Much ado about writing –
or in the words of eminent writers:
Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
T.S. Eliot: “The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”
Paulo Coelho: “Tears are words that need to be written.”
Norman Mailer: “Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.”
In my own words:
“Each and every word you read in my novels is a drop of blood, sweat or tears onto the page. Writing is not easy – it takes a tremendous amount of mental and emotional effort.” – Frederick Lim
My thoughts on all things big and small ...
MY WRITING JOURNEY
I developed a love for writing from a very young age. Like most people who love writing I developed it from a love of reading. The power of words and how they could stimulate my mind and stir my emotions fascinated me. >>Click to read more
FACT TO FICTION, JOURNALIST TO NOVELIST
The two main limitations to creativity in journalism are the need to be factual and objective … If you are an artist that means you can only work with two colours – white and black. White for facts and black for falsehoods. >>Click to read more
THE BOOKS I GREW UP WITH
The books I grew up with had a tremendous influence on me as they usually do with most of us – and that’s because when you are young and in your formative years there is so much you don’t know and when you come across thoughts and ideas put forth by accomplished writers they can really overwhelm you. >>Click to read more
A WRITER'S REFLECTIONS ON LIFE
Life chooses random moments to let you reflect on it – at least for me anyway. Usually it is during periods of intense joy or deep distress or even during spells of pure boredom. But sometimes it just comes suddenly whatever mood you are in. >>Click to read more
WRITING A NOVEL
As a writer there will be good days and there will be bad days … >>Click to read more
BRINGING A NOVEL TO LIFE
A novel is an author’s brainchild – and like any child it needs to brought to life. >>Click to read more
MY 272-STEP LESSON
IN STEPS, STAGES & SEQUENCES
Writing a novel of 60,000 to 100,000 words can be daunting – but thanks to my father I’ve learnt how to find the belief to overcome challenges. >>Click to read more
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The (Flawed) Logic in the Things We do >>>Read More
Why writing is like gardening >>>Read More
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MY WRITING JOURNEY
I developed a love for writing from a very young age. Like most people who love writing I developed it from a love of reading. The power of words and how they could stimulate my mind and stir my emotions fascinated me. The beauty with which words could be strung together also fascinated me. I also marvelled at how words could reach in deep and touch my soul.
I discovered that I could write fairly well during primary school days. I studied at St. Gabriel’s School. My English teacher during my primary schooldays was Brother Edward. He took a liking for the short fictional stories I wrote for my essay assignments. He would read them out to all my classmates. I was proud of it of course. Then I discovered that he would also read them out to other classes that he taught. It was one of my schoolmates from another class who told me.
When I was in lower Secondary school I had different English teachers. I continued writing short fictional stories for my essays but didn’t get high marks. I decided to switch to writing discussion and current affairs topics for my essays. I got better marks and carried on with those topics.
Once I got to Secondary Three I was placed into the Science stream. I liked the science subjects. It challenged logical and analytical thinking. But the subject I loved the most was English Literature, my only arts subject. I loved Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, as well as poetry and the classics like The Old Man and the Sea. And I had great English teachers – John Teo and Peter Tan. They inspired with their powerful command of English. I personally witnessed Peter Tan chastise a schoolmate for an offence and such was the power of his words he made the boy weep. John Teo, who we called John the Bad-Teeth for his tobacco-stained teeth, took me to task and bombarded me for my bombastic language in front of the whole class when I tried to show off my vocabulary in an essay and to this day I remind myself to always use simple English.
As I continued to further my education, writing became a way to pass exams. I didn’t do any writing that could be considered as an art-form.
In the years that followed after I completed my studies it was all about making a living. I was a small business owner, a marketing manager and a stockbroker. I did write a little during my free time and won prizes for short-play and scriptwriting. But most of the time I was engrossed in the rat race.
Then I went into journalism with ChannelNewsAsia. To be a journalist you have to write well and I re-discovered my writing skills. I won multiple journalism awards during my 20 years at CNA.
But I realised that there is a limit to how creative you can be in journalism. The main constraints to creativity are that you have to be factual and objective in journalism. You can’t twist facts. And you have to keep a balanced view when you do your stories. That doesn’t allow you to be too imaginative – unlike in fiction-writing where you can make up facts and don’t have to worry about being slanted in your views.
So here I am – a journalist turned novelist – and I have just written my first novel, The Pandemic Files, where fact is weaved with fiction.
FACT TO FICTION, JOURNALIST TO NOVELIST: MY WRITING JOURNEY
Can you murder your own mother and get away with it – of course you can, if you are writing fiction that is. You can also assassinate the prime minster of Singapore or fall in love with a ghost.
But in real life you can’t, or are not likely to – and that is a fact. And that is what separates fact from fiction.
And that is also what separates the fact-writing a journalist can do from the fiction-writing a novelist can do.
As a journalist for 20 years, I found my creativity constrained for two reasons: the need to be factual and objective in what I write. Facts are facts and you can’t twist facts. And to be objective you have to be neutral all the time (except for opinion pieces). And deadlines also make creative writing difficult. As a novelist there are no such rules. I can be as inventive and imaginative as I like. And the writing depends on how the creative juices flow. And the feeling when I am writing fiction is frankly quite liberating.
A journalist is like an artist who can only work with two colours – white and black. And can only mix them in certain shades of grey. A novelist is like an artist who can work with the full range of colours. And can mix them at will.
Now, imagine an artist who is only allowed to work with two colours – white and black. That would severely limit his creativity, don’t you think?
Well, that’s exactly what limits a journalist when it comes to creativity. He can only work with white for facts and black for falsehoods. As a journalist you can’t hide, bend, massage or twist facts. Facts are facts. And you can’t disguise, manipulate or juggle falsehoods. Falsehoods are falsehoods. Even straying too much into grey areas is a no-no. That limits how creative a journalist can be.
Now, imagine an artist who can work with the full range of all the colours in the spectrum. And is also free to mix the colours in any way he wants. That would allow his creativity as well as his imagination to soar, don’t you think?
Well, that’s exactly what a novelist can do. Or any fiction-writer. Oranges can be purple, the moon can be blue, the sea can be red and fire can be a mix of green and blue – that’s fine, as long as readers find the storyline realistic and credible enough. In fact there is a lot a novelist can do which a journalist can’t. You can create empires and dynasties and make them rise and fall. You can assassinate kings and presidents. You can go into the centre of the earth, dive into the deepest ocean or fly into outer space. You can make dinosaurs come alive. You can time travel into the past and future. You can have zombies, werewolves, and vampires roam the earth. You can create a spy who no enemy can defeat and no woman can resist. You can have gods or ghosts fall in love with humans. You can murder your own mother – and get away with it. That’s really one heck of a lot you can do.
I was a journalist for some twenty years and I enjoyed it. I tried to be as creative as I could but I knew the limitations. Facts are facts, falsehoods are falsehoods, and they limit you.
Well, I am now a journalist turned novelist. And I can be as creative as I like. I can play God the creator with my storylines. And I soar like an eagle with my imagination. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
THE BOOKS I GREW UP WITH
The books I grew up with had a tremendous influence on me as they usually do with most of us – and that’s because when you are young and in your formative years there is so much you don’t know and when you come across thoughts and ideas put forth by accomplished writers they can really overwhelm you.
As a little kid I was fed with fairy tales as with most children. And those days everything was so clear-cut. You know the good guys from the bad guys right away and you know that in spite of everything there will always be a good ending. And there will always be a moral lesson at the end, which I liked. I like Aladdin the most.
My father was an avid book reader and when my brother and I were around seven and eight he would take us to the library regularly and we would come back with four books each. The books I liked then were by Enid Blyton – the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. I also liked comics – Marvel in particular. The comics fired my imagination and taught me that the human imagination holds no bounds. And because I liked the Marvel character, Thor, it led me to read many books on Norse mythology and also Greek mythology. In most of the books and comics I read justice was always sure to prevail – and in my young mind I always felt that that was how it should be. That sense of justice remains to this day.
Strangely, I can’t quite recall the English literature books I did in lower secondary school. I think George Orwell’s Animal Farm was one of them – which I liked because it was so ingeniously crafted. In my free time I read widely – ranging from thrillers by Alistair Maclean, Ian Fleming, Arthur Hailey to classics by Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Emily Bronte to sci-fi by Arthur C Clarke, HG Wells and Jules Verne to fantasy by J R R Tolkein and C S Lewis to horror by Edgar Alan Poe and Stephen King to comedies by Woody Allen and P G Wodehouse to romance by Danielle Steel and Jane Austen to crime by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.
As for upper secondary, I can only partially recall the English literature books I did. They syllabus consisted of: drama, prose and poetry. Drama was Macbeth, prose was Where Angels Fear to Tread by E M Forster and poetry was a book with a collection of poems – the title of which I forget. I loved Macbeth, and all of Shakespeare’s works, I enjoyed Where Angels Fear to Tread because of the prose construction and I also loved the poems by the likes of William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, T S Eliot and William Blake. Poetry to me is the pinnacle of writing. The way poets can express deep thoughts and feelings with such a minimum of words, and do it so convincingly and with profound meaning, is simply amazing to me.
Going on into higher education, there was also a phase in my youth when I struggled with the meaning of life. I dug into philosophy to search for the truth. The writings of philosophers like Betrand Russell penetrated my mind and disrupted my ideas and beliefs. Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Nietzsche bent and unbent my mind and twisted my thoughts into all kinds of shapes and sizes. It took me a while to come to terms with the acceptance and understanding that some things may just be beyond human comprehension.
So, do books forge character? I’m sure they do, along with other factors like upbringing, education, religion and life experiences.
A WRITER’S REFLECTIONS ON LIFE
As a writer I reflect on life a lot. Because that’s where a lot of my inspirations come from. But life often chooses random moments to let me reflect on it. Usually, it is during periods of intense joy or deep distress that I get the greatest inspirations. But they could also come during spells of pure boredom. Sometimes it just comes suddenly whatever mood you are in. And at different times you see life in different ways. Of late I have been writing down some of my reflections on life that have come upon me at odd times – and here are some of them:
*Life is a race – often more with yourself than anybody else.
*Life is getting the job done, even when you don’t feel like doing it.
*Life is about trying new things, even when you have no clue if they will work out.
*Life is about taking one step at a time. You live life by going through seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months and then years. Similarly you travel distances by moving in centimetres, then metres and then kilometres. It’s all about taking one step at a time.
*Life is a joke – have fun.
*Life is a trip – you may not have signed up for it but you’re on the ride anyway, so make the most of it.
*Life is edible joy – in nibbles or in heaps and piles.
*Life is life – try not to think too much about it.
THE (FLAWED) LOGIC IN THE THINGS WE DO
– from peeling bananas to swimming to stock market trading
Do you know that monkeys peel bananas from the bottom of the fruit?
Why? Because it is much easier to peel.
But we humans peel bananas from the top.
Why? Because our rational mind has been taught that we should do things from top to bottom. And so it feels psychologically strange to turn a banana upside down and peel it from the bottom. Our rational mind doesn’t like it. It feels wrong.
I swim almost every morning and I do 10 laps of the 50m pool. Sometimes when I am interrupted by thunderstorm and rain after doing say 7 laps, I make up for it the next day by doing 13 laps.
Why 13 laps? Because my rational mind wants to make it a nice, round number – 20 for 2 days.
And, why swim 10 laps every morning in the first place? Why not 9 or 11? Well it’s because my rational mind wants some sense of order – and a nice round number like 10 feels just right. It doesn’t matter whether I physically feel I should do 9 or 11 on a particular morning – I just do 10.
There is also a 30m pool in the condo I stay in. But I don’t swim there. Why? Because if I swim one lap – it’s 60m. And 60m is neither here nor there, it seems. If I swim in the 50m pool – one lap is 100m. It feels like a complete lap whereas with 60m it feels incomplete.
STOCK MARKET TRADING
And you see this kind of flawed logic in the stock market as well. When the STI crosses or falls below 3000 points we talk of 3000 as a psychological barrier. 3000 is a nice, round number but ask technical chartists and they will tell you that support and resistance levels are seldom accurately at 3000 points. They made be 2940 or 3070 or something like that at any particular point of time – but our rational mind likes nice, round numbers. So 3000 is a psychological barrier even if it is not a technical one.
And of course we are told time and again that the formula for making money in the stock market is – Buy low, Sell High.
Unfortunately, too many investors buy high and sell low instead. They buy when stocks are at a high during a hot market. They sell when stocks are low during market panic. They are driven by greed in the first instance and by fear in the second instance.
So are we really as rational as we think we are?
WHY WRITING IS LIKE GARDENING
Writing and gardening may seem like very different pursuits but they are in many ways quite similar. Both are expressions of art. And as in most, if not all, forms of art you ideate, create, design, craft and build. And to do it well you want variety, balance, emphasis, sequence and style.
In gardening you start off with a plot of landscape just as you start off with a plot of mindscape in writing. You place plants in the plot of land just as you put characters in the plot of the story. The plants grow into different shapes and configurations just as characters grow in different ways and forms. You have a site where you position your plants just as you have a setting where you arrange your characters. You have a habitat where you want all the plants to fit in nicely just as you have a background which connects all your characters nicely. You have an overall image which you want your garden to project just as you have a theme which you want your story to tell.
But there could be some big differences. You are unlikely to want bad plants or weeds in your garden and will remove them immediately. In a story you may want your bad characters to not only stay but survive and thrive.
You are also likely to want a garden with a peaceful atmosphere. For a story you want conflict because conflict drives action. And in a story you want twists and turns to create suspense. In a garden you want easy access to move about for greater appreciation.
WRITING A NOVEL
Writing is a journey – and as with every journey, there will be good days, and there will be bad days. And the journey can come with deep emotions of pleasure and pain.
And when you get down to writing a novel the emotional states of pleasure and pain come in varying degrees which go up and down a sliding scale – as you go through the stages of ideation, conception, creation, crafting, revising, editing, publishing and marketing.
The pleasure comes when you are pleased with something you have created. Or when you have been able to express something really well. Or when your work is widely recognized.
The pain can be many and often – and it is especially painful when you feel that you have put in good work and it goes unrecognized.
But when in pain the greatest comfort I draw upon is that even the greatest writers go through the same emotional states as I do – as in the various quotes I have found online:
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life… For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.”
“Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.”
BRINGING A NOVEL TO LIFE
A novel is an author’s brainchild. And all of the hardship of bearing a child, and the pain of childbirth itself, are what authors go through before a novel is born. Writing is by no means an easy process. It takes a lot out of you. For me each and every word in my novels is like a drop of blood, sweat and tears onto the pages. Sometimes I wish my ideas could just flow out of my mind into words the way ink flows out of a pen and becomes written wordings – but that is just a wish. Most of the time it takes effort – a huge mental and emotional effort.
For me ideas come quite frequently and easily – especially after a good night’s sleep. And I’m grateful for this. I believe it’s got to do with the amount of reading I do. I think TV and movies and online media consumption also play a part. The ideas come when thoughts are provoked. And new ideas spring forth after the thoughts get digested and sorted out. And with every new idea comes excitement.
The hard part comes when the ideas have to be translated into words. Words do come quite easily to me I must say. But to shape thoughts into words so that they convey exactly what you actually want to say takes effort and time. And you have to constantly revise to make sure you are expressing the meaning correctly. And word choice can be absolutely agonizing.
And in a novel you also have to consider the plot, the characterisation, the setting, the backstories, the style, the point of view and the theme. Fitting all of them together is like constructing a zigsaw puzzle in some cases but more likely a building project in most cases.
So, it is not just about bringing a novel to life, it is also about bringing life to a novel.
Quite a lot of famous authors like Stephen King and John Grisham have openly admitted about feeling the stresses of writing. And the great Hemingway once said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.” And who is best to express this than the master storyteller himself.
MY FATHER’S 272-STEP LESSON
Writing a novel of about 60,000 to 80,000 or even 100,000 words can be daunting – but believing you can is the only way to do it. It’s all about overcoming challenges no matter how tough it may seem to be. And I must say I have my father to thank for teaching me a lesson on how to do it – a lesson that involved climbing 272 steps.
I was a kid of 6 or 7 when I visited Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Batu Caves is a complex of limestone caves and one of Malaysia’s most popular tourist attractions. A gigantic gold-painted statue of the Hindu god, Murugan, stands at the base of a long and steep flight of stairs leading to the mouth of the largest cave that is called Temple Cave. Inside the cave are several Hindu temples.
I remember looking up the long, steep staircase leading to the mouth of Batu Caves and asking my father if he knew how many steps there are in the staircase. “272 steps,” he said. I told my father that there was no way I would be able to climb up there. But I did – with my father holding my hand.
This was what he said to me: “Don’t think about climbing 272 steps. Your mind will tell you that’s too difficult. Think about climbing one step at a time. If you look carefully there are 16 steps to climb and then you have a landing and then another 16 steps to the next landing on a higher level and so on. Just think of climbing 16 steps and then another 16 steps and then another 16 steps and if you keep going soon you will arrive at the top.”
And so we did – with my father holding my hand and both of us counting the steps out loud as we walked up to the top.
I learnt something that day. And that is – never look at a big problem in its entirety and be frightened and mentally defeated by its enormity. Break a big problem down into smaller parts and tackle each part a step at a time. The Batu Caves staircase has 17 flights of stairs with 16 steps each. With my father I climbed it a step at a time, in a sequence of one flight of 16 steps at a time, and one level at a time. I reached the top without feeling that it was all that difficult after all. It’s all about steps, stages and sequences.
And it is the same with writing a novel. I don’t think about writing 60,000 to 80,000 or 100,000 words. I just take it one step at a time – one word and one sentence and one chapter at a time and I know I will eventually get there. I do it thinking about steps, stages and sequences – the way my father taught me.
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