NovelRace 12: All Kinds Of Wow

I wonder if anybody who reads this blog now, even remembers NovelRace. Two years may as well be twenty on social media. I don’t mean the book; everyone and their brother-in-law seems to remember that, much to my discomfiture. If you ever decide to write a book, my sincere advice is don’t tell anybody about it. In all likelihood, you’ll never get around to it. If you do, you probably won’t get past a few pages. If you still do, you’ll struggle and struggle and spend so much of time struggling to finish it just to prove people like me wrong that you’ll hate it. Trust me, you don’t want the agony of being constantly asked,

“So…that book you’re writing, when is it coming out?”

Actually I meant my personal diary on being a first time writer. Well, as it turns out, I do know what I’m talking about. I have been through all of that. And you know what, I did it! I finished the goddamn book and there now I’ve said it. Two years and more survived just to be able to say that. Now please don’t kill me by asking when you’ll see it on the bookstores. I didn’t start with a publisher, I haven’t been visited by that fairy godmother common to all writers’ fantasies – a surprise book deal and I haven’t started hunting.

And here I thought this was going to be a nice-and-neat, albeit late wrap-up to the Novelrace post series full of wise maxims on how to write that bestseller. So what can I say that hasn’t been said before? Pretty much nothing, it turns out. What can I say that I haven’t myself said before? Ah, now that’s something to start with.

I don’t feel as exhilarated as I imagined. I still need spell check to get the biggest word in that last sentence right, for instance. Somehow I guess I figured my life would tie up prettily with the culmination of this dream. It hasn’t.

I’ve gone so far down this path that it’s become a busy road now. ‘Writer’ is my profession now and one that I finally feel comfortable saying. I still don’t have a visiting card; I’m not that rid of my neuroses. But it is a part of my identity now.

It’s hard to tell whether the experience of writing changed my life or whether the events of my life shaped the ones in my novel. Either way, great changes were wrought and we stand on this side of 2011, a different person with a different story.

One of the things I really, really struggled with – and this may some day be the reason I quit this work for another – is the fact that I don’t have the right personality for a writer. Make no mistake, writing is a job that requires a personality fit just as much as a corporate job. I came to discover that a writer’s job is one of a recluse, a semi-detached observer of life, a hermit even in the crowds, a loner. I’m many things but tragically, not that. Having to be by myself for days on end, no conversations or chaos or people around me dumbs me to a point of wanting to stab myself with a pen. Thank God I live in the times of a keyboard then ( a pretty blunt instrument that, and even banging it on my head won’t work with this tiny, pretty Netbook) or this would be an obituary you’d have been reading. But my thoughts still, my fingers freeze, my stories die out in isolation. One little trip into the living world, even if it is only to buy vegetables, one chance conversation, on the other hands, sets those wheels churning so fast there are barely enough words in the world to keep up. That’s not a good personality fit at all.

Still, with all of that, I managed to see this baby through, not just once but twice over. Second draft written and done! I guess that deserves all kinds of personal wows and that’s mostly what this post is about. I haven’t really celebrated it at all. I FINALLY WROTE THAT BOOK I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO!!!!

I spent a lot of time being petrified at the thought of finishing this book because I didn’t know what would come next. I don’t. And that feels okay. Wow. Of another sort, this time.

And then there are moments when it seems like just another addition to my CV. I’m still as soppy & messy/sentimental about my people. I’m just as bad with goodbyes, even worse with toxicity in relationships and a control-obsessive terror. I’m no closer to Buddhadom; not to suicide either (that should be a relief to somebody).

What did I learn then? That I could do it. No more, no less. I got nothing more out of this than the secure knowledge that I did do it hence I am able and fit to do it. I guess that’s as fair as life gets.

For the record, I’m the proud writer of a second draft of 82,620 words and exactly 200 pages. How neat is that??!

What next? Wait for the sequel. ;-) Wowwie!

Reverb 10.4: Wonderful Life

This Reverb 10 prompt seems rather similar to the previous one and it makes me wonder whether the exercise will continue to hold interest at all. Still, nothing ventured, so here goes.

December 4 – Wonder.

How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year?

(Author: Jeffrey Davis)

Having left behind the rigid daily schedule (and more importantly), the utter joy-drain of the corporate world was like opening up the door to wonder. I’ve been moody at times, grumpy and even sad. But I’ve never been without that sense of wonder since I quit.

There are walks on the beach of course, which never fail to remind me of how much bigger then universe is, than my petty troubles, than the little cocoon that we Mumbaikers tend to think of as the world. And then there are visits to the bookshop. More and more I see familiar names pop up in the Indian Writing aisle. That makes my dream seem closer, much more reachable. And in the next lane, my favorite authors or genres jostle for my attention. I’m lost in the beauty of human imagination, in the glory of words and ideas that live on long after the minds and tongues they passed through, are gone. And finally, a sense of overwhelming awe that I am to be a part (however small) of this world. Wonder, indeed.

I’ve lost heart more than once. Last year, at six months from quitting, I expressed my frustration at being rudderless. It was my father who reminded me that the jobs that waited for me then would still be waiting a year later and that I shouldn’t give up so quickly on what I thought was my passion. Another six months later, another man I’ve come to love, reminded me of the same thing. A short three months later, I wrestled with self-doubt in my own head. As if in reply, within the space of a week, my mailbox was popping with opportunities to do what I love – write. One resulted in the BlogAdda column, the second was the JetLite article, then came Yahoo! Real Beauty and other things.

A few days ago, I met a placement agent to discuss a potential job, the kind that I had left behind over a year ago. For the first time in my career life, I said that my top priority was a good work-life balance. She frowned and said that the company would not want to meet someone with ‘such issues’. I tried to explain that I was not afraid of hard work but that I was making a decision to let other areas of my life be as important. She shrugged, already having lost interest and the interview should have ended there. But quite suddenly, she shot out,

“You know, most companies would not expect this from someone at your level. People with 10-12 years of experience can say these things. But someone who is just beginning their career should not have all these restrictions.”

I gaped and then quickly took my leave. For at least two days after that I agonized over what she had said, the old guilt creeping in. After 6 years, 3 companies and managing over 25 people, was I still ‘beginning my career’? Was I losing the strong work ethic I thought I had? Had I ever had it at all? Was I being unrealistically demanding, behaving in essence like the ‘pampered princesses’ I’ve loathed all these years?

But then, I remembered my many late nights at work. I remembered forfeiting weekends and holidays. I remembered struggling with a near-arthritic neck, to stare at the computer screen. I remembered forcing myself to not think about period pains and nausea while standing up to make presentations. I remembered skipping meals for meetings and stepping out of restaurants to take phone calls that just had to be answered. I remembered finishing a report or an important document at 11:30p.m., then getting myself a cup of tea and then sitting down to spend another hour poring over the whole thing all over again to make doubly-trebly-hundred times sure it was perfect. I remembered the harsh words of my seniors picking out my flaws but I also remembered the sense of injustice I felt. And finally I thought of the fact that I had missed the weddings of every single one of my close friends in the past five years because I just hadn’t had the time.

I realised I deserved to ask for what I wanted. With it came the crystallization of the thought that much of corporate ambition and success thrives on belittling people, on keeping people insecure and subservient. It survives by killing the sense of joy and wonder in people. And I’d be a fool to willingly let myself back into that, at least without a fight. Bring on more of the wonders, I’m waiting to be dazzled!

NovelRace 11: The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Writing Soul

My last NovelRace update was ages ago. I can’t quite explain why there hasn’t been one in all this while. Have I not been learning? Far from it.

I’ve been reading like crazy. After an initial burst and burnout, I slowed down and prioritised my schedule. I’ve taken apart books and stories, read the way I did over a decade ago…with no regard for time or day or genre. It has been overwhelmingly enriching.

The writing has been much less. But I’ve been thinking a lot more. Long sojourns of brooding punctuated by brief frenzies of writing. I think my technique is improving too. And the wonderful Aha! moment happened a few months back when I discovered my characters thinking for themselves and taking their stories to their own logical conclusions. It hit me – I had just found my voice!

And yet, my heart has been heavy these past few months, quite unlike the exhilaration that came with the first few months. I know it could be a number of reasons. The initial burst of enthusiasm has waned, giving way to a more full-bodied, if less vibrant energy. There is also a flip side to finding the voice. Just like actors get into the skin of their characters, I find myself in the situations that I write in and feeling what my characters do. It is bewildering since my life for all purposes is petering out at the same slow pace as it has in these past few months. And yet, I find myself unaccountably sad, guiltwracked, troubled, cheerful, delighted and confused. My characters are facing these things in their stories and before I write in what happens to them, I have to feel the magnitude of each emotion to filter out the most potent bits of it into words.

I spent one entire month under sombre darkness. I wrote in an extra-marital affair and carrying the burden of the guilt, the secrecy, the injustice, the pain, the conflicts…it was too much. I couldn’t bear to look at my drafts for two weeks. And when I did, I hastily put down words to just ‘get it out of the way’. I know I will need to go back and much time and effort will be needed on the revisions. But I just don’t have it in me to face that just now.

The other thing I feel is a terrible sense of loss. Very early in my writing, I found a partner. He was working on a first novel too and enjoyed words just as I did. We became friends very quickly and the start of my career as a writer is linked inextricably with the beginning of our friendship. We talked long and often about our respective drafts. It’s difficult to explain just why this is so critical. But he opened up my mind to the world of literature and writing. He broadened my understanding of my own craft. And he expanded the scope of my story. In making a case to him when he played devil’s advocate, I strengthened my own story. My characters were shaped and nuanced by the fallout of our many discussions. And in all those emotions that I felt, he was with me. It felt like I had an extra brain to toss around all these thoughts.

That relationship has waned in these past five months. For reasons I won’t get into, I am quite unable to resume the friendship. I feel an overwhelming sense of betrayal, like he has abandoned both me and my book. We had promised each other once that the acknowledgements in each of our books would contain a lengthy mention of the other. I’ve written mine in already and I don’t know what to do with it. Should I remove it, since he’s left me mid-way? Should I let it stay since the project may never even have begun or, indeed, come this far, if it weren’t for him? It troubles me like something pricking in the corner of my eye. I can’t ignore it, I can’t seperate myself from it. And at the end of it all, my story suffers in an orphaned state.

I’ve tried to find other replacements. There have been others who’ve offered counsel, many other wonderful people who have given help and support. But none of them is him. He is after all, the godfather (as I once called him) of this book and that is not a role that can be replaced.

And I am troubled by my own dependence on him. I haven’t needed another person so much in all my years of work. But I also got away from that, in the hope that writing would be different, involve a different work ethic. I didn’t want to shield myself from other people in fear like one learns to in the corporate world. And while it was good, it was the best way to be, personally and professionally. But now that he’s gone, it brings home the reason why people hold themselves in reserve. To be let down, hurts so much, tangibly and in other not so visible ways. And yet, if the lesson in this is that one must be alone in what one does, I am in quandary. In my writing, I am my truest self and that person is not a solitary one at all. That is a person who needs company and connection and withers without it. If the only option is to be ‘independent’ then I think I’d rather get back to my old job. At least I just have to wear a facade there, not change my innermost being.

I’m ending this here because I don’t know where I stand. For the record, the novel now stands at 78,421 words. It’s nearly 80% complete in what I envisioned of the first draft. And after that, it will need considerable modification to ensure consistency of voice, grammar & punctuation checks and some major pruning down of length. I know if I leave this here it will haunt me all my life. And at the same time, having come this far, I know only how the easiest parts are behind me.

I just put aside Lord of the Rings an hour ago, having finally read it from cover-to-cover in one go. In that universe I would be akin to Frodo at the end of Book One. The Fellowship has broken and there is a long, ardous journey ahead with no hope of reprieve or return. But even Frodo had a Sam Gamgee and I don’t.

———————————————————————————————

Other NovelRace updates:

  1. NovelRace
  2. Adventures Galore!
  3. If You Fall, Get Up & Run Again!
  4. The Lone Runner
  5. My Characters Are For Real!
  6. The View From The Shoulders Of Giants
  7. So Much In A Name!
  8. Taking A Stand
  9. Everything But The Novel
  10. The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Writing Soul

Food & Fiction, Housewives & Health, Causes & Gripes, All At BlogCamp Mumbai 2010

We concluded the first Mumbai BlogCamp of 2010 on Saturday, 20 Feb 2010. First of all, thank you and congratulations are due to Gaurav, Adil, Arushi and their team at ACM for setting up a great venue for us. My backbencher-at-college days of yore had not prepared me for the spanking new campus, the soft cushioned chairs in an airconditioned room complete with whiteboard, podium and projector. Boy, colleges sure have changed!

BlogCamp really began for me about a week ago when I wrote a post announcing it. After that I got swept away in the thrill of helping organize the event. At last count, the night before the event, 189 people had registered. Fewer people than that actually showed up. The good thing was that several of them were newcomers, first-timers to BlogCamp. I say this is good because the purpose of a BlogCamp is certainly to widen the community and interact with various people whose only common point is that they blog. We had a wonderfully diverse bunch.

The familiar faces were the other unorganizers Netra (but of course, it’s not social media if it’s not Netra), Neeraj (who set up the BlogCamp website), Annkur (responsible for getting us the venue) and Moksh (whose superb compering peppered jokes, glossed over bloopers and held the day together). Hardik made a surprise entry at 10 in the morning reminding me of the other person without whom it’s never going to really feel like BlogCamp. He brought a Microsoft sponsorship :-) with him. The event’s blogging partner was Indiblogger while Harish & Nirav brought in media coverage with BlogAdda.

I had the reluctant privilege of opening the BlogCamp with my talk on ‘Blogging for Writers’. The idea for this really came from Novelrace but I’m afraid I erred when I put it at the very end (hoping to build up to the grande finale) and I ended up having to rush through the last bits.

Satish and Ranjeet did a brief interlude talking about their pet project, The Sapling Project. Their talk was unscheduled but short, brief and it touched a chord in all of us. Perfect.

This was followed by Sanjukta (whom I have only ever twittered with, never met before) speaking about the ‘Bell Bajao’ campaign on social media. She talked about breaking the stereotype of a social worker being a jhola-toting, bearded, impoverished man, which provoked much laughter. Her talk was to set a tone for the rest of BlogCamp. It has to be a sign of the community maturing that we’re moving on from talking about money-making ideas to cause-related initiatives.

The last BlogCamp touched on how we feel about our families having access to our blogs. This event added a different perspective to that notion. The third speaker was the Hobbitt (a.k.a. Jaya), the housewife blogger. She talked about how she got into blogging, what it was like to be the only one of her peer circle in this activity, what she wrote about, her personal highs (getting a comment from tarladalal.com on one of her cooking posts) and lows (being trolled). I found her talk surprisingly smooth and relaxed, considering how little experience she had with public speaking. The content was not new to me but I was proud to be able to say, “Whooooopeee, that’s my mum there!!” :-)

Meetu, Pune’s celebrity blogger stepped in for another brief interlude to tell us about Dr.Major Ritu Biyani’s drive against breast cancer. She took all of 5 minutes and galvanized what could become the next social media-for-a-cause case study.

Shaun Tassavur took us through a description of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a blown-up picture of which had all of us shrieking,

Change the slide!!!

Annkur, jumping in the spirit of things took us through a series of exercises that supposedly check the onset of the syndrome and help combat it.

Kalyan concluded the morning sessions with his talk on the ‘Food Blogerazi’. This was one that I tremendously enjoyed. I’ve been a reader of Kalyan’s blog for a good while and it was refreshing to hear about a passion so different from my own and yet expressed with the same enthusiasm as I bring to my own. I particularly liked Kalyan’s observation that blogging need not be seen as a revenue-generator in itself but could be a facilitator of other means to that end like a book deal, for example.

Lunch was pav-bhaji served up downstairs and delicious in a way that only college canteens manage to be. No, I’m not being sarcastic, don’t you remember what fueled those adrenalin-ridden teenage years? I however passed up this golden opportunity at nostalgia when Hardik ordered a bunch of us out with,

Vada-pav! Gurgaon mein vada-pav nahin milta hain!

So our lunch hour was spent at the stalls opposite Mithibai college, munching vadapavs and Chinese dosas.

I’m rather afraid that the morning’s highs and that roadside banquet in the sun rather lent a drowsy air to the rest of the afternoon. The first speaker post-lunch, Akshay Surve, was already letting himself in for trouble already when he took that slot. It might have helped if he had kept it to the requisite 20minutes but most of us were too woozy to argue when he persisted with a,

Wait, this is important!!

I understand that he was quite passionate about his cause but since most of his talk went right over my head, I think he quite lost any benefit that could have been derived. We’ve had quite a bit to say about avoiding outright marketing spiels and tech talk (and we tried our very best to keep all that out this time). I’m probably going to get a lot of flak for this but I have to say it. Championing a cause is just as much of hardsell as marketing teeshirts or books or movie tickets online is. No one doubts the significance of the cause, or indeed the propagator’s belief in it. But at the end of the day it is an advertisement and you do your audience a disservice by forcing it down their throats, even as they protest.

I’m sorry to say this …. but your fervour turned me against you rather than for your cause. You may be doing something noble but BlogCamp is not the forum for you to crusade your cause. If it is a new idea, take it to Startup Saturday. If it involves technology, drop into BarCamp.

This incident rather turned the mood of BlogCamp around, forcing Pragni to take up the mic and voice a protest. She asked,

What is the real purpose of BlogCamp? Is it to share our views on where we see this phenomenon going and how it affects each of us personally? Or is to push a personal agenda?

A pertinent question, I think. Only as one of the unorganizers, I must hasten to add that it is not exactly within our control to restrict the actual event. The essence of BlogCamp is lost if a small group of people decide to dictate who can or cannot speak. At the end I think it boils down to the responsibility lying with each member of the community to speak up but also respect the feelings of the rest of the community.

The second half of the event was considerably salvaged by the other speakers. From 16-yr-old Farrhad’s talk on Corporate Blogging to Monish speaking about the legal issues surrounding slander on the blogosphere to Monik sharing his experiences to 11-yr-old Raj who talked about his blogs on cookery (!) and gaming, the young ‘uns quite saved the day! One of the last talks was by Sunoj about meeting his now-wife through blogging.

Moksh concluded the event with a random pop quiz (Who fell off the chair? What was the URL of the food blogger? What’s Ideasmith’s real name?) and giving out teeshirts and caps. Hmm…so to take stock. We heard a housewife and three minors. We heard about fiction-writing, food critiquing, social causes, health issues, finding love online, legal issues and corporate blogging. We also had a great lunch, a BlogCamp argument and some great sessions. If you think this was fun, it serves you right! Get to BlogCamp next time and be a part of it!

Pictures of the event can be seen here: Ranjeet, Preshit, Kumar.

The twitter coverage of the event can be found under #blcm and for posterity, here’s a specimen of tweets:

@Lol_Bot RT –>@monikkinom giving a session blogging now, he has his english exams in school this monday #lol #blcm

@imasoom Freedom of expression as a limit #blcm, Debate between@manan and @mihirlakhani continues :) #blcm

@Netra @fundacause – Chandni speaking on social media for social change #blcm @ideasmithy @sanjukta Someone ran away with my pepsi at #blcm

@shirrin_k Listening to @ideasmithy @mihirlakhani talk behind me rather than the speaker upfront…shhh..quiet guys…:D #blcm

@si0007 Hardik from Microsoft speaking on Windows live writer using the much loved and hated MS live essential suite. #blcm

@gameboyzone Attended [IndiBlogger] Blog Camp and it was good to connect with the best of bloggers in Mumbai. Food was good. Overall 3/5 for it. #blcm

@nehabagoria #blcm sessions on bloggin tricks,personal bloggers’ experiences,NGO support,bellbajaon,project sampling,filmkar-short film on slum were nice

@_nwaz great so this is what it feels in a #BLCM wanted to voice my views on bdutt issue but well just sat to hear instead:)

@bombaylives I think everyone forgot to Thank the Caterer for the Amazing Pav Bhaji :)

Others who have written about this event:

Jaya: Blogcamp Mumbai-Mukesh Patel School of Tech.Mgmt & Eng

Kalyan: “This one time at Band camp”… BlogCamp Mumbai, Mumbai College Eats

Satish: @BlogCamp Mumbai

Priya Kanwar: My First Blog Camp Experience in Mumbai

Anu: BlogCamp Mumbai – Experience

Moksh: BlogCamp Mumbai – January 2010

Quoted In TOI – On Your Marks, Get Set, Write!

Yesterday marked the end of NovelRace and today is the first day of NaNoWriMo. Mahafreed Irani has written a great story in Times of India today about the two writing events. The story quotes Aditya, Samit, Vishal, Angad and me.

On your marks, get set write

Blogger Ramya Pandyan who is better known as Idea-smithy in cyberspace, is writing a novel set in Mumbai that revolves around relationships after the advent of internet and connectivity” She completed 50,727 words on Friday. For her the race has been a learning experience.

“I intereacted with other writers, shared the anxieties a writer faces and learnt about the latest writing software available.” says the writer who is halfway through her novel.

So the very first exercise that gave me the push to start my first book, is over. My book is not yet complete but I’ve gone about halfway, which is really far more than I ever thought would happen. I’m still really excited about the story and am not going to give it now, having come this far.

Instead, to combat the fatigue I feel over the effort currently and also because NaNoWriMo begins today, I’m putting aside the book to begin another one. This one too, will be about the way people experience the Internet. But the story and approach are different. While my first book deals with how connectivity impacts relationships, the second looks at our individual experiences with the Internet. I’m just as excited about the second project, especially considering I only have a month to turn out the novel. November is going to be a quickie month. Wish me luck!!

Also joining the NaNoWriMo run are Aditya, Vishal, Aparna and Alpana. Pens on the ready, everyone!

NovelRace Week 10: Everything But The Novel

I’m going to touch upon a number of things in this post, none about the novel itself, but all of them in some manner related to it.

I haven’t written a word all week. I could use the fashionable ‘writer’s block’ as an excuse but I don’t think that’s quite it. I am still able to write, technically. That is to say, the words are there and so is the story. But – in a nutshell – I’m freaking out.

A conversation ensued with my in-house coach/ pop-psychologist/ critic/ father. He told me about an incident from his college days, staying in a hostel during vacation. He was one of the 4 or 5 people remaining in a building that normally housed over a 100. One night, after grabbing a bite in town (the hostel mess was shut too), he started back for the hostel. It was a dark, rainy night and he had to alight at a bus-stop on the main road, cut across a football ground and circle a deserted college building to get to the main hostel. Along the way, he remembered that on that particular night, he was going to be the only person on campus. On the heels of this, came the realization that he was standing bang in the middle of a football field, lightening flashes making for scary effects in the otherwise pitch darkness, in pouring rain. Neither the road nor the hostel were visible. And in either case, there wouldn’t be a soul in sight at that hour.

As he was telling me this, my mind started up a memory of its own. You know how it is, the projector room inside your head, follows schedules of its own. I thought about when I was 11, an age young enough for the muscles to be mint-fresh for trying but also old enough to have developed and learnt fears. I was in a diving pool 40feet deep and I was petrified of heights (and depths). I remember looking up into the sky and wondering,

What am I doing here? How did I ever get here?

I did remember getting into the pool, starting the lap but it felt like that was someone else; someone who had kidnapped my body but abandoned it – and me – midway. Believe it or not, I had been swimming with my eyes closed (eyes open underwater was too scary, it was so green and murky) and I had managed to hit dead-center of the pool exactly at the moment that I stalled. The sky was grey and there were drops of water starting to come down. On either side, there were people walking around, talking, getting in or out of the pool. I could hear them in spasmodic bursts as my ears bobbed in and out of the water. None of them were even looking in my direction and I doubted they’d be able to hear me even if I spoke. I was going to die and no one would notice till it was too late.

Both these stories are apt metaphors for where I am with the novel, right now. After two months, the initial headiness that blinds one to obvious practical difficulties has worn out. At 137 pages of 46,442 words and the much coveted no.5 rank in the race, I’ve gone too far into the book to be able to just crumple up the page and chuck it into the waste-paper basket. And the end is nowhere in sight. There is the added pressure of the realization that I have no ground beneath me. I quit my secure job a couple of months back. Admittedly I was confident then, of being able to get back when I liked and in my saner moments, that still holds. Yet, it has been such an unaccountably disorienting feeling, this loss of identity. I never realised that my identity was so strongly defined by my job and my career. Now that I’m not an employee of such-and-such company, boss of team of X people, owner of that desk in the corner…..who am I? For awhile it felt curiously exciting to be able to say ‘writer’. (‘Sabbatical’ feels old after I did that over four years ago). But it is just such shaky ground that may materialize or it may turn out to be just quicksand. Yes, I am freaking out.

Okay, another thought. I’ve been laid up sick in the past week as well. I’ve had blood tests, malaria checks, antibiotic courses run, re-prescribed, cancelled and now a change of doctors. In my sheer gloom at having to ‘lie still and be quiet’, I picked up ‘Tea-time for the Traditionally Built’ by Alexander McCall Smith. I bought it in June but have been saving it up like a precious treat for just the right moment. It is after all the newest installment of the Mma.Ramotswe books and who knows when the next one will come out? McCall Smith isn’t J.K.Rowling in popularity though I daresay he could teach her (and several others) a few things about good writing. Undiagnosed and prolonged illness merited a reward I decided and began the book last night, going over each word to savour its beauty.

Earlier today I spoke to my mum (another McCall Smith fan) about the book. We got to talking about Mma.Makutsi whom she said she didn’t like much. The very fact that such strong emotions can be aroused in a reader goes to show the talent of the writer. If you’ve read the books, you’ll remember the big-spectacled, 97%-achieving assistant detective to Mma.Ramotswe as well as her struggle against the more beautiful people in the world and her lack of suitors. What you may not remember is that Mma.Makutsi is not, as is the impression conveyed through the books, a single woman with zero prior experience in relationships. In ‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, she is introduced as follows,

Mma.Makutsi was the widow of a teacher and had just passed their general typing and secretarial examinations with an average grade of ninety-seven per cent, she would be ideal – they were certain of it.

I must add that I didn’t remember that myself and only caught the word ‘widow’ the second time I read the series. But it is there undeniably. Yet, it is never mentioned in the later books, through the many references to her people in Bobonong, her competition in the beauty and love stakes with Violet Sephoto and multitudinous other details about Mma.Makutsi’s life. If I may be so bold, I’d like to guess that Mr.McCall Smith wrote her in as a minor character but as the story progressed, realized that she could be given a far bigger role. And so as the story grew, he added on more of her life, made her world bigger (promotion, relatives, boyfriend, business, house, fiancé). It would probably complicate things too much to detail her widowed history and that would go against the simplicity of the story. The first book had probably already been published (maybe even the second, considering that Mma.Makutsi really came into her own only in the third book, ‘The Kalahari Typing School For Men’). So he just went along with the story and hoped (I presume) that no one noticed too much.

That made me think of an even bigger author who made a completely unrealistic change to the lives of one of fiction’s most popular characters and the whole world bought it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes fall over a cliff in ‘The Final Problem-Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes but on popular demand (and much to his reluctance) resurrected the detective to bring him back for many more stories.

Well, the last two notes make me a little happier and more cheerful. If Sir Doyle and Mr.McCall Smith could do it with such panache, why not me? Change is built into every aspect of us after all. An hour ago, when I was starting to write this post, I chanced upon some notes I made when I started the novel. These were sketches of characters for the original novel, which I discarded 3 chapters in. It just struck me that there is still a story there and I’ll probably pick that up again for NaNoWriMo (looming high in a month’s time). What’s more, there’s a character I carried over from there to this book, who just doesn’t seem to be fitting in anymore. I guess his rightful place is in his homeland…the earlier novel that is. So back he goes. And the novel I’m currently writing should be able to move on without him.

Funny are the lessons one learns. From Mike Carey’s Lucifer that I finished reading a fortnight ago, I know that even God makes mistakes and tries new stunts all the time. I’m just playing a smaller God with the very tiny universe inside my mind. Bear with me, it’s going to be a turbulent ride and I don’t even know if it’ll be worth it. But I’ll never know unless I try. On that happy note, wish me better health because I sincerely hope to be able to report a better wordcount and story pace next week.

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Other NovelRace updates:

  1. NovelRace
  2. Adventures Galore!
  3. If You Fall, Get Up & Run Again!
  4. The Lone Runner
  5. My Characters Are For Real!
  6. The View From The Shoulders Of Giants
  7. So Much In A Name!
  8. Taking A Stand
  9. Everything But The Novel
  10. The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Writing Soul

NovelRace Week 9: Taking A Stand

This week’s NovelRace update appears early because the lesson came like a revelation and it is a big one (again!). This happened in a conversation with fellow NovelRacer Rehab.  Rehab asked me how I was dealing with having to take a stand. Her exact question was,

Say you want to talk about something that might be controversial, later on. What are you doing about it?

My reply was that I didn’t have any such incidents or insights in my book since it wasn’t that kind of a story. I’ve steered away from the ‘big, intelligent things’ in my blog and so also in my book. It isn’t entirely a diplomatic matter; it is also because I think focusing on one issue will detract from what I want to achieve with this story. I’m telling a story because it is there to be told, because it is wonderful and worth thinking about, worth marveling over, worth experiencing. With all due respect to those writers who write with a bigger purpose in mind, mine isn’t one of those.

And yet, I realized as we spoke, that invariably there would be conclusions drawn about my personal beliefs from what I wrote, even if what I wrote was fiction. My reply to Rehab was,

Human beings have conflicts, world over. That is why we have stories, they arise from age-old conflicts and human response to them. Also, our audience is human beings; there will be people who don’t agree with or like what we’ve written. We must be prepared for that. And finally, we, the writers are human too. We will bring our own perspectives, our prejudices into it.

As soon as I had said it, I knew it was my revelation for this week. I’ve been trying very hard to play God, to be absolutely ‘fair’ in all respects, unprejudiced, unbiased, non-racial, politically correct etc. But if I did manage to scrub every trace of judgment from my story, it wouldn’t be a story anymore, it would be a clinical representation of facts. The value of a story lies in the story-teller after all, that unique perspective that he or she brings to it. And that perspective is called prejudice if you don’t agree or a revelation if you do.

On a less abstract level, for an example, I have a large cast of characters. I have tried to ensure that there is some fair representation of people from different communities and strata; this is story set in Mumbai after all and we are nothing, if not a heterogeneous society. But at this late stage, it occurs to me that I have a number of very powerful female characters but not too much equivalence from the men. That’s not to say that I’ve written in weak male characters but just that the women seem to be getting more ‘footage’, there is more detail and diversity, more grey in them than the men.

This is not because I don’t like men (really, I keep saying that to everyone who reads XXFactor, I do mean that) or because I believe that men are not equally complex human beings. It boils down to a simple fact that I have never been a man so I have never experienced the complexity of being a man, from within. I have also not been close enough to enough men to understand it from outside. At best I have been close to the male members of my family, which may be why one of the strong male characters in my cast is an elderly gentleman. But it is really so much more difficult for me to imagine the complexity in a younger man…I’ve never experienced it or seen it close-up myself.

You might argue that a fantasy writer is able to write about things and ideas that he or she has never seen or felt. But then, I’m not a fantasy writer. It has never been my intention to touch that genre. My stories are about tangible, real, living beings, the kind of lives that you and I live and see around us each day. I fear however, that (if and) when this novel is published, it will suffer accusations of being anti-male as my blog has been earlier. At least, I might say that the blog may deserve such sentiments for the volatile statements I’ve made there, but not this book.

Finally, I end with something Rehab quoted to me, a conversation between two famously controversial authors. One of them told the other that the book had been written and had gone out into the world and there was nothing more she could do about it. How the world chose to interpret it was upto them. That might be simplistic since I don’t want to absolve the writer (myself, indeed) of responsibility for caring about people’s sentiments. But I must say that a writer cannot carry the entire responsibility of a new idea on his/her shoulders alone. An idea is just too big for one person to bear the burden of it and what’s more, that would mean when the person died, the idea died along with them. We all know that’s not true so I’ll end by saying that all I am is a medium, a vessel of expression of a thought. To that I add my own petty filters, boundaries and fears. And magically it seems to touch other human beings, in some cases by its vision and in other cases by how small it is. It is the humanness of my writing that I hope will resonate with my readers, nothing more, nothing less. Taking a stand is something that gets thrust on some of us and none of us can do anything about it.

For the remainder of the update, my other lesson was that a change of scenery and location can really grease the wheels of the mind. Having exhausted every chair and corner of my house, I’ve moved the writing out to the neighboring coffeeshops and restaurants. Next week I’ll do something I’ve always wanted to do – sit in the park and write. (Fingers crossed that the cloud-seeding doesn’t put end to that!). With this added incentive, I’ve just updated my wordcount to 43,887, which painstakingly hoists me up one position to number 6 in the race. As I noted last time, the gaps between the racers at the top is widening so each jump gets harder and harder. Over and out and off to the park!

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Other NovelRace updates:

  1. NovelRace
  2. Adventures Galore!
  3. If You Fall, Get Up & Run Again!
  4. The Lone Runner
  5. My Characters Are For Real!
  6. The View From The Shoulders Of Giants
  7. So Much In A Name!
  8. Taking A Stand
  9. Everything But The Novel
  10. The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Writing Soul

NovelRace Week 8: So Much In A Name!

My NovelRace update this week is going to be a short one. Due to a family crisis, there was almost no work done on my novel this week. I was caught up in the situation so even the story going on in the background slipped clean out of my head. The upside of it was a sense of being recharged after some time away. Let’s hope I’m able to channel that into pushing up the wordcount.

My struggle this week (apart from finding time) has been the onset of ennui. It isn’t that my story is boring. It’s just that by now I’ve thought through it from so many angles, labored over so many details and actually worked so hard on it, that I’m beginning to tire of it. I mean, I know the story already so at the end I’m left wondering, what’s the excitement in retelling it? I’ve told myself the story a zillion times over. Aditya assures me that a writer goes through this sometimes and that I should just stick to it. I also received a reply to my tweet complaining about this…

@sudeepb4u @ideasmithy arre! pre-booking karke rakhi hai novel ki sabne. Chalo likho! :)

…which boosts my morale. Thank you so much.

I’ve changed the name of one of the characters following a discussion with a friend about what he picturizes when he hears the name. That’s really important, I think. I’ve already said that mine is an ensemble story. While it isn’t about religion or linguistic communities, to keep it a fair representation of the idea, I’m trying to ensure that there are a diverse bunch of characters from various backgrounds. Being Indian, we rarely think about how much latent knowledge we already have about the various nuances of our culture.

For example, the name Champakali may make you think of girl clad in a full-sleeved polyester salwar-kameez with a chiffon dupatta (perhaps the colours don’t match). Her hair would be oiled and braided, most probably with a red ribbon at the end of it. Her adornments might be some gold interspersed with cheap looking costume jewelery. Make-up if any would be kajal.

On the other hand, the name Anita would bring to mind a more modern-looking woman. If she were dressed in Indian wear, I would mentally clothe her in FabIndia cotton or perhaps a starched saree. Her hair would be shoulder-length, worn loose or at best, tied in a casual ponytail. Her jewellery would likely be more expensive but minimal. She would wear a watch but no other jewellery on the same hand. The other wrist may sport a bracelet at best, no bangles.

Obviously both of these are stereotypes. For a writer who isn’t trying to make a statement about these stereotypes, it makes sense to work with them. So I’m accordingly picking names that seem to ‘go’ with my characters’ personalities and backgrounds. My above example is an extreme one that details economic differences that could come through from people’s names. All of us know the religious differences as well. You’re hardly likely to find a Hindu called Rahim or a Parsi called Raman. Once again, these are possible but they don’t add to my story since I’m not talking about religion or caste norms at all. In addition there are also subtler nuances that we recognize about caste and even geographical roots from people’s names and surnames. But of course. Where would you think that a Achrekar would hail from? Or a Sengupta? Or Patel?

See why the name is so important? Our names make a statement about us before we even say a word. In a country like India they carry a wealth of information about us – our cultural, linguistic, geographical, religious and economic lineage. Use them with care and caution. That’s what I’m doing.

That’s a big enough lesson in itself so I won’t draw any more morals from this week. My rank stays at number 7 even with today’s added effort which brings me to a wordcount of 40,339. The differences between the wordcounts of the people closer to the top are really wide, to the tune of 10K words in one case. On the other hand, the people closer to the bottom are fighting it out for the below 10 ranks over differences of a few hundred words. That’s a characteristic of any race I suppose. I don’t know who’s betting on me on this one. I’d be hard-pressed to decide whether I was a good bet or not, I’m in neither the top league nor the bottom one. So I’ll leave that to the observers while I get on with my writing. See you next week!

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Other NovelRace updates:

  1. NovelRace
  2. Adventures Galore!
  3. If You Fall, Get Up & Run Again!
  4. The Lone Runner
  5. My Characters Are For Real!
  6. The View From The Shoulders Of Giants
  7. So Much In A Name!
  8. Taking A Stand
  9. Everything But The Novel
  10. The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Writing Soul

NovelRace Week 7: The View From The Shoulders’ Of Giants

So here’s the next update of NovelRace. Things went a little awry last week since the last update got pushed into the middle of last week and I got busy over the weekend with The Wall Project.

Last week, on account of having to ration my internet usage, I ended up concentrating on the novel a lot more. Which brings us to the first lesson that cutting out distractions is vital while writing a novel.

My dear writing buddy was down here early on the weekend, which gave us a chance to bounce ideas off each other. I tweeted earlier that writing was an incredibly lonely activity. Not any more. I really think a writing buddy can make so much of a difference. I’ve taken to reading the prefaces of books in the past few years, especially of ones I really like. I can suddenly relate to the long lists of people that get thanked for their support and love. Worry and stress just seem to be a natural part of the sudden power of playing God with people’s lives, even if they are only fictitious (God must go through a truckload of antacids each week!). At such a time, it is vital for a writer to feel supported and understood in order to be able to function properly. A writing buddy is an invaluable resource too, in that he or she not just supports you but also understands what you are going through at each step – the agonizing over such details as a character’s name, writer’s block, chaptering etc. Thank you Aditya, multifold – for NovelRace and for being my personal buddy.

One of Aditya’s tips was to not force myself to write in the order that the story would be eventually told. When I shared that thought on Twitter, Samit said,

On the other hand, writing in order it’ll be told allows for better chapter transitions. I write in order.

Still, in a craft such as this, different things work for different people. The idea certainly worked for me. Given that I have a multi-character cast, I’m finding it a lot less stressful if I just pick the sub-plot that I feel like writing about that day and go with it. Eventually I’m finding it evens out and I have all of the editing time to piece them together in a more coherent flow. It is so much like solving a jigsaw puzzle. The trick is not to start with any one piece and build around it but look for any piece that fits another. Eventually the sections all fall into place.

When I began, I was also apprehensive about the wordcount, given that I’ve never really written much that’s longer than say a couple of thousand words. I find it has become increasingly easier, in the past few weeks, to push that number and without too much strain. What’s more, one of my sub-plots was originally written as a short story and I thought it would fit in neatly into this novel. I’ve drafted and re-drafted it several times over. During the week, I was reading one of my early drafts and it showed me just how far I had come since I could see places where more detail was possible. It’s hard to explain exactly but suddenly the difference between a short story and a novel’s chapter gets easier to discern. In a short story, you actually economize time and reader interest. So an engaging story would focus on actions and key conversations. In a novel, however, you have a lot more freedom to add description, detail the characters and background better and add quirks.

Speaking of detail, I also had an interesting thought come my way from a writer-friend. She has read a number of my posts so is at least reasonably familiar with my writing style. She noted that I was pretty thorough with my detailing, drawing elaborate descriptions of situations and places. It made my writing very relatable and likeable at one level. But, she also cautioned, that sometimes people who focused too much on detail tended to lose out on plot. In a nutshell, a lot of pretty scenery and nothing really happening. Heard and understood, I’m mindful of that for now. While re-drafting I’ll definitely be scanning for the description/plot balance.

At the start of last week, I was aiming to get into the Top 10. You can see the results starting to emerge now. The really frenzied wonderkids have mostly finished their first drafts and at current count, there are 5 of them. NovelRace itself is gaining momentum as more and more people are getting in, with a few newcomers still adding their names to the tally. (with a side-mention of the troll attack mid-week. How stupid can people get?! Sorted out, since.)

I, like a number of others, form the middle body, not yet done but very much in the running. I did manage to make it to top 10 by Friday, but I’m afraid this was helped along by the fact that one of the Racers completed the Race and so pushed up the rankings of all the others.

That’s it from me for this week. I have a novel to write and stories to tell. I’ll see you next week with more lessons and a better NovelRace rank (this week I gun for Top 5).

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Other NovelRace updates:

  1. NovelRace
  2. Adventures Galore!
  3. If You Fall, Get Up & Run Again!
  4. The Lone Runner
  5. My Characters Are For Real!
  6. The View From The Shoulders Of Giants
  7. So Much In A Name!
  8. Taking A Stand
  9. Everything But The Novel
  10. The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Writing Soul

NovelRace Week 6: My Characters Are For Real!

A quick update on NovelRace. I know this is mid-week so a little late for this but I want to keep the diary going.

As the forerunners start to complete the race and drop off the list, the rankings of the rest of us obviously improve. Also, possibly because we are still learning the ropes and are just about now finding our feet and pace, the numbers are going up at a steady rate. Samit Basu, the pro at this, is still very much in the race which gives me solace in being able to think that each person follows their own pace, irrespective of experience and talent.

I’ve been writing of course, though not in an organized way. The biggest change over last week has been letting go of needing a schedule to sit and write. The good part about being on a sabbatical is that I’m master of my own time so I’ve decided I’m going to make full use of it and write only when I feel able to, without agonizing the rest of the time.

With my latest wordcount update of 22,491, I’m sitting at number 13 (an odd but closely associated number for me). Last week I’ve just finished introducing the many characters in my novel. I found resolution in the thought that my novel isn’t a story of one person, it is the story of a phenomenon. And the only way to explain a phenomenon fairly would be to show its manifestations in many situations. Hence I justify my large character cast.

Earlier I laid out a sketch of all the characters but I’ve found that these have needed to be revised as I actually wrote. It’s actually almost like the way I set an agenda for my own life and had to revise it in the past ten years as some unexpected things came up.

Also, I started with a certain plan of order of importance of the characters but even that has changed. Some characters have just written themselves into oblivion while some have emerged stronger and aggressively demanding “MORE FOOTAGE!” so I’ve given it to them.

Do you hear what I’m hearing? I’m talking about my characters as it they are real. Something interesting that has been happening to me in the past couple of weeks is that I seem to be seeing my characters walking out of the book and around me everywhere. In my conversations with various people, I find I’m fitting them mentally into my character cast and saying “This is so much like X. I could use that little habit she has of flicking her hair behind her ear and build it into X.” I created a sketch but it’s the people around me who are colouring in the details with everything they say and do.

And finally, quite unexpectedly, I’ve had a number of people offer their help. A colleague-turned-friend has offered to read and comment on my work so far. The A.E. comes calling with the standing offer to critique and I know his will be a valuable opinion to have. A lovely stranger/friend I met last year has offered her services in ‘ripping it to shreds just to see what part of it will sustain’, a favour I think I’m definitely going to call in. I will need to put my story through some acid tests. Not yet though.

One exercise I did take on earlier was to plot all my characters into a structure. Know those organisation chart/family tree diagrams? I’ve done dozens of those – I always enjoyed charting. I laid out my characters with their linkages and the sub-plots that they belonged to. I even colour-coded to show the main characters, the supporting characters and the furniture (background people who are referred to or just add scenery but aren’t really important on their own). It wasn’t just fun but I realised at the end of it that it actually crystallized my thoughts and sub-plots as well. It is the visual depiction of the skeleton of my story. Maybe I’ll include it in the final novel; I’ve seen some authors include a family tree in the appendix. :-)

That’s the update for this week. See you on the other side of the weekend, with (hopefully) a higher wordcount and more writing lessons!

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Other NovelRace updates:

  1. NovelRace
  2. Adventures Galore!
  3. If You Fall, Get Up & Run Again!
  4. The Lone Runner
  5. My Characters Are For Real!
  6. The View From The Shoulders Of Giants
  7. So Much In A Name!
  8. Taking A Stand
  9. Everything But The Novel
  10. The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Writing Soul
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