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My novel, When You Turn Away, began on a warm October evening, during a business trip to Seoul in 2016. Standing on the rooftop bar in Itaewon, the sun sinking behind the face of the mountain, before me houses, buildings, rooftops, stovepipes descending into the valley—I saw her. A young girl, running out of a house, down the hill. On the flight home from Seoul, I began writing.
Photo: The rooftop bar in Itaewon, Seoul, where inspiration first struck
When I started this story, I had no idea if it was a short story, an essay, a novel, where the young girl was going or who she would meet. I definitely did not expect to be at this juncture four years later, with a novel that not only placed in competitions, but received a surprising amount of interest and love from literary agents.
I wanted to pen down a few thoughts, both to remember this moment, and also to encourage others who may be on the same journey. In February, I wrote about being a writer on the periphery when I attended Tin House, first worrying that no one cared about who I was or where I came from—then realising it was precisely this isolation, and this anonymity that enabled me to create, grow, and—most importantly, make mistakes.
One thing that surprised me about Tin House was how so many writers already had agents, either through their MFA programs, or because of shorter pieces they had published. In more recent months, I heard about writers who just walked into their agents at cocktails in Manhattan, or were introduced by other writers over dinner parties. This ran against the grain of everything I’d ever been told about literary agents—that you needed a complete manuscript before they would even spend five seconds on you. I was dead envious.
So when agents began asking about my manuscript, as early as a year ago, I took the bait. What I really wanted, was someone to pat me on the shoulder and say, don’t worry, Wei Ting, you’re doing just fine! When someone I thought might be my dream agent asked to read my manuscript, I sent it out even though it didn’t feel quite ready. If she were indeed my dream agent, I thought, she would recognise my potential enough to work with me even at that stage.
In retrospect, I was being lazy—I wanted her to tell me what I needed to do to get my manuscript to the best shape possible, instead of figuring that out on my own. While that draft later placed as a finalist in Mslexia's Novel Competition, I knew it was not good enough. There was more I wanted to do. She could technically have collaborated with me on that journey, but ultimately, that was a path I needed to walk myself. And I am all the more proud of myself for doing it on my own, during one intense month under lockdown, when I found the throbbing, white hot centre of my novel. I carried that burning clarity in my hands like a lump of dry ice, scalding each page I wrote. When I finished the book, I was changed. That is how I knew my book was done.
When I began querying, a fellow Singaporean writer offered me this advice: rather than thinking slush is something to be feared, think about it as a way for you to find the best advocate for your book. Your job is to polish your manuscript so that it shines like a diamond from all the uncut, unpolished gems. Even with a finished manuscript in my hand that I felt good about, I was skeptical—as you probably are as well. The skepticism and self-doubt increased as days, then weeks passed, and the rejections began trickling in. There was nothing wrong with my book—every agent who passed, including the first agent I queried with an early draft, wrote lines of gorgeous feedback that made me blush:
“I must admit that comparing it to Adichie, Ferrante and Parasite felt like a stretch before I started reading, but I came away from the book feeling like it's exactly right.”
“I have absolutely no doubt that you will find a number of agents desperate to take this on”
“We have been sharing your manuscript with our wider team as we've been utterly captivated by your voice”
And still, they turned me down for reasons that made completely no sense. Lesson #1: nothing about publishing makes sense. It’s completely subjective. Many have compared this matching process to dating. The waiting, the uncertainty, the vagary of how rejections are worded (typically along the lines of "it's not you, it's me"). What's an anxiety-ridden, validation-craving writer to do? I know it's hard, but this applies to virtually every aspect of writing: the joy of writing is in the writing, not publication. Publication, recognition, fame—these are all external, and in fact, may harm more than help your writing. (If you haven’t already, Lan Samantha Chang’s Lithub essay on publication and protecting your inner life is a must-read). As much as that rejection from your dream agent stings, as incredulous as this may sound, there's a better agent out there waiting for you.
I understand the urgency to want to get signed up as soon as possible. It feels like validation of the work, all the toiling you’re doing alone, often for years, without any recognition. Publishing feels like a mysterious castle floating above the clouds, especially when you’re not white, you don’t live in New York, don’t have an MFA—or like me, all of the above, plus I don’t even live anywhere near America. An agent feels like an express shuttle who will whisk you past the grand gates of publishing.
Photo: Neuschwanstein Castle, or, how publishing felt like to me for the longest time.
But I wanted to share something I did not quite realise at the time: there is value in the silence and solitude of creating alone. There is value in anonymity. There is value in not being white, not living in New York (or America), not having an MFA. It is what will make your story stand out. It is what makes your voice unique.
When the nights grow long and the gates of publishing feel distant and forever closed, ask yourself: what is this story, that only you can write, in your own voice?
Will publishing care about my story? If I’m not white, male, named Jonathan, live in New York, will publishing care about me? To be very honest, even as recently as a few years ago, the answer would probably have been no. But movements like #Blacklivemattters and #Ownvoices have brought about momentous changes. Yes, guilt lit is the trend du jour, it may just be a trend—or maybe it’s part of something far greater and we're just too close right now to see its entirety. But you owe publishing nothing. Publishing owes you nothing. You owe it to yourself to write the best, truest book that stands for you, in your own voice. That, at the end of the day, is what truly matters.
Some personal news: I’m appearing on a thing! I was invited by the UK’s National Centre for Writing to speak at one of their events on the eve of International Translation Day. Sign up here to watch me and three other literary translators (Anton Hur, Somrita Urni Ganguly and Gitanjali Patel) in conversation on Tuesday, 29 September, 7-8pm (British Standard Time).