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How I Got Published: A Penwings Author Spills the Tea

Publishing a book is not an easy or straightforward goal. I should know, my own tempestuous journey started out quite early. If you asked me what my secret was to getting published at such a young age, I probably wouldn’t know the answer. My success had been a mixture of luck, dedication and a neurotic sense of urgency to prove that I could amount to something. If I had not been blessed with a chronic case of perfectionism or an insufferable overachiever attitude, I never would have been able to get my book published, so maybe don’t go about things like I did. It takes the fun out of the process. However, this is a lesson I learned early on: chasing your dreams isn’t all about having fun. It’s about knowing how much you’re willing to suffer for it and that your suffering will be worth whatever it is you’re hoping to get out of the entire endeavor whether its wealth, recognition or a sense of accomplishment.

Funny enough, I had come across a reiteration of this lesson again in a book that I had recently read titled “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k” by Mark Manson. The only thing I did give a f**k about back then was to publish a book, and that it was something I was willing to suffer for. So decide early on if this is what you want more than anything in the world, that you’re willing to go through the random bouts of overthinking, the sleepless nights, the rejection emails and the many failures that will make you want to crawl under your bed and weep like Moaning Myrtle. I reckon most of you who are reading this now want a neatly-written step-by-step instruction manual on how to get your book published. Sorry dude, that’s not happening. Instead of fast-forwarding through all the B.S. I had to go through, and getting to the heart of the matter, I believe you would stand to learn more from my failures than from a cookie-cutter success story with all the gory details edited out. So this is more of a how-not-to guide. Enjoy.

The Spark that Lit the Flame

Poetry started out as a hobby, something that I would sporadically get in and out of throughout my adolescence and later completely obsess over in my early twenties. Going through my old secondary school journals I found an entry with a list of all the poems I have written since I was fifteen, arranged in a way that made them seem as though it was the “table of contents” page in a poetry book. I remember even way back when I first learned about JK Rowling (I was probably 10 years old) and how she made millions being an author that I had this crazy idea that I could also make a living out of writing books. I was already writing stories on the back of my little school notepads so it seemed plausible at the time. I always thought I would publish a novel and it was something that I would work very hard on for many years of my youth, but surprise, I never finished a single manuscript. Then I thought maybe I could be like Enid Blyton, write a book of short stories and for the longest time I was happily married to the idea of being a short story writer. And then poetry entered the picture with her sultry lips and voluptuous curves, and that was the beginning of my first extramarital affair.

My first manuscript was called “Moodswings”, a title that probably stemmed from a premature and subconscious realization that even then, I might have been a bit bipolar. The first poem I’d written for the manuscript was “Outsider”, and I vaguely remember typing it out on my phone during a burst of inspiration during my first semester of college in the summer of 2012 as I walk back home from the cafeteria after dinner, alone. Looking back at all the cringey and kindergarten type poems I’d written, I’m glad they never saw the light of day. Nevertheless, I felt I should credit my beginnings because I would not be here today without them. We all had to start somewhere. I had not purposely written “Moodswings” as a manuscript more so than I had collected all the poems I had written from my first semester at college and haphazardly compiled them together into some semblance of cohesion and slapped on the most appropriate title which best describes the overarching theme of the contents. Over the years as I improved on my writing, more poems were born, some from my attempts at emulating the themes and topics of poems I’d read on social media, mostly Tumblr and others from writing prompts I received from Facebook groups specifically tailored for poets to practice their art form. It was the first time I’d publish my poems to be examined under the light of public scrutiny, and it was so rewarding. A lot of the poems that I published on Tumblr and on these Facebook groups ended up in my second manuscript “Magic and Madness”, which did get publish (but more on that later). 

The Real Work Begins

Contrary to what other experts might say, writing and editing a manuscript isn’t the hardest thing you will ever do as an aspiring author, at least not for me, and probably not for most poets. The real challenge wasn’t writing the poems, it was finding someone to publish them. Oh and I tried, for the longest time, I tried. But poets were supposed to be old and traditional, they were supposed to be seasoned and withered wordsmiths who had decades of renown under their belt. They had to be college professors with a PhD in literature. 

Malaysia was tragically behind in making poetry trendy to the general public, but in the underbelly of the city, poetry was alive with color and sound and had taken new and exciting forms. It was here where I found my refuge, not as a participant but as a humble spectator. Underground poets were artists, rap warriors and spoken word performers. They were radical and progressive. So I started exploring this world, studying the poets and their books, looking at the indie publishers responsible for publishing their work, and I approached them with my manuscript. Alas, even they were terribly picky and elitist and favored their own champions; those who had a reputation and a standing in the community, which was understandable. Regardless of whether it’s mainstream or indie, gatekeeping happens everywhere. I had earlier approached all the traditional publishers but had been spurned just as nonchalantly. I could not blame them. I had no following, no title to my name. I was a nobody hoping to make it big in an industry that prizes experience and distinction.

Eventually one indie publisher did accept my manuscript and “Moodswings” was scheduled to be published a year from then. This was 2012, and I waited patiently, longer than a year it seemed, only to be let off rudely in an email telling me that they were no longer interested in publishing me. Oh, I was simply livid. Outraged. Frothing at the mouth with ire and disbelief. This person had strung me along for 15 months only to cut me off without a warning. The publisher had since experienced a decline in sales and popularity, something they thought they could remedy by rebranding the company, to no avail. I had attributed their bout of misfortune to karma, for how unjustly they treated me, but I realized now that it was all (get ready for the cringe), “a blessing in disguise”. Yes, I rolled my eyes at that as well, you’re welcome. If had not been rejected I would not have been motivated to prove them wrong and to show them just how much they will regret it. But I didn’t have to wait that long because after I had finished writing “Magic and Madness”, and finally getting settled into my first job after graduating college, I was already accepted by another publisher. 

A Second Chance

It was finally happening, my first book. And it was thick. There were 140 poems in it collected from about 5 years of writing. You must be wondering how this all came about and to be frank, it wasn’t that exciting. I had my company’s resources at my disposal and went off doing research. And by research I meant Googling keywords like “Malaysian poetry” or “poetry in Malaysia”, and variations of those search terms until I got a hit. It was like fishing, you throw a bait into the water and wait. It was basically me sending annoying emails to as many publishers I could find, some trad, others indie, and even those that don’t publish poetry, hoping I could wow them with my words. I was either ignored or rejected, there was no third option. It was at this point that i started on my instagram account hoping to add credibility to my name by building a huge following which I successfully did by employing the “pop poetry” method which helped me garner over ten thousand followers in under a year. I would have eventually gotten more if I had stuck to it but I had compromised my integrity enough. I don’t particularly like pop poetry if you get my gist.

Then this company replied. And I was elated. Finally, a second chance! You would expect there to be a congregation or a parade of some kind, but no. It was 15 minutes of me jumping up and down in my brain and then I had to go and fix someone’s printer. Oh, the glamorous life of a poet. So I sent an edited version of my manuscript and they told me that it would be published in 2017. What transpired next was about a year of waiting. Yes. Waiting. You’ll be doing a lot of that. Fast forward to August 2016 and I was somehow scrolling through the publisher’s Facebook feed on a whim, and I saw a picture of a book titled “Magic and Madness” with an ugly cover plastered on it. Just as I felt myself foaming at the mouth again, I contacted the publisher asking what was going on and they told me they forgot to inform me about publishing the book. In my mind, I was like “did you forget to ask me about the cover art as well?” Anyways, I pushed down my anger and told myself “Take it as a win Zack, you published a book, be thankful”. Suffice to say this whole debacle set the stage for the rest of the year. I knew “Magic and Madness” was doomed from the start just by looking at the cover. Even I wouldn’t buy it. The publisher printed 20 copies and stopped there. They gave me Rm20 as a consolation prize, and two copies of my book. To say that I was devastated was an understatement. My soul was crushed.

Third Time’s The Charm.

Don’t be sad for me, ‘cause it all worked out in the end because later that year around December of 2016, I discovered Penwings Publishing. I had already been working on another manuscript at this point, or rather, close to finishing it. That was how obsessed I was with poetry. I had started around the early months of 2015 and had come up with 100 or so poems, all within the span of a year. My style had already solidified at this point, and, might I add, improved a thousand times over. I was coming into my own as a poet. If you’ve seen or read the “His Dark Materials” movie and books, it felt like my daemon was finally settling into its permanent form. I can’t think of a better metaphor.

My style had changed so much since I started writing poetry seriously back in 2012 that looking back, it all seemed so surreal, so anticlimactic. I had also read so many poetry books at this point that I knew what I liked and what I didn’t, the rest simply involved emulating my favorite poets, like Lang Leav. I know, I know. A lot of people despise her for some reason, but her poetry style has always resonated with me and while it did start out as an experiment, I don’t think I can write any other way now even if I tried. Short of complete plagiarism, I do tend to widen my scope to include more universal themes other than love and romance, but my god I do love writing love poems for no other reason than the fact that I could live vicariously through them. Anyway, I digress. This is what happens when you give a writer a pen, a paper and complete autonomy to write whatever the hell they want.

My third manuscript was called “More than Words”, and it was my third attempt at getting this right. I was practically doing somersaults around the moon at this point when Charissa Ong, the owner of Penwings Publishing replied to my email within 2 hours of me sending it. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was at a Malay wedding, a friend of my mom’s I believe, and while I was eating nasi minyak with ayam sambal and rendang daging, I heard my phone vibrate in my pocket. Yes, my life is an actual sitcom. Two years after that, “More than Words” was born and the rest was history.

My book has done amazingly well since then, having sold over a thousand copies. A thousand! Can you believe it? Even now I still sometimes get an Instagram dm from my readers telling me how they loved my book and how they can’t wait for my next one (if any of you are reading this, thank you for your support, I won’t be where I am today without you). I used to think that fame was the ultimate goal for me being a writer, but to be able to touch people’s hearts with my words, that means more to me than any worldly pursuit. But none of this would have even been possible without Charissa, not only for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime, but also for putting up with me during the whole time we worked on making “More than Words” a reality.

To end this story, I would like to share with you this amazing quote by Pearl S. Buck:

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creation of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

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