October 31, 2013

Pet words

Dear M,

Apparently every writer has a few pet words and phrases. I have been conscious of some of mine for a long time now, and at times spend time to remove them. But there are several that still evade my eyes.

In this article I came across recently, the first point speaks of the pet words of famous writers. Do read, there are other important points relevant to writing too.

I think my pet words (at least the ones I am conscious of) are 'some' and 'just'. I keep writing about something that someone just did somewhere and then somehow someone just found it out.

I remember when I read Ayn Rand, I noticed that her major characters often "threw their head back" when they sat - it gave us the right impression of the person and their attitude and their strength. This is an excerpt from Atlas Shrugged:

She sat at the window of the train, her head thrown back, one leg stretched across to the empty seat before her.

You can find this head throwing back in many places in the book. I wonder if Ayn Rand was conscious of her characters throwing their head back.

Apparently (and this is the second time I am using 'apparently') there is a way to spot your repeated words. The writer is the last person to know their own writing and they need tools to call them out. If you are using MS Word, it will help you. Here is the link that discusses a few methods to spot the culprits.

Having said that, there are some(eek! some?) writers who have used word repetition to bring an emphasis to their writing or the situation. I remember reading a similar repetition in Salman Rushdie's book, but cannot recall it now. There are many famous authors who have used it to good effect. It's again a case of knowing the rules and knowing how to break it.


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October 30, 2013

We shine through our writing

Dear M,

We do not realise how much our writing speaks to the readers. Who we are shines clearly through our words. We cannot write about anything without the reader being able to piece bits of us together.

I don't mean we can read between J.K. Rowling's lines and conclude that she is a witch. But our attitude towards things, our behaviour and thought process are clearly displayed before the reader as though we have spread them out on the ground like vegetables in a market. It seems obvious, doesn't it?

We may write about things we are not familiar with, or we may create characters who are so opposite from us, or we may write about people reacting in ways we have never faced, but deep within, there is an undercurrent, a thread, call it what you will, that is our own philosophy, our own individuality. Every reader senses it, every reader feels it. The more we read a particular author, the more we begin to understand them, if we pay attention. Or we could just read through and forget about everything.

The thread that seeps through our writing, that's our strength, that's our weapon. That's the tool we use to define our writing, to define our themes, to define our stories, to define ourselves.


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October 29, 2013

Writing is like getting drunk

Dear M,

There's this joke I heard recently - "I get drunk when I am sad, I get drunk when I want to celebrate, I get drunk when I am bored, I get drunk when I have no reason, I get drunk when I want to get drunk."

Writing is like that to me. I don't need a reason to write. I want to write when I am sad, when I am happy, when I am bored, when I have nothing to do, and when I want to. It gives me a high. This might sound ridiculous to a person who hasn't experienced it, but the moment I start writing or thinking about what I had been writing, my mood changes, my spirits rise - in an instant, almost the way alcohol does.

A few days ago, all the efforts I had been putting on began to overwhelm me. Once it starts, it is like an avalanche, there is no stopping it. It gathers more and more as it rolls down until it is as huge as a mountain and plasters everything its path. I didn't know what to do. It is easy to become negative. Reversing the effect is hard work. Besides, people would not understand what you're so miserable about. They'll ask (sometimes rather sarcastically) "who has turned the switch on??" It's so sudden, and so inexplicable, and worse, there is nothing new - it is the same old miseries again.

I turned to writing - I was supposed to be doing something else, but I announced rather rudely that I wasn't doing it now. Then I opened my manuscript, the one I was editing and almost instantly, believe it or not, I began to feel better. I had written this. This is so beautiful (excuse me, but I often find my own writing beautiful when I read it after a while, and I like that feeling, it brings so much energy and motivation). Finishing something as small and simple as this blog would give me the much-required peace of mind too.

If all the drunkards in this world could turn to writing to get the same high, there would be no alcohol-addiction-related problems. Not that I would recommend that, but yeah, it sounds nice doesn't it?


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October 28, 2013

Different readers interpret our writing in different ways

Dear M,

Today I wrote a few sentences on a certain topic and was amazed when different people understood them in different ways and responded according to what they read from it. I thought I had put it across in a simple and straightforward manner, but apparently it could be interpreted in multiple ways.

When we write, we need to remember this. Different readers decipher our writing in different ways based on who or what they are. We typically do not need to do anything about it. What we write is up to us. It just helps if we tell ourselves that this could be construed in another way, not exactly the way we had wanted it. We could decide to leave it thus, or we could change it. We could complicate it, or simplify it. We could choose to ignore what the reader thinks. After all, I am the writer, the author, the creator. I get to choose.

Every single sentence could transform in many ways in the eyes of the reader. If you give three stories to five people and ask them to select the best among them, you could see how varied their opinions are, and how contrasting their reasoning is, while choosing the story. One would say I like it because it speaks of destiny, something that fascinates me. Another would say, I loved the way the girl chose her priorities in life, it is something I have never been able to do. A third would say, I think this story is the best because it left me wanting for more. Yet another would say there was such a depth of philosophical logicality in the sophistication of the individual's duality that... yeah, something like that.

We cannot write to make others happy, we cannot write to make everyone think alike. But we could understand the readers' thought process better if we know that they need not read it the way we had intended it to be read.


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October 27, 2013

Show, not tell - an introduction

Dear M,

Remember I told you how I could never get rid of adjectives? I could understand the redundancy of adverbs - once you begin to notice them, you realise how ugly the writing looks. But adjectives - I admit, I do find them excessive some times, but most of the time I find them useful. I mean, how do I say that a girl is beautiful without referring to her as a 'beautiful girl'? (Or heading straight to the thesaurus and coming up with 'gorgeous', 'ravishing' or 'dazzling'?)

That's where the other writing rule (or a guideline, I prefer) comes in. Show, not tell. One of the most beautiful and most difficult (and at times the most exhausting) guidelines in literature. Beautiful - because if it is implemented right, you get a feeling of being elevated from the plane you are in. Difficult - because it takes a lot of time and effort to get it right.

So what does it mean?
"Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." - Anton Chekhov

When we use adjectives, we are trying to say, the girl is beautiful. Straightforward and to the face of the reader. But if we describe what makes her beautiful - her hair, her sensuous lips, her eyes, her words, her actions, her kindness - the simple, meaningless adjective, 'beautiful', is replaced by a clearer picture, a feeling, a vision. The reader deciphers it in a way he knows, a way that his experience and learning has to taught him to. When he does that, he begins to connect with the character, he feels that he knows the girl.

Show, not tell is not easy to implement. We cannot (and should not) use it everywhere. We cannot describe every single adjective we have used and expand it into a detailed paragraph. It is not only a waste of time, your novel will also never reach the end, the reader would be bored to death and give up before he has reached ten pages.

It is important to identify the places where we should show instead of telling. If we overdo it, it becomes exhausting to read. Whatever anyone says, the knowledge can come only from writing and writing and writing and writing.

There's more to Show, not tell than I have described above. I will share them as we go along, as I try to master it.


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October 26, 2013

Take a break!

Dear M,

When do we take a break? We seem to be working all the time. I mean, everyone in this world. Everyone's busy. All the time.

Either they are working to earn their income, or they are working to earn some extra income, or they are working on their passion, or they are working to have some fun or they are working to teach their children or they are working to put some food on the table, or they are working to enjoy their vacation.

When do we relax?

I asked myself this question because that was what I caught myself doing in the past few days. I was working all the time, on something or the other. When I stopped, I fell asleep as though I had been knocked unconscious. For two or three solid hours. That's a long sleep, during the day. I never used to sleep like that. I felt that I needed a break. And I asked myself, what did I want to do when I took a break - what does it mean when I say I am taking a break? A vacation? I usually am tired for two days after I take a good vacation!

I have no clue. But I think the answer does lie in my questions above. Everything that breaks us away from routine is a healthy break, even if it tires us to our bones. Go mountain climbing, get exhausted and fall asleep for a week, whatever - just go away for a while, without thinking about the routines. It's not possible to cut ourselves away from the world (though some people manage to do that) but it is possible to say I am on vacation, I will check when I get back.

As a writer, we feel an urge to write every day. Otherwise, we fear that we will not be as good as those who write every day. We will lag behind, we will take more time. It is not easy to cut ourselves away and enjoy a vacation - we are tempted to grab a couple of papers and make notes (discreetly of course). The world isn't what it was, and we should make the best out of what we have.

I am going to finish a major project in a week's time and I am going to take a vacation. (I know it isn't going to happen, but it is nice to pretend as if it will.)


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October 25, 2013

Finding inspiration from someone else' misery

Dear M,

Last night we had a discussion about someone in the family who is going through a rough patch. It is pretty bad, really. The Dad is sick with multiple issues, the Mom cannot make both ends meet, the daughter has a baby, the son had to drop out of college to support the family, and so on. The rest of us try to help them in some way, but there is only so much we can do.

And then, when the conversation drifted, I found myself thinking about the family again. But now my line of thought was different. The father who is sick... the mother who struggles to work... the daughter... the son... and I was moulding them and remoulding them so as to fit them into one of my stories. Or perhaps, I thought, I could write a story about them, bring out the strength and will power and sacrifice in them.

Shameless. Callous. Despicable. Someone has problems and all I am doing is conjuring stories around them. Not that I am trying to justify myself, but I think we writers (and other artists) are guilty of this. Finding inspiration from others' pain. Other people are characters and their miseries are plots. Not that we enjoy it, but it creates a spark within us. We feel that familiar tingle, that excitement, that urge, that energy to create something.

Our excuse is that what we write may bring issues to the notice of the world. Our writing may inspire others to look at unfortunate people with kindness. Our stories may help the capable see the weak in a different light and offer a helping hand. It may change some people or open their eyes to the truth. Out of one hundred people who read it, if one person decides to take an action, it is worth it.

These are our arguments but once we peel off the layers, what remains is the truth - that we see more than the tragedy in other people's misfortunes. We see stories.


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October 24, 2013

Only an artist can understand another's pain

Dear M,

Only a creative artist can understand another's pain. For others it could be insignificant, irrelevant, unimportant or even funny.

You can spot a creative person - a painter, a writer, a musician, a film-maker, a playwright, or anyone - in most stories you read or movies you watch, sometimes in a comic role, sometimes in a significant role, struggling with his creativity, trying to elicit a few claps of appreciation from his critics (and generally eliciting laughter instead). 

But even when we laugh, we, the ones who know what struggle is like, feel a tinge of pain for him/her, our smile is a smile of compassion, of understanding, of sympathy, and our heart whispers to the fictional character that it's all going to be fine, don't give up. The struggle is unfair, but it will only make you better with each passing day. Trust me. I can see your passion; you have it in you. Your talent needs polishing, polish it. Your skill needs hardwork, work hard. Your efforts need persistence, persist. Fight all odds. Believe in yourself. It can only make you stronger. Don't leave things to God. He is supporting you in the fight, He is the energy that drives you. He will not throw you across that last chasm, you need to jump. And you will get to the other side, because you can. Because you had struggled so hard. There is no other way.

We say (or think) all this even after the movie is over and the people have packed up and gone, and the actor is relaxing at his comfortable home. The struggling character remains in our hearts because we are he. We were, and we will always be.


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October 23, 2013

Why do we want to tell a story?

Dear M,

I once heard a person say that he wanted to write stories of ordinary things that happened to ordinary people.

Let's see what that means. He wants to write a story in which a girl goes to school one morning, attends class, answers questions from her teacher (or fails to) and returns home, and goes to play and has her dinner and goes to bed. The next morning, she gets up and goes to school and attends class and ... okay, so what's going on here? You are yawning, that's what's going on.

Ordinary things that happen to ordinary people would look something like that. When something different happens, it is not ordinary. It's different. And that's what we like to write about. The girl on her way to school felt a strong wind blow. Her long skirts fluttered. She saw the trees swaying in the wind, and dust rising from the ground in a rush. She squinted her eyes. A helicopter gradually and carefully descended into the middle of the road in a brown cloud.

All right. Not so great, but at least something has happened. The helicopter descending in the middle of a village surely looks ominous. Or promising. Whatever.

We write because we want to tell something that happened, out of the ordinary. Or ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Or an ordinary incident or sequence of events that had strange consequences. Or remarkable people who did ordinary things. Or bizarre people and their bizarre actions. Anything out of routine. There is nothing incredible in routine.

When we tell a story that has something going on in it, it does not get boring. If you are yawning, it's because you didn't sleep well last night.


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October 22, 2013

Photographers vs Writers - a battle of creativity

Dear M,

I had this interesting discussion (more like a friendly debate) with a photographer recently about our crafts. We both call ourselves creative people, of course. I said to him that photographers aren't really creative because all they do is capture or copy what they see.
He asked, And what do writers do?

Well, I said, we do not use a gadget to carbon-copy it. We have to play with words and twist and turn them and find the best suited one for the occasion. We have to learn grammar and spelling and metaphors and similes and what-not. One singe click and you have copied nature. For me it would take hours to find the right words, to write them so that the feeling is conveyed.

His reply was that they had to learn about composition and lighting and shadow and perspective and focal length and shutter speed and what-not. No one becomes a photographer just because he carries a camera around. It takes years of learning and experience to capture a snap that talks to the viewers. Different photographers can take different pictures of the same scene. Just as different writers can write about the same incident and give a different emotion to the reader.

I accused him of using Photoshop to beautify his pictures. The best photographer was the one who knew how to modify his pictures on the computer and remove unwanted elements and improve the brightness and contrast and everything. No one liked to see a raw picture, in most cases.

He accused me of using spell-check and grammar-check tools. The best writer knew how to use the thesaurus the best. Who liked to see a raw first draft right after it was written?

I didn't give up. I said photographers are like Batman - they are 'super' because of their gadgets, the best camera in the market with the most advanced features made them better photographers. Writers, painters, musicians and others were like Spiderman or Superman. They had talent in their blood, they had the power to crawl or fly or fight and did not have to depend on gadgets (yes, gadgets are the part that most annoys me).

He retorted that there was no basis to comparing Superman or Spiderman or Batman, they were just different. Let me give you my most modern camera, and you can access any amount of photo software you like, can you take a few pictures and show me?

I grimaced. Of course I am a terrible photographer, and no camera or Photoshop could make me a genius.

Likewise, he said, I have all writing tools at my disposal but I can never write like you do. You bring life alive with your words, I bring it alive with my pictures. Painters with their paintings, musicians with their music, and so forth. We're different even when we try to do the same thing.

We parted amicably and agreed to disagree on the topic. But I loved the discussion and the thoughts that came up.


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October 21, 2013

Time Management

Dear M,

Whenever we find that we are unable to do something that others did or do, we try to find excuses as to why we're different from them.

By now you have figured out that I am unable to manage my time and I am trying to place the blame on someone else. Yes, that is a good summary. The only reason I am able to write (almost) every day is that all good writers used to do it. If they could do it, I should do it. There is no other way.

But the last week had been crazy busy again. I am not quite clear on whether I had my meals on time, heck, whether I had them at all, and my sleep has been fitful and ill-timed. I think I did a whole chunk of my work in sleep. Anyway in that chaos, I did not write one day. Someone was at my neck every hour, and I just couldn't. And today, the race continues as soon as the thirty minutes allotted to this blogpost is over. On such days there is a severe battle between my better sense and my other sense. I don't know which is which, though. One told me that I need my sleep and that the writing can be postponed for a couple of days till this madness was over. One (the same or different, I have no idea) told me that this madness won't be over for a while so better write while I still could. One told me that if you can sit up and do something, better finish that damn work - after all, you get paid for it. You have some responsibility to the people who pay you. One told me that they pay me doesn't mean that I have to kill myself to earn that money. One told me to think of all the writers who did their work and still spent an hour or so every day to write.

That stopped me in my tracks. The famous writers. They could write every day, no matter the situation. Work, festivals, guests, family, health, almost nothing would deter them. If they could do it, why can't I? My tired sense, before it fainted, said that the famous writers of the last century did not have to work day in and day out. They worked fixed hours a day. They did not slog over computers and were not expected to go home and complete the work and send it today. They did not work like I did. I guess. Their work is not like mine. Their principles and discipline will not work for me. My time management will be different from theirs.

A lot of reasons, excuses. The bottom line? I didn't write. Now my time is up and I have to rejoin the race before someone figures out I have been wasting my time, again. A waste of time for them, a precious piece of writing for me.


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October 20, 2013

Naming your characters

Dear M,

I often spend a long time naming my characters. At first it was done unconsciously, but then I began to do it intentionally too.

Let me start where it actually started. I have always been uncomfortable with names. I know my characters, but I have no idea what name would suit them best. So in my earliest short stories, the protagonist has always been He or She. Throughout the story. Or I - which makes it easy since I don't have to name myself.

I have been okay to naming my lead character's friends or siblings. But somehow no name I could think of would seem appropriate for the He or the She.

A long time ago, a maths teacher told me that when we need to think of any random number, nothing comes to mind. Ask someone to give you three numbers between zero and ten. They would give you one, then they would stammer and murmur before they come up with the next, probably the third number would be the same as the first. Or try to arrive at a completely random ten-digit phone number. You have ten unique digits, but the phone number you come up with would have so many repetitions! So many numbers and they just refuse to come to mind. Especially zero - it is the most evasive of all.

The same with names, I think. In India, it should be so easy to come up with a nice name or two. But naming your character isn't as simple as thinking of a number. A lot of information is conveyed by the character's name. The first name immediately (in most cases) tells you his religion. If the surname is given, it could tell you his caste. You could conclude a lot about his parents (Remember The Namesake?) if his name is an ancient one (after all they must have named him) - either they are an old-fashioned family or they are a traditional family with deep rooted beliefs. If it is a modern one, they probably have westernised mindset. They are probably impressed by the actors of Bollywood or Hollywood. From a young man with a funky name we expect nothing but funkiness. Of course he can be totally un-funky too, and perhaps that is the beauty of the story.

There is no truth in most of these inferences from names. In real life, a man with a name like Manohar might be the ugliest person you have seen, and a girl named Megha could be as fair as snow or dark as rain clouds. However, it gives an initial impression to the reader about the character.

The perfect name for a character is like zero - evasive, but all-encompassing, the beginning as well as the end - the name that says it all.


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October 18, 2013

The Face of Writing is Changing

Dear M,

I don't know how many of us have realised it yet - the phase (or face, as the case may be!) of writing is changing right before our eyes.

Think of all the books you have read: almost all of them will have the protagonist searching for information on something or looking for a place or trying to locate a person who had vanished from view or yearning for his/her lover. Imagine writing such a story in the present time, say, a tale set in 2013 - the reader would immediately ask, why didn't the dude Google for information? Why didn't he/she check out the person's online profile? Why didn't he/she call the person's mobile number? Why didn't the detective get in touch with the cell service provider and track the villain's phone? Why didn't they keep an eye on their Facebook or Twitter stream to know their whereabouts? Why didn't they hack into their accounts??

See? All the fun is going from the Quest, the Hunt, the Uncertainty that we love to write about. And fast. A few years ago I read about two lovers being connected through Orkut and sending each other scraps (It was the time when the Orkut craze was setting in the horizon). Another blog I read recently had people finding and messaging each other on Facebook. Then there are hours of conversation on mobile. While there is romance and excitement in it, I miss the old Romance. The longing, the yearning, the uncertainty, the waiting, the missing, the unexpectedness. The same holds for adventures. If good old Indiana Jones could Google for all the information he needed, the movie wouldn't have been half as good (or long).

As long as we don't have cell phone towers or television in outer space, we can probably set our plot out there in the farthest reaches of the Solar System!

(Luckily for us, real villains will be at least one step ahead of technology, so there is still hope.)

So, writers, watch out: Your time is running out. If you want to write old fashioned romance or adventure or a thriller or a mystery novel, better make it quick. Soon there will be nothing left to write about. Everything will be at our fingertips. Your protagonist will sit at home and type or gesture or mouth a word or yawn, and the problems will be solved. Alas - the novel is over in two pages!

Think about it!!


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October 17, 2013

Publishing Houses

Dear M,

Everywhere you look, there is a publishing house waiting to cater to your needs. As an author, you do not know where to go.

One of our earliest dreams revolve around the biggest publishers in the country. We imagine them snatching us away as the brilliant new author of the day. Then, once we start querying, we realise that it is not easy to get noticed by the biggies. Even worse, it is not easy to get noticed by the medium sized ones; it is not easy to get noticed even by the small (but credible) publishers.

Today there are several small publishing houses sprouting at every corner. The moment you type 'publishing' or 'writing' or 'author', advertisements battle among themselves to pop up, to lure you into the wonderful world of publishing success. You have no idea which one to turn to, and which ones to ignore. Everyone promises us what we are looking for.

Most of us still prefer (as far as our dreams take us) to go for traditional publishing by known publishers. That is a safe and bankable option. At least you have a fair idea of what you are getting into. And we have the feeling that we can leave the important things in their hands. After all, we are new too. We could do with some hand-holding.

The problem with small and new publishing houses is that you have no idea what marketing tactics they are going to employ to publicise your book. You want the whole world to be able to buy it. You have interested people from the USA and Germany asking for the link to purchase a copy. If your little publisher doesn't have the ability to put it up for sale online, you are going to have to say "Sorry" to these potential readers more often than you like.

On the other hand, (or if you have experienced traditional publishing once and wish to try have a little more control) self-publishing is a good option. You could get the book formatted and edited and presented the way you like. You could market the book in the places you like. If you are ready to go all out and sell your book online and offline, and leave no stone unturned, then self-publishing could be for you. (But if you are not the person who wants to go out on the road and yell out your book's title like a newspaper seller until your voice is hoarse, then don't even think about it.)

But whoever you choose (especially if they are new or unheard of), run a basic check on them to see what they have done with their first books, and how those books have fared.


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October 16, 2013

The last lap of the race

Dear M,

I am so very close to the end of one of my projects. There is about one week's effort remaining before it can fly solo (or crash headlong).

One would think I would ignore everything else and focus on this project, and send it to its destiny. But the truth is quite the opposite. I am trying to find excuses to not do that last bit of touch-up. I am still in the hang-over of the long weekend, I have a few priority tasks to catch upon, I should probably work on a few articles I have been postponing, I have to do this, I have to do that. Anything but this project, which is actually my topmost thought and priority. Sounds strange, doesn't it?

I don't know if that is the case with everyone. Do people plunge headlong into their books to ensure that they are finished as soon as possible? Or do they wait and waste time as I am doing, especially when the end is near??

I have been like this from the start. For each of the books I have been working on, when I am near the end of the first draft, I just want to stop working and give up. It takes all of my will power to tell myself that there are only a few thousand words to go before I reach the end of the first draft. Look at all the 50 or 60 thousand words I have written. If I give up now, all that effort will be wasted. I have come this far, this is the wrong place to stop. The end is near, I can see the chequered flag just at the corner, just keep going. Convincing myself to battle on is a struggle almost as much as writing the 50-60K words was.

I have put in a few years into this book. Writing, re-writing, editing, learning. It's been a great journey, and I am so very proud of the output. Whatever happens, as they say, there has been success in this journey. I hope it goes places. But even if it doesn't, it is a winner. I am a winner.


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October 15, 2013

Paragraphs - a writing experiment

Dear M,

Let me share one of the experiments I had done with my writing, to understand how people like to read.

I did this with a couple of articles I wrote (elsewhere, not on this blog). For the time being, let us assume that the topics were interesting and that the writing was good. (Always good to set the premise!)

In some of those articles, I wrote in long paragraphs. Each paragraph contains about ten or twelve sentences (or whatever it took for the point to be conveyed).

In others, I restricted each paragraph to two sentences, and in some cases three short ones. Like this blog post. (My previous posts have all been full of long paragraphs).

What I noticed is that, some people read both, irrespective of the length or the kinds of paragraphs, but many read the short-para ones and ignore the long-para ones. Very obvious, isn't it?

Long, thick paragraphs make us wary. If we are not in a too-deep-reading mood, we tend to skip lengthy paras. Short paras make us feel that we can handle it.

So it is with stories that have a lot of conversation in them. Each person's dialog is a separate line, so they will look like short paragraphs. It will look easier to read. It will make us curious and interested.

Books that have plenty of description in them about nature and a person's character bore some readers. They are the ones that dislike the long paragraphs.

So our writing speaks more than we expect it to speak - if we are a descriptive writer, our writing will have a lot of long paragraphs; if we are a light writer, we'll have a lot of shorter ones.


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October 14, 2013

The writing world is like a high-speed train

Dear M,

Entering the writing world (or any world of art for that matter, so I'm told) is like jumping into a high speed train.

You think that once you "get there", you are safe, and settled, and satisfied, and calm. That your life of struggle is behind you. No such thing.

First, when you write, your only dream is to get published. Once you blow the agent or the publisher over, you start worrying about your readers. Will they like what you have written? Once your debut novel has gone on to become a best-seller, the pressure mounts: people are going to expect a better-than-best-seller from you. When is your next book coming out? What is it going to be about? We're eagerly waiting. The entire set of frustration that you had packed up into your suitcase, thinking you will never have to see them again, will come tumbling out.

It is a never-ending journey. A book or two is not going to give you retirement pension you can live on. They are not going to give you a life of contentment (except something that's temporary). If they did, we would never be able to produce our masterpiece. It's this feeling of pressure, frustration, that makes us stretch ourselves.

And the day we are thrown out of the train, is the day we die. And most of us will die with an incomplete manuscript (or two) in our file.


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October 13, 2013

Reading about writing

Dear M,

For a writer, writing is important. Reading is even more important. And most important of all (if I may say so) is reading about writing.

There is so much to learn. And unless we learn the basic rules, we will not be able to apply them properly or break them beautifully. After all, rules are meant to be broken. But the how-to of breaking is also important - if you don't break it well, then the result looks graceless.

You can get to learn about all kinds of writing rules: don't use adverbs (look how many I have used so far - sigh, I never get that one right) or adjectives, show not tell, don't use the same word repetitively, break down complex sentences to smaller ones, etc. etc. But if you read good authors, you can see how they have gone against these rules and yet created extraordinary text.

Sometimes it scares us to read all these, we'll get discouraged that we will never be able to apply these rules. What we do not realise is that, the more we read, the more these things get ingrained on our brain. Slowly they come out into our writing, initially making a mess out of it, but gradually managing it better and better.

It's essential to read all that we can get our hands on. But concentrate more on the good books. Bad writing influences us as much as the good ones. If you come across any, purge it as soon as possible. It's like the way we talk in offices or with friends. After a few days of listening to a weird usage (in any language) or a new term, we start using it too. Soon it becomes a habit, and then it refuses to leave our blood stream.


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October 12, 2013

Linear stories

Dear M,

As new authors, we are very focussed on our story. We miss a lot of things. As a reader we would find many things to criticise, we find ways to improve the story, but with our own, we become a little myopic. We forget to provide a roundedness to the story.

Most often what happens is that our story becomes too linear. (I have spoken about them when we discussed sub-plots). Our eyes are only on the major plot, the main theme. If we could digress a little and add some colour to the landscape, it would reduce the strain on the reader too. It would not appear too... linear.

I have been experimenting with sub-plots. But the drawback is that, we do not know how much is too much or too little. We do not want the reader to go too far into the sub plot and forget what the main focus was on. I have used sub plots to describe my characters. To develop them. I go into the character's life a bit, whatever is relevant, and a little that is not relevant too, and explore around a bit. So that hopefully the reader would get some picture about them. I have also written in one place about the history of a certain place that is the most important backdrop of my story. It is actually part of the main plot, but the history is not essential. It only adds to the reader's knowledge. But how much of it is too much? Will the reader be yawning or skipping those paragraphs? No idea. I am not bored, I am intrigued, but of course I will be!

One of the first feedback most writers (aspiring authors) receive is to "learn the art of short-story writing, before you venture into novels". Very often it is intended as a sarcastic, negative comment but there could be a real reason behind it too. Short stories are pretty much linear narratives, there is no space to wander too much into sub plots and character developments more than necessary. Once we master it, it becomes easier for us to experiment with developing the sidelines. Any kind of experiment that stretches our imagination or enhances our learning is a good thing!


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October 11, 2013

Writing about childhood

Dear M,

It's almost every writer's dream to write about his/her childhood.

But it is not as easy as it seems. We want to make it special, we want the readers to get the same feeling as we did experiencing it. The rustle of the wind, the early morning sounds of birds and insects, morning tunes in All India Radio, the gush of the river, the old fashioned routines and superstitions of our grandparents, our friends and their quirks, the fun and games, the prayers, our first crush, watching the stars in the night, a dip in the cool river, boring homework - we want to record everything about childhood just as they exist in our heart.

Who knows, we may forget the details one day and we would want to relive the memories through our own writing. There is also the risk that the coming generations would not see the world the way we did, and to them this will be an interesting perspective.

But most of all, we wish to write about childhood because it gives us joy just to remember those days. Deep inside, we regret that those days are over, and today they seem brighter than they actually were. We wish to bring them to life again, and in that process transfer some of that emotion to the reader as well. We wish to spread the epidemic of nostalgia.

In some inexplicable way, we are also afraid that we may not have many of those happy days left to us.


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October 10, 2013

Google when you can

Dear M,

Until a couple of decades ago, writers had no option but to rely on resources available at hand, to perfect their art of writing.

If they had questions or needed any clarification, they had to visit a library or approach people who knew. But now, things are slightly different. (Different, I am not talking about better or worse.) Most of the stuff is available at our finger tips. There are still great many writers who do not use the Internet, but there are great many who do. And among the ones who do, the least we could hope for is a verification using the tool ready at hand.

I am not talking about fact-checking. I am talking about the simple art of writing in the language of our choice. Maybe things aren't as easy in other languages as they are in English. But when I read a writer, a tech-savvy one, making basic mistakes that he can just Google and correct, I feel disappointed. None of us is perfect, or great, but we all can be above average. Only if we try. Only if we think, let me check if that is right.

Why are we in a hurry to type and post, without verifying? Without reading just once more? Without just letting our eyes hover over some words and asking ourselves, is that the right word to use? What does that sophisticated looking alphabet soup mean anyway? Why don't I try to change it a bit? A few errors would escape our eyes, naturally, but surely not the most obvious ones.

Forget writers, I wonder the same when I read emails, official ones, formal ones, important ones. Why doesn't the author of that email just read what he has typed in a hurry? Is he afraid of losing a customer? I think the customer will be scared off in most cases by glaring mistakes than a delayed reply. Apparently the argument is that it is the meaning that matters. I am not a writer, they say. What if the grammar is horrible, what if the person chose the wrong word using his auto correct? The recipient can easily understand it was a typo, and get the info he wanted.

I beg to differ. Mistakes in the writing often make the recipient think the sender is professionally incompetent. In this age, verification can be done at multiple stages, so why don't we use them? There's Google; it doesn't solve all of Life's problems, but it can keep us from making fools of ourselves.

Use it.


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October 9, 2013

Someone will always like what we write

Dear M,

As writers, one of our greatest fears is that no one will like what we write.

After all the pain we have gone through to complete writing and editing and getting it published, what if every review we get is bad, what if every rating is poor? What if people hate our stories?

The good news is that there will always be a set of people who like our writing, for the style or the plot or the characters or the overall feel - apart from friends and family of course. (Friends and family will always like our books and blogs and articles, that's understood.) But there will be a handful of people who think what we wrote is funny or amazing or exciting. And they will recommend our book/blog to others.

More often than not, that is not enough for us, but for a start that sounds good, right?

But look at all the famous writers of the world. Do you think everyone likes their writing? Take Hemingway. Take Dostoevsky. Take Tolstoy. Take Kafka. Take Margaret Atwood. Take Garcia Marquez. Take Rushdie. Take Ray Bradbury. Take R. K. Narayan. Take Camus. Take Anita Desai. Take J.K.Rowling.
Take anyone else.

I will tell you what I have often overheard people say.
Dostoevsky's books are slow going and sleepy, I had started reading one two years ago, and now I have reached page 50.
Tolstoy? Who reads unabridged versions of Tolstoy's works? Don't even think about it.
Hemingway? What in the world is the man talking about in his stories? Why can't he just say things upfront?
Garcia Marquez? No, thank you. It takes one hundred years of solitude to read his books.
Anita Desai? Long and Boring narratives.
R.K.Narayan? Too simple.
Camus? Is he human?
Rushdie? Who reads his books, anyway? They sell for mere controversial value.
Rowling? No substance in her writing.
And so on.

There is no author in this world - I repeat, no author in this world, best-selling or otherwise - whom all readers appreciate in equal measure. Either their books are too heavy or they are too light. Either they are too funny or they are too serious. Either they are too fantastic or they are too science-fictionish. Either too long or too quick. Either too intelligent or too silly.

If all these famous authors, Booker winners, Pulitzer Winners, Nobel winners, Sahitya Academy Winners, Best-sellers, who have stretched their writing to all possible extremes and experimented with all kinds of prose styles cannot be well-liked by the entire world, how can we expect new writers such as us to be?

So our expectation is wrong. As soon as we clear that part, handling the reviews and ratings become easy.

The writing lives in the reader's eyes. And each reader has a unique eye. There will be some folks who will like what we write. They may not like the next one we write. Period.


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October 8, 2013

Getting the facts right

Dear M,

I have always been worried about getting the facts right in writing. If I am writing about things I know well, I am fairly confident I could get them right, of course; at least I would know where to look in case I have questions. But there are times when we need to write about places we haven't visited, or things we do not know, or science that is beyond our comprehension.

Okay, one argument would be to restrict our writing to what we know about. That's how we start, but soon we would want to explore the unknown, stretch ourselves a little further, learn things new and write about lives of people we have no clue about. We cannot confine ourselves to what we have experienced, forever. We would have to venture out, sooner or later. Otherwise we run the risk of being stereotyped.

I know people who have written confidently about countries they have never visited, careers they know nothing of, history they were never part of, oh yes, all writers wander out to areas they have never been to. And reading them, we would never guess they were not there, that they were not writing from their own experience.

One example is John Irving's "A Son of the Circus" which is based almost entirely in India. I would never have believed that he had not lived half his life over here. Apparently he has visited India only once or so (as he has explained in his Introduction to the book). Clearly he had people who verified everything he has written, provided information he needed, and supported him in ways none of us can hope for. Except for one minor lapse (which can be easily overlooked) I did not find anything that made me think this author is not an Indian.

On the other hand, recently I saw a show (apparently popular in the US) which had a glaring foolish error about laptops, which could not be ignored, because the rest of the story was based on that error. But what the hell. People watch it (apparently), they may have laughed about it, and forgotten it. In defence of the show, I believe it was made a few years ago, maybe people did not use laptops as much as they do now, and maybe the makers did not use one themselves, so they must have assumed that's how laptops work, etc. etc.

So how important is it to get the facts right? Very important, if we need to gain some respect of the readers. If you read Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy", you will be mind-blown, wondering how in the world the author learned all these different things about politics, law, history, geography, medicine, botany and everything else under the sun during the 1950s. Yes, if I don't respect him for coming up with a thousand-odd page book, I would admire him for all the research he has done into producing it.

In this age, where Google can answer everything (even though only on a superficial level, most of the time, and sometimes provide wrong information), it is easy to verify facts than once upon a time. This is good, and this is bad. For one thing, your queries are answered, which is a good thing. You get an idea about things, you can watch videos of places, you can read up on experiences, you can learn the latest science. What you do not have is a clear, complete picture. You can watch videos but they do not tell you how the beach air felt - cool? warm? smelly? noisy? You can visit wikipedia to know about a planet system where your alien life-form is based on, but without knowing anything about the basics of space travel, if you write about ships shooting across space and time, it would sound more like fantasy than science fiction.

But the best part is (and I shouldn't be saying this), not many people care, as long as the story is engaging. Arthur C. Clarke writes about quantum drives, which have a basis in science (as in something that is theoretically possible). He explains it to great detail. But even if he had made up something utterly fantastic and scientifically impossible, I wouldn't have given a damn.


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October 7, 2013

Readers are more intelligent than we think

Dear M,

As writers, often we fail to see from the reader's angle. We forget that they are intelligent folk too, who know a lot about the world, and that they can piece clues or hints together and arrive at the same conclusion as we had intended. We don't have to explain everything to them.

Again, we do not notice how much we over-explain in our own writing. As readers, we may notice it in others' writing, but it takes time to see the tiresome repetition in our own - the obvious plot points explained unnecessarily, over and over again, as though the reader is a child. If you are writing a children's book, or even a young adult, a little amount of explanation could be justified.

That's what editors do, most of the time: they remove the bulk of things the writer has unnecessarily elaborated.

For example:
She opened the bottle of poison and took a swig. An hour later, she was dead. She had committed suicide. The poison had killed her.
See what I mean?

Readers are very sharp people. Every line they read, they try to figure out what's going to happen next, they try to predict the ending, they try to find the murderer before the protagonist does. The author knows what's going to happen, so the reader's vision is denied him/her. In most cases, the reader's suspicion would be on the real murderer even hours before the protagonist begins to even seriously suspect him. The least we could do is to make the story travel up interesting and unexpected alleys before bringing the culprit to his knees.

This applies to normal stories too - I used the whodunnit model to explain things better. Wait - am I not over-explaining it a bit?


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October 6, 2013

The story sometimes writes itself

Dear M,

I have often heard from other authors (and also experienced several times) about the story writing by itself. Oh, I don't mean the writer doesn't have to actually put the pen to the paper (or finger to the keyboard), but even with our best preparations and understanding of the plot, sometimes the story gets ahead of us. I wondered if it was my problem alone, but when I listened to other writers, I realised that it was a global thing.

It happens like this. We send our lead characters to a dangerous place where rowdies and thugs crowd around them and mock them and terrify them. Then we want them to fight their way through or play some trick on the goondas or find some secret passageways and escape through them, that's our plan. Then, as we are writing in intense concentration, we write (not knowing where that came from, it was not part of the original script) that the girl (one of our leads) bumps into a young and good-looking goonda and he develops a soft spot for her (or maybe he knew her in his childhood, à la Bollywood) and he lets her escape. Oh yeah, so much easier than fighting or fooling a set of tough guys. The story just goes that way more smoothly than the complicated plot we had planned. (This example was probably not good, but that's all I could come up with. But trust me, it happens to all writers.)

It is not bad when our story does that, you know. It just means that the new path the story takes is more convincing or real than the one we had hatched up. We would know what it's going to be like only when our vulnerable leads are right there in the middle of a scene. And then they just carry on, not waiting for us to catch up, not bothering to see what we, the directors, have scripted for them. We scamper after them, picking our pen and paper and keyboard, and note what they are trying to do, modifying the script on the fly.

The result turns out to be much better than the one we had prepared, and makes us wonder who the real author was.


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October 5, 2013


Dear M,

We are all in a hurry to become authors (preferably best-sellers) that we forget we have to write something before we do. And not just anything.

We don't plan prior to writing and plunge right into the story, flowing with the flow. We think our stories are exceptional and never-written-before (or perhaps even a stroke of genius), which is why we keep at them. Somehow we fail to realise that just having a good grasp of the story and a smooth flow in mind do not always mean the story is great, or even good. It could be, but it need not be. Even a spectacular story can be ruined by bad execution.

We need to do a lot of groundwork before we write. If nothing else, it helps to reduce the re-work later. And I speak from experience, so trust me.

I threw myself headlong into my story, not pausing to look up, my only reference being a couple of sheets of paper where I had written down the plot. Even those sheets are preparation, but not enough. I didn't know my characters right, I did not identify or resolve conflicts beforehand, I did not see potential issues (we cannot predict all of them, but we could plan for most), I did not see that the story wasn't convincing enough, I did not see that the parts I stitched together were standing out like unpleasant bulges, I did not realise that readers are more intelligent than me and that they can see through the writing as though there was only a glass partition between us. The result? A lot of rework after the first draft was done.

The truth is that, even with a lot of preparation, those kind of issues can arise, especially when you are new to writing. But with a good amount of homework, you could minimise the post-first-draft rewriting. And over time, when we get better skilled at the art of writing, the first draft itself would be as close to perfection as possible and reworks would be minimal! (A dream to work towards, don't you think?)

Why are we reluctant to do elaborate preparation before beginning the actual writing? Because we are in a hurry to finish our masterpiece novel and these kinds of preparations take up a lot of time - ideally, they could take months. The better the groundwork, the smoother the writing process. So what are involved in the groundwork? Plenty of notes. Paragraphs upon paragraphs on each character's past, present and future. On what kind of people they are. Of where they come from. Etc. Then the flow of the plot. Sub-plots, wherever required. How they wind in and out of each other, and how they unwind (or get more tangled, as the case may be).

This activity helps carve the story in our mind (of course, when it washes off, we have the notes to remind us), so that in each situation that we introduce our characters to, we will know how they are going to behave. Is she going to turn around and scamper at the sight of the ghost, or is she going to faint, or is she going to stand rooted to the spot, or is she going to say, "Oh, get lost, ghost!", or is she going to ask the ghost for directions to the treasure she is seeking? We know how Indiana Jones will behave in each crisis, don't we? Just so. The better we know our protagonist, the more realistic their reactions would be, and the more convincing the story will appear to the reader.

With proper groundwork, we can make the story look casual, as though we aren't trying so hard to make the reader happy. (I've read books that made me feel so.) The story flows at its own pace, introducing characters casually and easily, with no sense of urgency, without the plot tumbling over each other as though they have to catch a flight in an hour. With proper groundwork, we can have different sub-plots that add richness to the story and keep the story from being too linear. In fact, everything becomes better if groundwork is proper.

We don't have to feel that the effort spent on groundwork (the elaborate notes made) will be wasted completely. We could do a lot of copying and pasting from these notes into the story too!


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October 4, 2013

The use of swear words in fiction

Dear M,

What do you think about all those swear words in books? We have got used to them in a way, what with people freely tossing it around in TV shows and social media and everywhere. But I wonder if it is essential in stories. I have arguments for and against them.

When we were younger, the books we read did not have any expletives in them. People would say something like "Well, I'll be-" when they are surprised, the suggestive word swallowed, or in anger, "What in the world do you think you're doing?" If we heard some new word, we spoke them in hushed tones only with our friends and giggled, and when angry, used them without thinking and got shouted at by our parents. We felt a thrill when we were able to direct them towards our friends while fighting, and we felt very grown-up about them.

In contemporary novels, it has become the norm to throw a few curses around. Anyone who is a little annoyed would easily use them. On the one hand, people do that (these days), and if you want to be truthful, you could write those words exactly as they would use them. On the other hand, too many curses ruin the flow of the book, and make it look like trash (my personal opinion). Maybe because I have outgrown the age of the swearing (as I hope).

If you look at books written half a century (or more) ago, or movies made several decades ago, people did not use so many bad words in them. In actual life, they did, I am sure, but those words did not make their way into fiction as much. There was some level of constraint that the creators exercised (or were forced to). Similarly, in old movies we did not see much of gory scenes as we do in modern ones. It is a sign of the times. So the argument is, do we want to be so truthful and depict every thing people do?

I still believe it is good to exercise constraint in everything. Too much swearing in every line takes the joy out of reading. There are places when it is realistic to expect swearing. (Or gory scenes.) In those places if the mad protagonist ready to flare up in rage says something mild like "What in the world are you doing?" it is difficult to believe it.


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October 3, 2013

NaNoWriMo - The Crazy Writing November

Dear M,

It's October already, and we are less than one month away from NaNoWriMo - the National Novel Writing Month. (The 'National' in the name is misleading. It has been an international activity for many years now, but the name has a rhythm, I guess that's why no one wanted to change it. Besides, writers don't give much attention to titles except when it is the title of their own book.).

I have participated in NaNoWriMo twice, and the only thing I can say is, until you take part - in all sincerity and honesty and dedication - you will not know what it means. It sounds very simple in theory. Complete 50K of words in your current Work-in-progress or a new one in thirty days. Which comes to 1.667 words a day. Which translates to roughly 5 or 6 pages a day. Now you get the hint. Creative folks know that creative juices don't flow in five or six pages every day. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Many days it will be more like 1 or 2 pages, sometimes it is like ten. If you know this, then you are ready for NaNoWriMo.

However, to get the best out of NaNoWriMo, a good amount of groundwork is required. That is, if you are serious about writing. The best way to approach NaNoWriMo is to prepare months in advance. A large percentage of people who participate in NaNoWriMo begin to think of "what to write" on Oct 31st. If that is the case, my recommendation is, don't do it.

Why did the concept of NaNoWriMo come up in the first place? Because writers are such a lazy lot. They try their best to not write. Can't blame them though, it is difficult to be self-motivated, every day of every year. There are a hundred reasons that could take us away from writing. However, only one to continue writing: that I must finish it. We are happy that we have those hundred excuses to run away from writing. The point is, what might take us five months to finish, we are attempting in one. Discipline is the keyword.

A novel needs so much preparation before the actual writing: understanding the plot to as much detail as possible, understanding and developing the various characters, even the one who comes to give tea to the protagonist and vanishes after that one scene (well, not so much, I guess, but that is the idea). Every little detail needs to be worked out beforehand. Even without these, a novel can be written. But when you send it out to your editor or publisher, they are going to tell you, your novel isn't good. I don't think I need to clarify any more!

By a strange coincidence, today when I came to my desk determined to write about NaNoWriMo, voila - there was an email from NaNoWriMo folks about it. I have decided not to participate this year (though I will miss the madness) because I have to pay attention to a couple of other unfinished projects. But I will be setting my own goals in November to ensure that these unfinished businesses are attended to. A writer who does not finish his projects will never be an author.


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October 2, 2013

Focus, Distraction and the Effect of Social Media

Dear M,

The lure of social media is the bane of a writer.

While it does give us tremendous amounts of information and helpful tips and positive advice every day, one could get lost in it, for hours. As I was saying yesterday, some people are very good at multi-tasking (as they claim), so they manage to work while social networking.

As for me, when I am networking, I am networking. When I am working, I am working (only sometimes do I take a peek at the social media updates). Mostly it is the work that suffers; the social space doesn't notice if I am gone for a few days!

It is very difficult to pull oneself away from the continuous stream of conversation and news and jokes and abuse and pointless discussion and everything else. Truth be told, these are interesting. Just like a daily show that we know is non-sense, but we watch nonetheless.

In the olden times (meaning until a decade or so ago), people used to be able to focus when they were at their desk and their door was closed. Now if we are alone, we are tempted to just check for a second to see what the rest of the virtual world was doing. And the world is there, all the time, day and night, ready to entertain.

The only way out is to treat yourself the way you would treat a child: allow a fixed time for television, and not permit any pining for it later. It is difficult when it is our own self, isn't it? It is a good idea to reward ourselves with social media time if we worked on our MS for two hours - or something. Good Doggie! Now go network for a while, you'll get a juicy bone.

I have seen writers update every minute as to how far they have progressed on their MS, all the time. I can understand when you're doing NaNoWriMo, but every other day, hour, minute? Annoying. And a waste of everyone's time. Besides being a huge waste of binary information getting transmitted all across the world. Imagine.

That's a phase. Everyone does that, because they think their life is important to everyone else, that if they write an autobiography today, it will be sold out tomorrow. But the older you get, the more time you spend on the social surfaces, the wiser you get, and you realise that the quieter you are, the more people appreciate you. (The best appreciation some folks can give you is to ignore you!)

So, the point is, allow a certain time for social networking, don't punish yourself by promising to stay away from it for two months. That's utter foolishness. (You won't last two days, and then you will end up spending a couple of days full-time on networking to get over the withdrawal.) And when you can't resist the urge to check, just check and close. It will serve you right - you will realise that there was nothing worth checking, and you were only giving in to a mad impulse.


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October 1, 2013


Dear M,

Some people can work in any kind of environment. (Just as some people can sleep in the middle of any kind of noise or light). They will be able to focus on their work, maybe make a funny comment or two to the others, listen to what their friends are saying, rock with the music, and all the time, do a lot of productive work.

Some people need music to work; indeed, some need a certain type of music to work - any other kind would distract them. Some people work best in silence.

I am one of the last. If I play my favourite music in the system, I will begin to sing along with it or rock with it or dream about a thousand things the music reminds me of, and before I know it, a couple of hours have passed and I haven't done a single line worth of work. If there is a film playing nearby, my ears will be tuned to the different suggestive sounds and every single dialog and the background score that flow in - even if the movie is playing in the next room.

Really. I am so easily distracted that sometimes I wonder I do get to finish my work at all. Knowing your enemy is half the battle won. (I'm sure there is a saying very close to that, but can't recall). I know that background noise isn't going to help me, so I stay away from it as much as I can. If I want to listen to music, I do it when my work is done (or the day's goal is achieved) or when I am doing my chores. My work area is at the farthest possible corner from the TV. I watch TV when I am having my meals (though that is generally not a healthy recommendation). I follow a routine where my working time does not overlap the time when there is a lot of noise around the house.

This is again, a part of the discipline we develop as writers. The writing is important. More important than anything else in life (but don't tell anyone I said so). The rest of our life is filled with distractions and things (and people) that keep us away from our writing. Prying ourselves away from those is not easy all the time. We could get projected as rude, callous, absent-minded, careless, forgetful and arrogant.

I think our writing life and the rest of it are mutually exclusive events. They cannot overlap. Each cannot understand the other. You're the only common factor between the two, and you're going to have to live two lives. Like managing the wife and the mistress. Every art form has that limitation, that strength. Two lives that cannot overlap. It is easy to lose oneself within the one and forget the other.


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