How to Make More Singaporean Writers

Reading Sumiko Tan’s interview with Tash Aw, I am reminded of the questions that haunt the Singapore writing scene. How can we produce more writers? How do we get international recognition? How do we create, in Tan’s words, ‘international literary successes’?

From my perspective, the answer is simple: Do not be limited by Singapore.

The Culture Crush

Tash Aw has the following observation about Singapore culture:

“The pressure crushes too many [exceptional people] who might have been exceptional but they are not able just to rise to their own level,” he says. “So they are constantly striving to reach a level imposed on them by the rest of society, by school teachers, by their family.”

“Because if you have the kind of mind that leads you to become a brilliant illustrator or a brilliant fashion designer or a brilliant anything, it’s unlikely you’re going to have that methodical approach to work that getting straight As requires you to have. And so if you’re forced to suppress those creative instincts in order to achieve those A grades, then you kill >off a certain part of your brain.”

Having experienced the Singaporean education system myself, I can attest to the pressure. From primary school to secondary school to junior college, every adult around me recited the same message: study hard, get good grades, get into a good school, rinse and repeat all the way to university, then graduate and get a good job.

In my day, Chinese language was taught by rote. English wasn’t much better. Math was an endless sea of drills and concepts and more drills. The hard sciences were about memorising and regurgitating key facts. The social sciences were about memorising, regurgitating and repackaging key facts to fit an analysis of questions we had seen over and over again in countless exercises.

This education system produces engineers, lawyers, doctors, administrators, and other technocrats with specialist skills to be applied in formal situations with clear-cut outcomes. This is not what creators do. Creators strive to build bigger and brighter and better things, systems, institutions and cultures, and that means stepping outside rigidly-defined boundaries to see what else can be done. A creator is a risk-taker, a visionary, an idealist, a tinkerer, a non-conformist — the exact opposite of the kind of person the Singapore system churns out.

This is not to say that the non-creators are a lesser class of beings. They are administrators, executives and maintenance experts. They specialise in keeping the advanced machinery of high civilization going. These are necessary jobs, but the mindset needed for such positions usually clash with the mindset needed to be a creator. And Singaporean society elevates the former and ignores the latter.

Singapore has it worse than the West. America mythologises the cowboy, pioneer, settler and inventor — the men and women who headed West to chase dreams of riches and land, who wrestled life from the unforgiving earth and built homes and communities, who invented madcap devices that made life ever more comfortable and wonderful and easier. Europe celebrates its long and rich history of poets, writers, artists, playwrights and creators of all kinds. Singapore has neither a national myth nor a cultural history that nourishes the souls of would-be creators, nor inspires people to back them.

What Singapore has is pragmatism.

Show Me the Money

Why the emphasis on grades and schools and jobs? Answer: to make a living, support your family, and buy a home. And woe betide you if you fail, because no one is coming to save you if you fall.

Understand that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If every fiction writer quits tomorrow, the world would keep chugging along. It might be culturally, spiritually and emotionally poorer, but life would still go on. Fiction is a luxury, and as a luxury it is a buyer’s market. Singaporean culture is built on the pursuit wealth, commercialism, and material abundance; highbrow entertainment is a distraction, an escape, and a luxury, utterly unnecessary to the serious business of making money.

In light of this, how can Singapore produce more writers?

Demonstrate that writers can make a living.

A working writer who makes a living off writing creates a virtuous cycle. He shows that he can support his family, so his friends and loved ones would be more willing to back him. With the time and energy to focus on his craft, he can write more stories of ever-increasing quality. This makes him even more money, increases his fame, and inspires more writers to follow in his footsteps.

Tash Aw seems to agree:

“If you’re a real writer, what you should aim to be doing is to have a career. It is a solid professional career like anything else. If you’re a journalist, if you’re a hairdresser, if you’re a coal miner, if you’re a banker, what you want to do is to be the >best you can and involved over the years.”

The best writers I have seen are those that treat writing as a career. They show up and do the work, day in and day out, with the discipline and regimen of every other small business owner. They tend to their finances, study the market and the industry, and adjust their writing and their output to match.

How do you make a career out of writing in Singapore?

Simple. Don’t do what the Singapore writing scene does.

The Word Machines

Singapore is obsessed with awards, and the writing scene is no different. Awards and certificates hold great weight in Singapore, serving as proof of quality. Everywhere you go, you’ll see certificates for food hygiene, product and service technical skills and so on. In a society where degrees and diplomas are a dime a dozen, certificates serve as easily-understandable social proof. It’s no wonder that the local writing scenes chase prestigious awards like the Man Booker Prize and the Walter Scott Prize.

But you can’t eat awards.

Many literature awards earn you accolades and at best a token sum. Even if you win the most prestigious literary prize, you’ll only be able to live off the proceeds for a year or two at best. Prize money is a windfall; it is not sustained income. Without sustained income, a writer will have to keep to his day job. And a writer who can only write one or two hours a day will have far less output, skill and writing-related income than a writer who can dedicated four, six, eight or more hours a day.

Not that the local writing scene recognises this. Every Singaporean writers’ group I’ve participated in cater, without exception, to hobbyists. Being a hobbyist is fine, but there is a vast gulf between a hobbyist and a pro. A hobbyist can spend hours, days, weeks, doing nothing but poring over the minute details of a short story and agonising over every single word choice. A pro has to keep pumping out stories, keep talking to fans, keep up with industry developments, and keep hustling.

To be a pro, you have to be a word machine.

You can’t count on producing a book once every three years like Tash Aw and expect overnight success. It’d be great if it happens, and sometimes it does, but such writers are outliers. If you want a surer way to professional writing success, you need high output, high energy, and a solid grasp of market forces and industry trends. This is the way of the pulp greats who supported their families on their stories, and the way of modern-day indie writers who pull in royalties in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

This also means you must ignore the Singapore publishing industry.

Putting it bluntly, Singaporean publishers are behind the times. Industry talk tends to revolve around publishing Singaporeans who write about Singapore for Singaporeans, getting these books into bookshelves at home and abroad, and how to win literary awards. There’s next to nothing about effective use of Print on Demand, working with Amazon, marketing and publishing strategies, competing or collaborating with indie writers, the impact of self-publishing, or leveraging new technologies. And it shows.

Until recently, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Singaporean novel on Amazon. The ones you can find tend to have reviews only in the single digits. At 48 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 stars, my novel No Gods, Only Daimons easily outperforms most Singaporean novels. Sure, you can find Singaporean novels in local bookstores, but Amazon and online marketplaces have eclipsed brick-and-mortar bookshops long ago. Getting a book in a Singaporean bookstore may grant you a modicum of social proof, but if you aren’t selling to the largest marketplace in the world, your prospects are limited.

My publisher, Castalia House, took pains to create a publishing and marketing strategy that suits its customers and the current state of the market. I took pains to write a story that would appeal to a broad audience, not just the tiny fraction who might be interested in Singaporean culture. I treat fiction as a profession, and so does Castalia House. And as far I can tell, the local publishing scene caters only to hobbyists.

To Be A Pro

I aim to be a professional fiction writer. I will use every tool and platform at my disposal to achieve that goal. I recognise it’s a long haul, but with the results I’ve seen, it’s no longer a pipe dream. And my experience tells me that Tash Aw’s advice to be a writer is flawed.

To quote the article:

He sees his writing classes as enabling students to be creative, and is alarmed when young people regard being published as the only goal. Publishing too early and in an uncontrolled manner that lacks direction is very damaging to a writer’s long-term career, he says. “Because if you publish at 25, what does that mean? And then you go and work in the >bank and you continue writing little books on the side? Are you a writer? Are you really engaging?

Robert E Howard published his first story at 25. H. P. Lovecraft published his first story at 27. Earnest Hemingway published his first fiction collection at 24. C.L. Moore published her first story at 22.

All of them became legends.

Age doesn’t matter. Drive and direction does. These writers knew what they wanted to write, kept improving with every story, and produced the kind of stories people loved.

And if your early stories are lousy, what about it? Whatever self-inflicted damage you may incur is temporary. People only pay attention to the latest stories you write. The antidote to having poor first stories is to write more, publish more, and drown the garbage with quality stuff.

To continue the interview:

His new novel will be out only next year or 2020. “Young writers should be aware that it’s a long haul. It’s not just about >publishing the maximum number of books. People like that tend to burn out. It’s about being better with every book.”

Aw is right in that you have to get better with every book. But if you want to be a pro, you have to publish the maximum number of books you can sustain.

The pulp writers became famous for their staggering corpus of work. Hundreds of published stories were the norm, not the exception. It’s not unheard of for pulp writers to write short novels overnight.

This mindset applies to modern indie publishing. The Galaxy’s Edge series is on a 30 day release schedule: there is a new novel in the franchise every month. Dean Wesley Smith produces a monthly magazine, with a full novel and a collection of shorter stories. Likewise, prolific writers with high outputs tend to enjoy great success.

To be a successful author today, you need to publish as much as you can without burning out. Find the sweet spot that allows you to sustain both high productivity and high quality. In my case, it’s about 3000 words a day — while juggling a full-time job. The day I can ditch the full-time job, that number is bound to get higher.

To create more Singaporean writers, you can’t follow the Singaporean approach to writing. You can’t be a hobbyist. You have to be a pro. You have to study the market, formulate a winning strategy, write the best stories you can, and stick to it until you succeed.

And I will lead the way.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

To be a pro, you need a series, and the latest novel in my Covenant Chronicles is now available. Pick up your copy of Hammer of the Witches here.

 

Reading Sumiko Tan’s interview with Tash Aw, I am reminded of the questions that haunt the Singapore writing scene. How can we produce more writers? How do we get international recognition? How do we create, in Tan’s words, ‘international literary successes’?

From my perspective, the answer is simple: Do not be limited by Singapore.

The Culture Crush

Tash Aw has the following observation about Singapore culture:

“The pressure crushes too many [exceptional people] who might have been exceptional but they are not able just to rise to their own level,” he says. “So they are constantly striving to reach a level imposed on them by the rest of society, by school teachers, by their family.”

“Because if you have the kind of mind that leads you to become a brilliant illustrator or a brilliant fashion designer or a brilliant anything, it’s unlikely you’re going to have that methodical approach to work that getting straight As requires you to have. And so if you’re forced to suppress those creative instincts in order to achieve those A grades, then you kill >off a certain part of your brain.”

Having experienced the Singaporean education system myself, I can attest to the pressure. From primary school to secondary school to junior college, every adult around me recited the same message: study hard, get good grades, get into a good school, rinse and repeat all the way to university, then graduate and get a good job.

In my day, Chinese language was taught by rote. English wasn’t much better. Math was an endless sea of drills and concepts and more drills. The hard sciences were about memorising and regurgitating key facts. The social sciences were about memorising, regurgitating and repackaging key facts to fit an analysis of questions we had seen over and over again in countless exercises.

This education system produces engineers, lawyers, doctors, administrators, and other technocrats with specialist skills to be applied in formal situations with clear-cut outcomes. This is not what creators do. Creators strive to build bigger and brighter and better things, systems, institutions and cultures, and that means stepping outside rigidly-defined boundaries to see what else can be done. A creator is a risk-taker, a visionary, an idealist, a tinkerer, a non-conformist — the exact opposite of the kind of person the Singapore system churns out.

This is not to say that the non-creators are a lesser class of beings. They are administrators, executives and maintenance experts. They specialise in keeping the advanced machinery of high civilization going. These are necessary jobs, but the mindset needed for such positions usually clash with the mindset needed to be a creator. And Singaporean society elevates the former and ignores the latter.

Singapore has it worse than the West. America mythologises the cowboy, pioneer, settler and inventor — the men and women who headed West to chase dreams of riches and land, who wrestled life from the unforgiving earth and built homes and communities, who invented madcap devices that made life ever more comfortable and wonderful and easier. Europe celebrates its long and rich history of poets, writers, artists, playwrights and creators of all kinds. Singapore has neither a national myth nor a cultural history that nourishes the souls of would-be creators, nor inspires people to back them.

What Singapore has is pragmatism.

Show Me the Money

Why the emphasis on grades and schools and jobs? Answer: to make a living, support your family, and buy a home. And woe betide you if you fail, because no one is coming to save you if you fall.

Understand that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If every fiction writer quits tomorrow, the world would keep chugging along. It might be culturally, spiritually and emotionally poorer, but life would still go on. Fiction is a luxury, and as a luxury it is a buyer’s market. Singaporean culture is built on the pursuit wealth, commercialism, and material abundance; highbrow entertainment is a distraction, an escape, and a luxury, utterly unnecessary to the serious business of making money.

In light of this, how can Singapore produce more writers?

Demonstrate that writers can make a living.

A working writer who makes a living off writing creates a virtuous cycle. He shows that he can support his family, so his friends and loved ones would be more willing to back him. With the time and energy to focus on his craft, he can write more stories of ever-increasing quality. This makes him even more money, increases his fame, and inspires more writers to follow in his footsteps.

Tash Aw seems to agree:

“If you’re a real writer, what you should aim to be doing is to have a career. It is a solid professional career like anything else. If you’re a journalist, if you’re a hairdresser, if you’re a coal miner, if you’re a banker, what you want to do is to be the >best you can and involved over the years.”

The best writers I have seen are those that treat writing as a career. They show up and do the work, day in and day out, with the discipline and regimen of every other small business owner. They tend to their finances, study the market and the industry, and adjust their writing and their output to match.

How do you make a career out of writing in Singapore?

Simple. Don’t do what the Singapore writing scene does.

The Word Machines

Singapore is obsessed with awards, and the writing scene is no different. Awards and certificates hold great weight in Singapore, serving as proof of quality. Everywhere you go, you’ll see certificates for food hygiene, product and service technical skills and so on. In a society where degrees and diplomas are a dime a dozen, certificates serve as easily-understandable social proof. It’s no wonder that the local writing scenes chase prestigious awards like the Man Booker Prize and the Walter Scott Prize.

But you can’t eat awards.

Many literature awards earn you accolades and at best a token sum. Even if you win the most prestigious literary prize, you’ll only be able to live off the proceeds for a year or two at best. Prize money is a windfall; it is not sustained income. Without sustained income, a writer will have to keep to his day job. And a writer who can only write one or two hours a day will have far less output, skill and writing-related income than a writer who can dedicated four, six, eight or more hours a day.

Not that the local writing scene recognises this. Every Singaporean writers’ group I’ve participated in cater, without exception, to hobbyists. Being a hobbyist is fine, but there is a vast gulf between a hobbyist and a pro. A hobbyist can spend hours, days, weeks, doing nothing but poring over the minute details of a short story and agonising over every single word choice. A pro has to keep pumping out stories, keep talking to fans, keep up with industry developments, and keep hustling.

To be a pro, you have to be a word machine.

You can’t count on producing a book once every three years like Tash Aw and expect overnight success. It’d be great if it happens, and sometimes it does, but such writers are outliers. If you want a surer way to professional writing success, you need high output, high energy, and a solid grasp of market forces and industry trends. This is the way of the pulp greats who supported their families on their stories, and the way of modern-day indie writers who pull in royalties in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

This also means you must ignore the Singapore publishing industry.

Putting it bluntly, Singaporean publishers are behind the times. Industry talk tends to revolve around publishing Singaporeans who write about Singapore for Singaporeans, getting these books into bookshelves at home and abroad, and how to win literary awards. There’s next to nothing about effective use of Print on Demand, working with Amazon, marketing and publishing strategies, competing or collaborating with indie writers, the impact of self-publishing, or leveraging new technologies. And it shows.

Until recently, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Singaporean novel on Amazon. The ones you can find tend to have reviews only in the single digits. At 48 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 stars, my novel No Gods, Only Daimons easily outperforms most Singaporean novels. Sure, you can find Singaporean novels in local bookstores, but Amazon and online marketplaces have eclipsed brick-and-mortar bookshops long ago. Getting a book in a Singaporean bookstore may grant you a modicum of social proof, but if you aren’t selling to the largest marketplace in the world, your prospects are limited.

My publisher, Castalia House, took pains to create a publishing and marketing strategy that suits its customers and the current state of the market. I took pains to write a story that would appeal to a broad audience, not just the tiny fraction who might be interested in Singaporean culture. I treat fiction as a profession, and so does Castalia House. And as far I can tell, the local publishing scene caters only to hobbyists.

To Be A Pro

I aim to be a professional fiction writer. I will use every tool and platform at my disposal to achieve that goal. I recognise it’s a long haul, but with the results I’ve seen, it’s no longer a pipe dream. And my experience tells me that Tash Aw’s advice to be a writer is flawed.

To quote the article:

He sees his writing classes as enabling students to be creative, and is alarmed when young people regard being published as the only goal. Publishing too early and in an uncontrolled manner that lacks direction is very damaging to a writer’s long-term career, he says. “Because if you publish at 25, what does that mean? And then you go and work in the >bank and you continue writing little books on the side? Are you a writer? Are you really engaging?

Robert E Howard published his first story at 25. H. P. Lovecraft published his first story at 27. Earnest Hemingway published his first fiction collection at 24. C.L. Moore published her first story at 22.

All of them became legends.

Age doesn’t matter. Drive and direction does. These writers knew what they wanted to write, kept improving with every story, and produced the kind of stories people loved.

And if your early stories are lousy, what about it? Whatever self-inflicted damage you may incur is temporary. People only pay attention to the latest stories you write. The antidote to having poor first stories is to write more, publish more, and drown the garbage with quality stuff.

To continue the interview:

His new novel will be out only next year or 2020. “Young writers should be aware that it’s a long haul. It’s not just about >publishing the maximum number of books. People like that tend to burn out. It’s about being better with every book.”

Aw is right in that you have to get better with every book. But if you want to be a pro, you have to publish the maximum number of books you can sustain.

The pulp writers became famous for their staggering corpus of work. Hundreds of published stories were the norm, not the exception. It’s not unheard of for pulp writers to write short novels overnight.

This mindset applies to modern indie publishing. The Galaxy’s Edge series is on a 30 day release schedule: there is a new novel in the franchise every month. Dean Wesley Smith produces a monthly magazine, with a full novel and a collection of shorter stories. Likewise, prolific writers with high outputs tend to enjoy great success.

To be a successful author today, you need to publish as much as you can without burning out. Find the sweet spot that allows you to sustain both high productivity and high quality. In my case, it’s about 3000 words a day — while juggling a full-time job. The day I can ditch the full-time job, that number is bound to get higher.

To create more Singaporean writers, you can’t follow the Singaporean approach to writing. You can’t be a hobbyist. You have to be a pro. You have to study the market, formulate a winning strategy, write the best stories you can, and stick to it until you succeed.

And I will lead the way.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

To be a pro, you need a series, and the latest novel in my Covenant Chronicles is now available. Pick up your copy of Hammer of the Witches here.

7 thoughts on “How to Make More Singaporean Writers

  1. Benjamin,

    A good post and I concour with you. But both of them sidestep the elephant in the room: the overbearing and draconian interference in cultural production by the party and government.
    That’s a major factor that severely constricts the arts and creativity. We all know that by and large the aristocrats aping Lee Kwan Yew are astoundingly shallow with respect to culture practically crowing about how they don’t read fiction or appreciate esthetics.
    Thus, the school system mirrors that disdain as no one really teaches literature as a means of entertainment as well as instruction.

    I’m thus unsurprised that writing isn’t seen a real profession between the insufferable interference by a culturally shallow officialdom to a test results oriented school system, people see writing a self expression.
    That’s legitimate but it’s rather pathetic that Singapore doesn’t have its own literature that speaks to the human condition.
    Singapore isn’t a small country it was made so.

    • Government interference does not apply to me, because I use platforms that sidestep officialdom. Having walked away from the local writing and publishing scene, there is little the government can do to stop me.

      If the government doesn’t value culture, then there is no need to appeal to them. I will do my own thing, and they will be left behind.

      • Benjamin
        Good for you. It’s a little tougher but you control your intellectual property.
        Are the plaforms vulnerable to being access cut off? Or are these secured fro interference?
        I know you use steemit. How do you find it? Does it satisfy your professional needs?

        • Steemit is natively resistant to censorship and cyberattacks. My publisher, Castalia House, has likewise taken security measures against interference.

          Steemit is, frankly, pretty difficult for beginners to use. Its user interface is lacking and its user experience leaves much to be desired. But it suits my needs just fine.

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