Monday, January 31, 2005


My poor little cat is very sick and at the vet's surgery on a drip ... she must have licked some caustic substance from her paws when she went into a careless neighbour's garden and her mouth got burned and then infection set in and her liver is not coping ....

This scrappy little stray, brought home by my boycats as their bit on the side, I tried so hard to give away. But she sat on top of my refridgerator to talk to me and spin her philosphy of life (mostly regarding things she likes to eat) each time I reached for the milk. She grumbled furiously each time I reached into the freezer for ice and her belly got cold and her tail got trapped. And she diligently watched the tree shrews for me as they slipped in through the window each morning to eat my breakfast banana. Slowly she won me over and I couldn't bear to think of sending her away.

(Why am I writing in the past tense? English is so cut and dried tensewise, everything needing to happen within a temporal frame. I like the way Malay leaves time more fluid...)

Just pray she pulls through and can be present tense again.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

That Tightrope

We got together to discuss a couple of stories. One by Chet who joined us for the first time and was brave enough to trust us with her story. The second by Norasiah. Both with powerful endings, although needing to build a more solid bridge to those endings. Both about sisters and the rivalry between them. Both about separation and loss. Both with a great deal still to be discovered by the writer ... Stories with much promise nevertheless.

We walk the fine line, the tightrope between telling truth and necessary kindness for a writer willing to take this risk of exposure. I pray we got the balance right. And that we continue to get the balance right. It's a way for writers to grow, as valuable for those giving the feedback as for those who courageously allow scrutiny of their fiction. I know that I learned a great deal from listening to other viewpoints.

Nicest quote for the evening (as we brainsormed possible alternative endings to Norasiah's story): "Who wants to be subtle when you can be sick?" The story could go either way ... it's up to its author to choose - or better still, to play with alternatives and see which one fits best.

Wonder why it is thought that local writers feel the need to so often have the shock-horror twist in the end? (Or as in the case of another published local writer friend - a humourous punchline!) Where has this expectation come from?

I posted an article a month or two back by William Boyd in which he argues that what he called the "event-plot story" with it's surprise ending is somewhat ... passe.
The stereotype of the event-plot story is the "twist-in-the-tail" famously developed by O Henry but also used widely in genre stories - ghost stories (WW Jacobs, for example) and the detective story (Conan Doyle). I would say that today its contrivances make it look very dated, though Roald Dahl made something of a mark with a macabre variation on the theme, and it is also a staple of yarn-spinners such as Jeffrey Archer.
Anyhow ... I found it an enjoyable and exhilarating evening. Chet and Norasiah were sporting. Leah thought she was being a grouch but I think her genuine honesty and well-formulated comments made her a real treasure. (As I say, I'm learning.) And we laughed a great deal too, of course.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Creative Writing Course

Had a meeting yesterday with Renee at MPH. My creative writing course for beginners ("Getting Started, Finding the Flow") will begin in March and will run for 6 weeks on Saturday mornings. (Damn! There goes my step class, but for sure the sacrifice is worth it.) Am so happy that MPH will publicise it in their monthly events flyer.

I am more than a little scared now. Have to actually hope that there will be takers for the course and that the timing and pricing is right. Need also to plan when to launch the course at my other (more upmarket) venue ...

I know what I'm doing as far as the course is concerned, am full of excitement and enthusiasm at the thought of teaching this ... but sadly lack any kind of business brain. Perhaps I should take a business partner, someone to keep me grounded while I provide the drive and the inspiration.

So much want this to succeed. Have all kinds of ideas for other projects shooting out of my head.

Anyway, my course blurb goes as follows:

Have you always wanted to write, but never quite got going, either because you lacked the confidence or weren’t sure of the best way in? This course will get you started – the fun way.

Course aims and description

Whether you want to write fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction or memoir, this course will help you lay the foundations.

In a series of practical exercises you will be introduced to a variety of techniques (including flow-writing, clustering, layering and visualisation) which will enable you to tap into your creativity. The main focus of the course will be on writing from personal experience, and you will learn to express emotions on paper and identify your ‘core themes’. At the same time, you will learn to take positive steps to suppress the voice of your ‘inner critic’ who so often robs you of your confidence.

Most writing will be completed in the class, with further suggestions of activities for you to carry out at home. You will also have the opportunity to share your writing with other participants in a non-threatening environment. Towards the end of the course, we will work towards the completion of longer, more polished pieces of writing.

Cost and Duration of Course

This is a twelve-hour course, taught over six weekly sessions.

It is open to adults (i.e. aged 18 and above) and is aimed at those with little or no previous writing experience. Participants should already have a good grasp of the English language.

Group size is limited to ten participants to ensure the maximum amount of feedback and individual help.

Sharon Bakar

Sharon Bakar is British but considers herself to be a “local foreigner”, having lived and worked in Malaysia for the past twenty years. Her fiction has appeared in Silverfish New Writing 1, Men’s Review and The Edge, and her book reviews and articles on English language issues have appeared in The Star. She is the editor of a collection of short fiction ‘Collateral Damage’ (Silverfishbooks), which appeared in March 2004. An English lecturer and teacher-trainer by profession, she is particularly interested in the teaching of creative writing. She’s also a self-confessed bookaholic and an organizer of the first KL Literary Festival.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Being In The Right Place At The Right Time!

Just loved this story from the Independent of the post room employee who has turned out to be Random House's latest scoop!

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Going Out and Finding Art

One of my New Year's resolutions which I didn't actually get round to writing down (due to present fuzzy brain syndrome perhaps) is to get out to see more local plays, films, and art exhibitions. I haven't been good at this. A lack of money over the past several months hasn't helped. But there's also an indolence about me, particularly as I so often have to wade through the Why-aren't-you-staying-at-home-cooking-for-me-caring-for-me scenario, which means that I have to pick my outings quite carefully, and friendship maintenance tends to take priority over going out to see something. (Should actually combine the two rather more, shouldn't I?)

We moan about how KL is a cultural backwater, when there's plenty of excellent work by local artists out there. It is vitally important to support the work of others.

This week I really have made the effort. Went to the opening of an exhibition Lenswork by Five at Darling Muse Gallery. I thoroughly enjoyed the photos - many of them hand-tinted to great effect. Particularly enjoyed the more "architectural" photos - love old buildings and as in Alex Moh's picture left, old wall with layer upon layer of peeling paint and the accidental beauty of plants growing in tin cans.

Love the way that photography affects the way that I see the world around me. Perhaps I am inspired to start taking black and white photographs again. (Okay another resolution taken right now - must get my SLR cleaned up - fungus-fuzzy lens syndrome has struck - along along with the indolence which prevents me from doing anything about it.)

Didn't however, enjoy the crush of people and hope I have a chance to go back and spend quiet time with the pictures I like best.

Yesterday made it to Kelab Seni Filem's showing of Ho Yuhang's indie movie Sanctuary.

I've know Yuhang for a while. It came as a surprise to learn that he is a filmaker. An award winning one at that. He always used to hang out in Raman's shop, using the computer. Really a nice guy - always makes me laugh.

I was teasing Yuhang last night - not only did he write and direct the film, he was also doing all the front of house selling the club memberships.

Sanctuary tells the story of three people:
Lai is a perpetual gambler who whiles away his days at a pool hall. See's days are monotonously spent at a photocopy center with its endless duplication. The Old Man has found peace and comfort taking care of a sick partner in his old age home. See would like to mend a rift created long ago between her and the Old Man, and Lai consistently refuses See's requests to put an end to his betting. Can these three people find a place where they can reconnect?
The film was ... and now I scramble for words ... unusual, for sure ... almost a non-film if you see a film only in terms of dramatic action. Sanctuary focuses on the small details of the everyday lives of these folks in unflinching detail. There's little dialogue, little outward show of emotion from the cast.(At least two of whom have never acted before.) But the film feels so totally honest and you have the impression that you are watching real lives, real tragedies unfold. I really liked it and would love to see it a second time.

There was a q&a session afterwards, chaired by Yasmin Ahmad (so that's her - my goodness, she's so beautiful!).

Hmmm ... now what are my chances of being able to make it for the showing of Amir Mohammad's films tonight?

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Unfinshed Business With The Bureau

Just read about the release of an album by a band called The Bureau.

The Bureau was formed by the members of Dexy's Midnight Runners, after Kevin Rowlands had left and taken the name with him. They were joined by Mick Talbot (later of Style Council) and singer Archie Brown. Their album was recorded in 1981 and but was never released.

I'm probably biased, but it was an excellent band, with that Dexy's big brass sound.

When my relationships with Geoff (love of my life and fiance) fell apart, I lost not just him, but all my friends in the band whom I cared for very much. I went abroad (Nigeria first and then Malaysia)- hoping distance would salve a pain in my heart. (As if!)

Twenty-three years later, the Bureau is back together again and the album is being released at last. It should do well. The first Dexy's album has become a classic and rated as one of the best albums of the last 50 years. The album by The Bureau is the true successor to Searching for the Young Soul Rebels.

Wish with all my heart I could be there at the Birmingham gig to cheer them on:

Shall perhaps send flowers ... or champagne. For all of my friends from back then.

And especially for Geoff:

Geoff Blythe: tenor sax
Before forming The Bureau, Geoff was a founding member of Dexy's Midnight Runners, recording the album "Searching for the Young Soul Rebels", which included the no.1 hit "Geno". In 1984, Geoff became a member of the T.K.O. Horns, touring and recording "Punch the Clock" with Elvis Costello. Other T.K.O recording sessions included Difford & Tilbrook, The Fixx, Nick Lowe and many others. After a stint with London based EMI recording band "The Neighbourhood", Geoff moved to New York, where for the past 15 years he has been a member of the celtic rock band "Black 47", often referred to as New York City's house band. Other credits have included music for TV and film, Off Broadway and classical compositions, and musical appearances in two major motion pictures, "The Saint of Fort Washington" and "Looking for an Echo".

Website: Black 47

Sunday, January 16, 2005

MPH Writer's Circle

Went to first meeting of MPH's Writer's Circle yesterday in the 1 Utama store. Quite an experience, the Booker Room was completely packed with what I suppose must be aspiring writers. Oon Yeoh who writes on IT for The Edge and is the author of Transition — Making Sense of the Digital Age was supposed to speak on the editorial process. I say supposed to speak, because although he began very well indeed (talking about the small publishing company he has set up with the intention of helping local writers); and about the pitfalls of self-publishing, discussion really got hijacked by the audience who were hungry to ask questions and share experiences about publishing.

Some of the topics touched on:

- if you want to produce a quality book, you need a professional editor - but this is where most people who self-publish try to cut corners

- the books that do well on the local market are self-help books, cookbooks and kids books

- if you manage to sell 3,000 copies of any book locally, you have a best seller on your hands

- local fiction hardly sells - maybe 10-20 copies!

There were some success stories though from an enterprising young novelist called John Ling and from an inventor called Bugs who has had his book of local fairy tales published with Periplus.

I got nudged by Leah, who was sitting next to me, to make an announcement that I would soon be running classes for anyone interested in creative writing. And afterwards was positively beseiged with enquiries, so for sure there is a market.

Friday was, for me, the day when all my hope birds came home to roost. I should soon have course up and running at a couple of different venues. Will tell you soon. Am full of bright shiny hopefulness.

Marred only by the fact that I am not myself at the moment and probably won't be for a few weeks more until I am on the right medication. I need my head back! I'm going crazy now, lost in a fug of wrong chemicals which affects body, mind and soul. At least I know what's wrong ... and am no longer scared of the men in white coats.

Leah was wonderful good at being there for me.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

His Passport Out

He's late because he's kept in a meeting, because of the jam, because of the rain. I spend the time writing in my notebook. Writing practice in any spare space.

I haven't see him since mid-December. A lot has happened since. He's had his long-distance girlfriend to stay. They have plans. She's looking for a job for him in out there.

She's his passport to out. Out of here where no-one understands him. He's tried it before - long-distance friendships leading to a serious relationship abroad. Where people will understand him. Where he can make his art. (He's talented in so many directions - though of course it's the writer I cheer on the most - hope he finds his true centre and focus.) None of these relationships have worked out for him. And each time he's come back to Malaysia with his heart broken.

People here just aren't on the same wavelength. They don't read. They don't get what he's about. I'm not Asian, he says. Not inside, where it counts.

He talks up a storm, doesn't stop. It's not a conversation. It's a monologue. He talks books, films, his philosophies of life, acting. He psychoanalyses the characters of sitcoms (how did they get into the conversation?) quite as thoroughly as any professor of film studies. He dramatises imaginary conversations with appropriate accents. I can scarcely follow where his head goes, he moves so fast between thought and thought. There're moments when I don't quite make the connections. But then he's already moved on to the next topic. Hypomania? Perhaps. "You're special," I said once "Because you're touched with fire, like so many great artists, writers." I never told him what the euphemism meant. He never asked. I've never had the courage to take the discussion further.

It's in the moments when he stops talking and there are sudden silences that he looks so incredibly sad, so suddenly stricken. And I know that he is scared. Perhaps of the fact he's losing his job in a few days time and still has to pay the rent. Perhaps of the relationship he's committing himself to, the big leap he's about to make ... and on which he's staking so much.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Oh Darling Muse!

There is something about doing readings in an art gallery - the space feels sacred for sure. The The Darling Muse Gallery in a
three story house along Jalan Bukit Pantai in Bangsar even has a name which honours the creative process.

This was the first in a series of fortnightly readings organised by my friend Bernice Chauly and sponsored by La Bodega. We had a good crowd of friends and supporters turn up - I was really surprised at how many of the folks I'd mass e-mailed turned up - Noraishah, Caving Liz (just back from Phucket), Diana Cooper, Zarin, and Leah came to cheer me on and I really appreciated having them around.

I was first up. Read a couple of extracts from the second story I'd had published; "Just Like Steven Spielberg". Had never read it aloud before and it is a bit tricky because the protagonist speaks with a Malaysian Chinese accent. (Can hear it in my head, but I'm no actress.) But managed okay, and it was so nice to hear and see the audience react to it. Got laughs in the right places, so felt really good. Then read a little bit from a story "in progress" (hate to tell you just how long it's been "in progress"!), which is ... as far as things are classifiable ... a lesbian love story. Still have some way to go in getting it down to the page but must put in the effort now to get it finished ... have promised it to Pang for the book of gay short stories he is editing.

Jerome Kugan had a sheaf of poems and as ever, his images delight and his word choice is playful and teasing; a writer I'd never heard of before, I Rivers, mumbled his way in audibly through something; followed by Zedeck (only 18 and precociously talented); Pang, who read a short and very graffic piece about a gay encounter (he said he expected people to walk out, as they had when he read it in the bar at the Litfest, but no-one did); Bernice whom I'm happy to see is continuing to work on herfamily memoirs 14 Leech Street - very strong material; and finally Kam Raslan read an extract (about the seduction of a Swiss dairy maid in a barn! What fun!) from a new novel he's working on.

Before, after and during the break we ate delicious pizza and tortilla, drank wine, and laughed and flirted and caught up on gossip ... and if we behaved like real arty-farties then so what? It was so good to be with so many friends.

Went from there up the road to Actor's Studio to see a play called Hannah and Hannah as a guest of the British Council who were sponsoring the production. Here's the blurb:


Hannah, 16, from Margate, wants to know why the Kosovans have taken over her town and her name. Hanna, 16, from Kosovo, wants a safe place to live and a friend. Pop-mad Hannah likes to sing karaoke, especially when it's Britney Spears. What she doesn't like is that Kosovitch Hanna stealing her thunder on her favourite number. What Hannah doesn't know is that she and Hanna have more in common than the name. And, against all odds, will become friends.
Date: 8, 11-15 January 2005 @ 8.30pm, 9 January 2005 @ 3 pm
Price: RM 32/42 (Adults) & RM 17/22 (Students, Snr Cit.)

The play was convincingly acted, beautifully staged and choreographed ... a very moving account of a friendship which transcends racial divisions and narrow prejudices.

And of course, for me the evening was great because, once again there were lots of friends to meet up with, and new friends to make. Am a total people junkie!

Am feeling recharged and very much better now, especially as I am at last getting things moving re. the creative writing course I plan to teach. I've been checking out venues, talking to organisations who might want to collaborate on it. More news very soon.

The event was just like another party too - so many of my friends were there - and there was wine and nibbles and great conversation with plenty of new friends to make, in the foyer afterwards.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Leaves of Life

I remember the first time I heard The Leaves of Life. I was sitting next to my father's radiogram in the unheated hallway, of our house near Coventry, while the rest of the family watched television in the next room. My finger was poised on the record button, ready to tape the songs as I listened to Folkweave on Radio 3. This was the only concession the BBC made to the tiny minority of listeners who loved traditional folk music. I was seventeen, and it was the tail end of the folk revival: that all too brief resurgence of interest in traditional English folk music in the 1970's.

I'd discovered folk music one day when I found Individually and Collectively; a compilation album of early recordings by the band Steeleye Span in the sale bin in W.H.Smiths. I took a risk on the music and bought the record with the wages from my Saturday job. From the first bar of The Lark in the MorningI was hooked: traditional folk music was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. The songs were from the heart and were rough edged and real. You didn't need the most beautiful of voices to sing them effectively, as I discovered in the warmth and privacy of the bathroom.

Hungry for more songs, I searched Birmingham Public Library and borrowed both books and recordings on my father's ticket, but never enough to satisfy me. The greatest thrill, though, was in hearing for the first time original field recordings, reissued on the Topic label. And then, of course, there was Folkweave; which I faithfully listened too each Friday night so that I could record the songs and learn to sing them.

Thus it was that I encountered ballads of great antiquity; broadside ballads, which had been sold for a penny on the streets; sad Irish airs and music hall songs. There were songs of the countryside, the sea, and the angry songs of the new industrial towns. I made the acquaintance of loyal lovers and brokenhearted milkmaids, highwaymen, servant girls waiting to be employed at the hiring fairs, fabulous monsters who turned into beautiful women after being let into the beds of their victims, young men who visited their girls at night and turned into handsome cockerels by day, gallant poachers who were caught and transported to Van Dieman's land, and Napoleon on the Plains of Waterloo. There was plenty of advice too, how to discipline an errant wife, what road to take to heaven in the in the afterlife, and why a young maid shouldn't wed marry an old man. All these, and many many more, were a part of a heritage that I had never been told about.

The Leaves of Life was one of the loveliest songs I recorded and tells the story of Christ's passion. It was in a programme about songs recorded from Gypsy singers.

Gypsies are careful to recycle what the rest of the world throws away, be it secondhand clothes, scrap metal or the old songs that the settled population had no more use for. In the early years of the twentieth century, such songs had to be hunted out like endangered animals, and captured on paper or on cylinder recordings.

The composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams first heard The Leaves of Life in September 1923. He accompanied his friend, solicitor’s wife, Ella Mary Leather, to visit some of the Hereford gypsies whose acquaintance she had made. The gypsies were tired after a long day in the hop fields, but welcomed their visitors. They provided them with upturned buckets to sit on and lit a fire so that they could write down the songs: the composer noting the melody, and Mrs. Leather the words. One by one the gypsies sang their songs. And then, out of the shadows came the sweet voice of Angelina Whatton singing The Leaves of Life

All under the leaves and the leaves of life
I met with virgins seven
And one of them was Mary mild
Our Lord's best mother in Heaven

Oh what are you seeking you seven pretty maids
All under the leaves of life?
We are seeking for no leaves Thomas
But for a friend of thine

Go down go down into yonder town
And sit in the gallery
And there you'll see sweet Jesus Christ
Nailed to a big yew tree

Oh peace mother oh peace mother
Your weeping does me grieve
But I will suffer this he said
For Adam and for Eve

Oh the rose the gentle rose
The fennel it grows so strong
Amen good Lord your charity
Is the ending of my song

A few days later the song was recorded on cylinder at a local farmhouse. This was the version that I had heard on the radio, and the only recording of the song I was to hear for many years, until I came across the Waterson's Frost and Fire album.

I loved the song for its unusual imagery: the tree of life, a symbol of life continuing and strengthening, even as Christ hung on the yew tree, the dark tree of death. I was intrigued by the idea of seven virgins making the journey to witness Christ's passion. This was not a version of the story that I had read in the bible. Most of all, though, I was in love with the plaintive melody, and I recognized it immediately when I heard it again, recently, and in a very different setting.

I was invited to a hair-cutting ceremony (bercukor) by one of my sisters-in-law, Kak Diah. Her son, Adam had moved to a highly paid job in Silicone valley, and was earning much more than he ever would in Malaysia. Now he was back with his family, for a short holiday, with his wife, son and newborn daughter. I felt doubly connected to Adam, for as well as being my nephew, he had been my student at one time.

The hair-cutting ceremony is seldom performed nowadays, but was a traditional Malay way of welcoming a child into the world, and for Kak Diah, it was a way of bringing together the whole extended family. When I arrived at the house, there were people crammed into the lounge and spilling out into the small garden, where caterers had set up marquees and were busy cooking biryani rice and chicken kurma.

Adam's youngest son hadn't been back to Malaysia since he was born, and even though he was dressed in the traditional baju melayu, just like the men folk, he felt more at home giving relatives a high five rather than kissing the hands as is the custom.

The ceremony began, and the women, dressed in finest silk kebayas and baju kurong found space to sit on the floor on one side of the room, the men on the other. The imam from the local mosque said prayers of blessing, and then the baby, Elisha, was presented to each relative. They took the scissors in turn and snipped off the tiniest piece of a lock of her hair. They then applied a drop of tepong tawar, a milky paste of rice flour and scented water, to her forehead.

When the ceremony was complete, four women, hired from the local mosque began to sing a song in Arabic. I could not understand the words, but there was no mistaking the melody - it was that of The Leaves of Life - identical to the traditional English version that had put down roots in my own heart.

I never had a chance to speak to the women and ask them where the melody came from, and what their own version of the words might be, as I found myself caught up in the obligatory family photographs and then the move towards the tables laden with food which had been set up on the lawn.

But the mystery of the song had deepened. Where had the melody come from? Could it have originated in the Middle East, and been carried in one direction, by the gypsies, and in the other, by the spread of Islam, to meet up with me on opposite sides of the world?

Reading at Darling Muse

Darling Muse warmly invites you to our first reading this Saturday 3pm - 8th January by writers :

I Rivers
Pang Khee Teik
Jerome Kugan
Sharon Bakar
Bernice Chauly
Zedeck Siew

Readings at Darling Muse
Where writers and artists meet.

Every 2nd Saturday at Darling Muse Art Gallery.

142, Jalan Bukit Pantai

59100 KL.

Light refreshments will be served

Thanks, Bernice, for inviting me to take part in this on Saturday. Just what this chaotic brain of mine needs right now. Just that I have to panic around to get my current "work-in-progress" (which has been "in progress" for just too many months!) in some kind of shape so that it doesn't disgrace me too much ...

Looking forward to Saturday, not just to reading, although the exhibitionist in me loves playing to an audience ... but much much more for the great buzz of being around other writers and lovers of writing. It's just what we need, an ongoing forum for local writing talent, a place to meet and support each other.

If you're reading this and free to come along, please join us.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Elizabeth George

My review of Elizabeth George's book on writing a novel, in The Star yesterday.

One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life
By Elizabeth George
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton, 296 pages

IT is always humbling when successful novelists put their own fiction aside awhile to share some of their secrets with novice writers. Stephen King’s On Writing and Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, to take but two examples, are valuable insiders’ guides to the process and craft of writing. Now, award-winning mystery novelist Elizabeth George joins their ranks with Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and The Writing Life.

Georges’s credentials for writing a book of this kind are excellent. She has 12 novels of psychological mystery, featuring Inspector Lynley, including A Suitable Vengeance, A Place of Hiding and A Traitor to Memory, and several have been adapted for television by the BBC. She is also an experienced teacher of creative writing, and has been a featured speaker at the famous Maui Writer’s Conference.

Although she believes that the art of writing cannot be taught, because no one can give anyone else the soul of an artist or the passion to put words down on paper, a mastery of the fundamentals certainly can be fostered.

George begins by giving an overview of the craft. Character is the most important element in constructing a novel, she argues: readers are wooed to keep on reading because they care for the people in the novel, first and foremost. She also considers setting, landscape and plotting briefly in this first section. (Landscape plays a very big part in her novels: all of them are set in Britain, and she researches her settings painstakingly.)

Later in the book, she explores each of these areas in rather more depth and moves on to talk about how she constructs her novels. She takes the reader through her own journey, from original idea to finished draft, and in doing so, answers many of the questions that any budding novelist would want to ask.

George illustrates her points very well with extracts chosen from mainstream literary fiction, as well as crime writing. (Authors featured include Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Ken Follet and John Irving.) And she includes examples of her own draft notes, side by side with extracts from the finished novels, so that the reader can see how raw ideas translate into finished story.

I picked up plenty of useful hints, particularly in the sections on viewpoint (always a tricky area for new writers) and what she calls THADs (Talking Heads Avoidance Techniques): ways of introducing action into a scene that is composed mostly of dialogue. As you might expect, she also writes very well about how to build up suspense – the stock-in-trade of any crime novelists, and well-worth reading about even if this isn’t the genre of your choice.

This author plots her novels very carefully at the outset, using what she calls a running plot outline, and she explains in detail how this works for her. This method will perhaps not suit everyone, and I found myself more drawn to the working method of her friend, the crime writer T. Jefferson Parker, who embarks on his first draft without a road map of any kind, setting it aside once it is completed to begin redrafting from scratch.

George begins each chapter with an extract from the journal she keeps while she’s writing her novels and these snippets expose her own insecurities – which, of course, are part of the landscape for any writer.

“Am I kidding myself about being a creative artist?” she asks, at one point. She reveals that while writing For The Sake of Eleanor, she became so incapacitated with fear that she had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Elsewhere, she talks about how her body tells her when her writing is on track (“I feel a surge of excitement in the solar plexus”). Such insights give a nice “we’re-all-in-this-together” feeling to the book.

George stresses that self-discipline is all-important for success in writing. You can be talented, you may be passionate about writing, but if you lack “bum glue”, that is, the ability to stick yourself to the chair for long periods and actually get the writing done, you will never get published.

Overall, this is a useful addition to any fiction writer’s bookshelf. The advice is solid, and the book is written in very readable prose, which neither patronises nor condescends.

The book does not contain writing exercises though, and readers will probably need to supplement it with one of the excellent books of writing exercises which are on the market: George draws on Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter’s excellent What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (Addison-Wesley) and this could very well be a useful companion volume.

Sharon Bakar teaches creative writing.

Happy? New Year

This New Year crept in sheepishly dragging behind it last year's pain.

The aftermath of the tsunami makes us reassses every aspect of our own lives. More so now that we begin to hear the victim's own stories of survival and loss. In today's paper the heartbreaking story of the mother who was holding on to her two sons and knew that she would have to let go one of them if any of them were to stand a chance. A sort of Sophie's choice. How do you live with it afterwards? (Fortunately the elder son was found alive after the mother let go of his hand and the waters carried him away.)

And Acheh. Bloated corpses piled in the streets, unidentifiable now as individuals because so badly decomposed. No-one to mourn them or to remember their names or their stories. No final dignity in death.

I can't switch off. I have to feel it.

We sent money. I wish with all my heart I could do more.

CNN and BBC have taken their eyes off the tragedy in Malaysia. Our numbers of dead are quite small and dwarfed by the horror of elsewhere. We were hit by a secondary wave. But loss is loss all the same.

I'm glad I am not religious. I'd hate to be trying to find out answers from a god.

The celebrations in KL were quiet this year. No big firework displays to see the New Year in but plenty of candlelight vigils.

I did not go anywhere because The Old Man is suffering from "cluster headaches": severe migraine attacks several times a day and I want to be around for him even if I can't do anything practical. The pain is so excrutiating that he can only pace up and down, up and down until it goes off. He becomes afraid to fall asleep because that's when they attack.

But I hope despite everything that it's going to be great year. A big shiny hopeful year.

I wrote down not so much a set of resolutions as a three-page manifesto which I keep adding to all the time. Have so many ideas for things I want to do, schemes I want to get involved in. Watch out, I'm taking over the world!

The only person I showed it to was Leah who dropped by New Year's day. There's too much here, she said. You have to focus.

So first, my writing. Getting my stories finished. Turning those ideas into poems. Sending them out to find a home.

Second, growing my company. Getting my first creative writing course off the ground. Right now just need to find the venue.

And thirdly, developing those friendships which make me whole. Valuing the dear friends I have already. Finding kindred souls.

I thank my journalling friends here for the glimpses into your various worlds which enriches my own and teaches me so much.

May your year indeed be happy.