We chatted with sydney khoo about writing routines, fanfic, and how the Write It fellowship lead to their first book deal and debut novel, The Spider and Her Demons.
What was your writing process like for The Spider and Her Demons? Did you have a writing routine or any regular rituals?
I wrote The Spider and Her Demons primarily in marathon writing sessions that lasted several days to a few weeks at a time. When I first started working on the book, I didn't have a set routine or ritual worked out because I'd never written anything so long before.
For the majority of the first draft, I could only seem to write when at a café. I struggled to focus at home and would often give up and take naps instead. Once I'd received the deadline for the first draft, I would drive daily to Café Bones in Leichhardt with my dog and write until the sun went down.
By the third draft, I'd finally managed to figure out how my brain works.
- I need a deadline. My editor wouldn't give me one, so I set one for myself and let her know what it was.
- I need a tidy space. I'd done a deep clean of my study and bedroom by that point. Before writing, all I had to do was a quick tidy of whichever space I'd chosen.
- I need ambience. Neon lights, or candles, or a YouTube video of cherry blossoms falling, usually work well.
- I will forget to eat, so I need to stock my desk with multiple 2L bottles of water and snacks.
- After that, all I need to do is wear noise-cancelling headphones and play whatever music my brain requests on a constant loop, and strive to write until I can't hear it anymore.
I figured out that once I hit that sweet spot, I hyperfocus, and the entire world disappears. I can write for days with no breaks and little to no sleep and be relatively happy about it.
How did you first come up with the idea for the book?
In 2016, Marvel was looking for its next Spider Man. At the time, Asian representation in mainstream media was incredibly scarce, and I became fixated on the idea of an Asian American Peter Parker. I could not stop thinking about it – to the point I was dreaming about it.
In my head, I started plotting out a multi-chapter fanfic with a Chinese Peter Parker at the centre of it. I loved the idea of him growing up in Chinatown, New York City, above a dumpling shop owned by his Aunt Mei.
The problem was, every time I went to write, my mind kept straying to ideas that moved so far away from the original concept that it no longer seemed to resemble anything remotely canon.
Once I came to terms with it being an original story, I realised it was largely autobiographical. I was writing to process the struggles I had with various aspects of my identity. As hard as I tried to write a superhero story, it kept swerving into magical realism and horror, which is where my short stories tend to sit naturally.
What was your big break into publishing?
Receiving the Penguin Random House Write It fellowship in 2019. I'm not sure I would have finished writing that first draft if the fellowship hadn't asked for it, and it definitely wouldn't be the story it is today if it weren't for my editor Michelle Madden's guidance and patience. I'm extremely lucky I was placed with an editor who believed in this book.
How long have you been working on this book?
Over five years. I came up with the vague concept in late 2016 but only started exploring it during my Master of Creative Writing at UTS in mid-2017.
In early 2019, a fellow UTS alumni sent me a link to the Penguin Random House Write It fellowship and encouraged me to apply.
When I submitted it, I was completely certain I would be rejected. It was a mess. There was no structure – very little plot. The ending was essentially written in dot points because I ran out of time. I was in disbelief when I was told I'd received one of four fellowships.
Mid-2019, I was introduced to the other winners, as well as my editor Michelle Madden. Michelle emailed me pages full of really helpful feedback. However, every time I went to fix the story, I would become overwhelmed with how terrible it was. Then COVID hit, and I decided to give up entirely. I let the fellowship lapse. In mid-2020, after the fellowship had officially ended, Michelle sent me a gentle email letting me know there was no pressure and that she'd still love to look at my work if I wanted to share it with her. I didn't reply.
It took a while, but I think knowing that I'd already failed changed my mentality. The pressure was no longer there. During one of the lockdowns, I started writing the story again from scratch. This time, I plotted out a proper outline and detailed character profiles. It still took me over a year to finish. I emailed the new draft to Michelle on 1st November 2021, knowing she had no obligation to look at it. I was very fortunate that she was still interested, and in February 2022, I received a letter of offer.
What was the publishing process like (finding an agent, submitting manuscripts, etc.)?
After receiving the Write It fellowship in 2019, I was sent a letter of offer in 2022. It was my first time receiving a book contract, and I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. I spoke to a few other writers, and most of them recommended agents or lawyers they knew who could look things over for me.
After I signed the contract, we started the editing process. To prevent me from rewriting my entire manuscript again, my editor suggested we do a 'jigsaw edit'. She cut up my story and placed the parts that worked in an improved structure, then inserted relevant sections from my notes and character profiles and dot points where I needed to fill in the gaps.
She then sent back specific sections of the book that needed major fixing. Most of the new content was quite rough. After that, we did the copyedit, which involved a few smaller revisions, followed by culling back anything that wasn't necessary to the story.
The manuscript was then typeset and put into pages. I received a physical printout of the pages in the mail with handwritten notes. I took about three weeks to go through them, addressing the notes, plus flagging all the mistakes I could find before sending it back.
At some point between rounds of edits, I sent over all the book covers I loved, in case that was helpful. I'd already known authors rarely get a say in the book covers, but I am very lucky Michelle managed to get me Jess Cruickshank – an artist whose work I already knew of and loved.
There were a lot of other bits and pieces for me to send through. I had to submit an author photo, update my author bio, check over the suggested blurb for the website, and edit the synopsis on the book's back cover.
What most excites you about your book being published in 2023?
If I'm completely honest, it still hasn't quite sunk in that the book is being published at all.
Every time I open my inbox, there's a flash of fear that I'll have an email from my publisher saying they've changed their mind and the book's not happening anymore.
If I'm excited about anything, it's holding the book in my hand for the first time. Hopefully, then my brain will acknowledge that I've finally finished the thing.
Do you have a favourite book or author?
I recently received a copy of Yellowface by Rebecca Kuang and devoured it. I cannot stop thinking about how good it is. It's easily one of the best books I've read in my life.
I often think of the short story Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong. The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu makes me bawl my eyes out every single time I read it.
I know fanfiction is generally dismissed as lowbrow in a lot of circles, but if you ask me what stories changed my life, they're all fanfics I've stayed up until sunrise reading on my phone in bed.
What inspired you to become a writer?
This was surprisingly difficult to answer. I don't think it was one big thing; I think it was a lot of little things that added up over time.
My mum tells me I've been writing poetry and little stories since I was a child, so in a sense, I suppose I've always been a ‘writer’. But it didn't occur to me to pursue being a writer-writer until a few years ago.
In primary school, I had a teacher who'd told me I wasn't any good at writing stories, so my confidence at that point was shot. In year eight, though, I had an English teacher called Ms James who managed to convince me my poetry wasn't just adolescent ramblings of woe with poor formatting. At the end of the school year, she gifted me a thesaurus, which I still have. Her faith in my work convinced me I might not be as terrible a writer as I'd been led to believe.
Still, at no point in my youth did I aspire to become a writer-writer.
Even signing up for the Masters of Creative Writing at UTS was only because I'd just moved back from living in the UK and wanted to do something fun for a year. I took the course purely because I wanted to learn tips to write better fanfiction – which is hilarious when I stop to think about it.
My first ever publication was a personal essay on asexuality and aromanticism called FREE TOY INCLUDED, published on Media Diversified. I'd written it in my Creative Non-Fiction class for an assignment. I still remember the day I workshopped it – sitting in a circle with other students and reading it aloud, and being shocked when people laughed. I had written it with the vague intention of it being an open coming-out letter, but I'd been so busy being terrified of what people in my life might think of it that it hadn't occurred to me that people might actually enjoy reading it.
After it was published online, I shared it on my social media and was bewildered at the response. That was probably the turning point, even if I hadn't realised it at the time. Having that one work published made me want to get more work published.
What did you want to be when you grew up and why?
Like a lot of second-generation Asian immigrants, I was encouraged to be a doctor. Even as a four-year-old, I knew my parents would be proud of me if I became a doctor, so that's what I wanted to be when I grew up.
By the end of high school, I was tossing up between becoming a clinical psychologist or a graphic designer. At the back of my mind, I figured my parents would be prouder of me if I became a psychologist than if I became a graphic designer, so I ultimately chose to pursue that.
I do remember, when I was fifteen, having a vivid dream of seeing a book I'd written in Dymocks at Westfield Liverpool. It was the first time in my life the idea of being an author ever crossed my mind. But I knew there was no money in writing, and at the time, I couldn't imagine telling my parents I wanted to be an author, so the idea didn't linger long.
The Dymocks at Westfield Liverpool is no longer there, but I like to think that my fifteen-year-old self would be proud of where I am now.
What is the best writing lesson/tip you ever received?
Figure out your story's theme. What is the lesson your character needs to learn? Once you figure that out, you'll figure out who they need to be at the beginning of the story and who they need to be by the end. It makes structuring your character's journey much easier, which in turn, will make writing much easier.
If you could go back in time and give your past self one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
I'm not sure if I would. If I went back and changed anything, I might not be where I am now. The universe brings us exactly where we're supposed to be. Trust in the divine process.
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