the mutt

Another one that got away

Posted in General, Oddities, Writing by grx20 on July 29, 2009

I’d posted earlier about stories and ideas that somehow get away. I read somewhere ‘the faintest ink is better than the strongest memory.’ So I started keeping a note of thoughts and ideas. Sometimes, I’d even have an entire paragraph all worked out, as in the following case.

And sometimes, they get away.

I can’t remember how the rest of this story goes. Or even what it is about. Don’t mean to sound pompous, but damn, I’ve forgotten at a real cliffhanger point. What was the ‘condition?’ What was the only symptom?

There’s probably a name for the condition – some psychologist’s name followed by the word ‘complex’. As if I am a sprawling housing society, the foundations laid in a series of deep-rooted mindf-s.
But since I never asked anyone, I never found out if it had a name. It manifested itself in one telling way. In fact, that is the only symptom of the condition.

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Rushdie Rediscovered

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on April 29, 2009

Over the last few days I’ve been watching interviews with Salman Rushdie on youtube.
And I’m discovering again, he is quite brilliant and also why he’s so highly esteemed.

This one in particular is really good.

I am bowled over by the depth of his ideas, the sheer magic of his imagination and the edgy things he’s doing in his stories.
His latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence is bristling with some amazing ideas. Each of them is good enough for one novel – Rushdie packs them all into one.

I know what my next book is.

The Gut Stuff

Posted in Writing by grx20 on April 14, 2009

kurt_vonnegutNo, no, no! It’s not the English gut … it’s the German, goot, “gut”.
I’ve got some awesome stuff from Kurt Vonnegut – a lot of interesting writing tips and suggestions, all in his unique, succinct way.

I gave Slaughterhouse Five a shot a couple of years back, but I couldn’t finish it. I suspect it’s a cultural thing. The book is set in a different time, in a different place – both of which really have no relevance to where I come from. To be honest, I didn’t much take to his style back then. Still, he has some very useful advice. One may squint at the sun, wear shades and a hat and curse the glare. But one needs the rays.


Appetizer

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Second Course … and third and desert too. [This is really long, but worth your time]

Kurt Vonnegut also wrote a wonderful piece, simply titled: How to write with style? It’s easily available online, should you want a printer-friendly version. Please note that the copyright for this rests with International Paper Co.

How to write with style
By Kurt Vonnegut, © 1982 International Paper Co.

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful–? And on and on.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead–or worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

Find a subject you care about.

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way–although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

Do not ramble, though.

I won’t ramble on about that.

Keep it simple.

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.
_______________________________________________
“Should I act upon the urgings that I feel, or remain passive and thus cease to exist?”
” “To be or not to be?”

_______________________________________________
“To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long.

Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Have the guts to cut.

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like yourself.

The writing style which is most natural to you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand.

All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Say what you mean to say.

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but I am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable–and therefore understood.

And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Pity the readers.

They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school–twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify–whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

For really detailed advice

For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan, 1979). E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or how badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say

(Pic courtesy: al.petfield.com)

Character Bombshell

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on April 9, 2009

Back from a rather hectic, yet fantastic trip to New Delhi and Agra. Spent more time travelling in trains, actually! At some point everybody has recommended a long train journey to someone else. The reasons have always been pretty much the same: disconnect, quiet time to think, see the countryside like you never would – and finally – meet interesting people.

I could list the rather colourful characters I met. People with a history that one would be hard pressed to equal merely by the force of imagination. This post, however, is not about that. This post is about what a person says, suddenly, that completely changes your understanding of her. It sheds new light on everything she has said before, and she will say after. In one second, that character explodes into your heart, never to leave.
mushroom cloud
It’s what I call a character bombshell. When a character says or does something suddenly, drops a nuke that completely transforms your understanding of her.

Old Man. Very old, needs support to make his bed, stand up, open food packets. All of which I gladly provide, not in a condescending way, for I have a grandfather of a similar age and I understand better what’s required of me. I consent, indicating there was never any question of having it any other way, that I would help him get off the train at the right station, and assist with his bag.

He talks about his home, where he worked, his life and so on.

He shares his food with me, insists when I refuse, nods his approval when I relent. Everything’s fine and normal. The usual. The only thing that has made me feel sad for him is that he has lost his wife. He mentions it with dignity, delicately and without maudlin.

The next morning we wait for his station to arrive. I get his bag out and keep it ready. While we wait, he starts talking again. It starts with what he’s already told me – where he worked, his age, his pension etc. And then Bombshell 1: He says, he has two sons. One of them is no more with us, left us when he was just 32. Suddenly, he breaks into a sob, his mouth curls with grief that cannot be gotten over. He tries to recover, and almost does, but another wave washes over him and his hands rush to hide his tear-filled eyes. All of a sudden, it’s no longer small talk. All of a sudden, he’s no longer just another old man in the train who likes to talk.

After a few minutes he recovers. The station is still ten minutes away. We start talking again. He tells me about the revision of his pension  and how his wife asked him not to reconsider his decision to retire although the others in his office suggested he put in a few more years. And then Bombshell 2: My wife has passed away you know – we climbed up to the temple at _________, she fell down the stairs and….

He starts to sob again. His nose is blocked and he draws his breath in gasps. He neither apologises nor attempts to hide the break in the dam he has built to contain emotions. He continues with an inane cliché that only makes my heart sag heavier with sorrow: they say, wife is life, but now … now … what is there to do … I just go on.

The station arrives and I help the old man get off. I wait till his daughter arrives to pick him up. We exchange goodbyes, he thanks me, blesses me – all in a very plain, matter-of-fact way. There was no indication of any bond between us. There was no acknowledgement of the fact that he’d made me privy to a deep and emotional part of his life.

The anecdote is not about my emotions, or his, for that matter. The anecdote is not about what he said, it’s not about the contents. It’s about how he said and when he said it. As a character, the old man and his life are still not exceptional, to be fair. But the two Bombshells he dropped suddenly changed the way I looked at him and his life. I could imagine stronger motivations for some of his beliefs. I could imagine a starker reality he confronted every morning when he awoke. He had flicked on a torch, for just a few seconds, and in that light, I saw him as he saw himself.

The old man dropped the two bombshells suddenly. If it were scripted, I would go as far as to say the author deliberately set me up by talking about inane trivialities prior to the revelation. The old man dropped the bombshell very plainly and without fanfare. Again, if it were scripted, I would say the author eschewed adverbs, adjectives and any need to adorn the statement.

And that’s what made the bombshells what they are. Unexpectedness and starkness.

While I post this anecdote from a writer’s perspective, in doing that I don’t intend to diminish the due respect and gravity it deserves. Character Bombshells (CB) embed characters in your mind like a wedge. A minor character, someone in the background, can storm her way to the main stage with a carefully timed CB. A CB is useful to jolt the reader and force him to reappraise a character. A well planned CB can make a character unforgettable.

If it works in real life, it will work in fiction too.

(If you have come across a Character Bombshell or something similar please do share it with me. Thanks.)

Quicksand beginnings.

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on March 31, 2009

When I was young (ahem, expected aside comes here), I had a sentence stuck in my head. It was the beginning of a story, but I could never take it forward.

dark-cloudsDark clouds threatened the village below.

Finally, after a couple of months, it worked its way into a terrible science fiction, comedy story. It goes like this: The Gods have decided to take away emotions from humans, after witnessing the splendid mess it makes of their lives. (In any case, Earth and emotions was just an experiment of a minor God, so no big deal).  The deed is done, without much fanfare, though the minor God objects passionately. As a result, a favourite writer of the  Gods dishes out terrible stuff, because he can no longer feel and write. In an emergency meeting (during which time the minor God smirks a lot), they decide to reverse the decision.

So where do the dark clouds come in and threaten? When the minor God makes a trip to earth (disguised as a mortal) to meet his favourite writer, before emotions are taken away. The context and setting for the line turned out to be a park, and the protagonist sits on a park bench, engaged in a nail biting, staring contest with an unyielding oak, oblivious to the gathering darkness above his head. And also in the heavens.

Did I say I wrote that when I was young? Make that very young. Truth be told, I still like parts of the story.
It still makes me laugh … a little.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been stuck in another Quicksand Sentence. All my efforts to extract a story, a scene or a character from it have failed.

Every summer they came to the lake.

The working file has many aborted starts and sentences stumped mid way. I keep writing about a man and a woman and an umbrella and a shirt flying through the wind.

Every summer they came to the lake.

One thing is for sure, I’m not making this a science fiction comedy.

Whack#1 “A Moveable Feast”

Posted in General, Whack, Writing by grx20 on January 12, 2009

I’m starting a new section called Whack. It’s a place to share a piece of writing that has struck me as remarkable, for all the right reasons. I may not like the book or story in toto or enjoy the author’s style, but some parts might act like a whack from a wet fish between the eyes. Here’s the first one.

I came across this excerpt from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
Since we are talking about Hemingway, I’ll keep this brief and let the excerpt speak for itself.

This just plunged an ice sliver into my brain – this passage, it’s starkness and beauty has been haunting me the whole day.

(I got this from http://www.wherepilgrimsdisappear.wordpress.com – a lot more goodies there.)

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason. In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.

Facta non verba

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on January 9, 2009

Deeds not words.

That’s my resolution for the year.

Nothing very new, fancy or very different. In fact, one doesn’t need a new year to do this. Yet, there’s something about the turn of December into January that ushers hope and new conviction.

The aim is to get the first draft done by the first half of the year. And yes, I do have an idea that I am very excited about. And that helps a lot. I referred to this in passing in my earlier post. I am also quite excited about the structure of the story and it weaves concepts and themes that have fascinated me for many years now – memories, choices not made, forgiveness, hope, innocence and love.

There are four characters, as of now, and I don’t know yet who will be the key around whom the story revolves. I don’t know who will tell the story.

I have been brooding over parts of the story. Some of the incidents, dialogues, events … these are beginning to take shape in my mind and the process is scaring the s*** out of me. I’m assembling pieces, thinking I’m going to get a certain picture, but I don’t know if the picture will indeed turn out that way. It’s scary to hold these pieces in my mind, weighed down as they are by their fragility, because they are not yet connected and have nothing to sustain them.

It feels good to just let them be in my mind. But this is the year of deeds not words.

Well words, as long as they are being written. Every day.

This process of composting, letting the fragments swim around in their own confusion and nebulosity is simply brilliant.

First draft by the first half of the year. But I’ll be honest – I am being too generous. I should actually nail it in three months. Otherwise, and it’s happened before to me, the characters start becoming boring, I start doubting the plot and idea, and worse, second guess.

Here’s to facta, non verba.

On Composting

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on December 31, 2008

composting

I’m delighted to end the year with composting.

Composting is what I’ve been doing for the last ten days, and it is simply delightful to say the least.

Yes, yes … you saw it coming a mile away – that composting has nothing to with any agricultural venture that I’m undertaking, and I will soon reveal its true meaning.

True meaning: composting is the process of mulling over story in one’s mind. It’s the process of turning it over, looking at it in different angles, pondering over it … cooking, stewing … composting.

Preparing the soil for the idea to grow. No wonder they say, a seed of an idea.

For over a month, I’ve been struggling with issues of voice, style and simply put, ‘what the hell to write about!’

Then, one evening, I got a germ of an idea in an introduction to Anna Karenina. And that germ has been well, germinating. I’ve planted it in my head and I keep watering it and the results are finally beginning to show.

A few conversations have already formed in my mind, a few ‘encounters’ scenes, if you like, are beginning to take shape and characters are beginning to acquire a personality.

I haven’t written a single word. I think I know how I want to begin the story, or at least at which point, but nothing has been transferred to paper yet. And for the first time, I’m finding it a very liberating and enjoyable process.

Composting is something all writers do. You toss it around, turn it around, mess with it, ask ‘what if’ questions, consider point of view issues, tone, and whole array of plots. And just because you haven’t clocked in a 1000 words a day, doesn’t mean you haven’t been working or that your story isn’t making progress.

I’ve heard of writers who have been toying around with an idea for years, some even decades, before finally getting down to writing it. One example that comes to mind rather quickly, (because I read about it recently) is Navtej Sarna’s new book – The Exile. In an interview he says, the subject has been around in his head for almost a decade.

The other thing with composting is timing. It doesn’t make sense to write it until the story is ready to be written and until you are ready to write it. The most awesome idea may require one to mature in years, experience and skill before finding scripting.

I’ve got some ideas I know I am not ready to write yet. I’ve already written some stories I should have written a few years from now. Composting is a critical critical part of writing. Not that I eschew spontaneous creativity or writing on the go, sometimes it is essential to pickle it.

Perhaps you too have been composting a thought – here’s to seeing it come alive.

Can Rakesh fire a Walther PPK?

Posted in indian writing in english by grx20 on December 10, 2008

It’s something that has been bothering me a lot.

I’ve spent countless hours brooding over it, ranted to my friends, wife and troubled myself with it no end.

The problem, in one word, is authenticity. As a reader of Indian writing in English I do not find Rakesh wielding a PPK or Inspector Siva whipping out a SR 75 believable. But in the hands of say, Baldaccci’s Web London, the SR 75 fits like a glove. Rakesh is a far cry from Jack Bauer and somehow I cannot see him do the things Agent Bauer would.

Why is it hard for us believe it? Is it because we have grown up (or old, as you please), watching Die Hard and reading Clancy, and therefore that sounds perfectly normal to us?

By that same token, we cannot deal with little Harish disappearing suddenly on Platform 3 at Madras Central Station and magically appear on the other side – in a world of wizards. And of course it is out of the question for a girl from Kolkata to fall in love with her classmate – who incidentally is a vampire from Trichur. As for Guhan being the sole survivor in a haunted space station, forget it.

These things that I mention, it’s not in our culture, one of my friends told me. (Right! It is all there in Western culture!) That’s an answer that throws up more questions in the process of answering one.

I could go on and on about this, but I neither want to abuse my freedom of speech nor your patience with it. I just wanted to throw this question up and invite thoughts from my readers.

Where’s my New Yorker?

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on December 4, 2008

In 1993, before I was old enough to sink my teeth into it, The Illustrated Weekly was gone. I’ve heard its readers reminisce about it with the fondness and nostalgia reserved for say, a Pataudi. It was an intellectual magazine, I’m told. Apparently, it also had pictures of semi-nude women. The contrast is amusing and not necessarily dichotomous.

But I’ve never read The Weekly.  
But I’ve read The New Yorker.

Now, that is a fascinating magazine. I miss an Indian equivalent of TNY. The Mumbaiker or The Kolkattan doesn’t quite have the same ring, but that is a secondary issue. The primary issue is that there are very few (if any) magazines that can pass of as intellectual. And fewer still equip you with an opinion that is not pedestrian. The Frontline, of course, stands out for its sheer depth. The writing can be staid (it is after all from the stable of The Hindu) and that, in a strange way, actually lends the magazine a certain authority. Like the staff at Abercrombie & Fitch whose demeanour invests them with a sense of having the last word and can make even a seasoned suit-shopper nervous.  

For all its virtues, Frontline is a heavy read from cover to cover. The topics are diverse and deep, the books they review are not the usual bestsellers or newsmakers, and even the ‘lighter’ pieces are carefully chosen to leave you with more than a chuckle. True, the layout of the magazine is not a visual treat, but apart from its centrespread (which carries some fantastic pictures), The Frontline doesn’t have any pretensions of being a designer’s delight.

Yet, it is not a magazine I would subscribe to or pick up every month. It still doesn’t have the flair, variety or the charm of The New Yorker. It’s not a magazine that I would like to take with me wherever I go. It is informative, not entertaining.

I love magazines and the concept of a magazine. Every time I pass a magazine stall I spend a long time simply looking at the different titles, looking for new ones, and hopefully one that will give me what I’m looking for. And I always leave empty handed and disappointed.

I want some smart writing about politics and social issues – not a current affairs magazine.

I want a section for the arts that doesn’t talk down to me or leave me in a labyrinth of references ir dish out a review of the latest chick-litt sensation. Why, I would even like some work of fiction thrown in. But most of all, I want writing that is witty, doesn’t talk down to me (or up, for that matter), is challenging and most of all would make me wish I could write like that.

Speaking of, the vitality and energy of the writing in GQ (the international version) is amazing and some of the pieces actually inspire in me an urge to imitate. Case in point, read this.

To be fair, there are magazines in India that have some very good writing. And that’s exactly the problem. All the well-written those pieces are not in one magazine. One can’t really subscribe to over a dozen magazines to whet one’s appetite for a good read, right?

One magazine, there’s got to be one magazine that rounds up the political scene with incisive analysis, flaunts sharp writing, covers diverse topics and has the New Yorker’s ‘carry-value’.