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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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According to Wikipedia, the term literary fiction came into existence around 1960, to distinguish serious fiction from the many types of genre or popular fiction (these latter are categorized as commercial fiction).

Literary fiction is more character-driven while commercial fiction is plot-driven. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the former does not have any plot (or is not at all genre-based) or that the latter doesn’t have strong characters. It’s just that one is more dominant than the other in each of the types.

From my research into this subject, here is my summary of what makes a particular book one or the other type of fiction:

What marks a work of fiction as literary?

  • Maturity of style/voice
  • Content that is more serious and thought-provoking
  • Deeper analysis of characters’ psychology
  • Richness in imagery

What are the more distinguishing features of mainstream commercial fiction?

  • Specific genre(s)
  • Fast-paced narrative
  • Compelling plot-lines
  • Wider mainstream appeal

It is safe to say that commercial fiction tends to have faster pace and beat and heightened drama, while literary fiction delves deeper into situations and the characters’ responses and reactions to them.

Some opine that literary fiction should be considered a genre in itself.

As with anything else related to the field of writing, what sets literary fiction apart from commercial fiction is somewhat subjective.

Here are my questions for you for the day:

  1. Do you believe that commercial fiction sells more easily than literary fiction in today’s market?
  2. As a reader, which do you prefer: a literary piece or a story with commercial leanings to it?
  3. If you’re a writer, which side of the spectrum would you place your work?

Here are my answers to the questions above:

  1. Yes.
  2. I think the classics I like to read are considered literary pieces, but I also read a lot of mysteries, whose genre makes them commercial fiction.
  3. Hmm… this is a toughie. The novel I’m currently working on is historical fantasy, which is a legitimate genre. It has a strong plot, but also a protagonist who drives that plot. And, my style tends to focus on imagery among other things, which means that my WIP has characteristics and elements that are specific to the definition of both literary and commercial fiction.

             So, basically, my answer is: I’m not sure!

All I know is this:

I aim to be true to my original vision and write the book so it entertains. Hopefully, it will also leave the readers thinking about it at least for some time after they have finished it.

Fair enough? :0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

  • What makes you tick as a reader?

 

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

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If you resist reading what you disagree with, how will you ever acquire deeper insights into what you believe?  The things most worth reading are precisely those that challenge our convictions. 
                                                      
~Author Unknown

What’s with us adults and political correctness?

When I read as a child, I was rarely bothered by the opinions that some of the authors seemed to hold that were in direct contrast with what I was taught or what I saw around me. I calmly chalked it up to one of two things:

a) The author didn’t know what s/he was talking about (yes, I was a confident – well ok, maybe just a tad cocky – kid).

b) The time period during which the author lived (I was reading a lot of English classics at one point) must lead her/him to bear such an opinion.

If I liked the book, I just kept reading it. The opinions expressed by some of the characters never lessened my enjoyment of the story itself, and I never sat down to analyze the intentions of those characters.

(I had much better and more fun things to think about: What new and weird-sounding-named snack is mom going to have ready when I go back home from school today; Is Steffi Graf going to beat Gabriela Sabatini in the U.S Open match tomorrow?; What fun things can we do this summer when all of us cousins get together again? to mention but a few.)

When I read the same books now, as an adult, some of the theories expounded in them raise my hackles. Why? Is that because, as adults:

  • Somewhere along the line, we have begun to take ourselves too seriously?
  • We have become intolerant?
  • We tend to attribute the author’s opinions to ourselves and that touches a nerve?
  • We have become so jaded that we cannot take anything at face value without analyzing it to death?
  • We have become vulnerable to hurt?
  • To take it a step further: is it because some feel responsible for all those masses who, according to them, don’t know what is best for them? So, they take it upon themselves to educate the others by telling them which books to read and which ones not to.

Or is it a combination of all of the above? What do you all think?

I never fully grasped the meaning of the adage ‘Every coin has two sides’ more than when I sat down to write this post. Please come back on Wednesday when I try to examine the flip side to today’s topic: responsibility of a writer.

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The one expression I would never voluntarily use to describe myself is: “Sugar Doll”. However, today, I’m willingly, and happily at that, declaring myself as one. Why?

My fellow writer and blogger Jai Joshi, who has quite a few awards under her blogger’s belt herself, has presented my blog with the Sugar Doll Award last month — my very first blog award! I was tickled pink, let me tell you!

I had just begun to blog a couple of weeks prior then. So, I left the award in Jai’s safekeeping until I found my feet around blogosphere. Thank you, Jai — your encouragement and timely words of advice are very much appreciated!

Also, thank you, my dear readers, for challenging and motivating me to do better with every post. I love it when I see you agreeing (or disagreeing) with the points of view I express in this space. That is why these days everywhere I turn, I naturally see subjects worth blogging. That is also why I feel I’m ready to accept this award.

As a recipient of this award, I’m supposed to do two things: 1) Reveal ten things about myself and 2) Pass this award on to another blogger(s).

Here goes my response to the first stipulation:

  • Gardening relaxes me – yes, even the weeding part of it.

 

  • I love to watch (never played it) cricket and can be an occasional couch potato, staying up all night to watch a close match in progress on the other side of the world.

 

  • To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. If you have just one idea that you feel compelled to share with the world, do what Harper Lee did: Write one solid book about it and sit back and enjoy, while your book goes on to make history. Sigh!

 

  • I love watching Korean dramas on T.V. They are clean and wholesome – you don’t have to be on the ready, clutching the remote, to switch to Food Channel or PBS guiltily every time a child passes by when you’re watching prime time programs on that channel.

 

  • I don’t enjoy (to put it mildly) shopping in the mall, much to the dismay of my family. Are you rolling your eyes at this point and going: “Is she kidding?” No, sadly, I’m not. I’m more of a “zero in on the aisle carrying the things you need and get out as soon as possible” person.

 

  • Custard Apples are one of my favorite varieties of fruit and I miss them sorely in the U.S.

 

  • I’m fascinated by the early Mughal period of Indian history. Would love to write a book set in that time period some day.

 

  • I’m not much of a poetry person. There are a handful of poets whose works I enjoy immensely, but I invariably prefer prose to poetry.

 

  • I love to play (shuttle) badminton.

 

  • Growing up, I was an out-and-out tomboy. Back then, if you were looking for me, you’d have better chances of finding me atop rooftops or among the branches of a tree than on level ground.

Phew! Coming up with that list was not an easy exercise, believe me!

Now for the second condition of the award — I would like to pass this on to Leigh Attaway Wilcox and Patti Joy Clark.

We all face challenges, big or small, at one time or another in our lifetimes. Most of us eventually learn to take them in stride and move on. However, some people go one step beyond: they decide to proactively do something about it, like sharing the experience they gained openly, so others could benefit from it. I admire that trait in people very much. Leigh and Patti are two such.

Go check out their blogs and you’ll see what I mean.

Thanks again, everyone, for being there and making writing – something that I already love – that much more fun and meaningful for me!

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Okay, so the title is not entirely true. I still very much love and enjoy reading. It’s just that the definition of ‘fun’ as it relates to reading has changed for me.

Now, when I pick up a book, it’s not merely to indulge myself. It’s not just a hobby any longer, though I’d have to admit, reading has always been much more than a hobby with me – it’s been a natural part of my life.

It’s just that my objectivity and perspective as a reader have recently altered. It’s like a kaleidoscope: I have adjusted the viewing tube ever so slightly and the whole pattern has shifted.

Let’s take a look at some of the thoughts that are likely to roil through a writer’s head the minute s/he starts reading a good book written by someone else:

  1. Wow, what a strong opening! Guess I need to work on mine (in my novel-in-progress) some more. (This thought can be objectively interpreted as: “Wish I would experience an epiphany and the opening for my novel would strike me like a bolt of lightning.”)
  2. Ugh! How could he have written the exact scene that has been brewing in my head for the past two weeks? (Read as: “The scene is somewhat similar to the one I’ve been sketching – the same one I haven’t been able to cough up coherently enough to put down on paper yet.”)
  3. Yes!! The voice of this character is very close to my protagonist’s. (Read as: “If this book got published, then there’s hope for mine, too!”)
  4. The narrative is so catchy; I admire the style very much! (Read as: “I’m envious, pure and simple.”)
  5. The plot is strong, there is just the right balance of dialogue and narrative, and the flow is so natural in this book. (Read as: “How many more revisions before my manuscript gets this tight?”)
  6. This author is so prolific. (Read as: “I’m jealous of this author.”)
  7. Gosh, I never expected this twist! (Read as: “I need to explore this genre more, if I didn’t see this coming. Sigh!”)

Reading like a writer is a completely different game, with its own set of rules, than reading for fun or relaxation. It is a sport that can become exciting and effective with discipline and practice.

I am game for this: I look forward to fashioning new relationships with a whole lot of new books, and forging fresher bonds with those that I have already read in the past.

Has something like this happened to you? I’d love it if you’d share with us your newfound wisdom!

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