Friday, September 30, 2011

How Do Story Ideas Strike You?

Story ideas strike me at the most unexpected times and in the least expected way. Whenever, anyone asks me how  do I get the Inspiration for my stories (in this case I am talking of the short stories I have written; around 60 stories ranging from 1000 words to 4500 words, which have all been published in newspapers and books), I wonder how do I explain to a non-writer how does this happen.

The Inspiration for my first book ‘The Lion Who Wanted to Sing,’ jumped into my mind while I was meditating. In that brief moment of calm, an image of a Lion gazing at the sky flashed into my mind.  The title too just popped into my mind as though someone had whispered it into my ear. The story idea just unspooled from that brief vision. And that vision became the book cover image.

Sometimes, I just see an image of a character or maybe two characters and the story starts frothing in my mind. Many times, I even start with a title which acts like a prompt and the story starts building around the title. I know it sounds strange, but that’s the way my brain gets its dose of Inspiration.

At times even a conversation with a writing friend on Facebook can trigger a plot point or unleash a story idea hiding in the back of my mind. At those times I am extremely grateful for the distraction provided by the internet; it becomes a blessing more than a nuisance. And I secretly bless the writing friend for her indirect inspiration.

Most of my chapter outlines fall into place with chapter titles that just pop into my mind as though someone was urging me to write about it. I just adore these flashes of Inspiration moments. I just wish they were more frequent and occurred at least once a day.

That’s why veteran writers talk about jotting down everything that is churned out by our mind: both the conscious and the Sub-conscious mind. We never know when these nuggets of gems may turn out to be the cues that can propel our writing to greater heights.

I know it’s different for every writer. We all have our unique ways of tackling our writing. Many writers I know see their stories in their dreams. I would love to know how story ideas approach you? Do characters come begging at your doorstep pleading with you to write their stories? Or do the story ideas fall into your head fully formed and you all just start writing? How do ideas strike you?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lessons I have Learnt from My Spiritual Master

This post is very different from my usual writing posts. Today, I will talk about my spiritual master:  Amma or Mata Amritanandmayi Devi as she is known as. I will also share with you all the things I have learnt from my Spiritual Master. Amma is from Kerala. This Divine Saint has made it her mission to uplift humanity and help the poor by constructing free houses for them as well as providing them with basic education, medical care and jobs. Amma’s Ashram runs one of the largest charitable institutes in India.

Though, India has many saints, Amma is different from other saints. Her difference arises from the fact that she is accessible to all her devotees, irrespective of caste, financial background and age.

Amma travels all over the world, meeting people and giving her unique darshans, which consist of a hug, a candy and few holy and loving words whispered in each individual’s ear. It’s not surprising to see young students getting their hall tickets  for exams blessed by Amma, or engineering students getting their projects blessed by Amma or excitedly telling her their exam results.

I met Amma  nearly 19 years back. Amma visits Bangalore every year in February. I eagerly wait for 364 days to spend a few seconds in Amma’s arms and feel that divine bliss and experience that radiant energy.

I have a unique relationship with my Spiritual Master. Amma treats me like a baby. Amma is very encouraging where my writing is concerned. It’s due to her encouragement that I started querying for my MG fiction. She constantly urges me to write more books and not worry about big publishers.

Amma has taught me many things. Patience, something I am not famous for, is Amma’s best known quality, as well as humility. As writers we need both these qualities in abundance. We need truckloads of patience to see a completed Manuscript. As for humility, we are after all taking dictation from a higher source when we write. So, the question of pride just does not arise.

Another thing Amma has taught me is the act of practicing detachment, the ability to stand back and just witness what is happening in one’s life. This is extremely difficult. The moment I started querying exactly one month back, I would check my mail every few hours to see if any agent had replied. From the past few days, I have shed that habit and I am much more at peace now. I have performed my actions (writing the book and querying) and now it’s up to God to do the rest.

Amma constantly urges her followers to embrace the Indian philosophy of karma: performing one’s actions without any expectations. We writers embrace that philosophy in a big way. When we write our books and stories we have no idea of the reaction it will garner from the readers.

Amma is the source of my Inner Strength and it’s because of her Divine Grace that I am able to do all the things I do. I have felt her presence during the most stressful situations in my life.

Today, 27th September is Amma’s birthday. I wish her a very, very Happy Birthday. I pray that she blesses all of us in every sphere of our lives.

Here is the link to Amma’s website for those who would love to know more about this Divine Saint.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Why are Publishers Interested in Series?

My editor in India who has been interacting with me for a story I am doing for an Anthology brought out by the Publishing House, tells me that most publishers (in India we don’t have agents, we submit directly to publishing houses) are looking at series. Stand-alone or one off books, especially in the Children’s category are not a good proposition.

Her belief is that single books have a tendency to get lost or disappear inside bookshops. Whereas a series has a great marketing potential. Series are great for attracting visibility. Series also have an advantage of allowing the main character to create a bond with the readers. It also has a better recall value. She told me that though writing is a passion for writers, publishing is a business and publishers look for the market value of the book as at the end of the day, they do want to make a profit. Series have better profit making abilities than single books. A series also ensures that  a writer does not disappear after writing just one book.

Her words resonated with me. A series has many advantages. Once a character is created and a setting is built, and both have struck a chord with readers, a major burden has been lifted from the writer’s shoulders. Now, it’s up to the writer to capitalize on this advantage by upping the stakes and increasing the tension and ensuring that the reader do not move away  and stick to the next lot of books featuring the same characters.

Another advantage of a series is that once a reader interest is invested in both the character and story, then the chances of them picking up the next  few books in the series are very high.

Though  series are my editor’s firm favourite, she is of the opinion that the series should not be a long one: a trilogy is most preferred. As for long series of 5 or more parts, it’s difficult to keep a firm grip on the plot and characters.

I have noticed this trend every where. Most writers are either writing or planning a series. What about you all? Are you of the same belief as my editor? Do you believe that series have better chances of being published than single books?Are any of you planning a series or have written them?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My Favourite Writing Memories

This post is triggered by the topic of the Essay Assignment my students in college chose. They wanted to write their essay on ‘My Favourite Childhood Memory’. Needless to say, almost all the essays were good. The topic itself was easy and at the same time had a lot of room for fun.

Today’s post is on Favourite Writing Memories. In my entire writing journey (I hope it continues lifelong, there are quite a few memories that have become a favourite.

 The first that comes to mind is: the acknowledgement card I received from the editor of  a newspaper telling me that the short story I had sent them had been retained for publication. Not only was I elated, the cheque I received for it made me feel rich (though it was a small amount). That was 15 years back. And it was my first published story. I still have the acknowledgement card.

The second most favourite memory is when I received a call from a publishing house telling me that they are interested in publishing my books. The day was April 7th 20005. I will never forget that day in my life. I remember crying after that phone call. My poor mother was shocked. I told her the good news after my tears had dried. Then, she started crying.

The third writing memory was when I held the first copies of my books. It’s an awesome feeling to see the words we have worked with for years/weeks/days appear as a book. It’s a feeling I hope and pray all my writing friends experience soon. I would love to experience that feeling again.

Another favourite memory would be my Book Launch. I can never forget that day. Speaking about my books, signing copies for the young readers and giving interviews. The date was 14th January 2006.

Another Favourite Writing Memory is sending the query letter for my MG fiction ten days back. This memory comes with an avalanche of anxiety and worries. What if every agent hates my query letter? What if no one asks for even a partial, forget about the complete manuscript? What if no one replies? Whatever the offshoots of this memory, there is a feeling of satisfaction at having completed the longest book I have written. 240 pages. I have no idea how long my query process will go on for, or how many agents I will have to query, but as my good friend Carole Anne Carr advised me on Sunday, “Enjoy the process. Don’t worry and fret. Everything will happen at its own time and start working on your next book and read as much as you can.”

Now, here is my question to you all. What is your favourite writing memory/memories? What,  from your writing journey has glued itself into your mind? We all would love to know. And no, we won’t think you are gloating over your success. You all deserve to talk about it after all the hard work you have put in. So, please share your Favourite Writing Memories. We all are waiting to read about them.                      

Friday, September 16, 2011

How Much Backstory to Add in Our Books?

The first book I wrote in my life had pages and pages of backstory, actually each chapter started with backstory which was nearly one third of  the chapter. I tried to cram in as many details as possible of backstory, even details the story didn’t need and details that readers could have done without. Needless to say the book was inflated and the story lacked pace as it was weighed down with oodles of backstory.

At one time I was such a backstory junkie that every chapter began with a couple of pages of backstory concerning all the characters in that scene. That book was turned down by an editor as being too long. She even asked me to eliminate around 25,000 words from it. I was shocked. This was during the time when I considered cutting even one word from my story as sacrilege.

As I read more and more books, and ofcourse wrote more and more, I started looking at ways other writers of successful books added the backstory.

I have noticed that great books have backstory added little by little. Small details added throughout the book do not bore the readers or slow the story down. They infact help in pacing the book.

Another point I noticed was that only the information that furthered the plot was crucial, anything that did not move the story forward could be deleted.

I became a backstory watcher when I read any books. Backstory details are important when they are relevant to the scene. If the details ties up in some way with the scene, then it earns its place. If it has no relevance to the scene it has earned its right to be chopped.

Backstory that in some way is crucial, it brings meaning to a character’s action, adds layers to his personality, or explains a character’s motive, by all means should stay on the page. Else, its bye-bye time for that particular piece of information.

I have read that backstory can add depth to a story. Backstories are usually revealed, partially or in full, chronologically or otherwise, as the main narrative unfolds. Many writers create portions of a backstory or even an entire backstory that is solely for their own use in writing the main story and is never revealed in the main story.

There are many ways to reveal backstory: flashbacks, dialogues, direct narration, summary, recollection and exposition.

I have come a long way since then. Nowadays, I carry my word scissors whenever I edit. I no longer feel guilty while I am chopping. Infact, I enjoy the entire editing process.

Let me confess, shedding this backstory habit was pretty difficult. I had a tough time restraining myself. What about you all? How much of backstory do you think our books need? What kind of backstory information do you think bores readers? Please share your backstory tips with us.

P.S. When you get the time friends, do drop in on Kim's blog -Wrestling the Muse, to read my guest  post on Creating Enduring and Memorable Characters. I would love to see you all there.

Click on this link to get a realistic picture of how much money writers should expect from their writing careers.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tell me Your Writing Dreams

This is the first time in my entire blogging life that I didn't have a post in mind. There was no topic for today buzzing inside my overworked mind. Unfortunately, I couldn't even get upset with myself as I had a pretty productive last week. I finished editing my collection of stories, finished the critique for my second crit partner’s 400 and odd page novel, finished correcting all my students’ assignments and grading them and have started brainstorming my Spirit Chronicles Trilogy.

At this point I can pat myself on my back. This post is definitely a deviation from the heavy duty ones I usually tackle. But, what the heck, I think we all deserve a break.

                   This post is all about Writing Wishes/Dreams. Let’s start with mine.
1.      I am already a published author in India, so my first wish would be to get an agent.

2.      My next wish would be to see the novel I have started querying get a publisher.

3.       My third dream would be to see my short story collection also get published. I am extremely sentimental about that short story collection.

4.      Another dream of mine, and I really don’t know the reason why I have that particular desire is to see atleast one of my books in hardcover. I have been badly hoping for that.

5.      Another dream would be to write a successful series. Well, I can wish, can’t I? It will require lots of hard work, but I am more than ready to tackle it.

6.      Whenever I see a movie adaption of a book, my heart goes into an overdrive mode. I know that it sounds greedy and over ambitious, but I would love to see a movie version of one of my books.

Its early morning in India when I am typing this post, my sleepy brain has not yet yet fully awakened while I am typing. So, if I remember any more dreams I will add them in the comments section.

Now, tell me your dreams lovely people. Feel free and please don’t restrict yourselves. I would love to know what all my writing friends/blog buddies secretly dream or wish for. We all will send loads of positive energy to each and everyone. What else does wish fulfillment require? Good wishes and positive energy from supportive and loving friends. So, get going friends. I am looking forward to reading all your dreams.

P.S. When you get the time friends, do drop in on Kim's blog -Wrestling the Muse, to read my guest  post on creating Enduring and Memorable Characters. I would love to see you all there.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Potholes to Avoid While Writing

For most of us writers, our first drafts are bloated and full of errors. That should not be a cause for worry as first drafts are all about getting a story out on paper. If we worry too much, it can affect the flow of words. And we all know that first drafts are reworked upon several times until the manuscript shines.

There are certain traps we can avoid  when  working on our second, third and consecutive drafts.

1.      Weak Characters. This is one of the major flaws editors and agents can pinpoint. Characters who do not contribute much to the movement of the plot and Characters that do things without a justification can seriously hamper a book’s prospects. Strong characters, whether they ultimately succeed or not, drive the plot. The readers are watching the character’s every move. They are aware that the character is trying. Underdeveloped characters can be a major irritant. When a writer has not tapped the true potential of a character/s, readers are definitely left with a feeling of being cheated.

2.      Coincidence. Though coincidence is unavoidable in fiction, but an excess of it will soon provoke incredulity. Coincidence must be treated with caution and should never simply be a cheap and easy way to resolve a dilemma or conflict within the plot.

3.      Serendipity. Serendipity can be delightful. Too much of it will become syrupy and syrupy on any page of fiction tends to make things sticky and can be a huge turn-off.

4.      Chunky dialogues. Dialogues are an important part of writing and can definitely make or break a story. To get the dialogues right, we should subtly eavesdrop on conversations. A lot can be learnt just from listening to conversations. People seldom answer each other directly, but manoeuvre to steer the conversation back to their own agenda. Dialogues can be vital to give clues about characters. We can understand a lot from the way people talk.

5.      Descriptions. Descriptions are a wonderful way to explain things, people and places in our stories. But an information overload can seriously overwhelm readers. Descriptions that gently creep up on readers taking them by surprise is always an asset.

6.      Language. Words are always a writer’s asset. If clich├ęs and the often used metaphors are avoided and replaced with new and unusual way of describing things, it works to the advantage of a story.

7.      Lame Endings. Endings that do not resolve the major conflict/s in a book and endings that have just popped  up out of the blue are major disasters that every writer should consciously avoid. Writers have to move towards the ending  by dropping few hints and foreshadowing a little about it earlier in the story.

What according to you all should writers avoid while writing. What do you feel turns off readers? What upsets you in another writer’s story?   

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fiction’s Ultimate Concern

“ The only requirement for good fiction is that it be interesting,” Henry James said.  A fiction writer is free from the shackles that bind the non-fiction writer. For creating a world of make believe, a writer of fiction is under no legal obligation to anyone except his muse. As a work of fiction belongs solely to the writer’s imagination, he or she is not bound by any formal rule. This freedom is akin to the wind under the wings. The only limitation comes from the imagination.

For any work of fiction to enter the realm of classic: it has to be good, it has to be interesting and of course relevant to all times; before and after its publishing period.

What separates a good fiction  from a great one  is not just the literary and technical skills of  the writer, but also the universality (the universal questions the book deals with in its own inimitable, unique and interesting way).

Paul Tillich calls it the Ultimate Concern. The contemporary fiction which falls under the best category has the quality of the ultimate concern in abundance. Ultimate Concern is something that we take with unconditional and utmost seriousness in our lives without any reservations. It’s something that we are ready to suffer for, or, even die for. Ultimate concern is something which makes every other concern in that person’s life secondary. The ultimate concern consumes the person. It contains the answer to the question of the meaning of that person’s life.

A person is Grasped by this ultimate concern. Take the example of Harry Potter   in the seven books by Rowling. His ultimate concern was to destroy Voldemort's Horcruxes and make him susceptible to death and also stop him from unleashing his terror on the wizards. Harry was aware that either he would be successful in thwarting Voldemort, or, he would die in the process. The outcome of this ultimate concern was absolutely clear to Harry. But he was grasped by it, caught in the ultimate concern’s death like grip. This thought  haunted him day and night, he was a boy possessed with just one mission in life. Stop Voldemort.

I believe that every work of fiction grapples with an ultimate concern which consumes the protagonist like a fire. The resolution of this ultimate concern forms the crux of the story. For me the ultimate concern transfers into the conflict in the book. Maybe the conflict in my book may not be universal, maybe this conflict is just crucial for my protagonist: but it becomes his or her ultimate concern, something he or she is  dead serious about. Something for which they are willing to stake their lives.

How do you decide  the ultimate concern of  your protagonists? Are they grasped by it like Harry? Please share. We would love to learn from everyone’s experience.

Friday, September 2, 2011

My September Goals

My Crit Partner, Kim Koning, in her interview on my blog  mentioned that she writes  3 foolscap Morning Pages with pen and paper every day. She was inspired to do this through reading “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron.  Julia  advises one to write, longhand, 3 foolscap pages of streamlined consciousness which basically means whatever is in your brain.

I made this one of my September goals. I started it yesterday (September 1st). Unfortunately, with my schedule, for many days of the week I will be writing those 3 foolscap sheets  late at night). I wrote the first 3 pages last night and I restricted it to the Magic Spirit series I am planning. I plan to do this exercise for the entire month. If nothing else, I will have 90 foolscap sheets full of ideas at the end of the month.

It was an interesting exercise. My brain threw up many possibilities for the entire series. Plenty of scenes (though at this stage they are quite blurred) emerged. As did few small characters. I  hope that while reading the previous day’s 3 sheets, my creative juices will kickstart in a big way. This exercise has got me pretty excited.

Hopefully, I will plot out the Middle Grade Paranormal Series I have planned from a long time, this month. I would also like to finish the major rewrites of the first book of the series by the end of the month.

There are atleast four books on my tall TBR pile  that I want to read this month. These books have been gathering plenty of cobwebs. So I feel its time to tackle them. The books are:

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Shadow Kiss by Richelle Mead

The Last Judgement by Iain Pears

A Girl and a River by Usha K.R

What are your September goals? Please share them with us. We hope we can motivate you in some way into achieving them.