Writer Spotlight: Joyce Chua (one of our very own Muses!)

Hello readers, and welcome to another edition of Writer Spotlight. This month we’re featuring author of YA contemporary and fantasy fiction (and OG Muse) Joyce Chua, and her novel LAND OF SAND AND SONG, published by Penguin Random House SEA. We’re thrilled to feature her in our spotlight, since she’s the one who first brought together the Muses all those eons ago. Check out our exclusive interview with her below!

Hi Joyce! We CANNOT contain our excitement for you! Please tell us a bit about yourself, and how long you’ve been writing.

Thank you! I’m super excited too, thank you for having me!

Hi, I’m Joyce, the author of the YA Asian fantasy LAND OF SAND AND SONG (Penguin Random House SEA, 2021) and YA contemporary romance LAMBS FOR DINNER (Straits Times Press, 2013). I was born and bred in the perennially sunny island-state of Singapore, where I work as a sub-editor by day and author by night (and poet whenever the mood strikes).

Full cover of LAND!

My earliest memory of writing a novel is when I was 12, and my English teacher encouraged me to take part in a novel-writing competition for budding writers. It was the first time I’d ever attempted writing a novel and it was terrible, but the process was so much fun and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Since then, it’s been years of writing, experimenting, and tirelessly studying and honing my craft!

What has your publishing journey been like so far?

The first novel I tried to query was a standalone YA contemporary I wrote when I was 19, which got rejected left and right (rightfully so, because it just wasn’t good enough and I wasn’t ready as a writer).

When I decided that I was serious about traditional publication, I did all my homework – learned about the industry, the querying process, researched agents, and whipped my query letter, synopsis and manuscript into submission-ready shape. Along the way, I received countless rejection letters with every book I queried (seriously, I have an email folder titled ‘Rejections’ and have been filling it up since 2009).

The book that got published (LAMBS FOR DINNER) was the fourth book I wrote, and that was because I submitted in for a nationwide contest organised by the National Arts Council and Straits Times Press, an indie publisher.

It took another EIGHT years before I sold my next book to Penguin, and that was through a speed-pitching session at a writer’s conference, where aspiring authors basically speed-pitched their manuscripts to a mix of editors and literary agents for five minutes each (definitely not for the faint-hearted!). Nora, the editor I pitched to who was from Penguin, emailed me a year later saying they wanted to buy my book. After that, it was a whole year of edits and other behind the scenes stuff like cover design. Finally, a year and a half later, the book is published!

What is the one writing habit you’ve stuck to all this time?

My process is very haphazard, so I don’t really have any habits I stick to. I’m not the kind who forces myself to write every day or visits a specific coffee shop to write or wake up at a certain hour. I find that the flexibility – and the room for spontaneous changes to a routine – keeps things fresh and makes writing feel less like a job or a chore.

I do, however, like to figure out all the names of the characters and have a flawless opening sentence to set the mood of the story before proceeding. So that’s sort of a habit, I guess?

Rejections are an unavoidable part of being a writer—do you have any tips for coping with them?

I’m pretty sure every published author will tell you that the road to publication is never as smooth as they hope it would be. It is riddled with rejections, despair, self-doubt, anxiety and more. But every rejection taught me something and made me more resilient.

The process can also be incredibly rewarding because of the friends you meet along the way (whether they’re writers, readers, publishers, librarians, teachers or booksellers). So number one: find your community, your support system. Have people around you who understand what you’re going through, who will go through the highs and lows with you and help you keep your dream alive when your determination flags.

My writer support system: the Muses!! ❤️

I also find that the best way to cope with rejections is to keep your eyes on your next project. Keep going forward. Don’t dwell too much on the book that agents are picking up, don’t linger too long on the last book that didn’t sell well (although do celebrate the wins as they come along). Always maintain that forward momentum. Your next project will keep you distracted from the last one that didn’t work out. (And always have hope that the next one will work out! So important to keep that flame alive inside you.)

What’s one piece of writing wisdom you turn to whenever the Muse has (temporarily) abandoned you?

Go back to the last place where everything went wrong. Sarah Dessen shared that advice once, and that has helped me whenever I’m stuck and just can’t advance in the story anymore after dragging it out for as long as I could. By retracing your steps and going back to the last scene that messed everything up after that, you discover what it is your story needs and where it should go. Often, I find that once I fix that scene, everything else that follows flows. It’s like unplugging a pipe!

Any advice for other debut authors? Or writers who are still fighting to break into the industry?

I know every author advises this, but it really holds true: DON’T GIVE UP. Publishing is a really long game. There are so many moving parts and so many things are out of your control. The only thing you can do is to keep learning about the industry, honing your craft, and keep writing the best book you possibly can.

And keep things moving! Don’t stay stuck on one manuscript if you’ve been pitching it for years and it’s not getting any bites. Be flexible and know when to pivot or move on to the next project.

What inspired you to write this story? What were your main influences?

I tend to go where my curiosity takes me, and I’ve always been fascinated by Central Asia, the Silk Road and its mish-mash of distinct cultures.

I came across this book called The Stone of Heaven one day and it was absolutely captivating. It chronicled Man’s discovery and obsession with jade ever since the Chinese emperor Qianlong first learned about it, and how he made his troops go searching for it to expand his collection of that precious stone.

Then I did a little more research on Chinese emperors and learned that Qin Shi Huang was another figure who had an obsession: he was obsessed with attaining immortality, to the point where he purportedly ingested mercury pills created by his alchemists (which eventually led to his demise).

All this research formed the central external conflict of the story: a power-hungry emperor’s quest for immortality at the expense of his people. Coupled with my interest in the Silk Road cultures/tribes/etc., this was the genesis of LAND OF SAND AND SONG.

(For more moodboard inspo, check out the Pinterest board I curated for LAND!)

Is there a secret easter egg you can tell us about your book, or a fun fact you learned while researching it?

There are a couple of lines in the book that were inspired by Sun-Tze’s The Art of War (which actually shares some similar beliefs/theories/strategies with Machiavelli’s The Prince). I won’t tell you which ones – you can guess them when you read the book! 😉

If your book was adapted for the screen, what would your dream casting be? And what song would you want playing during the opening/closing credits?

I don’t have a dream cast per se, although I did have a few faces in mind while creating the characters.

Clockwise from top-left: Desert Rose, Wei, Windshadow, Meng

Music-wise, I typically turn to my curated Spotify playlist and play it on a loop while writing.

Remember Me by July, is the piece that perfectly encapsulates the mood of the story. I like to imagine two of my main characters riding off into the desert sunset to that.

Another would be Apasionata by Bae Bo Ram, which is found on the Scarlet Heart: Ryeo soundtrack (if you haven’t watched this Korean historical drama yet, trust me – it’s definitely worth a watch!).

What are you working on next (if you can share), and where can we find you online?

I’m simultaneously outlining and drafting (yes, that’s how I roll, because I’m still a pantser at heart even though I’ve learned the importance of plotting) the sequel to LAND … and dreaming of a spinoff duology set in the same world!

You can find me on Instagram (where I hang out most of the time), Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or visit my website and blog. Feel free to drop me a message or email – I’m always happy to hear from you!

Thank you so much Joyce! LAND OF SAND AND SONG is available on Amazon, Kinokuniya and GoGuru. Grab your copy and don’t forget to add/review her book on Goodreads, and stay tuned for more updates!


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