Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘creative nonfiction

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.

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