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!
CRAZY.

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.

Friday, 11 September 2015

#BookReview: Windswept by Adam Rakunas


It's very rare for a book to grab my attention on the first page, then proceeds to drag me through a fast-paced, action packed SF romp. Adam Rakunas's Windswept sweeps you through a plot involving labor unions, edge-of-space boondocks, space elevators, and sugarcane byproducts, which of course, includes rum. Lots of rum.

Padma Mehta is a union recruiter grappling on the edge of sanity who only wants to fulfill her recruitment quota so she can retire and buy her own rum distillery. When an opportunity presents itself so that Padma can finally fill her quota, she takes it despite her better judgment.

But instead of the forty people she expected to quit their labor contracts, only five of them come tumbling down the space elevator and one of them happens to be dead. What happens next is a series of increasingly insurmountable problems for Padma to overcome.

Besides the breakneck speed of the prose, I found the witty banter and the often hilarious situations entertaining, making the book very much an enjoyable read. I also found the worldbuilding a lot of fun, with Rakunas borrowing a lot of elements from various Asian cultures and mixing them together to create a cool world. I especially liked that on a far-flung backwater planet that there were "kampongs" and that characters used "chops" to mean company seals or stamps. (Take that, English teacher from my childhood!)

About the only problem I had with it was because it was so fast-paced, I sometimes had trouble picturing what was actually happening during some of the action scenes. I had to take a pause, flip back a few pages and reread them again to fully ground myself in the situation.

Otherwise, the book is irreverent and zany and I heartily recommend picking it up.

This review was made possible by an ARC from NetGalley.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

#BookReview: The SEA Is Ours edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng


Southeast Asia is a region rich with legends and myths which hasn't been explored enough by writers, even those residing here. But this is probably partly because we don't have that many venues in which to share these stories.

It goes without saying then that The SEA Is Ours, a steampunk anthology featuring writers from all over Southeast Asia, is a timely anthology that fills the need to showcase stories from authors we don't normally hear from.

The two editors, Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng, have made great choices in selecting the stories that went into this anthology. There were only a couple of stories that didn't really grab my attention, but that's par for the course for any collection of stories. It's rare that I find myself liking all the stories in an anthology.

The ones that did really stood out for me were Timothy Dimacali's On The Consequence of Sound, which, rightly, is the opening story and features humongous giant whale catfish sweeping through the skies; Marilag Angway's Chasing Volcanoes which featured airships (my primary reason for loving the steampunk genre) and a fun, rollicking adventure worthy of the era of pulps and adventure serials; as well as Paolo Chikiamco's Between Severed Souls, a really fun steampunk twist on a Filipino legend.

You may have noticed that all the stories I mentioned above were written by Filipinos. They really turned in great stuff and this anthology has piqued my interest in looking for more SFF written by them.

Lots of other cool stories from writers from Southeast Asian countries worthy of your attention as well such as Olivia Ho's Working Woman and ZM Quynh's Chamber of Souls. All in all though, a fun book to read and a great addition to the canon that is world SFF. Truly worthy of your attention if you're a fan of well-written speculative fiction, steampunk or otherwise.

The book releases on November 1st. This review was made possible courtesy of NetGalley.

p/s
As a Malaysian though, I think it's a shame none of us managed to make it in but that just means we will have to work harder on our craft. And in case you're wondering, no, I didn't submit for this anthology.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Short Story Progress Report (August 2015).

Earlier this year I blogged about feeling inspired to write again, how I gained my writing mojo back after several years of writing drought.

(Perhaps one day, I'll write about that period of time but suffice to say I was in a bit of a depression and didn't think highly of my own writing. But that time has passed and it is time to focus on the now, and more importantly, on the future.)

As I said it that blog post, I intended 2015 to be the year I took writing seriously again, and so far, I've stuck to my word. I didn't mention it back then (perhaps because I was afraid of jinxing it) but I renewed an old contract, an old resolution I used to make every end of the year, and that was promising myself I'd write a short story a month, or twelve stories a year.

I've never been able to keep that promise and at the end of the year, I'd self-flagellate for not being able to live up to that promise.

But this year felt different. There was certainly something in the air, and I was determined to seize this newfound optimism and channel it into my writing. And boy, have I been productive. Still not quite living up to that promise, but it's much better progress than years past.

And so, here's a progress report of stories I've written, am writing and have revised: 

Finished
  • The Dangers of Growing Air-Cooled Volkswagens in Your Backyard
  • Do Djinn Dream of Burning Sheep?
  • Mastura's Air Lengkong Adventure
  • Under a Concrete Sky the Flashing Lights Zoom By
  • And the Heavens Your Canopy
Unfinished
  • Say, I Seek Refuge with the Lord of the Dawn
  • Air-Cooled Nuisance
  • Girl at Salak Selatan
Revisited and Reworked Significantly
  • Do Djinn Dream of Burning Sheep?
  • The Ghost in the Garden
Out of all these stories, one has been self-published (The Dangers of Growing Air-Cooled Volkswagens in Your Backyard), two have been accepted for publishing (Mastura's Air Lengkong Adventure in Hungry in Ipoh and The Ghost in the Garden in Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now Vol. 2) and the rest of the completed stories are in process of submission in various places.

Out of all these stories, Under a Concrete Sky the Flashing Lights Zoom By is by far my longest story. At 10,600 words, it's a novelette rather than a short and it's one I'm quite proud of. It's been rejected by four pro markets so far but I hope it'll find a home soon.

Do Djinn Dream of Burning Sheep? was initially a 1000 word flash fiction sent to Daily Science Fiction but after getting rejected, I rewrote it significantly, expanding it to about 2000 words and now it's waiting for a response from Fixi Novo for their HEAT anthology.

And the Heavens Your Canopy is funny little thing that just popped into my head over the period of a week after I completed writing Concrete Sky, which was ridiculously hard to write. Heavens was in stark contrast, a relaxing walk in the park. This story is now waiting a response from Fixi Novo for the TRASH anthology.

I started writing Air-Cooled Nuisance as a riff on Disney's old Herbie movies, intended as flash fiction for Daily Science Fiction, but the story quickly grew more than 1000 words. I'm still not sure where the story needs to go, so it's been put on the backburner for now.

Girl at Salak Selatan was written in response to Daphne Lee's call for submissions for her Remang horror story anthology. While writing this I came to the realisation that I don't like horror stories and even less of writing it, so I abandoned it. There's still 500 words of that story that I could probably reuse for something not-horror but it'll probably be a while before I revisit it.

Say, I Seek Refuge with the Lord of the Dawn is still under progress. It's my current writing project and it takes place in the same world I created for What the Andromaid Reads at Night (the short story that got published in Zen Cho's Cyberpunk: Malaysia) and my novelette, Concrete Sky. It's been another tough story to write, but I'm enjoying the process so I'm willing to put the hours in to make it a great story.

It's August, so I should have had eight completed stories now, and I only have five. I'm a little behind but I think what I have so far is still good progress. I'm just happy I'm this passionate about writing again. There's still four months left in the year, and who knows, maybe I suddenly become super prolific and be able to crank out another seven stories?

If Ray Bradbury was able to push out a story a week, I don't see why I can't do it every month. With that, I leave you with this io9 article I recently rediscovered: 12 Secrets to Being a Super-Prolific Short-Story Writer.

Monday, 17 August 2015

#BookReview: Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

My review of Haruki Murakami's Wind/Pinball was published in the Sunday Star on 16 August 2015 and appeared on the Star2.com website on 18 August 2015.



Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator (Japanese-English): Ted Goossen
Publisher: Alfred A Knopf

Finally, famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami has deemed it fit for English-speakers to read the two novellas he wrote in the late 1970s that launched his career.

Wind/Pinball is a collection of two novellas: Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. Murakami is on record for saying that he’s embarrassed by these novellas because, by his reckoning, they were his early books and are not that good. He’s even mentioned in interviews that he had had no plans for them to be released outside of Japan.

English translations did exist, though. Published by Kodansha and translated by Alfred Birnbaum, the rarities were only ever intended to be used in English language classes in Japan. Print runs were limited and English-reading Murakami fans curious about them had to dig deep in the bowels of the Internet to find copies. Of course, they also had to be ready to pay ridiculously high prices for these rare Murakami books.

So for the books to actually be released officially in English now with a new translation is a big deal. To complete the package, an introductory essay by the author is also included. The essay is a great how-I-became-a-writer piece and is probably the best thing in the book.

The first novella, Hear The Wind Sing, takes place over 18 days in the summer of 1970, and follows the aimless wanderings and ramblings of an unnamed narrator and his friend, Rat.

This initial effort shows Murakami was already a writer with great ideas and adept at creating interesting dialogue, but it also betrays a lack of skill in plotting. There is no discernible plot in this book – it is merely about a college student aimlessly waiting for his holiday to end, and is littered with non sequiturs throughout.

Murakami’s signature tropes have already begun appearing, though. Elephants, cats, wells, odd girls. They’re here but perhaps a little underused than they will be in his later novels and short stories. Then there’s his penchant for invoking Western culture – references abound from Gatsby to Dostoyevsky, Marvin Gaye to the Beach Boys.

Hear The Wind Sing drags along at an unbearably slow pace. Nothing happens to prod the story along, and when mysteries crop up, they go unsolved and the characters remain unbothered and indifferent. The dialogue does, however, hint at something more substantial waiting to be revealed.

Pinball, 1973 picks up three years later. The nameless narrator has moved to Tokyo and set up a translation service. Out of the blue, seemingly out of nowhere, a pair of twin girls appear in the narrator’s apartment and decide to stay, “as if they had been taking a stroll, seen a promising place, and moved in”.

The narrator, being the typical Murakami protagonist, doesn’t seem to mind, doesn’t question their appearance, and in fact, relishes the company. And then he develops an obsession about a pinball machine he used to play in a bar in his small hometown. This bar also happens to be where the Rat spends most of his time now, moping about seeking greater meaning in his life.

Pinball, 1973 is a much better effort than Hear The Wind Sing and has the advantage of actually having a plot, though, admittedly, the story is still vague and the pinball machine doesn’t even enter the plot until near the end.

Though Wind/Pinball is undoubtedly a momentous book, I can’t imagine recommending it to anybody other than the hardest of hardcore Murakami fans. Murakami had good reason not to release these works in English before. He must have known critics would tear them to shreds.

He only really hit his stride with his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982, English translation 1989), which continues the story of the unnamed narrator and Rat. That novel was a much better effort and it shows in how immensely enjoyable a read it is.

Wind/Pinball, however, will remain that one Murakami book that only completist fans will buy.

~ ~ ~

A Comment on the Review

So this marks the first time I've reviewed a book (well, two actually) twice. Long time readers of this blog (all two of you) may remember I've already reviewed Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 back in 2007 but those were the Alfred Birnbaum translations that were never officially made available outside of Japan.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed I cribbed a little from my previous reviews to write this review and that's because even though I read the new Ted Goossen translation I found my opinions mostly unchanged from before. (Also, I wrote the review on the first day of Eid holidays and I was in a hurry.)

In retrospect, I feel the review is a little lacking in certain areas. I wanted to comment a little on the differences in translation between the Goossen translation and the Birnbaum translation. But I found that the distance of time had made me forget most of the nuances of the text in the Birnbaum translation. And because I had a deadline, I wasn't keen to revisit them either. With the 800 word limit I had, I don't think I would have had space anyway.

I find it interesting that most of the mainstream reviews that exist out there for this version of the text have been very positive and I am probably one of the few reviewers who did not find it captivating.

A stark contrast for back when I was the premier Murakami reviewer in Malaysia and was often criticised and mocked for seemingly giving a good review for any of his latest releases. Well, it just so happened I really liked those books, and I just happened not to like this particular one. I am a fan, but I'm not a blindly loving one.

For a complete list of Haruki Murakami reviews I've written, click here.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

#BookReview: City by Clifford D. Simak (2015 Edition)


It's always wonderful when you discover a wonderful new author. But this author I've found is hardly new and he is hardly obscure, having won three Hugo awards as well as a Nebula. In 1977 he became the third Grand Master of the SFWA. No, far from obscure, Clifford D. Simak is one of the masters of science fiction who wrote and published his stories during the hallowed Golden Era of SF. And the book that I've discovered by him is the fantastic, far-reaching and truly epic novel, City.

Like many SF novels of that period, City is a novel that is patched together with previously published unconnected short stories, very similar to what Bradbury did with The Martian Chronicles and what Asimov did with I, Robot. What makes City unique--I'd go so far as to say fascinating--are the interstitial "notes" that tie the stories together into one continuous narrative. And these notes are often equally as intriguing as the stories they introduce.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. City tells a legend that has been passed on via oral tradition by intelligent, sentient dogs of the future. The legend consists of eight tales (with a ninth added to the canon in 1974) following the adventures and trials of the Webster family, their dogs and their loyal robot butler, Jenkins. The notes* that tie the stories together are written as academic research essays by dogs who are skeptical that Man ever existed, and they often assume the stories are mere fancy, legends to entertain little pups before they go to sleep.

And indeed, the novel tells of how the Websters had their hand in giving the dogs their sentience, getting Man to leave Earth and ascend to another kind of existence and what happened when the dogs took over as caretakers of the planet. From the perspective of a dog who has never had the chance to meet a man or to witness the wonders of Man's creations such as rockets that fling into space, how else but to take these stories as mere fancy?

The stories are heartfelt and are a great commentary of the human condition. I especially love the story, "Desertion", which tells the story of what happens when a group of human explorers are sent to Jupiter, never to return. It's a great story by itself but it also provides the novel a pivotal moment that changes everything for humanity.

On the whole, a great read by someone who's not mentioned enough by the SFF circles. City is now available in a new edition which not only includes the newer ninth tale but also an essay by his close friend David Nixon. I highly suggest you check it out.

This book review was possible thanks to an ARC provided by NetGalley.

* Are they... Cliff Notes? Heh heh heh. Okay. Sorry. I'll get my coat.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Journey of a Nine-Year-Old Short Story.


Yesterday, the New Asia Now edition of the Griffith Review went on sale:
Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now showcases outstanding young writers from the countries at the centre of Asia's ongoing transformation. They write about the people and places they know with passion, flair and insight.

All born after 1970, our contributors are cultural agenda setters at home who explore issues of identity and belonging in the new world that is unfolding.

Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now, co-edited by Julianne Schultz and Jane Camens, takes a journey through the region’s diversity, featuring a new generation of literary stars who will shape the way we understand the complexities of culture, politics and modernisation.
The editors received so many good entries they wanted to include that they decided to publish this edition in two volumes -- a print edition and a supplementary e-book entitled, "New Asia Now: Volume 2".

Now, why am I telling you this? Because not only is New Asia Now a great showcase of the modern Asian zeitgeist in writing, but the e-book, New Asia Now: Volume 2, includes a story by yours truly!

Long time readers of this blog (all three of you) may remember nine years ago, at a Readings session run by Sharon Bakar, I read a story I had just written called Ghost in the Garden. This was the first time I presented this story (still a very early draft at this stage) to the public and the response was encouraging. (It was also the first time I had read in public.)

Born in one of Sharon's writing classes back in 2006, the story has been rewritten several times over. Sharon's been instrumental in encouraging me to continue submitting it for publication, even after it was rejected by many publications over the years. (Incidentally, an earlier draft was also rejected for Readings from Readings 2, an anthology of Malaysian writing that was co-edited by Sharon herself along with Bernice Chauly, though my other story, Pak Sudin's Bicycle, managed to sneak its way in.)

Earlier this year, I saw the call for submission from Griffith Review for New Asia Now and told myself, ehhhh okay one last time. I took another look at the story and decided to give it one more round of polishing and rewriting. Then in February I submitted it and promptly forgot about it. That's what you do with a story you've kept for nine years that's been rejected repeatedly. You don't put much hope into it.

Early in April I had an email from the editors telling me I was among two hundred writers long-listed to be included in New Asia Now. I was happy to know that but didn't put to much stock in it. Two hundred? Surely there were a hundred and ninety-nine other more talented writers who had a much better chance at being accepted!

Another month passed and I hadn't heard anything regarding my story. I assumed that my story had been dropped. Suddenly I received an email with suggested edits for my story. They also let me know that while the story might not make it into the print edition, they're going to publish the story in a supplemental edition as an e-book.

And so now, after nine long years, you too can read The Ghost in the Garden, if you get a copy of Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now Volume 2. And of course, you totally want to.

Malaysian author, Chuah Guat Eng, had this to say about The Ghost in the Garden:
"Loved it. You had me expecting a ghost! I also love your writing style."
Oops. That's kind of a spoiler. But I suppose I should say that the story isn't a genre story in case someone expects it to be and finds themselves disappointed that it isn't.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

#BookReview: Starfire by Paul Preuss



A solar flare causes an accident on a routine mission around the Earth's orbit. This causes astronaut Travis Hill to take extreme measures by leaping out of the craft and into an escape pod, effectively becoming the first astronaut ever to jettison to safety from space and make a reentry back to Earth.

This amazing starting sequence in the novel, Starfire by Paul Preuss, hooked me straight in and kept me turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen the thrilling moment next. Unfortunately, as action-packed as the opening was, the rest of Starfire left me wanting.

Several years after Travis Hill's amazing escape from the solar flare accident and his daring descent back to Earth, he has been deemed unfit to go back to space. But when he hears about an asteroid that makes a near pass to Earth and is heading towards the Sun, he spies an opportunity to get back to space. With NASA launching the brand new spaceship, the titular Starfire, very soon, plans are made to readjust the spaceship's maiden voyage with an ambitious mission to land on the asteroid before it heads into a closed loop near the sun.

The premise of Starfire may remind you a little of the film Armageddon but this novel was first published in 1988, ten years before Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck ever went to space to the sound of Aerosmith. Also, Starfire, being a hard SF novel, likes to think it's a little brainier than Michael Bay's popcorn fare. And truly, the science and realism that permeates the novel is a joy for those who prefer their science fiction leaning towards science more than fiction. It is to the author's credit that all that science and realism does not get in the way of the story and actually enhances it.

Where the author fails is in the characters and the extraordinarily slow pace of the plot. The characters are either forgettable and especially in the main character's case, unlikeable. Travis Hill recalls one of a cowboy from Texas and retains all the negative stereotypes of one -- mainly a misogynistic white male. In fact, the cowboy elements were so strong that half the time I wondered whether I was reading a Louis L'amour western or a scifi opera.

The plot is simple enough, and the author possibly realised that this meant he had to pad his novel so that he could make his wordcount. And so every time things start to get a little exciting, we are thrown into a pointless flashback of a character. The flashbacks were so many to the point of annoyance; I kept wanting to shout at the book, "Get on with it already!"

I really wanted to like this book, I really did. The premise was sound and normally, anything with spaceships in it would get me hot and bothered, but this one left me as cold as a floating rock in space.

This book review was possible thanks to an ARC provided by NetGalley.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Cyberpunk: Malaysia featured at The Book Smugglers.

The Book Smugglers feature Cyberpunk: Malaysia in their monthly SFF in Conversation article. They speak with Zen Cho, the editor, as well as the authors featured within the anthology. And yes, I'm one of 'em, thank you very much.

An excerpt:
We received 100 submissions – a lot for a local English-language anthology – and filtering them down to the final 14 short stories was not an easy process. But I’m proud of the resulting book: it’s a fascinating snapshot of contemporary urban Malaysia, an exploration of what cyberpunk might be in a Malaysian context, and a glimpse of what we can hope for from the continuing growth of world SF.
There's also a giveaway, so if you hurry, you might be able to win a copy.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Rape Scenes Are Lazy Writing and Why You Shouldn't Write Them.

This article in Wired has made me rethink my fiction quite a bit lately:
Half the time, people can’t even seem to figure out how to define rape, let alone portray it in responsible ways. Indeed, one of the most baffling things about so many rape scenes in popular culture is that the people who scripted them felt qualified to do so, despite seemingly knowing nothing about rape except that it exists and it is bad. In short, anyone can write a rape scene—but should they? Chances are, the answer is no.
It's a well-written piece about the use of rape as a plot device and why it's most often unnecessary and makes for lazy writing.

I agree with this and I, for one, don't enjoy rape scenes, no matter how crucial it is to the plot in a story.

Yet, with that in mind, I must say the article comes at a crucial time for me as I was drafting out an outline for a future short story which happened to include a rape scene. The scene would have involved a woman raping an android and how that would be the spark that moves another character (the protagonist, also a woman) into action.

The article forced me to rethink my outline. Would the story work without the rape scene? Could something else replace it and be the catalyst to move the protagonist into action? Here was where it hit home for me. It was true -- making it a rape scene was taking the easy way out in plotting. I had to think deeper about what the story truly needed for its plot. Surely there would be a better way to advance the story and build the character in a way that wasn't demeaning.

I'm not sure if I've found a better replacement for the scene, but I'm glad I was forced to rethink the part so the story can potentially be stronger. I find that when you rethink certain elements of your story, you're forced to rethink the motivations of your character. And when you solidify their motivations, you're on your way to building a better and more believable character.

Anyway, we'll find out if I was successful when the story is eventually completed.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

My SF Story in Cyberpunk: Malaysia.




Yesterday was a landmark day for me because Cyberpunk: Malaysia was finally launched at the Cooler Lumpur festival. Cyberpunk: Malaysia includes in it my first SF short story published by somebody other than myself. That story is entitled "What the Andromaid Reads at Night" and is what I feel is the best short story I've written so far. It's a pretty big deal for me, in many ways.

But what really makes it primarily a big deal is that this was the first acceptance for me this year (out of three so far, and I'll talk about the other accepted short stories in a future blog post) and was the desperate affirmation that I sorely needed to prove I could indeed write something that somebody else actually likes. (Like most writers I am insecure.)

My awesome editor and me.

This somebody happened to be the all-round awesome Zen Cho, co-winner of the William L. Crawford Fantasy Award, and author of the fantastic anthology of short stories Spirits Abroad (some of the stories in there make me go, dammit, I wish I had written that first!) and the forthcoming Sorceror to the Crown.

Zen saying a lot of nice things about my story to the audience at the launch.

So for someone as accomplished as her to actually like my story enough to accept it and include it in this amazing SF anthology was truly an honour. She's also an amazing editor. We went through several drafts of the story to really tighten it up and make it work even better.

The result is a great story (imho of course) and something I'm truly proud of. The story features some of my favourite themes and tropes (Does it have a robot? Check.) and like a lot of my other stories, revolves around a small family. But because it's set in a dystopic future Malaysia (as opposed to the dystopic current Malaysia), I got to have a lot of fun with it.

There's nothing original about it of course, but what is? I cribbed concepts from Ghost in the Shell (jack into the Matrix, bitches!) and I even stole the first scene with Lego from another unpublished short story of mine. It's full of recycled parts combined to hopefully present something new.

The truly new stuff it does feature is that it features a secular, religionless Malaysia and it's not the happy wonderful place a lot of us would like to think it is. We're living in a cynical, jaded Malaysian society (or at least I am, I don't know about you) and a lot of Malaysians are simply fed up about certain religious authorities being heavy-handed in the way they go about policing other people's habits and lifestyle choices. They're quick to blame it on Islam, but I'm of the belief that even if you stripped the veneer of religion away, the authorities would still find a way to control what you think and what you do. Islam is just the excuse. Strip that away, and they'll just find another excuse.

Anyway, I hope you manage to get a copy of Cyberpunk: Malaysia and read my story. And since you already have the book, you might as well read the other stories written by the other writers as well, cos they're good too!

P/S

The physical copy of the book features a different cover from the e-book and if you can, get the physical book. It's amazing cos it's a mirror. Stare long enough into it, and the mirror stares back into you.

A mirror, darkly.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

I just finished writing a novel!

I just finished writing a novel (the one I mentioned in my previous post), and boy is this feeling exhilarating! Also, there is this overwhelming sense of relief. Word count: 55,827 words. Warning: Anybody who says it is too short to be considered a novel, will be shot. In the genitals.

To say I'm excited is a little bit of an understatement. I've written novels before of course, and they've been monsters that have reached almost 100,000 words, but they've all been stinkers and worse, they've all been unfinished. Unfinished in the sense that I managed to get to the first draft stage, then decided it wasn't worth it to plow on with them. A polished turd is still a turd. This novel, I can say with some confidence, has the potential of being not a stinking turd.

It's just a first draft of course and there's still a lot of work to be done to get it shiny and polished well enough for publication. There are names to be changed, MacGuffins to be inserted and Chekhov's Guns to be fired. I'll be spending the next month or so rewriting and editing and whatnot but before that happens, I'm taking a break by writing a short story simply because I owe a short story for April.

I haven't mentioned it before but for 2015, I'm again taking on my resolutions I made for 2008, which is to write a new short story every month and end up with twelve by the end of the year. I've successfully written one each month so far and have three awesome stories, one of which has already found a home in a soon-to-be-announced science fiction anthology. (Side note: if you read that blog post I linked to, you'll notice the other resolution is to finish a novel. Guess who totally just aced that resolution *wink wink nudge nudge*)

And when that's done, I'll dive back into my novel and hopefully work out the kinks enough so I can be confident in sending them to my beta readers who are already excited (or so they say) to read it. Well, I hope I can live up to their expectations.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Marathon Writer: Writing 20,000 Words in 4 Days.



I wrote 20,000 words quite recently. And I did it within 4 days. Why did I do it? And how? That's what this blog is all about, friends!

Some time in the middle of January, I got an idea that I felt would make an interesting writing project. Something light and easy for me to start my writing year with. The elevator pitch I came up with was something that went along the lines of: "First Blood, Part II, but with robots. Or Predator, without aliens."

I started writing a synopsis of what the novella would be. Spoiler warning: it's First Blood, Part II, but with robots. I planned out a beginning, a middle and an end, all plot points blatantly and shamelessly stolen from the awesome movie that is First Blood, Part II. I figured the beginning would be 5000 words, the middle would be 10,000 words, and the end would be 5000 words. Then I realised something, HEY! That's 20,000 words. Just nice for a novella.

Then I started thinking how much time it would take for me to actually write it. The previous week I had taken part in a Twitter challenge that required writing 1000 words in an hour. I managed to successfully complete the challenge and realised that an hour was a great way to time as well as measure my writing progress. If I could write an hour for a day, I could write 1000 words a day. And the Twitter challenge had proven I could indeed write 1000 words for an hour.

But what if I could write for five hours a day? That's five thousand words a day! If I could write for five hours a day, four days in a row, I'd get my 20,000 bloody words! Crazy talk, you say? Yes, I agree. Even I thought that would be a crazy thing to attempt. But not impossible. If only I had five free hours of the day to spend writing... not an easy thing to obtain when you're an adult working a 9-to-6 job with two kids waiting for you at home.

It so happened that there would be four days of holiday approaching that was perfect for me to attempt this crazy #20k4d marathon. From the 19th to the 22nd of February, Malaysia would be on holiday for Chinese New Year, a celebration I personally don't celebrate (not because I am Chinese Ebenezer Scrooge but because I am of a different culture).

I began preparing for the four day writing marathon like a runner preparing for a marathon. I made sure I had my plot points and story beats all worked out so I wouldn't get stuck during the five hour sprints. I made sure to tell my wife and kids of my plan. No disturbing me between the hours of 7am to 12pm, the five-hour block of time that I would spend non-stop writing. This is important because without family cooperation, my writing marathon would fail miserably.

Suffice to say, I succeeded. I ended my four-day holiday with 20,000 words of a story. Was it a complete novella though? Unfortunately, no. By the end of the writing marathon, I had completely fell in love with the story that I decided I would expand it to a 50,000 word novel instead. I've since expanded the story that has become totally different from my original plan. It's no longer "First Blood, Part II, but with robots". It's... well, I'll tell you all about it when it's ready to be revealed, kay?

Here are some lessons I learned along the way:
  • Get enough sleep the night before. No point being too tired to write when you're about to begin in the morning.
  • Stay healthy. Exercise and eat well. No point if you're dead right? If you need breakfast beforehand, get it prepared. If you need coffee, have lots at the ready.
  • Stay on target. It's very easy to get tempted and divert from your path. I suppose you can take a little diversion now and then, but for me, that's putting you in the dangerous territory of potentially getting stuck and not knowing what to write later on. Write what you planned, because there's still the five-hour time limit to consider. Sticking to a plan also means you get into a routine, which helps make the writing easier and the words flowing.
  • If you do get stuck, remember Anne Lamott and take it bird-by-bird. Sometimes your brain will just refuse to work and you'll have no idea what to write even though you know what will happen next in your story. Take a breather, then just start writing a word, then another, then another. Eventually, you'll have a sentence! Repeat the process, and you'll have enough sentences to form paragraphs! And before you know it, you'll be getting into your groove again.
  • After a five-hour writing block is completed, rest and recuperate. Take the rest of the day off to relax and not think about writing. Watch a movie. Play with your kids. Take them to the park. It'll help your brain rest so it can perform again the next day.
Would I do this again? Absolutely! It was the most fun I ever had writing, and it was also definitely the most productive writing session I ever had. I'd love to do it again with another novella project.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Dangers of Having a Really Long Title for a Short Story.


So now my latest short story e-book is out for the consumption of the masses! Don't everybody rush to the bookstores at once! There's enough for everyone! Because they're e-books dammit!

Here's a summary of what you're in for:
When Sayyid opted to become an organic Volkswagen farmer, he did not expect the Volkswagens to misbehave and break out of his backyard. Now those crazy air-cooled vehicles are running loose in the neighborhood and only Sayyid can stop them. But the situation gets even more out of hand when they invade the home of cranky old Mrs. Winters and take her hostage. In this action-packed and absurd short story, all bets are off as to whether humans or air-cooled Volkswagens survive to see another day.
The Dangers of Growing Air-cooled Volkswagens in Your Backyard can currently be found at the following outlets:
 and Barbra Streisand knows where else.

Every time I push out an e-book I inadvertently learn a lesson. This time, I learned that you must always remember your title. In my previous post, you may have noticed the cover I posted had a slightly different title than the one on the image above.

Yep, I missed out the word "air-cooled". How embarrassing! Lesson learned. Next time, no more ridiculously long titles inspired by the Pet Shop Boys.

I'm sure this story will have the usual all-over-the-place reactions like my previous stories. I've already had one gushing review claiming "it's Ted Mahsun's best story yet!!!" and another basically saying "eh, it's all right, I guess. Ted put it in the wrong category though". I'm sure it won't be long before a hater will come along and say something like, "It falls into every left wing idiot's rant about how repubs, right wing people hate muslims and how muslims are innocent. i actually had to stop reading it because it was not entertaining, but mind numbing."

In the meantime, hey! I have a story out. How nice.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Four Years to Completion.

It only took four years but I've finally finished writing a short story that I never thought I would finish. As I mentioned in the previous post, on the very last page of Zombies Ate My Muslim, I had promised that the next story would be The Dangers of Growing Volkswagens in Your Backyard. I didn't think anybody would be interested in reading it due to its ridiculously silly title, and so I never was motivated to finish writing it.

Yet here I am, basking in the glow of a freshly completed short story. By complete, I mean first draft complete and not rewritten-umpteen-million-times-and-edited-to-hell complete. That process would probably take several more weeks and after that I'll self-publish it on all the major e-book outlets. That's still an achievement though.

I shan't be bothered submitting this one to any pubs; it's way too silly for the likes of them. Like Zombies Ate My Muslim, it doesn't take itself seriously and it doesn't even want to try. Unlike Zombies Ate My Muslim, it doesn't have gratuitous sex. Alhamdullilah.

I'll let you know when it's out. Meanwhile, here's a preliminary version of the cover:


What do you think?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

A New Year and a New Reaffirmation.

You know, I'm feeling inspired again. Inspired again to write.

I'll be the first to admit I've been a little slack in my writing. Writing only a short story per year, for the past five or six years. Most of them aren't even complete. I kept abandoning what I started because I kept second guessing myself. Is this good? Ugh. No, it isn't. I never want to see this piece of crap again. And so I wrote at a glacial pace and only when I felt like it. Until 2014...

2014 was a bit of a strange year for me. Mainly because in a year full of horrible tragedies, so many good things happened to me. Career-wise I was hitting it off. Kids too had finally grown old enough that they stopped trying to commit acts of random suicide every few minutes.

And, in terms of my writing, I had finally gotten round to putting up Zombies Ate My Muslim on Smashwords and Google Play. It was no longer an Amazon exclusive! (Pat on back, Ted.)

Putting it up on Smashwords is a big deal for me because that means it's no longer region exclusive and when a fellow Malaysian asks where one could buy my silly zombie story, I have a place to send them. Plus, Smashwords also pushes the title to other ebook markets such as iTunes, Kobo and B&N so that's great too!

I did not expect Google Play to have any effect though. It was just another place to publish a book and not see any sales. But an odd thing happened. My colleagues, avid Android users that they are, randomly discovered Zombies Ate My Muslim on the Google Play store, and actually left me some good reviews, unsolicited. Naturally, I was psyched! And I knew they had actually read the story because on the very last page I had promised I would deliver another short story. However I never finished writing it. My colleagues asked where the other story was, because that sounded an interesting read too. I had to answer that I never got round to finishing it. Never found the motivation to. They told me they would love to read the next story I wrote.

That got me thinking. Maybe I should start taking writing seriously again.

One recent night, I reopened one of my abandoned crappy stories that I had kept on my computer for years. Despite initially cringing, I was drawn to reading the story till the last word. I had almost forgotten I had even started writing the story at all. But what surprised me was that I liked it. I liked that crappy story. It wasn't so bad after all. I guess I'm not such a bad writer after all?

It was a reaffirmation for myself, that perhaps I can do this writing business after all. That perhaps I don't suck too hard. So now I'm making 2015 the year I take writing seriously once again.

I'm going to write -- and complete -- my short stories. I'm going to write a novel. And I'm going to start resubmitting them to publications again. This is exciting.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Kindle Touch: Two Years Later

You may remember (well, okay, you may not) that I bought a Kindle Touch almost two years ago. I was absolutely smitten with it. I loved the the e-ink screen, the touch capabilities, the ability to buy a book and immediately start reading it without ever having to leave the device. It was heaven for a book lover.

But now it's time for me to say goodbye to my beloved Kindle Touch. It was a trusty companion these past couple of years and kept me company for many long work commutes. The e-ink screen was, and still is, a marvelous piece of tech.

But time brings new advancements and now that I own an iPhone 6 Plus, I don't see the point of using a Kindle Touch to read books anymore. You see, paired with the Kindle app the iPhone 6 Plus is the perfect device for reading e-books (well, at least from Amazon).

When I first bought a the Kindle Touch, people claimed that e-ink screens caused less strain for the eyes while reading when compared to LCD screens. While that may be true back when LCD screens had low DPI (or pre-Retina, if we're using Apple's marketing spiel), we now live in an age where ridiculously sharp, high resolution screens make eye strain a trivial matter. The iPhone 6 Plus offers a really great Retina display which makes text display beautifully. And this helps while reading e-books on the Kindle app.

Another problem with the Kindle Touch that I had was lighting. It did not come with a backlight, so I bought the overpriced leather cover that included an LED light. It worked well and lit the e-ink screen adequately, however the bright white light eventually gave me eye strain and if I was reading in complete darkness, I would also get headaches. I know the more recent Kindle Paperwhite solves the problem with a built-in sidelight but... well, that just brings me to my next problem.

And that would be the problem of... colour!

This is what my Kindle Touch home screen looks like:



Now compare that to the Kindle for iOS app on my iPhone 6 Plus:


Some of you will be saying, "So what? Text isn't in colour and that's where we'll be spending most of our time anyway!"

And you would be right. But I like vibrant exciting screens. It makes it more fun to scroll through my library of awesome books.

When the Kindle Touch first launched it had more features that the iOS app, one of which was the really useful Kindle X-Ray. Nowadays even the iOS app has it, so there's not really much going for the Kindle Touch for me anymore. About the only thing the Kindle Touch has over the iOS app is a built-in book store and browser that allows instant book buying from within the Kindle Touch itself. But on an iPhone 6 Plus, I don't really need it since I can just swap over to Safari and go to the Amazon site myself.

With that, I bid to you, my beloved and trustworthy Kindle Touch, adieu and farewell. Thanks for all the fish.

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