A Writer and Reviews

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What exactly does a review of a book mean to a writer?

For different writers it means different things.

For some it is a sign of recognition, a ticket into the exclusive club of writers, for others it is a validation of their writing. But most of all, I think, for any writer, a review is a sign that there are readers out there who have noticed her book, welcomed it and befriended it. For a book, born in the safe vault of a writer’s mind, being published and sent out into the world is a big outing and both the book and its creator are bound to experience nervous pangs. A review comforts them.

Of course, this is assuming a review is positive. There are reviews that find huge holes in the plot, dismiss the logic of the story and sneer at the way the book ends. What does a writer do then? How does she react to a negative review of her book?

A negative review is painful, it leaves the writer feeling vulnerable and unsure, wondering if she ought to even write again. No well meaning comfort from friends, family and editors works at this point. It is entirely the writer’s responsibility to understand that no story can be universally liked. The writer has to accept that every reader is bound to have an opinion on how the book could have been edited better, or how the characters could have been made more likeable or even what would have been a truly thrilling climax. Some reviewers even offer kind suggestions on how the writer can improve her writing style, her characterization or even her dialogues.

All I can say is – take these in good part. What they all mean is that your reviewers have read your book with close attention. It shows that the reviewer spent some time thinking about the story and the characters, and some additional time coming up with suggestions for you.   The involved nature of their comments suggests a level of engagement with your book that should thrill any writer.

Because, after all, isn’t that why you became a writer?

So people would read your stories?

That Flying Feeling

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I was introduced to reading when I was 6 or 7 years old. By today’s standards that is late indeed. But books were not as easily available as they are today. Plus they came only in one format – the old-fashioned one, that was printed on paper and came in various sizes.

My first introduction to the world of stories occurred when my mother subscribed to a children’s magazine for my brother and me to read. When I look back on the quality of stories and the unimaginative format they used, the magazine seems like a rather pathetic way to begin the voyage of reading. As a child, though, it was like being granted entry into a secret world that was far removed from the routine one of friends and petty quarrels, homework and the whole process of growing up.

I graduated soon to novels and books became my way of dealing with the world. Every new child I met was classified into various categories, based on how they answered my question, ‘Do you read?’ It was a question that was to decide many things, and I always waited with bated breath to hear what the answer would be. People who looked puzzled at the question were doomed to never feature on my list of close friends. To my delight, I discovered that reading was a bug that had bitten many of the people who lived around me. What was more, I further discovered that each of them was a potential book lender. And thus began the lovely, magical process of exchanging books.

The books came from various people and were carried into the house either by my brother and me. The identity of the original owner of the books was always a closely guarded secret. And we never knew if he was aware of the way his books were being merrily circulated. All we knew was the golden promise each book hid within its covers and our eagerness to read it. Most of these books were on very short loans and had to be returned in a matter to hours. Indeed, the primary condition on which they had been lent was that they would be handed back to the lender at the appointed hour.

It was no use explaining that there were two of us in the house, two eager readers longing to lose themselves in the illogical, difficult to believe rules on which most of these books operated. So, we made the best of things, my brother and I, and became experts at reading very fast. This often meant that we had to read thorough meal times. My mother hated the sight of a book propped up against the nearest object as we busily ate and read. She thought, and rightly so, that we ought to concentrate on eating. She was also suspicious of the tattered books and their yellowing pages and faded print.

But what did my brother or I care about how dirty the book was? Or where the book had been? The story possessed us and turned us deaf and blind to everything around us. One day, as one of us sat reading a book, my mother, tired of telling us again and again to stop reading, simply plucked the book away and threw it from the balcony.

We lived on the eighth floor in those days and had plenty of time to see the book float down. It was a comic, flimsily held together and the strong wind was too much for its fragile condition. It simply fell apart halfway through its fall and we watched in horror as pages came apart and went floating merrily to the ground.

We pelted down the stairs, hearts thudding in fear, not even daring to guess what we would find when we finally reached the ground. We spent a lot of time running around the park, gathering the drifting pages, yellow as autumn leaves but so much more precious.

I wish I could say that my mother cured us of our habit of reading at meal times. But even today I like to read when I eat. My mother complains that it distracts me from the taste and texture of the food I put into my mouth. Perhaps it does. But all I notice is the wonderful feeling I get when I am immersed in a good book. It’s a feeling that belies description. It’s the feeling of having lost contact with the world and its noises. It is the feeling of having cut loose from all the anchors that weigh you down. But most of all, it is the feeling of floating free and easy.

It is the feeling of wings spouting suddenly and the wind whistling past my ears.

At such times, I know exactly what that tattered comic book felt as it floated lazily through the air.

Because I feel the exact same flying feeling each time I read a book.

Writing Tip #3 Preparing To Be A Writer

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Look around you and you will find the world offering you courses to learn every single skill. There are courses that promise to teach you to paint and knit, repair computers and swim. It sometimes appears as if all the skills in the world have been packaged into easy to digest components and marketed. If all these courses did as they promised and turned the rawest of talent into polished writers, painters and translators, wouldn’t the world be overflowing with people equipped to do these things?

Does that mean that these courses don’t deliver on their promises?

Not at all.

The courses are prepared by experts and taught by experts too. But what of the students drinking in the instructions, making careful notes of secret tips and bits of advice? How many of them really want to write? How many of them are willing to face the grueling process of writing, rewriting, editing and then submitting to various editors?

I have nothing against creative writing courses. In fact, I’ve done one myself. I was a model student, turning in my assignments on time and I did reasonably well. But between the completion of the course and the first story I wrote, three long years stretched. Why didn’t I write as soon as I finished the creative writing course? After all, I was pumped full of the most useful bits of suggestions, I had been taught the components of various kinds of writing.

The simple reason is that I wrote only when I was ready to do so.

Does that mean you sit around waiting to be struck on the back of the head by a heavy object and understand that this is the signal to begin writing? You could,  if you wish to but a better way to spend the time would be to prepare to be a writer by reading and writing.

Fortunately, there is no list of prescribed books that you have to read in order to be a writer. The world is your bookshelf and you are free to pick anything that strikes your fancy. The best part – you don’t have to justify your choices. You could pick up a book because you like the author’s name or are fascinated by the title. Or you could pick one because you like the cover or font. All you have to ensure is that you read. A lot.

Writing helps too. It helps by telling you when you should stop reading and start reading. Or you might well turn into one of those people who spend their lives reading in preparation for the book they plan to write.

Sit down and write. It could be a short story, an article or simply something that you feel very strongly about. The process of putting pen to paper, or in today’s world, typing your words out, will break the chain of reading books.

And push you onto the first step of becoming a writer.

By writing something.

 

A Pranav Tale

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A kite is a free spirit and it breaks hearts when it escapes its strings and floats away. But what if the wind brought it back? This story was published in Young Buzz, the children’s pages of Sakal Times.

 

                              How Pranav lost a kite

One day Pranav’s mother bought him a beautiful kite. It had yellow, purple, red, orange and even green on it. Pranav liked the kite very much. He liked the kite’s eyes the best of all. They seemed to be smiling at him.

“I want to fly my kite,” Pranav told his mother.

“But it is very windy today,” Pranav’s mother told him.

“My kite will enjoy the wind,” Pranav said.

“Yes,” Pranav’s mother agreed, “But will you be able to manage the kite?”

“Yes,” Pranav said, “This kite is my friend and I can fly it well!”

So Pranav took his kite and went out to fly it. The kite danced happily in the wind, the colours shone brightly and the kite’s eyes seemed to smile even more widely. Pranav pulled the string to make the kite dance a little more. The string broke. The wind carried the kite away, while Pranav stood holding the string. The kite’s eyes looked sadly at Pranav.

“The wind has taken away my kite!” Pranav told his mother.

“It is all right,” his mother said, “I will buy you another kite!”

Pranav felt very sad. He stood staring at the sky, looking for his kite. He could see the blue sky with some fluffy white clouds. And he could see some birds flying.  And then suddenly, Pranav could see nothing. “What happened?” he shouted in fear. “It is nothing,” Pranav’s mother said, “It is only a sheet of paper that the wind has thrown on you!” Pranav’s mother took off the paper and Pranav could see everything again. He felt happy. And then he looked at the paper. It was a yellow paper with purple, red and orange flowers on it. Under each flower were green leaves. “It’s my kite!” Pranav said, “Look, it’s my kite!”

“It is not your kite Pranav,” Pranav’s mother said, “It is just a sheet of paper that the wind brought you!”

Pranav felt a little sad. He had been so sure that it was his kite, come back to him. Then his mother said, “But if you want, you can make a kite with it!”

So that is what Pranav did. His mother helped him make a kite out of the paper and Pranav flew it in the air. He watched the yellow, red, orange, green and purple kite dance in the air and he was happy. The wind had taken his kite and he had been sad. But the wind had brought his kite back and that was important.

 

 

Writing Tip #2 Who Can Be A Writer?

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There is a general feeling that writers are special people, possessed of skills and talents that the rest of the world lacks.

I agree wholeheartedly with this feeling.

Yes, writers are special people and yes, they do posses a special skill that the rest of the human race seems to lack. This special skill is called imagination.

But I don’t believe that only some people are blessed with imagination while the rest are forced to make do with their dull, commonplace way of looking at the world.

The rest of the world obviously thinks this way and that’s why people often ask me, ‘But how do you imagine all this? How do you even think of it?’

This is a question that is on par with a question that a magician is usually asked, ‘But how do you make things appear and disappear?’ Both these questions are uttered in tones of incredulous surprise by people wide-eyed with amazement and disbelief.

When I tell them, with complete truth, that every one of us is born with the ability to be a writer, they give me a disbelieving stare. But I do believe that each of us is born with the powers of imagination. We muffle it, we suffocate it and let it die a silent, un-mourned death.

What if we nurtured our imagination? What if we fed it with words and phrases, with images and sounds? What if we allowed our imagination free rein, and let it write where it willed? Let it draw what it wanted to? To begin with, it might well be like letting a child loose with coloured chalks in a pristine walled house. But in time, the imaginative child in us is sure to graduate, just like children move on to notebooks. And that is when writing becomes serious, notebooks are a mess of ideas and computer documents stuffed with neat pages of politely spaced words, an organized, well-mannered line of ants going about their business.

So, does that mean that each one of us can be a writer?

I am not sure about that, but I am certain that all of us come equipped with the skills to do so. What we choose to do with this is up to us. After all, most cars come with at least five gears. What if we are happy to chug along at a sedate pace, content with the second gear? We are sure to envy others who have adventurously put their cars into the fifth gear, as they shoot ahead of us. When the truth is we have no one to blame but ourselves.

And that’s why I believe that anyone can write.

But not many choose to do so.

A Summer Story

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Summer means a long break from school,  games with cousins and usually, if you are lucky,  some thrilling story sessions with your grandmother. But perhaps children today have forgotten these simple joys of summer? This story was published in Young World, the children’s pages of The Hindu.

“Summer vacation at your grandmother’s house?” Sushma Aunty asked, “I envy you! You’ll have so much fun — listening to stories, playing with cousins and sleeping on the terrace!” Minu nodded because there wasn’t anything else she could do but she was thinking of how she and her cousins spent every summer with Aaji. They had fun, yes. But they didn’t do any of the things Sushma Aunty had mentioned. Minu thought of how her cousin Shefali spent hours on the computer, and how the boys — Shefali’s brother Sanju and Minu’s brother Nitesh — watched TV all day while she read the summer away.

Had they ever been on the terrace? Minu didn’t think so. And as for asking Aaji for stories, none of them even had the time to talk to her! This summer, Minu decided, would be different!

The very first evening at Aaji’s the house was plunged into darkness. Shefali emerged grumbling about a mail she wanted to send while Sanju and Nitesh moaned about missing their cartoon show.

“Let’s go on the terrace!” Minu suggested. The others weren’t keen on the idea but without electricity there was nothing to do in the house. So they trooped up, Aaji leading the way and Minu carrying a durrie.

“Now what?” Shefali asked, when the durrie had been spread out and they were all sitting on it.

“ Aaji will tell us a story!” Minu said.

No one seemed terribly excited at the treat but when Aaji started telling them the story, they were swept up in the frantic pace as demons and magicians fought and thrilling things happened. Even Shefali groaned when Aaji stopped at an exciting point.

“What happened next?” Sanju demanded.

“Let’s find out tomorrow!” Minu suggested. She scrambled to her feet and went racing down the stairs. The others followed.

Strangely enough the power went off at exactly the same time the next night and immediately the children, reminded of the story, clamoured to hear the rest of it. And since there was no power it made sense to go up to the terrace. The power went off a few more times that week. By the third day they had all got used to the idea of spending the evening on the terrace and were soon racing up the stairs without the lights going out. It was Shefali who suggested that sleeping under the stars would be fun and after that they all slept on the terrace. Aaji was hard pressed to find new stories and often one of the others would step in with their own contributions.

On their last night with Aaji, they had dinner on the terrace and it was Sanju who put all their feelings into words when he said, “This has been the best summer vacation ever!”

Minu smiled. The trouble she had taken to locate the main switch had been worth it. It had given them all a joyful Granny summer!

A Writer and Her Website

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So, what does one expect from a writer’s website?

Whenever I read a book that I fall in love with, I am filled with respect and awe for the writer. I long to know more about her, I burn with eagerness to find out all her other titles so I can read them at once. Perhaps this is a reaction to the years that I spent in a literary desert, where authors were only names on the books and the only information you got was from a sparse paragraph tucked away somewhere in the book.

In my childhood computers were unheard of. The first time I saw a computer was at a science fair. I must have been in my early teens and I came away feeling amazed at the machine but with no thought of how it was soon going to become an integral part of everyone’s lives. More than ten years had to pass before I discovered the amazing wonderland of computers, the World Wide Web and the huge treasures of information it held. The first thing I did was look for information about all the authors whose books had entertained me during my childhood, turning the long, still summer afternoons into exciting  adventure filled episodes. And the World Wide Web obliged me, turning up biographical details of my favourite authors, presenting me with albums of their pictures, snippets of information about them and why they wrote and what the rest of the world thought of their writing.

Suddenly, I knew more than I had ever known about these authors. From being a faceless person, who I would not have recognised if she had walked past me, the author I loved was now a face that I knew well. In many cases, it was a face I knew as well as my own.

I wish I could say that all this information made a difference to me, that it changed the way I understood and reacted to these books. Yes, there was the first burst of excitement at having unearthed a significant piece of information about why the author had written as she had. But could it compare to the absolute magic of the author’s words? Could this information ever equal her unbelievable ingenuity in plots? Or her gentle understanding of emotions that made me certain that she had to have peeked into my own mind and heart? I found that it did not.

These days when I look for information about an author I like, I do it for different reasons. Yes, I do glance at her picture, I do skim over details of how many dogs and cats and parakeets she owns. I take note of the awards she has won but even those don’t really impress me as much as the list of her published books. And then I go prospecting, seeking tips on writing. There is a certain relieved comfort in learning that the most prolific author has faced rejection. The knowledge is like a distant light, shining in cold dark spaces and it convinces me that I am not alone. When an author is generous enough to share her patented tricks to reading and writing, it is like being given a peek into her private diary. I cherish these words and suggestions; they often become the mantras that rule my life.

But what if the author’s website says nothing at all about writing? What if it touches, very casually, on her writing career, pretending the magical worlds of her stories are things that emerge with silken ease, unraveling every day with no hiccups? What then? Then I go back to her books and read them. I read them with care, I read them often. And before long they reveal all their secrets. I understand then how much the author agonized over her characters, I recognize how the staid regularity of life was what drove her to create a crazy parallel universe. I even begin to fathom some small bits of the mad urge that refuses to let her stop writing and instead pushes her to write and write and write.

And all at once, it is like I am back in the hot summer afternoons of my childhood, with the fan paddling the thick air around, while I am lost in the world within my book. In that far off time, computer was an alien word to me and the World Wide Web was as distant a concept as time travel. And the only maps that helped navigate the world of writing were the words of the author, offering untold wealth to the careful reader.

I know that there are well-written books and there are books that are very obviously badly written. But when they are read well, that is when they reveal their true treasures. And in this age of information overload, I am glad I am equipped to learn where I can.

From the best possible textbook – the words of authors.

A Pranav Tale

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Birthdays are special days when the entire world conspires to ensure that we have a grand time.  Haven’t we all wished that the birthday would just go on and on? That’s what Pranav wants till he discovers that perhaps too much of a good thing isn’t always good. This story was published in Young Buzz, the children’s pages of Sakal Times.

 

                                   Pranav’s Birthday

One day Pranav had a birthday. In the evening he had a party. All his friends from school came to the party. His mother decorated the house with shiny paper. Lots of fat balloons hung everywhere. There was a big chocolate cake with candles on it. And then there were nice things to eat and nice games to play. Pranav had a very good time at his party. But soon, the party ended. All his friends said ‘bye’ and went away home.

Pranav’s mother pushed the table back to the center of the room. She arranged all the chairs in their usual places. She picked up bits of paper from the floor and swept the room clean. Pranav felt sad when he saw this. His birthday was finished! His friends had come and gone. The candles on top of his  chocolate birthday cake had been blown out, the cake cut and eaten.

When he saw his mother remove the decorations, Pranav said, “Don’t take them off!”

“Why?” Pranav’s mother asked, “Your birthday is finished, isn’t it?”

“But I want my birthday to stay,” Pranav explained, “I don’t want my birthday to go away!”

“But Pranav,” his mother said, “You will have another birthday next year! And you can have a party again next year!”

But Pranav wanted this birthday to go on. So his mother didn’t take down the decorations. The shiny paper hung in the room and made Pranav happy. The fat balloons swung gently in the breeze and reminded Pranav of his birthday. Everyday when Pranav came home from school he looked at the decorations and thought again of his birthday party.

But one day when Pranav came home after school he saw that the balloons were looking different. They were not looking plump and happy. They looked tired and sad and thin. The shiny paper decorations didn’t look bright and shiny any more. Pranav stared at them for a long time.

Then he said to his mother, “You can remove the decorations now. My birthday has become old. And it is a little tired.” So Pranav’s mother took off the not-so shiny paper and the not-so plump balloons. And when Pranav saw the room without the decorations he said, “This is a new room!” And then Pranav was happy with the new room and stopped thinking of his birthday.

My Words…in a Different Language

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What can make an author happier than seeing her story in print? Every time I hold a book of mine in my hands I cannot cease marveling at the long journey it has made, the huge distances it has travelled.

I remember then how the idea was born and how I worked on it. I recall my sense of joy and the stunning realization that I had created something that I liked and the quiet, contented sense of satisfaction at this. I recall sending the story off to various publishers, with a prayer on my lips and my heart thumping at my own courage. The wait was often long but sometimes I got lucky and heard back with unexpected promptness from the publishers. And with that my little story was on the next leg of its journey.

This part involved editing and sometimes, offering suggestions for illustrations. But once this was dealt with, there was usually silence, a silence that bristled with possibilities and unspoken promises.

And then, one day, a package arrived and all those promises were fulfilled. I tore it open, and I must confess here that more often than not my hands trembled with eagerness and excitement and a strong sense of disbelief as I did this. But when the packaging was finally torn away, I found myself looking at copies of my brand new book.

It was like a miracle but if you think that this is the end of the journey for that little story, or for that matter, any story, big or little, boy, are you wrong!

As a writer, my story lives in my mind and when it is transferred on to a piece of paper, it assumes a certain concrete form. This is further solidified and immortalized when the story appears in its avatar as a book. But a story is a strange creature; it is restless and curious, and it does not believe in living within the limits we set on it.

It is born to soar and fly, it is meant to travel to unexpected places and touch an unbelievable crowd of people and make a surprising number of friends in far flung corners of the world. When your story has achieved all this, you sigh with a dazed contentment, certain there can be no further surprises for you as an author.

And that is when you hear that your story, born in the language of your heart, is going to be translated into another language. Of course, my smile stretches wide when I hear this news, of course my heart thumps with a glad joy. But there are doubts too and questions galore.

How will my story sound in an alien tongue?

Will my characters stay funny?

Will my story speak to the readers?

Will it touch them, tickle them and offer them the warm comfort of characters and voices that are familiar and loved?

 

After all, every language is different, with different words for smiles and laughs, a variety of words to describe frowns and tears.

But, in the years that I have been writing stories for children, I have learnt an important rule about stories and languages. The language of stories is universal, reaching over borders, under fences, past the colours of nationalities and flags. And it carries within it the ability to touch hearts and tap emotions.

And as an author, writer, imaginator, thinker, I am blessed to have come up with a story that has touched so many people.

And that this might well be the greatest payment for writing.

Just A Tiny Scratch

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To what lengths would you go to be accepted in a group? The boy in this story finds himself being made welcome by the group he wants to join, completely by accident. This story was published in Young World, the children’s pages of The Hindu.

Perhaps, thought Rohan hopefully, today the wicket keeper would actually let a ball fall. Then he could catch it and be invited to join the game of cricket.

From his first day in the new flat Rohan had noticed the group of older boys playing cricket and longed to join them. For two days now he had been hanging around, hoping he would be allowed to play with them. But the boys hadn’t even noticed him. Perhaps, thought Rohan optimistically, today was the day.

Lost in pleasant thoughts Rohan didn’t see the batsman hit the ball, or notice it soar high. He missed seeing the wicket keeper try to catch it. The first he knew of any of this was when something hard rammed into him, sending him sprawling.

When Rohan saw the mess of scratches on his knee and felt the sharp pain, he felt tears pool in his eyes. He ran home before he could embarrass himself.

“What happened?” Amma wanted to know. “Just some scratches!” Rohan said as airily as he could. Amma took one look at his face and in silence washed the wound before applying some cream on it. All those scratches for nothing, Rohan thought bitterly. He hadn’t even played with those boys and instead had come home with injuries. A dejected Rohan settled down to watching TV, determined to forget his dreams of playing with the group downstairs.

Two days later he finally went out, taking care to keep his head turned away as he walked up the street. “Hey!” someone called. Rohan turned to see a boy from the cricket game. “Are you okay?” the boy asked. “Yes,” Rohan said, determined not to let anyone know how badly those scratches had hurt him, “It was nothing — the tiniest scratch!”

“The tiniest scratch, huh?” the boy echoed. When the other boys walked up he said, “The kid says he only had the tiniest scratch!” Rohan wondered if the boy was making fun of him. The other boys were repeating, “The tiniest scratch!” in varied tones of surprise, amazement and amusement and Rohan saw all of them glance at his knee where the thick bandage gave lie to his words.

“He is a real sport!” one of the boys said, “To call those scratches tiny!” “Yes,” another agreed “I saw his knee that day – it must have been painful!”

The boy who had first spoken to Rohan clapped him on the shoulder and said, “So, if your tiny scratch isn’t hurting you, why don’t you play with us?”

Play with them? Rohan wondered if he had heard right. But the encouraging smiles he saw reassured him. He had heard it right — the boys wanted him to play with them. “Of course,” he beamed, “I’ll play with you!”

“You and that tiniest scratch of yours!” his new friends said. As he took his place to bat, Rohan thanked his stars and that tiny scratch of his – for giving him a wonderful opportunity.