Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

How I got over my writer’s block 2.0

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Recently, I had occasion to write another 10,000 words. This was in order for me to start querying literary agents. (I will let you know how I got on in a future post.)

I’ve written a 10,000-word sample before: over two months sequestered in a cosy hostel in Taipei, Taiwan in 2019. I then sent out the 10k sample, along with a synopsis, and chapter summaries, to a few agents, and received zero reply from a couple of them; one expression of interest; and one rejection (which contained feedback). That project failed.

This year, I had occasion to think up another book proposal, after I was selected to be on the inaugural HarperCollins Author Academy. This new book idea, for HarperCollins, kind of failed (it’s not yet 100% clear), so I went back to the drawing board to think of another.

I came up with a new idea. I queried an agent with only the idea (via Twitter), but she said she would make a decision only based on reading a sample. So I had to write a sample of this book.

And in the beginning, there was nothing

I started very slowly. It felt like swimming in mud, like trying to get off the bed when you have sleep paralysis.

Some quick sketches. A few sentences scribbled down on paper, or on my phone, hastily, when the thought-fox came.

Then I evolved to 100 or 150 words per day. Only a paragraph or so for an entire day.

Then 200 or 250; then 350…. 500!

Eventually, I was writing around an average of 700 to 1,100 words — every single day. It felt glorious.

This is where I like to be. Think about it: if you average 800 words a day, then 90 days will give you a book. That wouldn’t be bad going. But it took a little while to get started.

It’s like an engine. A train gathering speed. The cranks start moving, building up steam, before the momentum carries. I gathered a wonderful head of momentum and I finished my 10k sample in about 5 weeks or so.

What helped my mind chew through the huge amount of thoughts running through my head as I began to get moving on my writing…

A few things helped. First of all, I found a new running route near my home. This route, through some woods, which saw a crop of bluebells as spring finally sprung, before jetting out into space with green rolling fields around me, was enlivening. It stimulated the spirit and therefore the mind.

The tools that helped me connect to the words and the process

Secondly, I started using a fountain pen. My stepdad bought me a set of Cross pens some age ago, as a Christmas or birthday present, but the ink had long been used up. I went to WHSmiths and got a new pack of ink cartridges (£5!), and after cleaning and draining the dried-up gunk in the feed, I inserted the new cartridge and started using this fountain pen.

Writers write. But our tools are not the satisfying variety of paintbrushes and paints; or the fun tactility of woodcraft with their lathes, chisels, and whatnot. So writers are left with pens and stationery. But I have gotten deep into this.

I started to love writing with my fountain pen. I started to handwrite more, inking up my notebooks. I began to understand that I’d relied too much on my laptop, thinking that writing didn’t count unless it was typed up on the screen. How wrong!

And I found I could be extraordinarily productive handwriting. I could produce half a page in twenty minutes. After this, I could get up and go do something else. But eventually I would produce the other half. Then, eventually, I’d type this up — editing as I went.

I discovered the joy of handwriting again. My Cross fountain pen does very nicely. But I started looking into fountain pens. And I fell into a rabbit hole. I discovered there is an entire field of enthusiasts, hobbyists, and passionate pen collectors. There are blogs dedicated to pens. And I started consuming YouTube videos where people review fountain pens! Yes, I fell deep.

Now, I’ve promised myself that after reaching certain goals I’m going to reward myself with a nice new fancy fountain pen. I’ve discovered that the more serious pens cost over £100. Yes, a ton just for a pen. Why so much? These pens are made to a superior standard; use pistons, converters or vacuums (so you can use ink bottles) for their inkwell, and they are fitted with gold nibs. 14 karat, 18k, and 21 karat are the varieties. And it’s not just aesthetic. Gold nibs provide a different writing experience to steel nibs, typically offering more bounce or feel. You can also get different sized nibs, so fine, medium, or broad are common sizes, to give you different line sizes and writing feel.

I also bought a Rhodia notepad and that has been extremely nice to use as well. The paper is great quality. I’ve discovered that Moleskine notebooks, which I used for a long time, especially when I was living in Beijing, actually has paper that’s not the best. My fountain pen feathers when I write in my Moleskine (the ink bleeding and feathering the paper). But the paper in the Rhodia notepad and my Collins notebook are superior.

Of course, if you don’t care and you’re perfectly happy to write with a pencil or any old biro on legal pads then that’s fine. But enjoying the tactility of a proper writing instrument, and investing it all with a sense of ceremony is not a bad idea, I think.

Writing news

I received my first ever Writer’s Bursary. I got a grant to explore England’s third-largest national park and to develop my creative practice for the Shifting the Gaze initiative and in association with Writing Our Legacy and New Writing South. Full details here.

I had my second piece of creative nonfiction, called ‘We Are All Born In Water’, published by a literary journal. This time for Liminal Transit Review, which you can read here.

Next posts… I’ll be updating you all on what happened with the literary agents (it’s exciting stuff!) and whatever else is happening. Subscribe to receive these posts in your inbox. Just type in your email address and hit ‘Follow’ on the right-hand side of the webpage.

Hear my voice

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A screenshot of The Open Door podcast’s Instagram page

Hear My Voice is both a rousing song by British soul singer Celeste and now something you do can do by listening to a podcast.

Months ago I got an email from a couple of young guys asking me to be a guest on their podcast. The podcast is called The Open Door and it’s become a sophisticated and seriously good series of episodes with interesting and varied guests. The majority of guests are Britons of mixed or East Asian or Southeast Asian heritage. Highlights include conversations with Jun Kit Man, founder of Resonate, which went deep on mental health; Sophia Luu, a Cambridge graduate who won the Frances Wilmoth prize for highest marked thesis, opening up about being British Vietnamese; and, obviously, with me.

It’s a great thing Anthony and Patrick (the hosts) are doing and you can hear my voice as I chatted with them. In the episode we spoke about the time I went to North Korea as an undercover freelance journalist, the background, and setting behind that. And we talked about identity, what it means to be British Chinese, and my journey into journalism.

You can listen on Anchor FM

Spotify

You can also follow them on Instagram @theopendooruk

Recent bylines

My journalism has really gone into backslide as I concentrate on other forms of writing, focusing on developing my creative writing, and book stuff.

But I wrote this in-depth feature for one of my favourite publications, Eurogamer. It’s on how videogames like Grand Theft Auto, Pokemon Go, and Animal Crossing were used by protestors in Hong Kong. It also features an intro where I talk about my friend and I eating Vietnamese pho in Wanchai.

I hope you give it a read!

How Animal Crossing became a place of protest in China and Hong Kong • Eurogamer.net

The fabled, non-existent, writer’s block, which I had recently

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I don’t know if I mentioned it but I was recently on a programme designed to teach writers how to become published authors. It included masterclasses, guest speakers, tutorials, and, the pièce de résistance, the chance to submit a book proposal.

A nonfiction book proposal requires a synopsis of the proposed book; a chapter by chapter summary; and sample chapters (which amount to around 10,000 words).

I duly wrote a synopsis; and I worked up a contents list, with summaries of every chapter of my proposed book. Then, it came to write the sample chapters. Here, I discovered a problem. I found it extremely difficult to begin. This was, actually, quite unlike my experience.

Writer’s Block

It may be romanticised in Hollywood movies about writers, and the fabled imaginings of amateur writers, who may warmly picture a glamorous scenario where one has the privilege of being blocked, but, in my experience, most professional writers scoff at the idea of writer’s block.

However, however.

Lately, after writing several thousand words for a writing competition in November and December; plus writing a couple of short stories for a few other competitions in January; plus being involved with this publishing scheme in February and March (for which I am, of course, very grateful) which took a lot of concentration; plus digging deep to put together a decently written proposal.

PLUS the enervating, all-consuming, life-sucking, hope-sieving effects of lockdown and endless Coronavirus news, I felt my well had run dry.

A well

Let’s talk about the well. In my experience, there is a well — a place in my subconscious which stores creative energy. And I have a pretty good sense of when this well is full, and when this well is dry.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 27, 2021 at 7:01 pm

Let’s talk about Rupert Murdoch

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With apologies to the octopus.

For those of us who are literate in the business of news and media the consensus might be that we know Rupert Murdoch all too well, and hearing his name brings about a shudder akin to hearing about an embarrassing skin disease. But I happen to think we don’t talk about him enough. That is, we should all talk about Rupert Murdoch more, dispelling the chilling atmosphere that surrounds this name, bringing it into the light, so that Rupert Murdoch is talked about sufficiently that we all start to wonder, in a cosmic, profound way, just how much influence this one Aussie bloke has had on our lives.

His story is amazing. Nobody can doubt the ambition, ruthlessness, and fortitude of what he has done. Inheriting his father’s business, the junior Murdoch was able to seize many newspapers in his native country to become a major player in the media business in Australia. He used this base to propel himself into the UK, where he would control the fates of important and opinion-setting newspapers like The Sun and The News of the World. From there, he launched himself into New York City and eventually built, with the aid of Roger Ailes, the Fox News empire, establishing his presence in the most powerful nation on the planet.

This one man, who has never formally entered the political arena as a voted-for politician, has been able to assert his influence and control over three major Anglo-powers. His dominion – and it is a dominion – spreads from one side of the Pacific to the other, and reaches across the Atlantic. This is not hyperbole. This one individual has exerted major influence over politics, media, and business in the English-speaking world for the past six decades. It is like a conspiracy that conspiracy theorists are too callow to dream up.

His instruments have been TV (Fox News), newspapers (The Sun), and the surrounding force of influence exerted by the more prestigious brands of The Wall Street Journal and The Times (of London). He has built profit machines in the form of BSkyB; Fox Entertainment Group; Dow Jones & Company, and many others that all go on to make up News Corp., which also owns one of the Big Five publishers (of books).

That this doesn’t go more remarked upon is perhaps for the simple reason that most of us can’t do much about it. He is like a far away figure, like Palpatine (The Emperor), or a dark lord hovering in the background, which we can’t do much to change, so we shy away from speaking about it. There is also fear. Pre-Leveson inquiry, he spread fear through the celebrity sphere, and political establishment. This was no joke. British politicians courted him. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell expended considerable charm and effort into wooing the Australian. You can learn more from the excellent three-part documentary, available on BBC iPlayer, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty.

This is all to say that Rupert Murdoch held influence because people were, are, afraid of his influence. And rightly so. He torpedoed John Major and Gordon Brown’s electoral chances. His Fox News empire holds considerable influence over the American electorate. And in the British and US tabloids (New York Post; The Sun), he has ruined many a reputation. Even when I was writing this blog post, I thought for more than a few seconds, that he might bring his formidable resources to bear on this humble blog of mine, which is ridiculous. Yet that is how fear operates. Ask any brave “soldier” on the Internet in censorship-ruled China.

But we should try to understand, or at the very least, vocalise, how much Rupert Murdoch has held sway over our lives. Yet this is not, actually, an easy thing to do. (Just FYI, he will soon be marking, or just passed, his 90th birthday – and from reports it sounds like he’s not slowing down.)

Measuring the impact of Rupert Murdoch is like measuring the impact of bad weather – in many seasons, it’s just clearly bad. It is a form of tyranny, and for those us in Britain we are used to the monolithic, all-encompassing oppressiveness of bad weather. The difference being, weather eventually changes, but Rupert Murdoch stays the same.

Just because we know it is bad weather, and complain about it being so, can we change the dark clouds into something fairer, more open, and pluralistic? This is the eternal sunshine – the hope – of liberal democracies. Yet the cut and thrust of deal-making, and the clearsighted ambition of just one singular man (or woman), can taint the whole system. Liberal democracies are designed to clamp back the overwhelming, singular force of any one individual. And, yet, Rupert Murdoch has been able to tower, in shadow, over the democracies of three sovereign nations. This is, plainly, ridiculous. Yet it is the truth. How could this have been so?

The problem is freedom. In any free market, there will just naturally be some people who will rise to the top – whether using pre-existing freedoms (such as the freedom possessing more capital grants you) – or by being very smart, fortunate, and strategic. Someone like Jeff Bezos falls into the latter. And someone like Rupert Murdoch falls into the middle, granted the privilege of inheriting wealth, but also rising to his position by dint of being an excellent businessman.

Capitalism works in concert with democracies and creates strange collisions. It generates greed, corruption, and corrodes our selves and our societies. And yet we like what capitalism has done for us. (Or most of us do.) We benefit from the fruits of this system. But someone like Rupert Murdoch is also a product of this system. His vaunting ambition might seem a bit weird, a bit cringey, and downright creepy in that intimidating sense he’s going to stab us in the back like Macbeth, but we recognise it. Shakespeare knew his type and we know it now. The Romans and the Athenians knew it all too well – better than we do. I can’t say how far back it extends, but pre-literate societies probably understood it too. Oh, there’s that guy who tries to hoard all the apples! But it’s capitalism that has made the apple-hoarder into a transatlantic apple-hoarder who also sells us advertising making us want more apples. (This is clearly a metaphor extended too far.)

But I don’t want to be anti-capitalist (or too much) since I don’t see an alternative that is superior. But there needs to be more courage and more bravery to confront the power-hungry, and corrupted, personages of individuals like Rupert Murdoch. We can, and should, find our voice. Alex Beresford did it recently, beautifully. Akala has done it. In our democracies, where we are free to express ourselves, not talking about something is a form of cowardice. I just hope that those who wish things to be different put in the work to recognise things as they are – to be able to see things clearly and so they can name what is there right in front of them – and by doing so, change things with effort, grace, and resourcefulness.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 10, 2021 at 6:04 pm

Posted in Features

My adventures in time-blocking (as a freelance writer)

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I don’t know about you but I’ve felt fatigued and disconsolate as the boredom of lockdown, the repetitiveness of things, has dragged down my usually shiny, enduring sense of creative vigour. I just haven’t felt able or motivated to do things. Sleep has sometimes been deeply comforting, yet also fractious.

Wanting to get back on the game, to be once more motivated, I thought I’d try a productivity technique. It’s known as time blocking. I first heard of it, years ago, from the Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You author, and professional Email hater, Cal Newport. He is a computer science professor and a proponent of this practice.

Time blocking involves making the time to draw up a fairly well sketched out plan or schedule for the following day. And, instead of making a simple list of things you need to do, you set aside parts of the day for certain tasks — that is, you block out time especially for the important tasks that most achieve your long-term goals. This is supposed to help you commit to the focused, concentrated, uninterrupted blocks of time to make progress on these goals — rather than having those sundry, seemingly urgent, but ultimately arbitrary tasks take up all your energy. A diagram will probably explain things better.

An excerpt from the blocked out schedule I made for Monday 1st March.

On a Sunday, I drew up this flow chart (above), describing what I’d do the next day, with my time carefully allocated. You might notice that there are long breaks but with time-blocking the underlying principle is that you spend the work-blocks focused on what Cal Newport describes as deep work (writing a chapter of a novel, for example, or making real progress on a graphic design commission, say).

It felt comforting knowing that I wouldn’t need to expend unnecessary energy having to think “now what do I need to do?” once certain tasks were completed. I only needed to follow the plan, like a happy automaton. After all, there can be freedom and contentment in following instructions, as anyone who’s played with Lego will know.

Let us cast aside the ridiculous notion that creativity is best kindled in an unstructured burst of spontaneous genius. It just doesn’t work like that, for most people. But discipline, putting the work in, and following certain procedures, rituals, programmes, can be enormously fertile and productive. Freeing.

A sample of Ulysses, a poem by Lord Tennyson

So Monday started. And, of course, my lovingly crafted schedule was immediately blown apart by a chance connection with some copywriting work coming from China. The connection was simply too rich a possibility to cast aside, so of course I followed up on it. But no matter, I simply adjusted myself. And for the rest of the day, it did feel liberating to just follow the plan. To look down at the plan and know, quickly, certainly, what I needed to be doing next. I was not able to get to all my tasks – something which I did not beat myself over – and I added annotations to each time-block, noting what I did instead, what I had still to do, and what I achieved outside of the confines of the schedule.

Tuesday, and I just carried on with the unfinished tasks from the previous day and I neglected to make a flow chart, to time block. I worried.

Wednesday – I had a phone call with a news assistant based in Shanghai. Then, later on, I had an existential crisis. Again, I failed to make a time-blocked plan. I wondered about the need to constantly work – to be productive. I looked at all the advertisements crowding my social media, the webpages I visit, and re-embraced my deep suspicion of capitalism.

Do I really want those things? Should I work myself to the ground in order to afford these items which are so adamant about me wanting to desire to possess them? But what about my ambitions, my goals? HMMMMM.

Thank you capitalism for helping make these Bluetooth earphones, which give me joy.

Thursday was better. I cannot put my finger on exactly what it was, but it may have to do with the fact I was on a rather celebratory Zoom call, with heartfelt emotion connecting me with a host of humans, and it was a beloved feeling, far from the madding crowd of capitalistic greed. I also went for a jog, listening to Daft Punk (rip), feeling Alive and Discovered.

Friday, I did some work early on, then I cooked Moroccan lamb for my family, with apricots and cumin and the warming colours of North Africa displacing the gloom of British weather.

So, yeah, that was my rather unsuccessful experiment with time blocking. If you want more of my advice, I can send you a postcard.

Amid winter, I found there was, within me, a summer.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 6, 2021 at 6:24 pm

Learning from Kazuo Ishiguro

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Recently, I was fascinated to learn Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing process. He is a British novelist of Japanese heritage. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in December 2017 and is widely regarded as a master of his craft. His books include the fabulist, sci-fi British-boarding-school drama Never Let Me Go; and the yearning, melancholic butler of The Remains of the Day. These have also been adapted into movies starring Carey Mulligan and Anthony Hopkins, respectively.

I read this in-depth profile of Ishiguro in the New York Times. It is a detailed, moving, and very long piece: the audio recording of the article runs to 48 minutes. It contained many treasures. Not least a description of the writer’s approach.

“He is a planner, patient and meticulous”, Giles Harvey, the profiler, writes of his subject.

Ishiguro spends years thinking, and jotting down notes, for his books; basically talking to himself; conversating about where the book might go and what it might do.

He will then draw up “detailed blueprints for the entire novel” and only then will he actually begin writing. He will produce maps of his rough drafts, numbering the different sections, and make flow charts describing the progress of these draft chapters.

This process sounds very much like that of a crafter; someone who cares meticulously about the path his chapters take, and therefore wants to know exactly the bumps in the road of his entire story.

It was also interesting to note that this master-writer does not overly care about writing. He has written many fewer books than his contemporaries such as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Ian McEwan. From other profiles I have read I know that Ishiguro is a cinephile and often watches movies at home. He is also a musician and music was his first passion. He spent his formative years listening to singer-songwriters rather than making his way through the literary canon.

I do wonder whether this slight coldness to writing; the fact that it does not possess him in the same way it obviously possesses someone like Martin Amis actually explains his greater greatness. Perhaps this distance-ness gives him an advantage.

I think there might be something in that.

Another takeaway is the patience and many-years-long germination process Ishiguro undertakes. And the meticulous thinking he does. I am certain that this slow understanding can make a better project. The map-like visual process he uses, and the different procedures he has (writing a quick draft in longhand without stopping, before doing a more laborious second draft; before finally typing it up), would surely help too. All these processes have enabled this man to make his work. But it does not mean I will use the same ones. Different strokes/different folks, etc.

Use whatever works for you, or, rather, whatever works better for you.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 27, 2021 at 4:43 pm

2020: a timeline

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2020 was a bit of a weird year. I might summarise what it felt like sometime. I might not. But here is a concise timeline of the year.

December 30, 2019: London Gatwick to Hong Kong.

Celebrated NYE at a houseparty then went to Central island with Masha and Katya, Wing, and met Laurie. Saw in the new year with drinks on the street.

Woke up late on Jan 1 2020, had Vietnamese lunch with Masha then we joined the crowd for the New Year’s Day demonstration. Watched Knives Out in the evening at the cinema.

January 8: Hong Kong to Cebu City, for 3 days. Then Siargao where I was adopted by some locals and learned how to surf.

Published: The National – Growth of Haidilao feature

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Ode to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Wanderlust

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A few years ago, in the month of May, I took myself to Scotland. I went to the Cairngorms, Britain’s largest wilderness area.

I hiked mountains, rambled along wooded paths, and walked the shores of lochs. I was lucky to get fair weather and saw Scots sunning themselves, with some hardy individuals even braving the frosty waters of the loch.

Scotland is perhaps the only place in Britain where one can get lost in true wilderness, where the land rises and falls with a majesty and ruggedness found nowhere else on this compact island.

I remember walking through the woods, the beginning of a mountain path, and seeing a red squirrel, the endangered native squirrel of Britain, casually prance, like a bushy mouse-deer, across the sun dappled trail.

I remember buying a pack of sausages and a can of potatoes and cooking them in the hostel kitchen and swallowing it down with that fervid hungriness that accompanies a day’s hiking, when you eat with an enjoyment knowing that you’ve fully earned it.

I have to confess that for however long now I’ve been addicted to travel. Is it an addiction? That would imply that I can’t wean myself from it. That it’s a compulsion, a craving, even a dependence.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 27, 2020 at 7:17 pm

Taiwan & the convenience of travel

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The 50 NTD (£1.30) canteen in Shilin

Last year, I spent almost two months in Taiwan, or 55 days to be exact.

Earlier this year, I was back again: from February 21 to March 2.

2020 is a leap year so that was 10 days in total. I did very little while I was in Taiwan. I stayed in the same hostel in Taipei, in Shilin district, as I did last year. I went swimming and used the pool’s “spa”. I went to the gym (pay as you go). I went to a second-hand bookstore and bought a novel: David Szalay’s All That Man Is.

I met a local journalist, a Taiwanese-American, who I befriended over Twitter. I met a couple of friends (one of whom I met last year in Singapore, while another is a friend of the blog). I ate at a canteen where you can choose a meat and two veg dishes, from a selection, with rice and free soup — that costs about £1.30.

Mostly, I made sure to eat. I ate delicious beef noodles. Egg pancake things for breakfast. The freshest, best bubble tea on the planet. And I wandered the local night market, stopping at my favourites. Supping on milk papaya. Getting the local delicacy of grilled mushrooms. Trying a shack that did steak with Camembert. And I queued for the best bao I know of. These bao (meat buns) are just so good. I love them.

I was in Taiwan for 10 days and I mostly ventured within a 100 metre radius of my hostel. Why was I in Taiwan?

I was there as a stop-gap. I’d been in Thailand, and I was up on my 30-day tourist visa, and not wishing to extend another 30 days, I decided to fly from Bangkok to Taipei. It cost £68.29 and it’s a 3hr 45min flight. 10 days in Taipei. And then I flew from Taipei to Cebu (Philippines) for £35.70 — a 3hr flight.

I was in the Philippines for 11 days, eventually flying out from Manila to Fukuoka (Japan) for £45.80 — a 4hr flight.

All of this is to say something about how convenient travel is (or was). Some have wondered how I afford to travel like I do, but looking at these airfares you can see that international travel can cost about as much as train fare. In Europe, these airfares can be even cheaper, but Asia is a larger region than the EU.

And going from Thailand to Taiwan to Philippines really did feel more like taking buses to different stops in the land of Asia than it did proper international travel with its boundaries and borders. Planes collapse our sense of distance.

We all might know this in the abstract, but it’s a different thing when it’s lived experience. Looking back at my time in Taiwan, it feels so fleeting, and, in perspective, it was. It was just 10 days. Yet those 10 days, although I didn’t do a lot, shouldn’t be taken for granted. I want to zoom in on that short transit stay and blow it out, to honour it, now that such convenience is a past time. It was fleeting but those days were once my daily reality.

And maybe this interruption, as our society feels now, will one day also feel like it was a short transit to somewhere else, as it indubitably is, and all these months of worry and anxiety will come to be remembered as a fleeting time, but which was once all that you knew.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 25, 2020 at 4:29 pm