There were stories of people chased by gangs of monkeys, of masked gunmen, and mysterious kebayas in wardrobes. There were car crashes, dogs making discoveries, and even Mat Salleh-eating owls that worked at a spa!

These were just some of the subjects in the first pages of short stories written during a practical session by the participants of the Popular Supports Local Authors Writing Workshop on July 13.

Their creativity was certainly inspiring to behold, considering these stories were written in just over an hour, some by people who had never written a short story before.

“Do things differently. Don’t do clichéd things we’ve all seem so many times before! Unexpected things work,” author and speaker Robert Raymer (Tropical Affairs, Lovers And Strangers Revisted) had told the participants earlier, before going on to highlight the importance of beginning your story well.

“If you don’t grab them at the beginning, you won’t grab them at all. The beginning should catch your attention. Arouse expectations. Seduce me with your story!”

And judging from the excerpts we heard during the workshop’s presentation session, the participants sincerely took those exhortations to heart!

The workshop took place at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre on July 13. It was held in conjunction with BookFest@Malaysia 2015, the mega book exposition organised annually by Popular Book Co (M) Sdn Bhd.

The day-long workshop was aimed at cultivating a new generation of local writers and encouraging English language writing and literacy in the younger generation. Response was very encouraging, with a full house of 60 participants signing up quickly once registration was opened.

The programme began with a session by author and language consultant Dr Lee Su Kim (Kebaya Tales, Sarong Secrets) who spoke on “Creative Writing: The Essentials”.

Lee, looking elegant in a Nonya kebaya, spoke on how to start a short story before going on to elaborate on character development, dialogue, setting, and plot structure.

“Go around with your ears open. Talk to people. If your uncle says he has an amazing story about the Japanese occupation, ask him for it. Read up on a culture or a community. Visit heritage sites,” Lee said about where to find story ideas.

Lee also spoke at length about incorporating local flavour into stories, something she is particularly fond of and has used to great success in her popular books.

“We come from a country with so many different cultural expressions and beliefs. Use them to make your story come alive,” she said.

Author Robert Raymer speaking during his session, Enriching Writing Through Creative Thinking.

Author Robert Raymer speaking during his session, “Enriching Writing Through Creative Thinking”.

The workshop then proceeded with Raymer’s session on “Enriching Writing Through Creative Thinking”. He began by asking participants to list down things (characters, festive occasions, unusual experiences, favourite colours, etc) that could be used in their stories.

The highly animated Raymer, who delighted with his humour and fast talking, also elaborated on problems in short stories, particularly in beginnings and endings.

“Don’t do ‘thinking out loud but doing nothing about it’ stories. They are very common. This is where the character is doing something like vacuuming his house while thinking about his problems, his relationship with his girlfriend and so on,” Raymer said.

“The writing can be very nice, but nothing happens. He has a clean house, and that’s it. He needs to do something. Engage with his girlfriend, maybe, and you write a story about that.”

Participants were then given about an hour to write the first draft of a short story; some of the efforts were read out and critiqued by Raymer and author Kris Williamson (Son Complex, editor of KL Noir: Yellow.)

From the creative aspect, the workshop then went on to cover the business side of authorship, as Williamson delivered a presentation entitled “How to Get the Publisher’s Attention”.

“This is probably the most important part of the workshop here,” the amiable Williamson laughed. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad your story is. If the publisher doesn’t read it, it’s never going to be published.”

Williamson explained the proper way to send query letters to publishers, laying down a three-paragraph structure that he said had served him well. He also listed things NOT to do (“don’t send a romance novel to a sci-fi publisher!”) as well as what to consider before sending your work out for publication.

“Does my story stand out?” Williamson said, listing questions authors should ask themselves. “Is it original, or are people already making jokes or parodies about how overdone the whole theme is?”

(l-r) Sharmilla and Williamson spoke about getting the attention of publishers and the media respectively.

Sharmilla Ganesan and Kris Williamson spoke about getting the attention of publishers and the media respectively.

After your work has been published, it needs to be publicised – after all, there’s no point if you’ve written the best book no one has ever heard of! Which made the final part of the workshop, “How to Get the Media’s Attention” by Star2 chief reporter and literary coordinator Sharmilla Ganesan an important one.

In her session, Sharmilla elaborated on the various kinds of media coverage – topical stories, author interviews, and book roundups and reviews, among others – and explained the pros and cons of each.

“Are you willing to brave a bad review?” she asked. “Reviews can go either way. If it’s a good review, it will be fantastic for the book. Bad reviews, though, can kill a book if it appears in a prominent publication.”

Sharmilla also explained the best ways to get in touch with the media, and how to make an impression.

“I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But judging from the number of books with bad covers I’ve received, which end up tallying with the low quality inside, I think sometimes I have to. Get the best cover for your book that you can afford,” Sharmilla said.

Most of the workshop participants said they picked up many valuable tips from the sessions.

“Wonderful ‘on the job’ workshop!” said teacher Natalie Makulin, 31.

“It was very informative. The practical session by Robert Raymer made me realise that I had quite a few stories in me I wanted to write,” said corporate trainer Christine Koong, 48.

“It was a bit packed though. Maybe they should have had it over two days instead of one.”

Who’s game for a two-day workshop next year, then?

BookFest@Malaysia 2015 is on daily, from 10am to10pm, until Sunday at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. Admission is with purchase of the BookFest catalogue at RM2.50 per entry or RM10 for multiple entries. Catalogues are available at all Popular and Harris bookstore outlets nationwide and at the event’s entrance. Admission is free for students who are 18 years old and below and for senior citizens aged 60 and above. For more information, visit facebook.com/BookFestMalaysia.

Star Media Group Bhd [formerly known as Star Publications (M) Bhd] is a media partner of BookFest@Malaysia 2015.