Monday, May 31, 2010

Monday Writers Craft Online: What Is Local?

Writing a story about a foreign place or culture is a challenge. You have to immerse yourself and sit in your character's skin to make it really work. Mind you, many Mills and Boon and Harlequin authors write about all sorts of exotic places and people without setting foot outside their own kampung!

I've been thinking about this issue a lot recently because I've written a book for young teens called Mystery of the Demon Caves. It's based in Sarawak, a place where I used to live, and features 4 kids.

I don't claim to write a "Malaysian Book." My heroes and heroines are very much based on the kids I know in Malaysia but they are not iconic Iban Malaysian, Bidayuh Malaysian, Chinese Malaysian, Malay Malaysian etc etc. The plot line draws heavily on local "feel" but it's also Western because I am a European.

I'm hoping the result is a story with enough local elements so that Malaysian and other Asian kids recognise it as "home" but with enough Western elements so it sells overseas too.

Hey, let's be honest: I want this to be the first of a series that is as big as Harry Potter! And for that you need to reach kids everywhere. I'm hoping I've been able to do that.

Mystery of the Demon Caves is coming out in September in Malaysia and Singapore, published by Horizon books.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Living In Malaysia: Skin Tax

This is the first of a series of notes about living in Malaysia. Love it, hate it, whatever, this Saturday Living In Malaysia series is just one opinion. You can leave brickbats and comments in the comment section.

Today Elaine said to me, "You know what really annoys me? I go to this restaurant for years and get nothing extra but the first time I bring an orang puteh (Malay for White Person) there, a real blonde, blue-eyed woman, she gets served quicker than me AND she gets this extra water melon. It's just not fair!"

I am orang puteh, hell, even my NAME is Whyte!,and I have lived in Malaysia for 14 years. What Elaine says is true. We do get served before others.

Some think it's a hangover from Colonial times - although I don't really see how on earth someone can hold on to this 50 years after the end of that time. I think it's because Western people tip and Malaysians don't.

Anyhow, if there's a crowd, we tend to get served first. But what Elaine doesn't see is the bill. Orang puteh also get to pay double, triple and even more. Unless I stick to my favourite stalls at my wet market, I have to pay double what the others pay - and that's after being a regular customer there for 8 years.

My other friend Emanar tells me she was asked to pay RM8000 for some plumbing when her orang puteh friend was in the house instead of the RM1000 the job was worth.

I call this "skin tax". Now ask yourself: do you want to be served first, and pay double or what?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Repost Friday: Kissing Cats

This was originally posted on 15th April 2007. Doesn't Scoop look sweet? I still miss him so much... And our connection still sucks too!!!

Kissing cats: Scoop and Au from
Sorry for the long silence: we've been offline for a few days as the connection kept dropping.

Scoop and Au are in an excellent mood today. We're all at home, working away at our computers and this means our fuzzies have us under their paw.

Scoop has been in twice for a morning cuddle, and Au has rooted us out of the office to refill his kitty crunchy bowl, to refill his water glass, and to play kitty in the box.

We love weekends!

PS Dinner and Camaraderie was out in the Star yesterday. And here's a small copy of the accompanying pic of Scoop and Au taking turns to wash each other.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review Thursday: Ah Fu The Rickshaw Coolie and The Wildlife Watcher

Ah Fu The Rickshaw Coolie
By Choong Kwee Kim
ISBN 978 983 3698 47 9
Published by MPH 2007
32 pages
For kids of all ages
Price: RM15.90

Written and illustrated by Kwee Kim, a journalist living in Penang, this little book is a real treasure.

Apart from being a really fun story about how Ah Fu manages to be let off with all sorts of fines for breaking traffic laws, this story is written in short prose but set out like poetry; it's not just attractive to look at but the
frequent rhymes make it perfect for reading aloud.

Also, as the story is cast in the early 20th century, you can have endless discussions about the different ways the characters are dressed.  Be prepared to explain what a bustle is for!

HEY GUYS PLEASE LISTEN TO MY RADIO INTERVIEW TODAY AT 2PM!!! It's online at live streaming at 2PM Malaysia time (7AM London, 8AM Madrid, 9AM Dammam, 2AM Detroit/New York, 4PM in Sydney, and Wed 11PM in LA).  I'll be talking about my book, Logomania.

The Wildlife Watcher
By Choong Kwee Kim
ISBN 978 983 3698 79 0
Published by MPH 2008
32 pages
For kids of all ages
Price: RM15.90

Although it's written very simply, this is a much more grown-up tale.

It starts when the village chief's daughter  (who remains nameless; shades of Rebecca?) shivers as she feels something that will "sweep across the land and take everything away". A quiet look at Malaysia's bountiful nature leads her to the conclusion that she's going to have to stand up for what is right.

This tale without a conclusion is full of atmosphere, something unusual in most books for little kids.  It is also ideal for starting discussions about the importance of maintaining the natural world in a very local context.  Watcher is clever, not pedantic, and the illustrations are striking.

Ah Fu and Watcher are as different from each other as pineapple is to a mango but they're both equally fascinating.  Kids will love them!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Hanging House in Cuenca, Spain

Cuenca's hanging houses are carved out of the rocky mountain the city stands on.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

COT: Flump Kitty

In an effort to make sure I don't leave again, the cats are keeping a close watch on me.

I'm not allowed to go anywhere without a catly escort, not even the loo.  Whenever I sit down on the sofa, there's either a cat at my feet, or one sitting an arm's length away, making sure I don't bolt.

Target is happiest when plonked on my lap.  Me, I'm not going anywhere.

For more cats, check out Gattina's Cats on Tuesday.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Monday Writers Craft Online: Phone Interviews

Interviewing people over the phone is tough because you can't see the other person.  This means you're losing all that important body language stuff. 

If you're cold calling it's even harder because people on the other end of a phone can hang up much more easily than they can walk away from you.  So it's important to establish good relations from the first moment.

Last Wednesday a man calling from Telekom gave an excellent example of how to screw up a cold call:

(phone rings)
Me: Hello, Ellen Whyte speaking.
Him: Who is this?
Me: (Irritable at being interrupted before a deadline and thinking "why don't you listen, bozo?  you're the one calling me!") This is Ellen Whyte.  Who is this?
Him: Are you Ellen Whyte?  I need to talk to Ellen Whyte.
Ellen: (Really pissed off and Speaking Distinctly) Yes, that's me.  And you are? 
Him: I need some information.  Erm, yes.  Do you have time to talk to me?
Ellen: (now thoroughly pissed off and suspecting this man is a tele-salesman for some finance scam or horribly overpriced gym) Depends.  Who are you and what do you want?
Him: It's about your phone bill.  I want to know why your phone bill is low.
Ellen: (really pissed off now) And who exactly are you?
Him: I'm from Telekom.
Ellen: And I guess you don't have a name, huh?
Him: Errrmmmmm..... 

He never did tell me his name and I wasn't inclined to think why my bills are low these days. (although later on I realised it's probably because I'm using Skype a lot)

If that Telekom man had any training he would have started off like this:

(phone rings)

Me: Hello, Ellen Whyte speaking.
Him: Hello, my name Dino, I'm calling from Telekom's billing department.  Do you have a moment to talk to me?

Then I would have been grumpy inside thanks to the deadline but polite on the outside.  And I would have thought about why my bill is low these days, and I would have told him.

Getting information over the phone is all about trust and give and take.  When you are open about who you are and what you want, people on the other side feel empowered.  And that makes them much more likely to talk to the stranger on the other end of the phone.  The more openly you say what you are and what you want, the more likely the other person will reciprocate.

So: top 3 phone rules when cold calling:

1. Start by saying who you are: full name, job/company etc.
2. If the person hasn't said their name, or you missed it, say who you are calling for and why.  (If you're going through secretaries etc, saying why can get you lots of good info as in "she's out, why not send me an email and I'll tell her when she returns" etc)
3. When you get to your prey, ask if this is a good time.  If not, ask when you can call back.  The more relaxed the other person is, the more likely they'll cooperate.

In my opinion the fine art of the phone interview has been perfected by professional tele-sales people.  If you want to be able to conduct a good interview over the phone, go find yourself a successful tele-sales person for good tips.

If you find this interesting, let me know and I can share some more telephone interview tricks next week.

For those who came to the Net research talks on Saturday, here's my suggestion page for finding the answers to the Advanced challenges.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Repost Friday: Bedroom Box

Before Repost Friday which features Scoop, my old kitty who died two years ago, 2 notices:

I will be sharing top internet research tips over 2 free talks at the Monash University Open Day tomorrow on Saturday 22nd May.

The focus is on helping pre-university students learn quick ways of getting good information online - and on how to get credit for online research from teachers.

Rather than a lecture, most of each session will be devoted to allowing participants to get hands-on experience. Each person will have access to a PC and Net connection.

As I am a writer who is also hoping to promote my books, each session will be followed by a book signing session for my two books Katz Tales and Logomania.  See previews
by clicking on the images to the right of this post.

The sessions are:

11.00-11.45: Getting to the Goodies: Finding Useful Resources Online
1.30- 2.15: Evaluating Information Found Online

Seats are limited so it's first come, first serve. Doors close for each session so don't be late.

Location: Monash University, Jalan Lagoon Selatan,Bandar Sunway, 46150, Selangor,, tel: 03 5514 6000

Also, I got this message that Rocky, a rescued dog from Batu Caves area, is looking for a good home. He's very sweet, vaccinated, dewormed etc but not yet neutered (cos he's too small) If you're interested, please contact EE LYNN: 013 228 6812 or EUGENE LEE: 012 316 0954 eugene.t.lee AT

And here's Scoop!  This repost is from 9th April 2007.

Bedroom Box

When our 10 year old washing machine collapsed a few weeks ago, we bought a big cardboard box for the cats... and the shop gave us a washing machine to go with it. At least, that's how Scoop and Au see it.

The cats already have their box on the landing upstairs. Although it's meant for both, Au is the one who spends most time in it. He prefers to walk into a box and close the flap behind him. Scoop will play in it, but usually only when Au is there to join in.
Scoop in the box

Both cats investigated the monster box when it first arrived but the shine went off it some days ago. I was going to move it downstairs and hand it over to the recycling man, but was caught redhanded by Scoop.

When he saw me moving the box downstairs, he blocked the way and scolded me with a loud YOW!! Yik Praw Yow!

Apologising profusely I put it in his room on the bed and he's now lying in it, determined not to let this treasure out of his sight.

Clearly this is HIS box!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review Thursday: Great-grandma’s Hair Loss Remedy

Title: Great-grandma’s Hair Loss Remedy
Author: Rebecca Loke
ISBN: 978 9834 430016
Publisher: Media Masters Publishing Sdn Bhd
Published date: July 2009
Paperback: 54 pages
Reading level: Ages 7 to 12
Price: RM22

Great-grandma's Hair Loss Remedy is the story of eight-year-old James. He has alopecia universalis, a rare condition that means James has no hair on his body - not even eye-lashes.  James is worried what the kids at his new school are going to say about this, but his great grandma comes up with a plan....

The story is written in the present tense which gives it a nice "here and now" flavour.  The language is excellently geared towards 7 to 12 year olds.  It also has a really good evil man, the discipline teacher Mr Kong.  I won't tell you more than that because it would spoil the story.

Rebecca wrote the tale as her son Ethan has alopecia.  She hopes this tale will raise awareness, and is it is a charming story, no doubt it will work nicely.  I also really enjoyed reading a tale that has Malaysian characters. 

John Hussey illustrated the book with rough black and white sketches.  You might leave them as is, or encourage younger kids to colour them in.

This book is a very good example of what "edutainment" (excuse the vulgarity, but it is the mot juste) should be about.

One thing that niggled a bit: the back 2 pages have an alopecia FAQ.  It's excellent in terms of information but the language is far more lofty than the story.  I don't think a 7 to 12 year old would understand it.  In the next edition, I'd think about toning it down so it matches the story.  Also, it needs to be presented in paragraphs, not in big blocks as it is now.  

All in all though it's a jolly good read: and an excellent small gift for a kid.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

COT: Home Again

I'm back from a 2 week visit to wonderful Spain.  I went to see my mum, and my brother was there from his work in Saudi too, so it was a family reunion.  And I got to spend time with Mam's cats, 12 year old Annie, and Qwill the Siamese who will be 18 years old end of June.

Here is Qwill.  As it is first thing in the morning, his eyes are half closed.  Qwill is a typical Siamese (even though he's not a Pedigree) who bullies everyone around him.  He's also super intelligent, very brave, and sweet once you give in and serve him as he wishes.

Below is Annie.  She had a bad accident and has a rewired jaw, and fixed up back right paw.  She also has a little lump in her head that the vet thinks is a pellet from an air pistol - a relic from the time she lived on the streets.

When I came back Au and Target ran off.  Target came to his senses 15 minutes later, realised who he was running away from, and threw himself into my arms.  We've been inseparable since. 

Au is more stand-offish but that could be because he's generally grumpy.  There's a big cat trying to invade and Au is on war patrol.

I have a slightly better connection today so will rush round to visit.  If I stop, it means my ISP is acting up again.  Hope to see you all!

For more cats, check out Gattina's Cats on Tuesday.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Monday Writers Craft Online: The Real Enemy Is Your ISP

Hopefully this post will be put up. I say hopefully because since March my "broadband" connection has been slower than the old 14.4 dial-up modem used to provide.

Jaring, my ISP, have given me several reasons why this should be so (all blaming me of course!) but none of their so-called solutions have worked. In despair I turned to a friend who suggested the whole problem may be my modem.

He did some research for me (thanks, Bobbi!) and it seems my neighbours get a fine connection, just like the one I got from April 2007 till March 2009.

Bobbi suggested it may be my wireless modem at fault. He also discovered my wireless modem sold to me by Jaring is now out of warranty.

My cynical side assumes these modems are made to fail shortly after the warranty is over, and funnily enough that's the one thing Jaring has not suggested may be at fault.

As Jaring won't do house calls (!!!!!) I can't confirm Bobbi's hunch, so my only chance is to have someone look at the modem. I am taking everything down to my local computer shop in the hope that they can help.

As I have been paying RM79 or so a month for zero service since March, I am not a happy bunny.

If you are an online writer, take it from me: your biggest obstacle to success is the sucky ISP.

Cross your fingers for me that my man at the shop can fix this problem for me. And if there is no Cats on Tuesday tomorrow, and I don't visit you, put the blame where it belongs: on my utterly sucky ISP.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Repost Friday: Bed Pals

This repost is from 3rd April 2007.

Bed Pals

Scoop and Au in 

I was thinking about memes but since it's been years since I read Dawkins, and the old brain isn't what it used to be, I had trouble getting my mind around the idea. To my mind there is no doubt cats have culture, and that culture is transmitted. Scoop and Au are constantly teaching each other new things.

For example, Au has this enchanting habit of sitting with his tail on your foot and looking up with half closed eyes when he's asking for something (usually ham but sometimes just a game or a cuddle). Scoop has always just walked up and given us his demands with a loud MEEE-OW! But now Scoop also does the tail on the foot manoeuvre; and what's more, he's realised it works just as well for him as the shouting so he'll go on doing it.

Is this transmitting a meme? I can't decide! You tell me...

PS It's been pouring with rain here every afternoon, so Scoop and Au are indoor cats at the moment. And don't they make themselves comfortable!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Monday Writers Craft Online: Recognising Proper Publishers

When you're looking for someone to publish your book, be aware of your options.

What I call serious publishers work with authors to sell books.  Your effort is to write the book and to help with promotion; they do everything else.

Serious publishers edit your manuscript, design the front cover, pay someone to print it, promote your book, hire distributors to send it to bookshops, collect money, and share the profits with you.  If your book doesn't sell, they lose the money they've invested, and you lose the time you've put into your book. 

You can also self-publish.  This means you have to do deal with everything yourself, and pay for everything yourself.  If you do well, you keep all the money.  If you bomb, you lose your investment - both the time you spent on writing the book and the money you spent on getting it out there.

One big problem of self publishing is getting your book into the shops; the big chains often don't deal with individual authors.  You can sell online, but with all of those millions of web pages out there, and all those other people trying to sell their work, making a splash is tough.

Another problem is that the book market is only so big.  As a self publisher you will be competing against all the publishing houses, all crammed with people who know the business inside out and who have connections and budgets you'll never have.  It's not impossible to do well when you self-publish, but recognise it will take work and luck.

Because the book business is competitive and quite complex, there are also the so-called vanity publishers.  These people say they are proper publishers but they want you to pay for printing, cover design, distribution, promotion etc.  And then if the book sells, they want you to share your profits with them.

I can't figure out what the vanity publishers do for authors - to me they are nothing but very, very expensive printers.  They get people to pay them lots of money by telling them the book in question is so wonderful that it's bound to sell really, really well.

This begs the question: if the book is guaranteed to sell really, really well, then why won't they invest in it???

It is my opinion that if you can't get a regular publisher to take you on, and you are desperate to publish, then do it yourself.  You may want to check an older post at this point, What you need to know about writing E-books by Kristen J. Tsetsi

Friday, May 07, 2010

Repost Friday: The Gift Rat

This Repost is from 29th march 2007.  Do you know, we STILL don't have rats in our neighbourhood?  And it's been 2.5 years since Scoop died.  Bless his fuzzy purr; Scoop was the most amazing ratter of all time!

The Gift Rat

Scoop presented us with a rat this morning. And as you can see, it's beautifully arranged on the rug. Obviously we're doing something right!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Review Thursday:

Popular Chinese Idioms
Illustrated by: Jeffrey Seow
Translated by: Yang Liping
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Asiapac Books Singapore 2006
ISBN : 981-229-447-3
Price: Singapore S$8.50 and Malaysia RM18.50

I love comics, and I’m fascinated by Chinese history, so when I first came across Asiapac Books, I went nuts and bought half a dozen at once.

These little books tell classic Chinese stories, legends, and histories, and retell them in simple comic strips. It’s fun, it’s memorable, and insidiously educational.

I bought this Popular Chinese Idioms because I am fascinated by proverbs, clich├ęs, axioms and language in general. Hey, that’s why I write the Logomania column and the book, right?

Popular Chinese Idioms covers roughly 100 frequently used Chinese idioms. For each it offers: the expression in Chinese characters with handy Pin Yin underneath so we non-Chinese character readers can attempt the pronunciation; an English translation so we know what we’re mispronouncing; a cartoon telling the tale behind the idiom; and a hint as to what sort of situation you’d want to show off your newly learned expression.

However, I have one criticism: the editing needs to be beefed up. About 95% of the book is excellent but there are one or two glaring problems. For example, the cartoon for “Become known to every household” seems to have no connection to the expression. I’ve read it three times and I’m still baffled as to the meaning and usage.

Overall though I love it, and I want the companion to this: Chinese Proverbs.

It’s available in various Malaysian bookshops like MPH, Kinokunya, and Times and is also sold online by Asiapac.

I've been reading so many great books recently, that I've decided to start reviewing them on Thursdays. Reviews are personal; fell free to jump in with comments that disagree. If you want your book reviewed, email me at katztales AT, OK?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

COT: Target Is Cute

Target loves to tear apart the feather duster.  It means feathers EVERYWHERE but we don't care as our little cat has such a good time with it.  Isn't he cute?

We're away from our computer this week and next so this post is a scheduled one.  We'll try to visit everyone but it our away connection might be a bit slow.

For more cats, check out Gattina's Cats on Tuesday.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Monday Writers Craft Online: Top Tips For Book Proposals And Manuscripts.

OK, onto the second question posed by Bookaholic: "What exactly is a 'manuscript'? What should it include?"

A manuscript is your book.  In the old days manuscripts were hand written.  Now you can't get anyone to read anything that's not in a Word or Text document.

A typical manuscript (MS) is written in a clear font like Courier or Times New Roman, is double spaced and has inch wide margins.  You need to offer blank space so that readers can scribble on the page.

You must also put a header or footer with the book title, your name, and a page number on every page.  This is in case your publisher drops a pile of MSs in her office.

Don't staple it all together and don't bind it - unless your publisher asks you to do so.  Loose pages is best.

MSs must be "clean" meaning you should have no spelling mistakes, no grammar errors, no last little bits of messy plot to fix up etc etc.  Publishers do work on MSs after they've accepted them, but too many problems on the initial approach will make them think you are sloppy - and they won't want to work with you.

An MS submission should be accompanied by a letter and your writing credits.

The letter should say (very briefly) why you and your book are the best thing since instant pot noodles.

There are books written on the subject of approach letters.  I write really simple ones: because I'm in the trade I drop the names of some of my clients, tell them I'm a published author already (and I mention the publishers I work with), and then I sum up the project I want to talk to them about in a few simple sentences.

As writers and publishers want the book to sell, I like to sum up the book in terms of marketing.

So one of my romances is described as,

Wildcat in Moscow is a 77,000 word contemporary reality romance set in London and Moscow.  Along with strong characters and a powerful storyline, this novel is rich in cultural detail, transporting readers into modern Russia.

In view of Russia’s burgeoning economy that has renewed the nation’s political power, and launched a new set of colourful billionaires and leaders onto the world stage, I think there is a growing market for stories set against this exciting backdrop.

I also include the back cover blurb, a one page synopsis of the book and first three chapters - or first 10,000 words if the publisher prefers that.

My best advice is to think of your MS as a pitch for a new client.  Show them you are keen, competent, and a winner and then they'll take you on if they can.

Don't let rejection depress you.  Publishers get tens of thousands of approaches so the competition is very keen.  Frank Herbert's Dune was rejected by 20 or more publishers and went on to become the best selling sci-fi book in history.