“Writers’ block is when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.”
- Mary Papas
Throughout the book, you’ve read strategies on what it takes to be successful. Now’s the time to hear from the horse’s mouth, experts in their fields who are out there in the trenches, getting the job done. What are they doing? What makes them successful?
All the interviews were conducted via email and we’ve pasted all their responses as they were sent. The good thing about interviewing people who write for a living – no editing required! This is what it takes to build a career writing, folks!
· Get Your Book Out by Acclaimed Author Neil Humphreys
Neil Humphreys is Singapore’s bestselling author. His works on Singapore - Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001), Scribbles from the Same Island (2003), and Final Notes from a Great Island: A Farewell Tour of Singapore (2006), and the omnibus Complete Notes from Singapore (2007) – are among the most popular titles in the past decade. His fifth book, Be My Baby, (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international bestseller. He intends to publish a new novel - a contemporary detective thriller - and produce his Singapore-based movie screenplay this year.
1. Did you always know that you were going to write? What were the signs?
I can remember the day. It’s a story I tell young, aspiring writers today. When I was 11, our class was sent on an Outward Bound course for a week and had to keep daily journals of our adventures. When we returned, I was selected to read out my diary entries in school assembly. My writing just didn’t follow a standard narrative, which I found eye-gougingly tedious, even back then. I leaned towards the irreverent, quirky, sometimes surreal, occasionally anarchic – all four if I was really on fire! So I read my journal extract out in class and the assembly responded, a wall of laughter washed over me. Kids, teachers, the principal all laughed in the right places – real laughter, too, not polite giggles from the grown-ups. They laughed. They listened. They laughed. They listened. Adrenaline surged through me like the most addictive of drugs. I’ve chased that reaction from an audience ever since. It’s an extraordinary feeling. Something that I had created had caused that kind of reaction. And I can’t turn it off. It’s not a job. It’s my life. I was writing for audiences before puberty kicked in. It’s all I know. But you never forget your first time.
2. Describe how you got your first book deal.
Frankly, I thought the average “local” bookshelf at a Singaporean bookstore was dreadful, either painfully superficial and fluffy or weighty, academic, indulgent and occasionally pretentious. On one end of the shelf, it was the life and times of Singapore hookers. And at the other end, it was the life and times of Lee Kuan Yew or Singaporeans under the Japanese Occupation. Throw in some nostalgic poetry about kampongs and Nyonya cooking and that was about it.
Don’t get me wrong. All of the above has a valid place on the bookshelf. I own copies of all of the above. But where was the middle ground? There was a cultural chasm on the Singapore bookshelf. Where was the Singaporean equivalent of Bill Bryson, Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons or Sue Townsend? Those were the books that my Singaporean mates were reading? What if there was something along those humorous lines, something dipped in social commentary with a splash of pathos? Something that was hopefully smart but still accessible? So, I banged out a synopsis and a few chapters and sent them out to three publishers in Singapore; the contacts were given to me from The Straits Times’ Sumiko Tan, something I’ll always be grateful to her for. All three publishers wanted to publish the manuscript and my Singapore notes series became the bestselling series of books in the next decade, so I must have been right about that gap on the shelf!
3. Why do you choose to go with a traditional publisher? What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
I approached three traditional publishers because back in 1999, that’s pretty much all there was. I was a cocky little sod back then and my self-belief left me breathtakingly jaundiced in my thinking.
One respectable publisher liked the essence of the book, but wanted to turn it into more of an academic, Simon Tay-esque critique of Singapore in the late 1990s. Well, that’s what Simon Tay is for! The second publisher gave the manuscript to a foppish Hugh Grant-type of expat that still floated about the island in the late nineties and, in his rather patronising fashion, took issue with the book’s earthiness and the swearing. But my eventual publisher just got it. They understood its tone. They recognised that it might – heaven forbid – be a Singaporean book for Singaporeans, rather than another, tedious “Englishman in Asia” diatribe. So they took a gamble. And in a pre-Facebook, Twitter world, my book seemed to be positively rebellious. It reads rather quaint, almost twee now. So I stuck with my publisher. That said, I think self-publishing offers budding authors the kind of possibilities that didn’t exist when I was starting out.
4. Any advice for budding authors?
Get your writing out everywhere. Use blogs, social media even YouTube clips to spread and promote your work. Try and build an online following, even if it’s just friends and family. The recognition will add weight with potential publishers. If that doesn’t work, get it self-published. Manuscripts can now be converted to ebooks for pocket change. There’s nothing holding back budding writers now from getting their work onto a bigger platform.
5. Why do you choose to write humour and how does one write humour? Any tips?
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, if you’re going to tell the truth, make them laugh, or they will kill you. There is no sharper tool in the socio-political box than humour. One punchline can hit harder than a 1,000-word essay in the commentary section. The best tip is also the hardest in face-saving Singapore. Laugh at yourself first. That’s your launchpad. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at anyone else. If you can’t earn empathy, you can’t earn trust. Finger pointers will always have a limited shelf life. There’s some mileage, particularly online, from making fun of others, ridiculing politicians, town councils, governments etc. It’s an open goal, but can smack of bullying after a while. If you’re not prepared to make fun of yourself in print, take up political commentary instead. Those guys are deadly serious.
6. What’s your biggest mistake as a writer and how did you bounce back?
I made the above mistake a little bit. When my first book was successful, it went a little to my head. I thought I was a rebel with a laptop. So my second book was twice the swearing, twice the aggression, twice the finger-pointing and half as subtle. I learned that lesson pretty quickly.
7. Do you ever get writer’s block and how do you get over it?
I don’t get writer’s block. I’m a working class kid making a living as a full-time writer and feeding a young daughter. I do not enjoy the luxury of writer’s block. Sometimes I write as a tradesman. Sometimes I strive for a little artistry. Some days the writing is going to flow; other days it will be laborious and the sentences stutter. But I never stop writing. I don’t have a choice. I keep going and edit later!
8. What inspires you and what are some of your favourite books and authors?
Quirky, insightful, funny, poignant, engaging writers; writers who look at the world from a skewed, surreal, daft, even child-like curiosity. Spike Milligan, George Orwell, Sue Townsend, Tony Parsons, Nick Hornby, Philip Larkin, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Jimmy McGovern, David Simon, David Chase, these are my writers.
9. What is your daily writing/work schedule like?
I get up, take my daughter to school and write for the rest of the day. I have to work in silence. Gaskets tend to be blown when I’m interrupted. If the train of thought is derailed, there’s no guarantee I’ll find the same way home again. Hence the silence!
The profession is not particularly romantic, but it’s the only one I know.
10. What do you think are the key factors of your success, and has success changed your life in any way?
A splash of talent and buckets of industry. Yes, success has changed my life. I work even harder now.
11. Have you ever done a book proposal for a publisher. If yes, do you mind sharing it?
I pitch an idea, usually in an email, or sometimes in a meeting and they either say yes or no. Most of the time, they say no!
· Blogging From The Heart by Award-winning Blogger Grace Tan
Grace owns the award-winning business and lifestyle blog, workingwithgrace.wordpress.com. Her blog won the coveted Best Individual Blog award at the Singapore Blog Awards 2013. She is also the author of the bestselling book, Blogging For A Living, and conducts workshops and coaching sessions on the craft of blogging. She has been widely featured in the media - from TV, radio to print.
1. When and why did you start a blog?
I started my blog, workingwithgrace.wordpress.com, in October 2010, when I was still a salesperson with a high salary. I was bored of doing the same thing, day in and day out for close to two years, and wanted to find out the “secrets to success” of those young entrepreneurs, millionaire businessmen, and even pose some questions to celebrities I admired (such as Michelle Chong)! My blog was simply, my “excuse” to interview them. I knew people would not let me interview them unless I had a good reason to.
2. Unlike most bloggers, you are able to make money from your blog and quit your job! Can you share with us your strategy?
I am truly an “accidental full-time blogger”. I never thought I would make a cent from my blog. And I never knew how a blogger could monetise a blog. I started blogging just because of my passion for meeting and speaking with those people I admired.
Along the way, people wrote to me and asked if I could feature them on my blog too. I was truly shocked as I didn’t even know who they were! Having done some background checks on them, and convinced that their businesses were legal, ethical and moral, I plucked a figure out of thin air and said I’d interview them for S$500. What shocked me was the “ok” that followed. That was how I got started. It was only after I quit my job that I had more time to work on my blog, and reaped the fruits of my labor thereafter.
3. What was the turning point in your blog – what caused it to be so popular?
I guess the “tipping point” was in July 2013 when I won the Best Individual Blog award at the Singapore Blog Awards, and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) which was the organiser, had the winners’ pictures and interviews featured in many of their publications. I was also featured on TV on September 9th, and even more people got a sneak peek into the life of a blogger. I published my book, ‘Blogging For A Living’ around that time too.
4. How do you choose what topics to write?
I started out with interviews, mainly. As I didn’t think that anyone would be interested in my life. Now, my blog has a “lifestyle” portion to it, which means I can blog about the latest movie I have watched, my recent getaway, etc. I blog only about what I feel strongly about, whether it be a new cafe with amazing dessert or a restaurant with really terrible service. I am fair that way.
I will continue conducting interviews as they give me valuable insights into the lives of people I look up to.
5. You have become an award-winning blogger in four short years, any advice for wannabe bloggers?
The first and most important piece of advice I have for wannabe bloggers is to never, ever do this for the money. If you want to get rich quick, try Internet Marketing or some multi-level marketing (MLM) business. Blogging is not it. Blogging takes time. The average blog takes about two years before gaining some decent traffic, sponsorship and advertising revenue.
The second piece of advice is to work your ass off, and keep asking of more from yourself. I love taking part in bloggers’ contests, where I get to pit my talents and creativity against other bloggers’, via a blogpost. Coming in second is never an option. I compete only to win.
6. In your experience, is it better to be colloquial or to write in proper English for blogs?
To impress people, keep to proper English. To impress a point upon your readers, you can be colloquial. Different strokes for different folks anyway. Just be yourself. Those who like you for who you are will gravitate towards you. Those who do not like you might still stalk you on your blog from time to time.
7. Why do you think your readers keep returning to your blog?
I like to think it’s because of my brutally honest reviews. If I like something, I will explain why. And if I do not like something, I do not mince my words either.
No advertiser can pay me to get a glowing review out of me. I cannot be bought. I present the facts as I see them and my readers know they can trust what I say. I am as brutally honest in person as I am online.
8. Do you ever get writer’s block and how do you get over it?
Writer’s block comes about when you are not blogging about something you are passionate about. For example, if you are a journalist and you just have to submit that piece by tomorrow morning, but the topic does not even inspire you.
If you blog, say, about the Running Man series which you are crazy about, how do you get writer’s block? Those who suffer from “verbal diarrhoea” about Running Man often also have really lengthy blogposts about the series. What writer’s block is there?
If I ever feel stuck when crafting a blogpost or taking part in a bloggers’ contest, I will either just leave it aside and go do something else, such as cleaning my hamster’s cage. Or I will look up my earlier blogposts for inspiration, or turn to the Internet.
9. What inspires you and what are some of your favourite bloggers or websites?
I’m inspired by people who are successful at what they do. I am inspired by creative people and ideas. I love anything that is colourful, quirky, imaginative and fun.
I love how Wendy Cheng, a.k.a Xiaxue, has demonstrated to us that if you persevere in doing what you like to do, you will be able to reach the peak of success. I have more vloggers I follow than bloggers anyway. I like the Blogilates channel, JennaMarbles and Michelle Phan. These ladies are incredibly talented.
10. Any funny/memorable anecdote to share about your life as a blogger?
There are so many! But what I like to share with people was how I got “known” as that blogger who interviews people. So there was once when a PR company sent me an event invite that tickled me because it was stated in bold that it was an “INTERVIEW OPPORTUNITY”. I was totally uninterested in the product being launched at the event, but turned up anyway because of that email. And I did get to interview a popular male celebrity, whom I shall not name so as not to reveal the product that was featured.
My parents were initially puzzled at my strange career choice. My father, who is retired, gets really tickled by how he has to answer the door all the time as couriers would come by with products sent by PR firms and companies for me to review.
Also, I like surprising people. So when I was featured in The Sunday Times on Easter Sunday this year, I came home to find my mother reading the papers, totally not believing what her eyes were seeing. I just had to cheekily ask her: “Why? You spotted someone familiar in the papers?”
11. Last year, you published your own book and now run blogging workshops, where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I get asked this question so often that I included it in the ‘About’ section of my blog. It is an important question that I have no answer to. Being brutally honest, I have to say that I am no fortune teller and cannot possibly tell you what I’ll be doing in five years’ time. Perhaps I might be changing my baby’s diapers then.
Right now, I’d love to get a second book published though I have neither decided on a topic or timeframe. I believe that all things happen at the right time. It is like an idea which comes to you on the wind, and if you do not have the good sense to catch it and make it work, it will just get blown to the next person. And before you know it, he or she would have published that book, or written that movie script, or penned that poem, that you thought about first.
· How To Be A Media Darling by Social Media Strategist, Jacky Tan
Jacky Tan is a professional writer, brand strategist and speaker. He is also the author of “Social M – How Your Start-Up Can Take on the Big Boys Today”. Rated by Twitterholic as one of the top 40 influential Twitterers in Singapore, Jacky currently owns one of the top marketing blogs in Singapore www.marketingstrategyexpert.wordpress.com.
1. How long have you been doing social media marketing?
I started in 2009 on a small scale with Twitter. During that time, Twitter was very new in Singapore so I managed to get a first mover advantage and leverage on Twitter. With my experience, I started doing more social media marketing and branding for companies, two years later in 2011.
2. Why is social media so crucial for authors?
For authors like me who do not have a huge budget for marketing, making use of social media to build my profile and my book is very important. Social media allows me to get targeted readers without spending a lot of money on advertising. It is much more cost effective than traditional media such as print, TV or radio. Social media also cuts across all geographical boundaries and allows me to showcase my book to a worldwide audience. It allows me to create my little “cult” of followers who like what I have written online. For example, a Facebook page for an author is like an opt-in marketing page. Prospects will like your page first and then slowly become your fans; after that, I can update them on a regular basis so as to build my brand credibility.
The last thing, and perhaps the most crucial of all, is that social media is a very strong word-of-mouth marketing tool. It is better than getting on the front page of a mainstream newspaper which only lasts for one or two days. On social media, if people like your brand, they will share it virally to their peers in a matter of seconds and your influence will continue to spread as long as your content can be found online.
3. You’ve recently launched your book, Social ‘M’, can you share what you did to promote it?
Since most people visit social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or LinkedIn, I knew I had to create a strong presence there. One of the things that I did was to create a Facebook page for my blog. From there, I made a "Buy My Book" tab and placed it prominently on my Facebook page. For my Facebook Page content, I focused on subtle marketing. That means I educate people about simple marketing tips, showing them creative advertising and also interesting social media facts.
I also used Facebook advertising to target people living in Singapore that are interested in marketing and business entrepreneurship. This way, my Facebook followers are highly targeted prospects that will most likely buy my book. It is important that you don’t post promotions to sell your books on Facebook. It will never work. We have to create interesting content that our prospects will love to read and share. To date, my Facebook campaign that started in Oct 18 last year, has already garnered a following of 3651 likes. By consistently building good interesting content on Facebook, my little “cult” of followers will increase as well.
I also used blogging and articles contribution to business related websites to increase my brand profile as a writer and a business strategist. I have a marketing blog that has regular views on a daily basis. By contributing to online content whether in the form of blog posts or other online media, authors like me can have the chance to become thought leaders in the online world.
4. Why did you choose a traditional publisher instead of going indie (self-publishing)?
I wanted to have something tangible and see how the professional publishers work. To me, having a printed book is more credible. As I did not have a budget to self-publish a printed book, I sought the professional and traditional publisher to publish and market my book. The publisher was able to take me by the hand every step of the way, from reviewing my manuscript to getting my book to the bookstores. This is quite crucial for newbie authors who may be unfamiliar with the publishing terrain.
5. Do you know of any successful online book campaigns? What did they do?
I have heard success stories about struggling authors who started out with poor book sales at the stores then they gave away their content on Amazon Kindle for less than US$9.95, resulting in a very good income in a matter of weeks. One example is Joe Konrath who made about USD$100,000 in three weeks on Amazon Kindle. I am not as fortunate as Joe Konrath, my first Amazon Kindle book didn’t go so well. But the key is to keep on trying until it is right.
Whether you are with a traditional publisher or self-publishing, an author’s marketing efforts does not stop after his book is published and distributed in the bookstores. You need to continue to build your brand profile in the industry so that more people will get to know you and buy your books.
6. With so many social media outlets – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, it can be overwhelming for a newbie. In your opinion, which delivers the best results?
Each social media outlet has its unique group of users, but we do not have use all them. You should select the channels according to who your targeted readers are. For example:
· For young-adult fiction books, you can consider using Twitter and Instagram. This is where most teenagers are hanging out.
· If you are targeting readers who are in the corporate or business world, then LinkedIn or Facebook is good.
· If you write about fashion and beauty, Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram are great avenues to share your content.
It is important to test the market. Sometimes what works for one author, may not work for the other. Moreover, some social media outlets can work in one country but may not work in another country. So always test it out. If the strategy does not work, move on to another. If the strategy works, continue to focus on your efforts and make it better!
7. How can we promote our book without looking like we’re “selling” which will put people off after a while?
You are right. Selling on social media will put people off. Instead, give value to your prospective readers with interesting content and build their trust from there. The more content you share to educate the readers, the more they will perceive you as the expert and authority of your topic.
8. Besides traditional media, are there any online media we should target and how do we go about doing that?
Before you do that, make sure your books are available online so that people worldwide can buy your books. Then, you can tap on Goodreads, a book recommendation website for people to review, give a rating and recommend books to their friends. This is similar to TripAdvisor which is about hotel reviews.
For children fiction authors, you can build a website around the characters of your storybook, thus making your characters come alive in the online world. Imagination is boundless; by building a content rich website about your story characters, it can help generate buzz for your book and you! Encourage book fans to build fanpages or even websites for your characters. The Harry Potter fans are a big example.
For non-fiction books, it is still all about building your brand credibility and profile so that people will get to know about you and your book. Another method for non-fiction authors is to find a niche consumer market on social media such as Facebook and then share expert opinions and put relevant and interesting visuals to interest readers. Leverage on the traffic of other business media or related media websites and direct the traffic to your book or author profile page.
9. What about presentation? Should we dress up our press release or just send a PDF copy via email?
It is pretty difficult to just send a summary of our books to the press nowadays. People in the media are always looking for newsworthy content. So, in order for traditional media outlets to write about you, you must contribute to their content. I have been a frequent contributor to Singapore Business Review because I feel that this is where my potential clients as well as readers of my books will be. This is because the majority of the people reading Singapore Business Review are my targeted consumer audience such as business executives, CEOs, PMEs and bosses. Two of my short articles were featured for the Editor’s pick at Singapore Business Review and received very good responses, views as well as sent new readers to my blog.
Instead of dressing up our press releases, I say we dress up our articles. Here are some tips:
· Firstly, we have to leave a positive impression with the audience. The not-so-good writers will usually write articles in a condescending manner. By doing so, the reader will find it hard to connect with the author. Good writers leave a positive impression while at the same time maintaining an authoritarian tone on the topic they write about.
· Secondly, it is about consistency. Not many people will usually read our blog in the initial stage, the important thing is to keep on writing. When I finished my 30th article, I was able to see an increase in my readership and some magazines also started to pick up my articles. When I finished my 50th article, I was invited by SMU to be a panelist speaker for one of their meetings. When I finished my 100th article, the number of companies that asked me to help them on their branding strategies increased twofold. So, just keep on writing and sharing your content!
· Thirdly, make more friends and let them know what you are doing. You never know who will refer you to somebody that will be a huge influence in your book career path someday.