Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Writing 20,000 words

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There was a time when writing 10,000 words seemed like a major undertaking, an academic slog, a marathon. Writing the dissertation for my journalism degree, around 10,000 words, seemed quite a big deal. And it doesn’t ever become a tiny thing. Yes, as a professional writer I regularly accrue many thousands of words. But these are for separate articles. One sustained piece of writing that clocks up 8,000 words or more is not a piece of cake.

It is doubly hard when you’re writing a piece of creative nonfiction, as opposed to journalism with its formulas and expectations. Writing a reported feature about expats living in Paris, to take an example, poses different challenges to writing a personal exploration of what it is like living in Paris as an expat. One requires research and interviews: reporting; while the other is memoir and creative nonfiction.

Obviously, if you wrote bad memoir, a long rambling piece that no one wants to read, then the task would certainly be a walk in the park, but to write originally, compellingly and atmospherically requires considerable attention and skill.

I wrote 10,000 words over a few weeks, while living in a hostel in Taipei, Taiwan, in June this year. It was for a nonfiction book proposal. I also wrote an outline and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown.

I sent it out to a few agents. I got a rejection by one. A couple of non-replies. And one expression of interest. The agent that got back to me asked me a question about the project. And the question was a useful one.

But it took me a while before I really understood the nature of the question. The question concerned the vision I had for the book. And how I answered would determine my success with said agent.

To cut a story short, I am now rewriting the book sample. I am writing another 10,000 words, from scratch. Now the whole project has a different prospect. It is a slow process, but I try to put in the work on a daily basis. Every day I try to get words down on the page.

Some days it’s only 300, 400 words. Some days, it’s 700, 800. I rarely exceed that. But taken over 30 days, a month’s work, that racks up to 15,000 words (assuming an average of 500 words/day).

I can’t write much more than 1000 words a day – in this form – because I just find it really hard. But maybe there will come a time when this changes.

There was a time when I would’ve thought writing 80,000 words for a novel, or 10k words for a nonfiction book sample, an insurmountable challenge. I wouldn’t know where to start, and, more significantly, not know how to create anything approaching original, interesting to readers, or compelling.

But this rings true for many things. Back when I was still a journalism student the idea that I could turn in a 1000-word news feature about a complex subject, with a range of reporting and research, within 24 hours, would’ve seemed outlandish — but that’s what I did recently for this news feature for WIRED. These are within my capabilities.

It takes time to hone that craft. But actually, more than practice, it takes a kind of inner development to really push through to take on challenges you never thought you could take on successfully.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 17, 2019 at 12:32 pm

Makeshift offices and portable magic

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A late night dinner of delicious beer and chips, washed down with an episode of Stranger Things. A micro-brewery in Seoul.

In July, while I was in Seoul, I bought a gadget that has made my freelance life better. I bought it in the only Apple store in Seoul, which I first visited in 2018 for a business feature I was reporting, a feature that paid out very well. Anyway, in July, in this Apple store in Seoul, which is located in the Gangnam district, on a famous street called garosu-gil, I bought an iPad Mini.

Seoul is a good place to pick up Apple products. You begin with cheaper starting prices compared to the UK and you also get a 10% tourist tax refund at the airport. I picked up an iPad Mini, a Bluetooth Logitech keyboard, and a Pencil.

I have found the iPad Mini a great addition to my gadgetry. It syncs seamlessly with my iPhone SE, so websites opened on my iPhone can also be found on my iPad browser, for example. The iPad Mini has an extremely fast A12 processor chip (the top-of-the-line iPad Pro has the A12X), a True Tone screen, and is a relative bargain compared to the overpriced iPhones.

I also downloaded the GoodNotes app which I use with the Apple Pencil to sketch down ideas, create PDFs and make annotations. I have Apple Arcade which I enjoy — playing Sayonara Wild Hearts paired with a PlayStation 4 controller, and headphones, is serious fun: an aural and visual delight.

In Singapore, I relaxed with a can of Harbin beer, at my friend’s apartment where I was staying, lounging on the veranda in the tropical evening, watching Netflix on the iPad.

I also use the iPad Mini for work. I find working in vertical orientation quite pleasing, and typing on the Logitech keyboard on the Mini is fun. I can put the iPad and the keyboard into a little sling bag, and it is a very portable set-up. I remember pulling it out for an impromptu typing session on the street using an outside table in Seoul. The machine is fast and capable and battery life is very good.

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Using my iPad Mini in a Dunkin Donuts in Seoul.

When you’re freelance many tables can become your office. And some of the tables I worked on when I was traveling seemed innocuous enough. The Dunkin Donuts “office” reached by escalator and opposite the Gangnam-gu Office subway station, in Seoul, offered fantastic doughnuts and decent coffee.

The café with a window which overlooked the river.

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A café where I worked one afternoon in Singapore.

 

The wooden “table” where I placed my notebook and wrote one of these blog posts.

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A makeshift office.

All of these, despite being banal and somewhat mundane things — a table, a chair — have picked up a kind of retrospective magic.

What I’ve been reading #1

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This is a roundup of interesting articles I’ve read recently, a collection of ecletic pieces that come with my recommendation.

First up, this article in WIRED — Why Are Rich People So Mean?

Christopher Ryan weaves together a tale involving his personal recollection of traveling through India combined with scientific and anecdotal evidence that being rich might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

He profiles Silicon Valley millionaires, successful and wealthy men, who feel unfulfilled and stressed out from a life that should be charmed and gilded with happiness. It is a rich, powerful, and redemptive read.

I was in India the first time it occurred to me that I, too, was a rich asshole. I’d been traveling for a couple of months, ignoring the beggars as best I could. Having lived in New York, I was accustomed to averting my attention from desperate adults and psychotics, but I was having trouble getting used to the groups of children who would gather right next to my table at street-level restaurants, staring hungrily at the food on my plate.

Next, a much shorter article in The Guardian which I found relatable — ‘I swapped a job in Cumbria for blogging from the beach in Bali’

For those of you who don’t know, Cumbria is a county in the northwest of England, famous for the Lake District. A regular series that looks at how people spend and save their money, it was an insight into the decisions that led to such a move. I have never been to Bali and it was interesting to get a glimpse of the life there, and to see, in detail, the income and expenditure of someone who decided to swap the cloudiness of Cumbria for the surf and sea of Bali.

Name: Stephanie Conway
Age: 29
Income: About £1,700 a month
Occupation: Digital marketing

I booked a £300, one-way plane ticket from the UK to Bali in May. I didn’t tell my family I was leaving at first as I was worried it might seem irrational.

A soulful and perspective-changing read from One Zero MediumOn Using Tech While Poor

The writer John Bogna details how he gets by using tech he can afford, such as a laptop from 2009 which he still uses. It was a peek into how much technology can mean to people, how something we might take for granted might mean a world of difference.

Reading the article reminded me of the days when I used a super crappy smartphone, back when I was heavily intent on saving money as a newcomer to Beijing, and without job and income.

It was a model with a low-res screen, crappy rear camera (front-facing selfie cameras were not common back then), and I remember it even had an aerial! Yes, a radio aerial that you could pull out from a hole, and which I played with distractedly.

Still, this smartphone was the first Android device I ever used and it was a gateway to a social life, the Internet, and the low-res pics I took on that phone are ones I treasure.

Finally, a long read by Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker — a profile of an actress —  Constance Wu’s Hollywood Destiny.

Here, the fact the author of the article is herself Chinese-American gives the piece a more perceptive and dynamic charge. It is not, and has never been, correct that a profile or an interview should be 100% objective (it’s not even possible, in fact). We relate to other people as people and thus a successful profile piece should see the writer really engage with her/his subject.

People are not just objective facts. To really see the person behind the celebrity, the wealth, the achievements, a writer has to subjectively gauge the truth. Truth and facts are not the same thing. And in this wonderfully perceptive profile, Fan allows us to glimpse the true Constance Wu, a version that we may never otherwise see, with the details she decided to include in her piece.

To end, here are some of my own pieces I have had published, which may be of interest.

10 October, WIRED (UK)Blizzard and esports can’t win the battle against Chinese censors

Sport has always had moments when politics has suddenly invaded the athletic spectacle, and now the same thing is happening in esports, in what could be a watershed moment for the burgeoning industry.

8 October, Inkstone The surprising place some Korean women are going for a career boost 

1 October, Underpinned I chose to become a migrant, and learned to be a freelancer

I hope you enjoyed this post; to make sure you never miss an edition of what I’ve been reading, or to get my blog posts delivered straight into your inbox, make sure to subscribe. You can do so by clicking the ‘Follow’ button on the righthand side of the homepage. Thanks for reading.

What I learned from five months of freelancing and travel

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This year, I left England in April, and I travelled for five months. I stayed in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks where I slept on a friend’s couch. I left for Taiwan where I stayed for almost two months, in a hostel, in a student district of Taipei. Next, I flew to Beijing, for an assignment, where I dwelled two weeks at a friend’s apartment.

After that I went to South Korea for half a month, stayed in a hostel. Finally I went to Singapore, where I stayed for just over a month, in hostels and a friend’s apartment. Overall, I travelled to five different places.

  • Hong Kong/last two weeks of April — I wrote a feature (Dynamic Yield) for a newspaper based in the UAE and an interview feature (Hao Wu documentary) for a UK magazine.
  • Taiwan/May & June — I started writing a big feature (Money) for the BBC, and wrote a nonfiction book proposal. I completed two more features (coffee culture in China & virtual banks) for the UAE newspaper.
  • Beijing/July — I worked on an assignment for a US college magazine. And finished off the big BBC feature (which has still not been published, although I have been paid.) I also successfully pitched a feature idea (videogames) to the UAE newspaper.
  • South Korea/July — I successfully pitched an article idea (migration for work/life) for a UK website. I also went to Gwangju for the 2019 FINA Swimming World Championships, and caught up with a friend. I met someone who gave me the seed of an idea for another article.
  • Singapore/August — I met up with a BBC editor; pitched a significant number of unsuccessful article ideas; and successfully pitched the idea (feminism) that originated in South Korea to a HK-based web publication. And pitched another big feature (Time) to the BBC.

I came back to England on 6th September. It’s nice to be back, enjoying the late summer sun and the beginnings of autumn. I am fortunate that I have a family home where I can stay when I am back. It is probably the basis of my ability to travel in the way I do; so I recognise that I have this fortunate foundation.

The biggest lesson I gained from the five months of freelancing was that geography and timeline doesn’t draw as tight a connection to successful pitches and feature ideas as I thought. That time and geography are pretty flexible for a freelance feature writer.

For example, I can pitch an idea in Beijing, start writing it in South Korea, write more of it in Singapore, and finish the article and file it in England. Similarly, I can get the germ of an idea while in South Korea, pitch it while I happen to be in Singapore, and research and interview sources in England.

This is a useful lesson that I will put into effect on future freelance forays. Here are some other things I learned:

  • It always takes time to adapt. It wasn’t until halfway through my time in Taiwan that I finally became comfortable with my nomadic freelance schedule. I came to embrace it.
  • It’s important to remember what you’ve achieved on a daily basis (ticking off or writing down the things completed that day). This gives you a sense of progress and stops ennui.
  • Twitter remains a valuable resource for generating article ideas and making professional contacts. But too much of it is a real downer.
  • It’s a good idea to meet editors in real life. Just for a quick coffee. The physical meet-up remains a powerful networking tool.
  • Accommodation prices in first-tier developed cities are exorbitant.
  • Never be afraid to renegotiate fees or ask for more money.
  • A little bit of praise can go a long way.
  • I have a tendency to tarry so I need to get better at scheduling.
  • South Korea has a lot of Dunkin Donuts and it is hella good.

There is probably more stuff but I can’t remember all of them. I will now probably stay at home for a bit. But already, after two weeks at home, I can feel myself starting to get restless. Soon enough I will be on the road again. To write, to connect, to experience. Onward.

Singapura

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Singapore’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Botanic Gardens. Image taken on a Fuji X70. All images: LHL

Initially, I was joyful to see the sunny dispositions

of Singaporeans

and their warm, unwavering, spotless streets.

It looked prosperous, clean, multicultural, industrious.

Excellent infrastructure, a well regarded greening policy, a much admired economy.

It took me a little while — a process of slow but inevitable discovery —

to see the unsunny side.

The darker, more complex reality.

Here follows a WhatsApp text conversation, over a period of a couple of weeks, between me and a Singaporean woman of similar age to me, whom I met while I stayed in Singapore. She is Chinese Singaporean, speaks Chinese and English, and works in a bank:

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 8, 2019 at 5:52 am

Rethinking purpose

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Recently I scribbled something to help provide a little clarity and direction to my wayward freelance lifestyle. It is designed to placate, as I have a tendency to overthink, and so creeping anxieties arise. This document is mostly for my benefit. But I thought I would share in case other freelancers might find it of use. I believe occasionally scribbling something that summarises what’s important to you may help in fending off distraction and give you a boost in motivation to move forward with purpose.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 10, 2019 at 6:14 am

While I was in Beijing

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I have a friend who is incredibly organised, has an adorable dog, likes baking, and possesses a property portfolio. We met while working for the same creative agency in Beijing; she had a fulltime job as an account director, and I was a copywriter on a temporary contract.

We kept a low-level friendship on social media, although we became friendlier as we commented on each other’s posts. She is several years older than me and is happily settled with husband and career.

While I was in Beijing, for work, in early July, we arranged a swimming meet-up. I am a keen swimmer and I had seen that she was learning to swim front crawl. She invited me to join her at her gym, on a Sunday morning, during her swim lesson. I looked forward to this more than I could say.

After the swim, and while my friend got changed, I snapped this photo of the sunlight filtering through the gym from the large windows.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 5, 2019 at 11:43 am