Today is the last day of the Year of the Mouse and tomorrow marks the beginning of a new Lunar New Year, even though the Year of the Ox has already started clicking astronomically on 3 February, more than a week ago. Let me quickly wrap up on The Middle Child project.
On 20 January, before the hard back copies of the book were ready, I put five copies of the book in my knapsack and walked to the Books Registration Office, feeling rather fresh. I had called beforehand and was advised that most of the office staff then were working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic situation, but that someone would be there to receive me. Indeed, a young man received the five copies of my new book, stamp receipted my Books Registration Form and told me politely that it might take up to two to three months to process the application because of the backlog, generated in part by the pandemic situation. I showed understanding and left the Office happily and lighter, without the five books. Less than ten days later, I received a letter in the post informing me that my book, The Middle Child – A First Memoir, has been registered, on 29 January 2021. This is official.
“There’s no feeling like finishing a book, and I’m proud of this one.” These are not my words, but rather were from President Obama on his 768-page book “The Promised Land” which is the first in a series of two books on his Office of the 44th United States Presidency, published on 17 November 2020. I waited for the Large Print version and bought a copy from Book Depository, and when it arrived, found that it was the same size as my book, except in 1085 pages on even thinner but similar paper quality; and have started reading.
I like reading other people’s autobiographies. I find that such reading could offer me a chance to live the lives of other people I am interested in. Actually, between sending my manuscripts to print and proofreading the book, I have been reading autobiographies of other people. We have actually formed a small group of four or five friends since July 2020 when the then social distancing rules allowed us to meet in tables of two, sometimes four or even six, for breakfast and small discussion groups on books that we have read, individually or collectively. The sessions are meant to generate and exchange views on various social and global views on topical issues, socio-economical, geopolitical and others. We met on weekends, weekly or biweekly, beginning with Niall Ferguson’s Ascent of Money, then Frederic Pierucci’s The American Trap, followed by Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber. We also discussed a popular science fiction work from China which turned into TV series with sequels. We have also discussed the autobiographies of Mark Twain, Julie Andrews and others.
Paul Wan has actually edited some film clips he had taken of me talking about my book and put it his YouTube account. It attracted nearly 80 viewings on the first day and about 140 in a week. I have also given a talk at my own Rotary Club recently, with the title, “The Making of The Middle Child”. I began with a disclaimer that the thrust of the talk was not to promote the sale of my book, but rather to share with the members the differences between writing and publishing a book.
I began with my experience with a professional local book publisher introduced to me by a friend. I have also talked to friends who had published books and learnt from their experience. My conclusion was that, in my personal circumstances, it is best to be my own publisher. First, I would save time and money on the project. I won’t need to justify to the publisher how and why I had decided on the size of the book, the print size, line separation, whether to have photos, how many chapters, the book layout in general, and so on. And I don’t need to pay a publisher who could be more interested in selling more books through making the appearance of the book, rather than its contents, more interesting. For example, I had been advised that I must have photos, 8 pages of photos preferably in colour; that I should keep the number of words to 50,000, preferably below; and have the book published in paperback. I was warned, “Nobody reads” or “People won’t read anything too long”; notwithstanding my reference to Mark Twain’s autobiographies running into thousands of pages and in three volumes.
Editing also presents very interesting problems. I was told that professional writers would routinely hire professional editors to go over their manuscripts. Editors typically work with publishers, because they share the common objective. They would advise on what the author should have written, where he should be long or short on, and sometimes even on the storyline. They are like script doctors in films, who would very often re-write the stories from the original work in print, but that would be another story, involving two rather different art forms. I have also heard that editors would not hesitate to butcher sections of a writer’s work, in the same way that in film production, a lot of the director’s works might never see the light or go into the final film.
To cut the long story short, I have published my first memoir not as a commercial project, but as a personal work for myself, for those dear and near, and for good friends. I have a story to tell which I think is too good to be kept to myself only. I love my friends too much not to share the story with them. I have not put in any pictures or photos – indeed people have looked for them and some were visibly disappointed to find none – because I can’t draw and because I am from the old school which believes in the pen rather than the sword. I have budgeted for the project, but I am however not giving away copies free so that I can apply the proceeds on charities of my choice, and perhaps to fund a sequel to this, my first memoir. But one thing is clear: I am feeling what Obama feels or has felt about finishing a book; and like him, I am proud of this one.