A Writer’s World #12 Why writers must stand by their books

No writer is ever fully pleased with her book. This could be a first time writer or a much-published one. What they all share in common is the little niggling thoughts and doubts about their books. They worry that the book is long, they sigh that chunks of it deserve to be rewritten, they wish they had another opportunity to edit the book.

This is a natural reaction. After all, from the time that the book was accepted for publication to the time when it was finally published, many things have changed. The world and politics, but most importantly, the writer has changed. However, analysing your own book and deciding that it could be improved upon is one thing. But what happens when a reviewer writes a bad review of your book?

The most important thing to remember is that not every book you write is going to be appreciated. Some people will love it and others will hate it. Those who love it might not shout out their love from the rooftops. But you can be certain that those who dislike it will make it a point to review it and discuss it, with particular focus on the weakness they have noticed.

At such times, the writer’s role is clear. She must stand by her book. When the world is finding faults with your writing, what your book needs is for you to stand by it. To be proud of it and proud of yourself. Because you have done an incredibly brave thing – you have dared to put down your thoughts on paper and you have had the courage to send them out into the world, alone and helpless, to find homes. And something that brave deserves all the support you can give it. Besides, if you, its creator back away from supporting it, then who will?

So, stand by your book and show it some author love. Love thy book.

Your book needs it but you need it much more than that!

A Writer’s World #11 Why you must talk about your books

Most writers are shy people. They shrink away from public functions, they frantically back away from any attempt to honour them and they detest being in the spotlight. I feel this way too and would rather skulk in the shadows than feel a hundred eyes on me.

And yet, I have realised that some of these interactions are good for the writer. Any public occasion that allows the writer to talk about her book should be seriously considered. And this is not because it will benefit the readers or inspire countless others to pick up a copy of her book and read it. I think every writer should talk about her books because they benefit the most important person involved- her.

As creators of these books, we live with them from the moment of their birth. We know the exact minute when the idea was born in our heads, we can rattle of all the changes we have incorporated into the narrative, all the challenges we have faced in writing the books. But, when you set out to publish a book you set out on a really long journey. It is exhilarating, it is wonderfully stimulating and if done right, it is eventually rewarding. By the time we are at the end of the journey and the book has been published, several of these important details have grown fuzzy or even been forgotten.

Talking about your book allows you to remember these. And these are details that help you remember how you plotted the story, how you overcame a sag in the middle, the research that went into writing. Talking about the book also helps you recall the larger thought, the message (for want of a better word) in the story.

On the few occasions when I was asked questions about my writing and my books, I ended up looking closely at something that familiarity has caused me to take for granted. I examined the way ideas came to me and it made me pause and appreciate the sheer magic of the process. In discussing the way my characters were born and why they behave the way they do, I felt a sudden rush of affection, understanding and appreciation for them. Essentially, talking about my books and the writing process introduced me to my work and process. And this filled me with a huge appreciation of what I was doing, how I was doing it and also how fortunate I was to be doing it. It made me stop taking my work for granted, so my books surprised and delighted me.

In a world where very few occasions allow you to do that for yourself, I think these should be embraced.

And that’s why I think writers should talk about their books!

A Writer’s World#6 Meeting Other Writers

For most writers, writing is the secret activity that they do in the small pockets of time between rushing around doing the million other things that rank high on the list of things that absolutely need to be done.

Writing tends to get buried under the mountains of other things we do, the expectations and duties of all the other avatars that we embrace. And though writing is usually the most important thing in our minds, it is not often the first or even the second or third thing we speak about, when talking about ourselves. It is often the almost after thought that follows belatedly on the heels of all the other identities we wear. Combine this with the fact that writing is an isolated activity and the chances of meeting a fellow writer are usually extraordinarily slim, and you begin to understand exactly what a writer feels about being a writer.

These were my emotions too. Almost fifteen years of writing alone, cut off from any but the most necessary contact with the writing world, I had no real sense of where my writing and I stood. All communications with the writing world had invariably been from publishing houses. And since these had been a mix of acceptances and rejections, with a heavy tilt towards the rejections, I had no clue how to assess myself and my writing.

And then I attended my first literary festival exclusively for children’s books. Suddenly I was in the midst of people I knew and recognised from their writing, people I had admired without ever hoping to meet and people whose books had given me much joy. These were people who spoke a language I understand and who understood the frustrations of writing and publishing, of making time for oneself and one’s writing in the mad race of every single day. With so many common points established, it was difficult, almost impossible to not make friends with at least some of them.

And I came away with a few friends whose opinions I valued, whose suggestions I considered and whose encouragement I appreciated. They brightened up my day with jokes and send comforting messages when I was down. They also offered suggestions and willingly shared contacts in the publishing world.

And I understood then that literary festivals, in addition to bringing readers and writers together, also allowed writers to meet each other. Just one more act of literary significance!

A Writer’s World #5 What Does A Writer Read?

Whenever I venture out into the world and meet children and adults who have read my books, one of the questions I am asked is what books I read. Curiosity is definitely the primary reason behind this question, a very natural curiosity about what a writer herself reads. But I think there’s also the sense that if only the list of my favourite authors was discovered, it would help crack the secret of why I write and perhaps also a little peek into how I write.

I understand that since I too take an avid interest in the reading lists of other people. But because I do this, I can say with the greatest confidence that these lists don’t really make a difference. What I like to read need not necessarily make it to the list of most read books for another person. Or what inspires me may well leave another person completely cold and mystified. I am asked if I read the classics and if I would recommend reading the classics. I never know how to answer this question, because as time passes and I grow in my writing and thinking years and also in human years, the books on my list change. When I began writing, yes, the books I read were definitely the ones that would feature on any list of books that must be read. But as the years passed several of these books were replaced.

I discovered new authors and their books, I was inspired by the style and the philosophy behind the books. I was filled with admiration at the various ways in which language could be used, the elegant bends and twists that resulted in an entirely new way of narration. Here were writers and storytellers who created new worlds that seemed far more real and believable than the one I lived in. These were people whose command over the language left me stunned so I spent hours marvelling at the way they created a sense of the atmosphere. I was impressed at the apparent ease with which they made me love or hate the characters, the magic they wove so that I was reluctant to part from them and obsessed about them as if they were real people. How, I wondered, did they do it? How did they take a difficult topic and weave in a variety of apparently unrelated issues and come up with a story that kept me hooked from the first page?

The answers to these difficult questions lay in the writing and so, I spent a lot of time chasing down every single book, essay and interview by these authors. My respect grew with every word I read by them, every word about them. And so, I returned to their books and yes, I read them multiple times. They seemed sparkling new and fresh with every reading. And with every reading these books managed to show me a new facet, a new angle and a new reason to admire the authors. They gave me reason to think and ponder on the magic these authors wove and the huge skill that lay behind this magic.

Every time I read these books, I came away with something new, something that inspired me and got me thinking about writing. Even better, a reading of these books sparked off an idea so my brain buzzed with excitement too big to contain and all I longed for was to sit down that very minute and write something new.

And that’s when I realised that you recognise a classic not by the number of years it’s been in existence or the number of copies that it’s sold. You recognise a classic by how much it has inspired you, by the doors and windows it has opened in your mind and the thirst it has filled you with. You recognise a classic by the different ways in which it has inspired you, the multiple drafts it has forced you to write in search of that elusive perfection and by the constant need, sharp as hunger, to always improve your own writing, always hoping to come somewhere in the vicinity of the brilliance within its pages.

And that is the kind of book that will always remain on your list.

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?