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The Real Writing Process of Zen Cho
Episode 1037th November 2021 • The Real Writing Process • Tom Pepperdine
00:00:00 01:01:15

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Tom Pepperdine interviews author Zen Cho on her day-to-day writing process. Zen discusses how she balances her writing with parenting and her career in law, how her process has changed over time, and what she learned writing her latest book.

You can find all of Zen's books on the following link: https://amzn.to/3mCl80F

You can find her on Twitter on the following link: https://twitter.com/zenaldehyde

And you can find more information on our upcoming guests on the following links:

https://twitter.com/Therealwriting1

https://www.instagram.com/realwritingpro

https://www.facebook.com/therealwritingprocesspodcast

Transcripts

Tom:

Hello and welcome to the Real Writing Process.

Tom:

I'm your host, Tom Pepperdine, and on this episode, my guest is Zen Cho.

Tom:

Zen is a multiple award-winning fantasy author.

Tom:

Her awards include a Hugo in 2019 for her story, If At First You

Tom:

Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again.

Tom:

This interview took place at the beginning of October, 2021.

Tom:

Five months after the release of her book, Black Water Sister.

):

So today I'm delighted to say I'm joined by Zen Cho.

):

Good morning.

):

How are you?

Zen:

I'm good thank you.

Zen:

How are you?

):

I'm very well.

):

My first proper question, as always, is what are we drinking?

Zen:

So we've got a rooibos with honey.

Zen:

I've gone off caffeine awhile ago, but still need my hot tea like drinks.

Zen:

So rooibos has been a good-

):

Yeah, it's delicious.

):

I'm just going to have a sip now.

):

So is this what you drink when you're writing?

Zen:

Um, Sometimes.

Zen:

Often I have the rooibos without the honey.

Zen:

Sometimes I just drink water.

Zen:

I don't really have strict routines around that.

Tom:

Okay.

Tom:

And where I'm speaking to you now is that your office, is this where

Tom:

you do the majority of your writing?

Zen:

Yeah, so this is my study where I'm sitting here, I'm very lucky to

Zen:

have a study, especially as I've been working from home, like many other

Zen:

people the past couple of years.

Zen:

um, I would say I do 50:50.

Zen:

I do some writing at my desk, but often I go and sit at the sofa in the living room

Zen:

when I'm writing as well with my laptop.

Zen:

in my lap, I know that's not really very good for you ergonomically,

Zen:

but it just feels cozy.

Tom:

Absolutely.

Tom:

And I think we all do it.

Tom:

And so how long have you had this writing space?

Zen:

How long have I had a study?

Zen:

So we moved to this house in 2018.

Zen:

Um, And then it took a little while to get it set up.

Zen:

So a few months and get the furniture in and the shelves and so on.

Zen:

I guess for the past four years, I've had a study and before then we lived in London

Zen:

and generally were renting one bed flats.

Zen:

And so this is the first time I've had a proper study and

Zen:

it came at a good time really.

Zen:

Cause I, you know, working out of a one bed flat in London wouldn't

Zen:

happen, you know, working from home wouldn't have been great.

Zen:

So previously, I was definitely a sofa writer.

Zen:

That was, yeah.

Zen:

That was where the magic happened.

):

Do you feel that having a separate space has

):

improved your concentration?

):

Do you find that you write more more productive with your writing

):

sessions, having a separate space?

Zen:

It's variable, isn't it?

Zen:

Because actually when it comes to putting words down.

Zen:

I still like to retreat to my sofa.

Zen:

What I find I've ended up doing actually in this study is I do the

Zen:

kind of business side of things.

Zen:

For some reason, I associate sitting at a desk in a proper office chair with doing

Zen:

emails and doing podcasts and and so on.

Zen:

So it's all the writing stuff that isn't actually writing that I do here.

Zen:

And maybe because I was a sofa writer for so long, I still find this my safe space

Zen:

in terms of actually generating fiction.

Zen:

And I used to like to write in cafes as well.

Zen:

Obviously before, before the pandemic made that a bit dicey.

Zen:

But um, you know, but it really changes with each project.

Zen:

They seem to go better when you're in a different space.

Zen:

I wrote quite a lot of my second novel sitting in the members room of Tate

Zen:

Modern because I got a Christmas present of a membership there and

Zen:

found we lived quite close at the time.

Zen:

So I'd walk there on my writing days and just found I'd be much more

Zen:

productive there than if I was at home.

Tom:

Saying that having a separate space is a good fit for certain things,

Tom:

but also the coziness of a sofa.

Tom:

I think a lot of us can relate to writing at home, being

Tom:

on the sofa with the laptop.

Tom:

How do you deal with distractions?

Tom:

I think, you know, sort of living with family and certainly when, we've had lock

Tom:

down, maybe more people around than usual.

Tom:

Is that quite a challenge?

Zen:

Well with my partner it's not so bad because we're both companionably on the

Zen:

sofa side by side, doing our own thing kind of people, so that, that worked for

Zen:

years and then now we've got a small child that works less well, but thank goodness

Zen:

he goes to bed earlier than we do.

Zen:

So I get the evening.

Zen:

So the study is useful if he happens to be at home during the day, cause he

Zen:

goes to nursery, but if he happens to be home during the day and I'm writing

Zen:

during the day I have a day job, but I work part-time so I do get a writing day.

Zen:

Then, obviously I do retreat to the study and lock myself in and

Zen:

he broadly respects the study door.

Zen:

He knows that mommy and daddy's office, he's not allowed to go in.

):

Okay.

):

And moving on to what inspires you with your writing?

):

Do you have anything that you feel helps trigger inspiration for you?

):

Do you find reading helps or going for walks, certain kinds of music that can

):

get you into a creative head space?

Zen:

I think it all goes in there, doesn't it?

Zen:

All contributes to filling the well and so I think having variety, trying new

Zen:

things, going new places, reading and watching new things and listening to

Zen:

new music all kind of ultimately goes into your work, but maybe not directly.

Zen:

In terms of getting a real, a really intense shot of inspiration though,

Zen:

this is something I've tried to recommend it to friends before, but

Zen:

it doesn't really work unless you're constitutionally set up for it.

Zen:

Which is actually, one of the most creative, inspiring things I find I can

Zen:

do is write fanfic, but I only really write fanfic when I'm into a fandom.

Zen:

If I like the original source and that gives me there's maybe there's

Zen:

some character dynamic or there's something about the setting or there's

Zen:

something that I find really inspiring and that I want to spend more time with.

Zen:

And so that's always very enjoyable because it feels like

Zen:

a, a solid shot of inspiration.

Zen:

And because it's fanfic, it's just play, I don't have to worry about the market.

Zen:

I don't have to worry about whether I can sell anything and so on.

Zen:

But also like I have limited control over whether I'm actually going to

Zen:

get interested enough in something to want to write fanfic about it.

Zen:

So yeah, that would be my main recommendation actually.

Zen:

If you're feeling creatively low, but it's not even something

Zen:

that I can control for myself.

Zen:

So if I feel kind of, uh, you know, I'm in a creative rut and I'm like, I

Zen:

really need a new fandom, but there's nothing I can really do about that

Zen:

except I guess watch more shows, read more books, see if something catches me.

Tom:

And I guess that's something that you can start any time.

Tom:

So with your fanfic, when did that start?

Tom:

Was that from an early age or was that something that you developed?

Zen:

Yeah.

Zen:

So I started fanfic, writing fanfic as a teenager.

Zen:

In terms of writing, I've been writing on and off since I was quite a small child.

Zen:

So starting writing little stories from when I was like six or seven,

Zen:

but never very consistently.

Zen:

And I wouldn't really share it with anyone and I wouldn't finish my story.

Zen:

So I would say fanfic, which I entered when I was in my teens, that was really

Zen:

the first time I started finishing stories and almost operating as a

Zen:

real writer and that I was sharing my work with other people, getting

Zen:

feedback and sort of learning my craft.

Zen:

And then in terms of the journey I then took, I was almost

Zen:

exclusively writing fanfic.

Zen:

I knew I wanted to be writing more original fiction.

Zen:

I wanted to write for publication and trying to fumble my way there.

Zen:

And I think I actually, what happened in kind of my early twenties was I found sort

Zen:

of a university um, all absorbing, so I didn't do any writing when I was there.

Zen:

And having had that break, when I came back to writing, I thought well, you

Zen:

know, this is time to really have a go at writing for publication, trying to get

Zen:

published, and focusing and developing my own voice outside the fandom space where

Zen:

you really are taking a lead from whatever fandom or canon you're writing for.

Zen:

And some people, they start off fanfic writers and they end up writing original

Zen:

fiction professionally and they just don't go back to fanfic really, you

Zen:

know, that's kind of their journey.

Zen:

But for me I subsequently found, although I took a break from fanfic,

Zen:

I found that actually it's really energizing for me to still revisit that

Zen:

part of my writing practice, which is a very pretentious way of saying it,

Zen:

but, you know, my kind of creativity.

Zen:

And so I, I still, I view that very much that I'm both, my kind of

Zen:

writing covers both of those realms.

Tom:

What is it, when you were coming to original work, when it's first

Tom:

forming about the concept that rather than just a fun idea or something

Tom:

you can translate into fan fiction, what is it that makes you decide,

Tom:

no, this is a story that I wish to tell with my own original characters.

Tom:

Are you aware of any distinction?

Zen:

So with fanfic it's always based on the existing world and existing

Zen:

story and generally, cause I'm quite character driven, So it's generally

Zen:

about the relationship of the characters.

Zen:

Um, So there's something about them I want to explore, Um, so

Zen:

it's very much specific to that.

Zen:

When I'm writing original work, it's quite a different process and it tends to be,

Zen:

I've realized over time, two things that will come together into a workable story.

Zen:

you know, cause like, as a writer, you...you're constantly

Zen:

having like little ideas and they might not really go anywhere.

Zen:

But, when I've got an idea that I'm like, okay, that would make a story I

Zen:

could probably write and it would have bones and I could probably publish it.

Zen:

It's generally that there's some sort of character relationship dynamic.

Zen:

Often I quite liked writing odd couples, so sometimes they're, they're kind

Zen:

of a romantic couple, but sometimes as with my most recent novel the

Zen:

main relationship is between a young woman and her grandmother, who's dead,

Zen:

she's a ghost and they were estranged in life, and so the young woman

Zen:

didn't know her grandmother but she's getting to know her now she's dead.

Zen:

And so that's the kind of main relationship that book.

Zen:

And so there's that relationship or character dynamic.

Zen:

Usually of two people, but it could be a larger group

Zen:

dynamic that I want to explore.

Zen:

And then there's a kind of something about the setting or

Zen:

the world that I want to explore.

Zen:

So again, I'm going back to my most recent novel as an example,

Zen:

it's called Black Water Sister and it's set in Penang in Malaysia.

Zen:

And the thing that I specifically was interested in exploring

Zen:

was the religious practice or tradition of spirit mediumship.

Zen:

In this, kind of Chinese folk religion tradition I grew up in, there's

Zen:

a practice of spirit mediums, people who will invite in a god so

Zen:

a god will come and possess them.

Zen:

And then you as a devotee can go to the temple and you can go ask the

Zen:

god questions, or you can say, I've got this problem and they might

Zen:

give you a blessing or they might you know, give you something to

Zen:

help you resolve that problem.

Zen:

And I thought that was really interesting.

Zen:

And obviously it has a clear fantastical element, I guess,

Zen:

although it's something that people actually practice and believe in.

Zen:

And so that was the other element that I had.

Zen:

So the two ideas I had were a young woman who has a really bossy grandmother, who's

Zen:

dead and she's a ghost and she's just like haunting her, and this idea of exploring

Zen:

spirit mediumship and that specific aspect of the world and part of the world.

Zen:

And that's what came together.

Zen:

And so what I found generally with my original stuff is

Zen:

that combination of the two.

Zen:

And I suppose what distinguishes it from the fanfic actually, is

Zen:

often the character dynamics might be something where I originally

Zen:

was inspired by a fandom.

Zen:

Um, So one of the examples is I wrote a novella called The Order Of The Pure

Zen:

Moon Reflected In The Water, which was published by Tor.com publishing in 2020.

Zen:

And with that I was I was inspired by the characters of Baze Malbus

Zen:

and Chirrut in Star Wars Rogue One.

Zen:

So they are played by Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen and they're

Zen:

kind of supporting character.

Zen:

They're relatively minor, but I really enjoyed they're dynamic and

Zen:

it was that dynamic I took into.

Zen:

And I thought, oh it'd be interesting if I gender flip them and put them in a

Zen:

different setting and see how that worked.

Zen:

And then the original side is often this idea of there's something about

Zen:

history, there's something about the world that I, I'm interested in exploring.

Tom:

And coming back to uh, Black Water Sister.

Tom:

Those two aspects that you've got, the relationship and the spirit mediumship

Tom:

.With the relationship dynamic, were you at all self-conscious about how

Tom:

your family might interpret that?

Tom:

Cause I know it's fiction, but inevitably, there can be a drawing from life.

Tom:

So was there any pressure with that?

Zen:

Well, not particularly.

Zen:

And one element I have to say is because my family is not that

Zen:

diligent about reading my work.

Zen:

So my sister regularly names my first novel, Sorcerer To The Crown,

Zen:

as one of her favorite books that she's just about read the prologue,

Zen:

which is two or three pages long.

Zen:

She doesn't read much, I'm not offended by it, so that's one

Zen:

thing that's comforting knowing that they might not read my work at all.

Zen:

I guess the other thing is, I'm not super self-conscious about it.

Zen:

It is about the kind of a young Chinese Malaysian woman and her grandmother,

Zen:

and the main character, Jess, I did draw from several aspects of my life

Zen:

in creating her, although there are obviously there are other aspects

Zen:

that are pure fiction and she is a character rather than an avatar.

Zen:

And then her grandmother is inspired by the many kind of bossy aunties I know.

Zen:

Not necessarily related to me, but I think part of why I'm just not too

Zen:

worried about this, I think the things that are drawn from life, I would

Zen:

hope my family would say, fair enough.

Zen:

It's a fair cop, you've got us down on the page, that's not an unfair depiction.

Zen:

But at the end of that, the other side of it, is actually they're fictional

Zen:

characters, so they all heightened for effect, particularly the grandmother

Zen:

in Black Water Sister, she's a ghost and she has a fairly murky past and she

Zen:

doesn't particularly have strong morals or perhaps she has an alternative moral

Zen:

code is a kinder way of putting it.

Zen:

And there are certain things she does in the book that certainly none of my

Zen:

female relatives would dream of doing.

Zen:

And I think that, I think that hopefully provides enough a distance.

Zen:

I certainly don't think any of my aunts are going to come at me, say,

Zen:

do you really think you're capable of attempted murder and so on?

):

But I guess with as you said earlier with the spirit mediumship,

):

that is something that a lot of people still practice and is a big

):

part of their own belief system.

):

So I feel that, although there's a lot of fantastical elements in the

):

story and it is clearly a fiction piece, there is still a pressure to

):

represent that uh, sympathetically and with a certain degree of accuracy.

):

How did you go about researching that?

):

Was there a lot from your own life growing up that you could draw from?

):

Or was there actually a lot of research that you had to do?

Zen:

Well, you know, it was a combination.

Zen:

So as I say, that's the religious tradition I grew up in, but actually, um,

Zen:

so there's a line in the book that talks about it, and says it's Jess's parents,

Zen:

their attitude to religion is that they leave the gods alone in the hope that

Zen:

the gods will do them the same favor.

Zen:

And that was very much my parents' attitude to religion

Zen:

when we were growing up.

Zen:

And also these things are really taboo.

Zen:

Like, you know, like, people are very cautious about talking too much about it.

Zen:

You don't want to offend any spirits basically.

Zen:

So actually, we would go to the temple from time to time and we'd pray and so on,

Zen:

but a lot of what was going on was never really explained, especially to the kids.

Zen:

And you're told not to make any comments or anything.

Zen:

And particularly, I think my mum was particularly wary of spirit mediums.

Zen:

You know, I definitely was never taken to see one.

Zen:

Although I would hear about say, my aunt would go and consult one,

Zen:

you know, when she had some sort of problem and the god would say

Zen:

this or the god would advise that.

Zen:

So it's something that I was aware of, but didn't really have direct

Zen:

interaction with them and I wouldn't say it was like embedded in that culture

Zen:

necessarily, although I grew up around it.

Zen:

And that's part of why I wrote the book because it was something that seemed quite

Zen:

important to my family and the people that I knew and the culture I grew up

Zen:

in, but that I didn't fully understand.

Zen:

And I think that's often very creatively generative, something that about the

Zen:

world that you don't really understand.

Zen:

And often when I'm writing fiction, that's my way of thinking through

Zen:

things I don't fully understand and find kind of mysterious and interesting.

Zen:

And I obviously drew on that, the way that people back home will talk

Zen:

about spirits and gods and ghosts and things, and that all of that culture.

Zen:

But I also did research because as I said, my parents hadn't explained

Zen:

anything, so I didn't really understand anything about what was going on.

Zen:

And what I found really helpful, actually this was what one of the things that

Zen:

directly inspired the decision to write Black Water Sister was I found a couple

Zen:

of books by an academic called Jean DeBernardi, who's an anthropologist,

Zen:

I think now based in Canada.

Zen:

And she had gone to Penang in Malaysia, in the 1980s, and did field research

Zen:

specifically in Chinese folk religion, the practice of spirit mediumship.

Zen:

Um, and so she'd written a couple of books, including The

Zen:

Way That Lives In The Heart.

Zen:

And I picked up The Way That Lives In The Heart and I just

Zen:

found it really interesting.

Zen:

What it basically did was give me this intellectual framework

Zen:

for all these beliefs and traditions I'd grown up around.

Zen:

And yeah, so that's what I drew on in writing the book.

Zen:

And I think, I am conscious when with a religion or with a religious practice

Zen:

that's so relatively obscure on the global stage, I am very conscious of dealing

Zen:

with it in a relatively sensitively and kind of respect, but at the same

Zen:

time, as I said, for me writing the book was a personal thing as well, so

Zen:

respect wasn't necessarily my focus.

Zen:

Understanding was, which I think is a fair enough way to, to approach it.

):

I certainly think in my reading of it, it's definitely uh, sympathetic.

):

It's not poking fun.

):

It's not derogatory in any way.

):

And you do get a real sense of those characters that, just leave the

):

gods alone, they'll leave us alone.

):

But also those who can't avoid the gods, you know, avoiding spoilers, uh,

):

like there, but, but some have them far more in their lives than others.

):

I want to touch on one thing that you said there about, is it an element

):

of society that you didn't have much knowledge on, so this is a way

):

of gaining understanding on that.

):

And I think you've said similar things about Regency England and

):

colonialism with your earlier novels.

):

Is there any aspect of society that you are conscious of lacking

):

knowledge and understanding that might inform future work?

):

Is there something that you're researching at the moment and we don't need to talk

):

about plots or characters or anything, but is there any aspects of society that

):

are really captivating you at the moment?

Zen:

For me it's, it's not only something that I just don't, I don't quite

Zen:

understand, but it's something that feels very personal, and that's been the case

Zen:

with kind of all the books I've worked on.

Zen:

That this mysterious element that I'm working through.

Zen:

Like colonialism is so dominant in my personal history and

Zen:

the history of Malaysia.

Zen:

And it's something that I think is still poorly understood in, in

Zen:

many places and by many people.

Zen:

And that was definitely something that powered my first two novels.

Zen:

Using the Regency romance almost as a lens to think about that.

Zen:

And then with Order Of The Pure Moon Reflected In Water, the

Zen:

world-building element or the mystery element was actually partly the

Zen:

history of the Malayan Emergency.

Zen:

So the mid 20th century conflict, post world war two between communist guerrillas

Zen:

and firstly the British colonial government in Malaya and subsequently

Zen:

the independent right wing government who came in to power upon independence.

Zen:

So, that's kind of what I've worked on.

Zen:

Often and it's to do with history and parts of history that I see

Zen:

as shaping the culture I grew up in, in the society I grew up in.

Zen:

And so in, in shaping me.

Zen:

I've got various projects going on at the same time.

Zen:

And you don't always know which one you'll bring to completion

Zen:

in a sensible timeframe, but two things I'm quite interested in.

Zen:

So one thing is, one is overseas Chinese communities.

Zen:

So the history of those and I'm really interested at the moment at looking

Zen:

into what some people say was the first Asian democracy and it was a mining

Zen:

settlement in Borneo um, set up by Chinese migrants in the late 18th century.

Zen:

Yeah, I think that's right.

Zen:

And so they, So these migrants came down looking for work and they um, got um,

Zen:

kind of concessions from the local sultans and set up these mining communities and

Zen:

they developed enough that you could say they were essentially like a Republic.

Zen:

Um, There were a few of them and, you know, they say they voted on their

Zen:

leaders, which is why they're arguably a democracy and they had armies and, and,

Zen:

you know, education systems and so on, which I thought was really interesting.

Zen:

And they didn't really survive, none of them survive into the present day.

Zen:

But I just thought that was a really interesting artifact of history.

Zen:

So that's something I'm really interested in and how that links and how that

Zen:

oversees communities in Southeast Asia, Chinese community in Southeast

Zen:

Asia, I'm really interested in.

Zen:

But the other aspect that I'm thinking through is I'm trying

Zen:

to find a way of summarizing it.

Zen:

Basically, what does it mean to be a post-colonial subject?

Zen:

I'm kind of, I'm quite interested in the various issues that come up with

Zen:

being from, or living in a country, often a developing country that is a

Zen:

former colony and all the political and social issues that come with that.

Zen:

And so it's still thinking about colonialism, but in a way that's not

Zen:

necessarily transparent to someone who isn't from that sort of country,

Zen:

there just some issues and some stories that when I speak to other people from

Zen:

say, Commonwealth countries or other kinds of post ex- ex colonies, they're

Zen:

like, oh yeah we have that issue too.

Zen:

I mean, one very common issue is religious or racial conflict.

Zen:

Communalism, because of the kind of mix that it's partly not just due to

Zen:

colonialism, but partly it is, because a lot of the time when you see different

Zen:

groups in a country that they ended up there because of the operation of empire.

Zen:

So for example, Malaysia, it's majority Malay and they were there.

Zen:

And so they're also indigenous groups there at the beginning.

Zen:

And then the British, for example, brought in a lot of indentured labor

Zen:

from India and China that fundamentally changed the kind of composition of

Zen:

the country's population, although it's always been a diverse place.

Zen:

So things like that and that then creates problems, or challenges for a modern

Zen:

community and in terms of nation building and building a shared identity when you've

Zen:

got people who have different religions, different languages, different cultures.

Zen:

So that's one very, obviously it's not specific or unique to

Zen:

ex-colonies, but it's something that is a very common experience.

Zen:

So that's a really long answer, but that's one of the things I've been thinking

Zen:

about, and it's interesting to wonder how that's going to come out with my work.

Tom:

Yeah absolutely.

Tom:

I think that's something that I'm really looking forward to seeing

Tom:

you explore in your writing.

Tom:

One thing I wanted to ask, because when doing my research, I noticed

Tom:

that you have edited a cyberpunk collection of short stories.

Tom:

Are you looking to the future with any future projects that you're working on?

Zen:

I'm not looking to the future in the sense of probably science fiction.

Zen:

I think, just because of the way my creativity works and where my interests

Zen:

lead me down, I tend to spend a lot of time trying to work out what history means

Zen:

and what its impact is in the present day.

Zen:

And although I also agree with, I think it's Ken Liu I'm sure it's who

Zen:

said this, I'm sure lots of people have said this, which is science

Zen:

fiction set in the future, it's always about the present moment anyway.

Zen:

Cause everyone, no matter what you're producing, you probably

Zen:

are commenting or inspired by the present moment in some way.

Zen:

I would say with the kind of shift in the global power balance for

Zen:

me, and I'm not that interested in what the big countries are doing.

Zen:

And I think that's a kind of artifact of being from a small

Zen:

country and you know, Malaysia just never going to be a global power.

Zen:

We're just not big enough, and we don't have the resources and so on.

Zen:

And obviously I have this cultural connection to China,

Zen:

in that I'm ethnic Chinese.

Zen:

But that's part of why I'm really interested in overseas Chinese

Zen:

communities, because to me being Chinese is something that has a

Zen:

very different meaning from what it might mean to somebody who lives in

Zen:

mainland China and belongs to the ethnic majority and speaks Mandarin.

Zen:

I would say that for none of my grandparents all of whom are, or would

Zen:

have been read as ethnic Chinese.

Zen:

I think we also have some Southeast Asian mix in there, but we would have

Zen:

functioned in society as Chinese.

Zen:

For none of them spoke Mandarin as their first language and yet that's

Zen:

obviously that's viewed as the Chinese language and treat it as such in China.

Zen:

So to me, the kind of nuances of that are more interesting and the things that

Zen:

really interest me are small histories in a way, it's small places and the kind of

Zen:

specificity of culture in those spaces.

Zen:

That's one of the reasons, for example, I set Black Water Sister in Penang,

Zen:

which is a small place, which has a very specific history, it's just in a way my

Zen:

focus is quite narrow, but I think once you look into the specifics of something,

Zen:

that's where you find the universal.

Zen:

I know that's bit of a cliche, but I think that is true.

):

Yeah.

):

I think it's, as you said earlier, it's the character and

):

the character dynamic within.

):

I guess it's more on the micro scale and recognizing, you know, we're all humans.

):

So I completely understand where you're coming from on that.

):

So once you've got an idea of the character dynamic and the setting of

):

that, how do you discipline yourself to get all the words on the page?

):

As someone who works part time as you said before, have you always worked part-time,

):

was that something that always helped you with your writing or was that something

):

that has developed more recently?

Zen:

It developed more recently, so I went part time when I got my book deal.

Zen:

Although I guess it's been, I've got my book deal not that

Zen:

long after I started working.

Zen:

Because let me think, I think I signed it in 2014.

Zen:

And I started working in 2010.

Zen:

And I'm a decade into my career as a lawyer, so that's my day job.

Zen:

So I um, was working full-time and writing in the evenings, which worked fine, but

Zen:

um, wouldn't have worked fine with novel deadlines and contractual deadlines.

Zen:

So when I got my book deal I went part time.

Zen:

So that's how that worked.

Tom:

And do you have an opinion on daily targets?

Tom:

Are they useful or a hindrance?

Tom:

Do you try and do a certain amount each day or just when the whim takes you?

Zen:

Yeah, so that's the other side of your question, right?

Zen:

How do you have the discipline to actually get the words out.

Zen:

So how it worked for me is for a long form project, let's say a

Zen:

novella or a novel, I sit down and I do an outline at the beginning.

Zen:

And it's relatively detailed, but it's not as detailed as some outlines I've seen.

Zen:

So my friend Aliette de Bodard like she works in this extraordinary way.

Zen:

Um, I mean, It works very well for her, I could never do it, but she

Zen:

spends months outlining it, but it's an extremely detailed outline.

Zen:

It really is the entire plot in detail, every scene, every chapter.

Zen:

And then she writes the book very quickly in maybe three months because she's got

Zen:

it all there and all the kind of stuff that I would work out in the first draft,

Zen:

she works out at the outlining stage.

Zen:

So she'll be like, oh, this is how this is happening now so now I

Zen:

need to go rejig the first couple of chapters in my outline, because

Zen:

I've decided this will happen.

Zen:

Whereas, I would have a much looser outline.

Zen:

It would start from the beginning and it would go to the

Zen:

end, I'm quite linear writer.

Zen:

But it would be this happens but much more chapter by chapter

Zen:

level or even higher than that.

Zen:

And then while I would put down things that I think would happen, but

Zen:

I wouldn't work on every single detail.

Zen:

And the reason for that is because I often don't know if it's going to

Zen:

work until I actually start writing.

Zen:

And when once I start writing it generally things will happen where I'm

Zen:

like, okay, that's more interesting.

Zen:

Or the idea that I originally had doesn't work.

Zen:

So then I go back and adjust it.

Zen:

And from what I've seen, cause Aliette's outline is so detailed that doesn't

Zen:

really happen to her at the first drafting stage, that happens at an earlier stage.

Zen:

Anyway, so I have this fairly not the most high level outline, but also not the most

Zen:

detailed outline that anyone's ever seen.

Zen:

And that's when I find, yeah, I do find that word counts do help.

Zen:

I often use Pacemaker, um, this website, and you can get

Zen:

a free planner or a paid one.

Zen:

But it's to feed in your word count for your project.

Zen:

So if you're going to do a novel and you think is going to run to

Zen:

a hundred thousand words, you put that in, and then you put how long

Zen:

you're going to take to write it.

Zen:

You might put a target.

Zen:

Okay, I'll get a draft sorted in six months and how you want to work.

Zen:

And then it just tells you how many words you need to do per

Zen:

day in order to hit that target.

Zen:

I find that quite helpful.

Zen:

And because of the way that I work I have more time to do stuff on

Zen:

Fridays, it's just my non-working day.

Zen:

Um, so Pacemaker lets you say, okay, I'll push on Friday.

Zen:

I I'll do more words on Friday and then I just try to follow that basically.

Tom:

I feel with that there could be sometimes, especially when you're starting

Tom:

out writing, where there's a lot of words on the page and you're way ahead of your

Tom:

pace and it's feeling great, but are there times when you're behind the pace

Tom:

and can that add a level of stress or pressure or is it good pressure for you?

Zen:

So I'm always behind.

Zen:

Like I never get ahead.

Zen:

Maybe because I don't know if it's a combination of I just work.

Zen:

I think it's fundamentally, I work a lot slower than I wish I did,

Zen:

basically, and then life happens.

Zen:

And they're going to be evenings when you're like, oh, I just can't

Zen:

be arsed to do any words today.

Zen:

Or, maybe the kid has been ill and you just haven't slept very much and so on.

Zen:

I always drop behind, but then I think I tend to set quite ambitious targets.

Zen:

If I'm drafting under contract the, the last day of my kind of, you

Zen:

know, put into Pacemaker will never be the day that I submit the book.

Zen:

It's always a few months before, so I have some months to actually

Zen:

rework the draft and revise it.

Zen:

I don't really love time pressure, I have to say.

Zen:

I'm reasonably good at meeting my deadlines.

Zen:

Except when, not with my second novel, but that was a bit of a

Zen:

disaster, the writing process.

Zen:

But since then I've been reasonably good at setting deadlines and

Zen:

being realistic about how long things would will take me to do.

Zen:

I think just because, you know, I have so much else going on.

Tom:

So with your second novel, was that outside influences, just things

Tom:

were going on outside of writing that were impacting your writing or was

Tom:

it more structural within the story.

Tom:

It was quite a tricky book to get?

Zen:

It was both.

Zen:

But I think it was a very classic issue and I know I'm not the only

Zen:

writer who suffered this, where basically for the first book they knew

Zen:

right after you've been published.

Zen:

And I had been published before my first novel, but in kind of a smaller way.

Zen:

So it was the first book I was writing.

Zen:

I didn't manage to write or finish a second book before

Zen:

the first book was published.

Zen:

I was really writing it after the first book had been published.

Zen:

And I just really struggled with that because it changes.

Zen:

I think that level of attention just changed, like external attention.

Zen:

And what I found after that is that you have to find again, that

Zen:

kind of private space in your head.

Zen:

Where your creativity flourishes, because you have all these

Zen:

kinds of responses from people.

Zen:

Say, about your first book and you can feel a lot of pressure in terms of,

Zen:

right, people want the story to go this way or they'll want the second book to

Zen:

be like the first book or they'll want it to be different from the first book.

Zen:

And you're trying to meet expectations that really are externally imposed,

Zen:

and I think that's often very damaging to people's creativity.

Zen:

Not everyone's, but I think for a lot of people, they need to be able

Zen:

to hear their own internal voice.

Zen:

And so what I found was it's a bit of both there's that kind of external

Zen:

situation, but part of me was also the internal situation where I was having

Zen:

to re rediscover my voice in a way.

Tom:

With the rediscovering of your voice, are there moments where you

Tom:

really suffer from imposter syndrome?

Tom:

I know there's a lot of writers where a certain point in a project they can

Tom:

feel that they're a terrible writer.

Tom:

Is that something that you've ever felt?

Tom:

And if so, how do you overcome it?

Zen:

Oh yeah, constantly.

Zen:

I suffered from it really badly.

Zen:

And I say in the past tense because actually my confidence as a writer

Zen:

has improved massively over the years.

Zen:

I think, you know, after you've written a few novels and you've been through

Zen:

some of the ups and downs that the industry can offer, but you see yourself,

Zen:

continuing to make work and improving.

Zen:

I think that does give you a boost of confidence.

Zen:

You're like, okay, actually I can do this.

Zen:

I can learn from it.

Zen:

And I would say I'm much, much more confident as a writer now than I

Zen:

was when my first book came out.

Zen:

And I feel, I know myself a lot better and I know my capabilities.

Zen:

Um, that said, obviously I still suffer from insecurity.

Zen:

And as you say there're certain points in a project when you're you know, when

Zen:

you're kind of deep into it and you're like, oh, this is really shit and this is

Zen:

terrible and it's not structured right.

Zen:

The plot wrong, nobody will be interested in it.

Zen:

And I think those voices though, I think, everyone has them.

Zen:

Uh, you know, I've spoken to people who have published almost 30 novels

Zen:

and they still have that every time they sit down and wait something new.

Zen:

Obviously hopefully there'll also be points in each project where

Zen:

you're like, this is really good.

Zen:

I'm doing really good work here, but that's just all part of, I

Zen:

think writing is, you know, it is part of the kind of ups and downs.

Zen:

I think those voices, the doubtful ones, the ones that are

Zen:

like, nobody will be interested.

Zen:

They're your ego trying to protect you from failure because there's bound to

Zen:

be people who don't like the book, and there's always the risk of rejection.

Zen:

No matter how established you are.

Zen:

And if it's not rejection from a publishing gatekeeper, it's rejection

Zen:

from a reader, it's rejection by a review site, and so on.

Zen:

And so you just have to learn to live with that, I think, and realize that the voices

Zen:

aren't really based in objective truth.

Zen:

They're your psyche trying to shield itself from damage.

Tom:

Is there any certain techniques that you have to overcome those voices?

Tom:

Like you say, those uninspired periods where you're just

Tom:

like, this isn't working.

Tom:

Is it just a matter of plowing on just turning up and just keep writing and

Tom:

then worry about redrafting later?

Tom:

Or do you need to step away and maybe do something else for a bit?

Tom:

Which do you find works best?

Zen:

I find that such an interesting question.

Zen:

And I think it's so challenging to answer because it could be either thing, right?

Zen:

Like you, you don't ever really know cause it really depends.

Zen:

Cause sometimes when you get a feeling that something's not working,

Zen:

it's because it isn't working.

Zen:

And for example, you might need to backtrack and read the past

Zen:

40,000 words or whatever and work out where you went wrong.

Zen:

Cause often I think, when you start feeling, it's not working, your words

Zen:

aren't coming, it's with something.

Zen:

You went off the right road early on, maybe a couple of scenes ago.

Zen:

And actually, if you just correct that you'll be back on track.

Zen:

But then sometimes it's just you're tired or you had a bad day, you maybe saw a bad

Zen:

review or someone you hate got a really good book deal or something like that.

Zen:

And and sometimes it's something where you just need to take a

Zen:

break and come back to it tomorrow.

Zen:

Or it's something maybe where you need to talk to a friend and say,

Zen:

this is the issue I've got and you can kind of work out that way.

Zen:

So I think it's just there's no kind of fixed rule for it

Zen:

because it really just depends.

Zen:

And I think trying all of those strategies are work.

Zen:

Like what I frequently do, if I feel it's going wrong, is read over what

Zen:

I've done so far and trying to work out if it's to do with the work or if it's

Zen:

to do with the conditions of the work.

Zen:

Because one thing I noticed, for example, when I was working on Black

Zen:

Water Sister, so it's the first book that I finished after having a baby.

Zen:

And so the conditions in which I was working were massively different.

Zen:

And I had childcare and so on, but what it meant, especially when I went back to

Zen:

work, was I would do very small amounts.

Zen:

Because I I'm quite, I like to do a little bit every day when I'm working

Zen:

on a project, I'm not one, I'm not really a binge writer in any way.

Zen:

So I had this kind of schedule for myself, created via Pacemaker, where

Zen:

during my working days, my day job, I might do 200 words on the book per day.

Zen:

And then when I had a writing day or had a free weekend, you know,

Zen:

morning of the weekend, I do maybe a thousand words or maybe 1,500.

Zen:

And what I found was actually, I would feel really bad about the project during

Zen:

the week, but when I actually got time to sit down with it and do like my

Zen:

thousand words or whatever, you know, had a few hours I could focused on it.

Zen:

I'd be like, oh, actually this isn't so bad.

Zen:

And so I realized that it wasn't anything to do with the book.

Zen:

It's just that if you're doing 200 words, when you're really

Zen:

tired at the end of the day.

Zen:

They might feel worse words than if you actually have time to

Zen:

think about what you're doing and connect with your project.

):

I guess that is a thing now.

):

That when people are trying to fit things in around other stuff, you'd feel that

):

you don't have your full attention on it.

):

Whereas when you do have your full attention on it, you can take a step

):

back and appreciate the big picture.

):

I want to discuss rewriting as it's that classic adage, writing is rewriting.

):

How much rewriting do you do as you go or do you prefer to finish a draft and

):

then reread it and see how it flows?

Zen:

This has changed so much like project to project or in the course

Zen:

of my career development as a writer.

Zen:

So with my first couple of novels, I was very much do a really messy first draft.

Zen:

I knew I was writing the first, like a certain scene several times.

Zen:

Characters changed names.

Zen:

I knew there were massive plot holes, but I was just get it all on the

Zen:

page, vomit draft and then fix it.

Zen:

And so my revision would be very intensive and I would have the original

Zen:

draft up in one window and then I have a separate window and in that I would

Zen:

literally be rewriting it from scratch.

Zen:

Just taking things from the original draft, but, you know, building a new

Zen:

draft and that wasn't necessarily to make something even readable.

Zen:

As I've developed as a writer, you know, it was my third novel was very different.

Zen:

I had a much clearer sense of how it will be structured and how the

Zen:

things I wanted to happen, and I think it was a change in being a better

Zen:

writer, just having more skills.

Zen:

Having had more practice and having more confidence because the process of doing

Zen:

an outline and then writing it, wasn't different, but what it meant was the

Zen:

third book was a relatively clean draft.

Zen:

Um, I still had a period where I rewrote the first draft, but it wasn't

Zen:

a kind of rewriting from scratch.

Zen:

It was more having it in a window and then going through it and editing it.

Zen:

So that's really that's changed for me.

Zen:

So I have messy vomit draft for some projects, I've done a cleaner draft.

Zen:

And as I was first drafting I have gone back and been like, okay,

Zen:

actually, I'm going to change this bit before I go any further.

Zen:

Cause I think this is something I need to change now and that will

Zen:

make the rest of this draft easier.

Tom:

And once you've got a draft written that you're happy with in isolation, who

Tom:

are the first people to read it next, do you have a range of beta readers

Tom:

or does it go straight to your agent?

Tom:

What happens once you're all done?

Zen:

So my agent is very editorial.

Zen:

So I know when I send it to my agent, she's going to come back

Zen:

with very rigorous edits really.

Zen:

She will be like the middle bit needs to go or these chapters and so on, or the

Zen:

subplot needs to be changed or whatever.

Zen:

So when I've been under contract, because mostly for timing reasons,

Zen:

I just haven't had the time to send it out to beta readers.

Zen:

So I have a couple of friends who are almost more like alpha readers.

Zen:

Like they might be willing to read.

Zen:

But they won't beat it, they will just say, oh I thought it was really good.

Zen:

Basically.

Zen:

It's nice to hear, especially when you know that you're going to have a

Zen:

hideous edit letter from your agent pointing out all the flaws in the book.

Zen:

So that's how it's worked, but generally if I have the time, I will probably,

Zen:

I don't have like a group that I regularly go to, but I'll just put out

Zen:

a call to my friends and see who's got the time to have a look at the book.

Tom:

And you've edited yourself.

Tom:

Not just the work you do, but also other people's work in short story collections.

Tom:

And having an agent who's also I guess, you know, kind of like your first editor.

Tom:

In your opinion, what makes a good editor?

Zen:

I think one thing that's really important, and I think this is quite

Zen:

important for writers who are editing actually, like editing other people's

Zen:

work, is not to necessarily impose how you would do things on the writer.

Zen:

I think you're trying to work out what the writers trying to achieve and

Zen:

what they're trying to say and then help them do that, facilitate that.

Zen:

Because what I've seen sometimes when writers edit a story that's not theirs,

Zen:

is that they all say, this is how I do it or this is how I'd phrase it,

Zen:

but that's not always that helpful because sure that's how you do it.

Zen:

That's not your story.

Zen:

So I think it's quite a separate skill from editing yourself.

Zen:

Obviously, when you're editing yourself, you are saying, I should

Zen:

phrase that better, I should make that more, more myself.

Zen:

But I think in some ways, actually one of the best beta readers I

Zen:

have doesn't really write fiction, but she is a very smart reader.

Zen:

She's read a lot.

Zen:

She's very attentive when she reads, and so I almost find her beta

Zen:

comments more helpful than some of my professional writer friends, because

Zen:

she almost has more distance from it.

Zen:

She's just, " As a reader this is how it strikes me.

Zen:

This is what confused me.

Zen:

This is whatever."

Zen:

And she doesn't necessarily tell me how to fix it, but she identifies these issues.

Zen:

Whereas, again, this isn't the cliche and like editors do it as well, they

Zen:

admit that they do it, which is that often when they suggest the fix is

Zen:

wrong, but the issue that they've identified they're right about that.

Zen:

But the way that it's going to get fixed, it will really vary by the

Zen:

writer and the writer will have their own idea, or if you leave them to it,

Zen:

they'll come up with their own idea that will be better for their work.

Zen:

So that's one thing.

Zen:

What makes a good editor?

Zen:

So I think yeah, reading attentively, having a sense of the genre conventions

Zen:

and so on is quite important.

Zen:

And I think it's not just when you're editing genre but

Zen:

really everything has a genre.

Zen:

And so if you're editing a story that's written literary fiction

Zen:

style, your comments and what it's meant to achieve, it's those things

Zen:

are going to be quite different from like an SFS story, you know?

Zen:

not always but often.

Zen:

I can imagine if you're editing, a story that's meant to be something to

Zen:

the New Yorker and you say this story has a sad ending, like that's and

Zen:

that's that you need to change that.

Zen:

That, that is just incorrect.

Zen:

That's bad editorial advice.

Zen:

But if it's a romance, they're trying to sell it to a genre romance

Zen:

publisher, then saying this isn't a happy ending is a legit comment.

Zen:

Because one of the definitions of whether something's a romance novel and

Zen:

not just whether it has a happy ending.

Zen:

So it's having a sense of the expectations of the reader, I think.

Zen:

But then also obviously being ready for kind of innovation and kind of

Zen:

experimentation, all that sort of thing.

):

Yeah.

):

And with you using a couple of different examples there, New Yorker and Romance.

):

Are there genres that you love as a reader or that you've written

):

fanfiction for that you haven't done in your own novels, but you want to.

):

Is there a genre that you're really keen to explore?

Zen:

What I read a lot of actually, and in a way it'd be even more off now that

Zen:

I write fantasy is, I don't know how to describe it and they're not really

Zen:

literally fiction, but just books about normal people doing normal things.

Zen:

Not Sally Rooney herself, I haven't read any Sally Rooney yet, but

Zen:

that's just yeah, sometimes it's contemporary, sometimes it's historical,

Zen:

but it's just about their lives and they there's no magic or anything.

Zen:

And, you know, they might like.

Zen:

I dunno, they get married or they get a job or whatever.

Zen:

And I suppose often, um, because I'm, I'm drawn often to books

Zen:

by women and about women.

Zen:

They are categorized as women's fiction or it's historical fiction if it's

Zen:

set in a historical era or whatever.

Zen:

So I read quite a lot of that and I suppose if I got the right idea

Zen:

that's something I quite like to write, but somehow when I write it,

Zen:

it tends to go quite speculative.

Zen:

There always seems to be some sort of fantastical element that crops up.

Tom:

And what draws you to the fantasy genre?

Zen:

You know, in a way I think it's because it's rare that

Zen:

I ever write something that's based in a really secondary

Zen:

world I've designed from scratch.

Zen:

I'm not the sort of person who has like a map at the beginning of the book.

Zen:

That like, that is like a created continent.

Zen:

If the map is at the beginning of the book, like I have written kind

Zen:

of secondary world, but generally it's based very closely on our world.

Zen:

It's just like our world with fantasy, and I think part of that is because

Zen:

a lot of way it's written, not all of it, but some of it is it's very

Zen:

strongly, you know, despite Malaysian folklore and Malaysian mythology.

Zen:

Um, and I would say a belief in spirits and ghosts and so on.

Zen:

It's more mainstream in Malaysia than it is in most Western countries.

Zen:

And so I kind of grew up with like, I would say the majority of my friends

Zen:

and this includes people who are university educated, believe in ghosts.

Zen:

My best friend recently discovered that I don't believe in ghosts and

Zen:

it was just absolutely gobsmacked.

Zen:

It was like what, but how do you write all that stuff?

Zen:

I said I can write that stuff because I don't believe in spirits cause

Zen:

otherwise I would be too scared.

Zen:

So I think for me it just seems quite natural to write about that stuff.

Zen:

And, and I only, I always sort of think, you know, on one view, maybe

Zen:

it's not even really fantasy at all.

Zen:

That's how it's marketed.

Zen:

But if you're writing about stuff that people believe in as though they're real,

Zen:

is that, is that actually a fantasy?

):

How do you view social media as a writer in you know, 2021?

):

Is it essential?

):

Is it a hindrance?

):

Is it a distraction?

):

And if you use social media, which do you find best for writing and

):

which do you find best for you?

Zen:

So I don't think any social media works well for writing.

Zen:

I find word processors the best job that like I definitely

Zen:

don't think it's essential.

Zen:

I do think a lot of people wanna get published, get really obsessed with

Zen:

it and worry about their platform and what they do with them there.

Zen:

And I just think it doesn't really matter.

Zen:

At the end of the day, what matters the most is what

Zen:

you're producing, your writing.

Zen:

And if you find that if you don't enjoy it, don't you know, don't bother.

Zen:

Um, you really need to, like, I know several very successful writers who just

Zen:

use social media in a very limited way.

Zen:

I definitely also know writers who are like, I have this level of success

Zen:

because I'm able to connect readers.

Zen:

I'm able to market myself via social media, but I just think there are

Zen:

just lots of different ways of being a writer and having success.

Zen:

And I just don't think it's necessary if social media doesn't come naturally

Zen:

to you or you find it's actually like a net negative in your life.

Zen:

I enjoy it and I think the benefits are like connection because as

Zen:

many people say, writing yourself in a very solitary pursuit.

Zen:

So it's nice to have a way to get to know people, to meet people

Zen:

and to connect with other writers.

Zen:

As well as readers, of course.

Zen:

And so I, I'm on Twitter quite a lot and Instagram, but I think it's also important

Zen:

not to get sucked into it because you, you know, again, these are all cliches, but

Zen:

like they, they are a bubble aren't they?

Zen:

These social media worlds.

Zen:

And I think you can often feel that you have to have commented on every

Zen:

single thing or you have to read every single thing that people are talking

Zen:

about or conversely it can make you feel worse because you feel like everyone's

Zen:

constantly getting book deals and everyone's like getting starred reviews.

Zen:

This, you know, you're Here, you're in the corner, not having published

Zen:

anything in X number of whatever.

Zen:

And so it's just, it's just important to remember that, Twitter is not the

Zen:

world, and I think, I think sometimes, especially if you're just on there

Zen:

all the time, you don't really have anything to take you out of yourself.

Zen:

It can be hard to forget that it is just a bubble.

Tom:

Where you said there, it's good to have a connection with other

Tom:

writers as well as a readership.

Tom:

How do you view conventions, do you feel that they're better than

Tom:

social media in some regards?

Tom:

Have they been useful to your career?

Zen:

Have they been useful?

Zen:

I think it's really hard to answer that one because in a way, networking

Zen:

and seeing people and being around, being seen is always good

Zen:

in a way, so people remember you.

Zen:

Say, when they've got an anthology they want a story for, or they

Zen:

might remember, so is Zen still around and she's still working.

Zen:

Next time I should just mention to her or her agent that the next

Zen:

time she's got a novel I'd be interested in seeing it or whatever.

Zen:

And I definitely know people who got their agent cause they went to

Zen:

a convention or got their book deal cause they went to a convention.

Zen:

But equally, like I will say a lot, a lot of writers do feel like maybe

Zen:

they have to go to conventions, even if they don't particularly enjoy them.

Zen:

Or they might feel if they're in a country that doesn't have access

Zen:

to these conventions, that they are disadvantaged as a result.

Zen:

And I definitely think there is an advantage to being able to plug into

Zen:

these networks and these events, but I definitely don't want people to feel

Zen:

that just because they don't have access to that, they can't be successful.

Zen:

Because again, I think it's one of those nice to haves, but it's not necessary.

Zen:

And actually, if it's something that distracts you from writing that costs

Zen:

you more money than it's worth to you personally, or if that just makes you

Zen:

feel bad when you go it's definitely just not worth it it's, and it's

Zen:

much better for you to stay home and conserve your energy and write.

Zen:

And I definitely also feel and this is particularly in the

Zen:

context of overseas writers.

Zen:

Cause I got asked quite a lot, for example, by other Malaysian

Zen:

writers, do I think I would have the success I have more now if I

Zen:

lived in Malaysia instead of the UK?

Zen:

And it's so hard for me to answer because I want to say at the same time

Zen:

that obviously there are benefits to living in a developed country, that's

Zen:

closer to the publishing centres.

Zen:

But at the same time, I don't want people to be put off, and I definitely know

Zen:

people who say to me, oh, a western, agent would never want to see anything from

Zen:

me, so I wouldn't even bother submitting.

Zen:

And I just don't think that's true.

Zen:

Everything is online now.

Zen:

And I think it's all there.

Zen:

And at the end of the day, like I said before it does come down to the writing.

Zen:

So just, work on your craft.

Zen:

That's really the most important thing.

Zen:

And don't get distracted by this other stuff, like a

Zen:

convention, I go mostly for fun.

Zen:

I don't, I don't go unless I think I'll enjoy it, basically.

):

Yeah.

):

And I think that's a really useful thing to say, because I think a lot

):

of times writers might feel under pressure to promote these things and to

):

say, oh, you know it so good for this.

):

It's so good for that.

):

Social media is so good for this.

):

Say good for that.

):

I think there's a lot of people who, like you say, are maybe so introverted

):

that they're intimidated by crowds.

):

They have a level of shyness.

):

That it's hard to promote themselves on a personal level.

):

Go, Hey!

):

I'm important.

):

Listen to me, I have value being here.

):

It can be very intimidating when someone has zero experience of how to get in.

):

It just seems everyone's chatting.

):

Everyone seems to know each other and you're just an outsider looking in.

):

And to say, it's okay to not go, it's okay to not try and do all

):

your networking on social media, that the importance is the work.

):

And actually, if you don't have the energy or you don't believe that

):

you have the skillset to do this big personal networking either in-person

):

or on social media, as long as you focus on your writing, as long as your

):

stories are good, your characters are interesting and you are committed to

):

a consistent, clear narrative voice.

):

Have belief in that because, at the end of the day, submission editors,

):

agents, they're looking for the story.

):

Not, this amazingly chatty person who's putting great memes online or is just

):

buying everyone drinks at the convention.

):

It doesn't mean that they're good writers.

Zen:

I, a hundred percent believe in that, the work speaks for itself.

Zen:

That I really believe in that.

Tom:

And it's nice to hear that because it's not something

Tom:

that I think has said enough.

Tom:

And it's something that can easily get lost.

Tom:

Especially when a lot of people are talking online or talking at

Tom:

conventions on how to be successful.

Tom:

They say, this is it right?

Tom:

We have to be here.

Tom:

We have to justify why we're here.

Tom:

We have to justify why we're spending all this time online.

Zen:

And I have another thing to say in that.

Zen:

Which is be honest with yourself because let's be real.

Zen:

Right, I think it's really hard.

Zen:

It's very difficult.

Zen:

And actually, a lot of the time, what I feel happens is that, and I

Zen:

boot myself sometimes, is that you do the easier thing because it feels

Zen:

like you're helping your career.

Zen:

So spending loads of time on social media feels that you're helping your career,

Zen:

you know, building a platform or going to cons feels like it's helping your career,

Zen:

but ultimately you have to be honest with yourself because the thing that helps

Zen:

your career the most is writing another story and finishing it and getting it as

Zen:

good as you can and then sending it out.

Zen:

And that is the hardest part.

Zen:

So I can see lots of people just avoiding it as much as they

Zen:

can by doing the other stuff.

Zen:

Yeah.

Tom:

That's a great thing to say.

Tom:

I just have two more things that I just want touch on the end.

Tom:

It's like the final pieces of advice.

Tom:

It's my belief that writers continue to grow and develop

Tom:

with every story that they write.

Tom:

And you've said how your stories have changed.

Tom:

You like your third novel was very different and then obviously your

Tom:

latest um, published work was the first one after having a child.

Tom:

Is there anything that you're consciously aware of that you learnt

Tom:

on the last story that you wrote that you're now trying to apply on

Tom:

the thing you're currently writing?

Zen:

Yeah.

Zen:

So there's two things.

Zen:

So one thing is that if you really enjoy what you're writing.

Zen:

And if you're writing about something that you have personal

Zen:

stake in, a personal, emotional stake in, and that fascinates you.

Zen:

I feel the work will always be stronger.

Zen:

It's not that easy to work out what that is, but that's kind

Zen:

of part of your lifelong job.

Zen:

That's what finding your voice means.

Zen:

It's working out what really fascinates you and then just pushing

Zen:

yourself to, to focus in on that.

Zen:

The second thing, and this all sounds silly, but it's something that I

Zen:

found really hard to internalize.

Zen:

So I really struggled with plot and pacing earlier as a writer and it's

Zen:

still something I don't think of as being particularly my strengths.

Zen:

But that said, when Black Water Sister came out, lots of people were saying,

Zen:

oh, the plot really twisty, or it's really fast paced, couldn't put it down.

Zen:

Which I'm very proud of because I really struggled a lot

Zen:

with that on previous novels.

Zen:

And that was a big part of what I worked on in repeated revisions,

Zen:

very extensive revisions.

Zen:

And the secret to that, which I wish I could tell myself, but when I was

Zen:

earlier I wouldn't really have known how to put it into practice, which is

Zen:

like, stuff just has to keep happening.

Zen:

Like make sure in each new scene something happens.

Zen:

And that's it's not that I learned it, but it's that I somehow internalized it.

Zen:

It's not I didn't know that things should happen in a book before.

Zen:

It's just that you work out what that actually means in terms of

Zen:

structuring a story over time.

Zen:

But yeah, so that's the second thing I've learned, so hopefully I'll be

Zen:

able to keep it up with the next book.

Tom:

And is there one piece of advice that you've received throughout

Tom:

your career that you find motivates you through your own writing?

Tom:

Is there one thing that you keep returning to that's like core to your

Tom:

writing that you feel has helped?

Zen:

I can think of things like that.

Zen:

They're not really advice.

Zen:

It's encouragement.

Zen:

So I'll offer two things cause you never really know what might help you.

Zen:

One thing that I found very helpful a while ago, and it's something that I

Zen:

came across in a book called Thirteen Ways Of Looking At The Novel by Jane

Zen:

Smiley, which is a writing craft book.

Zen:

And I often read writing craft books.

Zen:

Often when I'm drafting or revising something and I feel

Zen:

that it's not going well.

Zen:

And I read these writing craft books being like, please tell me how the plot.

Zen:

And then I often bounce off them because a lot of the time they are based in kind

Zen:

of script writing rules which is fine.

Zen:

But they just don't really seem to work that well with how my brain works.

Zen:

Whereas, Jane Smiley is a novelist, she writes about it

Zen:

from a novelist point of view.

Zen:

And one thing that she said, which I find really useful, and I still use

Zen:

it when I'm thinking about why didn't this book work for me as a reader, is

Zen:

the ending of your book needs to answer the question that the beginning asks.

Zen:

So make sure that when you're writing a book, that's going to be

Zen:

some kind of implied question that the opening, the premise, asks and

Zen:

you need to answer that by the end.

Zen:

And to me that's just quite a useful way because it's not prescriptive.

Zen:

It doesn't tell you to write a book in a certain way, but at the same time

Zen:

if you don't answer that question, if you don't satisfy the puzzle

Zen:

you set up with your setup, readers will be like what happened there?

Zen:

So that's one kind of writing craft thing that I find quite useful.

Zen:

And another thing, but this is very personal, so I don't know

Zen:

if there'll be helpful to anyone.

Zen:

But I, I used to struggle quite a lot about, this kind of goes to finding

Zen:

your voice, about what I was supposed to be writing about or what I was

Zen:

entitled to write about in a weird way.

Zen:

And I think in a way it's, it's, you know, it maybe goes into these

Zen:

conversations that we're having about cultural appropriation and so on.

Zen:

Except for me, it was the other way around, where you know, when I was

Zen:

growing up, because I was reading all these books by white people

Zen:

set in kind of Western countries.

Zen:

As a small child in Malaysia, all my stories, everyone had blonde

Zen:

hair and blue eyes and they were all called Bob or whatever.

Zen:

They didn't have names of the kind that like me and my friends did

Zen:

and they didn't look like this and they didn't talk like us.

Zen:

And so it took a long time for me, because that was what I was presented

Zen:

with, that was what I was reading.

Zen:

I figured that's what books were.

Zen:

Only white people were allowed to read books, essentially.

Zen:

Because that was a message that I was getting from the books I was reading.

Zen:

And so it takes a long time to kind of overcome that programming and work out a

Zen:

new way for yourself to write and break through that mental block, in a way.

Zen:

But at the same time for example, my first two novels, Sorcerer To The Crown

Zen:

and The True Queen are obviously, set in Regency England and they use a very

Zen:

archaic kind of language and they're drawing on all these Merchant Ivory

Zen:

films, you know period films, whatever.

Zen:

And I felt quite conflicted about that as well.

Zen:

Oh, maybe I should be writing about something else.

Zen:

Maybe I should be writing books that are only books set in Malaysia, whatever.

Zen:

And one thing that a friend said to me has always stuck with me.

Zen:

She said, it's all yours.

Zen:

This is all stuff that, it's legitimately part of your heritage

Zen:

in a way, because you grew up reading it and that was brought to you.

Zen:

That was genuinely a part of your cultural background.

Zen:

And so I found that really comforting.

Zen:

So I think what I would translate that into is, it's always really important

Zen:

to think about power balance and the real world impact of what you write.

Zen:

But ultimately if you're sincere and you're engaging with something,

Zen:

it's really important to follow your passion and not worry too much

Zen:

about other people's expectations of what you're producing.

Zen:

It's really important to learn to listen to that inner voice.

):

That's great.

):

That's all we have time for this week, but I'd just like to

):

thank Zen Cho for joining us.

):

Thank you so much.

Zen:

Thank you.

Zen:

Thank you.

Tom:

That was the real writing process of Zen Cho.

Tom:

If you'd like to learn more about Zen, you can find all of her

Tom:

details on her website, Zencho.org.

Tom:

You can also find Zen on Instagram and Twitter under the handle, @zenaldehyde,

Tom:

which is spelled Z E N A L D E H Y D E.

Tom:

And if you'd like this interview, please consider leaving a review.

Tom:

I'm currently a team of one and the more positive reviews I get, the more

Tom:

authors are likely to want to come on the show and share that process with you.

Tom:

Thank you all for listening until next time or until the world ends.

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