/search. Now, solving the problem (resolution) in the story is not the same as the outcome, denouement, of the story. The denouement can end in a catastrophe (think Wuthering Heights) or it can end happily ever after (think Cinderalla). 

To get structure in order, I needed to think of a sequence of events that will move my story forward. I had to know that this happaned first, then this happened next, then that happened after, so on and so forth, until I come to the end of my tale. 

The best way to see your sequence of events is to write them out. Illustrators do a storyboard. There’s nothing stopping those who can’t draw from doing the same. You can use stick figures, if you want. 

But all story structures or shapes are based on the central idea: the Main Character’s journey in the book. 

#Tool 5 Tech and the Muse

Technology is a great tool for any writer. I use a MacBook and organise my writing into files. Some people swear by Scrivener. I haven’t dabbled there yet because it requires that I learn how to use the tool. But I’ve been told that once you’ve learnt to, it’s no sweat. 

But the best tool of all is YOU. As a writer you’ve just got to turn up. Here is a previous post on what my day looks like. As I write for a living and not always fun stuff, I am forced to turn up. My favourite author said this, ‘turn up, turn up, turn up and the muse will turn up too.” She is none other than Isabel Allende. 

For extra help on inspiration, structure, setting and research, I turn to Netflix fo plot, characterisation and the 3-Act Structure. I just watched Pieces of A Woman. It’s not for everyone, I will say. But it was superb acting and I was thoroughly convinced that the main character was really giving birth. I wanted to see how the script writer had used the 3-Act Structure to plot her story. And, I tell you what, it’s there—the beginning, middle, end, with everything in a writer’s took kit thrown in—inciting incident, sub-plots, small crises, big crises, the crisis—resolution, and outcome. 

Music makes its way into my daily routine too when I’m feeling the blues and get stuck on a plot point. My latest is listening to covers by Carly Rose (Sonenclar)

And last but not least: People. My favourite people is my family. So I turn to them for sustenance. 

What the World Needs Now is…

Today, I recieved a text from my GP informing me to make an appointment for my vaccination. Just this morning, a concerned friend living in Portsmouth had texted to ask when I was getting mine. Another friend who lives in Paris texted to say that she and her husband have had theirs. And my elderly neighbours emailed to say that they’ve been vaccinated and can’t wait to be free. 

Frankly, I have been rather non-chalant about the vaccinations, wasn’t in a hurry to get one because my turn will come with it comes. I am not at risk, don’t work in essential services, and am a WFH writer and editor. All safety boxes checked with a thick green tick. So why did I feel elated that I will be getting my first shot on Thurday morning? I am suddenly seeing a glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel. 

This is my fourth lockdown. I think. The family and I were locked down in Singapore from April 7th to May 4th. While we were still being locked down, the lockdown, named circuit breaker, was further extended until June 1st by the Singapore government. So we had some freedom before the girls and I left for London in July. We met up with some friends, said goodbye to family, and flew out of Changi early July, jubilant that a new chapter of our lives would begin again. This is one of the many perks of being a family constantly expatriating. Or is it? 

Moving countries during a pandemic is harrowing. Stuff you can tell your grandkids about later because pandemics are life changing and hit you when you least expect them. After a claustrophobic 14-hour flight in a not that empty cabin, we arrived to a London that had no checks despite the Home Office asking all passengers to fill in a COVID location form. We breezed through customs. 

The city in July of 2020 was beginning to open up. Singapore, too, had by then come out of their circuit breakers and phasing out of their lockdown one strong step by one strong step at a time.  The air was crisp with hope in London as the UK prepared for the summer. The mood was buoyant like it is now. We were buoyant too because optimism is infectious. But we still wore our masks outside the house and in the shops just because old habits die hard; mask-wearing was still not mandatory in the shops then. I received some accusatory glances and many Londoners generously made room for me on the pavement and supermarket aisles. One lady told me to step away from her and I didn’t think anything of it other than that it was her freedom to demand for social distancing. The supermarket was a rather small one and I am a good citizen, so I stepped aside and let her get on with it. We were allowed to go out for essentials while we quarantined. The girls and I took our 14-day quarantine seriously because it is serious stuff. We were staying at an Airbnb then and I left the apartment every other day to do our grocery shopping at the Marks & Spencers across the street. Once, I got tutted at for moving a man’s trolley out of the way to get a punnet of tomatoes. I had asked him to excuse me but he was hard of hearing so I gestured an excuse me and moved his trolley to make room for other people and myself. It was only tomatoes, no big deal, I know. So, I said thank you from behind my mask to a pair of raised eyebrows. 

Summer is always glorious in a country with more than four wet and damp seasons. Bodies were out in the parks tanning and picnicking, children were running free with the wind in their hair and the sun behind them, and people were generally having a great time despite a pandemic looming over them. I knew that if the English and Brits didn’t start to listen or if the gov didn’t do something quickly, the virus would spread like wild fire. And this freedom would slowly ebb away like the outgoing tide. But what does one listen to when the messages that the gov was sending were mixed and oh so confusing.

Summer raged on and school started in September as per the old normal. Europe was too far away to be affected by a Chinese virus, but the international schools were careful and followed the rules as people were still travelling back to London from everywhere. Then the curve got steeper and by the end of September going into October, Boris Johnson announced the necessity for a circuit breaker. I wonder where they got that idea from. But flight corridors were still allowed and many went on holidays over the Christmas break. Then the numbers went up more and that circuit breaker got extended again after Christmas because a variant from South Africa or was it Brazil had found their way into England. It is only just last week that schools have opened up again. We are in March 2021. It has been a year since the whole world was brought to its knees. 

I am not begging for a vaccine. But I am eager for one because it protects me and my family. Right now, my concerns are only extended to the people I love. And I hope that this is mirrored by the many people who are anti-vaccers, who are suspicious of what medicine can do and have done and continue to do, and those who don’t trust the government. Do it for the people you love. And, if we want borders to open up and for us to travel freely like in the old-normal, then we must do what we need to do in this new-normal. Don’t get me wrong, I am on the side of subversive always. But this time, I am being good. 

Okay, all said and done, human beings are the only beings that can help humanity. And remember, God helps those who help themselves. This is one rule in Christianity that I abide by by every stretch of my imagination. Give me that shot! 

*The author has since received her first shot.

A Day In the Life of a Writer

Well, it’s been a full day’s work again today. Like for most people with regular jobs. Writing is a lonely day job, but it nonetheless takes up a whole day, if you’re a professional writer like me. Writing is my regular job. 

What Does A Typical Day Look Like for Me?

6 am – I am up.

6:30 am – I read and answer my emails with a cup of coffee. 

7:30 am – I start work. My current WIP is a YA novel that I’m in the middle of writing. I decided to change the POV this morning. So, I had to rewrite over 10,000 words of the current MS, changing from 3rd to 1st. 

10:00 am – I jump on a zoom call with my business partner, Debasmita Dasgupta. We discuss a new project—writing a graphic novel together. 

11:00 am – comfort break. I make my second cup of coffee. Have a light snack.

11:15 am – I work on a current project: researching and writing blog posts for an in-house e-zine.

13:15 – lunch break. Today, I reheated some hot and sour soup from the day before. Sometimes, I get an Uber Eats or Deliveroo. 

13:45 – I do some research on another project about therapeutic jurisprudence in family law. This is a ghost-writing project for a legal practice outside the UK.

15:45 – I check into moodle at the Roehampton University and listen to my lectures on the MA Children’s Literature. This week we are learning about Historical Fiction in Children’s Literature. This is my favourite genre. 

17:30 – comfort break

17:45 – reply to emails that have come in during the time I haven’t been checking emails. Make a note of who to reply to ASAP and who to KIV for tomorrow.

18:45 – stop work to cook dinner. Tonight we are having pasta ragù from Nonna Tonda, a pasta and sauce delivery company. My life is made easier because all I do is boil the fresh pasta and reheat the sauce. 

20:00 – if I have the energy, I write for another 1 to 1.5 hours. This is always my own work.

22:00 – reading time – YAY!! I am reading YA novel: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. I am pulled into her fantasy world. 

23:00 or earlier if I start to nod – sleep. 

As my day is filled with words and sentences, I go to sleep dreaming of the different stories and books that occupy my psyche. It’s a great feeling, I’ll be honest. As I am working on world building and characterisation right now, I wake to a character voice in my head. I let that character speak to me in the liminal space between slumber and wakefulness. This morning, it was the Lee household cook, one of the characters in my YA. Her voice is distinct, I feel her presence, I take refuge in her wisdom but I am suspicious of her. She speaks to me in the “I” and nudges me to change my viewpoint of her story from the 3rd. 

Because I work on several projects concurrently, I have to really prioritise where I want to dedicate my writing energy. I keep a notebook of with a to-do list of all my projects and tick them off as I go through the items daily. Today, I worked mostly on the blogging and YA WIP. 

As it’s all in a day’s work, I always reward myself with a glass of something luscious like a good Prosecco on Fridays. Maybe one day, I can have champagne instead. But hey-ho, it’s one day in the life of a professional writer. 

TGIF!!

Year Of Change

Image borrowed from Bristol Old Vic

How to make changes during pandemic and post

I can’t believe that we’re almost at the end of February. It seems like time has flown by under lockdown. The Chinese have just entered the Year of the Ox. And feng shui experts promise a strong year of change.

As England eases up on our uniformed incarceration, the mood is buoyant. Articles galore are being circulated around the globe on how wonderful summer of ’21 is looking. Hang on! We are not there yet, but we can hope as we project into the future; hope for change. There is hope too in the UK publishing world as Bonnier Books reveals their inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. They and the UK are moving and shaking to make changes to include more diverse voices and people in publishing. About time! 

As most of us in the industry who are not White know, the focus hasn’t always been on us. Yes, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, People of Colour writers, have existed for the longest time: there are books written by freed slaves (mostly in the USA) that have been mentioned by Toni Morrison, tomes penned by Chinese philosophers and thinkers (all in Chinese but many have been translated into English), and in the modern world, fiction written in English by greats like Tash Aw, Amy Tan, and Tan Twan Eng, there is still a gap in the market that needs to be filled. Patience is the key to seeing change happen for “meaningful change takes time and doesn’t happen in isolation.” But Perminder Mann, c.e.o. of Bonnier Books says that she and her team are committed to more meaningful and prolonged engagement and collaboration to make change happen. I salute them. 

On the home front: As folks know, I am a committed agent of change. There are many reasons why and the biggest one of all is that CHANGE makes us BETTER people. Why be stuck in antiquity? 

On the writing front: I have been prolific in my writing under pandemic. I know that this hasn’t been easy for many writers who have to deal with WFH, home-schooling kids, and being locked down and in small spaces. Don’t be hard on yourselves—choose self-love. For those of us with half empty nests, the lockdown has kept us busy so that we don’t lose our sanity. So, I wrote and wrote reams and reams. Writing helps me find catharsis. But there are other ways to find release as well. 

On the change front: You don’t have to write new stuff. Revising old stuff is also writing. I revised an old manuscript that had been sitting in my computer drawer for ages. I couldn’t find the mojo to finish it under the first lockdown in Singapore. Under my third lockdown in England, I rescued it from my musty computer drawer and worked on it. I shared it with some writer friends in my community and after they’d given me their feedback, I revised it again. Then I found the courage to submit it to an agent who rejected it. No matter. I am an agent of change. So I changed the story a little bit more and I sent it to another agent. This time I got a ‘I love it’ email, are you up for a chat? Now, I’m working with an agent to make changes in the book market in the UK.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. But it won’t happen if you don’t decide to affect change. 

Change happens on several levels and here are three:

  • Choose to change;
  • Vote for change;
  • Make change happen.

Get those pens or ‘puters out and write those stories and be prepared to change them. Then write that query letter and send them out. Here is a list of literary agents in the UK that may like your work. It only takes one. 

Make Change Happen.

I am available for one-to-one consultations and mentoring. I want to help you make that change. Connect with me @evawongnava on Instagram and Twitter. Email me: enquiries@evawongnava.com.

Celebrating All Kinds of Love

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

My garden is a soft blanket of snow. It had been snowing all day yesterday and all night too. As I snuggled down to sleep last night, I thought of Pingu. 

Remember Pingu? He’s that claymation anthropomorphic penguin who lives in the South Pole with his family. He has a sister named Pinga and his BFF is a seal named Robby. Pingu and Pinga have two parents—father and mother Penguin. Along with this cast is Grandfather who plays the accordion and was once a professional weight lifter. 

The Pingu family is a normalised family as you can see from the cast. They were created by German animation film maker Otmar Gutmann in the late 90s and early 2000s, and produced for Swiss television and later British television. The transition from Switzerland to Great Britain was a smooth one. There was nothing to translate because Pingu speaks in sounds, in an invented grammelot known as Penguinese. Pingu babbles, mutters, and honks “Noot Noot”. Osvaldo Cavandoli provided the voice over. 

Pingu made me think of Tango, the penguin chick born in a zoo in America. Central Park Zoo had a problem: two male penguins were stealing eggs. They were a couple and their names are Roy and Silo. So, their zoo keeper gave them an egg and the penguins took turns incubating this little egg who hatched into Tango, a female chick. Here is my review of AND TANGO MAKES THREE. I explain why I love this book, why it needs to be celebrated, and what this picturebook means to me. 

How to Create Untoward Attention

I managed to collect this book only in London. This (in)famous picturebook was banned in Singapore and hence, I couldn’t get hold of one when I was living there. Tango first attracted attention when an ultra-conservative person discovered the picturebook in the children’s section at one of Singapore’s state libraries. This person was affronted by the content of the book. Complaints were registered and the Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Information (a woman at that time) decides to pulp the book. It was because “the content was against the city-state’s family values.” Do you see the irony? 

This is what happens when people view the world through a myopic lens.

Anything on what the minister of information had said in regard to the pulping could not be found when I googled. But I found this article with comments by two veteran Singaporean authors on why Tango should remain shelved at the state libraries. The tone of the statements quoted was not of anger but of reason. And that is important because only parents and paternalistic mininsters can get angry. The rest of the (child) citizenry can only voice their unhappiness as anger is a pill that is too bitter to swallow even for many adults.

But here’s a blog post I managed to find. The tone is relatively different. There is a tempered inflection, a hint of displeasure laced with anger.  

How to Keep the Love of Any Picturebook Strong

The two love penguins loving each other, doing everything together

A friend who adopted three children brought the book over and we all had a good read of it. There was nothing malignant or inappropriate about Tango. In fact it was a book that celebrated families—all sorts. 

Blended families, LGBTQ families, Families who support other families brought their own copies of Tango with them and gathered outside the main branch of the National Library to read the picturebook with their children. It was a quiet but powerful protest. There was no state law that could disband these families because these were families doing the right thing–reading to their children outside the library building. It was the appropriate thing to do and done so by the book.

There is nothing more malignant than to normalise the two-parent-two-children (preferably one boy, one girl) family set up. Love is love and families are families. 

Valentine’s Day is for Everyone

How Love Makes a Baby

So, for Valentine’s Day this year (2021), I am asking that we don’t forget the baby chick born to two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo. Her name is Tango. She has two fathers and they are Roy and Silo. 

Here are other books celebrating all sorts of families:

Mommy, Mama, and Me by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson.

Daddy, Papa, and Me by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson.

Two Grooms on a Cake by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Robbie Cathro.

Making a Baby by Rachel Greener, illustrated  by Clare Owen.

Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer.