The Meet-Up with Rachel Heng and Sharlene Teo
On Wednesday, I had the honour of meeting Rachel Heng and Sharlene Teo for afternoon tea — all thanks to the lovely people at Pansing Books who invited me to join them for this author meet-up.
After I looked up Suicide Club and Ponti, I was so intrigued, I had to clear my schedule to meet the authors. Over tea, fries and sandwiches, I also got to officially meet Gemma, a fellow Singapore-based blogger. I had seen her around at events in the past but this was the first time we actually got to talk, which was lovely too.
Conversations at our table flowed easily as Rachel and Sharlene shared about their books, their writing processes and their publishing journeys so far. They were candid about both the positives and the negatives, though on the whole, they were very upbeat. Besides books, cats were a hot topic too with pictures shared all around, ending our session on a fuzzy note.
Talking About the Author Life
Choosing to Be a Writer
Sharlene has been writing her entire life. Since she was young, she loved to write and continually pursued it in some form or other. As soon as she learnt to spell, she started writing stories.
Rachel on the other hand, started writing fairly late. She’s always been an avid reader but her husband (then boyfriend) spent years convincing her to write. She used to think that she didn’t have the ability to write and that writing was for others who were much better at it. Like many Singaporeans, she sought to be pragmatic, so upon graduating from university, she entered the finance sector.
Four years ago, Rachel finally started to write. After facing many rejections and hitting a wall with her short stories, she thought writing a novel would be easier. It wasn’t but she pressed on.
Sharlene edits as she writes. According to her, that makes her a fairly slow writer because she’s constantly revising. Still, that doesn’t mean that she necessarily writes books linearly from beginning to end. She does piece different sections together. She also laughed about how confusing the initial stages can be, to the point that characters would seem unfamiliar (especially after deciding to change their names).
At the time that she submitted 25,000 words of Ponti for the Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award, she hadn’t actually finished her story. She thought the odds of winning were incredibly low but went for it regardless, seeking the experience. It forced her to get organised and to put together a synopsis — something she hoped might offer her structure and clarity.
When her name was announced as the winner, she was in shock. She couldn’t believe it. Today, she describes it as the best moment of her life so far. After she won, she felt the pressure for having an incomplete manuscript. The fear propelled her to finish writing the book.
Rachel keeps writing, then edits when she’s done. For Suicide Club, she wrote her first draft by hand, filling notebooks in long form. Even as she revised and rewrote drafts, she felt like she had no direction and no plot. It took several rounds of drafting before her book took shape.
One of her drafts was about double the length of the final book. This means she cut out tens of thousands of words. She had written her sixth draft before she was ready to submit. After that, she went through several more rounds of drafts. Sharlene nodded in agreement when Rachel shared about this, noting that no first draft is ever ready for publishing.
As Rachel wrote her first novel, she got stuck on 30,000 words. Subsequently, she didn’t pick up her book for six months. But then, 11 agents were interested in it based on a 2,000 word excerpt that got published. Rachel didn’t sign with anyone because she hadn’t finished her story. Realising that there was interest though, gave her the push she needed to complete it. When she was done, she mostly queried other agents. Ultimately, her manuscript got picked up from the slush pile.
Sharlene also finished her book before approaching agents. She mentioned that securing an agent with an unfinished manuscript isn’t a guarantee. A year or two later, when the book is done, the agent might decide to drop the author. It’s better to finish writing, then seek an agent who is a great fit for both the author and the book to ensure good representation.
Working With Editors
Working with editors can be a gruelling and sometimes even disheartening process. Amidst the editing stages, it’s important to remember that the editors want books to be the best possible versions. Their commentary and critique are meant to help authors improve their books.
Sharlene, for example, received a 10,000-word analysis of her manuscript from her editor. When she was done reading it, she was exhausted. When her editor struck out entire pages, she admitted that it hurt a little. In any case, she took the suggestions to heart and revised accordingly.
Rachel too had to do a lot of revision. She received an email from her editor, which contained a few nice lines about her book. Attached was a 17-page letter critiquing and noting things she needed to improve.
The Impact of Geography
Singapore is a very small country. Opportunities for writers can seem rather limited. Despite that, neither Sharlene nor Rachel thought that living in the UK had given them an advantage to being published. With the Internet, it’s so much easier to reach out to agents today, even when you live in a different country.
Ponti by Sharlene Teo will be published on April 19, 2018 with Picador.
Suicide Club by Rachel Heng will be published on July 10, 2017 with Sceptre.