December 31, 2013

Quit thinking

Dear M,

You know what our problem is? We think too much. We wonder if our writing is any good, if it is intellectual to the right measure, if it is comic enough, if it is unpretentious, if it has the right feeling, if it is horrifying enough, if it is disgusting enough, if it is impressive enough.

We're not afraid that critics are going to rip it apart and write bad reviews after bad reviews. We're afraid that they are going to ignore it. That no one is going to buy it. That no one is going to talk about it. That it is going to vanish into oblivion as if it were never born. Oh, if only some critics had ripped it apart - if only someone had found it worthy enough to be trashed.

One solution to this fear is reading. Get hold of any book that you hear of. Read it (or try to) as much as you can. Some of them are so brilliant that you are not even jealous of the author, you idolise him/her. Some of them are average that jealousy is inevitable. Some of them, this is the group I am interested in today, they tell you that writing a book like that is a piece of cake. If they can write like that and get noticed, I can do even better. It is not even crap. It is a delicious waste of time. It is such a juicy boring book that motivates us - if such writing can survive, we are one hundred times better, we would survive for centuries. Not that it is true, but it will keep us from sinking to the bottom.

But by far the best solution to the fear that keeps us from writing is to quit thinking. Thinking is terrifying, especially to a new author. Do not worry about what our story is about, or about how immature it is going to look to someone, or how artificial it is going to sound, how unreal and untrue it is going to appear to be. Those are fears that will keep us from writing. Those are the fears that froth to the surface when we put our pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). Shove them away, they are no good. Let us do our part of the work, and let the rest happen as it will. Thinking will get us nowhere.


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December 29, 2013

Book Exhibition

Dear M,

I don't know why I dislike Book Exhibitions (as a reader; of course, as a writer I would find them thrilling, especially if my books are stocked in all the stalls) - there was a time when the very announcement of a book exhibition in my city would throw me into multiple levels of excitement. I suppose it has something to do with the thought that there would be books unseen, books unheard of, books untouched, books unimagined, books I've always wanted to read, books uncreated, books books galore.

Maybe the subsequent book exhibitions I had been to, left me disappointed - the crowd before the popular stalls, the dusty, old books thrown together that made one want to sneeze until eternity, the same old books you have seen in bookshops a million times. The only attraction would be that there would be a discount of ten rupees. As time passed, I decided that I would rather pay the ten rupees. (Okay, I exaggerate. It might be ten percent. But my view still holds.)

It is very, very rare that I pick up a book that is not found in regular bookstores. I know if I explore enough there might be many. And the exhibition is a one-stop shop, instead of meandering from MG Road to Koramangala or from Jaya Nagar to Marathhalli. I am just saying. I've seen people pick up more books than they can carry, their eyes shining, they whole body trembling with excitement, and leave the exhibition grounds.

I believe there was a time when Book Exhibitions meant very rare books would be displayed, the kind you have read about but never had the opportunity to see.

However, for me it has lost its charm. I see a lot of notices of year-end book exhibitions around the country and that's what I feel. Groan. Another book exhibition. Someone wants to clear their old warehouses. 


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December 28, 2013

Oh, you're a Writer?

Dear M,

Admit it. We all like it when someone asks, Oh, you're a writer? or I heard you've published a book?
And very often the sole reason why we desperately want to be published is to hear the many forms of that question. (Until we reach a stage where, if someone asks Have you published any books? we're going to be very, very offended indeed. Oh, that's a nice dream, isn't it.)

We do not want to be the ones asking those questions. We want to be the ones nodding modestly or arrogantly, Yes. We want to be the ones shrugging and dismissing it with a wave of our hand because we're afraid if we open our mouth, our pride will start falling out.

My Book. My Name. The Author.
There's no denying the charm of those words. The motivation. The drive behind that dream. The well-justified pride that could spill out.

The critics, the unimpressed readers, the creatures who think you're too pretentious, they don't matter. Nothing matters, when you hold that damn book in your hands.

When nothing else works, dream this dream.


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December 27, 2013

Writing a story just to show the character

Dear M,

Character development is a powerful thing. It takes up a significant amount of our time, but if we have done our homework right, the results are amazing. Here is a character from a recent book I read.

He smokes (and loves) cigarettes. 
He hasn't drunk a drop of alcohol in the last ten years, and in the course of the story, takes a swig just because there was a reason to celebrate. 
He plays a musical instrument, when he is happy or sad. But at the most miserable time of his life, he could not.
He is a very kind man. 
He despises injustice, and would stand up against it. But there were times when he could not, because he was afraid of what would happen to him. One time, he lost his control, and had to pay dearly for his mistake.

The man's character was developed in front of our eyes, over the pages. At the start we only had a feeling that he sounds like a good man.

Sometimes we write a story because we want to show what this kind of character is capable of. The entire story is a character. It is not a plot or a sequence of events that show something. It is how our character develops, what he does, what he is capable of, what his weaknesses are, how he changes. The story is secondary, because it is only a ruse to show us the man. Plots are thrown against him so that the reader can see how he will react.

I don't know if I make any sense. It makes perfect sense in my mind, though.


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December 26, 2013

Writing what we know about

Dear M,

Continuing where we left off in the last post, how can we make our reading interesting or true? The only way I know (and essentially the only way to write your first story or novel) is to write about what you know.

There is nothing new in that advice: you cannot expect a first-time writer to write about a life he/she knows nothing about, not in his very first attempt. (It isn't impossible, though.) And I am not talking about a short story that spans the possibilities of the other side. But the way I see it, we all take some time to come to terms with our writing, settle down in our style, etc. This is achieved when we write about things we know. The story can come from our heart, we do not have to make that up as well - we can concentrate on our style. Those initial drafts, they can be discarded or used later.

Then as we grow bolder and confident to experiment with other topics, topics we know nothing of, topics which need a lot of research and understanding, we can step out of familiar territory and create new worlds.

By then, keeping the reader enthralled would have become a skill that we had mastered in our learning cycles.


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December 24, 2013

Why would anyone read what we write?

Dear M,

Why should anyone want to read what we write?
There should be something in it to interest them, to catch their attention. They are not keen to read our autobiography, just because we think it is exciting. The reader should be able to connect with it at some level, or find it funny or interesting or intriguing or true. There should be some amount of curiosity to see where it is headed.

If not, it will begin to look like a blog which means nothing to anyone. In defence of blogs, that's what they are meant to be. But that's not the case with books. When blogs (once known as weblogs) became famous, their promotional tag line was, "your online diary". A trifle contradictory of course, because who would want to put their diary (which they keep away from the eyes of people they know) online - where the entire world can read it? But, strange as it may seem, the fire spread. The definition of blogs changed and became ambiguous and all-inclusive.

But we aren't talking about blogs. Books are a different story. And unless that story is captivating, there are not going to be a lot of spectators. We don't need a lot of spectators for our writing; but if we are looking at publishing, then, yes, we do need some audience.

And how do we ensure our audience likes what they read? The discussion continues...


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December 23, 2013

Signs that trigger guilt

Dear M,

Do you know what is the most guilt-inducing thing in the world? When you indefinitely postpone doing an important piece of writing (probably the last chunk to be added to your novel or the final round of editing) and the story you read has a writer in it who struggles with her writing and who faces the same indecisiveness as you do - that hits like a dart on our chest. Is that a sign? you wonder. Not that you believe in signs, but is that a sign I don't believe in? Shouldn't I be writing now?

Then there are times when you have not written a word for days, maybe a week or two, and except for a few pangs of guilt now and then, you aren't feeling any sentiment towards your story. All at once, a name pops up in your radar - you read a news or story about that person, or hear that name in some manner - and the name is the same, rare one you have given to your protagonist after much thought; and you wonder, was it just a coincidence or was someone trying to tell me that I should be getting back to my protagonist? The 'someone' is probably your own guilty self, but if it gets you back to your seat talking to your protagonist, it is a good thing, isn't it?

It is not important if these are coincidences or signs. What matters is what they make you do. Do they make you fix yourself on your seat and start working? Most of the time, it has, in my case. It must certainly mean something if guilt can drive you to do things you are normally too lazy to do.


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December 22, 2013

Trash or Brilliant - the discussion continues

Dear M,

Sixty-five pages into the book, I have it moderately figured out - the question being, is it trashy or brilliant?

(Read about the book here)

The truth is, it is dangerously close to the border that it runs a risk of being shot down by the Border Security Forces of both the sides or at least the Air Force, for trespassing. If you refer the definition of Trash and look at this book, yes it has those plenty. If you refer the definition of a 'profound piece of art' and look back here, hmm.. yeah this book is 'profound' too, in a way that makes you want to skip a few pages out of boredom.

No wonder, despite what the summary and the synopsis indicated, the book is considered path-breaking. It is a bold attempt, there is no denying that. Not that I know much about the expectations from books in the seventies, but this could have shaken a few buildings with its sheer presence. If you choose to read the trash part, that's what you'll see. If you choose to ignore the detailed descriptions and concentrate on the concentration camps, you can see that too.

Coming back to our own writing. Yes, we do want our writing to be ground-shaking. No, we don't want our writing to be considered trash. Yes, we want people to be able to read it easily, without getting bored. No, we don't want them to think it is too easy that a Kindergärtner could have written it. Yes, we want them to call it bloody brilliant and intelligent. No, we don't want them to say it is too deep that they had a near-drowning experience. Yes, we want them to call it thought-provoking. No, we don't want them to fall asleep while reading it. Yes, we want them to talk about it for days to come. No, we don't want them to say it is too bold for our times. Yes, we would like a Nobel or two, thank you very much.

Well, good luck with that.


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December 21, 2013


Dear M,

Why do we call some books as trash? I know which are trash and which are works of genius. But as we come closer to the border between the two, the definitions overlap and one begins to wonder which is which.

So why am I speaking about this now? I got hold of a book (but haven't started reading it). I came across the name of the book while I was Googling something else. Apparently this book, written in the 70s, was some kind of groundbreaking stuff, which showed its characters in some bright new light. Or opened possibilities. Or something. I read bits and pieces of its review and also found a brief synopsis. (What these kinds of review do is, they invoke our curiosity and give us no peace until we prove them right or wrong.)

When I held the actual book in my hands, my first thought was (seeing its cover) This looks like trash. So we come to the definition of trash. It is something in the cover, for a start. And a few words about it by someone, also plastered on the cover, seemed to convey the same. Eeeek. Is this what I got? Is this the kind of stuff I want to read while I am travelling? Look at those folks over there smirking at the book I am holding. They're thinking: Aha. Caught you out. All that respectable attire and attitude don't fool us. You read this kind of book?

We all live in the opinion of others, apparently, even in that of strangers, so what choice do I have.

The content, its depth, the presentation, the characters and their development, the message it conveys (whether it says anything at all), everything contributes to what kind of book it is. I think at one point, even the definition of trash lies in the eyes of the reader!

I will let the book itself tell me whether it belongs in the trash-can or the book-shelf.


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December 20, 2013

If Memory serves, no notes are needed

Dear M,

It must have happened in 1999-2000. It caused a sensation, as it should. We felt sympathy for the person involved, may be also owing to the fact that we all admired him. It was a traumatic time for him and his family. There wasn't much we could do except hang around and drop a kind word or two at the right places.

I do not know if this incident made me think of inserting it into a story at that time. But I remember sealing up the details in my mind. I remember clearly his reaction, as if it happened yesterday. His tired face that smiled and joked - but we could see that it was tormenting him. I remember every detail, every discussion we had. Something told me that I would use it later. Or maybe that knowledge came a few years hence.

And today I was going through a story I wrote in 2012 and I remembered - yes that part of the story is his. Rewritten and re-moulded and re-created, but it certainly is the incident from a decade ago. I had not taken any notes or jotted them down for future reference. But it stayed - it was a memory, it doesn't have a choice anyway. And it came when it was needed.

That's why I said we don't need to take notes. If it is important enough, if it has to be written about, it will come back. If we take notes and keep them ready for future reference, we may never need them. We may never use them.

Human memory is an amazing place. One could get lost in it, one could find happiness in it, one could drown in it, one could live in it. And a writer could write from it, for it's one well of a place. (Yeah, pun intended and all that.)


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December 19, 2013

Getting the Grammar Right

Dear M,

I am a little put off. I had been reading a bit of stuff online. Whenever I see something that is classified as 'short story', I am interested. I came across something today. Reading the introduction about the author, I was immediately enthralled. I left the rest of the intro and plunged into the story.

I admit that before I completed reading the first paragraph, I scrolled down to see how long it is, how does it look in its entirety, etc. Stupid things, but I like to get the feel of it before I read it. These facts do not alter my overall judgement, they just help me decide if I should read it now or put it for later.

And in that scroll-down, my eye settled on a couple of sentences of dialog. Then I closed the window and left the area.

Call me a grammar Nazi if you like, but if we are attempting a story in English, we should get the grammar right. At least as close to right as possible. I am not talking about small typos or errors that escape our eye. Trust me, we can make out if the writer knows English or not. And a story written in bad English is not a captivating story-in-English.

We should write in whatever language we are comfortable in. Why are you so adamant that you should write in English? If you are eager to reach a wider audience, get someone to translate it for you.

And this statement does not include general blogs, email communication, comments and a host of other things. We can excuse the mistakes in all of those, and say that it is the idea that counts. Language is after all, intended to communicate. But if you call it a story in English, the language has to be at least above average. There's no escaping it. Otherwise people are going to close it and run away - like I did.


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December 18, 2013

You Must Write Short Stories

Dear M,

Most fiction writers begin (so I am told) with short stories. For one thing, short stories are small enough to be finished quickly; for another, we can build a story from so little. Zoom into a particular moment and you're done.

However, many writers progress to novels as their confidence grows, and they forget the short story. They are neck deep in the possibilities of the wider canvas. When they finish a novel, they might find time for a short story idea they had. Whether they write it or not is up to them. They could postpone it because a new novel idea has burst into their inner eye.

In R.K.Narayan's words,
The short story affords a writer a welcome diversion from hard work. The novel, whether good or bad, printable or otherwise, involves considerable labour.

I think every fiction writer should attempt the short story very frequently. Without jumping into the writing, giving it much thought and time to build it. The thinking will always happen in the background, even while you are working on the novel. As R.K.Narayan said, sometimes the novel could be too overwhelming. A break could do us good. And then we should plunge into it and finish it in one sitting. Practical difficulties of writing one story in one sitting notwithstanding, the joy it brings when it is done is incomparable. Think of it - you may take months to finish a novel or at least get it into some shape so that you can take a break. And the short story? Is ready in a matter of a few hours. Done and dusted and garnished.

When you go to bed after that effort, there will be a smile on your lips.


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December 17, 2013

Not inspired by anyone?

Dear M,

Recently I heard a famous person say that he was not inspired by anyone. He is not only famous, he is immensely talented; he is famous because of his talent, no doubt about that. He probably means it too, when he says no one has inspired him. However, I fail to see how that is possible.

As far as I am concerned, every single book I read inspires me. I do not try to copy any of those authors (which is probably what this famous artist meant when he said he was not inspired). But every single book teaches me something new. Every movie I watch shows me how a story can be told.

Some books remind me of or introduce me to a set of new words - that is the least learning I get from them. At the end of the book, my vocabulary is enriched by ten or twenty words.

Some tell me that this is not the kind of story I want to write. They show me the path I am taking, and also point out the direction I want to take.

Then there are some books that excite me. They show me a new kind of writing, something I have not encountered so far. These books expand my writing horizons. So far I have been limited to writing full, perfectly-formed, grammatically correct sentences in my stories. Suddenly I see that if I write what comes to mind, place a comma or full-stop where none is required, break a sentence and leave the rest to the reader, the beauty isn't lost. It is probably enhanced. (Yeah, do it wrong and you end up looking illiterate.)

Movies tell me how to visualise the scenes and describe them in such a way that it is replicated to the reader. They also teach me about crisp and to-the-point dialog delivery. And a third important thing they teach is how to end a scene with a question hanging to it.

How can any creative person say the movies they watch, the books they read, the people they encounter in their life, have not inspired them? Or have I misunderstood the meaning of the term 'inspiration' itself?

To me inspiration is something that helps us to break the barriers, that tell us that our knowledge is limited and that we could bring down the walls around us and explore the paths we find, and we can also cut our way through and find something new.


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December 16, 2013

Of Success and the Journey

Dear M,

Only fifteen more days for the year to end. Though the change of year doesn't mean a thing, for it's nothing but a flow of days one after the other, week after week, month after month, somehow we have grown up attaching an extraordinary significance, a meaning, to it. An opportunity to look back and assess our efforts, results, achievements, failures and so forth.

As writers, what have we achieved? I don't want to go as far as the verge of the year to pronounce that I haven't gained much. This blog, which I have been able to consistently run since its day of inception, has been a source of pleasure and relief, and offers me a strong sense of attainment.

Everything else remained pretty much "another effort in that direction." Which is why I hate the whole process of looking back on the year dashing past. And yet I cannot but steal a glance back, to see if there are greener pastures in the mostly greyness of the ground behind me. Well, I am still alive, and so are most of the people around me. Which is essentially a good thing. We do not want the delicate balance of the world hindered.

But now, more than ever, I appreciate the process of learning. I have come so much farther than where I was last December. I know it. And despite days when I did not work, due to laziness or health or other constraints, there were several days when I did, and they offer me a sense of immense satisfaction that cannot be measured, that cannot be explained, that cannot be displayed.

And in this whole business of battling alone, against unseen (or non-existent) enemies, befriending the nature and sometimes going against her, I have made several relevant strides forward. There is nothing to boast about, no success stories to update in Facebook, but somewhere in the corner of my heart the light remains, the smile that I alone understand, the pride that I got so far.

Now I know what they mean when they say, Success is in the journey.


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December 15, 2013

Stream of Consciousness

Dear M,

Stream of Consciousness is an interesting way to write while using the first person point of view. However, if not delivered properly, it could be overwhelming and confusing to the reader. Rushdie's Midnight's Children is a very good example of a story told in this mode of narration.

There is no pattern when using Stream of Consciousness. The narrator keeps moving back and forth, just as our thoughts do. Clinging to something we remember and travelling with it. And then returning to where we had left off. Since we are not strictly going in chronological order (except in a broad way), I imagine a lot of preparation is needed, so that what has to come has to be presented at the right moment. The swinging back and forth should look convincing, effortless, and not become a pain in the you-know-where. First of all, the writer should not get confused. If that part is taken care of, then the reader, the poor fella, wouldn't be.

I haven't tried the Stream of Consciousness yet. But it interests me, and I should. I am sure there will be more thoughts to share once I do.


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December 14, 2013

Preparing the script for a real life encounter

Dear M,

It happened again. I had set the scene. It was for an inevitable and unavoidable small encounter. The only uncertainty was when it would take place. It would not go beyond four days, as I knew so well. I had set my trap, is the more appropriate way of saying it.

The script was ready, scratched and rewritten and polished several times. It had to go this way. I had some taunting dialogs to deliver. A few words to convey with my eyes. A few questions, a frown, a chuckle at the end. For the responses, a few possibilities were worked out. If this, then that. If not, then-

I had thought of all ways it could go. I had a backup plan for the impromptu change in script. After all, I was the only person who knew this was theatre. We all script our drama daily, when we expect a scene. But this was beyond all that common sense decreed.

Trust me, the plan was impeccable.

You see, I was experimenting again with live subjects. The harmless experiments that they would not realise are experiments, and would slip out of their minds soon. But it would find its way to my work somewhere, somehow.

All this preparation, and yet I slipped. It happened on the evening of day three. I was ready for the evening scene and its possibilities, and I was also prepared for day three. There would have been a change of script if it had shifted to day four. But what I was not prepared for was my severe bout of exhaustion after a long day pretty much on the road. I just wanted to gobble my dinner and hit the pillow. I was at my unprepared best. That's when it happened.

The script slipped from the very first word that came out of my lips. The unexpected, surprised "Ah." From there it went south. I could salvage a little, but the main part was gone. This was not something I could try again for at least five or six months.

But I will not be giving up. I should be scripting a new scene soon, involving other innocent, unsuspecting victims who will be immortalised in my story, without their ever realising it.


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December 13, 2013

Who said Writing wasn't Exciting?

Dear M,

Writers could be an unapologetic, manipulative lot. I feel guilty sometimes. I look at people as though they are the raw materials in an experiment I am doing - like some kind of monkeys in labs, with a scientist observing them through thick glasses. Though I do not take immediate notes as the scientist would do, I do observe patterns and then use them later. To be frank, I do note them down too, as soon as I can get to a paper and pen. Of course I cannot do it in front of my victim the way a scientist can do before a monkey.

Observing and jotting down is one thing. Forcing people to respond is quite another. I have done that too. I would say or do something I have planned beforehand, and try to deliver it spontaneously. Okay, my histrionic skills are in question here, but since no one knows I am playing drama, they probably do not notice. Or maybe it is time Bollywood gave me a call.

Most of the time, their reactions are unexpected. (Goes on to show that my initial judgement of the person was flawed.) The script I had prepared flies out the window, then instinct has to take over and clean up the mess that is on the verge of spilling over my life.

And then during some of my reflections, I dwell on the possibility of those people (the very victims of my wild imaginations) being undercover writers themselves, and manipulating and jotting down my movements.

Who said writing wasn't exciting?


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December 12, 2013

If it is all too easy...

Dear M,

If you do not understand even a bit of the loneliness and struggle that writing offers, then you haven't journeyed yet. If you have tasted them, then I assure you, it could only get a hundred-fold worse. Not for us is the glorified solitude, nor the rest after struggle. As far as I am concerned, there is no other side, when all this is over.

I rose today morning wondering why I plod on (and plot on!). Where does the energy come from? I fear it will give out, drain away. I recently read an author's quote, that creativity, just like life, is slipping away from us. Isn't that the truth?

When I say struggle, I am talking about a long struggle. Think Mandela and his Long Walk to Freedom. But we do not have a hundred like-minded people walking with us, who can give us strength when we are tired. Come to think of it, I think we do. We have the ghosts of authors past walking by our side. And they, that bunch of lonely people, know how to pull us to our feet and make us battle on.

There will come a day when a part of the struggle is over. But there will always be much of it left for us.

If it's all too easy, we are not on the right track.

No one can help us, you know. No one. The battle is ours alone. No one is going to help unless there is something in it for them. That's how the world works. Think about all the online back-scratching we do. We don't get any of that support out here as far as writing goes. It's a struggle like no other. Ten years or ten thousand hours, as the scientist said, for you to reach a place where you get noticed. The pedestal of an expert (or close enough). For some, it could take even more.

Every day we have to motivate ourselves. Tell ourselves tales, lull our brain to sleep, so as to keep it from thinking - for if it starts to contemplate, it will see this as a losing war. All statistics and all mathematics will tell our brain that this journey isn't going anywhere. Look at the facts, they will tell us.

As far as creativity is concerned, no amount of arithmetic or calculus can predict where it will go, where it will reach. And if rely on maths to project our path, we might as well give up before we are sucked in to the depths of despair.


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December 11, 2013

Third Person Point of View

Dear M,

It took me a while to figure this out, even if I had read up so much on it - even when we write in third person, there are two ways to do it (perhaps more).

When I read J.M. Coetzee's Slow Man, I had a indication. He wrote in the third person (in the strict sense) but it was so close to the first person that even when we saw 'he', we read it as 'I'. We were inside Paul Rayment's head, seeing through his eyes, hearing through his ears, feeling his feelings the way he felt them, that soon we began to think we were Paul Rayment himself.

It was about the time I began spending more time and thought on points of view; perhaps that's why this struck me as the way to write in the third person. It limited my reach, though, because as long as I stayed with my character, I could not see what the rest of the folks were up to, until my character saw them. Their thoughts were unknown to me because my character was not aware of them. The limited third person can be written in a slightly different way too, without us really getting into the skin of the character, but staying a few feet away, yet being conscious of all his/her thoughts, and jotting down their actions for the world to read. In this case, the 'he' does not really sound like an 'I'.

I had to write many stories that way before I read another novel in which the narrator was everywhere, as though he were God, flying here and there, sometimes in this city, sometimes in that, sometimes warning us of an approaching storm before it hit, laughing at the crooked plans cooking up in one person's head, miserable about the poor victim-to-be who had no inkling of what was coming.

That was the global, the omniscient, third person. The narrator who was everywhere, who knew what everyone was thinking, doing, and about to do, at all times. The person none of the characters could really fool.


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December 10, 2013

Placing the Story on the Ground

Dear M,

It's important to place your story on the ground. As in, the city you have chosen to write about. You could just speak about the apartment your protagonist lives in, or the IT park her office is located in, in a general way without speaking about the location. But I think the story becomes all the more real when the place is named.

As far as Bangalore is concerned, you could say something like, She lives in Indira Nagar, commutes to work at ITPL, goes by bus to Devanahalli to catch a flight to New Delhi etc. For people who know Bangalore, it becomes more real, and more here. They actually see the Volvo bus on its way to the airport. Even to people who don't know Bangalore, the story sounds real than when they read about her house in a crowded residential area or her office in one of the IT Parks in the city or the international airport that was about 30 kms from her place.

The description about the place is also important. Too much description would make a reader groan - For God's sake, I know this place. Will you stop describing it already? I have read books that went on about the position of the market and the buildings and this and that, and I skipped over that paragraph and nothing in the plot was affected. If there is too little, the reader would not get a visual, or whatever he imagines may not be like the original.

There is a balance, and the author decides what the balance is.


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December 9, 2013

When the Author feels like God

Dear M,

I have been thinking about the main characters in two of my stories and noticed a pattern. They were similar in a mild, distant way, as though they were first cousins who looked and behaved alike. As I pondered more, I figured out what it was - they were totally unlike me.

The characters that I have built are my opposites. In looks (as far as I could discern my own), in attitude, in behaviour. It was as though I was making them do things I would never be able to do. They were put in situations I had always dreamed of, and they reacted as I would never dare to.

(In a third story written in the first person, the narrator is very like me, so we don't have to worry about my characters being stereotyped as my opposite, etc. Let's not worry unnecessarily about the pattern.)

I did not do it consciously, but that is the outcome. It is very relieving - and, dare I say, cleansing? - to put them in situations where I have behaved like a fool, and make them do it right, and thus feel better. My characters slip where I was composed, they would be proud and unrelenting where I was begging on my knees for kindness, and so on. It was as though I raised them to cover up who I actually was, to hide the real me from the world. I would almost feel like God. I created people the way I liked, made them do things the way I liked, even when they messed up, I knew how to fix it. I knew when to fix things too, sometimes I would fix things up for them rightaway, sometimes I would make them wait for days or years. Yes, I had the power over my characters, the way I did not have over anyone else in the world, not even myself.


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December 8, 2013

The Book you don't want to Write

Dear M,

I am reading a book that I am unable to connect with. As in, it is not my story, nor that of people I know. Now, Avatar is not a story about people I know; I cannot relate to anything that happens in Harry Potter's stories, and yet I don't find them as disconnecting as this one. This is more contemporary, more real, and yet it does not quite touch me. I did not stop reading, though. I had to know where it was headed. From what I've seen, it isn't going to any pretty place. Whether it has a destination, remains to be seen. But the book has to end, so there must be something to it, somewhere. Maybe if I dig deep in, I could find it out. Or maybe I will just finish reading it, and sit and wonder for a while.

It was the kind of story I did not want to read much of, except when I wanted to be distracted, and when I did not want anything too profound. It was an attempt at being funny, and yes, in places it was too. There were also traces of philosophy and even parts when I nodded my head in understanding.

The only problem was, it was not my world. And because of it (or not), the jokes do not feel like jokes. Some of it appear arrogant. And even ignorant. Many, many other readers would find that the story strikes a chord with them - just because it was their world, and they know those jokes because they wallow in them daily.

I know what kind of book I don't want to read. It's the kind of book I don't want to write. And yet I am reading it because it inspires me in a different way - it tells me, this is not how you want your book to make the reader feel, so go fix the problems in yours. Try to make it less pretentious, more grounded, more real to you. If there are readers who know your world, they will find it real too.


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December 7, 2013

Take a step back

Dear M,

We all love to believe that the stuff we write at the first attempt is as close to perfection as possible. While it may be true in some cases, there will always be a few tweaks here and there that could improve the text. And if we are focussed on the matter at hand (for instance, the way I am now engrossed in this post), we tend to miss the wider perspective. We know and learn a lot of things in life. But when we write, many of those keep out of our sight. It is not easy to bring them into our vision - if we do not know what we are looking for.

The answer is to never be hasty about our writing. Unless it is something that needs to be submitted in the next five minutes, we should take our time to revisit it - as many times as possible. Any person who has tried his/her hand at writing will know that if we take a break from it and return a little later (sometimes hours later, sometimes days), we always without fail, find something to modify or add to. Take a step back, and look at it again. Fresh images would jump out at you.

And as for the posts in this blog, I write it in the morning so that I can revisit it in the evening before it gets published. There has always been something to change in the text, whenever I do that.


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December 6, 2013

Writing dialogs is an art

Dear M,

Writing dialogs is an art. If not done properly, it could look fabricated or pretentious. The purpose of dialogs is to either tell the reader something about the characters, or move the plot forward. Any dialog (or any line of text) that does not serve this purpose can be safely removed from the story.

When we write about two people meeting each other or calling up on phone, we are tempted to elaborate the greeting.
- "Hi, how are you?" - "Hi, I am fine, how are you?" - "I haven't seen you in a while." - "Oh yes I have been busy."

There could be no point to the whole thing, except that the author feels good when she/he writes it. Because, that is how normal people behave when they meet each other. But for the reader, it sounds tedious and unnecessary.

I hate to return to Hemingway, but he knows how to manage dialogs. His stories move forward on conversations - most things that we know about the protagonist or his friend or others in the story, are through dialogs between them. And he does it in such a way that it just flows smooth. It sounds exactly like the way people talk, sometimes being repetitive and distracted, but saying something significant nonetheless.

Oh look - I have begun to understand Hemingway a wee bit.


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December 5, 2013

Writing Tools

Dear M,

In writer circles, there is often a recurring talk about writing tools - tools that help you write, that offer word or grammar suggestions, or quickly calculate word count, etc. So many of them. Some even go so far as to give you plot modification ideas, character development tips, hints to get past writer's block, and so forth. And when you hear of each tool, you are tempted to download or purchase those and take a look. I don't deny that these could be interesting and even at times useful, however I believe that none of them can help if the innate talent (and the sharpened skill) isn't good enough. Whatever we have created can be made better or enhanced, perhaps, but the initial creation has to take birth in the human heart!

Agreed that I haven't used any of those writing tools (except the basic stuff offered by MS Word). But somehow the thought does not excite me. If my plot isn't impressive enough, then no tool can fix it, right? If the story were a mathematical problem and the tool could offer a perfect Einsteinian formula to solve it, I would have pounced on it, and no questions asked.

That's the issue with creativity - you could make the most mundane thing look gorgeous with a choice of colours, words or music. There isn't even a right or impeccable way to do it. Three different artists could create three different versions of the same mundane Slice of Life, and all three could be out of this world.

If these tools recommend methods to make your story more attractive, I doubt if it will really be attractive. Would you sleep well knowing that the idea wasn't, in all honesty, yours?

I insist that nothing can match (or excel) inborn creativity - whatever we do would only nurture it, develop it, grow it into a vast tree of... okay, I think I am getting a little carried away now.


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December 4, 2013

Self publishing - 3

Dear M,

There is something else about self publishing that makes experienced people want to think twice before going for it. That, like everything else, is changing as well. However, it is still an important aspect, and we would need to measure and gauge it before deciding if self publishing is our option.

Even the most popular traditional publishing houses are opening self publishing wings these days. It makes it easier for us to say a certain giant publisher is publishing us, and respect falls at our feet in that instant. But the fact remains that we have not told the absolute truth.

You must have got the hint. There is a certain amount of respect that comes from people who hear you've been published by this-or-that publishers. They may not have read your book, they may not even know what the book is about, they have no idea if you are any good, but the moment they ask "Who is your publisher?" you are doomed - they have decided if you are any good at all. There will be a definite dip in temperature in the vicinity if you say that you have chosen to self-publish.

Not only normal people around you. In case you are approached by a traditional publisher later, it would not be a good idea to suggest that your first book was self published, unless it was a roaring success. "My self published novel sold a million copies" as opposed to "I sold two hundred copies of my self published debut novel."

There is a certain concept, belief if you may, associated with self publishing: it is that anyone can publish anything, and just because they can does not mean what they publish is worth reading.

It might sound like a minor thing, but, trust me, you want to think about this too when you consider self publishing.


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December 3, 2013

Self Publishing - 2

Dear M,

When I say self-publishing is affordable these days, I mean it in a relative sense. It depends on who we are talking about. It depends on which of the self-publishing options and houses we're talking about. If we are determined that we could get back our investment or if the purpose behind it is to see our name in print, then it could be a worthwhile shot. Finding the appropriate self-publisher is the first, most difficult task. We could go for an expensive print-on-demand shop or a printer who will print out your book in thousands at a comparatively lower price per book.

But, be it self-published or traditionally published, the most important thing that helps sell the book is its quality. The plot, the presentation, the editing. If it is not perfect enough, it might not catch fire. A traditional publisher has the mechanism to make sure the book runs through several perfecting cycles. In self-publishing, the number of cycles depends on us.

With more control comes more responsibility. There is so much we can do. There is so much to be done. Will your energy, your motivation, your determination or your faith in the book ever fail? Until the book begins to roll on its own, until the word-of-mouth publicity wheels begin motion, you cannot tire or stop.

The price of a book is a crucial factor in deciding who will randomly pick up the book from a bookshop. Readers are always on the lookout for unheard-of authors and untold stories. An anonymous author's book with an interesting title and intriguing cover image, and a curiosity-invoking blurb - if the price is reasonable, any reader would happily buy that book. But if it isn't, however interesting it all seems, people are going to hesitate. So the question here is, do we want people to pick up the books, even if it brings us a loss, or do we want to make a profit out of our books (or at least make enough money to cover the expenses). Big question-mark. Many a wo/man has made the wrong choice.

There is no end to the ways you can get the word out. Go to bookshops, get the contact details of their distributors/vendors. Call them up incessantly until they place an order. Put the book for sale in online websites. Keep talking about your book in social media until friends begin to unfollow/unfriend/untalk. I have heard of a person who went from door to door in his neighbourhood and told people about his new book. The people had no option but to buy the book, though many had no intention of reading it. And one of those buyers who read the book told me it is an interesting book. I have read somewhere that Paulo Coelho sold his first books on the busy street, walking to and fro and talking to strangers. If we assume that our brilliant book is so brilliant that it will sell itself, you know who we're kidding.

Today there are places like Amazon KDP, which is an easy (and free) platform to put up books for sale online. Many readers have upgraded themselves to ebook readers. And many more are joining the pack. It is time to put up our books in ebook format.

The book promotion might take up so much of your time that you may not be able to work on your next book. Yes, that could lead to frustration and wanting to give up on this promotion. Self-publishing could work, or could fail - and the decision requires a lot of courage.

There's a whole lot of lessons and exercises out there. It's good to know what we're getting into, before we start.


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December 2, 2013

Self Publishing - 1

Dear M,

There are mainly two reasons why people look towards self-publishing. The first and possibly the more common one is that they have tried getting their work published through traditional publishers but could not catch any publisher's or agent's eye. The wish to see their book in print, with their name on it, and the desire to line it up against the books of famous authors, is too strong to ignore. Self publishing beckons.

The second reason is the awareness that self-publishing offers more control over the books. For those who like to do things (or get things done) on their own - from formatting to cover design, from promoting to selling, from visiting bookshops to calling up distributors and vendors, and even going from door to door to tell people about the book - this could be the best option.

Self-publishing is not a new concept, it has been around for a while, but was perhaps not as popular or affordable as it is now. There are several instances across history of self-published books catching the eye of giant publishers, and authors getting whisked away into the land of stardom. I read somewhere that a famous poet (I forget who) had to self-publish his books first before his work got noticed.

The strength of self-publishing is also its weakness. Promoting a self-published book is not for everyone. An occasional, casual announcement about your new book is not going to bring in the crowd. A few loyal friends and relatives may chip in to buy the book, and some may even recommend it to a few of their friends. Their duty ends there. The author has to continue to scream his throat hoarse. Scream until the world gets tired of his screaming.

If the book is really good, it will begin to catch people's attention - even people who have no relation to you. They will notice your book in a bookshop - that's where the cover design and the title come in - and pick it up. A certain percentage of people will put up a review or recommend it to their friends. The fire begins to spread.


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December 1, 2013

Our Kind of Writing

Dear M,

A couple of days ago, I was watching Poirot, the series, on TV. It took me back by several years. I don't think I have read an Agatha Christie in the last ten years - except, maybe once, while I was travelling. Yet I was very fond of those at one time.

I can't even watch a good program in peace without going back to writing. I was thinking about her style. Very definite, very focussed and purposeful. Detective, criminal, investigation stuff, but not quite like Sherlock Holmes. Even in the same genre, there are such differences in the presentation. And there is so much going on, very curious and strange incidents, that she does not linger to describe the English landscape more than is necessary to the plot. She does not want to overly develop her characters or create sub-plots that have no significance to the story. Every word, every gesture, every action has a reason behind it that is relevant to the story, and either the person performing it has innocent motives or guilty ones. Sometimes he is partially guilty without knowing it, sometimes his emotions have driven him to extremes and stopped just short of committing the crime. All the while, the reader is trying to guess who the actual criminal could be, and what his motives could be. True Agatha Christie fans know that the criminal will be the one whom you suspect the least.

No one is going to accuse Agatha Christie of not developing her characters or putting in more history than is necessary. No one is going to say, her books lack sub-plots. Her books have a purpose and a direction. Possibly it is not the kind of book you want to read. Possibly it is not the kind of book you want to write.

It's important to recognise what kind of book we want to write. It's not easy. But it will come to us. I am not talking about the genre. An author can write in multiple genres, of course. I am talking about styles. Our style is something we develop. If it is flawed, we could learn how to fix it. We could identify the areas were we need to focus and work on. And then we will know how to change, and come up with something new and exciting. What is it that we want? Do we want to write something hilarious that people can read in one hour? Or something deep and dark and frightening that people are terrified to touch (but touch nonetheless)? Or something emotional and romantic and mushy? Or very profound, thought-provoking stuff that one cannot finish in a quick flight? Or a balanced mix of these?

The first draft of my book very often does not look like the kind of book I want to write. One was irritatingly similar to a book I disliked. The fact that I recognised it was the first step to fixing it. I had to spent several deeply frustrating weeks before I came up with a plan to improve it.

And consciously or unconsciously, I have begun to move towards certain authors whom I would wish to be compared to.


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