Friday, August 30, 2013

The 2 sins of a writer

A close friend sent me a children’s book to review for an English newspaper. The book had been self-published by my friend’s friend. I finished reading it in one sitting. After I closed the book, I felt a strong sense of being cheated.

The theme was wonderful: supernatural elements and previous births are pan Indian favourites. The writer could have 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). The previous lives were never shown. Though the book was written in a simple and easy to read style for a ten year old, it was absolutely boring. The writer’s lack of interest showed.

It made me think. Writers can commit sins. Not murder or robbery. But literary sin. The two sins we are prone to committing are the Sin of Boring the Readers and the Sin of Cheating Readers.  

The writer whose book I had finished reading had committed those two sins.  When I opened the first page I expected a thrilling paranormal ride, hurtling the protagonist as well as me, through a terrain of different births. But I was disappointed. All that the writer showed were dull glimpses of just one birth (the current one) and nothing else. The ten year old was trapped in a dull life which the writer had not bothered to spice up. I wonder why the writer had chosen an amazing topic and been indifferent to it. 

These two sins 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 exploring the theme of our books to their full potential. 

When readers buy our books they are literally buying a ticket for a joy ride. Thrills, spills and tumbles will be expected. So, if all they experience is a flat monochromatic journey, at just one speed, they are going to be disappointed.

Have you left a book halfway due to boredom? Have you ever felt cheated after reading a book? Have you ever picked up a book expecting certain experiences and been sorely disappointed?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Sharing few brainstorming tips

I had read somewhere that Rowling had spent five years brainstorming the Potter series. In those five years she brainstormed each and every aspect of the seven books, did loads of world-building and made plot outlines for the series. No wonder then, the world was left spellbound by her books. I was mesmerized by her eye for detail.

Though I do brainstorm for my books (as I write fantasy) I don’t spend years or even months brainstorming, because if I don’t start writing, I develop the itchy hands syndrome. I need to write the story and side by side, I brainstorm. It may come across as a strange method, but it works well for me.

I am sharing a few brainstorming tips that work for me.

   1.  Protagonist. We can create unique characters by giving them a distinct personality or traits, or even a quaint way of talking or a different way of dressing. Unusual, individualistic and strong protagonists help stories. The protagonist can have unheard of hobbies ( like collecting lizard’s tails, wings of a butterfly) habits, interests, their choice of a career can be off the beaten track, they can have weird friends and fetishes, they can suffer from strange physical or psychological maladies, or they can have social inhibitions that prevent them from forging  strong relationships and friendships.

   2. Setting. An original and unusual setting hooks readers. There are several things we can add to settings: strange people, customs, habits, food, fauna and flora, animals and birds, rituals, way of talking and dressing, way of communicating, way of travelling, strange objects that belong to that period of time.

  3. Antagonist. The amount of attention we pay to the protagonist, atleast half the amount should be paid to the Antagonist, as he/she drives the conflict and provides tension. The antagonist should be given a literary makeover: he can be different from the antagonist haunting every other book. Antagonists should be powerful to be able to attract the reader’s eyeballs. We can give the antagonist plenty of qualities that will make him/her stand out: a sensory highlight where one of the senses is more powerful than the others, a cruel streak, a revengeful nature, a petty way of thinking or getting even, or a wicked sense of humor. Maybe we can make them megalomaniacs.

   4. Conflict. We can add unique obstacles and problems for a gripping conflict.

   5. Resolution. Happy Endings are important to give readers a sense of redemption. We can twist this by making endings happy but unexpected: the protagonist has reached his or her destination in an extremely unstereotypical fashion. The reader should be literally taken not just by surprise but also be rendered a pleasant shock at the way the story has been resolved.

Do you all spend a lot of time brainstorming your books? Have you got any brainstorming tips for us?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Surprise, Shock and Spook

Today we will discuss books from the point of readers as readers are an important part of the process of writing. Books are written only for them. We were readers, long before we plunged into the world of writing.

Readers love the 3 S’s. Surprised. Shocked. Spooked.

Sudden surprises in the story that makes them shake their heads in amazement.

Swift shocks that renders them into a state of momentary silence.

Steady spooks that turn them into a mass of quivering jelly.

The element of surprise works wonders for the readership of books. The strange twists and turns the plot takes keeps readers glued to the book. New revelations of the  main character, new entrants that propel the plot forward, the unceremonious exits of old characters, stubborn obstacles that crop up, hook the readers big time. By constantly surprising readers in every chapter the book starts to become a page turner. Let’s flash back to Harry Potter. Mrs Figg turning out to be a squib was just one of the many pleasant surprises  the readers enjoyed! Frequent surprises sweep away the boredom that tends to creep in. It brings a certain freshness, like the opening of a window that dissipates the musty air.

Though in our personal lives there is no room for shock: we actually detest it, but when we read, shock appeals. We love it when our favourite authors  shock us, when dirty  character  secrets are revealed slowly, chapter by chapter. Book by book. When skeletons tumble out thick and fast from locked cupboards.  When the underbelly of a character is exposed. A case being J.K.Rowling. Every Potter book had plenty of the 3 S’s thrown in. I could never have guessed that Snape had been secretly in love with Lily ( Harry Potter’s mother). I am sure that none of us actually imagined Snape being in love with anyone! Albus Dumbledore’s tumultuous past too was a bolt from the blue. For me he was a paragon of virtue. And that he could have a chink in his armour was a major shock.

Another emotion we love in our books is being Spooked. This works more in favour of thrillers, suspense and murder mysteries. The spook factor intensifies the movement of the plot, increases the pace, heart beats accelerate, nails are chewed as we enter into the thicket of  fear.  Harry’s connection with Voldemort  because of the scar on his head was a tad spooky. Anything that raises our anxiety, heightens our tension has us hooked emotionally to that object.  What will happen next? Will the main character escape, will he/she be saved?? Who will emerge victorious? Will the world be saved? Questions that peck at our mind with the persistence of a woodpecker need their answers, which only the turn of a page will provide.

 When the three S’s join together in a book, that has oodles of style, as well as a strong storyline, the reader is frantically racing over the lines. It’s getting quite alliterative: surprise, shock, spook, style and story.

 Which element appeals to you the most? As a reader.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The invisible hand guiding our writing

Someone once told me that writers just don’t write, they often take dictation from a higher source (call it God or something else). I agree with this sentiment, as I too believe that we have an invisible hand guiding our writing from a far off place. Sometimes the stories our dictated to us. At other times key points are whispered into our ears so that we are able to build a story based on that.

Actually if we come down to it, where do we get our ideas and thoughts from? There has to be a larger source of ideas from where we tap our story ideas. The reservoir of ideas I believe is held by the power who controls us.

This super power gives us the patience and dedication and infuses in us the passion to pursue our dream of writing. Have you noticed how from a basic seed (germ of an idea) we are able to weave a tale of  hundreds of pages?

This invisible hand not just guides our writing, but is also there to ease our burden. When we are plumbing the depths of despair, in a strange but surprising way a small good news drops into our laps. It could be a critic partner’s fabulous feedback, a blog award, news about a manuscript or a story we had sent somewhere. This invisible hand is always quick to brush away our tears.

It’s this invisible hand that sweeps away the writer’s block that crops up at frequent intervals in our lives. At those times when we are stuck, he is responsible for the AHA moments that help us in crossing the big hurdles.

Several times when I am stuck big time I have seen that invisible hand coming to my rescue in different ways. Maybe a conversation with a friend helps in untangling the plot, sometimes while watching a movie I find my story unravelling in my mind. Many times story ideas pop into my mind when I least expect it.                        

What about the invisible hand guiding your stories? How have you felt that divine presence? Do you think writers are taking dictation from God? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

IWSG Post – Book Marketing Worries

This is my seventh post for IWSG (Insecure Writer’s Support Group) founded by Ninja Captain Alex Cavanaugh. IWSG is a support group for writers, where we talk of all our writing insecurities, fears, problems and help and support each other. We post on the first Wednesday of every month. To read the other posts, click here.

IWSG had completely slipped my mind, so when I read about it on Donna Hole’s blog last week, I received a shock, as there was no topic in my mind. I probed the depths of my mind, as a worry wart like me would surely be having several worries and insecurities stacked inside the corridors of my small mind.

Instantly, one of my most fearsome worries raised its ugly head. Book marketing worries. For the life of me I can’t market my books. I am not at all good at these things. I would not just be clueless, I would also not be able to ask my friends (read blog buddies) for help in promoting my book.

Seriously, it has been like that right from childhood. My mom often scolds me for never asking her for things. Even when I was a kid, I never asked. Asking, even requesting for something has never been my thing. I am too shy that way (I know that I don’t come across as shy). But appearances are deceptive.

I am always amazed when writers I don’t know approach me for critiques, book reviews, guest interviews and other promotional activities. I know for sure I won’t be able to do that. I also know for sure that my close blog buddies (you all know who you are) will bail me out and rush to my rescue without  me even asking.

I am working on getting rid of this block (the inability to ask for help). Are you all like me? Do you think ten times before asking for help? Any advice on how to get rid of this habit? I am looking forward to reading your IWSG posts.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Should chapters be of the same length?

Some time back, one of my writing friends who had gone the independent publishing route as most of the agents had turned down her book, told me while chatting online, that she was adjusting her chapters. I asked her what did that mean. She said she was making sure that all the chapters are of equal length.

This got me in a bit of a problem. For my previous two manuscripts, I had not paid attention to this detail. Infact, if you ask me, I won’t even be able to tell you the word count for the chapters or the number of pages for each chapter. I just know that the prankster book has long chapters and the other about a boy and a magic spirit has short chapters. But whether the chapters are of equal length or not, I won’t be able to tell.
Unfortunately for me, I don’t pay much attention to chapter lengths. Neither while writing my books nor while reading someone elses. I am more interested in making sure that the chapters end on a suspense or cliff-hanger mode. I also love giving each chapter a title.

For the current manuscript I am writing, I noticed this small detail. It’s just the first draft, so it’s going to undergo a seismic change. My first chapter is 1742 words and second chapter is 1000 words. The other chapters will fall in the 1500 words range. Maybe even less.

I checked the chapters of the book I am currently reading. The first chapter is 15 pages and the second chapter is 26 pages. This disparity made me feel happy. I am not alone where unequal chapters are concerned.

I am sure no editor or agent will reject a manuscript because one chapter is longer than the other. But, I am still concerned. What if this becomes a major issue when I shop my book around?

Should I be worried, that I have unequal chapters? Do you think I should ensure that all the chapters are of equal length? What about you all? Does chapter lengths gives you a cause for worry? Do you think unequal chapters can hamper a book? Any advice for me will be appreciated.

P.S. My dear friend Michael Di Gesu has started a new venture. He is offering creative editing, blurb writing and innovative cover designs services. Take my word for it friends, if you have the pleasure of availing any of his literary services you won’t be disappointed.  Do check out his blog and keep him in mind for future.