Beijing’s wordsmiths

By Jiang Yuxia Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-13 19:58:01

While the city boasts a bustling literary scene this month thanks to the ongoing Bookworm and Capital literary festivals with visiting international authors, journalists and thinkers, Metro Beijing spoke with some of the local writers in town, established and new. What they offer is a picture of how Beijing's wordsmiths are making their way into a successful writing career.

Qi cuts himself off from all distractions. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Qi cuts himself off from all distractions. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Café frequenter

Vincent Qi, 30, is an independent writer and lecturer on self-improvement aimed at male readers in their 20s. Qi, who has a degree in psychology from a university in the UK, started his writing career last June, and has about 8,000 followers on Weibo, his blog Nvyuzhe and social networking site Douban.

To focus on his writing, Qi, a Henan Province native, has stopped using his cellphone and cancelled the Internet service at his apartment near Sanlitun. Working about eight hours a day, six days a week, Qi said his writing and life have been mixed together.

Getting up around 6:30 am for some exercise, he goes directly to his favorite café around 7:30. The Sweetmap Café, north of Yashow Clothing Market, is cozy and quiet - just the right atmosphere for writing, Qi noted.

Dividing his time between writing, reading and replying to readers' e-mails, Qi has drawn up a strict itinerary on working days. As he reads a lot in English and often writes in English first and then translates into Chinese, the quiet coffee shop frequented by long-time customers is the perfect place for him.

"I usually spend the morning in the coffee shop by myself, without socializing with anyone around me, and just focus on writing both my blog and the teaching materials for my lectures," he said. To write something seriously, he needs a quiet, calm place.

Qi writes about 10,000 to 20,000 words a week, and a quality article of 1,000 words takes him two to three hours to write.

After a nap of about an hour at noon, Qi dedicates his afternoon to replying to e-mails from his readers and joining discussions on some online forums related to his writing and teaching. To unwind, he steps out of the coffee shop to stroll around, or takes a moment to observe passersby.

"I'm the type of person whose thinking is easily stimulated by moving objects. When I am walking I might be struck by some ideas and I jot them down in a notebook. After I get to the coffee shop, I then type them out," he explained.

Though fiction writers encounter writer's block from time to time, that's not a problem for Qi because he works in nonfiction. His knowledge and inspiration come from the books he reads.

"I read books on subjects such as philosophy, mythology and anthropology. But the most important books are about Zen and Buddhism," he said, adding that he practices Zen meditation as part of his daily routine.

If he could dream up his own place to write, it would be a more cozy and spacious home.

When asked if there is a cohesive writer's community for independent authors in Beijing, Qi said it is almost nonexistent. Qi said he still needs to work hard everyday to have his work published, read and talked about.


Hobbyist sci-fi scribe Xia Photo: Courtesy of Xia Jia
Hobbyist sci-fi scribe Xia Photo: Courtesy of Xia Jia

Bed-bound dreamer

Xia Jia, 29, is a part-time science fiction writer and PhD candidate of comparative literature and world literature at Peking University. Her collection of short stories, Demons in the Glass, was published last year by the Sichuan Science and Technology Press.

Taking writing as a hobby rather than a way of making a living, Xia is not imposing strict deadlines or expectations on her writing right now.

"I'm a procrastinator and kind of lazy, so I do not make writing deadlines," said Xia. During the Chinese New Year, she wrote six short stories centered around the festival's rituals with sci-fi elements, including the family get-together on the New Year's Eve. "I wrote the stories because I was too bored at my home [in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province]."

Lacking self-discipline, Xia focuses on writing short stories as the longer pieces she started a while ago lost momentum after she got to about 20,000 words.

Xia is a capricious writer. It takes her a while to get in the right mood.

"I get anxious and then engage in doing something else. By the time I get into the mood, hours would have passed by," she said. But once she does get into writing mode, she ignores all other tasks, including her meals.

"When you have a figure for you story, you need to carefully pair it up with related plots or actions for the character. If not, you would easily turn out stories that are similar to what other writers have written," she said.

Most of Xia's inspirations come from the books she has been reading, be they sci-fi novels or books on social science.

"I used to read books for their plots, but now I read with a critical attitude and often ask myself what the author's intentions are," she said.

Xia prefers quiet places when she writes, such as the study rooms in her university. Yet the place she feels at most ease is her bed.

"When you are in bed with your computer, no one can see your screen or know you are writing stories," said Xia.

The sci-fi scene in China started about in the early 1990s and there are only a few full-time sci-fi writers, as it is difficult to make a living from the small market and readership. More readers are becoming writers now. However, writing to her is a great way to unwind while keeping her imagination working.


Sheng thrives on peace and quiet. Photo: Courtesy of Sheng Keyi 
Sheng thrives on peace and quiet. Photo: Courtesy of Sheng Keyi

Stay-at-home author

Sheng Keyi, 39, is a full-time fiction writer. Her 2004 book Northern Girls: Life Goes On, about the struggles of young migrant women in China's South, was translated into English and published by Penguin in 2012. She spoke at the Bookworm Literary Festival last year.

Referring to herself as the indoor type, Sheng works from home most of the time at her current apartment in the Yayuncun neighborhood in Chaoyang district where she can stay undisturbed and at ease. A morning person, she usually gets up between 6 and 7 am and starts working after a light breakfast. She spends most of her evenings reading, watching films or posting on Weibo to relax. Working late into the night causes her insomnia.

Sheng has no strict word limit to pen down each day, but she carefully structures her time when working on longer pieces.

"If I'm working on short stories, I just write when I feel right about it. If it's a full-length, I try to produce 1,500 words each day," said Sheng, adding that it takes her most of the day to produce.

However, staying at home does have its downsides.

"You can be easily distracted by some trivial things such as chores in the house or cellphones," she said.

Currently working on an epic story about the ups and downs of a big Chinese family set a century in the future, Sheng said she's not really a social writer.

"Meet-ups are more for screenwriters than novelists," said Sheng. "Each writer has his or her own preference for developing plots and some prefer not to discuss and step on each other's works."

Being in conversation with her readers is more important to her, and she said literary festivals are a great way to do that. Sheng spent half of last year in and outside China promoting Northern Girls.

Although Sheng is mostly confined to her home, that doesn't curb her inspiration.

"Some authors get inspired by things they see or experience, but I get more inspiration from my reading," she noted. "It is more like indirect life experience. As long as you are sensitive inside, you can transform others' stories into your own in your writing, and sometimes they are more profound."

Sheng's favorite place to write is at the Demaotang Villa at the foot of Huangshan Mountain in eastern China's Anhui Province. It's special to her because it sits in an area with few other people. She can be alone, and write.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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