My 2017 in review

fireworks

As I type this, it’s just after 9pm on New Year’s Eve. There are plenty of places I could be, but I opted to go out to dinner with my family, then head home for a quiet one. New Year’s Eve often brings back unpleasant memories for me, and while I’m sometimes able to brave the hoards of drunken revellers and have a good time in spite of those memories, part of effective self-care is knowing when it might be too overwhelming to handle. This year was one of those times.

Nevertheless, 2017 wasn’t actually that bad for me now that I think about it.

Writing highlights

In February, my short story “Aiden’s Flowers” was published in Issue 1 of Flash Fiction Magazine. It’s now available from Amazon in both eBook and print. You can buy Issue 1 alone or get the book bundle featuring Issues 1, 2 and 3. If you do purchase a copy, it would be awesome if you could also take the time to leave a short, honest review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. 🙂 (You don’t have to, obviously… it would just be a nice thing to do for everyone involved in the publication.)

I wrote four theatre reviews and one film review for Perth Walkabout over the course of the year:

Between my various commitments, I didn’t end up pitching my first manuscript (I didn’t want to half-arse my pitch to an agent or publisher) or working on the second as much as I wanted to, but hopefully I’ll pull my finger out in 2018.

Personal milestones

I finished my Diploma of Library and Information Services in 2017, which means I’m now qualified to be a library technician.

In July, I had a four-hour tattoo session on my ribs to get a black and grey koi fish and some coloured cherry blossoms down my side. It was probably my most painful tattoo, but only by a little; it wasn’t unbearable or anything like that. However, it’ll probably be my last for a while because I want to start donating blood next year, and you can’t if you’ve been tattooed in the last six months.

I sang Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” in front of a live audience in October, which was my first ever non-karaoke performance but hopefully not my last. I was very scared. But on reflection, I think it’s less scary than public speaking and not that much scarier than regular speaking. 😛 (Your mileage my vary, of course. I also practised the hell out of that one song so I knew on some level that I was prepared.)

In November, I attended the Perth premiere of The Disaster Artist and met Greg Sestero. For the unitiated, there’s a movie called The Room, which has been dubbed “the best worst movie ever made” and “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” but has attracted a cult following around the world. Greg, who played Mark in The Room, wrote a book called The Disaster Artist about the making of this infamous movie, as well as his friendship with its mysterious star/director/writer/producer Tommy Wiseau, and their struggles to make it in Hollywood. The Disaster Artist book has now been made into a movie starring James and Dave Franco; James Franco also directed it.

I also reaffirmed my commitment to teetotalism. I’ve never been a big drinker, but I’ve gone through phases where I’d have one or two when I went out with friends. I’ve now cut back to zero and intend to keep it that way. I’m trying to be healthier in general, and while my sugar binges are probably more of an issue than the occasional drink, not drinking alcohol is easy for me, so it made sense to start there. The only reason I ever drank was to fit in, and I no longer care what people think because I no longer care about people.

(Just kidding. I threw that in there to hopefully get a laugh out of anyone who might actually be reading this. 😉 But seriously, your life gets so much better if you’re able to let go of the constant need for others’ approval.)

Other highlights

Other highlights (for me, anyway) of 2017 include:

  • The release of the polarising latest instalment of the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi. I liked it, but I’m still trying to figure out where it ranks for me.
  • The release of the similarly polarising Star Trek: Discovery, the first Trek TV series since Enterprise was cancelled in 2005. I wish they hadn’t completely redesigned the Klingons for no discernible reason (unless it gets explained when the new episodes premiere in 2018?) but overall, I’m enjoying it.
  • Seeing some awesome concerts, including Bruce Springsteen (for the 7th, 8th and 9th times) and my favourite Aussie band, 1927 (for the 17th, 18th and 19th times).
  • My friends (and others) in same-sex relationships finally being able to have legally recognised marriages in Australia. (But it came with a lot of vilification and heartache.)

So all in all, a pretty good year for me personally, but I know it was awful for many others. It’s now almost 11pm, so here’s to a happy 2018. I’ll see in the new year with this song by one of my favourite bands…

New Year’s Day – Bon Jovi:

Help me 2017, you’re my only hope

fireworks

I had just woken up in my hotel room in Sydney when I heard the news that Carrie Fisher had died, four days after she stopped breathing on a flight from London to Los Angeles. While 2016 saw the passing of many iconic figures, this one probably hit me the hardest.

Like most of the world, I first saw Carrie as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy.

But the hilariously honest way in which Carrie wrote and talked about her battles with addiction and bipolar disorder made me admire her all the more. So I got her likeness tattooed on me in February 2015, and I’ll treasure that for the rest of my life.

If you spend half as much time online as I do, you’ll know that 2016 was widely dubbed the “worst year ever”, in part due to the deaths of so many beloved famous people. I was fortunate enough to see Prince live at Perth Arena early in the year — which would turn out to be just eight weeks before he died. No photos or recording devices were allowed, so I can’t show you anything from that concert, but by the time I left the building, he was in my top three live acts of all time.

On a more personal note, someone close to me was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, but as I write this, they seem to be doing well. So I’m quietly hopeful that 2017 will bring good news for us.

fireworks
Fireworks for the New Year. Photo by Freerange Stock Archives.
While it’s easy to focus on the negatives, last year had its highlights too. I returned to full-time study with the goal of qualifying as a library technician. And after a few false starts, I began writing what I hope will be my second novel during NaNoWriMo. (I’ve had some rejections for my first novel, but I will keep trying to get it published.)

I also flexed my writing muscle for other websites:

Other highlights included:

  • Seeing 1927, my favourite Australian band, four times — bringing my total tally to 16.

    A photo posted by Lee-Ann Khoh (@leeannkhoh) on

  • Attending the midnight premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I don’t watch many movies, so actually going to the cinema is usually an event anyway.
  • The 50th anniversary of Star Trek and the release of what I consider to be the best of the “Kelvin Timeline” reboots, Star Trek Beyond.
  • Spending the holidays with my Sydney family, which includes my brother, sister-in-law and nephew.

In 2017, I hope to keep writing and improving as a writer, as well as continuing my studies. While 2016 wasn’t entirely awful for me (despite the rather dramatic blog title), I know some people who had genuinely horrific years, and I hope for a better 365 days for them too.

Happy New Year.

Giving up on NaNoWriMo (but not my novel)

Vintage typewriter and paper

I finished the first draft of my first novel more than a year ago, and have since redrafted it more times than I care to count. I have days where I wonder if it’s any good, but for the most part, I’m proud of it. And I hope you’ll get to read it someday.

But there’s a part of me that’s been wondering if it was all a fluke. I’ve had a couple of false starts attempting to write my second novel, starting new ideas before realising they just weren’t working, or that they were short stories rather than novels. Even though two of my all-time favourite books were written by authors who only wrote one novel, I intend to be more prolific than that.

(In case you’re wondering, the two books I refer to are The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I don’t count Go Set a Watchman because it’s a draft of Mockingbird. And Chbosky is still alive, so he may well write another novel.)

Vintage typewriter and paper
Photo: Merelize, Freerange Stock.
Anyway, November means NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) so I thought it was as good a time as any to try to write my second novel again. My final assessments were all due in November (including one week where I had six different things to complete) so I knew I probably wouldn’t get anywhere near the official goal of 50,000 words. And… I was right. I’ve actually only written about 7000 words.

A few years ago, I would’ve considered this an abject failure, particularly as I saw other writers soaring past me. But this year, I feel like I’m on the right track, even though I’ve been moving slowly so far. The novel I started on November 1 drifted in a completely different direction to what I’d planned, until it wasn’t even about the characters I’d started with. However, the new story feels more exciting to write. And I wouldn’t have discovered it if I hadn’t attempted NaNo with my original story.

I do wish I was a faster writer but as always, I am a work in progress. 😉

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year?

On depression and creativity

Depressed person thinking. Photo by StuartMiles/Freerange Stock.

Earlier this month, Sydney-based professional dancer and YouTuber Damian Parker, aka HeyoDamo, posted a vlog he describes as “a mildly light hearted look at a very serious issue”. It’s basically a visual representation of his personal experience with depression and you can watch it below. (Damo is quite fond of profanities though, so don’t watch it if that’s likely to upset you, and consider using headphones if there are young kids around.)

The video depicts a kind of war with your mind, which tends to be what happens to me when I’m spiralling into a bad place, though different people experience depression differently. I was diagnosed with depression in 2014, but in retrospect it had first hit me back in high school, about 10 years earlier.

Depressed person thinking. Photo by StuartMiles/Freerange Stock.
Photo by StuartMiles/Freerange Stock.
Someone emailed me an article the other day called Why Writers Are Prone to Depression. I dare say it’s one of many, many online articles on the topic of depression in writers or artists, but here are the reasons this particular article outlined:

  • Being familiar with suffering may enable writers to write about their characters’ pain;
  • Writers are often working on their own and may not get much social interaction;
  • Writers face lots of rejection, which can take its toll;
  • Writers may write at odd hours, adversely affecting sleep schedules.

I’ve always been a bit of a loner and night owl, so I guess that fits the profile… But I’m an introvert with social anxiety and many writers are not.

I was writing long before I ever felt depressed, but I do think my best work has been when I’ve been able to tap into those dark thoughts and feelings and transform them into a new story. But it’s hard to be creative when you’re in a depressed state. I’m at my most productive when my head is above water.

These days, I’m doing okay. I use a combination of prescribed medication and self-care activities like keeping a daily journal. I was also in therapy for a while. I have good and bad days, but I’m getting through them.

If you’re reading this blog post and you’re struggling, I won’t patronise you by saying everything will be fine. But it can get better. If you find something that works for you (which may or may not be what works for someone else), then bit by bit, life gets a little more livable.

You don’t have to win NaNoWriMo

Blogging

NaNoWriMo
Trying to NaNo. Photo by Sumner Healey.
It’s Day 4 of NaNoWriMo and I have 3078 words. I don’t think I’ll get to 50,000 by November 30 and I’m trying not to worry about it. I know people who can easily knock out 5000 words in a couple of hours but I’ve never been a particularly prolific writer in terms of word count. What worked for my last novel, Black and Blue — and what I’m trying to do with this new one — is be consistent by writing something each day. Even if it’s just a scene, or a paragraph.

There’s no single way to write a novel. You have to figure out what works for you, and NaNoWriMo is a good way to do that, even if you don’t “win”. With all the writers around the world supporting one other during NaNo, it’s the encouragement a lot of people need to start writing a novel… and how else will you know how you write novels until you actually do it?

If I’m honest with myself, the novel I started this month — which currently has the working title Next of Kin — feels rather pedestrian. It could be natural self-doubt, it could be the fact that writing Black and Blue was such an intense experience, or it could be that Next of Kin is indeed dreadful. I’ll know soon enough.

I have a rough idea of where I think the story is going, but I’ve already been surprised by the appearance of an unexpected character, who feels important (but I’m not sure how or why yet).

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo?

3 things I learned from finishing my first draft

pen and ink by Freerange Stock Archives

Hiro from Heroes
“Yatta!” – Hiro Nakamura, Heroes
One week ago, after several false starts and many tears, I finally finished the first draft of my novel.

It’s a good feeling, but there’s still a long way to go. I’m getting my manuscript workshopped by an awesome beta reading group next month, and I’m trying not to look at or think about it too much before then. Based on the feedback I receive from the beta readers, I’ll probably write a second draft before putting it away for a few months so I can come back to it fresh. I will most likely need a few redrafts before I’m ready to query agents and publishers. And there’s no guarantee it will even get published. Many authors’ first published novels are not actually the first novels they’ve written.

While I take a break from my first manuscript, I’ve started a rough outline of what might be my second. My theory is that having something else in the works will make the rejections less soul-destroying, but we’ll see. 😉

In the meantime, I’ve come up with three things I learned by finishing the first draft. They’re obviously writer-focused, but I think the broad lessons are applicable to other areas of life.

  1. If something is important to you, you have to make time for it.

    A lot of people talk about wanting to write a book. Most of them never start, let alone finish one. If you’re serious about it, you need to make time to write, and prioritise your writing over other things. I don’t mean abandon your kids and stop going to the job that’s keeping a roof over your head. But if you take a good hard look at your day, there are probably things you can do less of, like watching TV and surfing the internet. Then set some time aside specifically for writing (or whatever your goals are).

    The perfect circumstances for something are never going to happen. For years, I wrote the occasional flash fiction but never made much progress with any novels I attempted. I’d told myself it was because I was too tired and didn’t have enough time to write. But the truth is, I simply didn’t want it enough back then to make any sacrifices for it.

  2. pen and ink
    I finished the first draft of my first novel. Photo: Freerange Stock Archives.
  3. Break big goals into smaller ones.

    Writing a novel is a daunting task. Many writers have daily word targets, and if that works for you, go for it. For me, setting a goal like “I must write 2000 words today” just made me feel bad about how little I was writing and how slowly things were going.

    Maybe it’s because numbers scare me (Contrary to most Asian stereotypes, I suck at maths) but my most effective goals were things like “I’m going to write that scene about X today” or “I have 20 minutes before dinner; let’s see how much I can write before then”.

    There were days I opened up my manuscript and eked out a hundred words or so. There were days when I easily cranked out a couple of thousand. There were days when I wrote nothing, but maybe had an epiphany about how I could solve a particular problem with one of the characters. But each of those days brought me a tiny bit closer to the end of that first draft.

  4. Be open-minded.

    Writers often talk about “plotters” vs “pantsers”. Plotters outline their novel before they begin, and I know of authors who have colour-coded spreadsheets of every scene before they’ve written a word. Pantsers, on the other hand, fly at the seat of their pants without much of a plan at all. I think most writers lie somewhere between these two extremes, but I was always closer to pantsing than plotting, believing that plotting would stifle my creativity.

    However, about 12 chapters in, I decided to try plotting. Using Scrivener, I mapped out chapter by chapter, scene by scene, for the rest of the novel. It took me a few frustrating hours. But after that, I was much more productive because when I sat down to write, I could just write — instead of staring at the screen for half an hour trying to figure out what scenes were needed to get from Point A to Point B.

    I’m not telling you to write a certain way. There’s no one way to write a novel, and you need to figure out what works for you. But the things that work for you might not be what you expected, so be open to trying things a new or different way.

Hope that helps you in some way! What are your goals?

11 thoughts that went through my head as I wrote my first sex scene

love scenes in fiction

love scenes in fiction
Love scenes. Photo by Chance Buell.
I’m working on a young adult novel and recently had to write my first sex scene. More than one published author has told me that sex scenes are always difficult, and my view is that they — like all scenes — should serve a purpose in advancing the story or the developing the characters. I’ve read a few new adult books where the two leads seem to be banging every five minutes, and I get bored by it.

I don’t know if the scene I wrote will survive the redrafting and editing process, but here are 11 thoughts that went through my head as I was writing it:

  1. Are they really going to do this? Maybe I can just make them watch Star Trek or something.
  2. No, this has to happen. It’s a highly emotional moment. It’s an important character and plot development. Just write. Write. Write!
  3. How far am I supposed to take a sex scene in YA fiction? Maybe I should put this away and read Forever by Judy Blume. Or Looking for Alaska by John Green. You know, for research and not at all for procrastination.
  4. Okay, I’m really writing this. I’m sorry, Mum and Dad.
  5. I think this could actually be the most awkward piece of writing ever produced. Hopefully it’s, “I can empathise with that”-awkward and not “I’m so embarrassed for this terrible author”-awkward.
  6. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Uh, no pun intended.
  7. Why did I become a writer instead of an accountant?
  8. I did it! I just wrote my first ever sex scene!
  9. Oh god, I just wrote my first ever sex scene. What if my family and friends think I’m some kind of pervert?
  10. What if I get nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award? What if I win? Or maybe worse still, what if no one feels anything when they read this?
  11. Stop talking to yourself and just keep writing. It’s only a draft.

As a reader, how do you react to sex scenes in fiction? To what extent should sex be addressed in a book aimed at teenagers?

And if you’re a writer, how do you approach writing about things that make people (including yourself) uncomfortable?

How to write productively during holidays

Trying to write productively

Have you ever tried to get anything done while on holidays? Did you succeed?

I just got back from a nine-day trip to Penang. Most of my extended family lives in Malaysia, but it had been seven years since my last visit, so it was nice to see everyone. The heat, humidity and mosquito bites were not so nice, but I survived.

I’d scheduled posts for my clients’ social media accounts for the time that I was away, and I could easily use my smartphone make sure an online crisis hadn’t erupted. So I didn’t actually need to work, and not working is usually part of being on vacation.

black computer keyboard
Photo by Ian L
But I’d brought my laptop and notebooks with me, hoping to get some writing done.

It didn’t happen.

I still maintained my daily journal, but made no progress on my novel and didn’t write any blog posts.

On the plane journey home, I thought about ways I could improve my productivity while travelling in the future. This is what I came up with.

1. Write in 15-minute chunks

Recently, I read a blog post by J.P. Choquette on The Write Life called How to Write a Novel, 15 Minutes at a Time:

You can do just about anything for just 15 minutes (or 10, or five), so start there.

While I was often busy – visiting family, sightseeing, shopping, etc – I had a few minutes to spare at the start or end of each day. I kept journaling, because it’s a habit I’ve developed over the past three years. Therefore, novel writing is also a habit I should be able to develop.

If nothing else, I could have woken up 15 minutes earlier or stayed up 15 minutes later.

notebook
My journal
2. Bring your notebook everywhere

I use an A6 spiral notebook for my journals. These fit into a small bag, so I can take them with me and jot down any key words or phrases that come to mind – even when carrying a backpack or large handbag is impractical or unsafe. I’ve found I often come up with ideas when I’m not actively trying to, and having a notebook with me means these ideas aren’t lost.

Then when I’m sitting down to write a scene at the end of the day, I know I already have somewhere to start.

3. Pack your writing tools in your carry-on luggage

My check-in luggage was temporarily lost by the airline. If your notebook, laptop, or whatever you need to write is in your check-in luggage, it could be days before you can do anything. (Of course, if you’re really determined to write you’ll find a way, but why give yourself an excuse to procrastinate?)

Besides, it’s handy to have those things with you on the plane anyway. Just make sure your electronic devices are switched to airplane mode before takeoff. 😉

Do you have any tips for a productive holiday?

Why you should be free writing

Free writing

Free writing
Photo by Chance Agrella
I’ve tried meditation. I struggle with it, partly because my mind never seems to be quiet. So my interest was piqued when I stumbled across this article on Medium that presented the case for free writing as an alternative to meditation.

It was written by 750words.com founder Buster Benson, who says:

The reason I think free writing is better than meditation, especially for those of us who constantly slip from the practice, is that it includes solid grips on slippery thoughts.

(If you’re not sure what free writing is, it’s basically jotting down your stream of consciousness for a period of time. The Wikipedia article on free writing is actually pretty good.)

I make a point to journal every day. I don’t set a time limit, but it’s usually the last thing I do before I go to bed. Sometimes I carry my notebook with me and write down the thoughts that occur if I get a moment alone or find myself in the company of people who don’t mind my “writer quirks”.

750words.com offers a private online space for your free writing, and seems like it would be a great way to develop the habit of daily writing. However, I find for me personally, handwriting helps me write more “freely”. I use a computer when I’m crafting a story or article, and a notebook and pen for journaling or free writing.

But I agree wholeheartedly, that since I started maintaining a regular journal three years ago, I have come to know myself better:

Imagine a fountain of thoughts bubbling up from your subconscious. Your conscious brain receives these bubbling thoughts during meditation, and we often get caught up in one and float away in a thought bubble. Eventually it pops, and we’re back, but it’s a lot of work. With free writing, we have a convenient method to step back from the fountain and observe the bubbles and let them float away on their own… because we are too busy recording them. The separation between thought and self becomes easier to discern and maintain, the same way that carrying a camera around a party creates a separation between party and party recorder.

Do you free write or keep a journal? Have you found that it benefits you?

Honesty on Flash Fiction Magazine

Honesty

cocktails
Photo by FlemingsMayfair (Flickr)
featured

It’s been a long time between drinksposts… Various commitments including work, study, and writing what I hope will be my first novel have precluded me from coming up with a worthwhile blog post. However, my short story “Honesty” — which was originally written for #FridayFlash and appeared in my eBook They Don’t Talk About It — has been published at Flash Fiction Magazine.

Here is a brief extract:

“Why are guys such jerks?!” The young woman smacked her palm on the counter with a thunderous thwack.

Behind the bar, Evan spun around, startled and amused. “Can I get you anything?”

Read the rest of “Honesty” at Flash Fiction Magazine.

It’s been a while since I wrote this, but I do remember being quite proud of writing a bar story as a non-drinker. “Honesty” was partly inspired by a conversation I had with a bartender about two years before I wrote it, as well as a few things my naive, romantically-challenged self had begun to observe at the time of writing.