Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My Awardees and What do Blogging Awards Mean

Young Adult fiction writer Lydia Kang gave me my second blogging award  The Versatile Blogger Award. Lydia,  a doctor, mother and writer  is a wonderwoman, who balances all her  responsibilities beautifully. Thankyou Lydia for the award!

I had secretly envied the slew of awards on my blogging friends’ blogs, often wondering when I would join them  by having if not that many, then  atleast  few awards to display on my blog. I think Lydia the telepathic doctor sensed my secret desire and  like a  good doctor quickly prescribed the remedy by giving me the award.

Lia Keyes, British fantasy writer, founder of Scribblerati,  and host of #Scribe Chat  the weekly  chat for writers on Twitter  gave me my  first blogging award  The Sugar Doll  Blogger Award within a week of my entering the world of blogs.

 I just love the idea of these blogging awards. We writers crave recognition in varied forms. These blogging awards  are a way of recognizing the time and effort we invest in creating a blog and connecting with like minded souls who share our ups and downs and become co-pilgrims in our more often uphill  pilgrimage that leads to the blissful sanctuary or shall I say temple called publication.

 Our writing friends come as blessings in disguise. Not only do they generously  share the knowledge they have accumulated in their individual pilgrimages to publication via their blogs, they also help with valuable and timely advice that brings us closer and closer to our  own tryst with publication.  I have loved visiting each  of  my blogging friends’  blogs, smiling at their humor, pondering over the questions they have asked, tucking away the  writing tips they have shared for future use, nodding at similar sentiments expressed,  often wondering what their next post will be about.  

Though I am just three months old in the world of  blogging, I have  learnt a lot : that sharing knowledge and experiences  only enhances them, that what we give to the world  returns double fold. I  am  enjoying  every moment  of  it and am looking  forward to connecting with more co-pilgrims and making more blogging buddies.

 I am supposed to pass  The Versatile Blogger Award to five bloggers.

 My awardees are

  1.  Lia Keyes at  The Scribbler
  2.  Birgitte Necessary  at  Necessary Writers
  3.  Sheryl Gwyther at  Sheryl Gwyther-Author
  4.  Victoria Dixon at  The Ron Empire Wants You
  5.  Rahma at  Guardian Cats

What has blogging  taught you? What do Blogging awards mean to you all?  Please share, we would love to know.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Fiction Versus Non- fiction

Few weeks back I attended a  poetry reading session hosted by my publisher in one of Bangalore’s trendiest book shops. For a change I reached early, and it was sheer pleasure to browse through the vast collection of books  on the  shelves. A mother daughter duo were engrossed  in the  books on the next shelf. As my interest and theirs coincided : which  was to go through the latest  titles of  children’s fiction books, we stood  besides each other for a long time.

I am not a eavesdropper, nor do I like listening to other people’s conversations, but, unfortunately I heard  every single word of their argument.  The girl was about 11 years or whereabouts and the mother a harassed thirty something. The girl had selected a pile of books ( my heart swelled with pride). I just love to see children buying books (not necessarily mine, but any book) rather than frittering their pocket money on silly things.

My  bubble of happiness was  burst by the mother. “You have chosen all fiction books,” she scowled. The books were  rudely removed from her daughter’s hands and dumped back on the shelf. “I am not wasting money on fiction,” she grumbled. A small pile of non- fiction books that was  guaranteed to put a child to sleep  was dumped into the  girl’s hands. “Fiction does not teach anything,” she said. Her  words shocked me.

Where fiction is concerned, I  confess I do have a vested interest, as I am a fiction  writer. But labelling fiction as something  that just doesn’t teach is completely wrong.  Infact, I  feel  kids are definitely more  likely to learn a lot  from fiction because fiction  teaches, but  in a fun way, unlike non-fiction which is in your face teaching while  fiction is gentler and kind on a child’s mind.  

“All that non-fiction can do is answer questions. Its fiction’s business to ask them,” Richard Hughes. I completely agree with it. Fiction questions like nothing else does, and the questions make one sit  up, take notice and  ponder for a long time. The questions  are asked by characters the children have fallen in love with  and   protagonists they  have befriended. Somewhere along  the reading journey  the questions become the child’s own questions, one he or she  is eager to find the answers to.

Its extremely important that for parents  there has to be a  willingness to accept that everything does not  have to be  fed into a school curriculum or any curriculum for that matter. Stories help  children all over the world  develop in many different  ways  which are often more important than the school syllabus. Fiction helps children explore the amazing possibilities of imagination, the  finer nuances of human emotions, the  sheer joy of words and language,  fiction transports children to countries and worlds they have never been to, acquaints them with creatures they have never seen and many, many other things. And the icing on the cake is  that  it  entertains the child like nothing else does.

What do you all think, was the woman right in nudging, or, rather pushing her daughter towards non- fiction books? Do you feel that fiction just does not teach anything? I would love to get everyone’s  opinion.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Critiques, or looking in the mirror ?

 I had never critiqued someone’s work, or had my work critiqued (  see  my earlier post 'The Lonely Life of an Indian Writer’) by another writer. So it came as quite a shock for  me when a writing friend I had met at a workshop conducted by my publisher asked me to  critique her short stories.

I was pretty nervous, not only was she a new friend, she was also the only writing friend I had.  I  didn’t want to lose her  as my critique could upset her, or, hurt her feelings. Before I could reply she said she would email  the stories to me as she wanted another writer’s opinion on them before wishing them Bon Voyage. “ You are free to make  changes, edit it if you feel the need for it,” she said.

The  next day  I downloaded the stories. As I read them I realized that they were good, but riddled with several grammatical mistakes which she had perhaps overlooked.  Structral errors  I can understand,  but not grammatical errors at her level (she has been writing for several years). I know that its easy to be critical of others  ( but let me tell you that I am extremely critical of my  work too).

As I  switched on the track changes tool  and started editing I realized that  doing critiques was  like looking in the mirror. I became aware of all the mistakes I tend  to make  while writing short stories. Very often we write the way we talk, without paying  in depth  attention to either grammar or tense. As I waded through her stories  I realized that the first impression I got was that the soul of her stories  was good, but the  attention to details was missing. The feeling  that came across was that she had written the stories in a hurry, as though racing against time and she had to finish it any which way. Several times I felt that she could have handled  the scenes differently, added tension and  done away with boring  descriptions. She could have stayed away  from common frequently used clichés, invested in  imaginative and innovative  similies.  

As  I plunged deeper and deeper into the critique, I felt like I was staring  in  a mirror. My  reflection  appeared before me with all its faults  magnified. What I considered a great piece of writing ( my stories) must have looked pathetic to my editor. Did she have the same expression I had while editing ?

That episode has brought about several changes in me,  has made me more conscious of  my grammar and tense.  Nowadays I  read each line several times, pay more attention to plot,  tension and character growth. I consciously stray away from clichés that we should have left behind in junior school. When I read any descriptive paragraphs  I have written, I wonder whether my descriptions can be more original. I have become ruthless while editing my work.     
 Does  doing a critique of  someone elses  work   help you become a better writer? Does it make you aware of  your own writing mistakes? I would love to know if critiques  are like  staring in the mirror for you too?   

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Many Fears a Writer Faces

Fear like self- doubt and insecurity is a constant pressure and presence in a writer’s life. Many fears surround us ( writers) from the word go. That is from the moment we decide on the theme/topic of our work, to the time we start writing, to when we start querying, to the time the book is published. Even after that we are gripped by fears regarding the reception the book will recieve.

Every kind of fear accosts us when we undertake our writing journey. Sometimes I feel these fears are obstacles created and thrown along our paths by forces unknown to us, to test our mettle, to firm our sometimes weakening determination and to strengthen our resolve to stick to the path chosen by us.

The monster of fear comes in different forms:

1.  Fear of choosing the wrong subject. A subject that will just not interest the readers, agents and editors.

2.  Fear of not doing justice to it by way of plot, characters, dialogues and style.

3.  Fear of not having sufficient time to devote to the manuscript.

4.  Fear of not being able to complete the book. Many times half way through writing we realize that certain elements are just not gelling. Should I shelve the book, or, rewrite?

5.  Fear of not getting an agent.

6.  Fear of the book not finding any home (publishing house) even though the agent is on board. (That is my biggest fear)

7.  Fear of the editor chopping parts that we considered crucial or important. That is after the book has been placed with a publishing house.

8.  Fear of being trashed by critics on whose words hang our writing careers. (If a critic is having a bad day, the result is a bad review)

9.  Fear of readers disliking the book. ( That is a major fear)

10.  Fear of the first print run being unsold. ( Another fear that haunts)

11.  Fear of not being given another chance to redeem ourselves.

12.  Fear of failure, of being unable to rise upto our own expectations.

With so many fears surrounding us, it’s a wonder we are able to put pen to paper.

Indeed it’s a brave soul that battles these fears to emerge with words that not only make sense, entertain, but also bring joy into someone’s life.

Which fear or shall I say fears do you face or have faced in your writing journey. How do you capture these fears to write day in and day out. It will be of great help to each of us if you share your experiences.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bringing up the Protagonist like a Child

Writing a book is a lot like having a baby. The entire process from the conception of a story, nurturing it, feeding it with imagination, watching it grow little by little…..to the stage where it’s finally out is similar to pregnancy. The baby is ready to face the world. It is but natural then, that the protagonist becomes the child. Adopted or otherwise. And concern for its well being is foremost in our mind.

The time it takes for the story to unravel in our minds, an umbilical chord like attachment forms via our thoughts which constantly stray to the story, feeding it with nourishing plot structures, making the character strong and likeable, enhancing the scenes with juicy tidbits that hook readers, adding elements that propel the story forward, not only during our waking moments, but, many times during sleep too.

If my characters could talk they would definitely crib about me stalking them. I have done that for my middle grade fiction about a notorious prankster Nina. For the duration of time that it took me to write the first draft, I was obsessed with Nina. I had definitely become the overconcerned, anxious mother, constantly fretting over Nina, stifling her and seldom giving her the breathing space a ten going on eleven year old needed. I wanted my girl to be perfect, the kind of child every mother craved, the kind of child who would become a role model. But as the story progressed Nina developed a strong personality of her own, she baulked at her strict upbringing and loathed my interference.

The head strong spirited girl that I had created sat down with me to discuss her fate. She explained the injustice I had done to her, her personality had wilted instead of flowering. I had superimposed my likes and dislikes on her. “Yes, I am your creation, but not an extension of your personality,” she said, staring deep into my eyes. Her anguish and pain haunted me for days.

The moment I started the second draft, I shed the over protectiveness, dropped the strict attitude I had adopted, and allowed Nina a free rein. She had a right to decide her fate. The much deserved freedom enhanced the pre teenager’s life and she emerged not a shadow of me, but, an individual in her own right.

The process of creating a character works both ways, we learn as much from the characters as they from us. Before they set an example for the rest of the world, these literary children teach us ( their adopted parents) a lot about parenthood. The child \ protoganist does not have to move through the story carrying the enormous burden of our expectations on their shoulder. They are carrying the burden of the book’s success. Isn’t that enough?! We realize that as literary parents we can show them the different paths, but the one they choose, and the journey they undertake is their own. The mistakes and triumphs are solely their own.

How do you help your literary children  along their journey? By allowing them freedom or controlling them? Do you become the strict parent, or do you indulge your literary creation? I would love to know how the nurturing process affects you in your literary hemisphere and how you bring up your characters.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How to Accept Rejection

Rejection is a nine letter word that makes us (writers) break into a sweat. It’s the stuff of our worst nightmares. Its something we all dread and fear. It’s a word I personally detest. I would prefer to say that such and such publisher declined my book, or turned it down, or refused it. I would hate to say someone rejected my book. Unlike rejection, decline, refuse and turned down are less harsh and hurt less.

Actually even if we use the word rejection, the sting can be removed from it because there are several reasons a manuscript has been rejected or turned down.

An editor friend of mine from one of India’s biggest publishing houses explained to me that when they refuse a book there are several reasons.

1. Sometimes even good books are refused, books which the editorial committee may have approved in stage one of the selection process  may be disapproved in stage two, because of financial constraints. The publishing house just does not have the money to pump into this book at the current time.

2. Several times books are turned down because publishers are unable to think of a marketing strategy for that particular book. Books that cannot be marketed do not sell well.

3. Very often the publishers have brought out a book similar to the one submitted some time back and do not want to repeat themes. They prefer to tackle different books.

4. Books that do not follow certain trends: read as books on unusual, bold themes, or archaic themes are refused for fear of them not selling well.

5. Books that need a lot of editing, both structural as well as grammatical translates into a refusal. Editors just do not have the time or energy to devote to such manuscripts. Everyone prefers a polished piece that requires minimum editing. Editors don’t mind corroborating with writers when a manuscript is outstanding and editorial changes can further enhance it, turning it into literary magic.

6. Many times even good books are turned down as there is a lacunae, in the style of writing and the theme. The theme may be for older children while the writing style for younger ones, or vice versa.

7. Even good books are turned down as the publishing house’s publishing programme is full for the next couple of years and there is no room for new manuscripts.

8. Books that the publishers feel may be a hardsell. At the end of the day they too a have a business to run.

9. Several times good book by first time authors are turned down in favour of not so good books by authors who publishers consider well known or brand names.

There are several reasons for the rejection of a manuscript. There is no need for us (writers ) to feel insulted or hurt. It’s nothing personal. Do you feel there are any other reasons for rejecting a manuscript? Please share with us.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Imperfection : The New Perfection

Imperfection is actually the new perfection. The smudge of Imperfection in characters adds an unexplainable and undefinable appeal.

Characters in books mirror real life people. We all have our own individual idiosyncrasies, flaws, shortcomings and insecurities. So it’s nothing unusual if characters reflects these traits. Actually this quality (Imperfection) makes a character more real. Readers find it easy to identify with someone who is imperfect. Someone who makes mistakes, is swayed by emotions, is prone to mood swings, is more real  than a character who is calm and unruffled and who never makes mistakes. Though we look upto perfect people,  they do give us a temporary sense of insecurity.  We feel small in front of them. We may even secretly and subtly resent their perfection and larger than life image. But it’s the imperfect characters we bond with. In their presence we revel in our own imperfections.

Have you all noticed that more and more often our protagonists lead imperfect lives. As the story unfolds, these imperfect characters leading imperfect lives try to resolve the conflict by tackling their own personal imperfections first.

Aristotle called it Hamartia, which was seen as a character flaw. This character flaw can be a limitation, a problem, a phobia, or a deficiency present in a character who is otherwise quite normal. The character flaw may be a violent temper that may turn out to affect the character’s actions, abilities, or interactions with other characters. Sometimes it can be a simple personality defect which only has effect on the character’s motives and social interaction and nothing else.

Flaws or imperfection add depth and humanity to the characters in a narrative. For eg the mayor with a penchant for gambling, the hero with claustrophobia, the heroine with an alcohol problem. One of the most famous example is ‘ Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’ 

Character flaws can be slotted into three categories.

Minor Flaws make the characters memorable in readers minds, these give the character individuality, but other than that do not affect the story in any way. They can be a scar, an accent, biting the lower lip, twirling the moustache, a girl constantly flinging her hair back. A protagonist can have several minor flaws, each having no effect on the plot.

Major Flaws are noticeable and important. They affect the individual physically, mentally, emotionally, morally or spiritually. Major flaws are not necessarily negative : they can be rigid religious beliefs or a strict adherence to a certain lifestyle. Major flaws like: greed, blindness, deafness, lust, often hamper and restrict the character in one way or the other. The major flaw is important for the character’s personal development and the story. Heroes and heroines must overcome their own major flaws either partially or completely, either temporarily or permanently, at some point in the story, very often by the climax, by sheer determination or skill to be able to solve the larger problem at hand. For a villain his major flaw is frequently the cause of his downfall. The protagonist’s major flaw defines the core problem, the entire journey to remedy this problem forms the firm backbone of the story, sometimes prodding the plot forward.

The last flaw is the Tragic Flaw, it’s the cause of the character’s downfall and eventual death. Tragic Flaw arises out of the character’s misplaced trust in another character, an excessive amount of curiousity that sucks him into problems, pride that plunges him into a world of loneliness. The fall that often arises out of the Tragic Flaw occurs at the beginning of a story.

Do you like perfect characters? Or Imperfection is the new perfection for you? What kind of character flaws do your characters have?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Interview With Elizabeth Varadan

Today’s guest is Elizabeth Varadan, author of ‘The Fourth Wish’.

Q. Tell us a little about your juvenile fantasy novel The Fourth Wish.

A. The Fourth Wish takes place in Sacramento, where I live. Sacramento usually shows up in historical fiction for children, due to the Gold Rush history, but it was fun writing a contemporary story in the city I love.

Q. I have read the book and liked your style and the characters who are extremely life like. Did you do any research for them? Are they based on any real life children you have met?

A. Characters in The Fourth Wish are entirely fictitious, but they are probably a conglomeration culled from numerous sixth grade students I taught for many years. It’s such an interesting age to teach, because students are very individual by eleven or twelve. I’ve always loved to write though, and even during lessons, part of my brain would be noticing little gestures, facial expressions, etc., or paying attention to comments on the playground. A writer is always soaking up things on the periphery.

Q. Is there a sequel to The Fourth Wish in the pipeline?

A. I actually have three sequels in mind, and I’ve gone so far as to “rough outline” them and write few scenes. But, this was a self-published book, and I’m heeding Agent Nathan Bransford’s advice: Wait until a book is commercially published before pursuing sequels to a self-published book.

Q. Where does inspiration for your characters come from?

A. The inspiration actually comes from the story itself. An idea occurs to me, sort of a “what if ” idea, and then the characters start evolving from the story problem. For instance, I’ve never met or known “Arthur” from the story, but he just appeared and then evolved, and in some ways he did a lot of scene stealing, too. It’s weird; I didn’t even know he was going to be in it, but once he showed up, I just knew what he would say.

Q. Are you working on another novel?

A. Yes, I’m finishing up a re-write of a historical novel. Also set in Sacramento. This story occurs in 1919, at the tail-end of the influenza epidemic. Every book is different, and this one called for a lot of research, but I’ve loved doing it. In a writing class I took, the teacher, Sands Hall, talked about “research rapture”. There really is such a thing.

Q. You do a lot of book reviews. Does it get in the way of your writing?

A. Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it takes time away from writing my own stuff. On the other hand, as I review books and analyze what makes them work, it’s very instructive for me, trying to articulate what grabs me, what turns me off, what feels believable, what doesn’t. Part of my brain is saying, “Pay attention to this….”

Q. Do you have a favourite writing time?

A. Mostly after lunch. In the mornings I’m “clearing the slate,” so to speak. I write best when I’ve gone through my mail and email and attended to nagging chores. Otherwise, they really are a distraction for me. Once I get going, though, sometimes I come back to the writing after dinner, too, in the evening. It really depends on where I am in the work. Usually the afternoon is enough, and then I read in the evening. Meanwhile, I scribble down notes in the car on a trip, and read in line at the post office, dental office, etc. Reading and writing are so interconnected for me.

Q. What’s on your current reading list?

A. Oh, gosh; what isn’t? I just finished Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes, a Newbery Honor Book, just a beautiful book, published in 2003; and the Ruby in the Smoke, a YA Victorian mystery by Philip Pullman, published in 1985, also excellent. At the same time, I can hardly wait for the next three books Sacramento Book Review is going to send me to review. They will all be current books just about to come out in the next month or two.

Q. You are an avid blogger, you conduct art classes, you write as well as do regular book reviews. Any tips you would like to share with us on effective time management?

A. Hmmm. I’m not sure my tips would be very helpful. My after school art club one day a week is for 8-12 year-olds, which is the age range for my target readership. It’s a mutually enriching experience, as we all love art, and we all love to read. I get great reading recommendations from my students while we do art. Outside of that regularity in my schedule, I pretty much follow the above, very loose schedule of taking care of chores in the morning, writing in the afternoons, reading in the evenings. It works for me; but another writer might do it all differently.

Elizabeth Varadan's Blog  - http://elizabethvaradansfourthwish.blogspot.com/

How do you all  ( my writer friends and blogging buddies) balance everything: writing, reading, blogging, social networking, managing family and keeping in touch with friends, and sundry other jobs that  we writers do? Do you all have time management tips that we can learn from. Please share them with us.