Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Does this Happen to You?

From the past few months, I have noticed a new awareness in myself. I am hypersensitive to people: their moods, body language, facial expressions, changes in their voice and  also my surroundings. Its like the awareness that comes when one is initiated  with a mantra and a subtle but enormous change takes place in a human’s body.

Nowadays, wherever I go, I tend to see the details that I had earlier missed or overlooked. I am not sure if it is a writer thing, or its happening just like that. In January, on a flight to Mumbai, I was enchanted with a young couple. I admit they made a striking couple and attracted more than a fair share of eyeballs, but I watched them as though I was  studying them for an exam. Let me hasten to add, that I didn’t stare at them, but  my eyes frequently strayed towards them.

I  liked the unselfconscious way the girl was feeding the guy chocolate. Though the guy was  glued to his laptop, the  girl’s  constant chatter didn’t disturb him; there was no irritated expression on his face. I liked the tattoo on the guy’s arm and the way his fingers moved over the keyboard. The couple looked to be in their twenties and completely in love, atleast the girl seemed more than the guy as she was displaying an excessive P.D.A. My mind constantly drifted to the young couple; I wondered who they were, where were they going, where were they from, what did they do. I  caught a glimpse of them at the Mumbai airport waiting for  a taxi. I am sure both the girl and the guy will feature in some story/scene in a future work.

The same thing happened last week. I was out for lunch with a close friend. It was a typical Bangalore day: light drizzle, clouds that drove the sun away. While my friend and I were shopping, an old couple entered the shop we were in. Once again my writer’s eye latched upon them.

I noticed the frugal way they bought the food items, I noticed the tacit look the husband exchanged with his wife  before picking up the smallest packets and reading the price tags on the slightly larger ones before placing them back on the shelves. This couple shared an understanding that came with years of being together. Again, I can say with a certainty that this old couple will figure in a future work of mine.

Does this thing happen to you? Are you distracted by people, or, does something attract your attention in such a way  making you wonder about it frequently. I am noticing that as I write more and more, I am getting more observant? Please tell me whether any of you suffer from the same malady? Please assure me that I am not going nuts, that I am just looking for inspiration for my stories.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Should Writers Hire P.R Professionals?

Many writers, even though they have written just one book or maybe two, have ensured that they don’t fade out of public memory. In this case I am solely talking  about India, as I have no experience of other countries. It’s said, that these writers hire Public Relations Professionals to keep them fresh in people’s mind. I have heard this from my friends in the media. There is no proof, this could be just plain hearsay, or guesswork.

All kinds of rumours, that these authors have been approached by such and such a filmmaker to write a  script and many such stories  are constantly floating around. The rumour starts  with a small snippet, that so many people have approached the writer to buy the movie rights of the book.

Whether somebody has approached the writer  or not, is a moot point. The purpose has been achieved. The writers and their books are suddenly in the news. Serious filmmakers with a strong deficit of good scripts not only ask their assistants to buy the book, they end up reading the book and  eventually  end up approaching the writer with  a contract  for the movie rights. People’s curiousity has been aroused to such an extent that many have  thronged bookshops to buy the book. It’s a win-win situation. Everyone is happy.

Many times I have seen that these writers have conveniently  brushed aside the names of directors who  were supposed to have  initially approached them.  ‘Why take names when the deals haven’t worked out,’ the writers brush away all the queries.

These same writers constantly give sound bites on various topics :from the state of the politics to Valentine’s Day Celebration, from corruption to crime against Women. Everything  is planned to give them visibility.

One writer categorically denied the huge advance a publishing house was said to have given her. 'The figure  is highly inflated. My book is in the news for all the wrong reasons,’ she had said in an interview. There were stories that the publishing house had created the buzz to hype the book.   

I feel there is nothing wrong  in hiring P.R professionals, after all  writers work as  hard  as other professionals, and like everyone else they want both themselves and their work to be noticed. Its absolutely acceptable. Visibility is indeed the name of the game. Else, how will people know that such and such book is out.

 Now, comes the main question, of ethics. Is it right to plant stories that have no basis in reality? Is it okay to start a wave of rumour in the hope that it turns into a reality? I would like to know how far should writers go to publicize their books? Should  the fire of people’s curiousity be stoked to keep someone else warm. What do you think is the acceptable limit to publicize books? I would really love to hear everyone’s views.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where does Inspiration Strike You?

As writers we are all victims of the  elusive muse  who showers his/her blessings via inspiration, which like lightning can strike us any time, any place and anywhere. Sometimes, even twice in the same place.

My muse tends to be very generous when ever it suits him (yes, my muse is a male). Don’t ask me how I have come to that conclusion. I just know it. Call it a Woman’s Instinct. Just like my mom knows when I am dodging the truth.

Honestly, there have been times when I am  at a party enjoying a marathon chat session with my favourite cousins and my muse is whispering important plot points in my ears. At that time I am not sure whether I am supposed to drop my tandoori kebab and jot down the points. Then, I realize  that  I was foolish enough to bring a tiny clutch purse which  had  turned up its nose at my scribbling pad and pen.

Once, I even made  notes on paper napkins, the pen was borrowed from a gentleman having a drink at the next table.

There have been times when I have quickly wiped my hands on a paper napkin and typed those important plot points as a message and saved it on my cell phone. Inspiration has its amazing way of  striking me when I least expect it. Another favourite place for inspiration is when I  am catching a movie with friends in a multiplex. You can always find me with my eyes glued to the large screen and my fingers typing a furious tattoo on my cell.

 Nowadays, inspiration arrives at my doorstep when I am reading blog posts. I am not going to name the bloggers, because, I fear that they may demand a percentage of my royalty for inspiring me.

Many senior writers suggest keeping a pen and paper not just handy, but in many places in the house. That way it’s easy to make notes and capture the secrets spilling out of our muse’s mouth before he/she decides to disappear.

Where does Inspiration strike you? Which is its favourite haunt? How do you cope with its demands? Any funny incidents that come to mind? We would love to be inspired by the stories of your inspiration.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Working with Different Types of Plots

Most of my Blogging Friends must be thinking that  I have got hung up on plot. This is my second consecutive post on plot.

For us writers, plot is a necessary evil. Our writing careers hinge on creating gripping plots. We all know that  Plot is the literary element that describes the structure of a story.  A plot diagram is an organizational tool, which is used to map the significant events in a story. By placing the most significant events from a story on the plot diagram, we can visualize the key features of the story. I had done a post  about my plotting method: Plot Structures that Capture the Essence of the Story. It’s  simple and easy to follow.

 While researching about plot for my class, I  realized that I was really a plot novice. There was so much about plot that I had no clue about.  I am sharing what  I  discovered when I researched about plots. As many of us teach  creative writing, these explanations will help us explain plot points to students.

There are two types of plots: Linear Plots and Nonlinear Plots.

Nonlinear Plots are plots where the characters and dialogue go in more than one direction. Nonlinear narrative is also called the disjointed  or the disruptive narrative. This is a technique which is sometimes used in literature and movies, in this type of narrative the events are portrayed out of  chronological order. It is often used to mimic the structure and recall of human memory, to show memory lapses.

Several medieval Arabian Nights Tales such as ‘Sinbad the Sailor’, ‘The City of Brass’ and ‘The Three Apples’  had nonlinear narratives employing the in medias res and flashback techniques. Few examples of  Nonlinear  novels are  Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, Finnegans ‘Wake’, Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’ and Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’

 In Linear Plots, both the  character and dialogue are going in one direction.

 There are many types of Linear plots.

Chronological Plot in which the events are told in a chronological order; from the beginning to the end  with a middle in between and everything follows a proper sequence. Most books follow this plot structure.

Flashback Plot in which the story is told  in Flashback by the narrator through memories of the events.       
There is a third type of Plot : in medias res (in the middle of things) when the story starts in the middle of the action without exposition. An example is Homer’s Iliad. Most murder mysteries start this way.

In addition to this we have another plot type the Circular Plot Type. A circular plot  shares many of the characteristics of a linear plot, except that a circular plot typically begins and ends in the same or similar place. A character would go through the entire journey of resolving the dramatic question only to end up right back where they started, with nothing solved.

A skillful writer will create an unusual plot by adopting  more than one type of plot, or playing with several plot types.

So far I have only  tried the Chronological Plot for my books. The flashback plot is one  I have used for several short stories. Personally, I would love to try the in medias res for a suspense MG fiction I hope to outline in the near future. Which kind of plot type would you all like to try? Do you know of any other types of plot  that will be of interest to us. Please tell us.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Classic Plot Shape

The topic for today’s post is the Classic Plot Shape. Plot was really my nemesis at the start of my writing career. I was and I am still a plot novice. When I craft the individual scenes, I just follow my instinct. When I stumbled upon this diagram in a book, it really helped me understand plot and scenes.

The conventional or the traditional western plot follows the linear conflict- crisis - resolution pattern with its roots in the ideal plot which has been defined by Aristotle  in the poetics as having a beginning, a middle and an end.

The classic plot shape for both stories and novels   can be drawn as shown in the diagram above. A classic  story begins with a situation in which there is potential for conflict, but in which nothing so far has  happened to set the conflict  in motion.

Then, something happens (the catalyst -: equivalent to Aristotle’s  beginning) to disrupt the status quo. This catalytic event may open the story with a bang or it may be preceded by a passage of scene in which the status quo is established.

Once the  catalyst has taken effect, there is usually a build up of conflict and tension, a series of scenes or moments in which matters complicate  and which culminates in a crisis (the equivalent of Aristotle’s middle) and this is followed  often very quickly by a resolution (Aristotle’s End).

This classic plot shape can be kept in mind when we are crafting the scenes in our books. Each scene can be taken as a separate short story  and the same formula can be applied.

Each scene starts with a scene catalyst, something that disrupts the status quo in that particular scene, then, there is a build up of conflict until a crisis is reached and finally we have the much awaited  scene resolution.

We can even draw this classic plot diagram with short notes and titles for the individual scenes. This  can be used like index cards and the different scenes can be written in brief using this diagram, much like  scene synopsis.

I am definitely going to give this a try for the individual scenes. What about you all? Does the Classic Plot  Shape have any appeal for you all? How do you craft the individual scenes and the plot? Please share your method with us.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Are we Making the Correct Writing Moves?

Not just books, I like to read author interviews too. Few years back when one Indian writer won the Booker Prize, there was a long interview of the author in a popular magazine. This was the author’s second book. Her first book  did create a hullabullo, as her mother was a very famous writer and she had a famous last name. The writer openly admitted that her book had been written with the Booker Prize in mind. Her dad had gifted her the last ten year’s Booker prize winning books.

After reading all the prize winning books, she realized what kind of stories, writing styles and themes appealed to the  jury and the judges. Then, started her long and uphill task of writing a book that would appeal to the judges. Her book was rejected  by several publishers abroad. One New York Editor  called it the most miserable book she had read. The book was finally published after it had been chopped from 800 pages to 350 pages. The book sold very few copies until it was shortlisted for the Booker. And, when it won the coveted prize, the sales touched the sky. Now, this author has an advance of 2.7million pounds for her next book.

This got me thinking that like a chess player this particular author planned her writing career, she knew exactly where she wanted to go. Though she met with the initial rebuffs, ultimately, she not just succeeded but is laughing all the way to the bank and has also been taken seriously.

Though, I had read her interview few years back, I don’t know why it  was flashback time now. Perhaps there is a message for all of us in this. By now, most of us know the genre we want to write, and the kind of stories we are capable of writing. We all are in this for the long haul. It’s not just one book I am talking about. It’s definitely more than one.

I think its time we all too planned a  writing strategy. I am not sure whether I am making the correct writing moves. I do have  a writing agenda in mind, at the moment its to get my next lot of books published.

But, I have plans of reading a lot of books in my genre; seeing why few worked and  why the others didn’t work (I already do that). I would also like to read the books that were made into movies. What was their appeal? Why the characters worked?I have started reading a lot of writing craft books to help me create better plots.

Are you all planning  your writing  moves with the precision of a chess player? Or,  are you just swimming with the flow? What do you think of the above author planning her career by making all the moves that made her achieve her goal. Do you think what she did was right?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Creating a Great Plot that makes Readers Gasp

When I started writing I use to often wonder what a plot was. It gave me nightmares that my stories may not have much of a plot. Then, came the crucial question, what  was or is a plot? Does plot just happen? Is plot a result of the different scenes tied up in a proper narrative order?  Do I have to create  a plot? Or will a plot just emerge at the end of the story, after the scenes have been arranged in a proper order. I use to hope that there would be someone who would answer all my plot questions.

As I wrote more and more, I realized that we have to work hard  to create an engrossing plot that will keep readers sticking to the story, page after page.

When I read James Scott Bell’s  book- Plot & Structure, all my plot worries fell away. Its the first writing craft book I bought. Scott has come up with an amazing and simple structure that when applied to our stories will help us come up with a solid plot everytime. I realized after reading his book, that plots can be worked to perfection at the initial stage of drafting the stories.

This system by Scott is  a simple set of foundational principles called the LOCK system.

LOCK stands for Lead, Objective, Confrontation and Knockout.

Scott  writes that a strong plot starts with an interesting lead character, a compelling someone we have to watch throughout the course of the story/novel.

 Then  he talks about the one and only one dominant objective for the lead character. Objective is a want or a desire that the character has. This forms the “Story Question”  will the Lead realize her Objective. An objective can take either of two forms:to get something or to get away from something.

 Scott advises  that Confrontation is crucial to the story. Opposition from other characters and external forces bring stories to life. We have to constantly throw obstacles into our lead’s path and not make things easy for her or him.

After all the pages we have put our readers through, our stories must have the Knockout power to satisfy readers. Great endings not just satisfy readers, but also make them happy.

When a story idea pops into our mind, we can apply this system to see whether the story has enough power to fuel the pages.

I have now decided to keep the LOCK in mind whenever a story idea pops into my mind. This will give me a sense of whether the story is worthy of all the time I spend on it. Do you work with the LOCK system in mind? Or do you have another method of creating that great plot. Please share your method with us. We all can learn from it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Does a Huge Advance and Hype Kill a Story/Book?

Years back, when an Indian book was in the news for the phenomenal advance  the writer got, there was major hype around the book. Everyone waited eagerly for the book to hit the bookshelves. So did I. When the book finally arrived, I am sure most readers read it to see whether the book justified the 7 figure advance it got. Many felt it was not worth the money paid to the writer. Whatever the feelings, the book sold really well.

The same thing happened last year. Another book was in the news for all the wrong reasons- the huge advance the writer was awarded. I read quite  a few of the reviews; for many the book was not worth the  huge advance.

 These  big advance hypes  create a huge buzz around the books. There is an overwhelming curiousity factor. More often than not, people buy the books, but do not like the stories. By themselves the books may be wonderful, but, when compared to the vast amount of money, the stories definitely pale in comparision. The big advance I feel increases people's expectations. However wonderful the book, it eventually falls short of people's expectations.

I read both the books. They were good. But, most people kept the advance in mind while reading the book. It was like they were weighing each word  against  a currency note. The words then looked small next to the money they had  earned before even a single copy was sold. One book has become a benchmark for other Indian books. The second book has just died a  hasty death.

One thing I realized was that all the hype about 6-7 figure deals  create a major buzz around the book. The book  gets a golden aura.Whether it lives upto to that aura or not,  plenty of copies  are sold.  Sometimes I wonder whether people in the publishing business deliberately create the hype, otherwise how else will they publicize the book.        

Is a big advance a measure of a writer’s craft? Shouldn’t a book be judged by its literary merit, by the story, words, character, plot and world building? By the connection the story has made with the readers. I have loved several books that  did not make much money. Do you equate a huge advance with a great book? Have you ever felt that a book was not worth the advance  it got? Do you feel over hyping a book can kill it? I would love to hear  everyone’s views.