Mining for local literary gems
By DAPHNE LEE
Get it from the horse’s mouth: the man who decides which manuscript sees print and which is tossed shares his insights about being published.
“NO IRON SPIKE can pierce the human heart as icily as a full stop in the right place,” Eric Forbes says, quoting Russian journalist, playwright and short-story writer Isaac Babel.
As senior editor of MPH Group Publishing, Forbes’s job, of course, includes placing full stops and other punctuation marks in exactly the right places. He’s the one who reads the manuscripts of aspiring authors and decides whether their work is worthy of being published.
Forbes, who has been working in publishing for more than 20 years, is constantly on the lookout for good books to publish. When asked if he’ll be offering up a manuscript for publishing himself, he replies, “No, I like being an editor. That’s what I do.
“If everyone wanted to write best-selling novels and no one wanted to do the behind-the-scenes work, the publishing world would be in trouble,” grins the 45-year-old native of Kluang, Johor.
Nevertheless, Forbes feels that it’s important that budding writers hone their own editing skills.
“If the manuscript you submit is a mass of errors, the editor may just ignore it and move on to the next one,” he warns.
Authors should proofread and edit their work. If it’s beyond your capabilities, Forbes recommends getting your manuscript read and corrected by a professional.
“Not having to plough through bad grammar and poor punctuation helps tremendously. The fact is, the editing process can be very monotonous and people who submit manuscripts are often not open to criticism, no matter how constructive.”
Still, although editing can be tedious work, Forbes says there’s no beating the rush of working on a piece of good writing. Unfortunately, such works are few and far between.
“The industry is more commercial than creative. There are great ideas floating around but they are not used because there is uncertainty about whether they will sell. Many writers are also very focused on whether they can market their books, and not so much on the quality of their writing.”
He laments the lack of interest in honing good writing skills.
“Having talent is just the first step. As with every skill, you have to work hard at writing to develop it and make it memorable and worthy of notice.
“Being good at language is not good enough. You have to stretch yourself further before your writing sings and shines. The great writers of the world struggle every day with what they produce. And they have doubts all the time.”
While believing in one’s ability as a writer is a good thing, Forbes stresses that this must not be coupled with a reluctance to rewrite and revise one’s work.
“Part of an editor’s duty is to advise the author how to improve her work,” he says.
Belligerent writers who refuse to even listen to suggestions and opinions really get Forbes down.
“I want to see the local publishing industry grow and improve in quality but before this can happen, authors have to be willing to work on their writing. It’s rare that the first draft or even the fifth is perfect. Another pair of eyes, another viewpoint definitely has a part to play in taking a piece of writing to greater heights.”
Because of the lack of good, homegrown, Malaysian-flavoured books, MPH Group Publishing is keen on encouraging and discovering local writers. The company accepts unsolicited manuscripts and plans to publish two short-story anthologies of “high literary standard”, for which an open call for submissions has been announced.
“We want these collections to be really good,” says Forbes, who developed these projects with his colleague Janet Tay.
The two editors will be choosing the stories for the anthologies and intend to work closely with the authors of the final selections to ensure that the books can hold their own at the international level.
Forbes is keen to discover and nurture good Malaysian writers, especially good fiction writers.
“There’s not much good local fiction because our writers lack the skill for it. For a start, there aren’t many avenues for creative writing in Malaysia, though small, private presses like Silverfish Books have played a part in encouraging writers.”
As an editor, Forbes’ advice to aspiring authors is to read voraciously: “Read as widely, deeply and omnivorously as possible, both fiction and non-fiction.
“Whether you’re a writer or a reader, or both, you are enriched by reading,” he says.
“Books take us everywhere, show us new worlds and different people, make us aware of feelings we were unaware of, make us think and question, give us ideas and answers.”
As can be imagined, Forbes reads obsessively and hungrily, delighting especially in contemporary fiction and essays.
When he likes an author (favourites include Salman Rushdie and John Irving), he tries to read everything ever written by him.
Could he imagine a life sans books and reading? A brief but acute expression of horror and pain passes over Forbes’ features.
“It would be unbearable,” he says and pauses, as if to consider the possibility. Finally, he shakes his head, “I can’t imagine it.”