June 3, 2014


Dear M,

Sometimes it is such a relief to write what comes to mind, without bothering about the order or sequence or chronology or depth of characters. Throwing preparations to the wind. I don't know if it is a good idea or if it is anything at all; but I don't mind.

Maybe the reader will be disappointed, maybe the reader will think it has no convincing plot, no amazing characters, no colourful premise. But who cares? - the author doesn't, because the author is enjoying the writing of it, and when the author does that, nothing else matters.

That's the kind of book I am working on now. Just jotting in scenes here and there, with appropriate titles and nothing else. No worry about whether this happens before that or that happens before something else.

There is no strain in writing, no stretching of memory, no papers flying around the room with important notes on them. No planning, no discipline, no setting aside fixed time daily. No pressure.

Just writing when it strikes. Sometimes two days a week, sometimes every day with hours stolen from work. Sometimes just one line in a day. 20K in one month. Not an amazing pace, but enough, for me.

And definitely not the kind of thing an author with credentials would approve of. I can see you there, over yonder, shaking your head at me. It's bound to fail, you think.

Who cares, my dear friend, who cares. Not I. Not today.


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June 1, 2014

The ideal word(s)

Dear M,

Some time ago, some of us - who had been writing for a while as well as who wanted to enter the world of writing - gathered to attend a workshop. There was a lot of interesting discussions on different topics. More importantly, we came to know the strengths and weaknesses of our own writing as well as those of others. It was a good learning. I wonder how many of them still keep writing. I remember a few of those determined faces, but I have my doubts about some others who might have stopped writing two days after the workshop.

Anyway, there was a question raised by one of the attendees. She said that while she was writing in a flow, sometimes she would get stuck because she could not find the ideal word and then the flow would be lost because she would keep returning to that one word. We asked her if the thesaurus did not help. It was indeed difficult to get back on track once the flow was lost. We also suggested to her to write the closest word and continue writing, but to come back later and modify the word. She said it didn't work; she could not continue until the right word was found. And by that time, the thoughts that were running on would have gone ahead beyond her view.

I haven't faced a similar situation, but I do know the suffocation when the right word is at the tip of your fingers but it refuses to come out. Sometimes I too spend time trying to coax it out, sometimes look for it in thesaurus, and sometimes I leave a hyphen where the right word is to be inserted, so that I can return later and spend time on it.

Yesterday I was working on a particularly difficult section of my story. I had to convey it in a way that did not sound like preaching to the reader, and yet, it was a piece of philosophy, though not unknown to the reader. I had been thinking of nothing else for the past couple of days. In my sleep, I would be framing sentences. Those sentences never came out right. But I kept writing whatever came to my mind, even though the words were far from ideal. They did sound like preaching, they did sound condescending, they did sound wrong. But I wrote any way. The same thing in many different ways. Once those thoughts were out there, it was easier to find out what was making them sound artificial. It was easier to smoothen them out and soften them a little and compact them a bit. The final result is not perfect, yet, but I know I will get there.

It is important to write it down, whichever way it comes out, so that it can be polished or edited or rewritten later. If we keep turning it in our mind, it may not come out properly, and the result would be that we get stuck and would lose the thread of writing.


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May 24, 2014

Writing about painful incidents from life

Dear M,

There was an incident that happened about twelve years ago. I was not among the ones that were directly hit by it, but I was in an inner circle. It was not easy to get over it, especially the questions it raised. The Why? Why? of it.

I never found out the answers. Probably that's why I never found a closure with it. I could probably have dug deeper into it, but it would have reopened the wounds of the people who were trying to get past it.

I met them again last month. It was not something you grow out of or you can move away from. It was something that would hang over their heads for ever. They had worked their lives around it. Things are looking good for them now, there have been happier incidents in the past few years and it did fill our hearts to see them getting along.

The questions were not answered, though. I could not bring myself to ask those and risk seeing their pain.

Why did I bring this up now? Because in one of my recent stories, I wrote about it. The similarity is too thin to notice - except for the people who know and haven't forgotten. I don't know how it would be received if they read it. Would they think I have commercialised a personal tragedy?

For writers, sometimes the only way to let out pent-up emotions is to write about it. Others may easily claim that we're trying to make money out of it. But in truth, it is our own way of finding answers, of finding some peace. Twelve years hence, I still haven't found any peace with that incident, except a slight satisfaction when I met the people concerned. It is our own way of creating the same situation and explaining it the way we think it happened. It is our own way of trying to believe that it wasn't worse than we had imagined, that the real explanation isn't more terrible than we are trying to convince ourselves. Yes, the answers of the Why could indeed be anything.

Though it does not always help, it is our attempt to find some consolation. For a reader, it might seem like the author has quickly weaved it into the story for want of a better scene. Or that the writer is just another person who uses stories for their own purpose, like the media highlighting tragedies to lure viewers. It isn't.


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May 7, 2014

The Wikipedia approach to writing

Dear M,

I am a huge fan of Wikipedia. Apart from the fact that it gives me a lot of info about things (I am not interested in going into the right-or-wrong discussion regarding Wikipedia), it also serves another purpose, in my eyes. The way Wikipedia presents topics, classifies them and highlights the important facts - to me that appears to be a good method to use when we are preparing to work on a novel.

It is always a good idea to identify chapters prior to writing. I know several writers who just write in a flow and break the chapters down afterwards, but some people prefer to prepare a chapter-wise summary for the entire novel before actually plunging into the writing.

And if you look at Wiki you get an idea. An intro, a summary, a cast of characters, list of casualties, (okay - maybe not) in short, a quick highlight of each chapter might be a good idea as a part of the homework.

Once we do that, we can weave scenes in, to each relevant chapter, we don't have to collate them into an incomprehensible mass.

Because, however much we think we know the story, trust me, writing a novel is a long journey, and somewhere, some times, we lose track of threads, some fine, important threads, and we need notes to bring us back into the game. The more organized, the better. As I tell myself every day, to no avail.


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May 5, 2014

Character Development - 5: Dialogs

Dear M,

I have always thought that watching movies is a great way to learn about writing scenes, because movies is mostly about 'showing, not telling' (except when there is a lot of voice-over).

Recently I watched one, where the protagonist's attitude and behaviour were presented to us through dialogs by others. In a few sentences we were told that she was obsessive when it comes to a certain matter, and that the speaker and she had had an affair. There was no need for a detailed flashback or digging into the specifics of the relationship. Again, a second scene in which the protagonist herself speaks to someone gave away some other factors of her character, without our even noticing what the scriptwriters were doing. (Okay, a writer would notice, but the dialogs seemed effortless and regular, just the kind of things we would say, and not as though they were talking just to convey something to the viewers.)

It is not easy. They must have spent many, many hours and days to introduce that conversation (which was essential in itself, and not brought in just to give away the protagonist's character) and compact it into the most necessary bits. (A novel writer is bound by no such strict rules the way the movie's scriptwriter is, but it would make a very good read if only the necessary words are used.)


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May 3, 2014


Dear M,

Everything in writing sounds easier than it actually is. You can talk about a topic and say, this is how it is done. Then you pick up the paper and look at it for hours, writing something, trying to implement what you had just spoken about, strike it out (or type something, delete it out), and this could go on for hours.

I have been obsessed with writing sub-plots. I had a chance to explore the sub-plots in some books I was reading. I haven't been very good with sub-plots though.

Here are some things that I observed.

Sub-plots have many purposes

We know the theme and plot of the novel. So when the protagonist strays too far from the path, we know we're headed out for a sub-plot. Sub-plots either serve to push the main plot forward, or to develop the characters along the way.

Sub-plots could be distracting

Recently I read reviews where a reader complained that the deviation from the path was very distracting and irritating. Many readers (if not most), I have noticed, are impatient to get to the end of it. Taking the longer route isn't for them.

Some sub-plots are very promising

We would just want to go into them and breathe deeply; some sub-plots are exciting and we are sad when they're over.

Will the story work without them?

I think the defining factor will be, will the story remain the same if the sub-plot is removed? Cut out an entire chapter and see if anything is different. If not, it probably is best edited out.


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April 27, 2014

Non-Email Manuscript Submission

Dear M,

I wonder why the publishers of English books in India still expect authors to send their works by post. Yes, you heard it right. Most (if not all the good ones) publishers have written very clearly that emails are not entertained. (There has been a slight change in the recent times, though, and one publisher has given an email ID in their website, however no one seems to be on the other end of it, except a bot that sends auto-thank-you-responses.) Another well-known publisher had enabled email submission guidelines, but before long they reverted back to post submissions.

What could be the reason?

The only reason I can think of is that, since these publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, once the email channel is opened, there is bound to be a flood of submissions daily. There is no effort in shooting an email to anyone at any time of the day. But think of taking print outs of about 50-60 pages of your work (after formatting them according to specifications), making sure the pages are in order, copying down the name and address (making sure the query letter is addressed properly) and taking them to the courier/post office - and doing this fifteen times? (And at least once mixing up the names, and addressing the Penguin editor in the courier that went to Harper Collins?) No, unless you are serious about publishing even one tiny bit, you would not go through all that trouble.

I am not surprised that the publisher who had temporarily opened email submissions had quickly closed it down.

Maybe there is a simpler reason behind it. If there is, I would like to be enlightened.


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April 26, 2014

There's no glory in the struggle

Dear M,

New authors are so enthusiastic! Just like young men off to battle (so I have heard). They think it is exciting - the struggle of a writer. They think their bravery, valiance, determination, skill and strength will be put to test. They think they are soldiers in uniform marching in the World War 1. They think they are fighter pilots bombing Nazi Germany in the World War 2. They think they're preparing themselves for the World War 3. They think of the glory, the awards, the recognition, once the War is over.

What they do not know is that there is no such thing (even in a real war). In the writing world, the fight is against one's self. The enemy is boredom. The only thing that will be put to test is your persistence. Your skill, talent, or capacity does not matter, if you give up trying because you are bored and you decided that you have had enough.

The days of writing are long and dreary. Nothing happens. You just force yourself to sit at your desk and write word after word after word. That's your world war. Then, one day, you finish. But then you need to edit it. You go over it again and again and again - as though you are trudging through a desert with only a bottle of water for company. That may eventually give out too. And then you approach an editor, and then you rest for a while. The Oasis, from where you need to set off again. By then you are not the same person who had started the journey... let me see, four-five years ago.

You laugh at yourself and all your old, proud talks of being a "struggling" writer. There is no glory in the struggle. I have had enough, dammit, you say, throw the manuscript, half-edited and half-fixed and all, to a publisher's door and walk away, hoping that you will hear a voice calling you from behind.

Nothing happens. This is not a tragic fiction I just made up. This is the truth. This is the struggle. The waiting. The disillusionment. The pessimism. Then amidst them all, still picking up where you left it yesterday and continuing the struggle, disillusioned, pessimistic, disappointed and exhausted.


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April 24, 2014


Dear M,

Being unpublished - in the traditional sense of being published - is a difficult situation to be in, in your efforts to convince yourself that you are a writer. If you are serious about writing, that is. You'd rather hide that side of yours than have to answer unwanted questions. You do not need that validation from anyone, you try to convince yourself. I know what I am, and what I am not.

But it doesn't always work that way. So you try to prove - to yourself and to others - that yes, you are a Writer, worthy of being called a Writer, you are the one to whom people turn to when they need Writing advice, you are the experienced one, you are the one who knows about Writing.

You try to prove it by actually Writing something that people can see. In places where they can bump into your writing. From where they can come to you with wide, surprised, bordering-on-impressed eyes and say, Oh yes, I read that article of yours. Yes, it was great.

Squeezing that out of some people is tough. But if you manage that, even if it was a passing sentence intended not to catch your ears, it's success in itself.


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April 22, 2014

The Magic of the Vocabulary

Dear M,

Vocabulary is quite something. One feels wonderful when the right words appear. And at that moment, you know it is worth all the effort you have put in, knowingly or unknowingly, to learn new words. All that learn-by-rote exercises you must have done and can barely remember, all those books you were forced to read for your exams, all those books you devoured out of love for reading, all of them coming together in culmination at your fingertips at the right moment, and the ecstasy you experience when you write/type the right word - that's the magic of the Vocabulary.


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April 21, 2014

Writing as though Speaking

Dear M,

Some authors write as though they are speaking to us, even when the narrative is in third person. As though they are sitting right across the table from us, and telling us what had happened. It seems so effortless, however we know it isn't. There is an appropriate mix of stream of consciousness and the global third person view. It feels as though we aren't reading, we are listening.

I think that is a more modernistic style of writing; by modern I mean early-ish twentieth century. Probably. I am not all that interested in studying when this evolved or when that was founded. (Perhaps I should, though.)

I am interested in understanding how they wrote those, how they conceived the idea, how they prepared their notes which eventually formed this shape that I now hold in my hands.

I read somewhere about one exercise that some writers have done early in their youth. They copy down the writing of their favourite authors, a few lines each day. Writing, as we know, is the best way to memorise anything. And by memorise we don't mean we are going to plagiarise their work. It is a way to decipher their writing, to understand what they have done. And to improvise on anything, the first thing to do is get the basics right. Know the rules, then break them.


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April 18, 2014

Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez (6 March 1927 – 17 April 2014)

Dear M,

I was planning to write about something else today. Then came the news about Gabo. And I could write nothing else. In fact, I could write nothing.

Why does Gabriel García Márquez's death depress me so much? I have no idea. But it does.

Perhaps because, due to some inexplicable coincidence, I was reading up his Wikipedia page last night. Just like that. For no reason. Just vaguely wondering if he was working on something new these days. And today, when I go back to that page, everything has changed. Overnight. Literally.

Perhaps because One Hundred Years of Solitude had been a discovery of a magical world. A magical world of writing. I had never experienced anything like that before. One Hundred Years of Solitude was an eye-opener. Many lessons learnt from a single book. It excited me and it frustrated me. It motivated me and it terrified me. I wanted to write like that, but I knew I never will.

Perhaps because I always considered myself to be lucky that I live in a time when Gabo was around. Most of the other authors I am fond of are not. Not that it changes anything in the least, in any way. But it somehow was reassuring to know that he, Gabo, was still out there.

Silly. I know.

RIP, Gabriel García Márquez.

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April 17, 2014

Writing and Rewriting the Synopsis

Dear M,

If my tail were actually on fire, I would not have run as hard as I was running the last few days.

I have absolutely no idea how I survived hopping between the different things and still managed to keep track of what was happening where (of course with enough slips along the way) and to continue where each was left off.

In between that fire-and-smoke existence, I managed to take a look at my synopsis. Now the synopsis, like the query letter, is another frightening thing. That is the first glimpse the agent/publisher has of our work. Either they like it, or they don't. Either they think it has potential, or they don't. Whether it lands up in the trash or the "Exciting New Author" box depends on how well we craft the synopsis.

I had written one for this novel a few months ago, possibly when my first draft was ready. Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with the synopsis. It is factually correct, it has a brief summary of the what and the who, and everything. As per the rulebook.
Reading it again after months, it did not excite me.

Now the easiest person in the world to be excited over anything related to a novel is its author. No one else in the world thinks it is a masterpiece but the author. He/She pretends to be all modest and humble about it of course, but secretly, in their eyes, the novel beats the best of the best.

So if the author isn't excited by the synopsis, then there is really something wrong with it - no, a better way to put it is that the synopsis is dead. It was never even born.

The synopsis said exactly what was needed to be said about the novel, but that's not how a synopsis ought to be written. I need to write it again.

Let's hold the match stick to the tail again...


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April 13, 2014

The Novel's Own Time and Place

Dear M,

I hate to admit it, but today when a load of work came in, I was so relieved that I did not have to work on the novel. Don't mistake me: I love my novel and all I want is to polish it to perfection. There are only a few more things to be done on it. But one does get miserably bored of reading it a million times. There is no novelty, first of all. You know what's going to happen. You have no shock, no surprise, no emotion whatsoever. All that was spent in the first writing and the second reading.

I can't wait for the day when I can be rid of that novel once and for all. It is keeping me from my next masterpiece, and it is not becoming "complete" either. I want to see it published, of course; if ever that cycle begins, I will be happy to be working on it again, but as long as there is no promise involved, I just want to toss it to one side.

If it has a future, I suppose it will find it. A novel has its "time and place" too.


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April 11, 2014

The Art of Interweaving an Idea

Dear M,

Though we claim that the best writers do not force their convictions on the reader and they let the readers decide, I believe that they subtly interweave their own opinions about each man and woman into their writing. No, I am not talking about the Show, Not Tell thing.

It's not about the author showing us what a generous, sensitive, large-hearted person the hero is, or how cunning or manipulative someone else is. It's about how they allow a certain thought or an idea to seep in almost imperceptibly into our minds. At the end of the book, that might be the only thought that remains in our mind, and we'll even convince ourselves that the idea had occurred to us, and that it was not planted in our mind by someone else.

In one novel, the author conveys to us (though we cannot recall or locate where we had read those lines) that the hero was the only person who truly understood the heroine's wild side, and actually loved her for it. This feeling keeps coming back to us every ten pages or so.

Much later, after reading the book 2-3 times, it occurred to me that it is not true, the hero did not actually understand her all that much, because if he did, he would not have done something that he did. Then I had to ask myself where in the world did I get such an idea in the first place? It was not mine. I would never have come up with the notion that he was all that understanding. He was supportive, true. But he did not quite get her as much as we believed he did. It was clear then. It was not my impression; it was the author's gentle suggestion and we had all lapped it up.

In another even more famous work, a certain speech is considered to have stirred up the emotions of the public. It did stir me when I read it first. Then as I grew older and read it again and again, it did not seem all that stirrable. But we were talking about the confused, listening mob. I could be wrong. The very fact that I was doubtful about the power of that speech told me that the initial idea was planted in my mind by the author. The author had subtly suggested that the speech was powerful enough to make the mob go crazy. The suggestion was so gentle and undetectable that we, the unsuspecting reader, believed it was true.


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April 10, 2014

Research into the number of rejections

Dear M,

A major activity in a writer's life involves reading up on how famous authors were rejected a million times, how they suffered for a hundred years, how they struggled to get their work noticed, and when that happened, how they shot to fame.

The next activity in the aspiring author's life is to sit and wonder how long he has to go before he gets somewhere. How many rejections has he received so far, and how many more to go before he hits that threshold? How many years has he to struggle before someone notices him? He calculates the average number of rejections faced by the famous novelists, average number of years they struggled, and then he compares with his own numbers.

That's how far he needs to go to reach the bottom of the staircase, from where he can at least start climbing. So far whatever he has been doing is wandering left and right, and in all possible directions, seeking to find that magical, vanishing staircase.


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April 9, 2014

Of Luck and Meeting the Right People

Dear M,

Frankly, I wonder how authors like Hemingway or Virginia Woolf or even Rushdie got away with their writing. Their writings must have fallen to several hands and must have been rejected, over and over. I don't see how else it can be.

I wasn't impressed by any of these authors when I started reading them. (They're lucky I wasn't their agent.) The first page of Midnight's Children surprised me - is this how the world famous book begins? I had to struggle past a few pages (which I did only because the author was well-known and respected) to become truly hooked to it. Same with Hemingway. I became his fan only after reading The Old Man and The Sea. That was something I could put my money on. But that was one of the books he wrote after he became The Hemingway. That was the book that led him to the Nobel.

And Virginia Woolf? Just picture myself taking the first few pages of her book (Mrs Dalloway, for instance) and approaching a publisher, claiming to be the author. Assume also that the publisher has never read Woolf. I am sure she would throw the MS to the trash. This is not a story, she would tell me. This is like a blog where you can write disjointed stuff and make no sense whatsoever. I am looking for a story that has a plot and does not wander all over the place like this does. Give me something that people would read.

The way I see it, someone was impressed enough to give them a chance. They were lucky to get noticed. They had met the right person at the right time. Or maybe they started out writing stories with traditional style plots and sequence, and then once they were accepted, they were able to experiment with their styles.

Which once again proves that we cannot afford to give up. If we have to get somewhere, we've got to keep walking.


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April 7, 2014

Honest Feedback

Dear M,

Continuing from our discussion on Rave Reviews, when we share our stories with our friends and family, they also are under tremendous pressure to live up to expectations. They tell themselves, the reason why they shared this story with me is so that I can give them an honest feedback. If I say well-written, nice, etc. they are going to be disappointed. So, in the public domain, I could praise them to my heart's content, but privately I need to inform them what areas they could improve on. And they go through the story in critical detail.

The result is that we get an email from them with their "honest feedback." Ouch.

The plot could be further developed.
The attempt was good, but the execution did not live up to it.
The characters were one-dimensional.
The writing was okay, but I found it phoney and contrived at places.
The theme did not come out properly, you could try to bring it out further.
The elaborate descriptions could have been avoided.


Okay. Deep breath. I read through them fifty times - up and down, down and up. I go back to the story and read it up and down, keeping these comments in mind.

In the end, I shamefacedly confess to myself that I have absolutely no idea what they meant when they said the plot "could be developed". I had developed it as I saw fit. I had developed and developed and developed till there was nothing else left to develop. Tell me how, I want to scream.

Attempt and execution? I have put all my attempts into the execution. Don't talk Greek.

The characters - yes, I get that. I know how to give them more shades. That's something I understand. But did you mean all characters? All of them were absolutely dull and single-dimensional? Come on.

Phoney writing?
Bringing out the theme?
What in the world are you trying to say?

I know what you mean, I write back to them. Thanks a lot for your comments. I will definitely try to work on those.

Then I throw the story to one side and start on another.


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April 4, 2014

Rave Reviews

Dear M,

There was this book whose name I happened to come across recently. It was apparently getting "rave reviews" on the Internet. Much over-used phrase though it was, I was curious. Every new book claims to be getting "rave" reviews. But some of them might be true too. And we don't want to be the last ones to know.

So I went to read those rave reviews. Out of the 50-odd reviews, all - believe me, all - were about how brilliant the book was. No wonder the author seemed so ecstatic. However, it failed to excite me. 100% good reviews doesn't really happen - the sceptic in me thought. Maybe these readers have never read anything else in their life. I have read reviews of many authors' books - all those best selling, Pulitzer/Booker winners. Even with those authors, there will always be a number of bad reviews - from readers who claim that they wasted money on the book. It is natural, it is healthy, and it is normal to get a certain percentage of bad reviews. This one looked suspiciously as though the reviewers were friends and family of the author.

My point is that (again, I have made this point several times in this blog) no author gets 100% good reviews. There will be people who do not enjoy his/her writing, who do not like stories of that kind, who did not think the characters were well-etched, or the plot was impressive or the writing extraordinary, who say things like "the plot was promising, but the execution did not live up to the expectation", "this new author has a lot to learn" or "the whole idea seemed preposterous". If those people aren't there, then probably the book isn't worth reading at all.

Just my thoughts.


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April 2, 2014

Merging Plots

Dear M,

I have found the solution. It's perhaps not the best solution, but I am feeling quite adventurous today, and it's perhaps time for a little experimenting. I'm referring to the problem of the surge of stories.

A couple of seemingly brilliant story ideas had been shadowing me for a while now, and I made elaborate notes on both, unsure which one I need to work on next. (After I go back and finish the older one, of course.) The truth is that though both appeared promising, neither had enough material to last the 80k or 100k test. Without having a strong premise, it was not a good idea to plunge into it. There is a third, independent storyline that has made its appearance, to further complicate matters. If only we could finish our masterpieces at the speed of thought itself.

Anyway, today the splendid solution came up - two of those plots could be merged. It may or may not work, the 'splendidness' remains to be seen. There aren't a lot of obvious overlaps between the two, yet there are certain areas that could be reworked on so that a merger can be signed.

I hate to admit I am not overly excited about it. The result should not look as though a half-apple and a half-orange were pasted together in a desperate attempt to make a mango.


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April 1, 2014

A Surge of Stories

Dear M,

I don't know if all writers face this problem - a surge of story ideas. But of course they do. How can it be otherwise? Anyone who has tasted the exhilaration of completing a story would also know that the stories (or those that are disguised as stories) have a way of rushing on to us when we are quietly enjoying dinner with family or in the middle of the deepest of sleep.

We - hapless writers - have no idea if the story is good, if it is worthy of being explored, if it would abandon us like a bored lover a few days later, or if it would be the masterpiece we have been waiting for. Like everything else, if we need to find out if the idea is worth anything, we need to chase it, capture it, tame it and see it for what it is. Will it take us to the 80K mark? Will it emerge polished and beautiful like sculpture out of marble? Will it teach us a thing or two?

If we do not pursue the ideas that hit us headlong, we may never know what it could be.


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March 31, 2014

Going Back in Time

Dear M,

I went back to an old novel again. That's the best thing about old novels - you can go back to them any time and they won't complain about your lack of interest or attention.

So I went back to it: it was pretty much complete, and as close to first draft as was possible without being a First Draft itself. I had gone back to it several times in the intervening years, added a touch of colour here or a dash of modification there, and the best part about it was that, I still loved it, and I still believed in it. And there were even parts of that story that I thought had come out very well. (No, I really thought they were brilliant.) Those parts still gives me the goosebumps.

That novel gives me hope. It tells me that however the odds seem stacked against me, I should not lose hope. It is only a matter of time. And unless I persist, all my efforts will be wasted. There are so many things to do - but if the foundation is not robust, nothing can salvage it.

The thing about returning to the novel after a long break is that your vision would have improved, and there would be more clarity in your themes and characters, and most importantly, you would know how to bring it out. Time plays a huge role in making the right decisions, in doing away with unnecessary embellishments, and to compact the text into a better form.


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March 29, 2014

Unexpected and Unkind

Dear M,

However much we prepare ourselves for criticism, the fact is that we are never prepared for criticism. That's because the most hurting comments don't come from where we expect it to.

We know that we have been insensitive in the portrayal of those scenes in the story. We tried, but we never got it right. We know that we have not researched enough while writing those facts in the plot. We expect people to say that the first seemed too heartless, the second seemed to have been lifted right off Google. We're prepared for it. We have our replies scripted out.

But then, it comes, the bomb. That scene, they say, seems so fake. The misery and grief are so contrived. The characters seemed like they are acting. Tone it down a bit.

And they're talking about the part which you had ripped off from your own life. That part that wrenches your heart even as you remember it. That part which, when you wrote, made you shed bucket-load of real tears. Tone it down? How can you tone it down? It was more intense that you could ever describe. You had toned it down hundred fold in the story from what it actually was. Why can't they see how much pain had gone behind it? Why can't they see it was written right from the heart?

The world is an unkind place. It always wants to prop the unexpected on to your shoulders. We can never be prepared enough. What we can do, is to tell ourselves that we will not stop however unexpected, unkind and untrue the accusations are.


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March 27, 2014

Why should it matter?

Dear M,

This question may not come at the beginning of the writerly career, but as time passes, it will make its presence known. Why should my writing matter? What will it do? What can it change?

There is no concrete answer, of course. There is only an urge to say something, to speak to an invisible audience, and to see through their eyes.

Why do we read extensive articles on politics or analyses of the latest breaking news? We try to see and understand something that had not yet occurred to us. We like to be surprised by the author's viewpoint. We like to be delighted by her burst of wisdom. We like to be fascinated by her style.

We do write what we want to write, but we hope to make a connection with someone somewhere else. Did it help you? Did it relax you? Did it relieve you? Did it make you laugh? Did it make you act? Somehow we like to feel that it did.

Which is why, I feel strongly, there should be something more in our stories than the mundane. As writers, what can we bring out that a reader sees daily, perhaps, but has never noticed? Or something that the reader has never seen? Or even better, something that makes the reader pause, think, and say to herself - My God, why didn't I ever think of it that way?

When we ponder over a story we want to tell, when we are bursting with energy and enthusiasm to start typing it out, stop, and ask ourselves: Does it carry a message, a thought, a theme, or something that the reader could take away from it?

If not, ask again, is this the story I want to write?


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March 26, 2014

With time, comes confidence

Dear M,

Today I updated my bio again, to go with an article I was sending. And today, I found that it was so much easier to write one, perhaps because I have been doing it for so many years.

Writing a bio is not easy at the start. And writing a bio is essential, be it at the start or the end. (I don't know about the end, though.)

When we attempt it for the first time, it is easy to overdo it. Every little bit of information need not go into the bio. It is like a compressed resumé, but containing only the things that the reader needs to - or would be interested to - know. Your previous publications, your prior writing experience, your association with famous writing clubs, your writing awards, your hugely popular blog.

Sounds simple, but somehow the first time we write our bio, it appears so difficult. It never does come out well in the first attempt. Keep improvising and keep modifying, and most importantly, keep reading others' bios to see how they have done it in a simple yet striking manner.


P.S. And that's my 200th letter on this blog.

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March 25, 2014

Busy is as busy does

Dear M,

I think I have never been so busy in my life. Or maybe, it just appears so every time it happens. The way I remember it, I have had busy flashes that passed quickly, then there were some busy days during which I did only one thing the whole day. Perhaps the fact that I am trying to do several things at once is taking its toll.

And inevitably, the writing - the only task in my list that is done for purposes of my own, the only task that gives no pleasure to anyone else, the only task that does not actually swell my bank account - becomes the one that suffers.

That's how it is - every task and every person has to shove through and make themselves visible if they need to be noticed. My writing has to impress me, has to be "useful", and it has to make a "difference" to my life if it should be given due respect.

I hear pretty much the same story from everywhere around me, so I guess it has something to do either with March, or with the climate in general, or with the collective energy of the planet. Somewhere, someone else must be compensating for it by taking long breaks and following his passion full steam.

Next month, I hope I am one of them.


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March 22, 2014

The story should flow from one line to next

Dear M,

Why do people read some stories even though they aren't particularly curious to know what's going to happen next?

Perhaps the author is their favourite writer. Perhaps, though they know what's going to happen in the end, they want to know how it comes about. Perhaps the opening line caught them unawares and they just could not put the book down after that. Perhaps the writing followed all the best rules of writing and came out perfect. Perhaps they were bored and waiting at the doctor's, and any book would have done.

While there is a certain truth to all of these, the only real reason I can see is the ease of reading.

I have been captivated by the first line of a book, and tossed it aside after reading about five or ten pages. That's all the first line can take you to; no further. I have been bored by the first two pages of a book and just as I began considering throwing it away, it became interesting and absolutely un-putdownable.

The only reason, I repeat, is the flow of the text. The reader should tumble from one line to the next easily, as though the story were flowing, like a river. That does not mean the story should be light and funny and shallow and superficial. It can be unreadably profound and complicated writing, if you like. It could still flow.

How do we write like that so that the story tumbles from one sentence to the next? That's for each of us to find out.


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March 20, 2014


Dear M,

One of the most challenging things about writing a story is to make it convincing. It is even more difficult when the story is (or intended to be) funny.

In one of the recent episodes of a comedy show in TV (the one with canned laughter), there were a couple of scenes which were not only irritating, but were also unbelievable. "How did they get away with it?" was the question in my mind. I felt as though the makers of the show expected all viewers to be fools to laugh at something like that. Those were deliberate (and poor and even desperate) attempts at being funny. (Apparently that show does well elsewhere.)

There is a thin line between showing something that is impossible in real life while making it appear real and possible, and showing something that is so ridiculous that you just want to run away.

The author should be able to think like a reader. Would I believe something like that?


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March 18, 2014

Show, Not Tell

Dear M,

This Show, Not Tell thing baffles me. In fact, I remember first being baffled by it 5-6 years ago. I have not come far from there. It is very clear in theory. But when to apply it? How to apply it?

Actually we can apply it in every single scene. But it will become tedious and boring to the reader. There are places where we should tell, without showing and get past them quickly, because a major scene is coming where we will have all the showing to do. So we need to judge where it is needed, and where it is not.

Now, how to do showing and not telling. I wrote about it in different forms here and here.

Something came to me recently, while I was watching a movie. How does the director tell us what the protagonist is thinking, or what kind of a person she is?

He does not appear on the scene and tell us oh, she is a real tiger, isn't she?

He shows us. He throws her into a situation, and asks her to react. She tells us in her behaviour, in her choices, in her decisions, in her expressions, in her words.

In an ideal story, that is what I would like to do, too. (I am not saying that is how all writers should decode the Show, Not Tell concept. It varies with each writer.)

I want to write detached, as though I am a mere observer, making a note of what is right before my eyes.

Her eyes widened, I would say, because I saw it. She said, I would never do that, I would say.

She got into the bus hesitatingly, I would say, because I saw her hesitate. Forget the adverb.

Those are things I see - not what I read from her mind. I do not want to get into the characters' minds more than necessary. I just want to be the one who jots down what's visible.

Would that be possible, without doing any analysis of the scenes before me, without getting into minds and spilling everything out for the reader. I believe it is possible. But will such a read be interesting?

Remains to be seen!


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March 15, 2014

The Struggle, the Noise, the Hardships

Dear M,

An author recently claimed that she was inspired by silence, that her ideas came when she was alone and in very quiet atmosphere, like her own room. Lucky, I said to myself.

Not all writers are so lucky. Some have to write in the middle of squealing children, even while screaming at them, or in the midst or chores, or even sneakily at work.

Some of us do not have the luxury of getting creative in loneliness. Some of us get creative despite all the noise around us, despite not having a minute to ourselves, despite wanting to throw all the unpleasant things in life away.

The efforts to focus become all the more trying, like sunlight trying to peep through a tiny hole. Perhaps, and this is positive thinking I suppose, because of all the hardships, our efforts become more beautiful.


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March 13, 2014

The Right Choice

Dear M,

There was this "big, fat" ad in the newspaper today - in large font, caps, on the front page, no less. It said, "Fortune favours those who make the right choices." And I wondered what the right choices are. How would one know he is making the right choices?

I don't know if I am. I don't know if I ever have.

I seem to have been running from pillar to post, as they say. For each of the pathways that I took, there were many, many others that I ignored. There were some others that I tried to follow but abandoned after a while. I do not know which of my actions were right and which were the mistakes. I do not know if I had pursued something else, would I have wound up somewhere else? Did some other trail lead to a miracle? Do I want a miracle?

But there is one thing I know for sure - being a writer was a right choice. There was a definite turn in the road. There was a crossroads. There was a choice. And I had taken it, fully conscious of what I was doing.

Wherever I am now, whatever I am or not, whether people would term my life meaningful or not, successful or not, I know for a certainty that being a writer was a right choice.

I have never, even for a moment, felt that this was not for me. I have been saddened when I did not get what I wanted, I have been miserable when my attempts failed, I have been mad with rage when I was rejected multiple times, but not for one moment did I regret this choice. I am on the right track. I do not know where I am going, what I will find. But this journey, this struggle, this madness, this despair, this momentary satisfaction of writing something I believe in, that is my life, that is my success, that is... my destination. I am not going anywhere. I am there.


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March 12, 2014

The Comma, the Pause

Dear M,

A long time ago - in fact I think it could have been the turning point in my writerly career - I shared one of my short stories with a friend. He must have realised that I am handing over something very precious that he had to handle with care and eventually return.

He gave my story due respect. He was an avid reader, and I do not know what he actually thought of my story - my encounters with critics had not yet begun. He told me what he liked about the story. He delicately kept from me his negative thoughts, if he had any. It must have come as a surprise to him that I wrote stories, perhaps that surprise alone made up for the drawbacks of my writing.

Anyway, none of that is important here. Something he said to me drew my attention. He said I gave the right kind of attention to the pauses in the story - that my punctuations, especially my commas, were well-placed. Now, that is the last comment I would have expected him to make. Yes, he did speak about the language I used, the plot and other things, but today this is the only thing I remember from our conversation.

Normally no one pays a lot of attention to the punctuation while reading, except a person who knows what he is talking about. A person with a keen eye. A person who knows writing. Most importantly, a person who knows reading.

We read a book in our mind, true, but we're actually reading it out aloud. Without the pauses, the commas, the semi-colons, the exclamations, the hyphens, the full-stops, we do not comprehend the text the way we should. One could write very well without many of those, there are writers who dislike the semi-colon. But each of these serve a purpose to the reader. They could be annoying when overused, but most often they give the right feel to the reader.

I have heard that reading our story out loud is very useful in fixing (polishing) the style. I am sure when we read aloud, we pause at the right places. These pauses and exclamations could get converted into punctuations which will help the reader read it exactly the way you want it to be read.


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March 10, 2014

A story can be told in many ways

Dear M,

There are several ways a story can be told. There is no best way, there is no perfect way. More than the flow or the approach or the angle in which it is told, it is more the presentation.

Imagine a painting competition for children. You give them all a topic, say, Independence Day. If there are fifty children participating, there will be fifty new pictures, none of them alike, except perhaps for the presence of the National Flag. And yet will you be able to say which picture is better or the best? (Competitions do come out with a "winner", though.) If we look at those with a creative eye, there will be something original, new, different, appealing, endearing, in each one of them.

The same goes with stories: with the same plot and characters, different people can write in different ways. A reader may choose some of them as better than others, but that is based on his or her own priorities.

The point here is that there might be different ways to tell the story we want to tell, and we could run our mind over these possibilities, as far as we know, to choose the best possible presentation. Maybe somewhere along the writing, we would find that there is a better way of narration. If we are sure that would work better, then alter it. Maybe some readers are not going to like it; maybe some will. But ultimately, the author has to be satisfied. If he/she isn't, then the chances of a reader liking is next to nil.


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March 8, 2014

Brilliant at jobs, not so at Writing?

Dear M,

Many of us have jobs outside of writing, and are very good at it too. We've been appreciated, and we know we are as close to perfection as humanly possible. We're dedicated, hard-working, talented, good learners, and, if I may say so, indispensable. If we put in our papers, our colleagues are going to be devastated.

So why is it that, we are so brilliant at our jobs, but we aren't so at our creative pursuits? Why aren't we the winners, the way we are at office? Why aren't publishers or agents racing after us, the way our Bosses do?

Because job, most of the time, is different from creativity. This is a general statement. Many people do creative work that is as demanding as writing itself. But many others do work that has a definition, a certain expectation, some sets of rules to follow. There is, in most cases, an expected outcome.

When we write a story, or a novel, we're not working on any definition. As the author, we know what we're going to write about. But we do not have a sample or template to refer, we cannot get our work reviewed by others (except for editing suggestions), we do not have input specifications, we do not have a list of expected output.

Which is why it isn't easy. Which is why, one person may say it is great, while the other would find it boring. Which is why, our writing style may appeal to some while it would put off some others.

We have to tackle and master the craft, just as we did with our jobs. And if we are determined, we could be as good.


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March 7, 2014

Reviews as a learning

Dear M,

I think writing reviews of books is a great idea. When we write a review, we are actually analysing the story, the plot, the characters and their development, the theme, etc. We are also trying to see the author behind the book.

When we find flaws in a book, we immediately know how a good book shouldn't be. When we say the characters are one-dimensional or not rounded, we think about what could have made them better. When we say the editing is not perfect, we know what phrases or words could have been removed or modified. When we say the book is not impeccable, we know what made us say so.

When we say the theme was new, something we have never thought of, we can try to think of such possibilities, of coming up with ideas that are new, original. The approach of the story, the narration, is different. And we all like different.

We wonder what made the author write so; why must she have come up with such a theme? Why did she model her characters thus? Where did she get the plot from?

Whatever makes us think and wonder is a lesson. Even if we don't write a review and put it up online, we could analyse each book as soon as we finish reading. It would be time well spent.

I also like reading book and movie reviews written by others in different blogs, it is good to get others' perspectives. Who knows, some day they might review us!


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March 6, 2014

When you say nothin' at all...

Dear M,

You say it best, when you say nothin' at all...
That should be our motto - well not exactly "nothin"; more like, say less and mean more. We don't have to explain every single word and line, the reader can figure that out. Leave out a few explanations, otherwise the reader would feel exhausted just reading our story. As far as reading goes, when we read, we don't notice that we are actually translating a set of alphabets into something we understand. So an extra clarification would be like a stone in your food.

It is difficult to see those redundant explanations in our own writing. But we could learn to note those in others'. And in due course, I believe we would find such in our writing too.

Now we're on the topic, I remember reading an author - acclaimed and everything, for his plots, imagination, creativity and far-sightedness - who sometimes explained more than I cared to read.

"Good Lord, what a mess!" He felt annoyed.

From the exclamation itself (and the context driving to it) we know he is annoyed. That line could have been edited out. It was the stone in my food, and it was annoying.


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March 5, 2014

List of Literary Agents in India

Dear M,

A couple of days ago, I posted a list of Publishers of English Books in India.

Now, here is a list of Literary Agents in India.

Aitken Alexander

Jacaranda Press

Purple Folio

Red Ink Literary Agency

Sherna Khambatta Literary Agency


Writer's Side

Please feel free to add to this list.

Also view: my list of Publishers.


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March 4, 2014

Back up your work

Dear M,

In the early days of my acquaintance with the computer, I used to forget to save my work. I should also say that those were the early days of computer in my neighbourhood too - which means, not many had heard of such things as UPS, and a power failure meant your unsaved work was gone. After losing my precious slowly-typed-in lines several times, I learned to do Alt+F+S.

Now we do not have that issue where power failure could cause our beloved work to be lost, however there still hangs above our heads the possibility of a hard drive crash, or something similar where we could lose our data.

Today, we have so many alternatives to keep our work safe. If you say you lost your 75,000 words of your novel because of a system crash, no one is going to be sympathetic. No one's sympathy is going to help anyway.

Software like MS Word have the option to save your data as you work. In recent versions, auto-recovery is enabled by default, and in other versions, there is an option to "auto-save" your work every few minutes. Enable it.

Use an external hard disk or a pen drive. Keep saving the entire folder of your work into it, once or twice a week. Just dump the whole thing there.

Find an online location like Dropbox, and sync your folder.

Take care that you know where the latest work is - keeping different versions in different places could lead to confusion and eventually, madness.


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March 3, 2014

List of Publishers of English Books in India

Dear M,

I have lost count of the number of aspiring authors who have asked me about publishers. I thought it would be easier to compile a list so that it would be helpful to others.

Aleph Book Company

Grey Oak Publishers

Harper Collins

Leadstart Publishers

Om Books International

Random House

Rupa & Co

Westland Publishers

Zubaan Books

I am sure there are more good publishers out there. Feel free to add to this list. (There are also several small, independent publishers, but I do not know anything about their credibility so I am not adding those names here.)

In a couple of days I will publish a list of Literary Agents based in India.


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March 2, 2014

The Gems within our Writing

Dear M,

It's amazing how gems creep into our writing. I am not sure if we can take credit for those. They just exist at the tips of our fingers or the nooks of our brain, and then spread to the paper/keyboard. We read them over and over again and are astonished.

What's even better is, when the reference to those return in another part of the story. It has happened many times with me. I write something in passing, and I don't even think it is important. Then, a couple of pages later, it just pops up again, making the initial reference worthwhile.

I don't know how or why it happens, but I attribute it to something higher than myself - something that resides in my head or above it.


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March 1, 2014

Scrap the old story and start afresh

Dear M,

Remember that story I was telling you about - the one that I had started in earnest, and lost interest after a few days?

Yesterday morning I got up with a fresh perspective to it, removed all the unnecessary parts, changed the POV and finished writing it in about two hours. (Actually, I opened a new document and started writing, only in a couple of places did I go back to refer to the original.) I did not get bored or disillusioned with this version, and I knew this time I had got it right.

I just thought you should know.


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February 28, 2014

Are you a Writer?

Dear M,

You know you're a writer if you get up in the morning, decide that you have a story to tell, put your regular chores and jobs aside, and start writing. All of a sudden, the pending tasks, the deadlines, don't seem important - rather, you feel as though there is all the time in the world to get to those tasks, but your priority today, right now, is your story. It is beautiful, it is inspiring, it is exciting and it is what you want to do.

And, that is the true test of every writer: do you drop everything and jot down your story, at least as much as you can? Or does your "better sense" prevail, and do you sigh and move on to your job, telling yourself that you will get to it when you are free? Not everyone has the luxury to put their tasks aside and take up writing, even if it is for an hour. But if you think about it, there might be an hour in the whole, long day when you can do a bit of writing, at least to give you a sense of achievement, a feeling of satisfaction.

I think we all deserve that one hour of euphoria when we are doing what we are good at, what we love to do, what we want to do.


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February 26, 2014

How to figure out if your story is any good

Dear M,

Every idea we come up with for a story need not be great. But when the inspiration comes, we do not know if it is going to be good or bad. Naturally any idea that strikes us feels superior to any other idea that has hit anyone else on this planet so far. (It's like a What An Idea Sirji moment.)

There is a way to find out if the new story idea or our execution of it is any good. It may not be a foolproof method, but having some way to figure out is better than having none.

I began writing a story a month or so ago. The idea had been hovering around for a long time now, then suddenly it occurred to me how I could present it. Who was going to be the protagonist, how is he going to uncover it, what was the POV, etc. As always, it felt like a flash of brilliance. So I quickly made notes and arranged things in chronological order and made short character sketches.

Then I plunged into the writing. I knew it was going to be a long story, more than 20 pages. My stories don't usually go beyond 10, or 15. But I figured this was one story that needed space. I had to take the reader through a lot of stuff. So I kept at it, day after day. Then I skipped it for one day, because I had to edit the synopsis for my completed novel. Then I skipped it the next day when something else came up. Soon it was four days since I had written a word on the short story. Then the gap became one week. When it became ten days, I stopped short and asked myself what was going on.

I had lost interest - was what had happened. I did not feel excited when I read the story, any more. I did not feel the urge to go on. It was not driving me now. If I, as the writer, had lost interest in the story, how would the reader find it? No one is holding a gun against his head to make him read.

I have been writing stories long enough to know the difference between a story that does not allow me to rest until I finished writing it, and one that kills me of boredom while writing it.

So if you are bored writing it, and if you try to keep away from it as much as possible, if you don't feel excited when you read it after a gap, then the story isn't going to excite the reader either. Better try to rewrite it or trash it, and move on. Otherwise we will be stuck there for weeks or months. The effort will not be wasted. Good story ideas never leave us. At the right moment, they will return to haunt us again. And this time, we may get it right.


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February 25, 2014

Fearing the Family and Friends

Dear M,

I think one of the drawbacks of people reading our books is that they try to see us behind the stories. We, as story-tellers, try to narrate different stories from different perspectives, we try to place ourselves in the shoes of others. But when our friends read the stories, they (some of them at least) imagine that we are the protagonists. That it has to be our story. That there must be an element of truth in it. I have been asked about a couple of my stories, if such a thing has happened to me. They never actually believed it when I said it wasn't my story, that it was in no way related to me.

It is a very difficult situation, if you ask me. Imagine our story exploring forbidden topics. What conclusions are the reader-friends of ours going to arrive at? We have a major crisis arising from misunderstanding heading for our doors. I have often wondered if I can get away with an anonymously written book. (I don't fancy wasting my life explaining my stories to others.) But the problem would be marketing it. How can an anonymous author promote his/her work on the Internet? This isn't like the olden times when the publisher took care of all the sales and marketing.

We should, as they say, have a thick skin if we want to write about sensitive topics that could raise an eyebrow or so - within the family. Yeah, we can face the nation's wrath, but the family's floors we fear to tread. At some point, though, we have to decide whether the need to write would triumph over the fear of a few scowls or raised eyebrows.

I remember reading that Rushdie's educated father was annoyed at the way the protagonist's father was represented in Midnight's Children, but his mother was okay with it; everyone knew the story was loosely based on Rushdie's own life.


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February 23, 2014

The Connection

Dear M,

One of the things that excites a reader (or a viewer of a film/show) is how well s/he can connect with the characters. Which is probably why they say, your character should not be flawless, there should be weaknesses that readers can identify with. They should lie and make mistakes like you and I would. They should be helpless and desperate and lost. And they could find happiness in small things (well, not exactly like us in that case - we are all very demanding when it comes to happiness).

Take a story like Avatar. I mean, you do not connect with the settings, I suppose. It is as alien to you as it is to Jake Sully. See the connect already? And Jake is disabled and then he finds his wings - er, legs. In the story, Jake's twin was supposed to go to Pandora, but he died, so they send Jake instead. Why do you think the deceased twin brother's reference was needed? If the twin himself (who was the person who had trained and prepared for the Pandora mission) had come to the planet, there would have been no twist. He would have done his job perfectly and blended easily into the premise and all would have been fine or something. But how will we be able to connect to it? We wouldn't have. Something would have seemed missing. 

The connection is key. If you watch soft romantic movies, you will notice that most of them are from the girl's point of view. Why is it so? Because women connect better with romantic films than men do. And men like to watch an Iron Man or Wolverine and imagine they're they. You know what I mean? (Okay, allow for exceptions and all that; this is just an example.)

The connection, I repeat.


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February 22, 2014

The Art of Querying

Dear M,

If querying were like mathematics, there would have been a formula which you could apply to the completed manuscript you have with you, and the equation would have yielded the perfect query letter.

However, writing queries is not mathematics, it is art. Which means that there is no rule, no law, no equation, no correct answer. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Some people like it, some don't. Some stand out from the crowd, some are trampled in the stampede.

As a person who has been writing query letters for a long time, I know what I am talking about. I don't even dare read the ones I had written a few years ago in my height of optimism and self confidence. Really, if there was a touch of arrogance in them, I would not be surprised.

Different agents and publishers look for different things in the query letter (though the essential items remain the same: author's bio, sample chapters, synopsis, etc.). It is important to understand what they need and how they need it before querying. They also could be bored individuals gazing at query after query, day after day after day.

Like every other art, writing query letters can be learned too, to some extent. The query letter is the first hurdle to cross on the road to publishing. It opens the door to the agent or the publisher just enough for you to put your foot in. The rest is up to the brilliance of the manuscript.

As in any other art form, the only answer is to keep trying and keep modifying and keep learning.


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February 21, 2014

Writing in the Mother tongue

Dear M,

Why is everyone reluctant to write in the mother tongue? Well - not everyone, many people do write spectacular pieces in their language. But there are some, torn between English and the mother tongue, (wasting time) wondering which one to choose. The regional language has a limited audience, I was told. Probably true to some extent. In this age of publicising books through the Internet, a global language might be a better choice.

But again, aren't we looking at the wrong thing here? I tell this person to stop thinking about the audience. What do you like to write in, which language are you confident in? Specifically, when you think about writing, or when you scribble unconsciously in your notebook, how do the words come out?

Because if you think in English and try to translate to the mother tongue, it could come out wrong. If you think in the mother tongue and try to translate to English, it could come out wrong. A lot of things depend on how it emerges at the first attempt - though we can edit and polish it, if the first output is robust enough, it is easier to work on, later.

Some people are proficient in both (or many) languages. They have the luxury of choosing the language they want to write in. All of us may not be manufactured so.

I don't know. For some, the best thoughts are presented well in the mother tongue, that's what I think. And I also don't agree with a person choosing English just for the audience, because if the writing isn't good, there will be no audience.


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February 20, 2014

Write for... whom?

Dear M,

Again, the same advice in another of those sites. They all say it so it must be true. (Probably explains the reason for my track record too.)

Write for the audience. Seriously? How can I write for the audience? I always write for myself. (Shut up.)

I don't agree, but that's what they all say. There must be something to it. See what the market wants, they say. Give it to them.

That's what some people do, and it works. Some people don't, and that works too. So what works? Wait a minute. There it is - right before me. Write what you think is best. If you believe in writing for others, that's what you do. If you want to write for yourself, that's what you do. Who knows, anyway?


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February 19, 2014

There are stories everywhere

Dear M,

I was reading about a doctor who was a writer and a poet, and about how he had to juggle his career and his passion. He was always a doctor whatever he was doing, wherever he was. And when he was not working, he was writing, obviously based on his experiences. (In other words, he never did have any time for his family. A doctor's life itself is tough in itself, imagine combining it with a writer's!)

Our professions offer us so many stories to write. We could pull out something relevant, that means something, that brings out the strength in people or a message or a philosophy that we believe in.

I know another person who comes across different types of people daily (as part of his job), from all walks of life. Every day he has an awe-inspiring story to tell. Every day he meets interesting, unbelievable characters. Every day he has spell-binding experiences to share. He loves to talk, so you can imagine how a meeting with him would turn out to be. A casual incident would bring something to his mind, and set him off. Imagine where he would be if he could write it all down. (I've suggested it so many times, he says he will, some day.)


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February 18, 2014

Perambulating and Ruminating and Perusing

Dear M,

One of the remarks that most Indian writers receive when they display their work to others (especially to readers better-versed with the language) is about our choice of vocabulary.

I have received that comment, and I have seen someone else being given similar feedback.

It has something to do with our learning of the foreign language, and our 'perusal' of it. Apparently we use elaborate words where simple, straightforward verbs would suffice; and we are too ordinary where flowery stuff could be afforded. It is not easy to cross that hurdle, without knowing exactly what they are talking about. For instance, I know writers who are fond of words like ruminating and flabbergasted.

Surely you have heard of this Dr Johnson statement: "While I was perambulating in the nocturnal hours of the previous day through the combined latitudes and longitudes, I spied a rustic, whom I interrogated and with the rotary motion of the cudgel in my hand, I made his perpendicularity into horizontality."

It is important to know when to make a statement like that, and when to say that in the simplest terms.


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February 17, 2014

Non-stop pelting

Dear M,

One of the scenes I like in the movie The Shawshank Redemption is the one in which Andy writes to the authorities every week, week after week, to start a library in the prison. Finally, years later, fed up of his persistence, they agree and send him some books for the library. And when that happens, Andy says, now I will write to them twice a week.

I remember it whenever I feel that I want to give up. There is no end to the number of times you can pelt the window until someone comes out to scream at you.

Because they eventually will. Or have to. But if we don't pelt, there is no question of anyone coming out to see you, normally. The abnormal stories of getting noticed by chance may happen to some, not all.

So, keep pelting, get screamed at.


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February 16, 2014

Happy are those Unhappy Beings

Dear M,

Happy are those artists who are unhappy in life, for they have something worth writing about.

Misery is the life-juice of writers. I don't think anything worth much would have been written on happy, carefree days. However on miserable, hopeless days what comes forth is genius.

So if you have unhappiness piled up all around you, rejoice; pick up your pen, and let it all out.


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February 14, 2014

Prioritise, prioritise

Dear M,

Once again I am faced with the problem of not knowing what project to focus on. I have written about this before, here.

One novel that needs to be polished is begging for attention; meanwhile this shortstory squeezed through to the forefront, and now I am spending my writing time blissfully gazing at both and not finishing the story nor the novel. And while I am gaping at them, my editor might get back with the finished novel she is looking at, which means I may have to work on that soon.

Why can't I just choose one and finish that?

It isn't that simple, really, is it? In theory, it is. In reality, it is so very human of me to not want to work - gazing at work and complaining is much easier.

I think I better finish that short story first. Those things tend to lose their energy faster than the novels. Besides, they are smaller. When they are done, they are done.


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February 13, 2014

Nothing Short of Perfect

Dear M,

Most of us dream of the day when we can stop working for others and be our own masters. For writers who take writing seriously enough, it more or less means becoming a full-time writer. Every time our boss seems disappointed with us, we wish we could put in our papers, wave farewell and sit at home, writing.

We dream of people asking us, What are you working on now?
Oh I am working on my dream project, something that has been on my mind for a very long time... I have been researching on this for one-hundred-and-twenty-seven years...

Then we write knowledgeable articles on how a writer can develop discipline: I think discipline is necessary for a writer. Take me, for instance. I get up at five and write for two hours, then I read the newspaper and attend to the house and my family, from nine I again write non-stop for four hours. In the afternoon I take a nap, I read for two and a half hours, and take an evening walk. The fresh air inspires me to write new twists in my story. Then I spend an hour attending to fan emails. After dinner I write again for one hour, watch TV with the family and go to bed...

That felt good, didn't it?

In the meantime, we are still pushing against the odds, looking up heavenward and seeing the dream amidst the clouds, mocking us...

Getting published is like having your appraisal (yeah, I might have said this before, I can't get that feeling out of my mind!). It is not enough that you perform well in the organization, it is also important that others don't perform as well as you - it is a silly, comparative grading system. It is not enough that you write great stuff, it is also important that none of the other new authors write anything significant, so that the publisher throws everything out and looks at your MS alone.

So our MS has to be nothing short of perfect. Our boss isn't going to think, oh s/he has put in so much effort into this, let me be kind. He is going to mercilessly sift through our work, find flaws and grade you against the better performers (and send you polite and apologetic rejection slips).


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February 11, 2014

Writer's Block is only an excuse not to write

Dear M,

Writer's Block is another way of saying it is not my priority. I know we get stuck at times, in the middle of our story, or we find that we have run out of ideas for a new story. It's only a temporary glitch. We just step over it and continue, and come back to it when the time is ripe.

But most often, most writers complain of writer's block when they want to do something other than sit and write. A writer is always writing - either on paper or in his mind. If he isn't, then he is not completely a writer. If he is not writing in his mind when he is doing something else, he will not have anything at his fingertips when he sits down and voilà! - writer's block.

We don't sit down and think about what we want to write. It doesn't work that way. The writing is always there, the thoughts and words are always ready and turning and churning in the mind. We have to sometimes grab any piece of paper that we can find to note it down, lest the beautiful thing be lost. Eventually, what we get down to paper is only a small part of what was boiling in the labyrinths of our mind. When we sit down, we are only opening the gates for the flood to gush out, frothing and screaming. That's how writers are made, and not by opening the gates and wonder if there is a flood rising somewhere nearby.

We are not writers because we sit down once in a while and think, Okay, what am I going to write today?
We are writers because we run to the chair and jot down what has been formed in our mind hours ago. We are writers because we constantly ask ourselves, I have this wonderful story I want to write, when in the world can I shove my a$$ into a chair?
And when we have that urge that kills us, we find ourselves a chair.


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February 10, 2014

Ambitions, Aspirations and Goals

Dear M,

We should have the right ambition, you know. One can aspire to be a writer even with the wrong set of ambitions. Whether one makes it - whatever "makes it" could mean - is a different question altogether.

Some dream of going to a certain university for higher studies. It's the dream that makes them lose sleep. It's not the dream that came up yesterday for no reason. Because if it is, when the importance they give to that reason dies out, the dream would fade too. The dream has been consuming them for a long time, possibly years. The dream had been born in their hearts without their even noticing it. And during conversation, it had just slipped out. When everyone carried on the conversation, they are still stuck there, listening to those words that had fallen out of their mouth.
What did I just say?
I'd been dreaming of it all my life, I had said.
Had I?

If, on the other hand, the words that fell out were, yesterday I decided I wanted to be a writer. So I started my novel. I am close to the end. I should get it published next week. then I am not quite sure how far you will go. I am not quite sure how far that dream's gonna go. It could be a rebound from something else.

(Yes, I do like writing 'gonna' once in a while. No fun being prim and proper at all times, you know.)


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February 9, 2014

What Writers could learn from Movies

Dear M,

Some writers believe that watching movies is a waste of time and does not contribute anything to them.

I disagree - probably because I like watching movies. Many of them are senseless and provide nothing more than an enjoyable passage of time, but some have something interesting that we can take back with us. It could be an interesting character that could lead us to improvements in our own characters. Or it could be a plot that inspires us. Most of all what interests me in a movie are two things: one is dialog. The crisp, well-scripted, concise dialogs. One line that says it all. We tend to write long long paragraphs of conversation; sometimes what is needed is a couple of lines.

The second most important thing about films is that they are time-boxed. Ignoring the practice these days of making two movies from a story, usually however huge the book is, the movie would be confined to two hours. Which means, many things would be snipped from the story and only the most essential scenes are taken. And when something is snipped off, any reference to it later will need to be rounded off too.

When we write, we bring in a lot of back story, fluff, side events, unnecessary complications, at the risk of boring the reader. Some of these could be removed. We are the writers, we would find it tough to cut off parts of our own story. But sometimes a merciless snipping is required. Think movies; think time-boxing. What parts of your story could go into a movie and what would be removed?


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February 8, 2014

Magical Writing

Dear M,

There are many different ways to write fantasy; but these are the few that I have made note of.

One is to write it like it is to us - difficult to believe. Example Harry Potter stories. Harry himself finds it difficult to believe at first that such a magical world exists. So do we. And we see how the world functions, through his eyes.

Another way is to present it as though it is quite commonplace. (They sometimes call it magical realism.) As you read it, you wonder, could this be true? could there be a place on earth where this happens? did the author just say something weird or did I imagine it?

And yet another is to claim that it is not fantasy, and that it is true (or it could be true) just like everything else. For example, they tell us there are galaxies and we believe them, they tell us crap about microscopic life and we believe them, so if I tell you about these, why can't you believe them?

Magical writing - when we can continue to read without thinking this is all bullshit.


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February 6, 2014

There is Only One Writing Advice

Dear M,

You may read books, articles and blogs on writing, and spend hours and years trying to fathom other authors' writing styles. Actually there is so much you can do to understand writing. You can get into discussions, listen, contribute, argue, debate, learn. There is no end to the homework you can do on writing. (As in everything else, of course.)

But it all boils down to one thing, really.
Don't stop writing, even for a day.

If you do, you stop being a writer. And if you are not a writer, then nothing else you learn makes sense.
Show, not tell.
Metaphor, simile, oxymoron,...
Hemingway, Proust, Kafka, Neruda...
Writers must read everything they can get their hands on.
Write about what you believe in; write about what you know; write about what interests you,...
Write like this, don't write like that...

If you aren't writing, what should any of this matter? And if you do not have experience of your own, you cannot even preach to others.
Write. All rules come afterwards.


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February 5, 2014

Because We Must

Dear M,

After one point, you stop caring about what anyone thinks, you know. The early days are dedicated to impressing everyone. You're eager to show your pieces of writing to all and sundry, and waiting for their praise. They indulge, too. 

After a while, they begin to expect more, and you begin to need less.
They begin to compare, you stop to care.

Yes, such a day does come. You are too engrossed in what you write, the tales you weave, the skill you polish, the art you perfect, that it does not matter any more what anyone thinks. You just want to jump ahead and get as much done as you can. You're in a hurry, you don't want to wait and see if anyone is dazzled by your creation. Let the dazzle happen at its own pace, you have better things to do.

You just have one aim - to complete all that you have set your heart on. I will, because I must.


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February 3, 2014

Writing Single-Line Emails

Dear M,

One of the most difficult things for a writer to do is to write a simple, single-line email, where the content is not even important.

For instance, a couple of days ago I received a mail from a colleague: PFA the xyz document. What was important was the document that was attached. The PFA line was intended only to alert me to it.

When it was time for me to send a file to someone, came bewilderment. I could never type "PFA". If I were sending a text message, I might resort to short forms like that. I type rather fast on the keyboard, and I don't think "Please Find Attached" should take more than a few seconds to the slowest typist.

Now coming to "Please Find Attached", what kind of language is that? Highly corporate? Technical? Insensitive? Trying-to-sound-important? Too-busy-to-type? I call myself a writer, for God's sake. How can I write like that? Besides, writers generally have an aversion to the Passive Voice.

So I would not type anything as unwriterly as Please Find Attached. So what else can I say? "Attaching the document" sounds kind of okay, though the -ing form is harrowing. More importantly, where has the "I" gone? No one writes "I" any more. Hope you're doing good. Have taken care of it. Will do. Want to see how it goes. Am fine. 

The writer is writhing in agony, seated before an email with an important attachment, trying to compose a single line that the recipient is not even going to read because his interest is (rightly) in the document.

I have attached the document with this email, I finally wrote, and hit send before I could think any further.

In comparison, a novel seems so less torturous.


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February 2, 2014

The fast-food of writing

Dear M,

I should confess that I am not a huge fan of short fiction. I read them whenever I come across them, and I do find some of them very well-written and thought-provoking and profound. But somehow I am not into it. They make me feel as though we are in a hurry to get somewhere and we're quickly getting it out of the way before we leave. (Though I know every word that is written must have taken the authors hours to perfect.)

Short fiction, in my eyes, is the fast-food of writing. Not a lot of time and effort go behind the making (comparatively) and it is consumed easily and quickly. Somehow the hurry I experience when I read it, the fact that it is over before it has begun etc. take the fun out of reading it.

And by short fiction, I do not mean very short stories. A short story has a more spacious feel to it (don't compare with novels!). There could be the semblance of a story in it. A little more something goes into it. And comes out of it. That is not necessarily the case in short fiction.

It would be unfair for me to criticize it too much - after all, my likes are only my likes. It is not the universal truth or such. Maybe some day I would be tempted to venture into it.


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February 1, 2014

The World is Our Boss

Dear M,

Anyone who has worked with a Boss (typically a person who has been an employer for a long time) knows that appreciation comes very few and far between, from (most of) these people. If your work is satisfactory, you don't hear anything. If there are flaws, either there are words of discontent or discussions on how to improve.

It is very difficult for us to let slip a few good words to any person. The quality and quantity of appreciation we offer depends not only on us, it also depends on the way we perceive the recipient. Complex? If the subordinate is a personal favourite, the appreciation pours out quickly, with a brightening of the eyes. If not, it comes out in a constipated way. If he is a person we hate, there could be no appreciation, no acknowledgement, nothing. Or there could be a show of approval which everyone knows is fake.

Imagine something similar, on our work. The whole world is our boss when we publish it. Each person has an opinion about the book. They can be kind, condescending, indifferent, ignorant, ruthless, insulting, anything. Well, why not - they had paid for it. They are entitled to their opinion. If we cannot handle it, why did we set out to publish our stories in the first place?

A good exercise in developing courage to face these would be to go to websites where people discuss books by known authors. Not all comments are favourable or nice. Some are downright abusive. I wonder how the author lived through those. But he/she should.

After all, if you aren't happy with the way the Boss treats you, you have the option to quit. If you want to stay, you have to learn to survive, to battle and face it in the best possible way.


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January 31, 2014

Hang Out With Writer Friends

Dear M,

One of the limitations I have faced in my writerly life is the lack of close writer friends. Think of your school friends with whom you discuss pretty much anything and still not feel bad about saying or listening to things - that's the level of friendship I am talking about. One cannot expect that kind of candour or understanding from "new" friends, all the time. And with something as sensitive as your own piece of writing, you need someone who can handle it carefully for you.

Not everyone can appreciate feedback the way it should be. Not everyone can deliver feedback the way it should be.

Even a negative point delivered kindly could be misconstrued. It's like a mother taking offence at someone pointing out her child's bad behaviour. And many of us writerly folks unfortunately cannot boast of a placid temperament - hence the term, "artistic temperament".

And it's not only about feedback; it is about healthy discussions that could bring out interesting points to think about. Talks about famous authors' styles, their strengths, their limitations, the depth or shallowness of their writing: there is so much to learn. And discussions are the best way to expand upon thoughts, explore writing, bounce ideas, meet other writers. You can never tell where all this could lead to.


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January 30, 2014

The Roles We Play...

Dear M,

Have you any idea how many books come out every year? Or films, perhaps?

Any idea how many books a person can write in a year? (Let's assume we are talking only about novels.) Or, how many films an actor can act in, in a year? There are so many "prolific" writers who churn out a few number of books a year - whereas we take three years to finish one!

No wonder then that others expect us to bring out books after books as though we are issuing newspapers. Oh, are you writing? So, have you published anything after that? 
And you go, Uh-Bah-Blah-Hmm-Err-
In literary circles they call it speechless or dumbfounded or something similar. As though your tongue has been plucked out. You suddenly stand there wondering where you must have misplaced your tongue.

We know that question's coming - we can hear and smell it from afar. We scurry to change the topic, introduce new topics of conversation, anything to veer it off the obvious and heart-breaking direction.

Talk about the roles each one of us has to play to get through in life!


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