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I recently read, back to back, two works of fiction that are based on one historical figure’s life. I didn’t expect them to be overly similar, but I wasn’t prepared for them to be so different either.

What made them so dissimilar was the point of view of each of the authors. And by that I don’t mean the first person or the limited/omniscient third person view they used to narrate the tale, but the perspective and understanding of the authors about the life and times of the subject matter.

The books are Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan and Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Both the books examine the life of Mughal princess Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and Empress Mumtaz Mahal (yes, the Mumtaz Mahal of the Taj Mahal fame). The stories are set in an India of the 1600s that is thrown into turmoil by the constant bickering of the various invading forces like the Mughals, the British, the Portuguese and other opportunists.

Shadow Princess is the last of a set of three books called the Taj Mahal trilogy. Sundaresan sets the stage beautifully for Jahanara and narrates her story (in alluring poetic prose that enhances the ambiance) with the right mix of awe and slight disdain that Mughal lives tend to evoke in most Indians’ hearts. Sundaresan’s Jahanara is bold and decisive, but tempered by subtlety and decorum. When suddenly burdened with the responsibility of a mourning father and confused siblings upon her mother’s death, teenager Jahanara steps into the role with aplomb. Over time, she learns to protect her own interests with the requisite cunning that is inevitable in her position.

Shors’s Jahanara, on the other hand, is outspoken and in-the-face courageous. So much so that she rides astride a horse in broad daylight, walks around the city unveiled and openly disobeys her husband. In short, she could pass for a twenty-first century (almost American) teenager, if you didn’t know any better.

Having grown up in India and read its history, I know that Mughal women were rarely allowed outside their palaces and certainly never without purdah. If it were a princess, then her life was even more circumscribed owing to the intrigues surrounding her as the candidate for a powerful political alliance.

I feel Sundaresan, being an Indian and a woman, handles the subject with better insight into the traditions and restrictions Jahanara possibly faced during her lifetime and how those same constraints shaped her into the strong and influential figure she grew into.

Shors deals with the situation head-on and makes a formidable heroine of Jahanara. I didn’t dislike the book. In fact, after I managed to swallow my irritation (even if it took me several trials and dozens of pages into the book to get there) at how modern Jahanara and the other characters and their interactions with each other sound, the book grew on me. I loved the gumption and resourcefulness of Shor’s Jahanara.

This exercise brought home to me forcefully once more that a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is colored by the past and present life experiences of the author among many other things. When we open a book, we’re stepping for the duration of the story into the author’s private chamber upon their invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends upon our own point of view as a reader.

Have you read two or more books by different authors but based on the same personality or incident? Please share with us your experiences from the activity!

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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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Miss Read: it’s the name of one of my all-time favorite authors. Dora Saint was her real name, but she was better known by her pseudonym, Miss Read.

Dora Saint worked as a school teacher before she began to write full time. She admittedly gleaned many of the subjects and topics for her numerous novels and short stories from her real life experiences while living and teaching in rural England.

She wrote three popular series of novels — among other fiction and non-fiction volumes — set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green, Fairacre and Caxley in the English countryside. (As far as I know she wrote only two books set in Caxley as opposed to at least a dozen in each of the other two.)

When my sister first introduced Miss Read to me close to two decades ago, it was a perfect opportunity for me to transition my childhood love for Enid Blyton’s rural England to a more mature appreciation for the lifestyle via Miss Read’s books. The settings and happenings in Miss Read’s novels couldn’t be farther from the hustle and bustle of my own life; I couldn’t devour the books fast enough. Luckily for me, and scores of others who adored her books, she has had a prolific writing career.

On the surface, the stories follow the laidback routines of pastoral England with its thatched cottages and primly laid out gardens. If you care to delve deeper into the pages, however, you will have gained a firmer understanding of the basic human emotions such as: love, curiosity, competition, eccentricities and companionship.

Dora Saint, the author, does not sit on a pedestal and pass judgment on her characters. Rather, her writing is a testimony to her incisive, but compassionate, study of the human psyche and its usual (or not so usual, at times) foibles. And that’s what makes the books so precious in their quality.

Each of the books set in Thrush Green chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of that lush and charming Cotswold village. Who can forget the unparalleled eccentricities of Dotty Harmer; the righteous laziness of Albert Piggott; the cheroot-smoking boisterousness of Ella Bembridge; the nonchalant promiscuousness of Nelly Tilling; the epic miserliness of the Misses Lovestock? You can’t help but fall in love with each of these utterly disarming characters.

Fairacre books feature the school teacher Miss. Read and her supposedly uncomplicated life as it becomes entwined with those of the others in the village and thus adds another full year to her life in each volume. Each character helps make Miss Read’s spinsterly life (which she means to keep that way despite the constant wooing of one or two beaus and the innumerable attempts of the villagers to get her hooked up) read delectably rich and engaging.

Among many others, Dora Saint has inspired Jan Karon, the American author who wrote Mitford Series. Irish musician Enya named two tracks in two of her albums after Miss Read’s novels.

Dora Saint passed away on 12th April of this year. However, she lives on through the numerous characters she brought to life with the gentle strokes of her pen.

I can never tire of Miss Read’s works; they only get dearer to me each time I re-read them.

In fact, Miss Read’s books to me are what “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” are for Maria in The Sound of Music.

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Below are opinions I’ve heard expressed about who would make a good writer.

Some of them may sound unfairly judgmental and derogatory to writers in general? Don’t worry about it, because, ironically enough, all of the viewpoints have come from writers themselves, aspiring or otherwise.

  • A Control Freak: Writers like to have control… To the extent that they revel in controlling others’ lives. They write so they can act puppeteers, to their hearts’ content, to the lives of the characters.
  • Challenge Challenged: Writers are people who have had a smooth life. They probably breezed through to adulthood and have overcome challenges in life a tad too easily so far. Now, publishing industry is the nut they’re trying to crack. (No pun intended.)
  • A Schizophrenic: If a person has one too many personalities vying within, he/she cannot help but become a writer. Writers hear voices inside their heads. They have to give personalities to the voices via the characters in their books or succumb to insanity.
  • An Eccentric: Only a person who derives pleasure from constant sleeplessness, uncertainty, self-doubt, and clearing obstacles — big and small — on a day-to-day basis can make a writer.
  • An absent-minded professor: Is your friend/spouse/colleague/insert-other-relationship constantly lost inside his/her own world? Does s/he often have a bemused expression on her/his face, and seldom make a good dinner companion? Then, be prepared. S/he is getting ready to spring a book or a story-line on you soon.

 

I have to say, some of the notions above definitely ring a bell for me. (Of course, I’m not telling you which ones!)

Do you have any other definitions you’d like to add to this list?

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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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The other day, I was watching “Chopped Champions” on Food Network. (“Chopped” is a show where four chefs compete against each other; one chef is let go – or chopped — per round of cooking, based on the criteria of judging they have.) In the episode I was watching, four winners from previous rounds came back to butt heads with each other for bigger stakes.

As the kitchen in the show grew hotter, I began to realize the uncanny similarities between cooking and writing. I took away some basic lessons from that one episode — lessons that are not new, but ones we tend to take for granted.

Here goes:

  • Take time to prep your ingredients: The judges tasted grit in the dish one of the contestants had prepared. The chef had neglected to clean the main ingredient — sea urchin — thoroughly. Instead of impressing the judges, her dish turned them off. She was “chopped” instantly.
    • Lesson: It is important to sweat the basic stuff. When writing a new novel/story, research the period and place as much as you can. This will add authenticity to your world-setting and your characters will feel real.

 

  • Depend on your dish: One contestant got promoted to the second round even though his dish did not meet the judges’ approval. This happened only because one of the other chefs had left dirt in her main ingredient. However, in the very next round, that guy got chopped because he didn’t season his dish very well.
    • Lesson: Do not depend upon others’ failure/success to give you a boost. It only goes so far. When it comes to writing, do not concentrate on the existing trends or non-trends in the industry. By the time you finish writing your book those same trends may be out of fashion or more likely would have jaded the readers. Write about a subject you are passionate about, that you believe would make a fascinating read.

 

  • Seasoning is important: The chef who got chopped in the second round had forgotten to season his chicken. From what I deduced by then, this chef was not bad to begin with (he had to be good to have been titled “champion” in a previous tussle), but then he had probably begun to coast along rather than letting his passion for cooking to come through in his dishes. This apathy had cost him his advancement to the next round.
    • Lesson: However good a writer you are, if your story is missing the seasoning — a heart — then it won’t go anywhere. You, the writer, has to believe in the story before the reader will.

 

  • Your previous dish won’t speak for you: The lady who was let go because she left dirt in her food entered this competition as a favorite. I could tell that the judges were almost reluctant to let her go, but the mistake she made was not a simple one to overlook. 
    • Lesson: You are only as good as your latest product. Even a successful writer can rest on his/her laurels for only so long.

 

  • Cook to the best of your ability and then stand back: The chef who won in that episode was the least experienced of the lot. However, he cooked passionately and to the best of his abilities. This finally proved to be the best strategy.
    • Lesson: It is better to be constantly improving and growing in your trade than to be a flash in the pan. Don’t aim to be a one-book wonder. It’s important to realize and accept the fact that not all writers are created equal. However, one doesn’t need to be über-talented to be a good writer. Keep up your passion for writing and your work will shine as a result.

 

  • Concentrate on showcasing your best dishes: Two of the contestants kept getting worked up by peeking at others’ prep work during the cooking rounds. The third one kept his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, and concentrated only on creating his best dish every single time with the given ingredients. He won.
    • Lesson: Don’t let others’ success or talent intimidate you. Everyone has their own slot in every field. Keep on the lookout and you’ll find your groove.

 

  • Use the ingredients you know to the best effect: In one round, as I already mentioned, the contestants were given sea urchins as the main ingredient. One of the chefs had never worked with it before, and he was nervous about it. In the end, though, he took the best route possible: among the rest of the ingredients he had, he chose the ones he knew best and paired them with the sea urchin and created a sauce. He was basically faking it. It worked. That sauce blew away the judges.
    • Lesson: If you have to fake it, then do it confidently. It is good, even paramount, to do a lot of research before you embark on a new novel or story. However, sometimes, no amount of research will seem to be enough. For example, if your story takes place in the next millennium, chances are high that your imagination goes the extra mile than real, hard research. In such a case, remember you are the one with the most expertise when it comes to the world you are building.

 

What lessons (about life, writing, painting, sewing or anything at all) would you like to share with the rest of us today?

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Below is some good advice I gleaned over the past few months, talking to/communicating with fellow-writers, reading blogs, perusing books on writing, and attending talks and conferences.

Almost all of the points sound simple enough to be obvious, and some of them border on being trite. However, sometimes, saying out loud something I already know makes it more immediate, and I begin to pay better attention to it.

  • Write Anyway: One of my readers had left this advice in the comments of this blog a while ago. (Thanks, Sharmon!) I think it makes a lot of sense to keep writing even when you feel like you’re not doing it right. That way, you’re not leaving a chink open for writer’s block to edge in. Also, once you write a scene or a chapter, even if you think it’s not up to par, you can always chip it away or embellish it later and transform it into a full-bodied scene. In case you can’t do that, think of it this way: you’ve learned how “not” to write via this exercise.

 

  • Always Carry a Notebook and a Pen: You never know when you may come upon an incident or a quote that you’d like to record to use later in your writing. Or, it may even happen that when you’re waiting for your train at the subway or at a café for your chai latte, inspiration strikes. You don’t want to cast about for a paper and pen at that point; you wouldn’t want your finicky muse to move on because of unpreparedness on your part, would you?

 

  • Develop Your Own Routine: Most successful and prolific writers have a set routine they follow for writing. This is easier to do if writing is your day job, but even otherwise, it’s best if you could develop the discipline of a strict routine and write every day.

 

  • Read Voraciously: Read as many books as you can, especially in the age group and genre you’re writing. Notice what works and what doesn’t in each of those books. This is by far the best, and cheapest, way to learn how to write.

 

  • Get Involved in the Writing Community: Immerse yourself in the large community of writers out there, be it via blogging or attending conferences or becoming a member of writing societies or being part of a critique group or all of the above. All these motivate you to keep forging ahead. Not only that, but they also help you make connections which in turn provide you with opportunities to learn.

 

  • Enjoy Your Work: Deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise, are good. However, don’t let them corner you; enjoy the whole process.

 

  • KISS: And when it comes to the actual writing itself, KISS: Keep It Simple and more Simple. (Okay, actually the second “S” stands for “Stupid,” but I like this version better. Otherwise it sounds as if writers should dumb their writing down for readers, which would be wrong counsel.) Use words sparingly. Choose the most effective path of writing to convey your point.

 

This list pretty much applies to any kind of writing, not just writing non-fiction or fiction. If you’ve ever written a story, a memo, an essay for college admission, or a letter to someone, chances are you’ve used one or more of these principles.

What would you like to add to this list? Words of caution, encouragement, opinions, admonitions, you name it, anything is welcome!

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I know it’s a little bit early to be writing about Thanksgiving, but that’s not exactly what this post is about. It is simply about giving thanks. I believe it’s never too early or too late to say a simple, yet heart-felt, ‘thank you’ to anyone.

One evening, a few years ago, I stood in the long checkout line at a grocery store. My cart was sagging under the weight of all the odds and ends that make up an average week’s worth of groceries. In front of me stood a woman, with just a carton of milk in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other.

Unlike me, she didn’t seem to mind that the line was moving at the speed of an especially lazy sloth (okay, I’m taking poetic license here — strictly speaking, it’s not laziness at all that makes sloths as slow as they are). The lady turned around and smiled at me and took stock of my cart. And then she did the most amazing thing. She said to me, “Why don’t you go ahead of me in the line?” I thought I was hearing things. She must have seen the confusion on my face, because she laughed and said, “I had a wonderful day today. Letting you check out ahead of me is my way of thanking all those people who helped make this day a beautiful one for me.”

She practically floored me. I mean, we don’t see such kindness very often these days! And the sentiment she expressed was so simple and lovely that it stayed with me. It taught me to never be shy to thank someone sincerely, if they helped make a difference for you. Even if it’s something as small as your best friend giving you a spontaneous hug because she notices that you’re looking frayed around the edges, or something bigger like a total stranger stopping on the road to lend you a hand with changing a flat tire.

Thank you all for coming to my blog again and again to read my rambles. I really appreciate your presence here as well as your encouragement. I’ve learned as much, if not more, from all your insightful comments as I did from my research of each of the subjects I discussed here so far.

I’m going away on a trip to India shortly to see family. I’m leaving behind my laptop and all those implements that would let me be online at the touch of a button. This is my way of thanking my mind and body for still sticking with me, despite my driving them both to exhaustion more often than not. So, I won’t be blogging for a while. Neither will I be able to read your posts for a few weeks, but I’ll definitely be thinking about you all.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Hope you all have a wonderful time with your loved ones!!

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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 plotline, 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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Why Do You Choose To Write?

Writing is one of the loneliest endeavors – be it as a job or a hobby – you could undertake. However many friends you may have who also happen to write, however many critique groups you may be a part of, however many web sites you may browse for information and encouragement, at the end of the day, you are your sole motivator, cheerleader, champion and advocate.

Writing is equivalent to putting your inner-most thoughts on paper. When you write, you are essentially exposing your most vulnerable side for public perusal. And it takes courage to do that.

Writing is its own reward, definitely, but it is also hard work. It is also the kind of work that makes it hard to justify all the hours and effort you put into it. I mean, there is no guarantee that all the time, passion and effort you’re putting into a novel or story or article will definitely translate into a publishing contract, is there?

Still, many of us persist and keep forging head. Some of us wake up early in the morning, and some of us stay up late into the night. Just so our writing does not disrupt the rhythm of life around us. Just so we can let our thoughts take flight uninterruptedly. Just so the words we pen won’t be influenced by the kind of day we are experiencing. Just so it is the writing and you, with nothing else in between.

So, why is it that I choose to write?

Because, I am passionate about it.

Because, it makes me feel alive.

Because, it gives me the most healthy high possible.

And because, I can’t think of not doing it.

Why do you choose to write?

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