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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

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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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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Merriam Webster dictionary defines Dystopia as:

  • An imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives
  • Anti-Utopia

Dystopia derives from the combination of the two Greek words dys (meaning bad/hard) and topia (meaning place/landscape). Dystopia is also sometimes referred to as Cacotopia.

Humans have always been fascinated with imagining what future — near or far — has in store for them. Weaving dystopian stories is a natural progression of this attraction. So, dystopian fantasy (stories set in a less than optimal world) has been around, I’m sure, since man could exchange ideas with fellow humans using words. Dystopian novels have been published for more than a century now.

Dystopian fantasy is a popular sub-genre of science fiction or, more broadly, speculative fiction.

The young adult market is teeming with dystopian fantasies (Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Uglies by Scott Westerfield, to name a few), although many dystopian adult novels (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Children of Men by P.D. James among others) have been popular over the years, too.

With the recent release of the movie The Hunger Games (based on a YA book of the same name), this genre is probably more popular now than ever.

These novels depict either an individual fighting against oppression or a group of people coping collectively as a society with the dehumanized conditions.

Some of these stories are set in non-specified (in terms of time and geography) worlds, though generally speaking they are set in a future that is dark, dismal and oppressive. The reasons why society, in each of these books, has slid into this state is one of many:

  • The rise to power of one political or religious group of people who then begin a systematic oppression of the society.
  • An apocalyptic disaster, natural or otherwise, resulting in pockets of survivors.
  • An unnatural/mysterious fear or disgust of the world outside. This usually is the consequence of a disaster in the distant past, the details of which none of the living members of the society remembers.
  • Advancement of technology at a more rapid rate than humans could handle. So man has shunned technology and gone back to the dark ages.
  •  Technology has taken over humans, making puppets of them.

 When I first began to read dystopian fantasies I refused to take them seriously, because they seemed overly fantastical and set so far in the future.

And then I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale. This story takes place in the United States where a theocratic regime has made the lives of women sub-human.

The ultimate shock for me? The story unfolds (in an eerily unemotional first person narrative) the truth of how the society has hurtled towards this state within the life span of a modern American woman. This novel forced me to look at the disturbing possibility that something like this could happen to any country, any time.

Despite that realization, I’m not a big fan of dystopian fiction. Why? Because, the eternal optimist in me shrivels up at all the gloom and doom in these stories. Who is to say what the future holds for us humans? Why look at it only through a pessimistic lens and expect the worst?

And the mom in me balks at the supposition that we may be leaving our future generations to such a miserable future.

Even if you haven’t had a chance to read a book set in dystopia, you may have encountered it in movies such as: The Matrix, Minority Report, Total Recall and Avatar.

So, do you like dystopian fantasies? Why or why not?

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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 main character (MC) in my current WIP (Work-In-Progress) loves Mango Lassi. Her dad, who is the better cook in the family and who also happens to be putty in my MC’s hands, makes it for her whenever she craves it.

This version of the recipe has been customized for my MC’s tastes. Basically, it’s simpler to make, but tastes as good as the original. :=)

Owing to its colorful personality, this drink lends itself very well either for a lazy summer afternoon or a rollicking garden party.

 

Mango Lassi
(Mango Milkshake)

 

Ingredients:

¼ cup Mango pulp (available in tins at specialty Indian grocery stores)
½ cup milk (skim or 1% will do)
½ cup buttermilk
a pinch of salt
a few cubes of ice

 

Mix all of the ingredients thoroughly in a blender. The mango pulp usually comes sweetened in the tins. In case it is not, you can sweeten the milkshake using half-a-tablespoon of sugar.

It is as simple as that and makes about 3 servings.

To make this less heavy and more like a punch, dilute it by adding ½ a cup of Sprite or Club Soda to the milkshake.

 

In case you’re interested, here’s the recipe for Aloo Subzi (Potato Curry), also from my WIP, that I posted last summer.

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Publisher’s Weekly has released year 2009’s hardcover  and paperback frontlist and backlist bestsellers.

Here’s a definition of backlist and frontlist from Google:

                A backlist is a list of older books available from a publisher, as opposed to titles newly published, which is sometimes called the frontlist.

My Impressions from the list:

Three facts jumped at me as I read the list:  

  • Notice anything in the pictures I have included in this post? Every book (including those that don’t feature in the photos) in the top ten list has a dark cover (and a theme filled with doom and gloom), except for the two Wimpy Kid books.  

Does that mean we are raising (by providing them these books as brain-fodder when they’re especially at the cusp of adulthood) a generation of possibly emotionally confused, dark-side worshipping humans?

Not so pleasant a thought, is it? But something we may need to mull over…

  • The book industry needs more (especially older) boy books: Writers, take note! Many people in the publishing industry (editors, agents etc.) want to disprove the myth that ‘boys over a certain age do not read’.

I think that’s a laudable goal to work towards. As I look at agents’ submission requirements, I come across more and more of them saying: “I would like to see humorous books, especially for boys” or “Interested in graphic novels” or something to that effect.

  • Unfortunately, there is no non-fiction book (not counting one about how a movie is made from a book) in the list.

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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 (I’m lumping everyone from babies to teens here) 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?

Read Full Post »

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