The Lonely Writer

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The loneliness of a full-time writer

 

 

Whenever I see pictures of marathon runners or of cyclists participating in competitions that take the long way around the world, I am struck by the aloneness of the competitors. There they are, tiny specks in the whole stark loneliness of the world, sweat pouring down their bodies, utter exhaustion on their faces, but filled with a dogged determination that does not allow them to stop.

That’s pretty much a writer’s life, minus the sweat, of course! There’s no getting away from the aloneness of a writer’s life. She is locked away in a world where no one else can walk in, dealing with all-important questions like – should the protagonist be a girl or a boy? Should the bad guy be the Aunt or the Uncle? Will it be better to give the monster six hands or ten? These are important points and make all the difference to the way the story is first written and then, (hopefully) read.

So, what is the solution to this loneliness? I am sorry, but if you thought I was going to offer you some secret passage out of this loneliness, you are wrong. There is no secret passage out of the loneliness. The loneliness is part of the job, it makes you who you are and helps you write what you do.

So, how do you deal with it?

By accepting it, even welcoming it. Solitude is a wonderful gift to a writer whose work involves long periods of thinking. Imagine how it would be if your entire family decided to keep you company and stayed home? You would so distracted. Even if they are the most considerate bunch of people in the world and walk about on tiptoes when you are working, it’s no good. When you are thinking and writing, even the sound of people’s thoughts can disturb your flow.

Think of all those writers who had to seek solitude and be grateful for what you have.

And you can see that silence and loneliness can be the best gifts a writer can hope for.

 

Becoming a Better Writer

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Whatever gets published makes you famous. 

But what doesn’t get published makes you a better writer.

 

This is not a well- meaning bit of sop for all those looking for comfort when they face rejection. It makes sense, a whole lot of it. Think of it, when you write a story, you write it in isolation, wondering all the while if your readers will like it as much as you do. A tiny part of your brain tells you that perhaps you are a little bit prejudiced in favour of your story but you push the thought roughly aside. And then you send the story to the publisher of your choice. When they write to say they are sorry but it does not fit their publishing list, you are devastated. How on earth could it have been rejected, you rage. It was so beautiful a story, with such lovely characters.

But when your anger subsides and you are at that stage where you look at the world through yellow coloured lenses, that’s the time to act. Read the story again. Read it as if you were a stranger, unacquainted with the characters, fresh to the setting and unaware of all the plot ploys you’ve put in. Laugh at the jokes, ponder the sad bits, and cheer for the characters you like. And when you read the last line of the story you will know exactly what makes your story weak, which of the characters are let down by stiff dialogues and which twist is so obvious that anyone could see it from the very first page.

And now, you are ready to rewrite the story. If you do things honestly and ruthlessly, cutting unnecessary bits out, pushing your favourite character into the dark of cupboards where they languish, then your revised story will be new. It will sparkle with believable voices and wit, with humour and laughter.

And when this story gets published, it will make you famous.

But only after it has made you a better writer.

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 #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 Writer’s World #1 Meeting Your Readers

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Storytelling at Little People Tree, Hyderabad

I began writing in the pre-internet era. And so, to the people who read my books, I was nothing by a name. As for me, my readers were complete strangers, living and breathing in a different world that I could not even begin to imagine. And it worked just fine. I wrote books and my readers read them. We each stayed within the limits of our worlds and did not think of crossing lines.

And then came my first interaction with my readers. Suddenly, I was amongst people who owned copies of my books and I was startled to find them discussing my stories and characters from my stories with the easy familiarity of talking about a loved family member. They hailed me like an old friend, ready to share their memories and experiences with my books. It was disconcerting and to begin with I had no clue how I was expected to behave.

Then, the interactions with readers increased and all of a sudden, I was meeting people who knew me and my stories. And that was when it struck me that these readings and interactive sessions were not entirely about marketing my books. They were giving me a peek into the different places my stories were going, the many people who were reading and reacting to my stories. The interactions showed me which stories worked well and taught me to appreciate the qualities that would be enjoyed by my audience.

Most of all, these interactions proved to the children that the author of the books they loved was someone from their own world, someone who they could talk to and discuss characters and plot with, someone willing to answer their questions about writing and reading. And for me it was an opportunity to see how the characters and tales born of my imagination fared in the world.

What anyone would call a fair exchange!

Writing Tip # 5 What Should You Write?

 

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So, what should you write about? When you are a new writer, the world feels like a sweetshop, with an alluring array of sweets to tempt you. Which sweet should you pick? The familiar peda? Or the wonderfully coloured and imaginatively shaped sweet with the deliciously exotic name?

Some people like to write about worlds whose contours are already familiar to them. There is a sense of security when you do that, like sinking into a chair that has adapted itself to the shape of your body. There are others who like to jump off the high board, straight into the deep end of the swimming pool. Both these choices come with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Choosing to write on a completely new topic can be hugely liberating for any writer, but particularly for a new writer, still finding her feet in the world of writing. The world lies before you and you are free to create a universe of your choice, people it with characters you like and give it a history that you have woven. What could be better?

Writing about the familiar world can be wonderfully encouraging for a new writer. The terrain is familiar and so is the language. And within the limits set by these, the writer can play all she wants.  The first story I wrote was about a school play and friends; a world that was familiar to me not only from the vivid memories of my own childhood, but also because I worked in a school at that time. Of course the characters were my own creation and so was the plot, but the familiarity of the setting was wonderfully reassuring and I used my close knowledge of it to create a fun story. Since then I have returned often to schools as the setting of stories, using the petty rivalries and the dynamics that govern a group to focus on individuals who either use these or fight these to establish their own identities.

Does that mean I spent the rest of my life writing school stories? Fortunately, no, because I had to quit my job since I was moving away. The move brought new experiences and soon, that is what my stories were based on. And when my son was born, it was like I had been presented with the perfect audience of one. And since a baby couldn’t have understood stories about school, I began writing stories that he would understand. And that was the beginning of my career as a picture book writer.

The great thing about writing is that the more you write, the more new ideas are generated by whatever part of the brain controls the Idea Factory. Every single story you write is preparation for the ten stories that lie around the corner, in the Land of the Future.  And so, whether you choose to write about the familiar world or enjoy the buzz of creating your own world, what really matters is your dedication and your determination to present the world in all its details.

And these will help you decide exactly what you should write. And when.