Conversations In My Mind#4

 

Map, Tourism, Lost, Direction, Guide

 

Being a writer means you spend a lot of time with just yourself. Even after you have daydreamt to your heart’s content there’s still plenty of time between ideas. And that’s the time my writer’s brain comes up with these conversations with various people, some real, some imagined!  

 

The conversation I have with my family members in my imagination.

 

Me: (answering phone) Hello, Mausi/Kaku/Kaka!

Aunt: Hello! Are you busy?

Me: A little but…

Aunt: Oh, should I call you later?

Me: No, no.

Aunt: I’ll be quick. So, my son is visiting India with his family in December and wants to visit you.

Me: (feeling my heart beginning to sink) But that’s the time when I am really busy and…

Aunt: I know how busy you always are. And I don’t want you disturbed. So, just book them into a hotel and…

Me: What?

Aunt: Just do as I say. And let them go shopping and wandering around the city on their own.

Me: But… they’ll probably want me with them!

Aunt: So? Tell them your boss needs you to work.

Me: But I don’t have a boss.

Aunt: There’s no need to tell them that. And send me five sets of your books.

Me: Five sets?

Aunt: For the children in my building. I’ve been boasting about my writer niece and now I want to give them your books!

Me: But they’ll weigh a ton. How will your son carry them all?

Aunt: So what? It’s the least we can do for our famous writer!

 

 

Of course reality is nothing like this! Here’s what actually happens.

 

Aunt (on phone): Hello, are you busy?

Me: (trying to type with one hand) Yes, a little and…

Aunt: Good, I wanted to talk to you. My son and his family are visiting India and they want to travel around a bit.

Me: (with my heart beginning a slow, but steady downwards travel) Oh, and where do they want to go?

Aunt: Your city. Apparently there’s plenty to see and lots of good shopping. And he wants to meet you.

Me: (astonishment) Me?

Aunt: After all, you are his favourite cousin.

Me: (trying hard to remember when this cousin was last in touch with me) Oh, really?

Aunt: And he wants to introduce you to his wife and children.

Me: (remembering that I wasn’t invited to the wedding of this cousin) Really?

Aunt: He’s coming in December. Take them around the city and all the best shopping places.

Me: (with my heart sinking even further) But I can’t go around with them! I’ll make all the arrangements but I have to work and…

Aunt: Surely you can manage to take some time off to spend with your cousin and his family? After all, they are coming all the way from America.

Me: (trying valiantly) Yes, yes, but they’ll like it better if they go around on their own and I do have work to finish and deadlines to meet.

Aunt: Tell your boss that your family is visiting and you can’t work.

Me: I am a freelance writer, remember? So I don’t have a boss.

Aunt: Then what are you getting so worried for, you silly girl? Just go out have fun with your American cousin!  You never know when you’ll get a chance next.

Writing Tips #11 Dealing With Rejection

red and white stop road signage

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 #3 The Idea Factory

woman writing on a notebook beside teacup and tablet computer

 

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

person pinpointing pen on calendar

 

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.

A Writer’s World #1 Meeting Your Readers

IMG_2057

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?

 

pexels-photo-298660.jpeg

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.

A Writer and Reviews

pexels-photo-247708.jpeg

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

pexels-photo-384498.jpeg

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.

My Words…in a Different Language

pexels-photo-297755.jpeg

 

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.

Writing…and Fame

pexels-photo-261510.jpeg

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.