Writing About Other People

I love reading biographies, don’t you? A biography allows us a small window into the minutiae of someone’s life. Why only a small window? Well, if you think about it, life is short but the journey is long. I know this may be an oxymoron but I’ve given this phrase a lot of thought for many years now. 

When reading someone’s biography or autobiography, we’re not reading everything about that person; only those things that the person wants to share or those things that you, the author, feel are important to share. And, a book must come to an end some time. It could be 320 pages long or 32 pages short. So, the writer must choose the bits to put in that would keep the reader turning the pages. 

As biographies go, there are those endorsed by the subject and those that the subject refuses to acknowledge, they may even shun the book. Not all biographies are written with permission. 

This is similar for children’s picture books. 

But first, the writer needs to know that permission is not necessary to write about someone. Second, anyone can write about the same subject/ person. There is no such thing as someone copying your idea for a biography. Just look at how many Frida Kahlo picture books there are or picture books about Malala Yousafzai. Third, even if you want to write about a particular person, the publisher may not think that this person is worth their publishing budget. This could be for many reasons and here are three: the subject is controversial, like Aung Saan Su Kyi, for example; the person is too obscure—who would want to read about them?; the market is already saturated with bios of the subject. Repetition may be good for children but too much of one thing is never good.

Who To Choose Then?

There is a parade of people we can write about. So, choosing the right one can be challenging. 

First, write about someone you want to read about—this person may be well known but not famous. Second, do your research—are there books out there about them? In your case as a picture book author: are there picture books about your subject? Third, pick a theme—why are you writing about them? 

How Did I Come Up With The Idea of Writing About Asian Women for Children? 

I had the idea of writing about Asian women for a very long time. This idea germinated in Paris when I was living there. I was the Chair of Memberhship for a society called the Asian Women’s Association in Paris (AWAP). This was the brainchild of a few Asian women, friends of mine, who were interested in starting a community for Asian women living in Paris. The group was made up of Asian women from all over the world. They were a global  diaspora of women who could trace their roots back to East Asia and Southeast Asia. And, many were leaders in their fields and doing wonderful things while juggling motherhood and a career. 

Having the opportunity to meet and speak to some of AWAP’s members made me think about the Asian women whom I wanted to know who have shaped Asia in so many ways. But as life goes, I was a mother of two—one toddler and the other a teen—juggling learning a new language—Oui, Je parle français—and navigating an expat life in the City of Light. I was too mesmerised by Paris—it’s Paris!!—to think about writing about other women’s lives. I concentrated on writing about my life instead—how selfish, non? So, I started a blog writing about what I know and love best—food, Asian food—which took me down a rabbit hole searching for veritable Asian grub, which took me down another warren looking for female chefs, particularly Asian ones. That blog turned into a memoir of sorts and helped me cope with major homesickness for Asia. And, before I knew it, I found myself in Singapore. The blog is now on a hiatus. 

Navigating Singapore became the next step in my expat journey. In Singapore, I was both an insider and outsider. I sought books for my then 6.5 year old with Asian themes, on Asian heroines and Asian aesthetics. Books that I wished I’d read when I was a child. Books that made me look up to women for leadership. I was disappointed to find none of the latter, and the few I found that ticked the boxes on themes and aesthetics were copies or pastiches of western children’s books like ‘The Diary of Adrian Mole’, ‘Katie’s museum adventures’, or stories written through a western lens. [These are books written in English.] 

There was nothing on Asian women. No biographies that I could show my young daughter that reflected the wonderful achievements by Asian women, and we have so many great women too. But at the same time, I found many written and published in America.

As Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

And Maya Angelou reinforced it when she wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 

And so, I found myself proposing a 6-book series to publishers on Asian Sheroes. [I was pretty gung ho about it too as at that point, I only knew I wanted to write about 6 Asian women, but did not know who yet.]

It was a hard sell, to tell the truth. Asian Sheroes? Who are they? Why would American and British children want to read about them when they have nothing to do with “us”? 

I worked alone for some time researching and finding out who I can write about. I sent out feelers and got some great answers back. The problem is in the lack of information (more on that in another post) about many of these women. I even thought of self publishing at one point.

Working alone is fine and fun but as life is short and the journey is long, I wanted to share this journey with people I love. So, I roped in two sheroes: June Ho and Debasmita Dasgupta. We discussed it and furnished a proposal and sent it out, closer to home.

World Scientific Publishing who was in the midst, unbeknownst to us, of starting a new imprint, World Scientific Education, acquired the series on proposal. 

The Birth of A Series

Meetings were held. At that time, we could still meet face-to-face. And names were proposed. And that was how Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali: The Accidental Doctor was born.

Did I follow my own rules on writing about lesser-known but known-enough Asian women? Did I write a book that I wanted to read because there is none out there? Did I condense a long journey into a short book of 32 pages? 

I would say, yes. WE did it because the creation of ‘Women Who Shaped Asia’ takes a team. The creation of sheroes takes a family. 

And just like this, the seed that I germinated in Paris grew into a plant that now needs constant watering and feeding. It won’t eat you, I promise. But it’ll feed you and your kids with knowledge and pride of the women who shaped Asia. 

Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali: The Accidental Doctor is available here. If you live in Singapore, Malaysia and/or Southeast Asia, get your copy here. In America, it’s here

Twitter Pitch Parties anyone? What happens when you have the jitters and the twitches?

I just took part in my second Twitter Pitch yesterday, folks. Seriously this time. It was #DVpit. This is for agents and editors looking for diverse manuscripts or stories written by people who identify #POC [#BAME in the UK]. It is serious business. So, I took it seriously this second time round. It’s not to say that I wasn’t serious when I took part the first time round. I was dead serious then. I just didn’t understand the rules the first time round. I seriously have a problem when there are too many rules. And I have a problem when they say [TL:DR]:

“How many times can I pitch?

Each USER is allowed UP TO 6 #DVpit pitches per project, which cannot be tweeted more than once per hour regardless. You don’t need to use all 6 opportunities. If you have 4 good pitches, that’s fine. If you only want to send out 1 pitch—also fine. We recognize that this is confusing, so here are some examples:

ex1. You have 1 project to pitch. Options: you could pitch once every other hour over the whole 12-hr period; OR pitch once per hour over 3 hours in the morning, and once each hour for 3 hours in the afternoon. There will be 6 of the 12 hours during which you cannot pitch in #DVpit at all.

ex2. You have 2 #DVpit projects, up to 6 pitches for each. You could alternate pitches for them each hour; OR pitch 1 project over 6 hours in the morning, and the other over 6 hours in the afternoon. In either case, you pitch ONCE per hour, using up to the maximum 6 per project over the 12hr event.

ex3. Let’s say you have 3 #DVpit projects. You can only pitch once per hour, so you have to divvy up those 12 opportunities to your projects. Options: you could do 6 for project A + 3 each for projects B & C; OR 4 each; OR 2 for project A, 4 for project B, and 6 for project C.

Just remember that your twitter account cannot pitch into the #DVpit feed more than once per hour. Which project you choose each hour is up to you, as long as no single project exceeds 6. This is to keep the feed less cluttered and more fair.”

I read all the rules and I read this particular one a few times. And I realised that I’d failed elementary school maths and can’t do the sums. So, how many times can I twitch, I mean pitch twitch? Or was it tweet pitch? How many times again? Please bear with me on this. Maths whizzes know it’s easy. But if you’ve lived with numerophobia all your life, it’s hard when you read a rule with such intense and focused numerical sense that don’t make sense to you.

Anyhooo, I asked a bunch of very helpful friends in my writing community who had participated in twitter pitch conferences before and they told me “6 x per MS and at 1 hour intervals only”. That explained it. 

So I sent my pitches into the twitching tweeting universe. 

I had two. That is two manuscripts. So I spaced them out between the hours of 8 am – 8 pm EST, which is Eastern Standard Time. That just means 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening New York time. 

But first, what is a twitter pitch conference? 

  • It all started with #PitMad. This was the original twitter pitch event or conference for unpublished manuscripts and writers who are unagented or agented. 
  • The event happens every quarterly according to a schedule based on EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)/ Spring-Summer or EST (Eastern Standard Time)/ Autumn-Winter.
  • Hashtags are used to denote different categories: #DVpit for Diversity Pitch #PBPitch for Picture Book Pitch #CB for Children’s Books, etc., etc. There is now a #BVM hashtag for Black Writers and Illustrators. [YAY] 

If you’re a children’s book writer like me, you’d want to look out for #PBPitch which is open to all picture book writers 3 times a year: February, June, and October. The next one is on October 29th, Thursday from 8 am to 8 pm EST. 

Here are the rules.

If you’re a person of colour or someone from a marginalised or under-represented community, you’d want to look out for #DVpit. I took part in #DVpit because I identify #BAME or #POC. DVPit is open to ALL diverse creators or writers, working on ALL genres writing for children, YA or adult. Do look out for the dates as there are two days for different genres and age groups, and for writers and illustrators. 

Here are the rules.

I made a couple of boo-boos, like retweeting someone’s tweet with a comment because someone had done that for me and I wanted to pay back in kind. Apparently, participants are not allowed to retweet. You can comment inside their tweet but not retweet with a comment. That was where I misunderstood. Only editors can retweet. These are editors who like your pitch but will only work with agented authors, so I was told. 

You definitely cannot like or heart ❤ a tweet cos that is the reserve of agents or editors. You’re meant to reply sans hashtags if you want to show support; see above about not retweeting.

Well, I’m learning along the way, as they say. 

I don’t know about you but Twitter gives me the jitters, to be honest. There are some real serious trolls out there waiting to get ya. But thankfully, people just laughed my boos-boos off. And, frankly, nobody has the energy to tell you off, cos at the end of it, you’re meant to know what to…read the rules, and don’t be so zealous like me in wanting to boost other people’s tweets. 

What came out of all this, you ask. The good news is that I got a genuine like or <3. Why genuine? It was a like from an editor, who then asked to read my manuscript. How did I know that? I went to find out who ❤ my twitch and that’s that. And I scrolled down her tweets where she said that “if I like your pitch, it means I’m interested to read your manscript. Please DM me.” 

I wouldn’t go private messaging the editor/ agent if they had not tweeted for the author to do that. I’d just go check out their website for submission guidelines and type in DVpit in the subject line. Nobody likes being stalked, editors and agents no less.

So I sent my manuscript to this editor after I’d DM-ed her to ask how I can submit, and she has confirmed receipt of it. So, you see, this was how serious I was about taking part in #DVpit, and because I was serious, the Universe sent out positive vibes, unlike the first time when I took part. So, don’t make the mistake I did the first time round—join in for the fun of it. I’m not saying you mustn’t have fun. Because FUN + PASSION = ENJOYMENT.

#DVpit is now over and I can’t wait to take part in the next one cos the fun of it all is in composing the tweets in 280 characters. It’s an exercise in precision and concision

Here was what I’d tweeted and pitched for one story. 

When a little girl longs for her grandma’s dumplings, but her grandma can no longer cook, she discovers that faith and love are enduring. This 389-word #PB explores the relationship between an unnamed protagonist and their grandma.  #DVPit #OWN [this one got me a like but I’ve decided not to pursue this like for personal reasons.]

Like a Tai Chi dance, an unnamed protagonist must grapple with her grandma’s fading breath. DANCING DUMPLINGS FOR MY ONE AND ONLY, a 389-word story that charts the relationship between a child and their grandma rises and falls with each breath. #DVpit #poc #own

You’ve got it! 

Good luck! 

credit: PB Pitch Website

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.