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