Monday, 1 January 2018

Happy New Year!

So, 2018 already huh? Time for some resolutions!

Write a short story every fortnight
Lol. I don't even know if this is possible, because my usual resolution every year is to write a short story every month and I've failed every year I've attempted it. Writing a short story every fortnight means writing two short stories a month. How is that even possible? Well, I have a plan mapped out, aaaaaand if I stick to it, it should work out. Maybe. Anyway the goal here is to keep writing, and from there, to keep submitting, which I was lax on in 2017.

Focus on writing English short stories
I spent a lot of time in 2015, 2016, and 2017 reading and writing in Malay. My goal back then was to get good at writing in my native language, and have it be up to my standards writing in English. I think I have succeeded in that aim. After all, I did get published in Dewan Sastera, Tunas Cipta, and even had two Malay novels published (after winning a novel-writing competition no less) so I will, for now, call it a day in writing in Malay and will now pivot back to focusing on writing in English once again, which is my first love anyway. Writing in Malay was fun and I will be back... maybe in a few years.

Get published in a SFWA qualifying market
Not really a resolution, but more a goal I want to strive towards to in 2018. I've always wanted to break into this market. Have been meaning to since I started writing seriously, but I've never really been serious in how I've been going about it, possibly because I didn't have the confidence. Didn't know if anyone would really want publish my writing. Now that I have been published, in Malaysia, and elsewhere, I finally have that confidence to push for SFWA markets. So this year, I want to be more serious about it, which is where my previous two resolutions come in. Focus on writing quality stories that are good enough for SFWA qualified markets. I might not be able to make it in this year, but it's a good year as any to start working towards achieving that goal.

This is probably the first year in a very long while that I don't resolve to write (and finish) a novel. Hah, I've done that, several times over now. Though I haven't gotten round to rewriting my English novel manuscript yet but I'm sure its time will come in future years. For now it's short fiction, and most importantly, it's short science fiction.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Retrospective 2017.

Oh hello! It's been a while huh!

I figured I'd better update this because I've been networking with other writers from around the world and I didn't want them googling me up and then finding my blog and all there was on it was a page from way back in May and then another from way back in 2015.

So anyway, what's been up with me this past couple of years? Well it so happens, quite a lot!

It's been a good 2017 for me. I won 3rd and consolation prize in the prestigious biannual Malay SF novel writing competition, Sayembara Fiksyen Sains dan Teknologi UTM-Utusan. This also means I had two SF novels published this year, Dunia Hanyalah Pentas, and Yang Diselindung Samudera, which I co-wrote with Nor Azida Ishak and Fadli al-Akiti.

I'm particularly proud of Dunia Hanyalah Pentas, which is a YA cyberpunk murder mystery thriller (phew! what a mouthful!) set in my hometown of Ipoh, a quiet little town which isn't really the kind of megalopolis one usually associates with cyberpunk. But I think I pulled it off, and with style too (if I do say so myself, *cough cough*).

Yang Diselindung Samudera was a novel project proposed by Azida, and is a Dan Brown-esque thriller. It's pretty much a spiritual sequel to Leksikon Ledang, the second prize winner of a previous season of the same SF novel writing competition, written by Azida and Fadli al-Akiti (and one I had no part in). I helped write the outline and complete several scenes, Fadli helped add in some ancient Malay flavour, and Azida mostly did the rest, so she is the one who really deserves most of the praise here.

Later in the year, I also had an essay published in Dewan Sastera ("Pengkritik Bukan Muslim Mahir Membaca Teks Melayu Islam: Apa Salahnya?") and a book review published in Tunas Cipta ("Fiksi Buat Marquez oleh Ruhaini Matdarin").

Being published in Dewan Sastera was quite unexpected. I've never considered myself well-versed in Malay to the extent that I am qualified to be published in it. But in the March 2017 issue, some asshole wrote a lengthy article basically arguing that non-Malays were not qualified to judge a Malay literary competition because they were not Muslim. This somehow ticked me off enough that I decided to write a 2000 word response asking what the hell does religion got to do with a literary competition. I guess the editor liked it enough to include it in the May 2017 issue.

Those were all Malay writings but I had some achievements on the English side as well. I had two short stories published, one in Nang 3: Fiction ("The Novelization of Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald") and another on Eksentrika ("Heat").

I'm quite proud of "The Novelization of Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald" because it's a light, funny piece but unfortunately it's a piece that has to be read after viewing the Japanese film it's inspired from. The publisher of Nang Magazine also included some cool art, one of which was a poster for my story which I thought was ridiculously awesome.❤ It's a cool magazine which has a planned run of only 10 issues, so if you haven't yet, go check it out, especially if you're a fan of Asian cinema.

"Heat" was an extended version of the original story I titled "Do Djinn Dream of Burning Sheep" which I admit is a better title, but I felt the PKD reference wasn't done justice by the story. I previously mentioned back in this post but basically it's a whimsical little story. Some people like it, I hope you do too.

My goal for 2018 is to have more English short stories published in Western markets. Wish me luck and I hope everyone else has good writing luck too!

Previous Retrospectives:

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

So you want to submit to Little Basket, eh?

Little Basket has been published two years in a row now, and Fixi Novo has recently announced that we are going to do a third one. I've been lucky, proud, and honoured that I've been chosen to be co-editor three years in a row now (along with people like Tsiung Han See, Catalina Rembuyan, and Eeleen Lee, who are much cleverer than I am).

So what is Little Basket? Little Basket is an anthology of new Malaysian writing, published annually. Each year we seek to publish exciting new works, whether short fiction, poetry, comics, or creative non-fiction, by upcoming or established Malaysian writers, or non-Malaysian writers writing in and/or about Malaysia. If we were feeling any more pretentious, we'd call it a "literary journal" but we're trying not to be pretentious, so we shan't call it that.

If you're familiar with what Fixi Novo (and its parent company, Buku Fixi) publishes, you'd know they usually publish fiction that lies on the more pulpish end of the literary spectrum. That's still true with Little Basket, but as editors, we like to think we're open to anything, as long as it tickles our fancy.

With that said, here are some tips for submitting to Little Basket. We've gotten a lot of queries over the past few years about how to submit and what to submit so I figured it would good to compile a basic kind of "listicle" (I hate that word) for those who are interested in submitting.

TIP #1: Buy a copy of Little Basket
Or better yet, buy both editions! They should be available in any of your major bookstores (Popular, MPH, Kinokuniya, etc.) and if not, they are available from either of the two branches of Kedai Fixi in Sunway Putra Mall and Sunway Velocity Mall. And those options are not suitable for you, you may purchase a copy online from Buku Fixi's website.

The most important thing about buying a copy is that you are supporting a local publisher and are contributing towards the possibility of Little Basket continuing in the future.

The next more important thing is that all you actually need to know about submitting can actually be found in the book itself! From what email to send to, what the word limit is, and when the deadline is.

This seems to be the most sensible advice because if you want to submit to a publication, wouldn't you like to read it first to get a sense of what sort of material they publish? Yet you'd be surprised how many people submitted to Little Basket last year without even purchasing the previous issue. (We could tell because these people asked questions that betrayed the fact they hadn't read Little Basket before.)

So that brings me to...

TIP #2: Read Little Basket
By actually reading the publication you're actually submitting to, you'll get a feel of what sort of writing we like and if you pay enough attention you might see that there's a running theme (cough food cough).

But don't think you can get away with writing exactly like what we've already published. The point of Little Basket is to publish new writing after all.

TIP #3: Send us your best stuff
And by that I mean, don't send in your stream-of-consciousness piece that you wrote for your blog last night complaining about your break-up. Send us your coolest stuff! Your freshest stuff. Stuff that comes from the heart, or your deepest, darkest recesses of your mind, no matter how zany and wacky it is!

But most important of all, send us stuff you've polished, rewritten, and double-checked and triple-checked. A few typos here and there are fine, but if the main character changes her name half way through, you might not have put enough effort into it before sending it in.

TIP #4: Don't complain about our criteria if you intend on submitting
So every year we've had at least someone question our policy of accepting stories with "only" 2000 words. 2000 words is not enough to tell a good story, these people claim. It's a shame we will not be able to accept your more-than-2000-word story so I guess we will have to choose stories from all the other great writers in our slush pile instead.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Retrospective 2015.

Ever since I started this blog, I've had a somewhat loose tradition of writing an annual retrospective of the year that's passed.

Some years I did not do it because those years were too depressing. Indeed, the period between 2009 to 2013, I consider some of my darkest years of my life. No permanent job, a very low paying job and sometimes no jobs at all, I was scrounging for money, on top of having a wife and baby to feed. (Don't worry, things slowly got better and I'm not fishing for sympathy. Just saying.)

During those years, I barely wrote any of my own fiction, and the ones I did I wrote purely out of spite (See: Zombies Ate My Muslim. What was I angry at? The world.)

2014 was the year that everything turned around for me. I finally found a job where my employer truly appreciated my skills and so money was flowing in at a good rate again. In the meantime, to make some extra bucks, I had ghostwritten a screenplay (and half a novel based on said screenplay) and realised I actually enjoyed the experience of writing even after years of convincing myself that I did not really enjoy it that much anymore.

Then near the end of 2014, Fixi Novo, that upstart indie Malaysian publisher, announced they wanted to publish a cyberpunk anthology and put out a call for submissions. I pooh-poohed it at first, telling myself I wasn't good enough. No doubt years of rejection had taken a toll on me. But eventually several people convinced me to give it a go, so I did. I hacked out a story during the last week of December, then mailed it in the last few hours before submissions closed. The rest is history.

What's particularly important about this was the manic dash of writing reminded me why I actually like writing. No longer was writing such a chore. It made me forget the pain of years of rejection that had piled up like a heavy burden on my shoulders.

So I started writing another story. This time for another submissions call that involved my hometown of Ipoh. Again, the rest is history.

Since I was sending out stories anyway, I dragged out a dusty old story that had been getting rejected upways and downways back in the day. I cleaned it up a bit and submitted it to the Griffith Review. And that too, was accepted. It ended up being my biggest sale, ever! But the biggest contribution to me was that this was clear indication that my writing did not in fact, suck, as I had slowly begun to believe.

For the first time in years I was actually enjoying all this writing. Just enjoying writing for writing's sake. I'd been blinded by chasing "success" that over the years I'd forgotten what it is that made me enjoy writing in the first place. Now that I didn't have the stigma of "failure via rejection" hanging over me, I convinced myself I could write whatever the heck I wanted and wouldn't have to give a damn what the world thought about it.

So during a 4-day holiday, I made myself crank out 20,000 words. It was initially meant to be a novella, but it grew to become a novel. It was a novel where I wrote whatever the heck I wanted, and I enjoyed it.

And with that, another tradition in these retrospectives where I scold myself for not writing a novel and then proceed to promise to write one next year DOESN'T come to pass.

What's up for next year then? Well, I meant to write 12 short stories this year, but that didn't come to pass. I did end up writing 5 complete short stories though, so that's still good. The main reason I wasn't able to complete this goal was because I was distracted by other writing projects.

I managed to write two other halves of novels and also a complete novelette. No publishers for the novelette so far, but who knows what 2016 will bring. I aim to finish at least one of those novels next year. Another short story got accepted for publication in 2016 and I'll reveal more about that closer to launch.

I've also been working on a top secret project that is totally different from anything I've ever worked on. Unfortunately, it's likely I might not be able to divulge details until 2017. Well, we shall see how that one turns out.

2015 was also the year I reconnected with my local writing communities, both the English-writing one and the Malay-writing one. Both communities have changed vastly since I started writing seriously in 2006 and while the English-writing side still has a slightly condescending attitude, it's gotten remarkably better than it used to be. What's great though was getting to know a new breed of SF authors on the Malay-writing side who are doing amazing things in pushing the genre. Maybe I'll write more about them in another post.

In summary, 2015: what a splendid year! I've got good vibes for 2016. May it bring more publishing and writing successes.

Some optimistic resolutions for 2016:
  1. Write a novel.
  2. Write at least five cyberpunk short stories. (I'm aiming for an anthology.)
  3. Write a collaborative novel with a friend.

Previous Retrospectives:

I wrote one for 2014 as well but posted it on Facebook:

Monday, 26 October 2015

On Kedai Fixi's Bestsellers List.

That strange moment when not only are two books with my stories in them are on a bestsellers list, they are on it together with a book by Haruki Murakami!

It's not much compared to other people's success, I know, but this is at least one of the few things that can make me smile when it comes to the painful writing journey I've had this past nine years.

After all the painful rejections I've had, after all the horrible things people have said about my writing, I now know at least there are some people out there who can appreciate it.

Thank you to those who've been there along the way, always encouraging and supporting me, (John Ling, Shark, Sharon Bakar, Elizabeth Tai) even the worst moments when I almost quit writing for good. Thank you to the editors (Zen Cho for Cyberpunk: Malaysia, Hadi M. Nor for Hungry in Ipoh, Jane Camens for Griffith Review) who loved my work enough to want to include my stories in their anthologies, and thank you to Fixi for giving genre writers a space in Malaysian literature.

I suppose the next thing I should be pushing towards would be a book that's solely my own work. A novel perhaps. Or even a short story anthology. We will see. It took me ten years to get where I wanted to be ten years ago, it might take another ten years to get where I want to be now.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Hungry In Ipoh: A Water Tower Story

If you're a long time reader of this blog (all three of you), you'll remember I wrote a story about two boys and a water tower. Okay, actually you won't remember, because it was nine years ago. That was my first seriously written short story, one I had intended on submitting for publication.

It was also my first rejection.

No hard feelings though. It was truly a badly written story. I was overconfident of my writing abilities (or lack thereof) and the story truly didn't deserve to be published.

But the story of climbing a water tower continued to linger in the back of my mind. I knew I wanted to write a story which featured one. I had grown up in suburb of Ipoh called Pekan Razaki, and I lived on a road that led up to an imposingly tall water tower. I'm sure you'll understand that this would spark the imagination of a teenaged boy.

To give you an idea what it was like, I messed around a bit with Google Maps Streetview. Here's the view:

I lived on this road some twenty years ago.

The water tower close up.

Moving on a little, earlier this year Fixi Novo put out a call for submissions on a new anthology to be called, "Hungry In Ipoh". Of course, I had to try!

One problem.

The submissions had to be related to food or hunger of some sort. I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this but even though I'm an Ipoh Boy, I'm no foodie. Heck, for years I had no idea Ipoh was some sort of food haven. If people asked me where the best food was, I wouldn't have been able to answer. Still can't really.

Fellow writer Marc De Faoite recently posted on his Facebook wall looking for "Recommendations for good places to eat in Ipoh please (preferably the type of place that has white wall tiles, plastic chairs, kitchen workers in rubber boots, and lots of loud loud Cantonese)",  and all I could think of was the old McDonald's opposite of Super Kinta, one of my lepak spots back in the 90s. I'm sure that wasn't the kind of eatery Marc meant.

So there I was wanting to write for Hungry in Ipoh but I had no food-related memory or idea I could mine for a story. Until I recalled my long since abandoned Water Tower story. I decided to bring it back kicking and screaming. I didn't reuse my original draft. That was too horrible to bring back. But I took the idea of two boys exploring a water tower and added a girl to their story. Now I had a sort of triangle, a dynamic I could use to set up for a revenge plot.

There was still something I needed to add--an ingredient that would make this an Ipoh story. So I decided to make the story revolve around "air lengkong", essentially grass jelly drink, or outside of Ipoh more commonly called "cincau". I don't know if there are other places besides Ipoh that call cincau "air lengkong" but Ipoh is the only place I know and that would serve the story.

I spent a week writing it and then when I was done, I titled it "Mastura's Air Lengkong Adventure". I sent it off and had little expectations it would be accepted simply because the story wasn't about a hunger for food, but a hunger for revenge.

But Hadi M. Nor, the editor, accepted it anyway, and I'm glad to announce the story is now included in the anthology along with other fantastic writers, like the previously mentioned Marc De Faoite, Tina Isaacs, Cassandra Khaw, Atikah Abdul Wahid, Terence Toh, Julya Oui, and many others.

By the time you read this, Hungry In Ipoh should be launched in Ipoh and hopefully you'll be able to find the anthology in bookstores a little later.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

#BookReview: The Fifth Dimension by Martin Vopenka

Martin Vopenka's novel, though given the label of science fiction, reads more like a magical realist escapade through philosophy, sprinkled with liberal doses of space-time theories. The result is a novel that reads more like Milan Kundera rather than something more traditionally placed in the realm of science fiction.

The Fifth Dimension starts out promisingly. A Czech man, Jakub, who built a successful career in construction after the fall of Communism suddenly finds himself broke after his business prospects vanish one by one.

Desperate, he answers a mysterious ad from an equally mysterious organization that promises him US$200,000 if he takes part in an experiment that involves spending a year in solitude out in the mountains of Argentina. He takes with him only one book, Black Holes & Time Warps by Kip Thorne, and so spends his time lost not only in loneliness and paranoia but also in multidimensional physics theories.

Unfortunately, the plot takes too long to build and there were many moments where I found myself flipping through the pages, wondering when something interesting would happen. Something interesting does happen, but by then I noticed I was already more than half way through the book.

Thankfully, the writing (or perhaps the translation offered by Hana Sklenkova) makes it an easy read, and Jakub's often ponderously long monologues about black holes and space and time are actually quite interesting, considering how these are advanced topics which are rarely accessible to a layman.

In the end, I found the reveal of what the fifth dimension of the title actually is to be quite disappointing. The author might have known he'd be questioned for it, and so he has Jakub say this, (probably on his behalf): "I worry that people won't appreciate the simple truthfulness of my basic idea. Precisely because it is that simple."

Simple it may be, but still disappointing. And, like the story, which hinges on a simple concept that doesn't deliver a satisfying payoff, The Fifth Dimension ultimately proves to be a let down.

This review was made possible by an ARC from NetGalley.

Currently Available E-Books

Available from: Amazon | Smashwords | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo
Available from: Amazon | Smashwords | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo
Available from: Amazon | Smashwords | iTunes | Google Play | Nook