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.

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!

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.

Bookish Friends

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Yes, friends are necessary for all kinds of things – to laugh with, to cry over, to share good news with. But nothing beats having a friend who owns books.

When I was a child, books were usually borrowed from the lending library which was housed in a dark basement shop. There was a restaurant above it, and as we browsed the racks of yellow paged books, we would smell the thick aroma of sambar, the crisp, sour smell of dosas and the heavenly smell of coffee. But books still held us captive and we stayed for as long as we could, often reading the books standing there, so we could borrow other books to take home and enjoy.

It was only much later that I realised the absolute delight of having friends with books. For one thing, they were always buying new ones. For another, they liked sharing books. And every visit was not merely a social occasion, but also an opportunity to come away with lots of new books and spend hours when we next met, discussing them. And they never wondered why I wanted to read the same book again and again and again. They simply handed it over with an understanding smile.

So, yes, having friends with books is one of the nicest things ever.

The only thing better than having a friend to borrow books from is becoming the friend that people borrow books from!

 

The Dangers of Listing

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The world seems to have gone crazy over lists.

Open a newspaper and you will find a list of the Places to Visit Before You Die, Things to Do Before You Turn 30, Ten Bungee Jumping Locations to Visit. Magazines are no better, promising you Five Ways to Check if Your Vegetable Vendor is Cheating You and Thirteen Bargain Kirana Shops. Within the magazine are lists that promise Six and a Half Different Ways to Save Washing Soap, Seven Different Ways to Keep Your Friendships Strong, Nine Sure Ways to Lose Weight.

What makes these people think everyone has the same list? I may want to save washing soap by the simple and very effective trick of never using it at all. Or I may need only one way to keep my friendships going. As for losing weight, I might have given up even pretending to try.

And yet, there is obviously a select bunch of people whose lives are lived not by the rule book, but by the list. It must be these people who lap up the lists of the world. They need lists, they adore lists, they live by lists.

And frankly, I have nothing against this. Lists are comforting, lists help you make sense of a crazy world.

What does surprise me is the way they allow lists to choose what they are going to read. How can you simply look at a list and blindly follow it?

Isn’t reading all about opening your eyes and learning to think, very slowly and gently, how to make choices? Isn’t choosing a book about touching it, letting the pages run slowly through your fingers and smelling the scent special to that particular book?

Read everything on the list of Ten Best Writers Who Have Written About Moving Deaths. But don’t let the list restrict you. Instead, use it as your take off point, from where you launch yourself into the immense world of books and reading and ideas and choices.

And set yourself free of lists.

On Re-reading Books

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As a child books were a luxury. There were only a limited number of books available and very few hopes of getting new ones.

What could a child, constantly hungry for stories, do?

What indeed, except read the same set of books again and again and very often, once again. The funny thing was, I don’t recall ever feeling bored at the thought of reading the same book again. Each time I opened it I felt the same sense of anticipation and excitement.  Almost as if it was a brand new book that I was reading for the very first time.

On those rare occasions when a new book did wander into my life, I read it as fast as I could, turning the pages with a mad tense intensity. Because the aim was to get the book read for the first time. Once that was done, I could take a deep breath and relax. The second reading was slower for there was no reading record to be set, no one to defeat in the reading race. And this time I had the time to pause and notice things, to appreciate the story, the characters, the ingenuity of the author in drawing various strands together to weave a satisfying finish.

I own many books now. And I read them again and again and very often, once again. With every reading I find something new about the book, something that escaped my attention the last time, something that I was perhaps not old enough or experienced enough to understand the last time. And that is what turns the experience of reading the book into a joyful discovery of a new book, a new story and brand new characters. And after every reading of the book, I am richer for having learnt something new.

The last time I read one of my constantly new old books, I understand, in one of those blinding and dazzling epiphanies everyone is always talking about, exactly what I had learnt this time.

That I was smarter as a kid.