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Archive for June, 2010

Originally posted on February 17, 2010.

I don’t have anything against technology, technically speaking. Heck, I was part of that field myself, churning out software for the hapless, before I jumped over to the other side. However, as much as the technological advancement is transforming the world into a Global Village, in my opinion, it’s also turning us all into collective imbeciles.    

Email, twitter, facebook – they are all the rage now, right? I agree that they provide the easiest means to keep in touch with old friends, make new ones, and generally keep abreast of happenings around the world.    

Here’s my gripe: all these networking tools do as much harm as they do good. Let me elucidate: can you hear the sender’s tone of voice in an email or on a facebook message? No! Exactly! So, sometimes you do not know whether they’re being sarcastic, or earnest, or just blah when they express their opinions.    

"I'm not leering at ya, I swear! There's just something in my eye."

And the smiley faces can only go so far — when someone winks at you via a smiley face, do you take that wink as a “hey, co-conspirator”, or “I hear ya”, or “I’m leering at you right now, baby!”? There are instances where all three (or more) of these scenarios apply to that winking/hung-over happy-face that keeps blinking at you from your screen. What’s a girl gotta do in that situation?    

Is there anyone out there, who has used any of these electronic media as a means of communication and not regretted or second-guessed themselves the very second they hit the “send” or “publish” button?    

It’s scary the way you lose control in a matter of nanoseconds.  If it were snail mail, you’d have to sit down to write it neatly, which in itself means that you’d have put careful thought into what you wanted to say. And then you need to find an envelope, print the address, put a stamp on it, and then seal the envelope. This provides plenty of opportunities for you to rethink your strategy, or just change your mind about sending the letter/message at all in the first place.    

One of my very good friends sent me an email two days ago asking me why I was not “approving” her comments to my blog site.  I quickly checked my Inbox (like I needed to! I’m almost surgically attached to it, especially these days, for various reasons) and there were no pending comments for my site. I mulled over this and thought about it some more, but couldn’t figure out which black hole had swallowed up my friend’s comments. And then something occurred to me, and I quickly checked it out. Yup, my suspicion was right – the software “protecting” my blog from spam got overzealous and had decided that her comments were spam. Why? No idea. There was not even an ounce of advertisement or as much as a hint of a URL for a product in her message.  Argh!    

And then the other day, I was busy typing up something using a word processor (I’m not going to name it, but I’m sure you all know which one I’m referring to), and when I looked back, I couldn’t believe that I had typed so badly. When I looked at it more closely, though, I realized it was not me who was the bad typist. See, the word processor thought that it knew my mind better than I did myself; every time I typed something that it, in all its astuteness, knew to be obviously wrong, it patronizingly smirked behind my back and set about correcting my mistakes.    

(Ooh, just had a brilliant idea!) So, from now on, let it be known that ANY mistakes that you see in my posts (including idiocy in opinions expressed, along with typos), are due to my word processor taking over control and spewing its infinite wisdom onto these pages.      

And cell phones – don’t even get me started. That’s a whole series of posts for another time. I’m not touching that one. Not today. Not with a long pole.    

 I know I’ll sound extremely shallow and clichéd saying this, but I’ll say it anyway: Technology! Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.     

Or, maybe, it’s just me and my control issues.

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Posted originally on: February 3, 2010

One of the first things I learned in the last few months is that it’s not major incidents that interrupt the flow of creative juices. It’s the everyday living – and the million-and-one little details that come with it – that will wring you dry and leave you hanging.

The mounds of laundry overflowing from the utility room into the hallway never seem to understand that the mood to write has no set schedule. And one can ignore the piling dishes in the sink for only so long. I admit, though, I have really come far in that department – selective vision, it is called.

But, when you put your hand into the china cabinet in the formal dining room – which you never reopened once after you first organized it, until you started this writing business – and reach for empty air, that’s when you know you cannot ignore the mess in the sink anymore.

Okay, this is my lament for the day: who wants to wash a coffee mug when every nerve ending in your body is screaming for that shot of caffeine? But dishes don’t get it, do they? Such a thanksless lot, I tell you. They live in your house, free of rent, for their lifetime and yet never learn to self-clean.

Mug with multi-personalities: These humans are so thankless. We work ourselves to the bone for them, and they act as if they’re doing us a favor by letting us live in their cabinets. Mug with prickly-personality: And don’t even get me started on the sloppy living conditions in some of these households!

Yes, I’m having one of those ‘blah’ mornings. Can you tell?

And if I have learned anything recently, it is that one must learn to pace oneself or be prepared to keel over. So, that’s what I’m trying to do. No, not trying to keel over — don’t be silly! I meant I’m trying to pace myself before I drive everyone around me crazy with my running-around-frazzled routine.

So, I’ll sign off now, after this rant-and-rave with no particular point to it. No, wait! I’m really selling this post short. It does have a point. The point is: Stop being a tightwad and go buy more coffee mugs.

Happy Thursday, everyone! Hang in there! You are closer to the weekend by another day. Although, come to think of it, what’s so great about weekends? They are overrated, if you ask me. They just mean more cleaning and scrubbing, all the while carting around a carload of kids to activities. What’s so great about that? Hmph!

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All You Have To Do Is Dream…

This is a repeat post. It had been originally posted on Februray 15, 2010.

My suggested soundtrack for this post is: ‘All I have to do is dream’ by the Everly Brothers. Please play it, if you can — there aren’t many better ways to begin a Monday.    

Do you have a dream that you have cherished in the depths of your being, forever?  Big or small, doesn’t matter. Do not trivialize it as just a pipe dream. Go after it!    

Let’s look at some scenarios:      

Scene: You have chased after your dream relentlessly for decades, and you finally attain it. Dream to Man: What took you so long, baby??

  • When you were little, you couldn’t wait to grow up so you could work a paper route. But, for whatever reason, you never got around to doing it when you were a teenager. What are you waiting for, now? Get on a bike and go with your child, niece or even a neighbor-kid one early morning on one of their routes. It will make you feel better. And you’ll immediately learn one of two things:  
    • How fulfilling it is to follow a dream, however small.
    • The reason why you hadn’t pursued that job in the first place as a teenager : you were not a morning person even back then. 
  • Always envisioned yourself, in Technicolor, as an astrophysicist? Who says you can’t be one? (I can almost hear you cussing me, at this point, about how impractical I am. Just hear me out, okay?) Nobody is suggesting you can do it overnight. But what’s stopping you from taking up one or two courses in the evening, to see how it feels? It’s all about how you modulate your dream.
  • You’re the owner of a good-sized company, but have forever fantasized about being a clown? That’s one of the best dreams, I tell you. Because, you can go incognito and be as clownly as you wish, hidden behind all that paint, without anybody being the wiser. Then, one day, you realize how materialistic you have been all these years. You give up that mansion and write the Ferrari off to charity and declare openly to your family your intention of becoming a clown. Full-time. And then, war ensues in your house. (Don’t you come running to me in this situation! I never told you to give up your day job, did I? I just said, “Dream!”)

Jokes aside, when you pursue a dream, wherever it is that the quest takes you, that place is bound to be a better one than where you started. That has been my experience since I began to write. It’s not even about the end-result. (Okay, maybe just a tad. Okay, okay, it’s ALL about the end-result. I confess. Satisfied? You didn’t have to be so sarcastic about it!)

The toe-tingling you feel every morning when you wake up, because you have something to look forward to; the  giddiness you experience when you have taken another baby step towards that final goal… it’s all worth putting yourself out there.

Having said all that, I have been trying hard not to mull over this picture:

You pursue your dream for years on end and then finally achieve it, right? And then your dream becomes your “job”… Do you still have fun doing whatever it was that you loved before? Hmmm… We humans are just hopeless, aren’t we?

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The Siren Song of Blogging

Enchanted Sea: Illustration courtesy -- a painting done by my daughter when she was nine

Yes, I have heard the song myself and succumbed to it. I was hesitant to step into the world of blogging at the beginning, but once I took the first step, there was no looking back.

Blogging to me is like riding the giant wheel at the fair. Right when my stomach is settling down and I think I’m going to enjoy a lull in the ride, I’m back at the top of the wheel, my tummy doing somersaults. It’s electrifying, to say the least.

What do I like about blogging?

  • It keeps me actively thinking and writing – not only from composing the posts for my blog, but also from my efforts at assimilating all those that I read on other blogs and commenting on them.
  • I love the almost instantaneous give and take that is involved in a dialogue among bloggers.
  • I learn many new things on a daily basis from doing my rounds of the blogosphere.
  • I have met (well, even if not literally) more like-minded people in the last few months than I ever have before in such a short span of time. That is reason enough to love blogging.
  • And, face it! It gives me the one thing almost all of us crave: instant gratification at getting to see our words in print, well sort of.
  • And at the risk of repeating myself, because I’ve said this before in this very blog, I just love the sense of camaraderie that exists in this community.

I could go on and on…

The only thing is: blogging takes time – a lot of it – the one thing that seems to be constantly in short supply around my house.

I’m at the point where I need some time to get my affairs back in order (before you get any ideas, by affairs I mean the everyday minutiae – nothing glamorous – that still take up a lot of our time):

  • get the house back up on its feet and to a smoother running order
  •  get a leg up on my MG manuscript revision
  •  re-stock the almost-empty pantry
  • return phone calls before my friends and family totally give up on me
  •  make concrete plans for the upcoming vacation and so on…

Did you notice how I tried to sneak in ‘revision’ into the list above? It was done in the hopes that it gets the message that it’s not the boss of me, and that I believe it’s just going to be as mundane a task for me as finishing laundry.

Are all the writers guffawing at this point and going: “Yeah, right! Dream on!”? I feared so.

I have figuratively put that manuscript away for a few weeks now and the distance has definitely helped. (Those experts do know what they’re talking about!) Now, I’m missing working on it and am raring to have a go at revising it and making it stronger. And that needs time.

The long and short of it is, I’m not going to be blogging for the next two weeks actively.  I will keep re-posting some of my older posts for that duration, so please keep visiting me!

Since I’ve met most of you not too long ago, hopefully, those posts won’t be repeats for the majority of you. For those of you who have been reading my ramblings from the very beginning – thank you! – please bear with me for this short period of time?

I will still pop over to your blogs, but if I fail to do so with my usual regularity, then picture me in the clutches of that veritable beast called ‘revision’ and send a quick prayer my way.

I will be back, bright and early, on the 5th of July with a new post.

Until then, Namaste!

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When you’re skimming through a book to see whether you’d want to invest your time in reading it, what are the things that you look for?

Imagery and sense of humor are the two things that catch my attention – in addition to overarching elements like genre, setting, pace and plot, of course – when I’m trying to decide whether a book is worth reading or not.

(If given a choice, I would never reject any book, because every one of them has a lesson to teach a writer, be it: “how to do things right” or “what mistakes not to make as a writer”. However, because of the fact that the time at our disposal is not unlimited, sometimes, regrettably, I put down a book just after judging it by its cover and/or the content of its jacket flap.)

Sometimes, even if the plotline of a book doesn’t appeal to me, I go ahead and finish reading it just because I love the author’s voice and style of expression.

So, what is this Style or Voice of a writer?

William Strunk Jr. and E.B.White say this in The Elements of Style:

With some writers, style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity, as surely as would his fingerprints.

I couldn’t agree more with what Strunk Jr. and White claim and have a personal experience along the exact lines of what they opine.

I happen to adore an English author called “Miss Read” (it was a pseudonym for Dora Saint) and have read almost all the books she has ever written — some even multiple times.

Once, I came across a book called “A Light in the Window” by American author Jan Karon (it was a few months after the first book in her ‘Mitford’ series was released – this series went on to become quite popular soon).

I chose to read that book because it sounded like I would enjoy the rural setting and the sedate pace of the book (which are trademarks of Miss Read’s books).

I brought it home from the library and as I began to read it, my heart began to beat faster. (Hey, I already admitted to being an incurable bookworm, didn’t I?)

Reason? The setting of the book and the voice of the author reminded me very much of Miss Read’s books. I quickly flipped to the back cover of the book and skimmed through the snippet of information included there about the author.

And sure enough, Jan Karon had acknowledged that she’d written that book inspired by none other than Miss Read.

You cannot imagine the elation I felt at having recognized the voice of Miss Read not in one of the books she had written, but in a book inspired by her.

You sit down at a desk, relax and let the words flow naturally – this is how your voice as a writer is born.

A writer’s voice is what sets her apart from any other writer. Even if two writers are given the same story line and asked to write a book each, based upon their choice of words, i.e., their style and voice, chances are the two outcomes end up looking completely different.

A novice writer’s voice may be the result of a lot of things, among which some possibilities are:

  • The influence of the voice of authors that she likes
  • His personality traits
  • Her linguistic ability
  • The way he expresses himself when he speaks
  • Elements of those books that make them enjoyable for her
  • His training and past experiences etc.

The same voice may not work for all genres and age groups. For instance:

  • A younger children’s book needs a faster pace, lesser description and more humorous sequences, while a young adult book can invest more pages in imagery and narration of the setting. 

 

  • A historical YA romance begs for a voice completely different from a contemporary, realistic coming-of-age MG book.

Having said that, an author’s voice may change some based on the genre or the age group, and emerge and evolve as the person grows as a writer, but the underlying distinguishable elements  of her voice will remain the same (unless the writer in question works consciously in adapting a completely new voice and style for reasons for her own).

Here are a few things I discovered since I began to write myself:

  • The main characters in my books have – at least aspire for – a sarcastic bent of voice (the sarcasm being of the self-deprecatory type rather than the variety which puts others down).

 

  • I like to take my time to describe a setting — I subconsciously personify inanimate things and interpret images through their purported actions/characteristics.

Lo and behold – these are the exact two things that I enjoy in the books that I read! It doesn’t mean that I sat down one day and decided that this is what my Style would be as a writer. Quite the contrary – it just happened naturally.

  • What makes you tick as a reader?

 

  • If you happen to write also, then what are the major attributes in your Voice? And does your writer’s voice have elements in common with those features in the books that you cherish as a reader?

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A few months ago, I posted an excerpt from my current WIP (Work-In-Progress), a  middle grade (multicultural) historical fantasy. That snippet had been a dialogue, an active exchange, among several characters in the novel.

This time, I thought I’d post a piece of narrative.

Opinions, critiques, suggestions? Please send them my way!

***

          I looked out the window and saw the sky still gathered close in an inky, dark cloak. A soft breeze entered into my room stealthily, and the sheer curtains at the windows billowed in response. The calming scent of raat ki rani – Night Queen – filled the room. Nani had planted that shrub underneath this bedroom’s window when Mom was a child.  

          Taking a deep breath, I began to plump up my pillow getting ready to go back to sleep, but my hands stopped in mid-air. I knew I was alone in the room, but I sensed another presence. Driving away the perfume of the Night Queen, a bitter, oily unpleasantness pervaded the room. Taking shallow breaths, I slowly turned.

          I could barely make out its form, leaning leisurely against the wall next to one of the bookshelves. I scrambled up to the head of my bed, and screamed. Only, no sound came out.

          Clutching the bed sheet to my chin, I waited, unable to peel my eyes away from my shadowed companion. Run! The more intelligent side of my instinct prodded, but my body couldn’t seem to obey. A soft whimper escaped my parted lips.

          A soft glow crept out of nowhere, joining me to the specter in a soft pool of light. It was as if the two of us were on stage in an eerie production and were being spotlighted for an unseen audience crouching in the gloom around us.

          A man, I realized, short and dark-skinned, stood leaning against the wall, arms folded against his chest and ankles crossed loosely. He seemed so much at ease, I wondered for a moment if I were the trespasser. My eyes took in the details, almost unwillingly, as if they had no control.

          He had a trim beard and a shaved upper lip. His hair was rolled into a bun at the nape of his neck and held in place by a small polished wooden stick. He was wearing a white dhoti – a long cloth wrapped around the waist that covers up the legs too – while a light robe, dyed a deep indigo, draped over his left shoulder, leaving his right one bare. He wore shiny beads in his ears. In short, he was dressed as if for a costume party, the theme being ancient India. The sense that I was starring in a drama intensified.

          The man’s body and hair were shining, as if they were oiled. He didn’t look bulky; in fact he was rather small. But one look at his shoulders and hands, with ropes of muscles sticking out, and I knew he could crush me like an empty coke can if he so wished.

***

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Recently, I began to read chapter books (younger middle grade) for research purposes. I started with books by the prolific author, Judy Blume.

I instantly observed a trend in these books. The more I read the more obvious the pattern seemed. Finally, it got to the point where my research came down to reading for the sake of noticing the trend rather than the content and how the plot is handled.

I realized then that I needed to get the question burning inside me answered before I could get back to reasonable research mode.

That’s when I decided to pose the question to Laura Backes, one of the editors of Children’s Book Insider Newsletter.

Here’s the question I posted in the chat forum in CBI Clubhouse (by the way, this site holds a wealth of information about writing for children. If you haven’t checked it out already, you should!) and Laura’s answer to it:

  • Hema : Laura, as a novice to writing children’s fiction, I come across the phrase “show, don’t tell” quite a bit. However, now that I’m reading chapter books (by Judy Blume, among others), I notice that for this age group, most authors tell more than show. The narrator is usually made to give a funny account of the incidents rather than showing them. Is this the norm for this age group, or is it a case of “established authors get away with breaking rules, but not unpublished ones”? Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

 

  • Laura Backes : Hema: Good question about “show, don’t tell.” First of all, if you’re reading novels that were written before the early 1990’s (as were many of Judy Blume’s) then there will be more telling. That’s just the older writing style. Today, editors expect authors to do more showing. And if the story is written in first person, then essentially the entire book is the narrator’s dialogue. Telling takes place more often in dialogue.

“Showing” is most important when describing a character’s traits (don’t say she’s “sweet”, show us her sweet nature through her actions), a character’s feelings (avoid phrases like “he felt sad” or “she was scared”; instead, use body language, action and dialogue), or in describing the physical aspects of a person or setting.

Ah! So, it was not the age group for which it was written, but the “age” of the book itself that dictated the style that I observed.

As Laura so rightly points out, writing style seems to have changed quite a bit over the past few decades. In the past, it was not such a no-no to just make one of the characters (or the narrator) “tell” a bit of the back story, while “showing” for the rest of the book. But, not so now!

Writers have to be extremely wary of falling into the trap of telling a story as opposed to showing it. (Hmm… does it mean that the word “story-telling” should be changed to “story-showing”?)

I’m not saying that this new trend is bad; not at all. “Showing” an incident makes it stand out better than “telling” it. This technique also makes the book better and interesting — it keeps the writing more active, even if the method itself is a little harder to master.

I began to mull over how this shift in writing has come into existence, and why it is so rooted in the publishing industry (I never noticed how this works in adult books, but I’m guessing it is about the same, but I’ll stick to children’s literature here) now.

I came up with the following reasons as to why this writing model may have become the vogue:

  • Children have so many ways to entertain themselves (aka distractions): video games, T.V shows, interactive toys, and movies to just name a few. Yes, there are books, too, but they don’t figure at the top of this list for the majority of the kids. Why? Because they are the least interactive of the lot.

So, books have some stiff competition and cannot afford to be considered boring even for one page, or they’ll be set aside for better entertainment devices. One way for books to avoid being overlooked is to get as close to being interactive and sensational as possible.

 

  • Children these days are so used to everything (toys, shows, movies) imagining things for them ready-made that they are prepared to tax themselves a little less than the previous generations by reading something and imagining it for themselves. “Showing” helps them picture what’s going on in the book a little more easily.

 

  • From parents’ perspective, a DVD costs almost the same as a book. If a book fails to grab the attention of their child, then why not spend the same amount of money wisely on something (like the DVD) that does successfully keep the kid’s attention?

 

  • All things considered and with the economy the way it is, agents, editors and publishers do not want to back up any book that may not have captured the imagination of a large audience, and does not promise to keep the attention span of the children and their parents for a long time.

Basically, the parameters of what makes a book “good” have changed and are evolving every day.

A couple of decades from now, we may see technological advances that we cannot even imagine today. I wonder where that leaves books?

What changes and trends in writing styles do you suppose those advancements will demand from writers?

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