My Journey To Writing The Best Story In The Universe

Writing Journey image

My Writing Journey

The writing journey for many writers that I’ve read about seem to have a common thread. It usually begins with flashing back to how they were voracious readers, mesmerised by stories, always having a love of books and the written word. And for as long as they could remember, they’ve always known that they wanted to be a writer. It was what they were born to do, apparently. Every time I read these romantic reminiscences, I questioned myself about whether I should even start putting pen to paper because my writing journey start wasn’t nearly as romantic or charming. I would be lying if I told you that I wanted to be a writer ever since the universe started.

Unnecessary chore of reading and writing

Growing up, I wasn’t a big reader. In fact, I disliked reading. It was an unnecessary chore that got in the way of having fun, watching TV, or whatever else I wanted to do. Later in life, when I read a little, I gravitated towards non-fiction – usually business related, news or biographies – because that was how people became worldy and climbed the corporate and social ladder, right?

And by no means was I a writer. The most I wrote was when I was forced to at school. I would dread the English essay assignments that would take forever to draft. So, no one is more surprised than I am that I ended up writing a screenplay and a book.

Who could afford to watch movies?

Writing Journey - No MoneyWhat I lacked in writing and reading, I made up for my penchant for a good story. I watched many movies – at first, on TV because going to the cinema was too expensive of an indulgence. Who could afford $7 just to watch one movie, plus you couldn’t go without buying the $20 drink and popcorn combo. You may as well have asked me to fly to the moon and back. (The prices are decades old. How I wish tickets are still $7!).

After watching the movie, I would often critique it to myself. What did I enjoy from it? What were the high and low points? Most importantly, I always pressed myself to come up with the reason. Why did I enjoy? Why was a scene the highlight or lowlight? Little did I know then that I was scratching the surface of understanding the fundamentals of good story telling.

Ideas started floating in my mind. The germ of it usually came from something I saw in the “real” world – a father holding his disabled son’s hand as they crossed the road, a couple arguing about how the smallest thing, or grandma sitting alone on a park bench but nothing big enough to even make a short story. However, after a while, I had many individual scenes floating in my mind that I pushed myself to come up with a storyline every now and then. It wasn’t an overnight process. It took a number of years.

Write? Who me?

But I didn’t start writing. How could I? While all the ideas marinated in my mind, I came up with all sort of excuses. I wasn’t a writer. I wasn’t a reader. Who was I to start writing? The only formal English or writing lessons I had was back in high school. Writing was people who was born to do it, and I was born lazing around.

I tried to convince myself that I couldn’t start because I didn’t have the right professional writing software because that was what made a writer good or even great. At that time, Final Draft was one of the top writing software but at a cost of a few hundred dollars, it was too much for a poor student like me. I ended up not doing anything.

Making a trip to bookstores and libraries

Writing Journey - BooksIn the meanwhile, I read up on the craft of writing and would constantly threatened to myself that I would start writing if only I could afford the program (yes, it was called a ‘program’ back in those days, instead of an ‘app’). Back in those good old days, there was no YouTube and the internet was just a new plaything, so I couldn’t search for things online as easily as I can now. So, I trudged to the bookstores to find books about writing, but I had no idea how expensive books were. Who knew they could cost tens of dollars? It was a gross injustice! The ones that I usually saw were a few dollars – $10 at most – but I later realised that these were the discarded discounted books that no one wanted. So, I went to the local library instead. And from where I’m from, the arts weren’t a big thing so the section on writing was very limited. In a way, that was good because it forced me to discover writing and critically think for myself.

Good Will Hunting gave me a kick up the arse

At the time, writing was still a thing that only existed in my mind. I might have had a few paragraphs of some scribbles but nothing else. What was the point of starting if I didn’t have Final Draft? That changed in 1997 when Good Will Hunting was released, and after Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won an Oscar for best original screenplay, it gave me motivation to start my own story. So, I devoured the 3 books I could find on writing (I exaggerate about the three but it wasn’t very many) and after a particularly boring lecture at uni, I put pen to paper and bashed out the beginnings of a story.

Writing isn’t for the precious petal

The self-learning process was slow and painful. Not only did I have to work out how to translate my ideas on paper, I also needed to adhere to the craft and conventions of writing a compelling story (structure, pacing, conflict, stakes, character arcs, show don’t tell, etc, etc). I would often have to go back to re-write scenes to incorporate whatever it was I learnt.

After countless missed lectures and hours upon hours in the computer labs at uni, I eventually put together a draft using Microsoft Word (after spending more hours learning about styles and paragraphs to format the draft; and long after giving up on buying Final Draft). I was proud of myself for writing a complete screenplay because it was a monumental achievement for me – a person who had never really wrote anything of significance. Even uni essays, projects and other assignments weren’t as big as this screenplay project. However, I didn’t share the achievement with anyone. As a small celebration to me, I splurged and think I bought myself some chicken and wedges from the uni café. After all, it’s not every day I completed a screenplay!

I didn’t know why I didn’t tell anyone at the time but with hindsight, it was probably because of the fear of failure. Asians weren’t supposed to be into the arts. We were supposed to be doctors, engineers, accountants. I didn’t want to deal with the mocks, derisive smirks, and putdowns. Not because I was a precious petal who would flake at other people’s reactions (haters can go get ) but because I didn’t want my mind to be occupied with anything else other than learning the technical craft of writing.

Writing the best story in the universe

Writing Journey - UniverseProbably like all newbie writers, I thought my draft was the best story in the world. No, the best in the universe, because I poured every waking moment into it. I was already rehearsing my acceptance speech when I would inevitably win my well-deserved Oscar and thank Matt and Ben for their motivation, even if they didn’t know what they did for me.

After a few revisions, I submitted my story to the Australia Film Office and waited and waited. When I received their response in the mail, my heart was heavy because I already knew it was a rejection. Who was I to write a story? I wasn’t born to do it. I wasn’t one of them. The letter sat on the table for a few hours before I summoned the courage to open it. My eyes darted across the page, zigzagging left to right, trying to catch the disappointing words of “unfortunately” or “we regret to inform you” or similar. When I didn’t find it, I read it again, slower this time. I had to re-read it again to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood that I secured funding to develop the script further.

I was ecstatic. Here I was, starting from zero and self-learning how to construct a story and the technical aspects of writing a screenplay, and after so much hard work (at the cost of paying attention at uni), this agency said the story – no, my story – had potential. But still I didn’t tell anyone. Not yet. The world would know about my greatness soon enough, I fantasied.

“Your father suffered a cerebral haemorrhage”

After spending months revising my (potentially) award-winning original screenplay, my writing stopped abruptly. “Your father suffered a cerebral haemorrhage,” the doctor explained. “A what?” I asked. I didn’t even know what that meant. Up to that point, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a healthy family, so what use did I have knowing esoteric medical terms? At first, I thought my father would recover soon but after I learnt what a stroke was and the slim chances of his making full recovery, everything else seemed to come to a stop. Along with my mum, I became one of my father’s key care providers.

A stroke is disruptive to the sufferer, of course, though it is also disruptive to the people around them – obviously not to the extent of the sufferer. My days and weekends were consumed with driving my father to the countless doctor’s appointment, the groceries, the pharmacists, the traditional Chinese herbalists, or filling in who-knows-what forms that the government needed… all the while trying juggle my uni studies. It was a challenging period to put it mildly and formed much of my character today.

Screenplay v2

As I reflect on the strength of my screenplay, I am slightly embarrassed that I had submitted it in the form that I did. Though, I am  eternally grateful to the Australian Film Office for giving me a chance. It wasn’t bad but like many first piece of writing from anyone, it could do with revisions… lots of it. I have a number of ideas for my next few stories and after that I might revisit this first story and rewrite it someday – this time with a little more experience under my belt.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I am now married with two teenage kids. In between, I have always had ideas or scenes and after growing a little tired of the corporate world and my children no longer need all the attention from their parents (or necessarily want all the attention), I picked up writing again but for some unknown reason, instead of defaulting to writing screenplays, I decided to write a novel. Sure, I understood the foundations of what makes a good story from my screenwriting attempt but writing a book was a different beast altogether. So, again, I voraciously watched all the videos I could find, read a lot about writing, and then just started writing, no longer consumed by the need to have the right writing software first. I am still learning and this blog is a continuation of my learning journey.


Broken: A novel by Hoi T PhamI can’t say that I was born to write. I’m not one of them. I wanted to give up many times. After the initial excitement of starting the project faded away, I found my novel writing process was a lot messier, more tiresome, than writing a screenplay. It had words and words and then more words compared to a screenplay. But I persevered and after 4 years of writing on weekends, on the way to work, after work, even bringing my laptops on family holidays (but ended up not doing much!), I’m excited to be on the home stretch of finishing my new novel, Broken; a story about an ambitious woman who struggles with her dysfunctional family whilst suffering sexual assaulted at work. Subscribe to the HTP Crew Newsletter to stay tuned for the latest on Broken and you be one of the first to read it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like...

Join the HTP Crew

Sign up to the HTP newsletter.

HTP will never spam or pass on your email address. Also, you may opt-out at any time. 

Join the HTP Crew

Join the HTP Crew to receive updates on Hoi’s novel, Broken, his tips on writing and self-publishing, tidbits about his life, and much more!

HTP will never spam or pass on your email address. Also, you may opt-out at any time.