Ready to try his hand at just about any genre, Joey To is one of NiTH’s most shortlisted authors, famous for mixing satire, black humour and offbeat dialogue with scintillating action, Joey is out feature author this month.
Who are you? How did you find out about NiTH?
I live in Melbourne, Australia. I immigrated here when I was seven years old. After many pleasurable *cough* years of schooling, I briskly walked away with a Bachelor of Engineering.
Anyway, I worked in utilities for around seven years before leaving that job and enrolling in postgrad studies in Professional Writing. It was late in 2012 when, with the tacit encouragement of a friend, I considered submitting my work to competitions. In my research, I found the Australian Writers’ Resource Competitions website where NiTH was listed (and still is last time I checked).
What are your favourite three stories you’ve written for NiTH?
Prudence Demands… – As someone who appreciates Buffy, a series in which the main character is an inversion of the damsel-in-distress trope, I find these types of premises and characterizations appealing. It’s fun to write, playing with the readers’ (and one’s own) expectations of what is “normal”. It’s also an opportunity for some black comedy. Admittedly, the plotting can be better. It’s a four-act structure where the third act is somewhat static and a clumsy setup for the final act but, overall, I am happy enough with it.
The Blazer – I generally don’t like stream of consciousness. This mode usually comes across as try-hard literary and/or poetic crap although I admit it could be just me. In any case, after reading Ania Walwicz’s energetic and cheeky examples of this type of storytelling, I realized this can work in short bursts. It was a challenge to make sure that each sentence (1) has a certain rhythm to it, that it flows when you read it fast as if you’re hyperactive and (2) contributes to the drama and emotion in that particular moment if not also plot progression no matter how random it seems.
Till Death Do Us In – I have other pieces which are better than this but, in relative terms, I am happy with this one because I wrote this in merely a few days. At the time, I had no intention of entering this competition but an idea hit me in the final week. Usually, I like to take as long as permissible to edit so, considering the rush, this turned out better than I expected.
Your three favourite stories are quite disparate. While there’s definitely types of “Joey To” stories, you broach a broad church in your approach to genre and motif. Do you think that it’s important for a writer to try different genres or is it just a personal thing? (Basically to do you force yourself to do that, or is it more about whim and muse?)
If one is asking “Which approach gets me noticed?”, then I am not qualified to answer that. I am not a famous author nor am I a prominent publisher or agent. I have heard two schools of thought. One is variety: show your diverse skills. The other: stick to what you are good at and give your folio a focus since too much diversity may be confusing.
Personally, I have a preferred style which I am relatively better at but I like to develop my skills too. That’s important to me and I can’t speak for anyone else. So, in a way, I do force myself to try different styles. Also, I’m not a naturally gifted writer. I’m one of those people who needs to practice. If I come up with something really bad (and that occurs often enough), I just won’t show it to anyone.
What genres, types of media, or other elements factor into your storytelling you’ve written for NiTH?
As someone who is visually orientated, I favour the screen more than books. So, when writing short stories, I try to steer away from chunks of “telling” and rely on “showing” and the use of dialogue. (Of course, I am not denying that l nevertheless fall into the trap of clumsy expositions.) As such, most of my work can be transcribed into screenplays without too much trouble.
As for genre, I have a penchant for sci-fi. It’s not that I like the genre in itself but I find that good sci-fi contains an effective combination of storytelling elements: fascinating premises, characters and character arcs, plot and plot devices and captivating visuals.
That said, to broaden my own horizons, I study other genres and media. For example, I read the occasional graphic novel (usually Batman), watch anime (mecha, romance, slice of life, comedy) and read the occasional fantasy novel such as those by Terry Pratchett. More recently, I’ve been introduced to the darkly comical horror that is Bentley Little.
Even before I began writing, I read the so-called classics as recommended by others: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Dostoyevsky and Lovecraft. I did this not necessarily because I want to imitate them but just for my own education. To what extent these impact my writing is hard to quantify but I am sure there is an influence.
Do you have a writing habit or routine?
When I do have an idea, this is usually the premise, the main character and maybe even a theme. I jot these down using pencil and paper. I then try to formulate the central conflict and the conclusion. Without an ending point, I have no direction so I need to think about this first. I can start writing anyway but it will go nowhere so I usually don’t.
Once I vaguely have a conclusion in mind, the plot comes naturally and I start typing on my computer. As I write (type), the plot further develops. Obviously, I take the plot-first approach. The other school of thought is to come up with the characters and their conflict first and let the plot be derived from that. There’s nothing wrong with the latter but plots come more easily to me than characters. That’s probably why my characterizations are usually simple or even weak.
When I finish my draft, I take as long as I need to edit. When there is a deadline, I use as much time as permitted. Unlike some homework, there isn’t a “completed” or a “perfected” state; with homework, I used to simply get it done as quickly as possible and move on. With most forms of art, the more time I spend on it, the better the quality so I use what time I have.
As for the editing itself, I slaughter as much as possible (up to 30% of the word count), try to minimize repetition and tighten the piece.
Thoughts on the industry, being a new author looking to get published?
Yeah, it’s difficult. There’s not much else to say.
Got any tips for managing your own website?
If you don’t understand how to set up and run websites, then make use of friends or their friends who do, haha. I’m not an I.T. guy but, thankfully, I know people who know enough.
In any case, even with all the user-friendly platforms out there (such as WordPress), it’s best to learn a bit of coding. It definitely helps when you want to give your pages a specific look and the built-in features on the platform’s frontend is limited or you have to check something in the backend.
As for content management, there’s no substitute for good discipline: format content and name files systematically and consistently, including taking advantage of categories, inserting alt text for images and links. At the very least, it looks neater and it helps you to organize. It may even have a positive impact on SEO.
SEO can be tricky and I don’t presume to understand the algorithms of search engines. I have been recommended this site on good authority as a source of information regarding SEO, and, from the little I’ve read, it seems like as good place to start as any.
What about aims? Do you have a goal to publish something within the next few years, or are you content to keep learning and striving?
It will be nice to have work published by a prestigious publisher but that is difficult. In this world, there’s a lot of “It’s not what you know but who you know”. I say that objectively, not as some excuse for myself. I’ve picked up many books where, even in the first few pages, I was mentally making edits every line and, ultimately, would not have approved that piece of work if I was the editor. Conversely, I have read pieces by unknown authors who are so much more talented.
Given all that, I don’t have any “hard” plans to get a novel published in a few years and I am content to keep practicing and developing my skills. I will keep writing as long as I have inspirations and the means to do so.