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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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?

Love.

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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.)

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.


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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).

Love.

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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 voilĂ ! - 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.

Love.

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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.)

Love.

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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?

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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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.

Love.

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