Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Writing with Specific Readers in Mind

I have realized that writing with  specific readers in mind makes  it easy for us to write. I have learnt this the hard way.  The first book I wrote about a small boy and his trip to a modern day fairyland met with a roadblock the moment  an editor at a publishing house saw  it.

Though she loved the book she turned  it down. As a bit of friendship had developed between us she explained to me that there was a major disconnect between the theme (fairyland) and  my writing style. Though I had chosen a topic that would interest younger readers, I had chosen to  write in a style that was more suitable for older readers. This juxtaposition did not help the book at all.

 Actually at that point  ( nearly eight years back) I was clueless about which age group I wanted to write for. I just wrote and wrote and hoped that my work would fit somewhere. Unfortunately it didnt.

 That incident made me a little wiser. I realized that before starting any WIP, I had to get a few things sorted.

1.      The first decision  I take is the Writing Market I am catering to. Which age bracket/ market does my story suit ( Picture Book, Early Readers, Chapter Book, Middle Grade, Young Adult). Every story  has a specific age group who will find  the story interesting.

2.      Which genre does the story I  am writing belong to (Fantasy Fiction, SciFi, Mystery, Horror, Humor, Suspense, Historical, Paranormal ).

3.      Once the age group and genre are sorted, then it becomes easier to add elements to the story that will appeal to children in those age groups.  Every age group has its set of problems that  children face. Sibling rivalry, learning disabilities, jealousy, fierce competitiveness, parental pressure, peer pressure, lack of interest in studies, rebellious behaviour, bullying, body image issues, Insecurities and complexes, adjusting with parental separation,  and  relationship/dating issues.

4.      When elements from these issues are added to the story via small sub-plots, then the characters facing these issues become a kind of role model for children of that age group who are facing those problems.

5.      There is a strong sense of identity between the readers and the protagonist. When the protagonist  is   facing the problem  the  readers  tackle everyday a connection is forged between them.

6.      The language and style of writing can be tweaked to suit that particular age group.

7.      Once everything slides into place (age group, genre, style, problems faced and tackled) it becomes easier  for us to write keeping that specific age group and their dreams, hopes, desires, problems and  aspirations in mind.

8.      Every story needs a different treatment, but once  we decide which age group we are specifically targeting, it becomes easier to add elements  of life that will  specially appeal to that  particular age group and adopt a style of writing and language to suit that age group.

What do you all think?  What kind of elements should we add  to make our stories appealing to that age group? Is there anything particular  we should do  so that our work  suits  a specific market and there are less chances of it being rejected due to unsuitability?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Why Do We Read?

Sometime back I was asked a question “ As a writer you must be reading a lot?” My answer was “Yes,” but, before I could say anything more, the guy smiled and said “ I guessed so, writers read to get ideas from other writers.” Initially I  decided not to dignify his comment by reacting to it. But his smirk was irritating. I was disgusted with his view that we read to get ideas, or, copy other writers.  “ If that was the case, anyone who reads books  can  start writing,” I replied. If only it was that easy!

Reading and writing are often clubbed together. We writers love reading as much as we love writing. Perhaps it goes with the territory.

Reading like my writing friend Elizabeth Varadan says is homework for us writers. Homework that we love doing everyday and look forward to when its not there.  Reading other writers is like learning from a teacher/text book.  We not only hone our craft when we read extensively, we also learn from other writers’ success and failures. The more we read the more critical we become. I love to read: every genre;  both fiction as well as non- fiction.  When I am writing the first draft  I am scared to read Middle Grade Fantasy Fiction, as I  worry about subtle sub- conscious  influences creeping in and I may  be accused of copying or getting influenced by other writers. But I make up for it after my first drafts are written. Then I devour those books like a Book Monster.

One piece of advice  writers often get,  I have  been told  by my publisher several times  that  to write well,  we  must read a LOT. Not just the genres we write, but other genres too. “For every word  we  write, we must  read atleast a  thousand and more,” she tells me. Then and only then will our words make a difference. I agree.

I have noticed that all great writers are voracious readers. No, they are not sizing up the competition, but expanding their literary horizons and improving their literary flexibility. The more we read, the more familiar we get with words and plots and story arcs. Reading  grooms us into better writers. It adds to our vocabulary, enhances our skills and ofcourse not just educates  us, but  entertains us as well.

We read not to lift ideas, or to get  creatively inspired by  other writers. We read books because we  crave new experiences, because we want  to soak in new cultures, learn about different people. We read because we love stories. We love to get involved in a fictional character’s life and worry about them.

 We  enjoy reading  like  we would enjoy a seven course  meal. We savour each  course ( like  we savour each chapter) each course/book brings new flavours, tantalizes  our taste buds, creates images in our minds, triggers memories. Some tastes/characters linger longer  than others. Reading for us is a sensory experience.

For me a day is incomplete without reading atleast a few pages of a book. I can even be accused of grumpiness if I haven’t read a book for  few days.  Even If  I hadn’t chosen the writing path, I would still be a pilgrim on the  Reading Road.  I just cannot imagine a life without  my daily dose of reading. For me reading is a form of entertainment and  education that I have chosen over other forms.

What about you all?  Why do you all read books? Do you believe that it is important for us writers to read?

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Two Sins of a Writer

Few days back  a  friend sent me a children’s  book requesting me to review it for  a leading English newspaper. It had been self-published by my friend’s friend. The book was small, I finished reading it in one sitting. After I closed the book I was left with a strong sense of being cheated. Yes, it was as though the writer had made it her personal business to cheat me: the reader.

The topic was wonderful: supernatural elements and previous births have always fascinated us ( Indians.) The writer could have gone the whole hog and written  a thriller or  a racy whodunit, but all  that the reader got  was a flat main character, clueless  about  what he had to do with his talent (of  being able to see his previous lives in visions).

Though the book was written in a simple and easy to read style for a ten year old, and may not  bore a kid, but neither could it be called entertaining. It was a book that I would say had no impact whatsoever on me. It made me think.

Do writers sin? I mean they spend all their time scribbling furiously,  having  conversations with their characters, wondering how to get their main characters  out of troubled waters and tight spots, where actually is the time to do indulge in a bit of crime and sin?

Yes, we writers are liable to sin and I mean sin in a literary world. The two sins we are prone and susceptible to commit are the Sins of Boredom and Cheating. We can be accused of boring our readers and cheating them of  an amazing experience. To be honest, the writer had committed those two sins.  When I  opened the first page I expected a joyride of paranormal experiences that would hurtle the ten year old protagonist and me over a roller coaster ride of different births. But I was in  for  a major disappointment. All that the writer showed were dull glimpses of just this one birth and nothing else. The ten year old  was trapped in a dull life which the writer had not bothered to spice up.

I expected the writer to introduce us to atleast  a few different births the protagonist  had undergone. But she didn’t think it necessary to show even  a single one. I wonder why she had chosen an amazing topic and  been indifferent to it. 

The sins of Boredom and Cheating   make me shudder. I would hate to commit them. We can bore our readers to death by  dull and flat descriptions. We can cheat them by not matching our book to their expectations and disappointing them. 

When readers buy our books they are literally buying a ticket  for a joy ride. They will expect  certain thrills and spills and  few tumbles. After all it’s a ride. So, if all they experience is a flat  monochromatic journey at just one speed, they are going to be  disappointed. They may never ride again with us.

Have you ever been left with a feeling of boredom and  of having been cheated after reading a book? Have you ever picked up a book expecting certain experiences and been sorely  disappointed?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Are you Spending Quality Time with your WIP?

Am I asking a too obvious a question? Ofcourse, you all must be spending every waking moment and  few sleepy ones  too, thinking of your Works In Progress. I am sure your characters visit your dreams. Mine don’t, though I dream  a lot about  books.

For the past few weeks I realized that too many things were staking their claim on my time. My priorities were getting topsy turvy. From being on top my WIP had slipped to the bottom of my  priority pile. And that was a BAD thing. How would I able to do justice to my manuscript if I just did not spend any time with it. Would I even be able to see its strengths ( I wish it has atleast  a few). Would I be able to pinpoint its weaknesses (never mind).

If we want to get to know a person we do spend some time acquainting ourselves with their likes and dislikes, getting to know them a bit more intimately ( now don't get any wise ideas). All I mean is  familiarizing ourselves  with their tastes, learning what keeps them ticking, what are their turn offs and what touches them the most. I am very  aware  of   what is happening  in  all  my close friends’  lives, actually they update me about their status frequently and not just via facebook, but via long winded phonecalls.

So, isn’t it our duty to get to know our WIP more closely? Afterall  our WIP  is  going to be one of our  closest friends  for a long, long  time. How do we do that? Well….there are several ways. I love listening to music. That’s the quality  time I   spend with my manuscript. I plug in the ear phones and pick up a blank sheet of paper and start getting  to know my manuscript more closely.

All my thoughts about my manuscript  make their appearance on that sheet. What is the story about. Does it have a single turning point or several.  Is my MC unique? How can I make her  standout? Am I  saying something new or recycling the old thoughts. Can I add an unusual element to the story that a reader has not come across before (this exercise made me add two  new features to my MG manuscript). I just wonder where these inventions were hiding inside my mind.

Are these situations a little different  from the other books. Why should a child pick up my book and not someone elses? What more can I offer in this chapter? Am I introducing anything new here (that particular train of thought made me add a love quadrangle). One boy and three girls, with my MC being one of them.  It has added an entire new angle to the story.

As the music changes so do my thoughts. Can  I increase the conflict, make the protagonist and antagonist clash  some more before the grand finale. How do I make their clashes interesting? Which element can I add  to their battle that has not surfaced in other MG books?

I have decided to continue this bonding exercise  for many more days. Its opening up hitherto tightly closed parts of my mind, clearing up all the clutter and blowing away the cobwebs. And listening to music makes me happy and being with my manuscript more so. I realized that I hardly knew my manuscript, but, now I  am getting to know it better and better.

How do you all spend quality time with your beloveds, I mean manuscripts. Your literary significant other. How do you get to know your manuscripts better? Do you have any bonding tips for  us to try out?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Do you choose the story, or, does the story choose you?

“Does a story choose a writer, or, does a writer choose the story?” I was asked this strange question by my friend. For a moment I was at a loss. Her question triggered a series of thoughts,  each more puzzling than the next.

This question is akin to asking what came first; the chicken or the egg? Do we choose our stories, or, do the stories choose us? I think it’s a bit of both. The initial overture is made by the story; it comes knocking on our door, eager for us to tell the world about it. The second overture is made by us; we mull over the story,  decide whether its worthy of our time and effort, ponder over the fact  that will we be able to do justice to it or not, deliberate on the theme, its suitability, worry about the characters  and then invite it into our heart, mind and soul.

From then onwards  with a single minded goal we obsess over what has become from a story surfing the channels of our mind into a WIP.

According to J.K.Rowling, the idea for her super successful series Harry Potter appeared full fledged to her while she was on a train journey after a weekend’s flat- hunting. In the crowded train  the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into her head.  

Stephanie Meyer saw a vivid dream. In her dream  two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. The girl was  just an  average looker.  While the boy  was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. Both discussed the  difficulties  of  falling in  love with each other. The vampire  was particularly attracted to the scent of  the girl’s blood and was having  a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately. Thus started the journey of the Twilight Sagas.  In the case of Rowling and Meyer the story chose them.

For Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson was a result of the bedtime stories he would tell his son Haley. Running out of myths  he appeased his disappointed son by  creating a new story with the Greek Gods. And Percy Jackson was born.

For us who toil long and hard it’s a case of the writer choosing the story. I have not been  that lucky to have any full fledged character appear at my mind’s door. I spend all my time conjuring up images of my characters and books.

What about you all, do you choose the story or does the story choose you? I am eager to know how the  selection process works for you all? More often than not I choose the story, not the other way round.

Friday, August 13, 2010

From a Story Idea to a Book

The journey of a story idea into a book is long and tedious. It  requires  tremendous effort. Its culmination into a published  book is seldom easy.  This makes it crucial for us writers to choose  only those stories that  can be  adapted  into good books.

Hardcore  scribblers   that we are,  our  brains  are  constantly searching for  the perfect story that will enthrall readers. Its tough to sort and sift  through  the complicated labyrinth of our minds, navigate through alleys darkened by writer’s blocks and  stumble or, shall I say pounce upon a story idea that brings  an instant smile. 
At any time there are several ideas floating in my mind. It’s extremely difficult for me to zero in on the one I would like to work on. Several times I have started a story and after a chapter or two realized that it’s just not happening, that I am unable to do justice to the theme, perhaps the genre does not interest me at this time. I  feel guilty about these stories, but its better to shelve a project in the initial stage then be stuck with something that is unexciting  and  elicits a  half hearted effort. It’s not like I will never return to that story in my life. Few story ideas are not worthy of a book, its better that they remain  a short story. Perhaps more justice can be done to them that way.

One thing I have learnt is that I must let the story idea marinate and stew in its own juices for several  weeks, sometimes few months before I start working on it.  During the marinating days, my mind constantly hovers over the story; creating a vision of the character,  the journey it has to trek, his/her life story, love interest, goals, aims, principles and attitude in life, motivation, the problems they have and the solutions they crave, their dreams and aspirations. I  note down these as bullet points in a folder  called  the Ideas Folder.

Even tiny sub plots that fall my way are noted down. As are names of places, people and incidents that occur  in the story.  After several pages are filled, I read  my notes. Its then  that I decide whether I would like to go ahead with the story, or not. This free style thinking is quite liberating because  there  is no pressure on the imagination that a full fledged WIP brings. The creative cells go into an overdrive and  come up with several wonderful ideas when they are not under pressure to perform. 

A fellow writer advised me that  we must work on only those stories that Must and Should be told. “ If you don’t tell your story, will the world lose out on a  story that could have made a difference,  if your answer is yes, then,  by all means ensure that your story  makes its way out into the world.”

I found her suggestion  hard to digest. For me two things work in favour of a story. I must be really excited about it  and I  must  hate being away from it. That’s when I know the story is on firm footing.

How do you all decide whether a particular story is worthy of  investing your time and effort. Is there any particular criteria the story must have before you  plunge headlong into it.  Any tips you would like to share  to transform a basic  story idea into a full fledged book?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Allure of the Antagonist

I have read many posts about the MC (main character). I have learnt a lot about the protagonist. How to make him/her more likeable,  memorable, rounded and grow  by the end of the book.

 I think in our mad rush to create wonderful and lovable protagonists, we are forgetting a very important character in our manuscripts. The Antagonist. Who single handedly drives the conflict. Who creates tension. Who is responsible for creating obstacles in our character’s life; of plunging their  lives in darkness, for dumping problems and anxieties in their lives.

The protagonist and antagonist are two sides of the same coin. Without them our manuscript is incomplete. Having a strong antagonist is as important as  having  a strong  protagonist. While working on my current WIP, I realized that I had paid a lot of attention to my protagonist, but, where my antagonist was concerned, I had a weak one. It  was no wonder then,  that the  conflict  in my manuscript was  tilted in the protagonist’s favor. Alas, that would not make for a good  and  intriguing book.

To have a tough  conflict the antagonist has to be as strong as the protagonist. If the protagonist is powerful, then the antagonist has to be equally powerful. If the protagonist is clever and resourceful, then the antagonist has to be equally clever and resourceful. If the balance tilts in one person’s favour, the conflict loses its appeal. But if we have two powerful forces, that’s when the conflict becomes interesting and the battle  between them engrossing and intriguing. Till the last minute the reader must keep guessing who is going to win the war.

We have to constantly ask ourselves  what are our antagonist’s strengths? What are the advantages he has that give him  an edge over our main character. Is he able to capitalize  on his strengths and advantages to thwart their  attempts? Is he able to push them  into corners? What about his weaknesses?  Is  the main character aware of   the chinks in his armour? What is the antagonist’s safeguard against the protagonist?  

To  have a strong conflict,  I have to  give both the protagonist and the antagonist  an equal number  of strengths and weaknesses. A battle grips us when there are two powerful  forces; forces pitted against each other, forces who would go to any length  to win. Who is about to find the chink in the other’s armour  first? Who is able to capitalize on the other person’s weakness first will decide the winner?

In a nutshell to create an edge of the seat conflict and a memorable antagonist we need:

1.      A lovable protagonist opposite a dislikeable antagonist.

2.      A strong and clever protagonist against an  equally strong and clever  antagonist.

3.      The strengths of the protagonist equal the strengths of the antagonist.

4.      The weaknesses of the antagonist is on par  with the weaknesses of the protagonist.

5.      Who is able to find the other’s weakness first? This will decide the outcome of the conflict.

I loved Harry Potter as much as I disliked Voldemort. I wanted Harry to kill Voldemort  come what may. Both were equally powerful forces and their clashes were page turners. They were two formidable forces with an equal number of strengths and weaknesses.

Is the antagonist on top of your character development? Do you believe  that powerful antagonists drive the conflict better? What are the things you all are doing to  create powerful antagonists? We all would love to know.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Words – Our Best Friends Forever

This post is only about words. Words interest, intrigue and fascinate us. Words  are not just a writer’s best friends, they can also be his/her worst enemies. Afterall  what are  our manuscripts: but  a  collection of words that tell a story, that acquaint readers with characters and their journeys. Just like we do with our real friends, these literary friends too should  be treated with  love and care, shown respect and not taken for granted. Else the journey from friend to foe will be a swift one.

Words take our labour of love and hardwork ( manuscripts) to the altar of publishing,  or, get them deposited  at the bottom of the slush pile. God has given us writers a gift with words. Our writing careers depends on how we have used these words, or, abused them.

As we writers live in the world of words ; we are lost without our daily dose of words, don’t you all think  that we should ensure that our words are the best possible words that a  reader comes in contact with. The time we spend in nurturing our friendships should be directed to our words too.

This relationship at times breezes through, sometimes it gets complicated: it’s when we fall in love with our words and refuse  to be parted from them that problems arise. Though we don’t consciously pick fights with our friends, we just drift apart due to different interests, clash of values,  or, lack of time. The same policy can be adopted with words; words that do not enhance our story, or, slow it down, have to go. It should be an amicable separation, not a bitter parting; because we will definitely meet and need these words again for the next manuscript.

As a  student of literature,  I was told to learn  few new words every week. Not just learn them, but also their meaning and use them in sentences. “There is nothing like building your vocabulary,” our English teacher often urged us. Somewhere along the way I dropped that habit and got stuck inside the intricate web of  character arcs, plot twists, synopsis and hooks.

But the other day while explaining to my students I realized the importance of that particular exercise which I had long forgotten. It’s never too late to start building, or, in our cases adding to our vocabulary.

Have you added to your treasure trove  of words lately? Which new word have you  learnt recently? Lets all share from our treasure chest of words.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Do you Write with the Ending in Mind?

When I started writing my initial set of stories and my  first book  I was clueless about their endings, only the beginning of the stories  would be  clear in my mind. After writing nearly three fourths of  my first  book, I floundered  in mid sea, with no idea  regarding  how to  resolve the issue. A month later, perhaps  taking pity on me, my muse dropped in with an ending I considered brilliant;  it was promptly  dismissed by my editor as  “a too common  a resolution.”

The book lost out  not just  because of the way I had  ended it, but also the way I had treated it. I was clueless right from the beginning about major chunks of the story. Neither the conflict, nor the character’s  goals were well defined. And the character himself was a watery version of the one I had in mind.  

 That incident taught me the value of  writing out a book  or a story in an outline form, before I  actually started writing  it. Even for the short stories (800 to 1000 words) that I pen for the newspapers, I do a one  line outline:  who is the protagonist,  what is his/her conflict and how  it’s  resolved. This  one line  synopsis helps me  get a feel of the entire story before I tackle it.

For the longer stories (2500 to 4500 words) that are used in anthologies, I do a one paragraph outline before I sit down to  write the story. This one paragraph outline or the one paragraph  synopsis  has the following things:  the protagonist,  his/her or conflict or goal and the antagonist or forces against them, maybe a  few lines about the protagonist and the antagonist.

For the books  my  initial synopsis is quite  long, maybe  two to  three pages ; the protagonist, their current status and what kind of a person  he/she is ( headstrong, reliable, thinker, rash, calm, independent, sentimental ) and which aspect of  their  nature can  get them out of   tight spots and which trait of  theirs can get them into trouble ( this in particular helps me when I am working on the conflicts)  the things that perpetually trouble them (another aspect that helps me in conflict), their aim in life, the antagonist or forces creating obstacles in their path, the antagonist’s strength and weakness, and how the protagonist  jumps over the  obstacles.

As this particular synopsis is just for my  benefit, I even add a little about the other characters who assist  or provide stumbling blocks to the main character. Several twists and turns the plot takes too are thrown into what I call the ‘ Working Synopsis.’

It’s like I write the entire story (especially the main highlights) in an outline form. My last such synopsis was four   pages long. But it helped me get a feel of the entire story. As this synopsis is not shared with anyone else, it more often than not can go the lengthy route. Just writing down that long synopsis took several days, but it brought out the entire story in my mind.

To get the short  synopsis that agents and editors prefer ( who is the protagonist,  what their story goal is and what are the forces against them) the long synopsis can be stripped to its bare essentials and  polished. I have decided never to write a story until I have an ending in mind. Once the ending is clear in our mind, we can start building towards it, by adding the twists and turns that lead to it. 

What kind of synopsis do you all write? Like me do you write a  ‘Working Synopsis’? Do you all follow the policy of writing a book/story  in an outline form?  Or do you all just go along and see where the story and characters lead you?