02 March 2018

How to write fiction in your second language

Clarissa Bw 2 - cropped
by Clarissa Goenawan From Our Students, Writing Tips

Clarissa Goenawan is easily one of the most determined and tenacious writers who’s ever joined CBC’s creative writing courses. She’s also really good! With her first novel Rainbirds just coming out from Soho Press in the US, Clarissa tells us how hard it was to start writing a novel in a language that isn’t her mother tongue – and gives some tips to others embarking on that same difficult journey …

My debut novel, Rainbirds, is just about to be published, but the feeling is still just sinking in. It’s hard to believe that this is really happening.

I first heard about Curtis Brown Creative back in 2013, when tutors Anna Davis and Jake Arnott came to Singapore to conduct a Three-Day Novel-Writing Boot Camp as part of the Singapore Writers Festival. It was held in November, and I was telling myself it was going to be the month I’d finish the first draft of my novel. Yes, Rainbirds was my NaNoWriMo novel.

As part of the boot camp, I had a one-to-one tutorial with Anna Davis. I recall nervously entering the room while clutching my printouts—Rainbirds’ opening pages, recently proofread by some friends—and I started by telling Anna that I’d made some grammar mistakes and apologising for my weak English. After I was done blabbing, she looked at me kindly and said, “I know English is probably not your first language, but I can tell this is what you really want to do, and you’ll work very hard at it.” She gestured at the pages of my manuscript. “I saw a lot of potential here.”

(OK, maybe she didn’t exactly use those words—but they were pretty close.)

What she didn’t know was that just a week before, an experienced writer had told me, “I think you should stick to writing in Chinese.” This probably wouldn’t have hurt so much, if not for the fact that I don’t speak, read, or write Chinese! At the time, I was devastated, and Anna’s kind words were the encouragement I desperately needed.

When Anna said I could write a guest blog post for CBC, something that would benefit other writers, I thought back to  that earlier version of myself – so insecure. If there was one thing that the me of today could say to that past-me, it would be this: “Be confident.”

When I first started writing seriously, I was extremely self-conscious. I’m an Indonesian-born, Singaporean Chinese. I migrated from Indonesia to Singapore when I was sixteen. My mother tongue is Indonesian, and my first language used to be Indonesian too. I learned English as a second language.

When I first came to Singapore, my English was far from fluent. I remember attending a one-hour lecture and only catching a couple of words. My listening was hopeless, my vocabulary limited, my pronunciation was all wrong, and my grammar needed a lot of improvement. After years of living in Singapore, I managed to adapt and my English improved hugely – but, still, to be a writer who writes in English for a living… I didn’t think I was good enough.

When I submitted my application for the Curtis Brown Creative boot camp, I was actually just trying my luck, and I was amazed to get a place. On the three-day course, I was quickly in awe at how talented and knowledgeable the other participants were. A few of them had published books, some worked professionally as writers or journalists, and others had masters degrees in language or writing. I had never taken any formal creative writing courses. I didn’t even know what plot was. But I told myself not to be discouraged. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I picked up so much just from those three intensive days with Anna and Jake. And later, I went on to take a longer online novel-writing course with Curtis Brown Creative.

I’ve come a long way since then. In five years, Rainbirds has won and was shortlisted for a number of competitions for unpublished novels. One of the highlights was winning the 2015 Bath Novel Award. After that I went on to sign with Pontas  literary agency based in Barcelona. To date, Rainbirds’ rights have been sold to twelve international publishers. Yes, it’s going to be translated into other languages, including Indonesian (my mother tongue!) and Chinese (don’t worry, not translated by me.)

If you’re writing in language that’s not your mother tongue, and you’re feeling a little (or a lot) uncertain about pursuing your dream, I’d like to tell you that it’s not impossible. Don’t let the fear stop you. Yes, you might have to work harder and probably experience more rejections than native writers, but don’t be discouraged. As long as you continue to learn and improve and persevere, one day you’ll get there. I repeat: it’s NOT impossible.

Lastly, I’d like to share a few tips that were useful to me:

  1. Don’t worry too much- just write: Grammar can be learned, typos can be corrected. What’s most important is that you have a story to tell. Get that first draft out and don’t worry too much about the language (yet). I usually write my first draft during NaNoWriMo.
  1. Find some good editors, preferably native speakers. This is not necessarily something you need to pay for. Offer to critique each other’s works. Grammar might not be your strength, but perhaps your strength lies in finding plot holes or flat character arcs. Plenty of writers are craving honest and constructive feedback. You might find some  trusted readers on a creative writing course …
  1. Learn from that feedback. Create a master list. See your mistakes as learning opportunities. I keep one document on my desktop where I note down all the grammar errors I’ve made so I won’t repeat them. Each time I finish a draft, I check it against that list.
  1. Read a lot. Reading helps you get used to the flow of a language and expands your vocabulary, even when you’re not consciously doing so. Plus reading is super fun. We all love reading, right?
  1. Embrace your voice. Because I learned a lot from the Three-Day boot camp, I decided to apply for Curtis Brown Creative’s six month online novel-writing course. During one of my Skype tutorials on the course, my tutor Chris Wakling told me, “Your writing somehow reads like a translation.” I said to him, “Oh, is it that bad?” But he said, “No, no. I didn’t mean it in a negative way. It’s actually refreshing and suits the kind of story you’re telling.” Until then, I had always seen my non-native status as a major weakness. But his words made me realise that perhaps it’s one of my strengths. My simple and sparse writing style lends a unique colour to my narrative.

A glass can be half full or half empty. Sometimes, it’s just a question of perspective.

If you’d like to take one of our online courses, like Clarissa did, here’s what we’re currently offering:

Or to take a short creative writing course at a literary festival taught by Jake Arnott (who taught Clarissa in Singapore), read this blog for more details of the Laugharne Weekend workshop

Or you can apply for our London-based three-month novel-writing course, with Charlotte Mendelson – and there’s a scholarship place available on that one


(Author photo by Choo)

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