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Author Xu Xi shares fiction writing tips

Ni Nyoman Wira
Ni Nyoman Wira

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, August 3, 2016  /  10:20 am
Author Xu Xi shares fiction writing tips

If you aspire to be a fiction writer, always make time to write. (Shutterstock/*)

Notable fiction writer and editor Xu Xi shared her experience in an exclusive writing workshop and discussion in Jakarta on Saturday. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Xu Xi has been dubbed a “pioneer writer from Asia in English” by The New York Times and granted the O. Henry Prize Story and Cohen awards.

An anthology, Chinese Walls ( 1994 ), marked her debut, followed by Daughters of Hui ( 1996 ), which was included in Asiaweek’s list of 10 best books of the year. Her latest novel is That Man in Our Lives ( 2016 ), in which Xu Xi’s renowned character, Gordon “Gordie” Ashberry, makes his return. Meanwhile, her forthcoming books include Interruptions (September 2016), Elegy for HK ( 2017 ) and Insignificance ( 2018 ).

The Jakarta Post had the chance to sit with her and ask her about some tips for fiction writers. Here are some of her suggestions.

(Read also: XU XI: The political is personal)

Always make time to write

After 18 years working in international marketing and management, Xu Xi decided to leave her full-time corporate work to be a writer. At that time, she was a writer and had already published three books. However, having experience in corporate life taught Xu Xi to be disciplined. “I also learned not to take myself seriously because the corporate world rises and falls, you know,” she laughed.

Prior to her decision, Xu Xi wrote in different places due to her business. “As I was traveling a lot, I learned to write on planes, in hotel rooms,” she said. “Because usually I had a breakfast meeting, I woke up early at five and wrote.” Also, she would write on weekends when she was not working. When she was quite young, Xu Xi always woke up at four and wrote early.

If you aspire to be a fiction writer, always make time to write. “You give up other things, if you’re serious,” she said. “You can make time. I believe that’s possible, you just have to want to do it badly enough. The desire is what pushes me.”

Manage your ideas

Writers may feel delighted when they have many ideas in their head. However, managing those ideas before putting them into novels is another issue. Xu Xi gives some advice on prioritizing your ideas. “The one that you cannot let go off, you’re obsessed about, you keep dreaming about, and thinking about – whether it’s a character, image, story, idea, plot,” she said. “Something you see, something you hear, or something from the past – for instance, you forget about other things, but you don’t forget about this one thing; that’s how you see what's important.”

Quoting from F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, all writers should listen to their heart and be honest with themselves. It is important to find the story out of what really bothers you. “Whatever it is, the thing that you may not admit to other people, what embarrasses you, what you’re ashamed of, what you’re really proud of but you don’t want others to see that you’re boasting,” she stated. “You know, all of these things that evoke a strong feeling or emotion in you, you have to figure out what that means.”

(Read also: Have an unfinished novel? Here are some tips to overcome writer's block)

Keep track on the characters

Xu Xi did a lot of budget-related jobs during her work experience in the corporate world. “I was not that fond of math when I was in school, but in business you have to like numbers,” she smiled. “So I learned to not love numbers, but like them.”

She also learned how to use spreadsheets – a knowledge that has helped her in creating a timeline for her novels. “[The spreadsheets] are very good for making timelines,” she said.

“They can be used for different activities as well, such as calculating people’s age, showing relatives of each other and where everybody is at any given time. They are very flexible. In the past, before the digital era, I was drawing things by hand, putting it up on the wall and had a big piece of paper everywhere to try and figure out the timeline for novels,” Xu Xi explained.

Sometimes writing a novel does not follow a linear timeline. For instance, a story may begin in January 1915, but you may jump to the future or return to the past. Thus, spreadsheets are very good to calculate the day and time and to keep you on the right track.

Keep your stamina

Writers may become unstoppable when their head is full of ideas. Born in 1954, Xu Xi always keeps herself healthy. “I run, swim, go to the gym regularly and do the housework,” she said. No matter how eager you are in writing, sitting in front of your computer is not good. You have to get up.

Xu Xi tries to do her own housework. It is her way of being responsible for herself as a form of a good discipline. “In Asia it’s very easy to get domestic helpers; it’s very common here,” Xu Xi said. “It’s too easy – all they have to do is just go out, socialize and try to be a good writer. It is okay, I mean, you can do it that way. But I think being responsible for yourself is something that I believe in.”

Whatever activities you choose to do, it is necessary to keep your body fit in order to keep up with your writing.

(Read also: Tumblr blogs to follow for aspiring writers)

Revision and reading

“I think young writers, especially, aren’t patient,” Xu Xi said on tips she would like to share with writers. However, when she was young, she also was not very patient about her writing.

“They’re in such a rush to get published. They believe that everything that they put in is the best thing.”

Xu Xi believes that good writing comes from revision. It is important to reflect on your work, particularly on the language and craft of writing. Also, read as many books as you can. “You can’t write if you don’t read. You want people to read you, but if you don’t read from anybody else, then why should anybody read you?” she asked.

Reading is one of the forms of studying. For those who want to write a mystery novel, for instance, it is important to read as many mystery novels as you can to understand the form and genre, she said. Another instance is for those who want to write about Indonesian history. It is advisable to pay attention, not only to the books that focus on the history, but also the global point of view about it. (kes)