Thursday, March 26, 2015

All I do is sit around and imagine stories that remind me of my childhood days, when all I did was sit around and imagine stories



Hello dear people. Be not alarmed. That was just a warm up piece. My fingers are now ready to play us some serious clickety-clack.


It was World Book Day 2015 some weeks ago. On 5 March, actually. And this nice parenting website invited me to write about my favourite book as a child. They also happened to ask a bunch of other Singapore writers and celebrities, so you'll need to scroll about halfway down before you find me.

The editor didn't exactly say how long my contribution had to be. I ended up sending them a piece of writing that was somewhere between way-too-much and way-way-too-much. Well, to cut a long story short, they used only the top half. And this week I figured, why not share the full piece here, isn't that what having an author's blog is all about. And here it is. Lucky us.

BOOK: The Neverending Story
by Michael Ende (original German version)
and Ralph Manheim (English translation)

I read loads of books as a child, but the one that had the biggest impact on me was The Neverending Story. (It was also made into a popular movie, which some people might remember better.)

This fantasy adventure was my first encounter with a work of metafiction, which uses storytelling techniques to blend fiction and reality in order to create a richer reading experience.

In this case, the main character is a boy named Bastian Balthazar Bux. He gets hold of a book and starts to read it, only to find the story inside taking over and affecting his own life.

I can remember actually trembling as I read the book. I was blown away by the author's vision and brilliant ability to create something so unusual and vivid. Also, the text was printed in different colours to make it easier to follow the different threads. In all, it was like an artefact from another dimension, a truly magical treat.

Quite a timely coincidence, because my next book for children is directly inspired by this. It's called Lion City Adventures, published by Marshall Cavendish, and it will come out just before the June holidays this year.

The book takes children on a learning tour of ten interesting locations around Singapore. At the same time, we created story snippets along the way, about a very old and proud organisation called the Lion City Adventuring Club, made up of brave children who explored Singapore and made astounding discoveries. On top of all this, there are references to the characters and events from my other fiction worlds, like the Sherlock Hong series and the Time Talisman series.

Altogether, this creates a big alternate reality landscape for young readers to enjoy across different books. In my small way, I'm trying to recreate what The Neverending Story did for me. This sense of awe, this astonishing stretch of the imagination, is the best thing an author can give a child. Happy World Book Day 2015!


Have been looking out for this and it came yesterday: the new Get it Right! booklet put together by the National Library Board. This is part of their S.U.R.E. (Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate) programme, and it features an old interview with me, from back when I was featured in the student's newspaper What's Up!.

I think this new booklet will be sent to all the schools in Singapore. Or something like that. Which means lots and lots of students will see my face in it and read my words and then come rushing over to this website to check out our stories. And maybe, just maybe, you're here because you're one of them. Ahem. In which case: HEY! HELLO! HIGH FIVE!

In this interview I talked about why I love writing stories inspired by Singapore's colonial history, how I get my research done, and also introduced a few of my books. Like the ones you see in the photo above, the Sherlock Hong and Time Talisman series. Looking at this brings back lots of nice memories. The Secret of Monk's Hill (Time Talisman #1) was actually the first story that kicked off Super Cool Books. Back then, in 2011, it was published by local publisher Select Books, and they helped us figure out a suitable format for the series. A few months later we were able to put out the Sherlock Hong stories ourselves, and then even more titles followed quite quickly. The Time Talisman series is now available exclusively on our Super Cool Books iPad app.


Or maybe you're one of our many readers in California? Here’s something you can attend: my friend Sherry Giang-Chen is running a creative writing course for teens at the Hastings Branch Library in Pasadena. This takes place every Thursday for the next five weeks, and starts 26th March. Which is, like, almost immediately. Sherry and I used to be schoolmates and it’s great to know that she’s also helping to boost the creativity and writing power of young writers. Go. Have fun with her. Learn to develop your imagination until you can think of nothing but awesomely crazy story ideas, so furiously that they start to dribble out of your ears and down the side of your face. Say I sent you.


Don't you love it when you order books online and they're delivered just after breakfast, so you can spend the whole morning reading instead of, oh I don't know, doing any real work. I do. And you can too. Because our new title LION CITY ADVENTURES is already available as a pre-order on Amazon and Book Depository and also — but it's true, I just checked — the Guardian Bookshop. Wow. That's the miracle of modern publishing.

This is a proper printed full colour book for readers 8 to 11 years old. It takes you on a fun tour of Singapore, with some activities and challenges, and along the way you also get to solve mysteries with this amazing organisation called the Lion City Adventuring Club. More information here. I'll also be sharing some dates for signings, talks, appearances, etc. Soon.


Take it easy. Don't just fight your fears, why not charm them and turn them into your obedient slaves instead. And read everything about everything you love, because it can only help you love everything better.

— D

Monday, March 16, 2015

Here's a list of 5 awesome things I did last week instead of real work

Last week was great. I went out to meet a lot of people and we talked about publishing and books and being creative. But I'm a little bummed that I didn't get to work on The Story That's Supposed Be The New Thing For Teen Readers. To distract me a little and help me feel less guilty, I'm doing this post to share some of the highlights of the week. As you can see, it's a real challenge being a writer in Singapore because you're always doing something fun and it's hard to sit down and focus on writing stories. 

1. Ship books to special needs school

I love it when I see our paperbacks on sale. I also love it when I get a chance to donate our books to children's causes. We do a lot of this. This time around it's a special needs school where an old colleague of mine now works. I'm awful at packing books in boxes and taping them up. I make a big mess. Waste lots of tape. It takes me a whole afternoon. But after it’s ready and the delivery guy picks it up, I feel so great.

Right from the very first Sherlock Hong paperbacks we published, we've designed our books around the needs of reluctant readers: short and exciting stories, strong learning values, large text, lots of space for notes and doodles, etc. So teachers are able to quickly and easily use our stories in class.

This part of Super Cool Books feels like a literacy social enterprise. If I had a dollar for every book we donated, I'd be ... well, using the money to print more books to donate. Get children to love reading and discover positive inspiration in Asian stories. That's why we do what we do.


2. Meet Meira Chand at Epigram Books

Our friends at Epigram Books have a big and beautiful office. And they're also amazingly hospitable. So it seemed quite inevitable that I would end up there for an after-work meetup.

They invited author Meira Chand to speak about her experiences working with some of the top editors and publishing houses in the UK. She has written eight novels since she began in the 1970s. Her latest is A Different Sky (Random House), which is set in Singapore and starts off in the year 1927. There's a Chinese girl on the cover. I thought this was a nice touch because she looked very pretty and mysterious and it would surely make people curious enough to want to read the book. But Meira said that it gave people the impression that she had written a chick lit novel, which is not the case.

Meanwhile we had wine and curry puffs and popiah, which is a popular Chinese spring roll. And we also talked about Epigram Book's new thing, the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2015. Basically if you're a local writer and you submit an unpublished novel and they really like it, they'll sign you up with a $20,000 advance. Something like that. It's so awesome that some people are ready to quit their jobs so they can focus on completing their book and winning the money. Kid you not. You can get the details and entry form here.

During this session I suddenly remembered that I've been published by Epigram Books too. Sort of. I wrote the introduction to two books they reissued, Tan Kok Seng's Son of Singapore and Three Sisters of Sze. You can see the cover of one of the books behind Meira, the pink one on her left, and the blue spine of the other title just next to it.

3. Finish writing a chapter for the upcoming Maker Faire book

Besides making books, we've also been developing our storyworlds through events and open source creative learning kits. All this started when I got involved with the local maker community two years back (Read about our open source story projects like Gung Ho vs Zombies, Kingdom and Captain Cardboard.)

For this year's Maker Faire Singapore, the organisers are putting out a book about local makers, and I took some time to finish writing my contribution so I could send it to the editor before the deadline. Part of this focuses on our DIY publishing journey and shows how our Ghostly book project evolved from prototype to paperback to digital editions. The montage above shows, from top, anti-clockwise: the early origami story booklets that we produced at home so my sons could share them with friends in school; the paperback edition that finally made it to the bookstores, with the cat cover drawn by my son; the later cover that we created for our iPad app; and the special edition ebook cover for UK readers that we released last year.

Working on this took me back to my childhood and brought back memories. I ended up adding this bit below, about a celebrity entertainer who mesmerised me as a child and inspired me to become a storyteller.


When I was in primary school, like so many other children my age, I was a big fan of Victor and Charlee. Victor Khoo was a famous local magician and ventriloquist, he passed away in 2014, and Charlee was his equally famous ventriloquist dummy. They even had their own radio show on Saturday mornings. That was the highlight of my weekend.

Victor’s performances with Charlee were always funny and uplifting. I was completely spellbound. One day I found a book at the library about ventriloquism. I read the book many times, and practised diligently for months. The book also had a section on making your own dummy. Unfortunately, that required some wood and woodworking equipment. Which I didn’t have access to. So instead I started to borrow every other book I encountered about making dolls and toy figurines, and I was determined to find a way to design my own moveable mouth. As part of my experiments I ended up creating rag dummies, cardboard dummies, sock dummies, paper mache dummies, and so on. 

That was quite an obsession for a while. I wasn’t just interested in making the dummy as a toy or prop. I wanted to create the whole experience of having this character come to life as part of a fun story experience. I wanted to be like Victor Khoo. That was my first experience as a maker, trying to combine craft and storytelling and a performance that made people go “wow!” 

Watch a YouTube clip of Victor and Charlee in action.

4. Hang out with my friend the Los Angeles-trained acting coach

Kamil Haque used to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and was also the first Asian acting teacher at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. Until he came back to Singapore a few years ago and started the Haque Centre of Acting and Creativity. That’s him in the photo above, holding up my book Ghostly and making a ghostly face while at the same time acting, well, ghostly. That's talent.

Kamil’s been working with me on some creative preparation for The Story That's Supposed Be The New Thing For Teen Readers that I’m supposed to be working on. He has also started a programme to bring writers together for regular reading sessions. This series is called Metaphors Be With You. You submit a piece of writing and if it's selected he'll give you a bit of coaching to prepare you for the reading. The theme for the next session is Turning Points. To qualify for this, submit your entries by 21 March. Full details here.

5. Check out latest illustrations for LION CITY ADVENTURES

Lion City Adventures is our new book for children, coming out just before the June holidays, and published by Marshall Cavendish. It’s the opening installment for a children’s transmedia project, and it combines real world exploration + epic story + fun challenges and activities for young readers. I introduced this recently in a post titled: SINGAPORE: the city that shines with sparkling glory and leads children to their dream adventures.

I actually love this new project so much that I feel a sweet fluttering inside my chest every time I think about it. We're still finishing up the page designs and tweaking the chapters. The editor sent me the latest illustrations and they are totally O-M-G. It seems like everyone is getting more immersed in the epic back story, and this shows in the creative work. The story characters now feel like real people from Singapore's history, and the mystery scenarios with the Lion City Adventuring Club seem so immersive and captivating. I should be doing a post soon to introduce the editorial team.

This book is already available for pre-orders at Book Depository, with free delivery around the world. The cover you see on the website is an early mock-up. The actual one will be revealed soon. Completely unrelated, but it just occurred to me that we might have to get someone to run the Lion City Adventuring Club so kids can sign up and keep the activities going. Hmm.


It’s now completely obvious why I didn't work on my new story. The One That's Supposed To Be The New Thing For Teen Readers. Which I will get down to doing shortly. Unless the Mid-Week Meeting With Publisher of Interactive Books leads to More New Things. Ha ha. Take care, and remember to read what you love.

— D

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

SINGAPORE: the city that shines with sparkling glory and leads children to their dream adventures


According to old records, the LCAC was started in the year 1894 by a young girl named Jayathri. Its first members included her neighbours Sherlock Hong and Aisha. Their goal was to make new friends, exchange interesting stories and explore Singapore together. They often held their meetings in Jayathri's back garden, not far from River Valley Road.

In 1930, the Chief Adventurer was Gopal S., a student and volunteer librarian at St. Joseph's Institution. He grew the membership of the LCAC by merging it with the Bravo Circle, a theatre group made up of many interesting characters. From here on, the LCAC regularly put up plays and musical performances inspired by the stories of old Singapore.

From 1942 to 1946, when the Japanese army occupied Singapore during World War 2, Chief Adventurer Mei Song and many other LCAC members actively helped other children find food, medicine and missing family members.

In 1962, the LCAC had so many members that it split into two groups. One group was led by Mary Anson and her sister Shirley Anson, and they met around the Queenstown area. The other group was based in Katong, in the east, and this was led by Edward Low, with help from his English teacher Mrs. J. Fernandez.

In 1965, Edward Low's parents moved to Penang, and he left with them. The Anson sisters tried to merge the two groups, but they had little success because they soon got busy helping out at their father's furniture store.

In 1967, A. A. Hamid took as Chief Adventurer. He was a very talented and enthusiastic young man, and under his leadership the LCAC started publishing its official newsletter, Super Cool Adventures. His newsletter team included his neighbour Fook Siew Li and his classmate Selvakumar. Many years later Selvakumar would start the games company Blade Quest Industries, together with another classmate, Joseph Lee.

In 1976, Chester Chang took over as Chief Adventurer. He made a number of serious mistakes during this time, including trying to charge an annual membership fee of $100. Many long-time LCAC members were disappointed and left the group. By 1979, there were only three members left, including Chester himself. People still refer to this as the "dark ages" of the LCAC.

In 1982, Edward Low, former head of the Katong LCAC group, returned to Singapore after many years working in England. He teamed up with Selvakumar — or Uncle Selva, as everyone called him — and raised enough money to rent a meeting space for the LCAC along Newton Road. Janice De Cruz became the new Chief Adventurer.

Thanks to Janice, the LCAC newsletter was relaunched in 1983, and ran until 1994, when their landlord sold the building and they had to move out. Each issue of Super Cool Adventures featured lots of creative work from its many new members, including the young writer Don Bosco.

In 1999, Winifred Chong launched a website for the LCAC. Because of this, its membership grew very quickly. The LCAC started to share its resources and collaborate with other groups such as the Gung Ho Guild, The School of Heavenly Inventions, Madam White Cat Appreciation Society, the Bukuguru Book Club, School of Magical Stories, International Order of Young Seekers, and many others. Today, there are LCAC groups everywhere in Singapore. You can even gather your friends and start your own group too! May your adventures bring you great joy.



So how do you feel about this Lion City Adventuring Club? Does reading about them make your heart beat just a little faster? Does something inside you yearn to seek them out and join their excursions?

And the big question that you can't help asking: can something like this actually exist?

Short answer: yes.

But maybe the long answer works better.

I wrote the fictional history above as part of the conceptual background for our next book, LION CITY ADVENTURES. Which is published by Marshall Cavendish, and will be available in bookstores just before the June holidays this year.

LION CITY ADVENTURES is a hybrid reading experience, meaning it contains both non-fiction and fiction sections.

The book’s main bits take children on a learning tour of ten interesting locations around Singapore. They get to visit the places and complete some activities. This journey is packed with the kinds of cool things that children love: architectural oddities, yummy food, helpful local phrases to use, and so on.

There’s also a lot of fascinating local history, geography and culture to intrigue them. They visit the Singapore River and learn why it enchanted Sir Stamford Raffles so much that he had to start something here. They go to Chinatown, Little India, Geylang Serai, Arab Street, etc, and uncover stories about the early settlers and how they made their fortunes. And they also tour modern marvels like Gardens by the Bay, with its sci-fi-ish Supertrees.

At the same time, the readers follow a trail of stories inserted along the way, about this very old and proud organisation called the Lion City Adventuring Club, made up of brave children who explored Singapore and made astounding discoveries. At each location there are activities, puzzles and mysteries to be solved. And on top of all this, there are references to the characters and events from my other fiction worlds, like the Sherlock Hong series and the Time Talisman series.

This creates a rich reading experience for the young readers. As they learn to appreciate the neighbourhoods, they’re also stepping into an alternate reality story that they can eventually enjoy across different books, through local events, via apps, and so on. They feel like they’re taking part in something really epic and thrilling and authentic and local.

This project is our first collaboration with a major publisher. Before this we’ve been packaging and printing all our paperbacks and ebooks and story kits on our own. It’s great to work with the Marshall Cavendish editorial team on this, and see all our ideas come together on the colourful pages. There’s a lot of effort taken to bring the Lion City Adventuring Club to life, and deliver a great story experience for young readers. Complete with an official badge. Thanks to everyone involved, the LCAC is getting more real every day.

So it’s not just an ordinary book. Not just a bunch of facts and maps and anecdotes and illustrations. What we’re making is a deep story franchise, based on local legends and memorable characters and mystery challenges that children can engage with, that will grow on and on over time, across different media. Even with different writers and creative partners.

For helping to inspire this, I must thank my fellow transmedia enthusiasts at the StoryCode Singapore group, especially Marco Sparmberg and Jacqui Hocking. Our meetups in 2014 did a lot to inspire me, and gave me a platform to share and even prototype ideas for Super Cool Books. Marco was recently interviewed about our local transmedia developments in One Year In Now Media Vol IV by Simon Staffans.

I should confess something. When I finished writing the first draft of the LCAC history, the one you read above, for some reason I felt so moved that my chest ached. Strangely, it seemed as if I was just a humble researcher recording the exploits of these real-life young heroes. What an awesome organisation, this Lion City Adventuring Club. What great vision, what inspiring fellowship. What an outstanding legacy they created for the children of Singapore. And what a marvellous time the children will have as they join the club, follow the adventures and solve the mysteries.

So this has become our creative passion. To help young readers feel their imagination expanding, and give them a genuine sense of awe and loving connection to the great island.

Watch out for this. And feel free to get in touch if you'd like to get involved in any way.

— D