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