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 # 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!’

 

Writing Tip #2 Who Can Be A Writer?

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

I agree wholeheartedly with this feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not many choose to do so.

A Writer and Her Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the best possible textbook – the words of authors.

Writing Tip #1 Choosing to be a Writer

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How did you know, people often ask me, that you wanted to be a writer? These are people who have tried their hand at writing and enjoyed some success. But fear holds them back from chucking the job that pays the bill, uncertainty stops them from devoting all their time to writing. They look so hopefully at me, eager for any tiny crumb of comfort that I can offer them.

I know that I loved reading books from a very young age. I read anything that I could find, even the old and tattered copies of Reader’s Digest that we owned. I was always reading, very often the same books again and again.

Somewhere along the way, I began to dream of writing. But writing was difficult and dreaming so much easier. So, for a long time that’s what I did. During my days at college I began to write poetry and short stories. And then, a story was published in the children’s pages of a newspaper. All of a sudden being a writer seemed like something that I could actually do.

I wish I could say that this was the moment when I knew that I had to be a writer. But the real, shiny hard knowing only came years later. By then several of my stories had been rejected. Every single rejection depressed me and I went around for a few days convinced that I could never hope to be a writer.

But…I always went back to dreaming up another story. And I always wrote that story. I sent it off too, to magazines and newspapers, hopeful that this one would find a home and appreciation.

That was the moment of knowing what I wanted to do. I wanted to think up stories and I wanted to write them and send them out into the world. And I wanted my stories to give people the kind of joy books had always given me. And if facing rejection was part of the deal, I was willing to accept it.

If something gives you joy, then that’s what you should be doing.

If you find yourself willing to embrace it, warts and pus filled pimples and all, then that’s what you should be doing.

It’s as simple as that.

 

Writing…and Fame

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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.

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.

 

 

The Loneliness of a Full-time 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.

Writing… and Fame

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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.