the mutt

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.

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.

Desiderata

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on December 1, 2008

In the light of recent events, my mind wanders back to something I used to read when I was a school kid.

Desiderata. (It’s confused and oft misquoted history can be found here at wikipedia.)

My brother had a copy of it, printed on an ageing A4 sheet, stuck to a wall in his room. And when he wasn’t around, I would go and read it. I find it a calming and gentle read that reminds me of the quiet strength in words well-strung together. In fact, there is no other piece of writing that I recall more often.

DESIDERATA

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Tagged with: , , ,

BIC HOK TAM

Posted in Writing by grx20 on November 19, 2008

Been a while, hasn’t it?

BIC HOK TAM sounds like a Thai dish that one would look at suspiciously.
“It doesn’t have peacock ears, right?”
“No, ma’am, it not have the peacock ear.”

If you head over to this interesting site called book in a week, you will find their philosophy is captured in BIC HOK TAM.

BIC – Butt in chair
HOK – Hands on keyboard
TAM – Typing away madly.

snoopy typing

As they say, ‘this is the best way we know of to get any writing done.’ And I agree. I especially like TAM – Typing away madly. It brings to mind visions of a writer at his desk pounding away at his keyboard, a manic look burning through the paper (or screen), hands thrashing around and hair flailing, when the promise of dawn is still far away. I like TAM – it sounds good, inspiring almost. Type away madly – Swing Away (as in The Signs) … type madly, with abandon. Madly … like a brute, getting fingers wedged between the keys. The glazed, scary glint in the eyes is essential.

Get your story down on paper. Edit later. Make mistakes … hell, you will make mistakes. Don’t worry about it. No one’s going to see it. Not everything you write has to be published. Send your internal editor on a holiday under the Tuscan sky. If it sounds awful and terrible to read, that’s fine. You CANNOT get it dot-right on the first go. Books aren’t dropped at your doorstep by the Book Stork. It takes a lot … a lot of work. So focus on getting the entire story on paper, no matter how hard it seems.

It has worked for a lot of people – as their website will testify. And I agree with the fact that unless you get your BIC and HOK and TAM, you really will not get anywhere.

On a related note, I must mention that November is National Novel Writing Month. Or NaNoMo, (NaNoWriMo, in some cases). Of course – that’s in the United States, not here, in India. But it is an interesting concept. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Write hot is the mantra. The idea is to get that difficult first draft done, without editing, without correcting, worrying, or bothering about how good it is. Like the site rightly says, most people don’t even get to writing the first draft. Don’t worry about the plot, character development, flow, and other related demons. That’s for later, when you edit. You might not even write in sequence. Maybe just random scenes each day. Start with the middle, shift to the end, maybe a few parts of the beginning later … whatever. Get 50,000 words done in a month. 50,000 isn’t quite novel length. It is about 30 to 40 thousand words short. But it’s a start. And getting 50,000 words under your belt is not a mean task. Check out the website, for more details.

I would like to invite you to read (or re-read) my post called, The Price Of Your Dreams. What if the price of all your dreams is writing 10 pages a day? Assuming 250 odd words a page, that is 2500 words a day. At the end of week one (a seven day week, Herr Escapist), is a cool 17,500 words. In a month, you should have knocked off a jaw-dropping 70,000 words. That, monsieur, is a novel. And to nicely tie things up, the key to getting this done is BIC HOK TAM.

See the pages stacking up.

Type away madly.

MADLY!

Draftus Interruptus

Posted in General, Oddities, Writing by grx20 on November 6, 2008

The first draft is a pain. And I’m not talking about the approaching winter.

A small ramble about a part of writing that’s been very difficult the past month.crump

I wrote two short stories the past week. The first draft for the first one was written in very short bursts. I didn’t have quiet or uninterrupted time. I’m surprised I actually managed to get it down at all. Two lines. Interruption. Five lines. Interruption. One paragraph. Interruption. And so on.

Later, I typed it out on the comp, edited, rewrote as I went along and sent it off to a couple of friends for their thoughts. The story actually turned out quite well and I got good feedback too. When I was writing the first draft, a couple of thoughts kept running at the back of my mind – this isn’t working out fine, too many interruptions, just stop writing. It was terribly hard getting it down. Terribly hard. But the story came out all right.

The second story. The first draft wasn’t difficult. It was plain boring. To be sure, I like the idea of the story a lot and think it makes for a really good story. But as I was writing it, the only thought on my mind was to be done with it as soon as possible. I just didn’t want to look at my notebook anymore. I liked the story, most parts of what I wrote and the end. But I was bored out of my socks, writing it. The rewritten and edited version is working well. I like it.

But I’m trying to figure out, why is the first draft becoming so difficult? It was supposed to be fun. Exciting, even, as the story unfolds. I’ve had times when the story changes tracks completely, because that was the right way to go – the track I had intended was all wrong. Other times the end has just fallen into place when I was still halfway through.

Some first drafts are easy. Some aren’t. And as I’ve found, I can’t judge a story by that.

P.S. (This post was a first draft).

Tagged with: , , ,

Write now – a simple system to get started

Posted in Writing by grx20 on October 10, 2008

It started as a one-off exercise, but has evolved into a habit. A writing routine, that’s worked well for me – it keeps me motivated, improves my observation skills and my writing significantly. Maybe it will work for you as well. It is an exercise in writing, as much as it is an exercise in communication.

It comes from the fact that life happens as much during the big, momentous occasions as it does during the seconds that tick away with predictable monotony. And when I come across one such moment, I tuck it away in my mind (and later in a notebook).

Later, I recollect one such moment – usually it is a snapshot of a person, an expression, a conversation even. And I write about it. Some of these have the potential to be character profiles, some have the germ of a story in them, some have only enough for a single cliff-hanger moment. But they all have an element of human drama.

I challenge myself to capture it as best as I can. To be able to bring alive all that I felt and convey to the reader the scene as vividly as I saw and experienced it. The exercise forces me to find the right words, to look up the thesaurus, to be succinct.

The payoff? Hopefully, as I keep at it, as I practice, the quality of my writing will improve. And hopefully, writing about life and describing it will be just a little less daunting and intimidating.

The idea is to write for the sake of writing. Not to meet a word/page deadline, but just to write for experiencing the joy of writing. 

Lately, I’ve found that it works splendidly like a warm up. And something to write on the days I have nothing to write.

Example: Walking around in my apartment complex – I see a small girl walking away, slowly, dejected, with a badminton racquet hanging limply from her hands. She has no one to play with and the sadness is tangible.

Another one. One night, the train I was in was pulling out the station. In the distance, I see two cane chairs – easy chairs – suspended from the ceiling in a balcony. Lit by a dim fluorescent bulb, they stand out in the darkness – and in the light breeze come together, part, come together, part.

I ask myself, how can I best describe these moments with words?

If you have a similar system or something different, do write in.

Let’s make a note to remember

Posted in Oddities, Writing by grx20 on September 26, 2008

(Yes, yes, I am punning on the Bryan Adams song).

This is an invitation to everyone to do just one thing. To simply write well.
Whether it is a reminder note or a thank you note, write it well. Choose words with thought and care.

English has some beautiful words that can convey, and very well, too, exactly what you feel and think. When a particular word doesn’t come to mind at once, spend a couple of seconds trying to find it. If you still can’t find that word, think of a simile, create a new metaphor, coin a new expression. And later, go back to the thesaurus and find that elusive word.

We all have our comfort zone of phrases and constructions we can serve up pronto. But let’s resolve not to be lazy.

If a particular construction is tricky, don’t avoid it, learn it.
If spelling spells trouble, learn.
It’s nice to use big words once in a while.
Use puns. (One can always get away with it by adding ‘phew!’ in brackets.)

It’s nice to read something written well, with wit, and with care. It is a discipline you take on, more for improving yourself and your writing than to create immortal pieces of literature while dashing out the front door.

Here’s to a reputation of being ‘note’orious. (Phew!)

Tagged with: , , ,

On Closure

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on September 24, 2008

There are many half-started stories in my computer. Some are more than six years old. It’s not that I never found time or desire to complete them. It’s not even that I’ve lost the thread. The fact is, I’ve changed, and I can’t write the same story twice. I don’t feel the same emotion as I did when I started the story.

Sometimes I persevere. When I read the new pages, however, I wish I hadn’t. It doesn’t sound right. And I know I’m being dishonest, desperately trying to get back to a state of mind I know I can not.

The problem is, the half-finished stuff, is good stuff. It’s got some really powerful bits, some well-written parts, the potential for a lot of interesting things to happen. And it’s just sitting there.

I tried taking the good parts and weaving it into a new story. But one can’t really stitch a new garment with old cloth patches.

So where does the folder of forsaken stories leave me?

With a resolution.
No more half starts. If I’m starting it, I’m ending it.
If I don’t complete it. Then I delete it.

And if it hurts, that’s the price I pay for not completing it.

Tagged with: , ,