Lessons learned from writing four novels

I used to be a chronic unfinisher of novels. I would start one with great excitement and fervour, then get distracted by the next shiny fiction idea. Rinse. Repeat. 

But when I took fiction more seriously, I came across an author who said that authors should finish their shit. Since this wisdom was echoed by many authors I admired, I decided to make it my life mission to finish my shit. (Fiction, that is. I always finished my articles or I don't get to eat!)

Not only did I get big a burst of satisfaction and confidence each time I completed a book, I learned new skills with each one. And guess what, Bird by Bird as Anne Lamott said. After making that promise to myself, I have since written nearly a dozen novellas and short stories, and four novels that ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 words.

If I may ever be so bold, you may take a bazillion writing workshops or get a souped up MFA, but finishing your novels is the No.1 way to improve as a writer. And note that I said novels. Yup, you got it. Write so much that you forget how many novels you've ever written.

May I present to you exhibit A - How I grew as a novelist, novel by novel:

First novel (80k words): An Angel fanfic

Frustrated by a rather painful season cliffhanger, I wrote this one to ease the pain. I wrote on pure instinct, pantsing wildly, and dreaming up plot twists. I posted a new chapter on Fanfiction.net each week (though I didn't keep a strict schedule). It was thrilling to see how readers responded. They cheered me on. Yelled at me to write faster. One even said she cried at work reading a chapter. As a writer, there was no greater achievement than that! It took me two years to complete the novel, and it remains, to date, one of the few works I truly enjoyed working on.

What I learned: Using digital media to interact with readers - there's no thrill greater!  

Second novel (50k): A young adult novel

I wrote this on order, meaning, a publisher wanted it and I had to come up with an enthralling story that will sell. Needless to say, I panicked a little, wondering what the hell I got myself into. Then, with only six months left to deadline, I wrote up a storm. It wasn't an enjoyable process, especially compared to the orgasmic experience I had writing the Angel fanfic. I quickly learned that deadlines = stress, especially if you didn't have a method to ensure that you met the deadline. Although I wasn't exactly thrilled by the novel I wrote, I was absolutely floored I managed to reach the finishing line. I may dust it off one day, rework it, and put it up on Wattpad. See? You can't do that with an unfinished novel!

What I learned: Pantsing isn't a great way to write a novel in six months. It makes for lots of rewrites, unnecessary scenes,  wasted time and stressss. I need a new method - but can a pantser be a plotter?

Third Novel (60k): Shadows of Corinar  

Because the YA novel took so much out of me, I wasn't sure if I could ever write another novel again. Perhaps I loved self-torture, but in 2012 not only did I decide to write another novel, I did it during Nanowrimo. Gah! It was exhilarating to pound out thousands of words a day with millions around the world - I made great friends, some of which are still best friends till this day - but I promptly fell ill at the end of November and was left with a mess of a novel. An incomplete one at that!

Doggedly, I told myself I'd finish this thing. And I pecked at it. And pecked at it. And I swear I pecked at it until my proverbial beak fell off but the granite which was the plot wouldn't give. One night, I moaned/cried at my fellow writing friends' home, convinced that perhaps I should abandon this loveless hunk of words. Hell, I even thought that my main character was a whiny bastard.

What I learned: That sometimes it was necessary to be cold and cruel and abandon your word baby ... and start from a blank page. I was so determined to use the words I wrote during Nanowrimo that I inadvertently blocked myself. When I finally detached from the sunk costs of it all, I waved the Nano zero draft goodbye and wrote from scratch. To my surprise, the words flowed really easily. And it was during the writing of this novel, while typing outdoors during a cool autumn day in Hahndorf, that I discovered a crucial skill that would help me plot far easier: Brainstorming.

Fourth novel: Nexus Point (Science Fiction)

Surely writing this word monster would be easier this time? Like, no. Nexus Point, the sequel to Shadows of Corinar, turned out to be the most complex novel I've ever written. Not only was it the longest novel I've ever attempted, I was also juggling multiple points of view, character arcs, writing more action scenes, which I'm weak at. Oh, how about the fact that I'm establishing what could possibly be a four to five-novel space opera series with dozens of accompanying short stories? This was my most ambitious project to date, and I felt the heat.
On top of that, I was now working full-time so time was of the essence. I decided to learn techniques on how to write faster and sharpen my brainstorming technique to create a more systematic way to plot my novel.
What I learned: I became a student of story structure. Before, I knew a novel was not working but didn't know why or how to fix it. The book that helped me finally get it was Larry Brooks' Story Engineering. I also changed the way I wrote; I stopped editing while I wrote, I began to write as fast as I can in 30 minutes. I also created a novel journal to organise my ideas, adopted a bullet journal system, and created a TODO task list system that enabled me to not only see my progress with my novel but gave me a clear idea what to work on each day.

Phew. Wow. Damn, it's not until writing this blog post did I realise the huge range of skills I've developed since my first novel. Time management, creative skills, plotting ... All because I made a promise to myself that I'd finish every novel, novella and short story that I started.

So, yeah, finish your shit. That's how you learn!

my experience WITH THE CIM diploma in Digital Marketing


So, there it was: The results for my final paper. Frankly, I was really sure I'd flunk this one. And, honestly, if not for the input from my lecturers at the Australian College of Marketing, I probably would've. I ripped it open.

I passed. It's official, I have a Diploma in Digital Marketing! 

At the end of 2014, I decided to pursue a digital marketing qualification because I wanted to give my Mass Communication degree an edge. Initially, I thought of pursuing a Master's degree, but the options out there made me pale. Not just because it was super expensive, but because of the time involved. (Two years in Australia for a Masters.) Also, many didn't seem to have practical syllabuses. I dislike studying just theory.

In my research, I stumbled on the Digital Marketing diplomas offered by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and The Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing (IDM). In the end I settled on CIM because: 

  • Most Malaysians recognised the body
  • I wasn't a fan of IDM's exam-based approach
  • CIM was friendlier on the wallet
  • CIM had a practical approach. CIM tests students by giving them real-world tasks to complete. These are tasks that one woulddo on the job as a marketing executive such as writing reports and giving presentations. 

Finding the college

I cannot stress this enough. If you do want to the diploma, find a good college. Worst case scenario: you could end up one that just farms out the study materials and then wash their hands off you.  

I chose the Australian College of Marketing. Frankly, it was because it was the only one I could find that operated in Australia (I lived there then). I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

Fortunately, they exceeded my expectations. FYI, they're not paying me in any way for this post. I just like recommending good services.

What I love about the college:

  • Great tutorial notes and videos. They even had sessions where they would explain the assignments to help us figure out how to answer it. Because, and this is a rant of mine, CIM's exam writers can't write in simple English. Half the time I had no idea what they want me to do!
  • Lecturers were firm and knowledgeable. I say firm because, here's an admission: I nearly chickened out of the entire course at the last minute. I had one last subject to take to complete my diploma, but my month of hell had been so awful I just didn't want to go through that again. But Emma, the dean, sternly told me I could do it. I pouted a little, but in truth I needed that tough love. 
  • Great support. Lecturers were very prompt in answering your questions. When I had difficulty with one task, Emma herself offered to answer any questions I have. I was frankly gobsmacked.

 I'm grateful for that tough talking to. Thanks, Emma.

Thoughts about the CIM course

The course kicked my butt. I gravely underestimated how much work I needed to do or the complexity of the subjects. Time management is of the essence. So is a proper desk, which I didn't have! On top of that, I had a major events happening at my life during that time so the stress I had was extraordinary. So difficult, in fact, that I came down with a bad case of eczema during the final, and most crucial month of the first module, that saw me taking enough meds to stock a pharmacist. 

When I told folks (especially those working in digital marketing) that I'm doing this diploma, many would say that whatever I learned would be outdated because the scene changes so fast. I disagree about the outdated part. If there's one thing they drummed into us over and over again is that we have to keep reading and updating ourselves on new developments. In fact, I was so up to my gills with reading material I read nothing else while I was studying. As a digital marketing expert, you can't be a slacker in this department.

I disliked the turgid academic language of the textbooks and the CIM materials. Seriously, academics, you're not impressing anyone by saying something in three sentences instead of one.

I loved how the assignments prepared you for the job. You basically choose a company to work with then write a digital marketing plan or produce reports for them. That way, by the time you graduate you'd know exactly what to do as a digital marketing executive.

I was very pleased that I was being taught to apply what I learned that way, but I railed against CIM's complicated, unclear assignment instructions which confused me so much I wanted to tear my hair out. How complicated were they? Well, fortunately Australian College of Marketing had tutorials explaining what the assignments were telling us to do! (I found that hilarious, but thank heavens they were there, acting as interpreters to the jargon-heavy language). 

I know this is part and puzzle of academia, but there's a lot of emphasis on CIM's part on answering the question in a way they preferred. I found myself spending far too much time trying to figure that out. That seems a little crazy to me!

So would I recommend this course?

Yes! A friend once told me that all I had to do was take a day class on digital marketing subjects to qualify for a digital marketing position. I have to say that there was no way one could learn what I learned in the CIM Digital Marketing course in a day. No freaking way. Till this day I'm still wrapping my head around Digital Analytics!

The course is great to give you a foundation in digital marketing, especially for those new to scene. It covers SEO, social media tactics, digital analytics, content marketing (I love this as I want to venture into this field), website design and how it influences customers, and digital marketing tools like e-mail marketing. Because it covers so many areas of digital marketing, it doesn't go in depth on a subject (say SEO) to the point where you become a specialist. That, I think you'd have to study further.

I consider myself relatively knowledgeable in this area, but there was still a lot for me to learn as there are gaps in my knowledge. (Digital analytics. Definitely not my strongest point.)



What I read in July: Blazing through my TBR!

So proud of myself! I mostly #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks in July and bought only one book. Yay, me!

Out of the 12 books I read, four were books I bought years ago, two were library books, and the rest were newer TBR stock from December last year.

The Star Trek novel Once Burned worried me because I've been trying to start it since 2013. Fortunately, I got over the "so bored" bit and the book got really good towards the end.

Rose Bride is yet another bazzilionth failed attempt to find another romance author that will satisfy me (pardon the pun). Sigh. Next!

The Mad Earl's Bride, fortunately delivered. For a novella, it gave what it promised: a short but satisfying read. only a skilled author can do this, as I have read many novellas that felt rushed or half baked. I am disappointed with how the medical problem was resolved, however, as I expected something hugely earth shattering (blame it on my fondness for House reruns).  

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School in Paris
Reminder to self: Liz, don't buy cooking memoirs. You just can't relate because you hate cooking. There.

Now, I wouldn't call this book terrible, but it was, how do I put this kindly? Flat and uneventful... not exactly exciting reading. This memoir would suit people who wants a slow, languorous, dreamlike narrative of the life we wish we could have: living in Paris with a hot boy friend.

I would have loved to know about the inner conflict she had, like there were glimmers of how she felt uncertain about here path - maybe she should just get a corporate job again and earn some money. But that is abandoned. a pity - I would have liked to know how that journey turned out.

Fit2Fat2Fit (audiobook from library)
Readers of weight loss books are an impatient lot - if they don't get a solution to their weight problems, they will be unhappy. Very unhappy, it would seem, judging from the many one to two star reviews on Goodreads for this book.

Point is, this book is a memoir, not a how-to book. Still, it was natural to have the question "How did he lose the weight?" answered, and the author doesn't do that very well. He doesn't give detailed food plans, his workout routine etc. When he reached a plateau for one, he rambled on and gave anecdotes on his wife's strict upbringing, his friend's jobless season, which were tenuous examples to the point he was trying to make. He does that a lot, and it does get annoying after a while. Still, he excels in telling us the emotional, social and relational impact being overweight has on a person, though his six month sojourn can be akin to a rich man living in Africa for six months in a hut and saying he knows how is it like to be poor now. Good attempt though.

Fat loss, however, is a very complicated thing to do. Its a complex biochemisty process and the author doesn't even touch on that.

One Second After by William R. Forstchen
Bought this book way back in 2008 and wished I had DNFed it then. I hardly one-star a book. It takes a lot to annoy me. This book did it.

The premise seemed so promising: an EMP wave gets rid of the technology we've come to rely on, a small town struggles to survive.

The concept promises a lot of action but the novel fails to deliver. It's not that nothing happens in the book, it's more like the characters spent most of their time TALKING about the action AFTER it happens. That's right, we have a book where the 'action' takes place in meetings. I remember thinking during one such meeting where, damn, why couldn't the author plonk our main character in the thick of the action so that we can see and experience it through his eyes?

I gave the book as good as it got - read 50% - and just couldn't anymore. There are far better books out there.

What did you read in July?