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.

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.

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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).

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Putting my typewriter where my mouth is

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on October 13, 2008

Just to clarify : )

A good friend of mine, and a regular visitor and commentor here asked me if I only write about writing, or if I actually write any original fiction.

Yes! I do write original fiction. It’s just that I don’t post them here. The net is not a safe place for young stories to be roaming around. More than someone flicking it, I have aspirations of seeing these babies in printed form sitting on many bookshelves.

So, apart from pointing out interesting links and sharing thoughts about writing, the mutt writes, too. In fact, I wrote my first story when I was in 8th grade. I don’t remember what the story was, nor do I have a copy of it, unfortunately. But I sent it to a children’s magazine, and in a few weeks got my first rejection letter. I don’t have that either : )

The editor said they published only original fiction, so if I may please send in something I had written myself, that’d be nice. I was thrilled! I was delighted! They thought my original story couldn’t have been written by an eight-grader, and must have been copied. Damn! I could be a writer after all.

Thankfully, I didn’t stop writing. When I got my second-hand portable typewriter, a few years later, I really churned it out. When I read those stories now, and see the number of stories I produced, I am stunned. How did I get so many ideas, and how did I muster the discipline to type with so much dedication. If I had a quarter of that, now!

As years went by, this waned. There would some months and years of great prolificity and some at the other end of the spectrum. There have been spurts when I’ve quickly written about thirty odd pages of a novel and then come to a dead stop. Sometimes, one short story a year is all I could manage.

Recently, it’s come down to a trickle. The last few years, especially have been terrible. Every December, I would look back at the year gone by and feel depressed about the lost opportunity.

But this year has been good. I’ve got the motivation back. I’ve found a sense of direction. And I’ve written a couple of stories, one of which many of my friends and readers believe to be my best effort to date.

So … The Mutt, writes too. Original stuff. Even if it seems, there’s no way I could have thought of it : )

Cheers!

The Hidden Writer

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on October 8, 2008

A friend of mine has started blogging recently. And since she commented on a post here at The Mutt, I clicked across to her blog. I mean, it’s the polite thing to do, right?

I read her posts and – to borrow a phrase from some famous writer whose name I can’t recollect – I felt like I’d been smacked between the eyes with a wet fish.

I never knew she could write so well. It was witty, interesting and had substance as well. I’d worked with her for two and a half years and not once did I get the impression she was a good writer. Suddenly, one fine day, the hidden writer decided to step out of the wallpaper. Perhaps one needs to reach critical mass, a breaking point that will forcibly evict the Hidden Writer from the shadows.

There are some I just hope reach that point real quick. Terrific writers, who for some reason or the other do not pick up the pen or sit at the keyboard. 

But now, a toast to the Hidden Writer.

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Quote from the blue

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on September 29, 2008

“If you aren’t pursuing your dreams, you are pursuing someone else’s dreams.”

I’d read this quote somewhere, a while back. Despite googling a lot, I was unable to find out who said it.
It suddenly came to mind this morning.
A reminder, a nudge to get my act together and write more?

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.

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Careful, now. That’s a typewriter.

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on August 25, 2008

There’s something magical and maniacal about the typewriter! The cracking finality of the keys is not for the fainthearted. (The picture here is a FACIT typewriter – the one I have).

For me, coming to the typewriter is more intimidating than approaching a blank sheet of paper.
On paper, I can rewrite as many times as I desire. Scratch out, insert words, strike out, make corrections.
But the typewriter is demanding. It isn’t easy to make corrections, additions and subtractions. It has to be done on another draft altogether. So the words have to be right, the sentences begun correctly, the thought – perfect.

Does that improve one’s writing? Does it force the mind to compose with greater precision and clarity?

My personal experience with the typewriter has been unnerving. I go to it with fear and trepidation. Some sentences, I type rapidly, hitting the keys hard, making a lot of noise. And sometimes, softly, almost apologetically. And sometimes there’s a long silence, and a desperate pressure mounts. When I leave, it is with relief for sure, but relief mixed with a sense of not having quite nailed it. It is often a harrowing experience, something I want to be done with as quickly as possible. Take out the sheet of paper, wonder how I managed to fill a page, and then quickly shut the cover.

But I keep going back to it. Probably because it is an unforgiving slave-driver. It draws me with a promise of making me feel like a writer. Sitting at a desk, fingers flitting busily, sheets of paper stacked. It draws me the promise that if I persist, I will be able to transfer my thoughts to the paper lucidly, precisely and creatively.

Writing on paper, I find, is far more relaxing, easy and forgiving.

Using the keyboard, is fast and quick, certainly, but rarely works for me. I rarely get beyond Age of Empires or Caesar III and make it to Word!

P.S. I wrote this on Word. It took me at least an hour to get everything right, or what I think is.

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