Saturday, November 10, 2012

it's all about people

That's the National Arts Council-Media Development Authority networking session at Singapore Writers Festival, for those unacquainted with the acronyms. It was the first of such things I've ever been invited to, so I didn't really know what to expect.

It was held at the TCC at the Singapore Management University (SMU), and there were 20 writers and 20 media representatives gathered there. There was a buffet dinner served throughout the 2-hour session, and it was cosy and people there already seemed to know each other well. But it wasn't as awkward as it should have been for me. Maybe because meeting people is a large part of my new job, so I'm already getting accustomed to it.

The well-known local writers like Verena Tay, Ovidia Yu, Josephine Chia and Jeremy Tiang were there, along with industry experts like literary agent Fran Lebowitz, Francesca Main (editorial director from Picador. Picador!!), Prem Anand (who wrote THE NOOSE, so he's the one responsible for making us laugh), Jean Yeo (director/film-maker who turned Catherine Lim's THE LEAP YEARS into a movie), and many others.

And then there are the first-time authors like me. There's also J, who's a stay-home mother and wrote a book called THE MAGIC MIXER, where a mother uses this, well, magic mixer to bring together all the traits she would like in her children. And then there's K, a Korean who used to live all over the world and nis now living in Singapore, managing a lithium mine in South America. No surprise that his book is an Indiana Jones type of young adult action-thriller that sees the protagonist leaping across the globe. I'm actually quite excited to read his book.

Verena Tay brought a seemingly inexhaustible supply of her latest book to distribute to those present, while Ovidia Yu was a ball of energy in her trainers and jogging tights, bounding about the room with her easy smile and wide eyes.

Then Fran Lebowitz hobbled in with a bad leg - some sort of accident she recently had, and Josephine Chia went over to help her settle into a chair. I sat around talking with Prem, Verena and Jean before we started proper at 7.45pm. The first three writers who were slated to go before me all couldn't make it that night, so I turned out to be the first speaker.

Yes, lucky me.


I totally had a speech prepared and all. But I decided to wing it and not show that I was nervous (because what spells nervous more than a prepared speech?), so I cut my speech shorter by more than half. Instead of reciting my blurb, I tossed a one-liner about my book and squeaked, "Thank you!" before scurrying back to my seat.

Oh yeah, I was so cool.

But the audience were nice about my being nervous, and after all the writers had finished pitching their stories and it was networking time Francesca and Fran told me I actually did okay with my pitch, though Francesca wished I could've talked more since it sounded pretty interesting. Fran Lebowitz*! I read her book, TALES FROM A BROAD, when I was in secondary school and it was so funny and entertaining. Plus, she's been an agent for 15 years and have met many authors and industry experts from the UK, US, attended and spoke at many conferences, seen many manuscripts, represented bestselling authors.

(*Let me clarify. This is not Frances Ann Lebowitz, the American author. It's another Fran.)

So to have her tell me how much she enjoyed my story, LAMBS FOR DINNER, was such a huge honour. She said it was "perfect YA" and it was "sexy, gritty, funny with a storyline that flows naturally and strong characters". Then she told me she was the one who voted for my story to be the top 2 out of all the entries they received for the Beyond Words: Young and Younger 2011 competition organised by NAC. I was completely blown away, but I didn't want to gush too much in case I came across too hysterical or fake. She said what she liked about my manuscript was that it wasn't set in just Singapore; it had a setting that was universal, so she could focus on the story rather than the setting, since the setting is supposed to bring out the story, not the other way around.

Also, she pointed out the contradiction that government grants set out with: they want local writers to go international with their stories, but they want their stories to be uniquely local. She said that she, as a reader, is sometimes unable to relate or even understand some of the references or dialogue in the stories.

I think you can retain the local flavour without losing your international audience, but it is true that locally-flavoured stories seem to be favoured by the guys doling out the arts grants and bursaries.

I'm not going to delve into that topic here, because it might open up a can of worms (or at least, spark some debate), and I'm a Libra; we're peace-loving creatures, so take your arguments somewhere else. I'm just here to relate the things that I've been through, and put some of my thoughts out there (because, trust me, you don't want to know ALL of them).

In all, it was a fruitful session, even if all we did was exchange contacts and sit around and talk. I got to meet nice people, and trade stories about the writing journey with other authors. I think meeting people for the first time is a lot like going for a run. You feel sort of reluctant to do it at first, you have to drag your feet and force yourself not to wimp out. But then you psych yourself up for it, and then you do it, and you're glad you did ultimately.

Writing itself, though, is like swimming. You just want want want to do it, and you're always glad you did, even on the days your strokes aren't as smooth or when your shoulders ache - the more you write, the longer you swim, as long as you keep going the going gets smoother and eventually you won't be able to stop.

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