Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Creating Unique and a Wonderful Setting

Just like real estate is all about location, location, location, our books are all about setting, setting and setting: unusual, amazing, innovative and larger than life. The wonderful worlds that we create  are responsible for readers getting lost in it for hours. Isn’t that the hallmark of a successful book? To transport a reader into another world. To make him or her forget their  problems for some time.
Settings take to time to create. But they are really worth the effort and time required to create them.  I have realized that before I start any book, I will take few days to brainstorm,  to create  a setting (which is especially important for the MG  Fantasy Fiction I write) and plot the book out.

When I read the Potter books I was lost in the setting. Hogwarts was a wonderful creation, as was the world of wizards. The way  the dead wizards moved between their portraits, the way wizards travelled  with the help of floo powder via chimneys, the different spells; in particular the Patronus spell,  the subjects taught in the wizarding school, and the  magical creatures swamping the wizarding world.  Quidditch ( the game wizards played ) in particular had the children going berserk  over it. I am sure Rowling must have spent a lot of time  and thought in creating the wonderful setting, which has mesmerized both young and old.

I am no setting expert. Whatever I have learnt is  via trial and error, but   I would still like to share it.

If we are creating an alternate world, then we have to look after every aspect of it. It’s like when we shift into a new house, every little detail is taken care of: from the flooring to the wall covering, from curtains to furniture, from taps to windows, to how each room is decorated.

If we use that method  for creating a setting, I am sure we all will do just fine. If we have created another land we  can add people peculiar to that place: people  to be found no where else in the world. The way they dress, their language, quaint customs and habits make for an interesting read. The food they eat, the way they talk, the games they play. Their beliefs and culture.  The fauna and flora can be different and unique.  

Setting needs the element of  the unusual: what is not found in the normal world but is peculiar to that world: of our story/book. If our story is based on a past event, then  research takes care of the setting. But if it’s a world of make believe, then  we are only restricted by our imagination.

 But one thing I have learnt, that a setting has to be believable. A far fetched setting tends to ruin the plot. A setting depends a lot on descriptions, to bring it to life  before the reader’s eyes. Some writers have mastered the art of  making  setting as a character in their books.

What about you all? How do you all handle the setting  in your books? Will you share your setting tips with us? 

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Four Must Haves for every Writer

Patience, perseverance, enthusiasm and a firm determination to reach the goal are all necessary, not just for Writers,  but for success in any field. For writers patience is needed in abundance: actually  by daily truckloads that should be deposited at each writer’s feet, as from the time a story is conceived in our minds to the time the final manuscript is ready to journey out to  the doors of various publishing houses and editors, it can be anything from  few months to several years.

We require patience at every step of the way, from the rough, haphazard first drafts that don’t make much sense to others, to  several drafts  and rewrites  that  enhance our manuscripts, to the final edits where we chisel every extra word and polish and polish until the manuscript sparkles. 

Perseverance is what sees writers seek publishing year after year, when rejected manuscripts and stories keep piling up, when  we are unable to break the stranglehold of the slush pile. We know it deep down that its just a matter of time  before we write that break through story/novel  that will propel our manuscripts to the top of the pile and make people in position notice us.  
 We  just cannot sustain a writing life without enthusiasm for our stories, characters, and plots. Even when we would rather catch up with all our  other activities, enjoy the freedom that other  people have, we greet the errant muse with enthusiasm when he drops in unexpectedly  at the ungodly hour of 3.a.m, when the rest of the world is safely ensconced in their snug blankets. Better an untimely muse than no muse. Its enthusiasm that sees us switch on our laptops everyday to add more words to our ever growing story. Enthusiasm is something that keeps us going when  criticism piles up against our manuscripts: from the initial  beta readers to agents, from  editors and  critics to the readers. We know that writing is our passion and as long as there are some people who like what we have written, we will be enthusiastic enough to write more for them.

What finally sees us arrive safely at the top of the summit (read  bag a publishing contract) is a firm determination to reach the goal. Determination   is what I  consider inner strength, where we want to see our stories reach out to people and make  a difference in their lives.

 What really helps is visualizing our goals: seeing us holding our published books in our hands goes a long way into bringing our dreams closer to realization.

  Do these four traits constantly surround you? What else motivates you to keep typing when the rejection slips pile up and criticism walks towards us? Have these four traits deserted you at any time? What have you done then? How have you got them back?      

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Commercial Success Versus Critical Acclaim

In India, over the last few years there have been a slew of novels  which come under the category of popular fiction or metro fiction/novels (keeping in mind their readership: people living in the metros). These novels  have the readers: late teens  to forty something, going ballistic  over them. Critics have trashed these books, calling them rantings of  twenty somethings,  to boy lit, and chicklit,  and a lot  of other things.

But not only are these writers laughing all the way to the bank,  they are even sealing movie rights for their books and bagging second and third book deals. Many have moved into the script writing zone.  For these writers all that matters is commercial success, they  are really not bothered about critical acclaim. These books rely  heavily on the mundane story telling abilities of the young writers, which more often than not centers  around a story heavily dependant on protagonists they can identify with. The writing skills  are absolutely ordinary, and  the writers and editors are unconcerned about the finer nuances of  the craft of writing. The plots are simple, and subplots are by and large Missing In Action.

On the other hand there are the veteran writers, writing what I call literary fiction. These writers  receive the full flow of  the critics’ praise,  they receive several awards but their readership cannot match the readership of the popular fiction writers. Many youngsters are not even  familiar with their names, forget about their body of work. The younger generation wants books easy on their mind, they want stories that do not tax them in any way, they want writing that they use in their daily conversation with friends, and they want characters who emulate their lifestyles.

For a writer  to   achieve a perfect balance of commercial success and critical acclaim is a daunting task. To please  both the harsh critics and  hungry reader is an  impossible feat which very few writers have managed to achieve. For the rest of the writers  it’s either one of them.

What about you? What  are your views on  popular fiction which was once called pulp fiction? What would you want? Critical acclaim? Commercial success? Both? How are you hoping to please both the critics and readers?

P.S. I found this post on settings extremely useful. Drop in to Melissa's blog and help yourself to her tips on creating settings as a character. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tips to Write the First Draft

Everywhere  we look, there is an avalanche of information about the craft of writing, from how to write that perfect book, to how to hook readers in the first chapter/line/word, to how to start with the conflict, avoid an overdose of back story,  to do away with lengthy  descriptions,  a new writer may get overwhelmed with all the techniques, advice and tips  and in the process may  not be true to his or her story. They may actually get paralyzed with shock.

With the information overload in the market  about “ How to  Write “ and “ What to Write” and  “The Way to Write” a new or unpublished writer can really  get confused.  They may even wonder if they have  the talent to write.  Doubts and insecurities will creep in.  Fear may even bring forth the writer’s block. What everyone forgets is that a writer knows his or her story  best. He or she is familiar with the  character, conflict and resolution, as it has  emerged from the womb of his/her mind.

To avoid  First Draft Jitters, writers should write the first draft just for themselves. What we all should  and must do is write the first draft just the way the story is unfolding in our mind, or before our eyes. There will be sufficient time later to rework on the technique and fine tune everything.  Though I am no expert, my advice would be to  let the story flow first before we start listening to each and every bit of advice thrown at us. And not every advice is worth following. After all, you definitely know your story best.  You know what  your character wants, and how he or she will get it, and what they will sacrifice to reach their goal. You know who your characters will meet in  their journey, and how they will  be transformed after each interaction, and what kind of emotions they will undergo at each phase.

I feel we all must first  just  get the story down on paper, or  on the computer.  After the entire story has been vomited, with all its  flaws and shortcomings, we can   focus  on the mechanics and technique later,  definitely in the subsequent drafts and rewrites.  The subsequent drafts can be given a  complete makeover keeping most of the important advice in mind.

What about you all? How do you handle first drafts? Is it just you and the story, or do you follow every writing craft book when you start  putting those  initial words down on paper? What advice would you give a new writer  regarding first drafts?


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Meet Spunky Princess Clown ( Book Review )

From childhood  I have been obsessed with Princesses.  I am absolutely certain that I was a Princess in another lifetime.  Who lived in  a far away land, chatting with my handmaidens,  near a lake filled with swans,  while waiting for my Prince  to take me away on his white steed.

Reading about Princes and Princesses has always fascinated me. When I encountered Princess Clown, a chapter book  for  7-8 year olds by Australian Author Sheryl Gwyther, I was not disappointed.  I found the title unusual and fascinating. The story prompt was triggered  by  a Double Trouble Game : taking two unrelated nouns  and developing a character and story to go with it: like Princess and Clown, Frog and Guitar, Cindrella and Chips.

Princess Belle is a spunky, spirited and energetic  Princess who wears a circlet over a frizzy, orange wig, a clown’s nose on her face, yellow and red shoes with fake flowers and wants to make people laugh.  Young children will connect with this adorable princess who is determined to follow her dream of  becoming a clown and wears a clown trick ring.

This absolutely lovable Princess practices juggling peaches in the Royal Kitchen. Needless to say, disaster follows. The fun begins when the King and Queen of Danzania  arrive with their son. I won’t reveal more, you will have to read  the book for yourself. 

Though simple the story is  fast paced and extremely enjoyable. The illustrations by Sian Naylor are  wonderful and do complete justice to the story. The book is published by Blake Education as a part of its Gigglers  Series.  I just wish there will be more Princess Clown books, because once you make an acquaintance with this Princess, you wouldn’t want to leave her. Sheryl Gwyther is an author of several short stories, a novel for 10-13 year olds titled Secrets of Eromanga,  and another chapter book, Charlie & the Red Hot Chilli Pepper.

Sheryl was awarded a May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Residential Fellowship, as well as an Arts Queensland Individual Professional Development Grant. She is also a recipient of two Australian Society of Authors Mentorships.

Princess Clown is also available online or from educational retail outlets. http://www.blake.com.au/Gigglers-Blue-2-Princess-Clown-p/9781741646481.htm    
Hop over to Sheryl's webpage and blog, and believe me you will not be disappointed.

Sheryl’s  webpage:       www.sherylgwyther.net
Sheryl’s  blogs:             http://sherylgwyther.wordpress.com
Do any of you think you were a Prince or a Princess in another lifetime? Do share your Princely dreams with us.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Adding Dollops of Humor into our Stories

Humor is one of the most lovable elements of a story/book. If a book can make a reader laugh, I am sure the book will be read several times. I love books that make me  laugh. I  make it a point to read them again and again. Even the humorous passages in books that do not fall into that category  have me rereading them.

Humor I feel is one of the most important elements in our stories and also the hardest to get it right. As writers we do not have a visual medium to portray humor. But we have words at our disposal. With words we can create humorous situations. There are several ways to add humor into our stories. Here are few of them.

1.  The names of characters/places and objects can be funny. 

2. We can also give  characters  some quirks: a twitch, a distinctive style of   
     talking or a weird way of dressing. 

3.  One of the best way of adding  humor can be  through Descriptions.  
     Funny  descriptions  make the readers laugh.  Eg “she had spread like  
     melted  butter.” “A bee could get lost in the hair on his body.”

                    4.  As writers we can  use words to conjure up Situations  which can be
                        comical by creating a Comedy of  Errors.

                    5.   Dialogues can be infused with  mega doses of humor to bring on the
                         laughter. Dialogues are the best places to add humor. I am working on
                         this  aspect.

                    6.  The way a character thinks (the internal conversation ) can be humorous.
                         This can be one of the easiest way to bring the element of humor into our

                     7.  We have to find new and funny way to say the same  often repeated old

                      8. A fantastic way to add humor is via Satire and Irony. Irony is the use of
                          words to express the opposite of their literal meaning. Satire is the use of
                          irony or wit to attack something. But its also extremely difficult  because  
                          if not handled well it can  leave the reader confused. I seldom use satire
                          and irony as I am not very confident I can do them justice.

                       9. We can use  funny metaphors and similes that  can  give a comical twist
                           to a familiar image  in a reader's mind. “ He was as thin as a breadstick.”
                          “Her skin was as soft as a caramel custard,  “His chin wobbled like jelly.”

10. One of the best advice  for adding humor is to stir the senses.  Sensory
      Humor is giving funny descriptions when describing something with  
      the  five senses: especially while describing sounds, tastes and smells.
Whether  we writers are personally funny or serious is not important. What is important is whether we can make readers   think that our characters, dialogues and situations are funny. Whether we can make our readers laugh.  
How do you  all add humor in your stories? Is there any humor secret/wisdom you would like to share? Please tell us, we all can learn from it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Are We Stretching Our Writing Muscle?

Like every other part of our body our brain where our writing muscle tightly  packed with its creative cells resides, need its regular  workout to churn out wonderful stories.  This intense workout  can comprise of  pushing our daily word count a little higher day by day, it also extends into exploring  genres and themes previously untried.

Even changing the POV for the next WIP and  changing the narrative from the third person to the first person is a part of the writing exercise. Trying different forms of fiction: Short story,  Flash Fiction (100 to 1000 words), Micro fiction (140 words), Drabble (100 words)  even Haikus (17 words in three stanzas of 5,7,5) is a  wonderful way to give that small muscle an  intense workout.

Except for  the short story, the other four are like heavy duty calisthenics for our writing muscle, flushing it with the feel good endorphins, when we see that we have managed to express ourselves well while keeping within the strict word counts  required by drabble, haikus, flash fiction and micro fiction. To say a lot  and to say it well using  less number of words is  the best reward we writers can give ourselves.

Sometimes even spending a few minutes describing what we see around us is a fantastic way of exercising those creative cells. Just describing the scene we see in front of us: it could a be crowded hospital lobby, a traffic jam, a small child throwing a tantrum, or an old  couple sitting on a park bench, with all five of our senses has outstanding results. Sensory descriptions is gentle like yoga. It slowly stretches that  muscle we writers cannot do without. These random descriptions and scenes can sometimes creep into our manuscripts in one way or  the other,  or maybe stick around in our minds long enough to give birth to  some other strain of creativity.

Another great way to stretch that muscle is putting our MC in a What If situation. What if our MC is stranded  on an island? What if he wins a lottery? What if the bus he is traveling in gets hijacked? What if loses his job? What if he unknowingly  befriends a criminal? What if he ends up witnessing a murder? What if he or she is kidnapped by an alien?

The answers to all these What If questions can trigger s series of plot points or lead us into introducing those much needed twists and turns that we crave. Maybe it may even direct us to the doorstep of an entire new character who  can turn the story on its head.

How do you all exercise the writing muscle? What kind of work out  do you do to keep that muscle  in peak condition? Do you have any workout tips for us?   

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

When in Trouble, Summon your Favourite Author

While working on my current WIP,  before I could plunge my protagonist into troubled  shark infested water, I ended up putting myself in it. I had chosen a  theme that was unusual and different. Creating  a world class mischief maker  is not a joke. I never play pranks and  to be honest, I have no connection with pranksters.

 I seldom discuss my books with anyone, especially while writing the first draft. So I found myself in  a self dug hole. I badly needed guidance. When I  told my nephew few pranks to check out their potency, he  said “you have read so many Roald Dahl books,  you should be able to do justice to your book. Think like him.” I had introduced him to Dahl when he was eight.

At that moment things slid into place. I decided why not. I could  summon Dahl, and  pretend that he was writing my book whenever I got stuck. What prank would  Dahl  pull  in this scene, how would he tackle that situation, what devious idea would he come up with. Everytime I got stuck, I pleaded with Mr Dahl to help me out.

After that it was easy, I breezed through portions I  had earlier found difficult and troublesome. Hopefully my editor too finds them  nice. My fingers are crossed.

 I think this advice would work  well for all of us. I chose the author who wrote middle grade fiction (  the genre I write). I am sure we all have our  favourites in the genres we write, and I am sure we are familiar with their style and technique. So why not get into their skin when we find ourselves in tight spots, or at dead ends. It’s not like we are copying them. It’s just a way to work out those tangled knots and if and when we choose we can rewrite later.

 The best thing about this idea was that I  could see the book from my favourite writer’s perspective.  Having read all  Dahl’s books twice, I was pretty familiar with his humor and style. It was easy to get into his skin, and  invite him into my life to help me tide over those treacherous  and troublesome paths. Though the writing style is mine,  the thoughts are mine, the ideas are mine,  but just by trying to think like him  helped me  whenever I tied myself  in tight knots. It was like he was guiding me towards the direction I must take or untying the knots for me.

How do you all tackle those tricky spots that come up while you are writing? Whom do you turn to? Is there something  that helps you bypass those roadblocks? Is there someone who helps you navigate those tricky bends? Please share, we all badly need to learn those tips.

P.S. I will not be posting on Friday 5th November as its Diwali (our Festival of  Lights). I will see you all next Tuesday.

A Must Read for all  Writers is a post  Inspirations, which  I read  at Adventures in Agentland .