Friday, July 30, 2010

Teaching Creativity is like Learning it all Over Again

Going back to college was nostalgic.  From a student of Psychology, Literature and Journalism, I was returning  as  the Creative Writing Teacher.  The moment I agreed to take on the job six months back,  I was attacked by anxiety and doubts. I had never taught anyone anything before.  Would I be able to teach?  Would the students be interested?  Did I have the patience to teach? What would I teach?  Oh boy, I had more questions than answers.

Though I had mentally decided what I would  teach from March,  I hesitated to put it down on paper.  Maybe that particular course may be scrapped said a voice inside my head. Maybe no one will sign up for it, said another voice. But when things were confirmed by  March end,  I started planning for the  course.

Words of caution poured in from  family and friends. “The students are terrors, they will bully you,” said one friend. “You don’t look like a teacher,” said an aunt. “Trust me, no one will pay attention,” said another  pessimistic aunt. “How will you manage to write your books as well as teach,” asked my concerned best friend. “ Can’t imagine you as a teacher,” laughed my college  friend.

The  words of caution turned me into a mass of quivering jelly.  But as the day of joining college drew near, I relaxed. I would manage. Either I would suck as a teacher, or,  be able to teach well. I decided to judge for myself. I would  first get to know my students during the initial  session and then proceed after that.

It has been  22 days and I can say with a certainty that I am enjoying  every moment of teaching. The students are an enthusiastic bunch and whatever else we can fake, one can’t fake enthusiasm. That’s half the battle won. They are  polite,  respectful and behave like angels.  

An advantage I have is that they are quick learners. When I taught them the different  styles of narratives, I was astonished by their rapid grasp ( it took me longer to master it). And so were the amazing  descriptions they wrote when I taught them descriptive writing. I explained  Descriptive Writing as using the five senses to describe an object, person, event or  a place. Most of the students went beyond my expectation. Their descriptions gave me a peep into what went inside their heads. They created vivid images. Their essays on  ‘My  Favourite Childhood Memory’ were wonderful. Okay, there were some grammatical errors (but that’s my job to teach them proper grammar as well how to enhance their creativity).

The art and craft of short story writing saw the most participation. Each one is eager to write an amazing story. And the tough topics they have chosen make me   fear for their sanity as its their first  attempt at  short story writing. The mental and detailed images of the  protagonists they have narrated to me,  have made me eager to read their short stories.  

Sometimes SMS lingo does creep into their writing. But I know it will take me time to wean them away from that style. Their enthusiasm is  child like. Slowly  they are shedding their shyness and sharing their  creative thoughts and eagerly doing the creative tasks I set for each session.

Teaching them is making me more perceptive to my own mistakes whenever I write nowadays. It’s like I am learning the basics of writing all over again. And  brushing up on the basics is not  a bad thing. We tend to forget the simplest rules while struggling to master the more difficult ones.

What is your opinion about teaching? Do you think teachers learn as much as they teach? Any teaching advice  for a newbie like me?   

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Editing Tips to the Rescue

Editing for me is the toughest part of writing. I  hate to do the edits for several reasons. One of them is because I  detest deleting  words from my MS.  I feel like crying  when my editor deletes paragraphs. I am fine with few words here and there. More often than not after my edits the word count goes into an overdrive.

The last time I edited a story I ended up adding a side character and increasing the length of the story by  four hundred words. Needless to say my editor was tearing her hair out and asked for the older version which she would carry in the newspaper with just one illustration.

But with time, extensive reading and research and courtesy the only workshop I attended, I realized that  editing is responsible for a polished manuscript. From a foe, editing has now become my friend. I started the edits for my current WIP with  mixed feelings. Would the word count go up or down?  The first lot of words to go were  what  William Faulkner calls ‘writer’s darlings’ or the  common modifiers I  generously sprinkle my manuscript with. I have a penchant for words  like ‘ very, extremely, really, seriously, absolutely.’ Faulkner’s advice to writers is  “to kill their darlings.” This  decreased  the word count substantially. Strunk and White in "The Elements of Style" refer to them as  “The leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words." I  eliminated  only the  modifiers that  I felt weighed down my writing.

After that I heeded Mark Twain’s advice : “When you catch an adjective, kill it.  No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them, then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” Many adjectives were  sent packing at Mark Twain's advice, as were the silly and juvenile similies I had dumped during the initial drafts.

As I reread my manuscript, I realized  there were many repetitions that had no business being there. I had no qualms deleting these. As the manuscript is written over a period of time we often forget what  we have said earlier, hence the repetitions. The parts where I felt I was suffocating my reader with too much back story have been kept to a minimum. This was difficult as giving back story is a personal favourite.  
As the word count decreased and the writing became a little crisper and tighter, my smile widened. For the first time in my life after my edits, words  fell  like leaves in autumn.

The paragraphs where I was telling rather than showing  will take  the longest time.  I consider it a hangover of my school days where we had to write long essays. While writing longer stories I tend to  fall into the tell and not show pattern. Though it’s something that we constantly hear it’s also the easiest thing to overlook.  I am currently tackling  these long passages that will  require a lot of rethinking  and effort.

Trying to edit the scenes with dialogues was  easy as I followed the advice that  dialogue should either build character or advance the action. The longer dialogues have given way to shorter ones, and the boring bits chopped. Then there are the grammatical and punctuation errors to remedy. I  am leaving the sentence structure modification for the last.

Do you think I am going about my edits the right way? Is there something I have overlooked, something that can further improve my WIP?  How do you all handle your edits? Do you have any editing secrets that you would like to share?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Choosing Names for our Characters

The first time I sat down to choose names for the characters in my books, I disliked the task and frankly speaking did not pay much attention to it. The names were chosen at random without  much thought. That too only the important characters. The very minor ones like the watchman who made  just a single  appearance was left nameless. I tried to concentrate  on the story,  plot and twists.

But all this changed the day  I got a call from a publisher saying that they were interested in publishing my books. After I signed the contract, my editor and I sat down to brainstorm  names  for every   character, even characters whose claim to fame was a solitary appearance in  my illustrated books for children. My editor was very firm that  readers bond with characters and its absolutely vital to give them names. And nameless characters will never be befriended, or,  become memorable.                
When my story was commissioned for a  puffin anthology few years back,  the puffin editor called  me   to ask  for  few  changes in my story, before winding up she  asked  me why  I had not named the watchman’s cat. For me she was just the watchman’s cat : a nameless creature.  Not only was I clueless, but there was also silence  from my side. How was I supposed to think of a name during a phone conversation.  “Can I go with the name I have chosen, she asked ?” The name hater that I was   I  agreed to go along with the name she suggested. Anything to avoid that task.

But all that has changed now.  Perhaps the change has come when readers tell me that they identified with  Leo, Bunny, Nina,  or  Paro (the names of  the characters in my earlier books). This appreciation  has worked as a major  incentive.

For the two books I am currently working on, I took several days just to think up unusual names for each and every character. Full names, with the surnames included. It was difficult as both the books are based in schools and as we all know schools are swarming  with children and teachers and sundry staff.  So there were at least 60  to 70 names for each book, as well as surnames. This is no mean task for an Indian writer as we have  many  different communities and surnames typical of those communities. If I gave a child a particular surname, not only was he  tied to that community forever, he also had to follow their customs and beliefs.

I decided that just naming every  character  would not be enough. They were given individual personalities to match the names. Each name conjured up an image of the teacher or student fitting that name.  It was fun. I turned to different sources for the names: newspapers, magazines, movies, literature, religious texts,  arts;  dancers, painters and musicians (some of them have unique names). During the naming days  my ears were constantly  strained to pick up unusual names. At times I created few names  by combining two  names. This threw up many  original names.

What about you all? How do you all go about naming your characters? Do you  name your characters with the first name that jumps into your mind, or, are these names the product  of  a meticulous   research  and hard work. Do you have any tips to share?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reading Books from a Writer’s Perspective

Not just write, we scribblers love to read too. Actually, its  our love for reading that more often than not fuels our desire to write. The more we read, the more we want to write. From the past several months I have noticed that I am reading books with a different perspective. From a writer’s perspective.

Earlier I  would just read: for pleasure, entertainment, because the author was my favourite, or, because the story appealed to me. But nowadays I read like someone  possessed. A confession has to be made; it takes me longer to read a book now, than earlier. One reason is because of time constraints, but the other reason, the main  reason is because I want to really enjoy the book, let the story unfurl in my mind like a cat stretching its supple body.

After reading a book, I mull over it. What about the book appealed to me a lot? How did the author introduce the characters? Was justice done to the side or peripheral characters? Was the tension tight? What about the conflict? Did it completely absorb me in its grip? Did I get bored at any point? If yes, why? Was it because of flat and boring descriptions? Too much back story.  How about the dialogue? Did it take the story forward? Was it crucial to the scene? Did it sound authentic? What about the setting? Was it original? Was the style racy?

If a paragraph appeals to me, I read it  and reread it. It’s as though I want to memorize it. Several times I close the book for a second or two, to visualize the scenes.  
After reading  the book,  I write down my thoughts on a piece of paper, as though I am doing a private review of the book, or a break down  of the book  for the purpose of  learning the craft of writing in detail. This exercise does take some  time, but its well worth the effort. I see the book not just from a reader's perspective, but also a writer’s viewpoint. I think about what I liked about the book and what I didn’t like. At which  point did I stop believing in the characters? Which  trait in the character made me fall in love with him or her?  Could what I like be enhanced and the bits I didn’t  like be changed for the better? This exercise in particular is really effective, it gives the brain cells and writing muscles a good workout.

If a book is extremely successful,  it’s easy to understand why? And if it isn’t, again  the reasons for it not scoring with the readers become clear.  It makes me aware of the elements in my story: which elements would appeal to the readers and which would bore them. It also   familiarizes me with the current  market  trend. What kind of books appeal to the readers, and which books though published are not attracting the readers.

What about you all? Do you read books solely for pleasure, or, do  you read them from a writer’s perspective? Please  share with us.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What happens when Life Interrupts our Writing?

Life has this amazing ability and habit of interrupting and disrupting our writing schedules. For no fault of ours we find that we are unable to devote long stretches or even short  stretches of time to our WIP, as there are other important issues to tackle and problems to solve.

This interruption by life has been happening to me for  the past  two years with clockwork precision. Parental health issues are something I don’t grumble about, as health problems can crop up  anytime and for anyone, and also because   I do not want to add to the enormous guilt they lug around at disrupting their childrens’ schedules. It’s the emotional upheavel and anxiety that we ( children) find stressful and worrisome. But, other issues have me grumbling and cursing my bad writing luck.

 Now that I have started my job as a creative writing teacher in my college, my personal writing time has come down considerably. Add to that my twice a week blogging and writing for few Indian newspapers, and reading as many as 80 to  100 posts  a month, and posting comments, I  find myself struggling to stay afloat and balance it all. The stack of books:  a part of my  to be read pile is tottering dangerously; few books that have to be reviewed are sending nasty looks my way ( I have personally hated it when reviewers take their own time to review books). Perhaps this is God’s way of showing me that  I have to be more understanding and sympathetic.

But I have learnt to outsmart life. While life is busy throwing obstacles my way, I am learning to make the most and best use of these obstacles.  In every situation I look for the silver lining (I believe every situation teaches us something). Though I may not be devoting  huge chunks of my day to writing, I am learning from each situation and every person who I interact with.

From the informative posts my blogging friends write, I jot down points that I consider crucial to my growth: both as a writer, and now as a teacher. The people I interact  with on regular basis : earlier the staff in  the hospital, and now my students,  are rich sources of inspiration. I observe their mannerisms and traits for future character charts.

 Even If I am not actively writing I am constantly thinking of my book: plotting, mentally rewriting, visualizing scenes, adding unique character traits and personality quirks.  Maybe to make up for not being able to write for longer periods, my learning process has sharpened and I am able to absorb information quickly. Nowadays whatever little time I get for my own writing I am able to focus more and  with all the information and experiences  crammed inside my head,  my stories are getting  a little closer to reality and the characters  are shedding a little of their flatness.

Our writing deepens from  our growth and  experiences. Every small  incident  in our lives is filled with it’s unique experience that somehow  crawls into our stories.

What are the techniques you use, when life interrupts your writing? Please share, we all can learn lots from each others' experiences.        

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How well do our Characters Grow ?

The characters ( the protagonist, the antagonist and the peripheral characters) are extremely important elements in our stories/books. All these characters take the story forward. Thereby it becomes  important  to not just  flesh them out in a appealing, healthy and wholesome way: without making them too fat or too thin, but also to breathe life into them.  As these are the  literary  people who will attract  readers into the make believe world we have created.

I have realized I had been indifferent  to not just the peripheral characters who dotted my story,  but also to the protagonist and the  antagonist in my  earliest work. No wonder then, its lying  in the lower drawer of my desk. When I revisited that particular book, I blanched at the flat characters I had created. Forget about bonding with them, a reader may not even like the one dimensional creatures, as flat as cheese trapped between two slices of bread, I had unknowingly unleashed   years back.

 I have realized that  for the characters in our books  to become multidimensional creatures with  rounded personalities that   readers will love, bond and  befriend, we  have  to make the characters grow.  By growth its not just the numerical or the physical growth, but also the emotional, spiritual, intellectual and  mental   growth. A growth that signifies  and symbolizes that life is  not only being lived  every  single moment, but also that its teaching us every single moment. This emotional, spiritual, intellectual and mental growth happens when we experience life in its entirety, when we battle everything that life is constantly tossing in our paths, and yet move ahead without giving up hope or the dreams we carry in our hearts. 

Character development is an important  ingredient of our story.  For a character to develop to it’s full potential,  character growth becomes vital. Not just the main  character, but the antagonist as well as other characters too must grow before the readers' eyes. This can only happen when they  experience the bitter sweet emotions of joy and sorrow,  meet  with  success and failure, adjust with guilt and regret. They  need to forge relations that may or may not blossom, undergo the  ups  and  downs and uncertainities that mark life, show their deepest  fears and darkest emotions,  reveal  their brave fronts as well as their vulnerable sides to the readers. Growth is one facet of life that is constant like change and it will resonate with the readers. Our characters are reflections of what we undergo in our own lives.

As humans we are constantly evolving and changing, sometimes for the better and at other times  for the worse. Though we may be unaware of it,  each and every experience:  whether good or bad contributes to our growth. Likewise for our characters.

When these varied   emotions  are  added to  the characters, its then that he/she/they  really start  living and breathing. The story literally hums into life and the characters develop flesh and bones, blood and skin.  

I am striving to make my characters grow. How do you all  bring about character growth? Do you have any special method to breathe life into your characters? Please share, we all will  surely benefit from your experiences. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

Sending the Inner Editor on a Long Holiday

The ever present, ever cautious, constantly interfering   inner editor is a nuisance we writers can do without. The inner editor  which  is  our inherent, intrinsic and individual sense of right or wrong can be detrimental to the process of writing. It can interfere  with our plot, mess up the structure of our stories, disturb our scenes, upset the character’s dialogues and POV, send the character arc off kilter,  and throw our writing rhythm into a tizzy.

I don’t know about others, but I am constantly writing with the ghost of my conscience peeping over my shoulder, its face contorted with disgust, its shrill voice screaming a flurry of instructions like a  mother warning a child on the cusp of a huge tantrum. Almost all the instructions start with “ don’t do that, why have you written this, mellow that down, how can a school girl think like this, how can you think that about a teacher, that’s not appropriate behaviour for a ten year old Indian school girl/boy, that boy is not a role model,  this is just not right.”

Unfortunately for me, the two middle grade books I am currently working on  are based  in a school. So whatever happens, well.. it happens inside a classroom, between students, between teachers and students, teachers and the Principal and between the Principal and the parents. 

In this scenario my stuck up inner editor needs to go on a long  holiday, preferably paid one way, leaving me in peace to write the first draft  my way. If I were to listen to my  sensible  inner editor, I would never be able to do justice to the theme of my books. School children are going to be naughty, they are going to play pranks, bully other students, trouble and irritate the teachers, cheat in tests. I can’t afford to have angels as students. Most students are not angels, and angels may not make interesting students.

After several showdowns, angry words and sullen silences, I sent my inner editor on a long holiday. I needed to write the first draft my way. Packing its bags, so that it did not return with any flimsy excuse,  I waved a cheerful and excited goodbye to my  over concerned inner editor and celebrated  the joyous event by going berserk with the plot, theme and  the situations. I enjoyed this trial separation, it gave me the much needed breathing space to write the  books my way.

I feel  that I am able to really do justice to the theme, remain true to the souls of the stories (which is pranks and mischief) by not over thinking about the consequences of  my character’s actions. Children will be mischievous, and should be  mischievous. That’s the joy of childhood. And it’s just a book I am writing, not a code of conduct for children. 

I am sure when my  inner editor returns, it will  probably die of shock. But  it’s a risk I  am willing to take.

Have you battled with your own inner editors while working on your books? How do you deal with a moralistic inner editor who is driving you up the wall with it’s  strong sense of ethics. Please tell us, I am sure we all can benefit from your experiences with your personal inner editors. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What has my writing taught me?

My journey as a writer has been quite long, starting with short stories  and features for several years before I took a full fledged plunge into the world of  books. Over the years I have learnt several things in this journey.  I want to share these insights with my writing friends.  I am sure few things will make you smile,  and some  things will make you nod your heads.

  1. Writing has taught me patience. Patience  is not one of my better known virtues. The time it takes to write a book: from the day the idea pops into my overactive mind, until the day I see the book/ story in its published form is long. At every moment, impatient little me needs loads of patience to be able to do justice to the work I have undertaken. 
  1. Writing has taught me to respect people with split personalities as  my personality undergoes a drastic change at different stages of my writing. When I am writing the first draft, I am quite stressed and irritable with the smallest disturbances. When I rewrite, I am pretty upset with myself, and when I edit,  I am  relaxed and cheerful. 
  1. Writing has made me value other writer’s efforts. I never dismiss a book as crap or run it down, as I am aware of the effort someone else must have invested in that endeavour. The book may have bored me to tears, maybe disappointed me a little, or a lot, but it still required a tremendous effort from someone else to bring it to that stage. 
  1. Writing has made me appreciate the little free time I get. For us  writers, our work doesn’t end with just writing a publishable book, it starts with that. Once we have jumped onto the publishing bandwagon, we have  to actively market our books. Its then  we realize that the day could have done with few more hours, or, that we could have done with few less activities. 
  1. Writing has made me realize that if I were to wait for a visit from my muse, I would probably write just a book or two in my lifetime. It has made me realize that with or without the active participation of my muse I have to  churn out those words that will fill my manuscript. If my muse sees me working hard, perhaps talking pity on me it will drop in for an extended visit. 
  1. Writing has been responsible for me developing a  really thick skin. An editor/agent/reader/publisher may not have reacted favourably  where my work was concerned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am a bad writer, or, that I have to drown myself in self-pity. For every single person out there who doesn’t  like my work, there is another person who will love it. Well, I personally have not liked all the books I have read, but that  does  not mean that the writer is  bad, or, has failed. It just means that a particular story has not appealed to me  emotionally. 
  1. Writing has taught me  more about spirituality than the holiest of books. We writers get familiar with every aspect of spirituality: from surrender to working without an eye out for the desired result, to  calm acceptance of our book’s fate. Do we know the fate of our manuscripts when we send it on its publishing journey? No. Do we know whether a character we have worked on for years will  be loved or dismissed by readers? I am sure not. Do we  know the reactions of the readers to our books? Definetely not. Do we know whether we will  ever be able to make a decent living from our writing professions? Certainly not. Each cheque is a pleasant surprise. 
What has your writing journey taught you? Please share with us, we all would love to know.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Falling Into The Trap

The worst mistake we writers or actually any creative person can make is by Falling Into The Trap. In a nutshell I want to talk about  the  Writing Trap, or,  a large writing hole that we writers are susceptible to fall into in  the successive books that we write. We can fall into this writing trap  due to  several reasons; overuse of  certain types of clichés and stereotypes, use of a similar style of narrative in all the books we write even though the books  may not be a part of a series, use of similar settings, use of similar protagonists in all the books, not deviating from the same  and often  predictable  thought patterns and plot twists.

This can be attributed to the fact that  once the writers have discovered or stumbled upon a  successful formula, they want to  use it  for all its worth. Perhaps they endorse the view why mess or meddle  with  something that has worked well. But what they forget is that a certain style the readers may have adored once, may not find takers the second or third time round.

Many times I have felt  a strong feeling of Déjà vu when I  read the next set of books written by  few  writers. I get the  feeling that I have met the characters before at another time in another place (read in a previous book). Even the setting has no novelty as it’s the same one as the last book  written by the author. The problem faced by the main character and  the way  the conflict has been resolved  is something I had guessed halfway ( very often much earlier) through the book.

Its at that  time  I feel cheated and  upset, that the author has  fallen into a self made  trap and unknowingly and unintentionally sucked us readers into the trap. These writers become predictable, it’s easy for the readers to guess their next move  or,  the way the plot will now twist and turn.

Today’s generation of readers have several things vying for their limited and often straying attention. And, if the writer has  nothing new to offer  they are quick to discard the book and the writer.

The only way we can avoid this vicious writing  trap is by adopting the mantra of  Originality. This  will sustain the writer if he or she is in for the long haul. There are several writers who have adopted this approach  successfully: Roald Dahl; each book of his was different  from the other,  for example  there was no similarity in any of these books ; George’s Marvellous Medicine, Twits, Mathilda, James and the Giant Peach, and  Charlie and the Chocolate factory.

Another writer  who escaped this trap is J.K Rowling. Though the seven potter books had the  same setting of  Hogwarts and  the same set of   characters, each book had something new to offer. There were surprises  and shocks  in plenty,  new entrants who took us completely unawares, several times the plot took unexpected twists that had us readers eager to know what would happen next.

This trait of unpredictability  is single handedly responsible for keeping  readers hooked and the writer far from the  writing trap.

 Have you ever felt that a particular writer is falling into the  trap? How do you  personally manage to avoid the writing trap that  we writers can easily fall into? Please share, we all can learn from your experience.