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Originally posted on October 6, 2010

Ever notice that each well-written book has one quote or an instance of narrative inside it that embodies the essence of that book?

I was skimming through some books, which I recently read/re-read, paying closer attention to the authors’ style and characterization techniques, and voice and the way they played with plots and sub-plots.

It is during this exercise that I realized what true talent it takes to be able to distill the whole plot, purpose and theme of a novel into just a few short, well-chosen bouquets of words.

Here are some true gems, spoken or narrated by the (a) main character in each of the books.

  • Julian smiled. “Not quite,” he said. “Let us say that I am as American as pizza pie. I did not originate here, but I am here to stay.”

                    — The View from Saturday, E.L.Konigsburg

  • He liked to forget he was Luke Garner, third child hidden in the attic.

                    — Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix

  • “This case is as simple as black and white.”

                    — To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

  • His father thought. “No, I don’t think so. Of course the Elders are so careful in their observations and selections.”

                    — The Giver, Lois Lowry

  •  The rain is a cool kiss on my sleeve as I link my arm through hers. “We’re all damaged somehow.”

                    — A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray

  • “Ever since I was little,” Mullet Fingers said, “I’ve been watchin’ this place disappear – the piney woods, the scrub, the creeks, the glades. Even the beaches, man – they put up all these giant hotels and only goober tourists are allowed. It really sucks.”

                    — Hoot, Carl Hiaasen

  • I don’t make up lies for no reason. I just move the truth around a little when it gets in my way. What’s the big deal about that?

                    — Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, Gennifer Choldenko

  • “It’s less a matter of looking the other way than of closing our eyes to what we can’t stop from happening.”

                    — Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden

  • Finally, I’m a grown-up! Finally, I’m a child.

                    — Deliver Us from Normal, Kate Klise

  • “A woman’s place – our place, Roshan – is behind the veil, behind the zenana’s walls, and if you want to do anything at all, do it here, in this space. But,” Jahanara added, unable to be kind to a sister she did not like, “you can do little, Roshan, you are but a second daughter. Stay away from the jharoka.

                    — Shadow Princess, Indu Sundaresan

Do you have a favorite quote from a book?

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Originally posted on October 20, 2010

Pictograph. Bar Graph. Line Graph. Epigraph. If you’re thinking this is going to be a lesson in math, rest assured — it’s not!  :-)

Even though there is a concept of ‘epigraph’ in math, today I’m using this word very much in the context of writing.

Merriam Webster online defines an epigraph as:

            A quotation set at the beginning of a literary work or one of its divisions to suggest its theme.

Epigraphs are quotations, or phrases or poems, you find in some books at the beginning of each chapter. They are usually related to the theme of either that chapter or that of the whole book. They can be extracted from any number of sources: excerpts from a well-known book, folk sayings, or quotes of famous personalities, to name a few.

(I’m not sure why whoever coined this term couldn’t make up a more writerly-sounding word for it. You know what I mean?)

Here’s one excerpt topping chapter six of the book Rueful Death from Susan Albert Wittig’s China Bayles Mystery series. China is an ex-criminal lawyer, who has hung up her coat in favor of retiring to a small town in Texas where she owns and runs a small herb store and a tea shop. On the side, she keeps habitually happening upon dead bodies and solving the mysteries surrounding them, thus getting the necessary fix for her analytical side.

If gun-flints are wiped with rue and vervain, the shot must surely reach the intended victim, regardless of the shooter’s aim.

                            — C.M.Skinner

                             Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants

On my part, as a reader, such quotations make way for delicious meanderings such as:

— Does the verb rue (which is known to have been first used in the 12th century) as in to regret have its origin in the herb of the same name?

— Were the qualities of various herbs as legendary in the East as they were in the West?

And, whenever I come across any tidbit about the different medicinal plants, I begin to crave the latest book of the series. Isn’t that one of the better and innovative ways to make a series more memorable?

Another good example for an epigraph is from chapter ten of the fascinating O Jerusalem by Laurie King. (It is one of the books from her series: Novels of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. If you enjoy reading Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, then this series is a must for you.)

              The human body floats without exertion on the surface, and can be submerged only with difficulty; but swimming is unpleasant, as the feet have too great a tendency to rise to the surface.

                            BAEDEKER’s Palestine and Syria,

                                                             1912 Edition

Before you shudder, the passage above is merely talking about taking a dip in the Dead Sea (or Salt Sea), which the heroine, Mary Russell, proceeds to do in the chapter crowned by the words above.

Doesn’t the phrase — delivered in a most earnest and no-nonsense manner — make you want to get your hands immediately on that edition of Baedeker’s travel guide?

Another excerpt from Laurie King’s ‘O Jerusalem’

Epigraphs, for me, are:

  • A (fun) way to get readers to think about what may or may not happen in the chapter they’re about to read.
  • One means to bring out the subplot(s), obscured by the main plot line, a reader may not stumble upon otherwise.
  • An inkling of the playfulness of the author.
  • Tiny windows into the thought-process of the author and how he/she views the book in question. How a reader perceives a book is not always similar to how the author has envisioned it. Epigraphs help close the distance between the two.

Have you run into any good epigraphs you’d like to share?

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We all know that the same word when taken out of context or even juxtaposed within a slightly different context takes on a different connotation. But recent developments in America have made me appreciate something even more subtle when it comes to words and their usage. flying-letters1

A word is considered offensive when a person belonging to one race uses it, but the same word can be seen as harmless when used by a person of a different race. And what’s more, it’s used in the same context in both the cases.

What am I referring to? Yes, the word thug. This word has made serious headlines in recent weeks.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines thug as:

Thug

noun \ˈthəg\ : a violent criminal

 Full Definition of THUG

:  a brutal ruffian or assassin :  GANGSTER, TOUGH

Seems like a straightforward definition, on the face of it.

However, the word “thug” used by Caucasians (like Maryland’s governor and others) and perhaps by people in power like President Obama  and Baltimore’s mayor—who are both African American, incidentally—to describe the rioters in Baltimore incited anger and hurt in the black community. So much so that the word had to be retracted in some cases with apology. However, when the same word is used by someone within the black community, it isn’t considered objectionable. In fact, it might even take on a slightly positive and affectionate patina.

Here’s an interview on NPR if you would like to dig some more into the history of how the word got to be this racially charged. The Racially Charged Meaning Behind the Word ‘Thug’.

(An interesting aside: this word originated in India. In Hindi, the word thag means swindler or deceiver. It snuck into the English language as thug during the British-Raj time in India.)

Isn’t it fascinating, how the use or misuse of a single word—which might be harmless when it stands by itself—can muddy our perceived intentions?

Now, go to your bookshelf and pick up your favorite book. An average 300-page novel contains 75,000 to 80,000 words. Consider the care and caution that the writer has put into each one of those words so as to string them all together to get her point across to you, the reader. Don’t you love the book that much more now? I thought you would. :)

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Has there been a time when you were feeling out of sorts and then you happen upon a phrase or hear a snatch of a song, and violá, your mood improves?

Wherever I am, whatever time of the day, all I have to have is Louis Armstrong crooning to me, “What a wonderful world!” and I begin to see colors brushed into the air around me.

When I hear Simon & Garfunkel asking, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” the concrete walls around me fall away, and I step into fields of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

The Indie Rock band American Authors tells me: “This is gonna be the best day of my life.” Suddenly even the most mundane day turns into something memorable.

Isn’t the power of words amazing?

Which words pick you up and make your feet tap out a rhythm? Please share!

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Another year has slid past and here we are in the brand new year of 2015. As each year draws to a close, we see several programs on TV and radio recounting what major events have taken place in the world in the past 12 months.

In keeping with this sentiment, I wondered … how would I like to look back at the last year? I wanted it to be a positive glance back. Then I got it. Through books, of course!My-year-in-books-1

The past year has been a gold mine for me in terms of the books I have read. They ranged from a true story of a war survivor to light-hearted mysteries to gut-twisting historicals to books on writing.

I present here the five books that most influenced my worldview, as a reader and a writer, the past 12 months.

  1. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. This book, which has women’s rights and abolition movements at its heart, is set in the early-nineteenth-century Charleston, NC. It follows the remarkable lives of its two protagonists—a slave named Handful and her owner, Sarah. The following two snippets from different parts of the book sum up the impetus behind the story:

    “You think there’s no detriment in a slave learning to read? There are sad truths in our world, and one is that slaves who read are a threat.”

    “The truth”, she said, “is that every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for own good.”

  1. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Set in the remote farmlands of northern Iceland of the early 1800s, this is one of the most atmospheric novels I’ve ever read. The protagonist, Agnes, is charged with murdering two men and is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. The book explores Agnes’s inner turmoil and how the relationships among the inhabitants of the farm change when they are forced to share the confined quarters of their croft with a convicted murderer. The author conveys much subtext and tension in the little ways the characters interact and the things they choose to share (or not) with each other. The author switches between several POVs (first-person for the protagonist and limited third for everyone else) and present and past tenses. Rather than detract from the story, this experiment seems to add to its stark narrative. What a feat! Here’s one powerful sentence from the book:

    The dream reminded me of what will happen, of how fast the days are passing me by, and now, lying awake in a room full of strangers, gazing at the patterns of sticks and peat in the ceiling, I feel my heart turn over and over and over until I feel twisted in my gut.
  1. Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass. This book is a must-read for anyone who’s trying to get published in the current market. Maass, an author and head of a successful literary agency, explains in simple terms the pulse of the current publishing industry and gives writers the tools necessary to write fiction that is bold and grabs the attention of the 21st century reader. Here’s an example:

    Find a quiet emotional moment. Is it artfully written, delicate, subtle, nuanced, and precise? Congrats. Make it enormous: a tidal wave, an attack, a life-altering earthquake.

  1. Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. This detailed odyssey of survival and self-preservation alternately made my heart swell with pride and ache from sadness for its sixteen-year-old protagonist Margo Crane. True, all that attention to guns, rifles and vivid—and at times superfluous—hunting scenes made me flinch in certain portions of the book, but I won’t forget the reticent but tenacious Margo Crane in a hurry.

    As July melted into August, Margo listened to gangs of newly fledged robins picking at the underbrush in such numbers that the woods floor seemed alive. She watched nuthatches spiral down trees headfirst to the ground and back up again. … And Margo still did not see police boats searching the river for her.

  1. Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Nelson Elizabeth. While struggling to decide between a first-person POV and a limited third-person for my current manuscript, I happened upon this book. Although at times too simplistic in its view and explanations, it helped me tremendously in going “deep” into my characters’ perspectives. The author says:

    Deep POV renders “telling” nearly impossible, because that annoying, invisible narrator has been given the boot!

From what angle would you like to look at your year past? Please share with us!

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Ever since I began looking at books from a writer’s perspective (in addition to a reader’s), I’ve heard that a book’s first line is the best way to hook or lose your reader. So much so that, in this economy, many books make it or break it based on their opening words.

No pressure for the writer, huh?

Are we so desperate for immediate gratification that we’d put away a book we’ve committed to reading, only because its first few words failed to impress us?

Whatever happened to: “Don’t judge a book by its first line?” Okay, I made that up but that’s how I feel sometimes. But then, I’ve also never subscribed to the belief: First impressions are the best impressions.

Besides, whether a sentence does it for you or not, I think, is entirely subjective.

I’ve yet to set aside a book because its first line didn’t live up to my expectations. Having said that, I have come across books that opened with much promise in their very first words—they tickled my imagination about what genre they could be; whether I needed to suspend my reality and wear my fantastical hat; or if I should to tighten my seat belt and prepare for a breathless ride through a culture foreign to me.

There have also been times when my first impressions proved to be completely baseless in how clever/satisfactory/feel-good-read the book turned out to be in the end.

Here are the first lines from some books in my bookshelf, in no particular order.

  • The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.

             The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

  • In a town called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test.

             The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart

  • He left the coffee-scented warmth of the Main Street Grill and stood for a moment under the green awning.

             At Home in Mitford, Jan Karon

  • Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free.

            Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi

  • Precious Ramotswe was sitting at her desk at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone.

             The Full Cupboard of Life, Alexander McCall Smith

  • Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

             The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan

  • The conch shell sounded, like the mountain’s deep call to the sky, and Mira knew they had entered the palace.

             Follow the Cowherd Boy, J.A. Joshi

  • “Eh, Tree-Ear! Have you hungered well today?” Crane-man called out as Tree-ear drew near the bridge.

             A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park

 

Has the first line in a book ever impressed you adversely enough to stop reading that book?

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Posted originally on March 24, 2010.

In times like these men should utter nothing for which they would not be willingly responsible through time and in eternity.

                                                                       –  Abraham Lincoln

I have at least a hundred and ten places in the world, big and small, I’d love to visit one day. They are anywhere from Egypt to Ireland to Turkey to Japan to Greece — the list goes on and on. And most of those places have sneaked into my list because of the books I’ve read over the years.

Isn’t it amazing how the image you have of the world is shaped, among other things, by the books (or any printed material) you read? That realization makes the act of writing that much more daunting – forget about how hard the craft itself is.

When it comes to writing books, non-fiction has more rules. Authors of non-fiction are expected to be cognizant of the subject at hand, and they are relied upon to include only proven facts in their books.

Not so fiction.

When writing fiction for adults there’s more leeway, because they are capable of discerning right from wrong. That’s the general belief, at least.

Writing for children? That’s an entirely different beast. Books are one of the cheapest and most commonly used tools to help shape young minds. And children  are more impressionable, and hence susceptible to persuasion.

It is well and good to keep books real. I’m all for it. Up to a point.

My problem is when books get gimmicky, all for the sake of sales or some other self-serving need of the creators of the book, and make the depraved characters in it look really cool. Is this really necessary?

Let’s say someone writes a book that has a strong subliminal message that it is okay to make a cheap buck by cheating someone else. And for whatever reason, that book goes out of print after only some hundred copies are sold.

Where do those hundred-odd copies end up? On bookshelves, where they will continue to live for a number of decades. Even if each one of them gets read by one child in each generation, that’s a lot of children brainwashed over the years. And they grow up into adults who affect more children by their beliefs, opinions, and actions. And hence the sphere of influence of that one book keeps growing.

Every book has a message in it, whether it’s an obvious one or not.

As a writer, the bottom line for me is: Would my conscience remain clear even if only one reader embraces the message in my book?

How do you keep your writing responsible?

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