Writing Tips #11 Dealing With Rejection

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There is a general belief that rejection is the bogeyman that every writer invokes. And like all bogeymen, people believe that writers exaggerate the horror of rejection, the crippling sense of doubt that it unleashes and the self-doubt that infects every single word that is written after this.

In all my interactions with readers, the question of rejection invariably crops up. My readers want to know if I have ever been rejected. They look at me with stunning faith in my abilities and in the justice of the publishing world and are taken aback when I tell them that yes, of course, I have been rejected. And that I continue to be have my stories rejected.

They want to know what I do when my story rejected. I wish I could tell them the truth about how I sit for hours wondering, ‘Why?’ or how I pause in the middle of a particularly fine descriptive passage, wondering uneasily if the editors of various publishing houses are going to like it. But in the end, I don’t. Instead, I gloss over the shattering sense of shock that I usually experience when something of mine is rejected. I talk breezily and humorously of giving myself a day to recover when the truth is that I may never really recover from this. I talk of how I get up the next day and sit down to work again, determined to do better. But I don’t tell them of how I freeze at every word, remembering once again the wording of the rejection, trying to read between the lines and find some comfort. I omit a description of how my fingers hover over the send button when I am trying to submit a new story and how finally, I take a deep breath, shut my eyes and click send.

The vocabulary that lies at the disposal of a writer is often woefully insufficient to chart these emotions. All words and figures of speech seem pretentious, and your words are destined to fail in conveying a sense of what you have gone through. This is like the horror that your nightmare unleashes in you so you jerk awake, convinced the world is scared and running with you. But when you try to recreate the horror you have just lived through, your words are weak, your descriptions like a watercolor in the rain. And though your heart may still thump every time you remember your nightmare, your audience will only look puzzled and questioningly at you.

And that is when you will realise that a nightmare remains horrifying till the moment you try to clothe it in words, pin it down with similes and metaphors. And that is why nightmares are best kept to oneself and dealt with in the silence and aloneness of the mind.

Just like rejection.

A Writer’s World # 4 Why Royalty Statements Matter

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At the end of a long day at work, when a writer is asked, ‘How was your day?’ her answer is likely to be, ‘It was okay. I made plans for my next story and revised an older story. Oh and I also wrote a really short piece!’ Her family, understanding but secretly mystified, will nod and the conversation will move on to other topics. No one will guess exactly how little the writer will have actually said about her day.

When she said she had written out her plan for the next story, she forgot to mention the hours she spent staring into the distance or the small, quick circles she walked in or even the angry monologues she indulged in. Or the many sheets of paper that she crumpled angrily and tossed away before finally getting a plan of some kind down. Or how the revision involved spending long minutes debating the exact word she was looking for or the feverish deleting of words to create a story of the exact length. And of course she will not remember to tell her family the wrench of giving up her favourite lines and ruthlessly deleting them to ensure the flow of the story. All these and many other details will be either skimmed over or forgotten.

This is not because the writer is secretive. It has something to do with the difficulty in describing the struggles of writing, the sheer impossibility of matching words with the sense of despair that overtakes a writer when she gets a rejection. These are the reasons why a writer’s job is such a lonely one. It is like an iceberg, with a huge, unexplored, unimagined depth behind every single story that sees the light of day. And the writer works on, unaware of how her story is going to fare out in the world, how people are going to react to it. Reviews are like messages sent out in bottles, bobbing along on waves and sometimes, if a writer is lucky, being washed up where she can lay her hands on them.

But for the most part, a writer is cut off from the outside world and that is why, any message about her book is welcome. A reader once wrote to me, right after she had finished reading my book, to tell me how much she had enjoyed it. By itself, the email would have been enough to make me happy. But it came hard on the heels of a particularly harsh and unsympathetic reading of my book and so, it was doubly welcome. But such readers are very few and that is why, a royalty statement assumes such importance in the life of a writer.

A royalty statement is proof, in black and white, of the number of people who have wanted to own a copy of her book. It is an affirmation of a writer’s faith in herself, a much-needed boost to her self-esteem. It is as comforting as a shawl around your shoulders on a cold winter evening and as welcoming as a cold drink on a hot day. It is the one document that a writer will memorize, without any seeming effort, the one document that will make her smile and hope and believe even when she is going through the darkest phase in her writing career.

And that is why, every writer deserves to have a royalty statement sent to her annually.  After all, she has worked for it.

Writing Tip #10 The Importance of Writing Every Day

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I am an avid reader of interviews with people from different walks of life. I am always looking for clues about how they do things, what makes them tick and especially, what keeps them going. And since I write, I have an almost voyeuristic interest in reading interviews with authors.

I want to know what their favourite books are, what they think of the current crop of writing, what drives them and what sets them back. But what I am actually looking for, as I scan the lines, is information about their routine. When do they wake up? How many hours do they work? When do they begin work and what are the rituals they follow? Do they socialize? And if yes, when?

The most shocking thing I have ever read in an interview with an author has been the admission that she does not write every day; that writing only happens when the urge strikes. How, I long to scream. How can any author only write when the urge strikes and still hope to produce half-way decent stuff? How, with the world offering so many temptations and so many inviting paths to temptation, do they stay on track and come back to writing?

Writing, like any other activity, uses a certain set of muscles. I am not sure where these muscles are located. Some of them are most certainly in your arms and help you type determinedly away for hours. The strongest, of course, are in your bottom, and keep you anchored to the chair for long hours as you create new worlds and people them with characters. But there are other, secret places that these muscles lurk in. And like all muscles, these too require regular flexing. And just like other muscles, these get cranky and irritable, sticking like an unused machine when they are allowed to stay idle for too long. They need regular outings, the brisk up and down and round and round movements to keep them moving smoothly.

When you write regularly, many things happen with a kind of smooth, noiseless efficiency that makes them seem almost like magic. The first of these is purely physical – your arms will ache less since they will have had time to get used to the vigorous exercise you put them through. The second is the way you will approach any writing- your brain will look at the idea with a clinical, almost detached interest and instantly know how best to begin the story. You will slide into writing gear without too many hiccups and will almost certainly not stall at any time. Of course, you will break off but these pauses will only be refueling stops and will help you plan ahead and decide how and what you are going to do next. These muscles will be your best friend, standing staunchly by you even when you worry about how the story is going to end and what you are going to call it.

The best part about having the writing muscles oiled and whirring smoothly is that they come with their own criticism switch. This gives you the amazing freedom and luxury of looking at your story with vast binoculars, and see how it fares against the background of already existing fiction. It also has a helpful attachment that allows you to study your story with the kind of minute attention that will help you not only take care of those pesky details which might weaken your story, but also fix the language so you can work on it, polishing and buffing your writing till it glows with the rich patina that comes with years of care.

And these are the muscles that swing into action the minute you have typed the last word of your thirty thousand words story and are getting ready to sit back and relax. That’s when they begin the gentle but efficient prodding, telling you to get up and move, telling you it is time.

Time to start work on that next story.

A Writer’s World #3 The Idea Factory

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Sitting by myself and writing and thinking for several hours a day, I have got used to what I do. After all, this is what I have been doing for years now. There is a calm acceptance among my family members about what I do and how I manage to spin stories out of nothing. They have had years to get used to this and to my strange schedules.

It is only when I leave the safe corners of my house and go out into the noisy big world, that I realise how curious people are about what I do and how I do it and why I do it. And one of the things they are most curious about is – where do you get your ideas?

I can understand their curiosity. How, they wonder, do you make something out of nothing? How do you come up with multiple ideas and what gives you the idea that you can actually knit them together to make a brand new pattern?  I suppose if I paused to think about it, I would be amazed at the way I come up with ideas too.  And when I go out into the world and interact with my readers, I am forced to think and speculate about this. Where do I get my ideas?

There is no great Idea Factory located anywhere in me. What I do have, however, is a healthy curiosity about the world and an inexhaustible source of questions. Why this and why not that? What and where? Who and when? These are some of the things that I wonder about. And the answers that these questions generate are the ones that lead me to new stories. Sometimes, an unexpected question and its equally unexpected answer come together to create a brand new thread in the story. And when these are woven together, I have a new story idea.

I tell my readers this, of course, over and over again. But no matter how neatly I explain things to them, or how nicely I break up all the different factors that have gone into a story or how patiently I expose all the different threads that I have woven together in my newest story, the whole process remains something of a mystery to them. I can see it in their eyes and in their dogged determination to ask me more questions about writing. I wish I could tell them that it is like trying to break down a magic trick into steps, or make sense of the weather. I wish I could tell them that it is a process that has baffled people for years just as it eludes them. I wish I could promise to share the secret, the minute I have uncovered all the elements in it myself.

But I don’t do any of these things. Because writing is magic, the kind of magic that cannot be broken down or explained or even replicated. People the world over have tried to understand it and failed.

And no one has tried and failed at explaining it as much as the people who work with it, the wordsmiths, the storytellers, the writers.

Writing Tip #9 The Importance Of A Routine

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There is a general feeling that living within a routine, doing the same things every day confines you, limits you and eventually cages your creativity. New experiences, which provide a constant source of a high, are preferred. These high moments are considered essential, especially in the lives of people in the creative fields.

The buzz that comes from seeing new places, meeting new people, immersing oneself in new experiences, is, I admit, very attractive. For the moment it elevates you above the mundane and the boring, slicing neatly through the frayed ties that tether you to the things that you have done every single day. And it provides a much needed glimpse of a view of life that is likely to be outside the limits of what we do every day.

And for that reason alone, the routine breaking events are best limited. What if they became regular things? For one, they would become normal events and lose their charm. And for another, they would cause an unnecessary and unwelcome havoc in your working day. They would keep you away from the most important thing in your life – your work. And nothing that does that can be good enough to be encouraged or repeated.

The anticipation of a break excites me as does preparing for it. And while I do enjoy the break, I soon find that I am eager to get back to my routine. There is something so sturdy and comforting about having a routine, knowing each morning that barring a few minor changes, this day is going to be exactly like all the ones that came before it.  It is this certainty that gives me the freedom to be courageous and try out new things in my writing. If my day was full of breaks from routine, there would be no time or the calm necessary to work on my writing.

I like the routine tasks I go through every day, the cooking, the housework, even the small amount of exercise I manage to sneak in. These are so familiar that they leave my thoughts free to fly and wheel about. And so, while my hands chop and stir, while my eyes gauge the vegetables I am stirring, my mind is a free bird. It flies, it skims the tree tops, it swoops down and then it goes rising high like a rocket. Along the way it finds things, picks pictures and follows interesting looking trails of smells and sounds. It mixes and matches things, creating unlikely pairs and then finding ways to justify them. And so, by the time I sit at my computer, ready for a day’s work, these elements have all knitted themselves into a pattern that hangs tantalizingly out of reach, teasing me and beckoning.

And when I sit down to write, it hangs before my eyes. Every word I write, every character I create, every twist I plot, reveals the whorls and purls of this pattern. And when, finally, after several drafts and rewrites, the story is ready, I can sit back and heave a sigh of satisfaction.

As for rewriting the story, smoothening it out till it feels ready and flows well, that’s work for another day. Another day plotted by the hour, another day that is lived by all the rules of a routine.

And I welcome the thought of it, the certainty that it will be there for me, waiting when I wake up tomorrow.

Writing Tip #8 Should Your Story Be Universally Liked?

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In an ideal world yes, it would be fair to say that I do expect my work to be universally liked. I expect the entire world to see the work that has gone into my writing, to swoon over the prose and the innovative storyline. I certainly expect the world to sit up and take notice when my book is out. I expect conversations around my book, discussions about how amazing it is and all the hoopla that falls between. In short, yes, I do expect my book to be universally liked.

But no matter how hard I have worked on my story, the chasm between my expectations and what actually happens is a huge one. It is wide as well, with a bottomless echo that is terrifying. And so, there are always voices asking angry questions, all based entirely on logic, peevish doubts and queries being voiced and triumphant readers pointing to the tiny loopholes they have discovered in the narrative. In short, there will always be people who will not like your work.

And that is indeed how it must be. How can a world of varied readers of different ages, coming from different backgrounds all expect to agree on your book and their opinion of it? Isn’t it magical enough that people you are never likely to meet, in parts of the world that you may never visit, have been touched by you? Isn’t it enough that these people have read the words that you wrote and that their lives have been changed by this?

Does that mean that you accept their words of criticism with silent resignation? Not at all. But any criticism deserves to be treated respectfully because in most cases it emerges out of an intense interaction with your words, characters and plots. It does not, however, mean that this criticism is always right and that you should alter your writing style based on suggestions offered by your readers.

A writer knows when something works and she recognizes the truth within the criticism about something that does not work. And so, the best thing to do would be to stay true to your vision for your story and accept no attempts to change that. But in other areas that could do with improvement, you could certainly pause and consider the suggestions offered to you. And if they seem sensible, then you could even apply them to your writing.

If proper criticism is applied in appropriate situations, it is certain to improve your writing. And finally, isn’t that the real purpose of criticism of any kind?

A Writer’s World #2 Writing For A Competition

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There are people who sneer at the suggestion that they write something and contribute to a competition. I suppose such people think that writing with an aim to compete and then, to win, is somehow against the whole idea of writing. After all, writing is voluntary and does not follow any of the rules that one associates with normal jobs or careers. Why then, such people wonder, should writers compete with each other? Why write for competitions and pitch your writing against that of other writers?

I find competitions very exciting. And my excitement has nothing to do with thoughts of winning. Most competitions come with themes for the stories to be entered. This is a wonderful beginning, according to me. Anyone who can give me new ideas and areas to think of, wins my gratitude. Competitions also come with deadlines, forcing one to think and write within the framework of these. This might build a sense of pressure but in my opinion, a little pressure never hurt anyone. For a writer, working all alone, and with very limited contact with the outside world, pressure is something that is self-generated. And after a while it can become a little tedious to keep pushing oneself. How wonderful it is when this pushing comes from the rules and regulations put up by an unknown agency!

I don’t know how other writers approach the whole job of writing specifically for competitions. But I do know how I react. I get very excited and start writing as soon as possible. The minute the story is done, I can lean back and sigh with relief. Instead, I find myself beset by doubts. Is my story good enough? What if it does not win the hearts of the judges? What if… and before I know it, I am working on yet another story.

And by the time the deadline approaches, I find that I have written almost half a dozen stories. This is something of a miracle and I wonder- when did I write them? Why did I write them? But of course I know the answer to those questions. I wrote them because I was trying so hard to improve on my own storytelling. I wrote them in every single minute I could spare, creating newer and more refined drafts, constantly, constantly trying to improve on my own work. And that is why I love competitions and am grateful to them. They make me write, they help me improve.

And anything that can make me do that has to be good.

Writing Tip #7 Reading Your Book

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Reading your own book? Really? Yes, why not? After all, if you don’t read your own book, who will?

A book, when it is work in progress, is like a particularly strong scent that refuses to leave clothes even after multiple washings. When I am working on a book, it lives with me, is a part of me in ways that are too complex to detail. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up, along with my list of things to do that day. It’s often the last thing I think of, as I lie in bed, going over how far my story has come. And on many occasions, it has haunted my dreams, so I wake up gritty eyed and tired.

When I am not working on it, it is there, lurking around the corners of my mind, so I find myself thinking of characters and events as I go about my work. The strangest things I see or hear will establish an instant connection with my story and I have often found myself distracted from something I am watching on TV, because a new idea has just struck me.

All of this makes it sound like writing a book is like having a very uncomfortable roommate, with crazy schedules and unpredictable routines. But the truth is, living with a story is a dynamic and very stimulating experience, one that opens your eyes, nose, mouth and even heart, to a variety of experiences. Nothing that happens around you escapes you and every single thing assumes meaning.

Once you have lived with the story in such cramped quarters, it becomes a part of you. And when it is accepted for publication, you get a wonderful opportunity to view it with fresh eyes, to smoothen out the rough edges and create a narrative that flows smoothly. This constant working on the book creates a sense of familiarity that often blinds us to our own work.

And that’s why reading the book after a longish gap is an eye-opening experience. I recently read a book of mine, about three months after it was published. It was an interesting experience. There were part of the book that felt extraordinarily familiar and then, there were the unexpected bits that I had no memory writing. There were sentences that made me wish I could rewrite them and there were particularly tender and fluid descriptions that made me gasp at myself.  And when I read the last line of the book, I knew that this was an experience that had taught me a lot about myself and the process of writing.

And any book that could teach you something this important, had to be good.

Even if it is your own book.

Writing Tip # 6 How Should You Write?

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On different occasions I have read stories written by school children and have always been amazed by the blatant plagiarism I find there. Storylines are lifted, characters are uncannily similar to those from well-known books and the writing is unashamedly modeled along the style used by well-know writers.

This is not something that is exclusive to school children trying their hand at writing; this is something that most of us have gone through. We read a book and fall violently in love with the style, the characters, the storytelling. And that’s when we declare, ‘I want to write a book exactly like XYZ!’ We are often foolish enough to do it too. And the story that emerges is a washed out thing, a pale and lifeless imitation of the style and the author we have admired so much. It is a poor thing, this story, an orphan at birth, unable to name its real parent.

This is because we have cut it off from the roots, have isolated it among a throng of strangers. What this story needs is an identity it can be proud of, a voice that can be heard over the chatter of other books and a style that is fiercely individual.

And in order to do that, we must learn to move out of the shadow of our favourite authors and their writing styles. Instead, what if we used these authors as inspiration? What if we read all their books but allowed our own writing to develop a life and will of its own, instead of constantly steering it in directions it most vehemently does not want to go? The story that emerges is sure to be bold and true, announcing its arrival in a voice that is not afraid of being heard. It may have flaws, it is sure to be weak in certain sections and almost certainly it could have been written better. But it will be your own story, and all its faults will be faults that you can proudly claim, just as you can accept all its strengths.

And once you learn just how to do that, it’s not long before other authors will be heard saying, ‘I wish I could write like ABC!’

 

A Dussera Story

 

Dussera  is an Indian festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Ten days of festivities and good food end with the destruction of evil,  symbolized by the evil King Ravana.

Who are the Ravanas in our lives today, I wondered? The answers resulted in a story that was published today in the children’s pages of  The Hindu. 

 

Ravana, Defeated

 

Tara was ten years old and in that time she had learnt many things about the world. Some of the most important things were about grown-ups; how they were bigger than children, stronger too and how they were impossible to defeat. Her lessons came from all the times grown-ups had done things she hadn’t liked, all the times she had been too scared to say so and all the times they got away.

And that’s why her new school puzzled her. For one thing, no other school she had gone to had celebrated Dussera with a Ramlila performance.

‘Really?’ her new friend Nidhi asked.

‘We have a Ramlila every year,’ Darshan said proudly.

‘It’s great fun!’ Neerav grinned. ‘We defeat Ravana!’

And that brought Tara to an even more puzzling thing about this school. Their Ravana wasn’t a big effigy stuffed with crackers but a real, live Ravana.

‘Watchman Uncle is always Ravana,’ she was told.

‘But…he’s so big!’ Tara stammered. She saw him every day and remembering his immense height, the bigness of him, Tara felt a quiver of fear.

‘Exactly!’ her friends grinned. ‘That’s why he’s such a perfect Ravana!’

That was all fine, Tara thought, staring at the stage where her classmates were rehearsing the Ramlila. ‘But kids…how will they defeat him?’ she asked. Her friends stared at her, puzzled by her question.

‘Huahahahaha!’ a huge roll of laughter sounded at that moment.

A tall man, dressed in the uniform of a security guard, was on the stage. He was thumping about menacingly and stopped now to give another monstrous laughter.

‘Look at that Ravana,’ Tara said. ‘He’s so huge and so…strong. And kids…kids are small and weak!’

‘Just watch what we do,’ Nidhi grinned. ‘Come on, boys!’ And the three of them raced away to join the other children who were waiting by the side of the stage. Ravana was still walking about the stage, uttering his demonic laughter and Tara shivered. At that moment the teacher said, ‘Now!’ The crowd of children standing by the stage rushed up the steps, uttering loud yells. They raced for Ravana, still screaming and grabbed his legs. Ravana fought back but he was no match for the children. With a triumphant scream they pushed Ravana so he went down. A large thump sounded as Ravana landed on the mattress laid ready for him but it was drowned in the huge cry of joy and victory.

‘See?’ Nidhi asked, panting joyfully.

‘One strong push,’ Darshan said.

‘And one loud scream,’ Neerav added.

‘That’s easy to remember,’ Tara nodded. And she did remember it the next time a grown-up did something she didn’t like, something she didn’t want him to do, something that made her uncomfortable and unhappy. She remembered that children could be strong too, and she screamed loudly and then pushed the grown-up with all her might.

And then she watched the Ravana in her life go crashing down. It was that easy and that difficult to do it.