#WritingOn9: Writing Tips by Aruna Nambiar

Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Write what you know. Use adjectives sparingly. … Writing tips? Dear God, where does one start? Here’s my stab at my top five:

Read: Avidly, Widely, Daily. I stopped studying literature in school, studied engineering and management, and worked as a banker. For long, much of the writing I did involved the use of phrases such as ‘aforementioned subject’ and ‘for your kind perusal’. If I’ve been able to make the transition to writing fiction for a living, I credit a lifelong reading habit. Reading has been my classroom – it has given me all the tools I need. Everything I’ve learned about plotting, character development, pacing, setting, grammar etc has been from the books I’ve read. I can’t recommend it enough – read what entertains you, moves you, makes you think. Don’t feel pressured to read only books that are considered intellectual enough to be worthy of writers, but do occasionally step out of your comfort zone and pick up something that you normally wouldn’t. Read good books, for they will inspire you to reach for greatness. Read badly written books for they will teach you what not to do – and give you the confidence that your infinitely better work is saleable too… what can I say, we writers are an insecure bunch.

Find your Voice: Admit it – haven’t you gone through a Wodehouse phase or a Bill Bryson phase or a (Insert Favourite Author Here) phase? And hasn’t the end product always left you feeling inadequate and derivative? It’s why new writers often choose not to read in their genre when they’re writing, so that they won’t be influenced by their idols.

Voice is perhaps the single factor that will differentiate you from every other writer in your genre. For there may be only a handful of original stories, but there are a million different permutations. And what makes your particular permutation unique is your voice – the way you see the world, the way you choose to express it, the turn of phrase you employ, the settings you choose. It is what differentiates Malgudi Days from Adrian Mole and One Day from Love Story.

It’s not the easiest thing to do, finding your voice, but it does get easier with experience and writing success, for it requires confidence in your own perspective and writing style.

Get into your Character’s Shoes… wriggle your toes, and walk for miles till they’re worn through. If you write slice-of-life stories such as I do, there is nothing more important than your characters – they drive the plot, they dictate the twists and turns, they command the dialogues. But even for genre fiction, a memorable character can lift a book from the realm of the ordinary. Bridget Jones. Perry Mason. Feluda. Enough said.

Know your characters as well as you do your childhood friend, so that if he makes an unlikely move or she speaks a stilted line, you spot it immediately – because if you don’t, your readers certainly will. Make out descriptions for all your main characters – include physical traits, foibles, aspirations, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, how the character changes during the course of your story – and refer to the descriptions often as you write.

Sweat the Small Stuff: The Devil is in the details – and God too, when you get them right. The best writers know how to paint a picture with words, by adding just the right amount of detail, at the right juncture. It’s what makes the reader feel the sun on his back, smell the salt from the ocean, hear the soft tread of the killer before the victim does, see a flicker of an emotion pass over a protagonist’s face. Add too much detail and you’re dragging the story down. Add too little and it’s too dry. So pay attention to the little things – so that your reader falls in love with your characters, steps into your setting, gets involved with your plot. Do your research too – if you’re setting your book in Eighties India, for example, do ensure that your character doesn’t own an ATM card or drive a Nano.

Forget the World: The World is inordinately interested in writers – it wants to know what you’re writing, how many words you’ve written, why you’re not done yet; it has an opinion about what you should write, what you shouldn’t write, what sells, what doesn’t, what would make a good story, what doesn’t. But know this: The World will desert you as soon as you’re in the front of a desk trying to bang out word after word, day after day, for months and years…only to reappear to ask you how much you got as an advance and how it compares to Amish’s or Chetan’s.

So forget about what you think The World wants to read, or what will sell, or what might win awards. Because great books were never conceived with one eye on The World – great books are born in the pit of your turning stomach, the depths of your racing heart and the far, far corners of your searching mind. So write about what you want to, to the best of your ability, and hone it and nurture it until you’re ready to send it out into The World. And no matter what The World thinks about it, whether it languishes on a slush pile or scrambles up a bestseller list, you would have experienced the only thing that makes a writer’s life worthwhile – the demands, the joys, the challenges and the deep, deep gratification of the writing journey.

Aruna Nambiar is a Bangalore-based writer and editor. Her debut novel, Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth, is a funny, poignant coming-of-age story set in small-town Kerala of the 1980s. You can reach her here on Twitter: @ArunaNambiar

You can follow her on Facebook here @arunanambiarauthor

 

#WritingOn8: Confronting our demons: A writer’s life by Kiran Manral for ShethePeople.tv

Continuing with the series on writing, today I take the liberty to post something I’d written a while ago for SheThePeople.TV. You can read the original here.

By Kiran Manral

Ever since I published my first book, one constant in my inbox has been the constant barrage of emails from young aspiring writers on how to be an author. My constant unchanging response to this is the polite, and the very honest, “I truly have no idea.”

Being an author is something that I am yet to wrap my head around.  I have, to my name, five books that show up under my name on e-commerce sites but I would rather call myself a writer than an author. That would be my primary job definition. The author bit of it is something that happened along the way of finding myself as a writer. I’m still on that journey, I have to still find myself.

 It is also, as T S Eliot said, about “And for a hundred visions and revisions.”  Or as Papa Hemingway put it less politely, the first draft of anything is shit. 

How does one become an author, they ask me. I have no honest formula that I can share. All I know and all I can say that it would begin by loving to write. And loving to read.

What is about being an author? Is it the glamorous, lit-festing, posing for the cameras, waving to the admiring throngs image most people think an author’s life comprises? Far from it.  Of course, some authors with devoted fan followings might have this as part of their life, but for the most part, authors lead singularly anonymous lives, except from when they are extracted periodically from the formaldehyde of routine and put on parade for the lit fest jamboree.

In fact, I think I would go back as far as to state unequivocally that I am a reader who also writes. Because there has been years, nay, decades of unstinting, reading before the first book escaped from my desktop into the permanency of print and paper.

authors lead singularly anonymous lives, except from when they are extracted periodically from the formaldehyde of routine and put on parade for the lit fest jamboree

But then I would rather be a writer. And here’s what being a writer entails. And it isn’t always pretty.

To begin with, it requires unflinching courage. When you write you need to dig deep down into yourself, mine yourself for your truest emotions and transpose them to your characters in order to make them real and believable. This requires a fair amount of not just confronting your own demons, but also dancing with them. This can be a scary process, also demons when unleashed are rather reluctant to go back into the box.

There’s a quote from Gustave Flaubert that perhaps exemplifies this the best. “Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”  For a writer, this is the bare boned truth. The truth about the writing life is that it is primarily about discipline, immense amounts of self discipline in order to sit oneself down, day after day, digging time out from the work that needs to be done in order for bread and butter to be earned, to write what one must. And those are again, operative words. “To write what one must.” Because there is no gun to one’s head to get writing, except the one we keep resting on the writing desks ourselves, with the safety catch off, because we must write. The only compulsion to write is in our heads. Why else would we put ourselves out there, open to scathing criticism unless we had to.

a silent communion with the screen

A writer’s life is about solitary work—about a silent communion with the screen in front of one for hours because one is so absorbed in the life being created and lived out in a parallel universe one has created that living out one’s reality is always a bit of a downer.

A writer’s life is also about routine.  I know that every single day come rain or shine, unless I am trussed up in an emergency ward with a saline drip stuck into my arm, I will be at my desk. And writing. The body knows the routine, and so does the mind. And that is what it is, unforgiving, exacting routine.

It is also, as T S Eliot said, about “And for a hundred visions and revisions.”  Or as Papa Hemingway put it less politely, the first draft of anything is shit. It is the going back, tinkering with the manuscript one thousand times and then wondering whether you should have done a thousand and one-th relook at it, before sending it off. It is reading voraciously, a million times more than you could ever write because everything you read will distil itself into some essence that with infuse your writing with that something indescribable that elevates it beyond mere storytelling.  And it is this elevation into something magical that will create that communion between reader and writer, which will make your characters three dimensional, whole living breathing creatures who jump off the page, living a life of their own that cannot be contained in a mere book.

Kiran Manral on SheThePeople

A writer’s life is also, paradoxically, a chiaroscuro of shutting oneself in and opening oneself out. Going out and experiencing all that life has to offer, the good, bad and the ugly, will only enrich your work and then shutting yourself in for months to create your work will give you the isolation and the void you need that is essential for the process of creation.

A writer’s life is about hours upon hours of sitting at a desk, and a conscious effort invested in keeping one’s body fit, because writing takes up more energy than one could imagine. And to be able to sit for hours on end to keep typing on without being impinged by aches and pains, especially of the back, and not to mention the curse of sedentary lifestyle induced ailments, one needs to invest in ensuring one is reasonably fit in order to write.

And finally, a writer’s life is its own reward. In which other profession could you create a character based on someone who has been terrible to you in real life and have them done in the most gruesome manner and yet stay on the safe side of the law?

Kiran’s books on Amazon

#WritingOn7: Jane Gill’s Top Ten Book Writing Tips

By Jane Gill
Assuming you already have a great idea/plot for a book:
1. You always need an antagonist and protagonist (to create tension; they don’t have to be people, they could be war, weather etc) without this you have no story. You then need to decide on the POV (point of view). it is said that 3rd person is the simplest.
2. Narrative style. It could be a straightforward linea story or perhaps a more complex split narrative. Your story idea might dictate this to you!
3. I always plot my story on a large piece of paper; to make sure I have a beginning (build up) middle (climax) and end (fallout and conclusion).
4. Research, research, research. The more authentic the better.
5. Write character sheets for everyone that appears in your book, even if you don’t write about it, you need to know it.
6. Because my novels are based in the past, and my family history, I do timelines for each year I’m writing about. I section these into months and plot my family’s whereabouts and the things of importance i.e.: political information.
7. I try and get into a writing routine. I’m most productive in the morning so: 1 hour of yoga, 4 hours of writing, lunch.
8. I have colour coded index cards for each chapter, my colours relate to locations as I have a split narrative: one based in Karachi the other in Bombay but they could just as easily be split into characters.
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Index cards
9. Snippets: this is how I tackle information overload. Once I’ve written notes from lots off research that I wish to include in my book, I chop the paragraphs up and stick them on my writing room wall. Once used they get binned.
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10. Venue change. Try writing in different places. I bought a cheap reconditioned MacBook…it’s fantastic not to be chained to my desk!

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Garden writing room
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Writing on holiday.
Jane’s book: Dance with Fireflies by Jane Gill

#Writingon6: Amar Vyas on Getting Back to Writing

How To Get Back To Writing When You Are Running Out Of Creative Juice

by Amar Vyas

Summary: In this post, I will describe how I got back into the writing mode after nearly a two year break. Today, I write nearly 4,000 words per day in the form of blog posts, and work towards completing my next novel.

Introduction

A little over two years ago, I published my debut novel NRI: Now, Returned to India. I had planned out a four part series around the adventures of Amol Dixit, and things looked great. Then, this thing called LIFE happened. I took up a career opportunity with amazon, we moved to Bengaluru, and the disruptions to my writing began. My new job involved almost constant traveling. In fact, for the first nine months of 2015, I was in the office for a total of 12 days! Thats when I fell into the trap of not writing regularly, and began to use every possible excuse as my lifeline. The list of excuses included early morning travel, spending the whole day at construction sites, returning to the hotel room late at night. We’ve all used these excuses in some form or the other. And then there was social media. Every spare moment was spent on the likes of Facebook.

Welcome, Creativity

I left my job in December 2015 to start Kamakshi Media, my startup in the podcasting space. The first show we launched was MyKitaab, a podcast on Book Publishing in India**.  As I began to speak to authors, publishers and entrepreneurs, the urge to start writing arose. Listening to some of the guests, about how they continue writing while managing a corporate career was inspiring. One guest, Chris Kennedy, for example, used the following logic:

“Write 500 words a day, which makes it over 1,80,000 words per year. That is nearly three novels worth of writing.”

I was sold. To ramp up my creativity, I used the following tools to get back into the writing groove.
**Kiran has been a past guest on the show, you can listen to her fascinating interview here.

  1. Daily Writing Prompts

There are several sites that post a daily writing prompt. The Daily Post has a compilation of prompts that can keep you going for the entire year. I used it for nearly three months, and found it quite useful. A simple google search reveals many such sites, you can check out a few and see which suits to your tastes. Pinterest also has a board on daily journal prompts.

Tip: Schedule the writing posts in Google Calendar or any other calendar so that you get the prompt delivered to you, without you having to search for the prompt of the day.

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  1. i_Author

This site has a Twitter account which posts daily writing prompts. I like this site for two reasons: First of all, they use images and ask you to write the opening lines of a story based on the image. I am a visual person, and I can write something up within minutes of seeing that picture. Secondly, the iAuthor folks are responsive. If they like your opening line, they will retweet it, which is a small ego boost.

Tip: Tablo also has a similar feature, you can choose and pick as per your tastes. This is a great way to create some followings and increase engagement on Twitter, which is becoming increasingly difficult of late.

 

Authors Publish:

Many authors call Facebook as a Time Suck, if not used effectively. I recently discovered how to use Facebook for creative purposes, courtesy Authors Publish. They publish an image everyday as well, but they want you to narrate a story in six words. That’s it. Great way to summarize your thoughts.

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Tip:Read what others have posted or commented. That gives you a lot of food for thought.

  1. Blogging Challenges

Last month, I participated in the Problogger BloggingGroove Challenge. For seven days in a row, we had to write one blog post on a different theme. The themes ranged from writing a How To Guide, a review, a FAQ among other things. I had a blast participating in this challenge. You can read “What I learnt from the 7 Day Problogger Blogging Challenge.”

Tip: I used Microsoft Sway to prepare this post, and it was a lot of fun!

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Reading (surprise!)

For peak performance, you need to be in top shape. Cricketers do net practice. They say, tennis player Steffi Graf used to practice for four hours every day. But the sports persons also spend a lot of time observing other players, particularly their competition. Authors should do the same, except that other authors are not your competition. Writers who want to develop a consistent writing habit should read, a lot. Particularly on the craft of writing, and also books that are in the same genre that they write. And these days, they must read about book marketing. I have a list of over 30 books that I plan to read before December 2017. That translates to one book every fortnight.

Tip:Author Joanna Penn reads 3 to 4 books every week! You can listen to her interview on MyKitaab Podcast about her reading and writing habits.

  1. Amitabh Bachchan

The man has been blogging everyday for the past 3071 days. That’s over 8 years and counting. If he can do it inspite of his busy schedule, so can you. There have been many days when I did not feel like writing. I simply went to his blog on Tumblr, read a couple of recent posts, and got back to writing.

Tip: Read only one or two posts, the blog posts are addicting, you might end up spending a lot of time reading them!

Translating it all into action:

I set aside an hour every morning for my writing, and another hour in the afternoon. During the rest of the day, I typically have a target of writing one or two blog posts, which I post on Medium or LinkedIn. I also meditate for about fifteen minutes every morning or afternoon, in order to recharge my brain cells (so to speak). It has helped me tremendously.

In case you are wondering what has not worked for me, the list is quite long, and I will mention only the top three here: Nanowrimo, Camp Nanowrimo, Writing Prompt Contests on FaceBook. Maybe that’s just me.

What’s next:

Since I botched my participation in Nanowrimo consistently, I plan to write a 60,000 word novel in November 2016. I am preparing for it mentally and physically. The meditation is super helpful, for mental makeup. But in case you are wondering where the physical part comes into picture, I use a standing desk. And standing for hours while typing away requires practice, which also includes reducing the weight that your knees have to support. That’s a conversation for a different day.

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About Amar Vyas:

Amar is the Co-Founder of Kamakshi Media LLP. He describes himself as a husband, an author, a podcaster, and a dog lover. He is the host of Mykitaab, a Podcast on book publishing in India, and the creator of Baalgatha, a podcast of Children’s bedtime stories. He is the author of the Amol Dixit Series and nonfiction books including the soon to be published Social Media Alphabet for Authors. Amar is an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He has spent over 13 years in Corporate roles in the United States and India and was associated with companies like Amazon and Schneider Electric.

Feminist Moms raising sons: A discussion for Feminist Rani organised by SheThePeople.tv

I was part of a lovely, incisive discussion last evening with fellow authors Lalita Iyer and Meghna Pant on raising sons as feminist moms. Here’s a report on shethepeople.tv written by Meghna Pant about the evening.

Are Modern Women Raising Their Sons To Be Feminists?

By, Meghna Pant

In this month’s edition of Feminist Rani we discussed whether modern women are raising their sons to be feminists. We spoke about how early in life boys are taught what it means to be men and how their attitude towards women are shaped primarily by their caregivers. In short, are mothers today paying careful attention to defining gender roles or not?

We were joined by blogger and author Kiran Manral, who is the author of ‘Karmic Kids: The Story of Parenting Nobody Told You’ and journalist Lalita Iyer, who is also the author of ‘I’m Pregnant, Not Terminally Ill, You Idiot’.

I asked Lalita what her son is learning from her as a single mother, “I don’t want to introduce my son to gender boxes,” she replied. “Children may not listen to you, but they watch what you do.”

She also added that she was raised “to be gender neutral. Never once was I treated differently for being a girl.”

Kiran is the mother of a son who has been made famous by her very popular blog. I asked her what lessons – both purposefully and subconsciously –– she taught her son? “I’m trying to make my son aware of the difference between media messages and reality with regards to gender,” said Kiran.

Boys are never encouraged to imagine what it is like to be female. Are these feminist moms guilty of the same? “We raise our daughters to be sons. But we don’t have the courage to raise our sons like our daughters,” said Kiran.

Lalita said that her son buys doll and is comfortable wearing pink. “I will not unpink him,” the proud mom asserted. “If he wants to become a dancer when he grows up or gay, I will be okay with his choices.”

On the playground and in the classroom what are boys being taught? What is their notion of what being a man involves? Kiran made a noteworthy observation when she said, “We’re teaching girls to stand up for themselves, but we’re not teaching boys to reject aggressive macho behaviour.”

It’s true. I mentioned that boys are being told what it ‘means to be a man’ in very narrow, restrictive definitions.

Speaking about the grid of societal structures, Lalita said, “Supportive and helpful is how a husband should be. People need to stop saying ‘oh you’re so lucky’ when a man does something as simple as cook in the kitchen. Father’s get adulation for doing little.”

But she also pointed out that, “The world is also unfair to stay-at-home dad’s.”

After motherhood, most women become stay-at-home moms or return to a less than appealing professional situation, which is less fulfilling or engaging. This needs to stop. As Gloria Steinem said, “It’s not about biology but consciousness.’ First with the labeling. Instead of ‘working mom’ we should call it ‘career-loving parent’

Kiran said that in this context the “school moms judge the most, especially when I have to travel for book tours.”

We can do a great disservice to boys if we don’t raise them correctly. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage. We teach them that ‘boys will be boys’ granting them impunity, ego that they have to battle all their life.

In a truly egalitarian world we would welcome declarations of male and female empowerment with parity. The world would be a happier, freer place if girls and boys didn’t face the pressure of gender expectations.

Do join us for the next edition.

 

 

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#WritingOn5 “Writing isn’t easy” by Kanchana Banerjee

By Kanchana Banerjee

Today everyone wants to write and everyone has a story in their head. If I got a buck for every person who says, “Oh! I want to write but just don’t know how to begin..” well, I would be a very rich woman. That said, for those of who have been journalists, freelance writers, copy editors; it’s not difficult to start writing a novel. We have been churning out copies for clients, publications for years. It’s easy to write when you’ve been writing for decades. So here are few tips which can help those who aspire to pen a novel.

STOP TALKING ABOUT IT

If talking about writing could get the job done then there would be no problem. So if you’re serious about writing, stop talking and start doing. It’s time to walk the talk. Some know what they want to write but lack the discipline and courage to take the plunge. For you, help’s coming few paras down. Those of you who have a vague idea, a ghost of a story that lingers in the far recesses of your mind, I’m sorry to say but you have a bigger battle to wage. So list down ideas or themes as they come to you. Read books in that genre. This could trigger a well formed plot. You need to and have to spend time thinking long and hard about this. Set aside a time every day, when you can be undisturbed. Lock yourself in the room and scribble or type in random thoughts. Think hard what you want to do with the themes. Believe me, inspiration strikes in a flash but you have to prepare the ground for it.

STOP DOING FEW THINGS

You have to make a few, actually a lot of changes to be a writer. You have to forgo social gatherings, fun lunches, impromptu shopping jaunts and etc. Don’t get me wrong I’m not asking you to live the life of a hermit or a social recluse. But if you don’t put aside time every day for this, you’ll never get started. Writing like any other craft needs devotion and time. As Ann Patchett writes in her marvelous book This is the story of a happy marriage says; “Show up, show up, show up. The muse will too”. What does this mean? You need to sit with your writing pad or laptop whatever is your chosen writing mode. You need to do this every day. The Muse will come to you. The Muse isn’t your wife or mother who will cater to your whims and fancies. She is your lover and you have to woo her, court her, pamper her. She is temperamental. So show up for her. Every day. And she will come to you. She always does.

SET A ROUTINE

Many may disagree with me but it helps to set a routine, at least in the beginning. I find it best to write early in the morning, before the crack of dawn, before my family of husband, son and two dogs wake up. So pick your time of day when you think you can get an hour to begin with, undisturbed. Sit down with your thoughts and writing pad every day at that time. Our mind and body follows a routine. Compel your mind to think and write at a particular time to start with. Once you are in the rhythm you will need to increase the time. This will be a struggle to begin with but if you do so for a few weeks, it will get easier.

USE WRITING PROMPTS

If you’re having trouble starting and don’t know what to write but desperately want to; then start with writing prompts. There are websites galore that offer these prompts. If you sign up with them, a new one will be delivered to your inbox every day to flex your writing muscles.

If embarking on this solo journey is daunting, you can get yourself a writing mentor. While this may not yet be prevalent in India yet but there are few established authors who are willing to help aspiring writers. They coach you, hand-hold you through the stumbling blocks and most importantly keep tabs on your writing progress.

EXERCISE

Yes, you read that right. Exercise. Engage in some form of physical exercise that makes you sweat. Sweating not only cleans your pores, it also helps clearing the blocks in your mind. You may not realise this initially but if you do this regularly, you’ll thank me. When you sit with the story every day, think about it all the time, allowing it to churn in your mind…when you exercise, you get clarity. It will help you tide over the blocks. So don’t forget to exercise.

Writing isn’t easy

The rate at which books get published, it would be easy to believe that writing is easy. It’s not. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the story will just gush out of your head. You’ll have to work very hard. The story will sometimes gush, sometimes trickle and then there will be days when not a word will come out. I told ya, the Muse is temperamental. And it’s very easy to give up when the going gets tough. When the words refuse to flow. When you feel flummoxed where the story is going. It’s not an easy phase to be in. It’s frustrating, emotionally crushing and you’ll ask yourself: do I have it in me? It’s natural to self-doubt. But don’t give up. When you get stuck, remember it’s the Muse testing your commitment. She is watching if you’ll give up or stick to course. This is also a time when your exercise regime will help.

JOIN A WRITERS’ GROUP

Writing is a solitary act, done in solitude but never in isolation. You write alone but being part of a group will give you company, solace and help when you need it. And believe me, you’ll need help. Lots of it. You can exchange ideas, reach out for help, critique each other’s work.  Sometimes it will help just to share your frustration and rant. It helps to know that you aren’t alone. Others face similar problems. For new writers who are just starting the journey, this is a good thing to be part of. It will motivate you to keep writing.

DON’T HURRY

Writing isn’t a sprint run. It’s a marathon. So take it slow and steady. You don’t have to finish the manuscript in a month or two. No harm if you do but don’t rush it. Spend time with the story. It will evolve and  grow beautifully. Stephen King says, “You should have the first draft done in 3 months.” While King is God, I don’t agree on this one. I took 7 months to do the first draft. Take your time but set a deadline and stick to it.

From a person who has written all her life and is now publishing her debut book, I can tell you, this is the most amazing journey you’ll ever take. You’ll rise and fall. You’ll stumble, rave and rant. You’ll want to give up. But then when you finish it…the feeling is something else. The sense of achievement in knowing that you didn’t give in. You didn’t stop. That you did it!! It will change you in ways you can’t even imagine.

So, write-away and write-on!!

(Kanchana Banerjee just released her debut novel A Forgotten Affair this month.)

#OnWriting4: Writing 101! by Varsha Dixit

By Varsha Dixit

Writing is easy, but writing well enough to have someone publish your work, is painfully hard. And if it was easy, where’s the fun in that?  Till you don’t go through the grind of writing innumerable shitty drafts, misery ridden days of feeling your writing isn’t good enough even for pre-schoolers, profuse meltdowns cursing the minute the story idea took shape in your head , you can never fully enjoy being a published writer.

Now that my debut book, ‘Right Fit Wrong Shoe’, has sold nearly 10,000 copies, and gone into third print run in its second month (two earlier ones sold out), I can look back at my journey, which officially began in October 2006, as a writer, objectively. Upon receiving so many queries from aspiring & wannabe writers, I decided to pen a few tips that were and still are, key to my own writing process – a journey that is ongoing and forever learning. Having no one, truly, to guide me, I figured these on my own. However, if I can help anyone to hone their writing skills, I shall rest in peace – at least for tonight. With Christmas being round the corner, I’m, also, trying to earn a few extra brownie points with the man in the red suit.

So here they are:- Research – Detailed research is an integral part of any form of writing. And thanks to the internet, local library and bookstores, it is so damn easy nowadays. Few things to research and read up on – Similar Genres (don’t worry about anxiety of influence); Fiction or nonfiction style of writing; book markets; agents; publishers; factual events, if any, mentioned in your manuscript. Every form of writing requires research. DO NOT shy from this one. The more you read, the more you learn. The more you know, the more convincing your writing comes across. Even Fiction needs to seem real for the readers to believe or identify with. For e.g. How did Robert Ludlum get us gorging on his stories of retrograde amnesiac, Jason Bourne? How did Tom Clancy make Jack Ryan so heroic, so credible? One can feel a similar connection with Harry Potter or Edward Cullen who though clearly abnormal, are still so authentic because of the real factor in the author’s writing. Research is cardinal, in making your writing and characters credible to the readers.

Edit, edit and re-edit – I cannot emphasize on the importance of numerous edits. Remember edits not only make the manuscript tighter, reveal some minute or major structural flaws, trim extra verbiage, but also make the finished work more appealing when submitted. Editors love scripts that require no extra work. Look at it this way; you are hastening the journey of your manuscript from the editor’s desk to the printing press. However, a break of one or two weeks, or a month, in between edits is recommended.

Feedback – Here, I recommend two kinds:     A feedback from friends who like to read the genre you are writing in. Please do not give your cherished fiction work to someone who swears by non-fiction. They just might break into hives and force you to shred your labour of love.     Then there is the professional critique, which should come when you feel your manuscript is ready to be sent out to an agent or a publisher. Get this feedback from someone published, someone professional; someone who will rip open the flaws, without slightest consideration for the thickness of your epidermis layer. You might have to pay for such kind of critiquing. Basically, you pay a literary hit man to bust your chops. J     However, an important tip -Do not follow any opinion blindly and learn to discard, judiciously. You know your story best.

This was originally published here and has been reproduced with permission.

(Varsha Dixit is the author of the bestselling novels, Right Fit Wrong Shoe (2009), Xcess Baggage (2010), Wrong Means Right End (2012), and Only Wheat Not White (2014). She worked in the Indian television industry before moving to the US with her family. Her recent novel Rightfully Wrong, Wrongfully Right is available here.)

#OnWriting3: A ten part series by bestselling author Jaishree Misra

This is a longread. Grab your chai, your notebook and settle down for this lovely detailed piece on the  process of writing and getting published.

Series on creative writing for the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS & SUNDAY STANDARD (2011)

ON WRITING 1

 

DO YOU HAVE IT IN YOU?

 

How I’ve wanted this column: a fortnightly capsule of information that de-mystifies the business of writing and describes the journey while also offering advice.
It’s mostly self-preservation as I’m constantly besieged by aspiring authors whom I neither want to dismiss outright (who knows, they may well be the next J M Coetzee) nor mislead into believing that the path they’re considering so earnestly is going to be scattered with rose-petals rather than disappointments.
Every writer develops an instinct for spotting the serious aspirant, even during a casual chat. It’s certainly not the person who greets you with, ‘You’re a novelist? You know, it’s something I’ll do someday.’ Nor is it the excitable young reader who rushes up after a reading to (a) ask for an autograph and (b) say how they dream of reading their work on stage. Nor even is it the journalist who ends an interview with the assurance that they too will write the book that’s in them but post-retirement, when they’re on some quiet hillside, free of work commitments.

At a creative writing lecture in Delhi University, I was asked by one anxious lad, ‘But ma’am, how do I know that I have what it takes?’ I told him about my own first stirrings of recognition. As a Malayali growing up in Delhi, the summer holidays usually involved being dragged to Kerala to spend time with my grandparents who lived in a house so remote you could only get to it by boat. While my brother prepared for our enforced isolation by packing his suitcase full of books, I took pen, paper and a stack of envelopes and aerogrammes, those relics of our pre-internet past.

Sitting on the steps of the kolam, I would proceed to write letter after letter to my friends back in Delhi, fat missives that would take all of two weeks to reach and probably never be replied to. But that didn’t matter. It was not in anticipation of replies that I wrote those letters, it wasn’t even because I thought my very city-fied friends would be impressed by overblown descriptions of dragon flies hovering over the waters of a kolam. I was writing simply because I wanted to write. That was the joy.

I’m afraid this is the kind of madness required to be an author – it’s both an overwhelming urge to write, despite there seeming to be no particular reward, monetary or otherwise, and an ability to write, despite all kinds of odds conspiring to keep you away from it.

An illustration of the latter came in when I was living and working in London, with no domestic or baby-sitting help. I’d somehow lurched through three hundred pages of a manuscript and had only a small section left. Which was when the Christmas holidays rolled around. This was generally a time of both stress and jollity due to the rambunctious full-time presence of my daughter (a child with special needs and an extremely short fuse) and my husband (a fan of very loud rock music). But, while pandemonium raged around me, I wrote. Through the cacophony of the Foo Fighters and incessant demands for cake/coke/crisps/toilet/playground, I wrote. When maternal and spousal duties intervened, I did everything that needed to be done with one eye on the clock, waiting for the world around me to finally, please, go to sleep.

And it was on one such magical night, with London’s stars shining into my window, that I raced through the final few pages of what was to become my debut novel, fingers flying over the keyboard, heart thumping as though in love.

ON WRITING 2

CAN CREATIVE WRITING BE TAUGHT?

So here’s my second column to debunk the myths that surround getting published. The last dealt with recognizing that writerly bug, if indeed it lurks within you, but this time I’ll address a more basic question. One I’m asked every time I deliver a lecture on creative writing. Is this an art that can be taught at all? Or is writing – like musical ability, say, or an aptitude for mathematics – a talent that one is born with?

I recall Khushwant Singh, a cherished long-time supporter of my own writing, telling me once to never forget to be grateful for this gift. ‘It’s an ability one is born with,’ he said, ‘and I am reminded of this every time I read a bad manuscript. It is either something one can do or something one should never, ever foist on other people.’ I laughed – one laughs a lot in Khushwant’s living room, so effortless is his own gift for telling stories. Only later, though, did I reflect on what Khushwant had said, finding myself in partial agreement.

I wouldn’t presume to have a definitive view but my suspicion is that, while writing ability is indeed a gift, it is one that cannot help but benefit from some tutoring. Therefore, seeking guidance would be wise, but only if you have what it takes to be a writer in the first place. Kate Pullinger, the award-winning Canadian novelist who also teaches and mentors aspiring authors, says: ‘Writing is not a state of being but an art, a craft, a set of technical skills’. Note her use of the words ‘art’ and ‘craft’ in the same sentence.

Where these technical skills are most crucial is in the tricky business of editing. Producing what I call ‘wordage’ is the easy bit to most writers (and, yes, the resemblance to ‘garbage’ is deliberate for, sad to say, much of a first draft does often get consigned to a bin). It’s crafting that wordage into a cohesive and well-structured form that will make for a good book. Think of it like a potter and his lump of clay.

During one of our many head-locking sessions, my editor in the UK – while acknowledging that she herself could never write a book – once declared that there was not a single manuscript that had not been vastly improved by editing. A few rare (and usually experienced) authors get adept at doing this themselves but most rely on their editors to take that long view which Salman Rushdie referred to as ‘stepping out of the frame in order to see the picture better’.

Invariably, I finish the first draft of a manuscript convinced that it is perfect and ready to go to press straightaway. Then I show it to my agent, or one of my ‘honest readers’ (more on that special breed of collaborator in a future column), and find myself reeling from their feedback, however constructive the criticism. It’s always upsetting to have one’s precious baby scoffed at, especially on its first outing into the world.

But the role played by these early readers is crucial because it is their feedback that begins the mental process of editing. Of course, one may be forgiven for muttering, ‘Well, how come they’ve never written a book then.’ But, once I can bear to look at the manuscript again, this time seeing it through the lens of someone less involved with it, the imperfections inevitably become apparent.

Thus begins the careful polishing that will allow the gems to shine through.

ON WRITING 3

PREPARING TO WRITE

Of all the tips I offer people who dream of becoming an author, this one’s undoubtedly the nicest. If your dream is to get published, what’s the most important preparation you can give yourself?

To read, of course.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? And much of it is: not just easy but about the best job a book-lover can be tasked with. However, this is when my tone starts getting hectoring in those creative writing lectures I sometimes give young aspiring writers in colleges and bookshops. ‘Don’t read lazily,’ I command, sounding every bit the spoilsport I used to think my father was. ‘But think when you read. Observe what the author is doing by using a certain turn of phrase. Or how (s)he may be manipulating your responses. Has the novelist deliberately given you a certain bit of information? If so, how does that decision help pack a stronger emotional punch fifty pages later?’

Even if you have not enjoyed a book, it’s worth questioning why that was the case. For it is in this process of deliberation and analysis that you will begin to form your own future authorly decisions: the genre to pick, the style to employ, the language and voice to use.

When I say this, I hopefully do not need to stress the dangers of plagiarism. This is not about copying ideas but about using other people’s ideas to develop one that is carefully considered, studied and eventually transformed into something unique and entirely your own.

If you’re a fiction writer, examine other forms of story-telling too. Movies and plays and even television. Established authors do this too, often with relief and pleasure, when they sense that their literary well-spring needs replenishing. An anthology called ‘Popcorn Essayists’, to which I recently contributed, has a brilliant essay comparing the languages of film and prose by fellow novelist Kamila Shamsie in which she talks of a fallow period in her writing life when she turned to films. In her own words: ‘So many years of placing the novel at the centre of my life meant I was unable to see its outline. I needed to look at the contrast before I could see the thing itself.’

Incredibly, films and books aside, there’s even more fun to be had during this preparation period because, among other blissful non-activities that fall under Totally Legitimate Authorly Behaviour, are dreaming and thinking. Or what Stephen King in his book on writing describes as his ‘boys in the basement’; that steady hum of mental activity whereby you observe and reflect and store away all sorts of material that will go into your book.

Now, which other profession in the world can claim to have such a pleasurable training period, I ask you? Watch out, however, for having so much fun that you end up staying a trainee all your life because all of the above can be carried out alongside the process of writing too. There’s really no point waiting once an idea starts thrusting away inside you.

I try not to feel impatient with people who say they will start writing once they get that new laptop or desk or similar sundry possession generally perceived as an important writerly accoutrement. If there’s a good story waiting to be told, for heaven’s sake, get on with telling it. Waste no time as there really is only a very limited fund of stories available (seven, precisely, as my agent mournfully pronounced once) and all those have already either been told or are being furiously scrawled in some distant basement even while you’re still gazing dreamily at those irresistible gizmos in the shops.
ON WRITING 4

FINDING STORIES

As a seven-book veteran, I get asked this question a lot. ‘Where on earth does one find material to fill a whole book?’ In my last column, I mentioned my agent’s comment about there being only seven stories in the world. ‘They’ve all been told before,’ she said in a particularly down-beat conversation, ‘and all you writers are doing is hashing and re-hashing the whole time.’ Then she brightened up. ‘The thing to do then is re-hash as bloody well as you can.’

I think I had already developed a sense of this when I studied Greek mythology in college. Every single big human experience had already been not just written about but done to death: love, loss, grief, jealousy, incest, adultery, you name it and there’s already a gripping yarn on the theme written by someone called either Homer or Vyasa.

Yet, far be it for me to suggest that originality is dead. All it takes is to pick up a book like ‘Atonement’ or ‘Disgrace’ to know that the breed of great story-tellers did not, thank goodness, die out in the classical age. More excitingly, surely future writers are being gestated in precious little book-lined chrysalises around the world at this very moment.

So it is to them – young aspiring writers who will hopefully entertain me in my dotage – that I say: live life and embrace all your experiences. For that is where your best stories will come from.

I did not always know this. There was a time when my resume used to embarrass me terribly. Whenever I applied for a job, I worried that potential employees would eye askance the list of scattered and disparate things I’d done in my rather turbulent life. It was only much later, once I’d started to write, that I began to feel more grateful for what I now refer to my ‘Writer’s CV’. I had no idea then but, by the sheer act of stumbling through life’s ups and downs, I was inadvertently gathering together a reservoir of experiences that were to become a useful fund of stories. I wish no misfortune on anyone but it is only as you weep or ache or fill up with joy that you begin to understand the emotions needed to bring your book to life.

Not that every story needs to be autobiographical necessarily. Nor does every book have to be based on a real experience. But, as writer Julia Bell who teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia, says: ‘Good writers are magpies and they steal huge amounts of general knowledge in order to feather the nests of their writing’.

People imagine wrongly that a writer needs to closet herself away, or be banished to a lonely hill-side, in order to write. Of course, isolation can assist the discipline of writing once the manuscript starts to grow. But, till then, you cannot shut yourself away from life’s rich offerings if you want to be able to write about them.

Instead, observe people all the time, listen to their conversations, eavesdrop shamelessly and store up interesting anecdotes and dialogues. This will put the meat on the bones of your future characters, bringing them to life and making them genuinely memorable. Then allow them to tell their own stories.

 

ON WRITING 5

CHOOSING A GENRE

By and large, it would seem to make sense to write the kind of book that you have yourself enjoyed as a reader. Not the same book, mind (a previous column has already traversed the tricky matter of plagiarism), but something borne of it for not only would you, as a reader, have understood and researched the genre by default, you’re far more likely to do a better job of ‘relaxing’ into the kind of writing required by your chosen genre if you’re a natural fan of it.

Of course, there are thankfully no straitjackets in this world and many writers have slipped from one sort of genre into another, although some use the safety of pseudonyms to do so. The examples of Lewis Carroll and George Orwell are well known, less so Joanna Trollope who, though best known for her popular fiction stories of contemporary Britain, has a certain following for the historical novels she writes under the name of Caroline Harvey.

What is important to note, however, is that one cannot slip from one genre to another within one book. Don’t laugh – I’ve judged competitions in which entrants don’t seem to have decided which genre they want to write in, doing a weird sideways shift mid-stream. Unless you’re the world’s most innovative creative thinker, this is not a clever thing to do as all that will happen in trying to effect such a trick is that you will flounder and drown, your nascent literary career sinking like a stone to the bottom of publishing’s ruthlessly fast-flowing river.

Yes, the genres can overlap sometimes – for instance, you can have a book of crime fiction that is also extremely literary (think Graham Greene). But what you cannot have is a book that starts off as standard crime fiction and suddenly decides to go all literary on the reader somewhere along the way.

Broadly, the choices in fiction lie between ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ although all sorts of delights fall under these two umbrellas: crime, thrillers, chick-lit, lad-lit, horror, sci-fi, romances, historical novels, sagas …

Again broadly, the techniques employed within each sub-genre are different, although these too are, thankfully, interchangeable up to a point. So, crime fiction relies heavily on plot and action, sci-fi focuses on imagination and landscape, lit-fic depends almost wholly on style and characterization and chick-lit on humour and romance. Which, confusingly perhaps, is not to say that a lit-fic book cannot contain humour or crime fiction must not be stylish. These are merely the general ground rules and – whenever I’m banging on about this at one of my creative writing lectures – I’m always careful to maintain that some very gifted writer out there might go out and re-write the rule book completely. I personally await that day with pleasure but, in the meantime, it’s best to follow literature’s tried and tested methods.

Whatever the genre, there’s one key requirement for any work of fiction – and that is a good story. Very occasionally, the sheer brilliance of style is sufficient to carry a reader through but, generally, this talent is better suited to poetry and prose rather than fiction. I tell aspiring writers to think of a tag-line that will describe their story when journalists come calling and this, in all likelihood, will be that all-important kernel or plot. A book has to become a temporary ‘best friend’ to its reader and, without a cracking story, it will almost certainly struggle to do so.

 

ON WRITING 6

RESEARCH

I find that this word is much misunderstood by non-writers, people invariably thinking you must be a scientist of some sort if you are researching something. But, in the context of creative wiring, ‘research’ essentially means that you are trying in different ways to live the life of your characters and find out as much about them as you possibly can. So, if your protagonist is a cardiac surgeon, say, you really do need to shadow a cardiac surgeon or at least ask a lot of questions about the profession to ensure that your cardiac surgeon does not go and do something that would be totally unthinkable to his many real-life ‘colleagues’ who may read your book and be consumed with hilarity.

I know of writers who even do mini-biographies of their characters before writing their novels but I must admit that sounds too much like hard work to me. I had considered doing it at one point but, seeing that I didn’t need to have four sheets of A4 paper listing the traits of friends or family members to feel I knew them well, I felt I could work the same way with my characters too.

The only time no one seemed puzzled about my research trips was when I was writing my historical fiction book, ‘Rani’. Even my boss stopped arguing and signed my request for a month’s leave when I said that it would take weeks to wade through the seven miles of filing cabinets that the British Library purportedly maintained on the 1857 uprising. Perhaps it’s due to the respect generally enjoyed by academia but spending long hours in a library is considered laudable behaviour on a novelist’s part while learning Bharatnatyam because a character is a classical dancer is plain old quirky.

Of course, a month into my research, I was drowning in archival material: letters, khureetas, official documents, grainy old photographs … it was all very exciting but also overwhelming. And I had absolutely no idea where to begin translating all that into a readable novel. Luckily, I remembered something I’d read once about historical fiction. ‘Lock away all your research into a cupboard before you sit down to write!’ the article had exhorted. In capital letters, I think. The point being that a novelist would, in all likelihood, produce a Very Boring Book if they used it to showcase every bit of material that they had uncovered. And so it was with a sense of immense relief that I shoved all my research aside to begin writing ‘Rani’. Enough knowledge about the Rani of Jhansi had filtered into my brain to allow me to tell her story and I could always sneak a peek into that mental cupboard/Word document if I needed to check any dates or details.

Of course, there were moments of frustration. I’d learnt everything there was to know about the food habits of the 19th century Peshwa court. But, unless I spun out a totally gratuitous feast scene, there was no narrative reason for this information to be in the book. And so – after a protracted struggle with myself – I reluctantly binned that source journal, very sulkily accepting that no one would ever know of the hours I’d spent reading it.

But the role of research is just that – to educate the novelist up to the point that she does not make any glaring errors and to help illuminate the world she is describing. The information that does get passed on to the reader should be fed delicately into the novel, trickling into the interstices of the story, like water giving life to plants.

 

ON WRITING 7

GETTING STARTED

There is no standard craft. Many writers rely on the forgiving nature of computers and others swear they cannot order their thoughts if not writing long-hand. Some lavish years on a single work and others, in unguarded moments, will admit that they finished a first draft in three months. An ex-colleague who wrote detective novels in his spare time once told me that his bedroom wall was covered in post-it notes that he spent many happy hours moving around depending on the way his plot was shaping up. And he never bothered to plan an ending, convinced it would appear before him by the time he had reached his last post-it. Conversely, Joanna Trollope, the queen of popular fiction in Britain, said recently at the Hay festival that she would not dream of starting a book without having a very good idea of how it was going to end.

What works for me is to have a plan of sorts before I start writing, lest I ramble on forever without getting anywhere. But I give myself permission to depart from this whenever necessary, which allows me to take off in all sorts of unforeseen directions; thrilling flights of fancy that can sometimes land me in places that I would have never considered at the planning stage.

It’s probably irritating to hear writers make this process sound so mystical. However, when I heard Vikram Seth say that he too allowed himself to be led by his characters, I felt both kinship and relief.  There will be more on this when we come to characterization but every author knows that, as a character grows and develops in a book, he starts to take on a mind of his own. Seriously. There’s nothing mystical about it because, once a character has certain traits, it is those traits and not the novelist (who plays master-puppeteer only upto a point) that will make him take his future decisions. This is why a narrative that is character-driven is so much more convincing than those that rely on outside events and coincidences.

In intricate, multi-character novels, it is important to keep tabs on the points of view of different characters. POVs can (and should) change – just don’t assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader who will be terribly confused if you end up using too many pronouns. Also keep tabs on accidentally shifting tenses which can work well only if it’s a deliberate ploy to move time-frames around. And watch out for disappearing characters! I remember finishing a book once that had conferred the most satisfying ending on the protagonist but I was plagued for weeks afterwards over the unknown fate of some minor character that had not been resolved at all.

It’s best to resign yourself to at least three drafts before being able to show your manuscript around. Get the hard graft done first; what a previous column has already termed the ‘wordage’. Never mind how unreadable. No one else is ever going to lay eyes on this, remember. Draft 1 is your pact with yourself, so try to enjoy its creation as much as possible. Turn off the word count. Nothing can be more defeating than knowing you’ve only moved forward by a few hundred words after a whole day’s effort. The important thing is to keep on at it, one word at a time. Bad writing can be improved and polished but a blank page is every writer’s worst nightmare.
ON WRITING 8

CHARACTERISATION

How can I stress the importance of well-rounded and credible characters in fiction? In the end (arguably), it is the people walking around inside books that lift these compact bits of bound and printed paper into becoming possessions treasured forever. Even the best stylists and story-tellers eventually need to have created characters that linger in the mind long after the last page is turned and the covers snapped shut.

They don’t all have to be towering figures. As a general rule, interesting fiction is either when extraordinary events happen to ordinary people or ordinary events happen to extraordinary people. But where do they come from – the Elizabeth Bennetts and Lata Mehras and Shylocks? Authors who claim to have created characters completely from their imaginations are, deliberately or not, being a bit disingenuous. Yes, of course, characters should be fictional (unless you like having lawsuits flying your way) but the best ones are created when a writer is, knowingly or unknowingly, observing and noting and filing away in his/her mental bank the whole business of what people look like, how they talk and comport themselves, the kind of tics and quirks they have and, of course, the characteristics that make them uniquely themselves. Then, rather like a kaleidoscope, the author takes all these disparate elements and shakes them about a bit before creating a fictional ‘person’ who is himself unique and unforgettable. This calls for imagination, especially when really monstrous characters, like Hannibal Lector, are created and, whenever I come across one such, I imagine what fun the author must have had in giving free rein to his worst nightmares.

People ask me all the time if this character or that is autobiographical, or an alter-ego of some sort, and the answer (even where it comes to Janu, my most openly autobiographical character) must sound very wishy-washy when I say, ‘Well, yes and no’. Can anyone have put it better than Milan Kundera: ‘The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them and equally horrified by them.’

Now, in endowing characters with all those little quirks, it’s all too easy to slip into caricature which is best avoided unless there is good (generally, comic) reason for this. It’s also worth remembering how rarely one meets uni-dimensional types in real life, such as ‘the underworld don’ or ‘the whore with a heart of gold’. Such traps, set for us by numerous Bollywood films, must be avoided in novels. However, now that we all know about those compulsory three drafts, flat characters are permissible in Draft 1, as long as they are completely fleshed out by the final version. It’s best not to fill in every last bit of colour, however. Some things actually do benefit by being left to the readers’ imagination for it is into the spaces left by the unspoken that you allow readers to bring in their own experiences.

Good dialogue is crucial to creating characters so eavesdrop shamelessly on all the conversations going on around you and please note, for heaven’s sake, that nobody, nobody, speaks in paragraphs. It’s also very important to be true to one’s characters. So if, for instance, one of them is a hard-drinking, tough-talking man, his language probably needs scattering with profanity to be realistic. Even if your mother has brought you up to never, ever use bad language, this would be a good time to make an exception and start having fun using expletives like never before. Sorry mum!
ON WRITING 9

STYLE, PLACE & VOICE

Like a shopper in a store, you can choose your writing style or, like a fashion designer, even create one all of your own. You can be all minimalist and pared down, like Hemingway, that master of concision, or overblown and heavily descriptive like Arundhati Roy in her stunning ‘God of Small Things’. Perhaps even go crazy with the magic realism that Salman Rushdie popularized so effectively. There will be different tranches of readers who will enjoy each of these styles and, seeing that you’re never going to be able to please all readers all the time, you may as well choose what you want to be.

Best of all, you can change your style with each new book. A worthy exercise as different stories do call for different voices and styles that a skilled writer will pull off with ease. Peter Carey, writer of numerous fine novels, adopted a dense vernacular style voice, poor in grammar and punctuation and lacking commas altogether, to tell in first person the story of the notorious criminal Ned Kelly in ‘The True History of the Kelly gang’. Unusual and difficult and totally unlike any of Carey’s previous works, this book went on to win Carey his second Booker, and the Commonwealth Prize too.

By and large, the style of writing that’s currently in vogue in the British and American literary establishments (I’m talking about those all-important agents and commissioning editors here) is a simple and straightforward one which, when employed skillfully, can be extremely evocative.

As with characters’ back-stories, it’s useful to set the scene or give the reader an idea of where the action is taking place but do go easy where it comes to descriptions. Less is definitely more in this matter. Unless you are a master writer, few editors want to see page after page of adjective-laden prose where a few well-chosen words or a really clever and original metaphor will do the job just as well.

One of the best examples of a seemingly effortless creation of atmosphere lie in the first few pages of ‘The Great Gatsby’, where, with a few deft strokes, we find ourselves in a prosperous house on the East Coast of America, with an expanse of green lawn running down to the sea, a ‘snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide off-shore’ and ‘a line of French windows, glowing with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon.’ No fancy words but, by the time we glimpse the shadow of Gatsby standing in the dark and ‘regarding the silver pepper of the stars’, we have a clear sense of not just location but landscape, history, community and character too.

Historical fiction writers need to work even harder to create that sense of place and time. When I wrote ‘Rani’, I had to be wary not just of inadvertently having Rani Lakshmibai stroll into a room and flick the light switches on, but had also to avoid expressions like ‘the dunes stretched around her like an endless brown sea’ simply because Lakshmibai, as a girl brought up on the plains, would most likely have never laid eyes on the sea. Noisy, crowded modern day Jhansi was nothing like the elegant city Lakshmibai ruled over but I took heart from that master of historical fiction, Robert Harris, who – when writing ‘Pompeii’ – pointed out that, even back in Roman times, it was the same sun that shone and the same sea that sparkled beneath.

ON WRITING 10

EDITING

You are coming up now to the most important and – to me – most exciting part of the process. The story is done, the cast of characters (albeit a little flat) all in place, and the manuscript flabby with fat. As you would by now have very likely spent many months beavering away at this project, I would highly recommend a holiday. I don’t necessarily mean, treat yourself to some place nice because, as a born writer, the very process of writing Draft 1 would have been your best trip away! But I do mean, in all seriousness, that it’s well worth taking time away from the manuscript so that, by the time you return to it, you come to it as fresh as you possibly can and therefore as close in attitude as the typical reader. Use your break to do things that take you mentally as far away from your story and characters as possible and for as long as you can bear it.

Then sit down and re-read the whole thing with a red pen in hand and as hard a heart as you can manage. Whenever you find yourself speed-reading or skipping a para, it’s a good sign that it needs excising. As I do my writing on a computer, I tend to save all the bits I remove into a separate folder on a ‘you never know’ basis. Occasionally, this has paid off with deleted bits coming in handy elsewhere in the manuscript, one even turning into a short story for a glossy magazine a whole year later!

The main job in Drafts 2 and 3 is to cut ruthlessly, to remove all that needless ‘show offy’ research that plays no real part in the story, to look out for changing POVs and disappearing characters and sub-plots that trail off without conclusion. Check every little bit of sloppy grammar and punctuation and remove all those irritating adjectives and adverbs. Lazy prose and tired old metaphors must come out too, as also repeating words, unless they are a character’s tic.

It isn’t all about removal. Often Draft 2 is when a great number of gems get added too as this process is a lot less frantic than the crazy ‘wordage production’ of Draft 1 (perhaps that’s what Wordworth was referring to when he talked of ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’).  It is, in fact, while finishing Draft 2 that I often write the beginning of the book because, with the middle and ending now firmly in place, I’m in a much stronger position to create a really punchy beginning that will hopefully suck the reader right in.

It is while you are working on Drafts 2 and 3, that your first outside ‘readers’ can be brought into play too. Some writers use book groups although I have always shied away from these as, I suspect, they tend to be a little over-earnest and end up contributing too much; this is a confusing time for even experienced authors and it is all too easy to get clogged up with too much well-meaning advice. Equally, it would be wise to refrain from asking boyfriend/girlfriend/anyone with a vested interest in making you ‘feel good’. What you need your reader to be is an honest friend and a voracious reader and, if he/she is has a PhD in Literature, that would sure be a handy extra qualification too.

 

ON WRITING 11

GETTING PUBLISHED

You’re now on the home straight of your marathon and, as you approach the finish line, you need to think up a really good sound-bite to describe the book you’re writing. Now rehearse it for all those occasions when someone asks you what your book is about. This question will come to you both pre and post publication and, if on being asked, you begin to ramble aimlessly, humming and hawing and saying things like, ‘It’s not about much really, just the story of an ordinary guy … a bit like me, you know …’ you will see your listener’s face glaze over in instant boredom and, not only have you just lost your first sale, you will soon find your own confidence begin to shrink and wither away. And confidence is what you will need oodles of as you start approaching literary agents to help you sell your book.

If your big sister isn’t a famous author and you don’t have a million writer friends (which is true of most potential writers and certainly was of me) then look up the Writer’s Handbook for all sorts of terrific advice on locating an agent and, subsequently, a publisher. There are now many variations of the WH, with similar self-explanatory names, available in all libraries and bookshops. To choose an agent, think of the kinds of books that yours most resembles, locate the agent(s) who represented these books and try approaching them first with an old-fashioned postal submission.

This, typically, comprises three sample chapters (choose the best ones, not necessarily the first three or even contiguous ones), a brief synopsis (no more than two A4 pages) and a covering letter that tells them about you. Even if you are Miss India, please do not send a photograph. Instead, elaborate on anything that poses as a writing career/interest (a track record in magazine, print journalism or script writing is often hugely advantageous here). Also include an SAE if you are rejected and want your pack returned for the next agent on your list. Most good agents refuse to read emailed manuscripts but I can assure you that all submissions do get looked at.

It is the quality of the manuscript that will do most of the speaking but the covering letter is important too. Your deep insight into human nature (which, in fact, has helped you create your unique bunch of life-like and engaging characters) should be used in understanding what it is that agents need to hear from you. Sell yourself and your book as interestingly as possible – without showing off and while being as honest as possible – and please don’t describe yourself as the next Hemingway or Shakespeare, you’ll only have agents falling on the floor in paroxysms of mirth. However, if you’ve written a good book (which by now, of course, you have), you do need to let them know this in as many subtle and unusual ways as possible.

Remember, all agents are always on the look-out for the Next Big Thing so don’t be too shy. That NBT could well be you, and I certainly hope it is, not least so that my columns have not all been hot air dissipating in the wind. Do let me know when you get that phone call/email/bunch of flowers from a publisher keen to court you. It will be one of the best moments of your life.

I wish you lots and lots of luck.
This series was originally written for the NIE and has been reproduced with permission from the author. You can read it on the author website here.

Jaishree Misra is a bestselling Indian author, her books are available here

#WritingOn: Bestselling author Preeti Shenoy on writing

Part Two of the series on Writing tips from Authors/Editors/Bloggers.

By Preeti Shenoy

Most runners speak of a ‘Runners high’– that endorphin rush you feel when you have been involved in strenuous activity, leading to a feeling of euphoria and happiness.
Yesterday I hit a writers high. It was something I have never experienced before. I wrote 7256 words yesterday. That is the highest ever number of words I have written in a single day, in my entire writing career.

I patted myself on the back. And when a friend pinged to ask how is the writing going, I said ‘Super, I hit a writer’s high today. This is the highest number of words I have written in a single day in my entire life.’

‘Wow. Keep rocking!’ he typed back.

But I don’t think he understood why it meant a great deal to me.

Writing a book, is a lot of  work really. You have to think of a story (a completely original one which no one has done before, which by itself is a mammoth task), a plot, characters (they have to be likeable, believable, and people who you can relate to) , dialogue, what happens to them. You have to write coherently. But more than anything, you have to discipline yourself to sit at the computer all by yourself and type out word after word after word. Day after day after day.
It is a L.O.N.E.L.Y profession.

You have to be involved with people and interested in them and understand them, empathise with them, yet  be strangely detached to be able to write.

There is no-one really to check your progress and nobody you are accountable to. So that makes it that much more harder. You can take a year, two years, even five years to finish a book. It is so entirely upto you and you alone.

I have my own ways of pushing myself. Sometimes I compete with fellow authors who are working on a book. We ping each other at the end of the day and ask ‘WC?’ (which stands for word count. There is great joy in typing 2300 or 3200 or whatever be the number of words one has written. A sense of satisfaction of a day well spent.

Sometimes I tell a friend (whom I am dying to meet) that I will go out with them only when I hit x number of words. Then they keep checking as to how many words I have written so that we can go out.

I report my progress to my children and spouse and the house-help as well as my dog. They are the only ones who actually care about my word-count. 🙂 Or rather, they are the only ones who will listen to me. (oh and that friend too who I promise to go out with on hitting x words)

Most full length novels have a minimum of 60,000 words.
This is how it is classified :

500-1,000 words – Flash story
1,000-10,000 words – Short story
10,000-40,000 – Novella
40,000-60,000 – Novelette or “Novel Lite”
60,000 and up – Novel

Yesterday I crossed 60K words of the book I am working on. (which was when I hit the writers high).

‘Oh, so does that mean the book will be out soon?’ asked the friend.

‘No! The real work starts now!’ I replied.

Most people do not know that once a manuscript is complete, and a publisher is chosen, it takes a minimum of 4-6 months for the book to be out.

The manuscript goes through the first revision.The  structural changes if any are suggested to the author. The author then incorporates the changes  or convinces the editor about why the changes should not happen.
Then begins proof reading.
The first round is done and the manuscript comes back to the author. Generally it looks like a war-field with all the corrections in red looking like blood-wounds. I had winced when it first came. I kid you not.
Then the corrections are made and sent back.
Each coma, each full stop, each word, is examined over and over.
Then the second round of proof readings happen.
Then the third.
Sometimes fourth and fifth. (I have proof read till the words begin blurring and I fall asleep in front of my laptop)

We squabble about fonts. About an exclamation mark. About a word repeated.
Every single detail counts.
Then the cover.
And the book title.
And the acknowledgements.
And the chapter titles.

And how it should all appear in the final version

And finally it is a BIG moment when the book gets an okay and  goes for printing. For my last book, up to the last moment, we were making changes. It is something like a rocket-blast off–the frantic holding of breath, till it takes off.

The tension doesn’t end there.
When you finally hold the book in your hand (the much coveted author’s copies) it is truly a moment that makes me weep.

Every single time.
No matter how many books you have written, it is still the same.

Welcome to the writers world.

It is a lonely place, a crazy place, a place which makes you hurtle down into depth of despair when you can’t get those words out, but at the same time a place which makes you soar higher than even the heavens when things go right.

Originally published here

Reproduced with permission

Preeti Shenoy is a bestselling Indian author. She has been  consistently nominated for the Forbes List of the 100 most influential celebrities of India since 2013. www.preetishenoy.com

10 Things Editors are not by Neil D’Silva: #WritingOn: A series

Starting today, I’m initiating a series called #WritingOn which offers tips, advice, insights on the writing, editing and blogging process from folks who’ve been there done that. Here’s the first.

10 Things Editors Are NOT

by Neil D’Silva

A lot has been said about what editors are supposed to be. Every author who has ever used or is on the verge of using an editor has an opinion on that. But, what really defines an editor’s role? Answering that is quite tricky as an author-editor relationship is much like a marriage fraught with several expectations on both sides. Here, I am going to give a voice to what editors shouldn’t be.

1. A Garbage Bin

They are not a trashcan where authors can dump half-baked, poorly-written, and poorly-constructed manuscripts. You, as an author, have to make sure your manuscript is as good as you can make it before submitting it to an editor.

2. Grammar-Cleaners

Not ALL editors will or should clean up your grammar. There are different kinds of editors. Substantive editors, for instance, will only look at the substance of your plot and tell you if it makes sense. Line editors and copy editors look for language structure issues. Proofreaders look for grammar issues and typos and the like.

3.Your Sounding-Board

If you have not gone for something like developmental or substantive editing at least, you must not discuss your story with your editor. If you are looking for only language correction, it is not right to expect them to comment on your story flow, or plot-building, or characters, etc. They might do it out of the goodness of their heart, but they are not obligated to.

4. House-Elves

Do not expect editors to magically clean up every grammatical mistake in your manuscript. Rushing the editing process is never a good idea. That is why there have to be three readings. And, during these three readings, there has to be back-and-forth communication between the editor and the author. A margin of human error is expected.

5. Albus Dumbledore

Do not expect your editor to remember your manuscript word-for-word for eternity. We might remember for a long time – because most editors are blessed with eidetic memories – but that should not be expected of them, especially not after the editing process has been done and dusted with (read: paid for). So, it is totally unfair if an author comes up six months later and says, “But you must remember, right? You edited the book, after all!”

6. Your Raving Girlfriend/Boyfriend/Both

If you have hired an editor and paid them too, do not expect them to shout from the rooftops saying how brilliant your book was. Authors must not feel obligated that their editors must write positive reviews for their books because, “You edited them anyway, didn’t you?” Editing has various aspects to it. An editor may work in one area of the book but absolutely hate another that he/she cannot help. Yes, it happens.

7.Wikipedia

An author must not expect their editor to clean up factual issues unless that has been included in the package. An editor is generally not a fact-checker; that is completely the author’s responsibility. But, some editors are angels and they might clean up obvious mistakes, such as if you write ‘Ravana had nine heads or thirty heads’ but they might genuinely miss out on correcting something like ‘There are 210 bones in the human body.’

8.Bob The Builder

This is specifically for developmental editors, but all the other kinds go through it anyway. It is unfair – totally unfair – to create plot ideas for the author. If an author tells you that you need to flesh out the plot more, you must ideally take that feedback and construct scenes. Now, constructing scenes is NOT the editor’s job! The editor won’t and mustn’t build a plot for you. That is entirely the author’s job. We editors usually keep our hammers and hacksaws away when editing, and work with only a fine-brush and a chisel, if called for.

9. Slaves

Most editors are paid peanuts. Not even the peeled ones. Without salt. The broken fragments, in fact. I have seen many an author’s brow shoot right up to the ceiling when prices are quoted. They might spend for promotion or anything else, but editing isn’t something the average Indian author likes to spend on. Many reasons for that.

1. “My book is perfect as it is. Why do I need an editor at all?”

2. “Editor is a janitor (see, they rhyme too!). Who pays janitors that much?”

3. “My readers will love the story and ignore the grammar. What do they matter if I have spelt ‘weird’ as ‘wierd’ anyway? Who knows the difference?

And so on. But remember – an editor gets intimate with your book. It is hard, grueling work, just like writing is, maybe even more so at times.

10. Lesser Than The Author In Any Way

A lot of authors harbor a sense of superiority over their editors. Maybe it is because they feel that the editors only work on something they have created. (But that’s unfair, right? You cannot feel superior to all your child’s teachers just because you have created your child.) Or maybe they feel so because they pay them. I haven’t yet done an analysis of that yet, but it happens. Remember – authors and editors (of all kinds) are equally important in making a good book. Many a great story idea is lost due to bad editing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

A writer, editor, and teacher by profession, Neil D’Silva has been in the game since the late 90s. His articles are splashed across various portals on the Internet, and his books are Amazon bestsellers. His debut book, Maya’s New Husband, is well on its way to becoming an international movie.

Follow Neil D’Silva on Twitter on @neildsilva and visit his website at http://NeilDSilva.com where he speaks about writing, publishing, and promotion, and shares his acclaimed short stories.

This was first published on http://www.penpapercoffee.net here

Reproduced with permission.