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Posted originally on April 21, 2010, but the content has since been slightly edited for better context.

 

The art of writing — though on some days, writing feels more like a science experiment gone wrong — is a slippery slope. The faster you try to scale the incline, the faster you lose your foothold and scramble downwards.

I believe writing is something that you discover, experience and learn over time and with patience and perseverance.

As I gather information about literary agents, editors, submission guidelines et al, I keep hearing two words – loud and clear – again and again. Critique Group. That seems to be the mantra today in the writing business, and rightly so!

As the publishing industry stands today, most of the houses are refusing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. In plain speak, they are not accepting manuscripts that come directly, if they are not exclusively requested by them, from the author. They will only look at manuscripts that reached their tables through a literary agent. This guarantees, for them, that the manuscript has gone through at least one round of checking for marketability and viability, along with some editing.

Literary agents, I hear, in turn want to make sure that the manuscript that they consider has at least been objectively reviewed. And this is where our two magic words come in.

A critique group consists of, as its name suggests, a group of people (writers in this case) who come together to critique each other’s work, objectively. Now, that last word is key. So, who constitutes a good critique group for you? A group of writers who are serious about writing, and are willing to be interested in your work enough to be critical about it.

Choose a group that fits your personality and your expectations of the level of critique. This is very important, or you’d be left being part of a group that does nothing for your learning process. It also helps to have the various members of the group writing for different age groups and in various genres. This provides for a better scope of learning.

I have been part of a face-to-face critique group for several years — I’ve been lucky enough to find peers (now my dear friends) who enhance my writing experience in all aspects. This may not always be the case. In which case, try different groups until you can find one that suits your needs.

Online critique groups are in now. And why not? They have some advantages (along with disadvantages, of course) over the traditional group. They eliminate the need for meeting in person at a fixed time – you can work at your own pace and time. The same point may also sometimes work as a drawback. Due to lack of a restriction in meeting time, others things may bump critiquing down the list when your plate is full.

It is also advised that you belong to more than one group in order to get as varied and in-depth an input on your work as possible.

This is what my critique group has been for me when it came to my writing:

–          My support group

–          My coaches

–          My cheering squad

–          My fellow-students

–          The harshest critics of my work

And I wouldn’t want them any other way. I have been fortunate enough to find a group where everyone is serious about writing and is committed to the mutual growth of every member as a writer.

In short, your critique group is a big part of your writing family.

Here are some basics that my group follows implicitly:

When you are offering a critique:

  • Begin the critique you’re offering with positive feedback.
  • Any comments (even the negatives you bring up) can and should be made constructively. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear kid gloves every time you offer a negative comment, but it doesn’t hurt to modulate it.
  • Offer your opinions as such and not as hard facts, because they are just that – your opinions.
  • Critique the work and not the writer. Refrain from using words like: “You said here…”. Instead, say, “This character sounds older than his age.” etc.
  • Remember that if a character expresses debatable opinions, that does not necessarily mean that the author subscribes to those opinions.

When you are receiving critique:

  • Be open-minded. You are asking for feedback, so be prepared to hear both positive and negative comments. In fact, be hopeful that you will receive more of the second kind, which will help you better your work.
  • Remember you are not your work – learn to effectively divorce yourself from your writing. This will allow you to receive comments/critiques much more openly.
  • Be respectful of others’ opinions. You have asked for them.
  • Finally, week after week, if all you hear is “Wonderful work”, “Nothing amiss” etc., then it is time to look for another group.

Did you notice something?

The principles above do not necessarily apply to only writing. They hold equally well to any other situation in life.

Consider the following scenarios, for instance:

–          You are required to review a technical document written by a peer.

–          You are discussing right and wrong with your child.

–          You are trying to pitch a new idea to your boss.

–          You are bargaining for a car at the dealership.

Aren’t the above rules relevant to these settings, too?

I think that’s the beauty of belonging to any group that thrives on the principle of give-and-take. It provides you with the discipline needed not only to have a better life in a particular field, but a better life. Period.

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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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I wrote this article a few years ago, when I first embarked on my writing journey. When I re-read it a few days ago, having just resurfaced from a fabulous writers conference (another topic for another post!), I realized it applies perfectly even today. So, here goes….

Posted originally on March 28, 2011

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.

  • 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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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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I recently watched two movies The King and I and Anna and the King back to back and then, for a lark, re-read the nonfiction book Anna and the King of Siam written by Margaret Landon.

This is my favorite snippet from The King and I. *** Louis (Anna’s six-year-old son): Doesn’t anything ever frighten you, Mother? Anna: Oh, yes, sometimes. Louis: What do you do? Anna: I whistle. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.                 *** Not a bad idea! I would love to adopt this trick myself, but then I’d have to learn to whistle first.

This is my favorite snippet from The King and I.
***
Louis (Anna’s six-year-old son): Doesn’t anything ever frighten you, Mother?
Anna: Oh, yes, sometimes.
Louis: What do you do?
Anna: I whistle. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.
***
Not a bad idea! I would love to adopt this trick myself, but then I’d have to learn to whistle first.

The two movies and the book are based on the real life events of Anna Leonowens (a British woman) who spent five years as a governess/teacher in the court of King Mongkut in the Thailand (Siam) of the 1860s. It was a turbulent time in Thailand’s history, with the British, French and Burmese sniffing at it from all sides.

King Mongkut hired Anna to lead his considerably large royal brood—including his heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn, who incidentally went on to become Thailand’s most popular and progressive ruler and accredited many of his principles to the foundation that Anna had laid through her teaching—into the modern world.

I like to compare books/movies based on the same subject matter but written/directed by different people. This fun activity always results in fresh revelations about objectivity and point of view. (Read my observations from another similar exercise here: Point of View.)

Margaret Landon, author of the book Anna and the King of Siam, writes of Anna’s first impression of the king: “How revolting to be dependent for one’s innocent desires upon the caprice of this withered grasshopper of a King!” However, as she works closely with the king in translating and writing his English and French correspondence, Anna begins to respect his extraordinary intelligence and keenness of mind.

Coming to the two movies, The King and I was released in 1956. As the name suggests, this movie solely focuses on the relationship between Anna and the king and relegates the rest of the rich tapestry of incidents to the backdrop. Perhaps as suited for the times, this movie shies away from depicting any ugliness, including the fickleness of the king’s character and the inhumane concubinage and slavery that was rampant in Siam.

Yul Brynner, actor and noted Broadway star, plays the king in the movie as if he’s still on stage. He’s loud and gimmicky to the point that he makes the king look like a caricature and sound like a fool. (Also, his king is no withered grasshopper; rather he is buffed up and athletic, and his costume makes sure we notice.) All the actors in the movie speak in loud overtones as if to make up for their lack of knowledge of the customs of Siam. Perhaps it has somewhat to do with the fact that it’s a musical. Still, Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (who plays Anna) make it work, and you come away from the movie with a light spirit, if not especially instructed in the culture of Siam.

The second movie Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, was released in 1999. This movie is on the opposite end of the spectrum in its sensibilities from The King and I. Far from being averse to harshness and brutality, this version seems to anchor the story in them. The movie begins with a gruesome scene with several dead bodies hanging from a tree—the director’s way of depicting the political unrest between Siam and a British-backed Burma.

Jodie Foster, with her stiff body language, makes Anna remote and aloof to me, while Chow Yun-Fat takes King Mongkut to the other extreme. With his characteristic genteel demeanor, Yun-Fat turns King Mongkut into a gentle giant of a man as opposed to the mercurial autocrat that he was. This movie, however, makes a better effort at explaining the Eastern philosophy and putting some of the spotlight on Anna’s relationship with the various royal children and concubines.

A single point the two movies share (and hence stray as far as possible from the real life events they’re based on) is: they are both love stories at their core. Say what? Nowhere in the book does Anna say that she has developed any feelings for the king but frustration, irritation and many times a grudging respect. So, why, oh, why should both the movies twist the plot into an unfulfilled love story? Because that’s what Hollywood does best. Sigh!

As the last frame rolled away, I was yet again reminded that how a movie shapes up is subject to the past and present life experiences of the director and the actors assaying the roles. When we watch a movie, we’re stepping for the duration of it into the director’s private chamber upon his/her invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends on our own point of view as a viewer.

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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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