Who Am I to Call Myself a Writer?


I wonder how many of us are suffering because we didn’t write to encourage, caution or entertain.

I am writing to the high school and college students who dream of publishing their first novel, yet cringe at the idea of prematurely calling themselves “writers”.

I am writing to the dutiful professionals who finally make time to write that story in their heads, yet painfully stare at their blinking cursors. The last thing they want to do is spoil that pristine blank page by typing “writer’s block, writer’s block, I’m suffering from another case of writer’s block” all over it.

I am writing to those compelled to put aside writing for what they perceive are rightful duties until their dreams dwindle to mere talk and, sometimes, regret.

If you think you don’t deserve to call yourself a writer, I daresay I’m worse than you. I love literature but took up science instead, thinking I wouldn’t have to become another poor suffering writer, yet the urge to write remained. When my grades tanked in my third year of university, I took up writing again alongside getting my degree, and even with well-meaning advice, I still couldn’t give up the words I’d written.

I got published in not one but two books (a nonfiction essay and a horror short story), and I can now claim to be a mathematician because of an original piece of research I did. I also blogged, or at least I used to. I churned out words regularly on Scrivener but I kept hitting an invisible wall once I had 20k words, or around fifty pages, of any novel project done.

I landed the opportunity to write for Huffington Post, and I was elated. However, after at least one reader discovered a calculation mistake in one of my maths posts, all my other submitted posts never made it to publication. Never. I tried in vain to reach the editors in charge so that I could fix the typo, but I received no response at all. Since my master’s studies had just begun, I had no choice but to give up on HuffPost.

Halfway through my studies, I joined an online writing group at a critique forum. Back then I registered at the critique forum because I was convinced that a writers’ community could help me succeed as a writer. The writing group had been supportive throughout my studies and the I-didn’t-know-it-was-bad job at a tuition centre in my neighbourhood. I applied for the job because the data science skills picked up during my degree fell short of what employers were seeking. The writing group also publishes one or more anthologies annually, and I thought they would be a great place for me to refine my writing skills and pad my publication record.

After I left that tuition job, I tried to convey my story of how I survived it, but somehow I had lost the ability to express myself clearly, and the newly installed leader of the group, who was the anthology coordinator, appeared aloof and cold to me. I guess it’s hard not to have strong reactions when someone attacks your personal story. On top of that, some other group members voiced their displeasure of me. There was nothing of that sort before and during my time slaving away in the tuition centre. If I stayed, I would be kowtowing to their whims too.

In anger and disappointment, I left that group, even though that meant cutting off future publication opportunities with them. But I couldn’t stand the pain I had felt during my final weeks there. Had that tuition centre story made it through, I would have had it published this October (2018). Everyone would have known how horribly I had been treated in the workplace and would have become more careful with their career choices.

Then I languished, dragging my fingers to the keyboard and typing gibberish, in the months leading up to July’s CampNaNo, still unable to erase my muscle memory of typing the forum URL. I also missed giving feedback on others’ writing because that forum had special critique tools, and every valid critique I made allowed me to post my own works-in-progress. I still remember the stories they shared of their families and communities. Everyone’s posts and comments were also clearly organised in threads. Had I made a mistake leaving my former writing buddies behind?

But the dog days passed. I managed to organise a writing session for my July 2018 CampNaNo cabin, where everyone else was a stranger. That day, I asked everyone to introduce themselves with their name, followed by “I am a writer.” A cabin mate said she was a “wannabe writer?” I clarified that the sentence “I am a writer” is an affirmation to encourage us to write. My cabin had a friendly demeanour and a positive tone, the latter of which I missed ever since some of the writing group members began sharing unhappy stories.

Furthermore, thanks to several new books†, I’ve since found and joined several writing groups on social media – all for free. (The forum operated on a freemium basis, and I forfeited six months of paid subscription to avoid getting hurt again.) Though I miss not being able to give feedback using the forum’s tools, now I may be in a healthier place for creative work than in the past. I even got to post my thoughts on outlining for the NaNoWriMo blog‡. Had I looked for validation from others, had I stayed with the familiar, I wouldn’t have written this for you today.

I’ve since learned that I am either the path or the obstacle to my writing, and I gave myself permission to write. That’s why I call myself a writer.

† The books are listed below. I hope you’ll find them as helpful as I did 🙂

‡ A reader asked,

Can you clarify the nature of the ideas you plotted and then binned? Are they story ideas, story beats, etc?

My detailed reply: 

The ideas have to do with your story. They’re all What-ifs, random ideas, quotes, scenes, ideas for scenes, ridiculous notions, pretty much anything. If you’ve gone through some outlining prompts such as this one for worldbuilding and those in K. M. Weiland’s book mentioned above, you’ll have plenty of ideas. Even contradictory ideas are okay because you’re still in the planning stages, where no idea is too precious to have to stay.

The main point is, get your creative juices flowing and don’t censor yourself.

The bins are the story beats which other writers have covered, such as the hook, the inciting event and pinch points. Instead of looking at the beat and coming up with the ideas, I say, “Firstly, brainstorm as many story ideas as you can. Next, file them under whichever story beat it could be in. Finally, free-write.” That’s the essence of the “jot, bin, pants” method.



JL Giveaway

I’ve not been blogging for a while.

Now that I’m back, here is a quick update: I’ve joined a bunch of writers around the world called the “Just-us League”, or JL for short, and we’re thrilled to bring to you the books we’ve published so far!

JL Summer Giveaway (1)

To celebrate the release of the second JL Anthology, JL writers are hosting an exciting giveaway! Win our Ebook bundle, including copies of both anthologies, along with four other exciting reads, plus a beautiful leather journal.

Between Heroes and Villains

What is the difference between a hero and a villain?

A hero should always use their power for good: a detective devotes his life to chasing gifted villains; a girl uses her frost powers to rescue her father; a weary sidekick faces her childhood nemesis; and a young man must protect his loved ones against a tyrannical authority.

But having unique gifts means facing tough decisions: a doctor must choose between saving his reputation or his patient; a young woman saves a drowning man and finds herself in danger as a result; a student discovers the consequences of choice; and a wannabe hero takes on a supervillain hoping she’ll be invited to the hero’s league.

And the line between good and evil is oftentimes blurred: a self-made hero crosses that line to save the world; a lovesick henchman blindly follows his master’s orders; a mentor attempts to prevent a pupil from being drawn to villainy; a superpowered military team questions their orders despite the inevitable consequences.

Follow these men and women as they set out to save themselves, and the world, from the great evils around them.

The giveaway is here: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/493032e93/?

Here are the details of the giveaway:

  • This giveaway will run from 16-30 June 2017 GMT+1 and is open worldwide.
  • The prize is six Ebooks and one leather journal, as pictured.
  • We reserve the right to substitute the leather journal for an Amazon voucher of equal value for non-US countries.
  • Entry is via Rafflecopter, gained by following the various social media accounts listed.
  • The winner will be chosen at random and will be informed by email.
  • The winner has 48 hours to respond to the winner notification to claim their prize.
  • The prizes will be delivered by the authors, and also via Etsy in accordance with their standard delivery terms.


How to Find Time to Write Your Book

Writing a book is a dream for many, but if it were so easy, many more of us would have become published authors. It is a feat not for the faint of heart. (Firstly, my first draft got the word “feat” as “feast”, but it depends on your perspective. You could treat writing as a feat or a feast! In fact I have written a book before, but it is for private circulation only and it is in Chinese *smirk*) Now, as National Novel Writing Month is in full swing, here are some tips for completing your book:

1) Write in stolen moments.

While riding on public transport or in a queue, you have the perfect opportunity to write. This is the time to notice your surroundings and reflect on things you’ve learnt and experienced.

Cut social media. I use several social media blocking tools such as SelfControl and RescueTime to help me focus on the tasks at hand. You’d be surprised how much free time you have once you lose every chance to procrastinate.

I always had some paper handy so that I could jot down ideas for my book easily. Now, since I carry my computer and mobile devices around, all I need is a few taps and I could record my thoughts. Do not let time pass by.

2) Write what you know. (Do I really have to say that?)

Sometimes you may be tempted to write things you don’t know well. This could lead to the “sagging middle”, which is when you find your story half-baked and the oven’s broken.

To avoid that, either make time to do research on the areas you don’t know too well, or start off by writing about the things you are familiar with. It’s a little like an examination skill: you do first the questions that have easy answers. That way, it boosts your confidence and keeps your momentum going.

But what if you really want to write a story set in unfamiliar settings? You can still find the time. Make regular trips to the library and don’t let your commitments get in the way. Take notes and make the most of each opportunity there. (If you’re Googling, focus on Googling and take as many notes as you can, too. Do it after work. It takes a lot of time.) Imagine characters in the settings you envision. Write or type as furiously as you can.

3) Believe in your story.

But if there’s one thing you must remember, it’s this: believe in your story. Believe that it has the power to inspire and tap into it. When you believe in your story, you will do everything to make it come alive in the pages.

Keep tinkering about and rewriting your story even when you’ve hit the 50,000 mark. Stories that don’t get a reworking are less worthwhile than those that eventually hit the shelves. Do not hesitate to invest in a professional writing coach if you lack the motivation to go on, because a good writing coach can tell you where you need improvement while showing you what you did well. For my current writing project, I was surprised that I didn’t give my main character her inner world, but my coach instead liked a minor character to whom I had given a voice. It’s a little the janitor who says “Welcome to my office!” in the washroom. Details make a difference.

You can expect to get so many rejection slips that you would be tempted to think about giving up. However, don’t forget that even the popular Harry Potter series was rejected by many publishers before it landed the right one. Believe in your story and you can surmount more obstacles than mere dreamers.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in your story. Don’t worry; it’s fine for your story to change as you write it.

Never give up, whatever gets thrown your way. By making time to write, you are proving to yourself that you truly are a writer. By managing your time wisely, you also prove to yourself that you can control your destiny.

On student suicides

I nearly became one of them.

I made it to Top 3 in Form 5 in school, and was an honours student for many years at my alma mater The Y.W.C.A. Hioe Tjo Young College. Underperforming in the HKALE narrowed my options to my then-least favourite subject chemistry, but I managed to transfer to mathematics eventually. In Year 3, I was hoping for great grades after a superb summer at the University of Cambridge, but thanks to a serious misunderstanding, my grades hit rock bottom. I gritted my teeth at the good maths grades like the fox in Aesop’s fable vying for grapes. I could not graduate with the rest of the people my age because I wanted to get close to my dream – and I’ve just learnt that my honours classification has closed many doors.

In the past 12 months, interview after interview, I was rejected, even though I have zealously learnt cover letter and CV writing since Form 2. As I was not good at social skills, I upset a young talented boy, who majored in my subject and whom I was dying to meet. He turned against me, shunning further contact completely as if we were sworn enemies; I could not understand why hatred could run so deeply. Some tried to take advantage of me and my multiple abilities, and I extricated myself with great difficulty. I have been devastated and apprehensive of the future.

But unlike what I have thought in the past, I have decided against taking my life. What have I done to leave the darkness? Yes, on the day I was to get my HKALE results, I was hit by a taxi. It would have been a fatal motorbike accident had I not frozen just in front of it – and then the taxi rammed into me. I have failed once, twice, and many times, yet because of those scars, I have learnt to embrace failure as if it were my naughty child. To laugh at mistakes, for mistakes are the beginning of real learning. To celebrate the little wins I gained by writing for mathematics and finding that people, when gently guided, can get interested in the art of problem solving and wow at abstract thinking. To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower. To appreciate what Rudyard Kipling once wrote,

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same

To the stressed student and all others feeling sad over students who had taken their lives: The difficulties you have today – these too shall pass. Life’s not about your expectations, but how you manage them when they fail. I hope Hongkongers of all ages are strong enough to let themselves be flawed, because when we all stop ostracising failure but like ourselves instead, it makes a difference in this city. Perspective changes everything.

Double disappointment.


First a question I couldn’t answer, then a camp I couldn’t join.

Earlier on: a scholarship I couldn’t win, a sports and a debate team I couldn’t join, an internship I couldn’t land, a story I couldn’t finish, and a boyfriend I couldn’t have.

Feeling like hiding under a blanket, never to resurface again. Rejection hurts so badly.

Envisioned myself an ordinary teacher, buried in an avalanche of meaningless answer scripts, books, meetings and whatnot at 30 years old.

Clawed my skin like X-Men, red-hot blood oozing out like lava, to return to the limelight

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Thoughts on The Muse’s “Should You Tell Interviewers the Truth—or What They Want to Hear?”

I read the captioned article with interest. Sometimes, telling the interviewer what they want to hear is the start of a lousy job.

I once applied for an internship which required that I answer two questions, one being its mission statement. I wrote the firm’s mission statement (which is a fishy requirement in my opinion) in my own words, and I was rejected. Then I applied again by copying it word for word, and I got an offer which, after getting more advice, I turned down confidently.

More on this later…

Dr Hannah Fry; “Valentine’s Day Escape Plan”

This is such a crazy tale, with a bit of oniony irony. I originally wanted to keep it to myself until I realized that “This is the day” I must publish it – naughty minds will set it sacrilegiously to the Sunday school tune. It’s based on a piece on Yahoo! News I read plus subsequent research into the phenomenon, the scary things that schools shove down your throats for debates and essays. Before that, I need a quick digression for a postgraduate friend and fellow mathematician – a postgrad young man – who will keep spiralling down a blackhole of obscurity unless I turn it into a wormhole to prominence.

Yesterday my pure mathematics friend confessed that his theoretical knowledge is too removed from real life to be of any use, and it doesn’t pay as well as for applied mathematicians to learn his kind of algebra and geometry. He told me he actually wanted, not to be a dancer, but to identify with fellow humans in their struggles, especially a motivational speaker.

Yet Dr Hannah Fry also studied theoretical physics and certainly knew about homology theory, Lie groups, sheaves and bundles, but she is now threashing her wheat, milling her flour and baking her bread out of studying social behaviour. She is analyzing us and suggesting ways to improve how we interact with each other. On top of this, she has also just published a book based on her TEDx talk called The Mathematics of Love.

I don’t think she envisioned a people-centered job when she decided to study maths and physics just like my friend. That’s all for Dr Hannah Fry and some inspiration+encouragement for S. Chung to tug heartstrings with string theory.

Anyway, apologies for keeping the curtain down. Presenting my little Valentine’s Day short story.

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