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I grew up in India immersing myself in the English language almost as much as I did my mother tongue. Although English was termed my second language in school, and later when I came to the US I was told I was a non-native speaker of English, the language never felt secondary or alien to me.

I’ve been told several times in the past two decades here in the US that I have a lilting cadence to my English speech that makes it exotic. I never heard my accent nor noticed the variations in the way I modulated certain sounds and syllables. I was too busy learning the American idioms and adding new vocabulary to my repertoire.

Until recently, that is. A few months ago, I observed a certain shift to my listening. It suddenly dawned on me why I say some words differently than a native English speaker in the US. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I learned speaking English in India, which although retains few traces of the British English after all these years, still favors the British turn of phrase and pronunciation.

It has everything to do with the fact that my mother tongue, Telugu, is a non-phonetic language. That means, unlike in English, what you see written on the page is exactly how you pronounce the words. There are no two ways of saying the same word. Telugu has over 50+ letters in its alphabet, so there’s no chance for confusion. The same is true with most Indian languages.

In an Indian language, not all words have emphatic syllables in them. If you need a particular syllable in a word to be stressed harder, then you write it a certain way that leaves no doubt of the pronunciation. Not so in English.

Each and every word in English has at least one syllable that is emphasized in speech, even if it’s a one-syllable word like “a.” The syllable you choose to emphasize, the way you articulate it, the inflection you place on the sound… all these figure into your accent.

I realized that, as a native speaker of Indian languages, I sometimes neglect to enunciate a certain syllable in an English word because I don’t see the stress highlighted in the written word. For instance, take the word banana. The middle syllable na is stressed harder and stretched longer than the rest but it looks in writing as do the rest of the syllables. The word is not spelled bannaana to focus the stress. No book or teacher can teach this; it’s a matter of listening and emulating.

After this epiphany, I’m listening to spoken English with keener ears. Words and sounds that were mundane before reveal new personalities and interesting facets to me at every turn.  My ears perk up at once-familiar words that now tease me with a host of possibilities.

Does this mean I’m going to work at losing my “accent?” No, because that modulation is part of who I am. Will I stop confusing the heck out of my children by pronouncing “year” as “ear” because I forget to accentuate the beginning “ya” sound? Probably not.

I am, however, very much looking forward to this phase of my relationship with the English language. A phase where I get to acquaint myself with it all over again.

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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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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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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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You pick up a book at the library, because you read an excerpt about it somewhere. You’re very excited about reading it, because you can’t wait to see how the author has handled the plot, how she has sketched the characters, and how well she has balanced action and dialogue with description. And, that book is very close in genre and age-group to the one on which you’re currently working.

You come home and start reading it. Your heart begins to race, because whaddaya know? The book begins very similar to how yours does. Now, isn’t that amazing? You continue to breeze through the book and as you go on, your heart rate slows down until your heart begins to slowly plummet. Why? Because the book is telling your story!

That’s not fair! It was your brainchild. How dare someone else not only have the same idea, but execute it well ahead of you and publish it, too?

Has this (or something similar) happened to you? I’m sure as writers, every one of us has confronted something along these lines at one time or another.

What do you do when faced with such a debilitating experience?

You take a deep breath, shake your head, and finish reading that book. At the end you go: “A very good book, but I’m sure mine will be better.”

Writers are eternal optimists, if not anything else, especially when it comes to their stories and plotlines. Aren’t they?

They have to be, or they couldn’t proceed to put down their inner-most thoughts on paper day in and day out for everyone’s perusal, could they?

If you have faced such a situation, take heart! There are over six billion humans inhabiting this planet of ours. Isn’t it highly likely that any time you’re having a thought, at least one other person on this Earth is having the exact same thought (even if they may be thinking it in a language completely foreign to you?).

That is why many also opine that no story is ever completely original. There are only so many original ideas in the world, in human psyche at least, and every one of them has already been explored. So, whatever story you’re working on right now, you’re trying to tell one that has already been narrated; be it via the written word or by word of mouth.

So, what keeps your effort apart and makes it genuine? The fact that you are trying to tell the story in your own voice.

That is also why, even if there’s a book already out there with a plot line similar to yours, there’s nothing earth-shattering about it. Your book, when it’s done, will still be different from that one, because:

  • Not every twist in the book’s plot could be similar to those in yours
  • Your voice is your own, which makes your book different from every other one out there
  • Your character development is bound to take its own unique path
  • Your setting will have aspects that belong to you, your experiences, and your past and present, which makes it original in its own right

And look at the brightest fact of all:

If a book similar to the one that you’re writing has already been published, then it can only mean one thing…

There is an audience out there that is ready, with its appetite already whetted, for your book.

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You know you have been bitten by the writing bug, if:                                                                                                    

10.  You cannot seem to switch the muse off, and it hits you at the worst possible moments.

9. You have a better idea about the likes and dislikes of your (target) literary agent than those of your better half.

8. You keep wishing that coffee is a food group on which humans could sustain solely.

7. You keep checking on the net to see if the prices on Dictaphone-Transcribers have come down yet.

6. Much to the agony of the members of your family, you insist on acting out every new twist/conversation in your manuscript.

5. You do not think having conversations with characters in your book out loud is odd.

4. People at your table have to resort to wiping their mouths on their clothes, because you keep snagging the napkins to jot down your ideas.

3. You keep eavesdropping on private conversations blatantly and maintain that it’s all part of your job.

2. It doesn’t embarrass you to accidentally show up wearing mismatched socks to a business meeting, but you’d feel naked if you didn’t lug around your laptop wherever you went.

1. You tend to blubber, “Oh, that’s ’s favorite dish. Wish she could join us today!” when you see certain entrées served at restaurants.

 –**–

My blog has been recently awarded “One Lovely Blog” by kind souls: Rosemary at Miss Rosemary’s Novel Ideas and Lisa at Milk Fever Blog, and Barb at CreativeBarbwire. Thank you all so much!

Rosemary continues to write posts, filled with her quirky sense of humor, related to writing and life in general.

Lisa has just had her first novel, Milk Fever, published recently. Her blogs seem deceptively simple at first sight. However, read on and you’ll soon catch on to the fact that each of those posts packs a down-to-earth truth about the subject at hand.

Barb, by her own confession, is a writer, an artist, a world creator, and a story-teller. She actively pursues ‘happiness’ in various ways in her blog, and also generously shares information she has gathered, about writing and the publishing industry, via her extensive research.

Do check out their blogs, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

I’m supposed to reveal seven things about myself. I’ve already done quite a few posts in that vein over the past few months (and phew, that was hard). So, with your permission, I’ll just skip over to the more interesting step of passing on the awards.

I’d like to pass this award on to these blogs:

“You’re Going Places, Baby” award to:

 

“The Versatile Blogger” award to:

All of these blogs give me something to mull over whenever I visit them and hence add a touch of authenticity to my day!

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