To stop and smell the flowers

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Yesterday was a gloriously sunny day, albeit a freezing 5 degrees. After a cancelled appointment at the Temple Inn, I decided to enjoy the day in one of the best parks of London – Hyde Park.

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There is really something about the parks of London. Green and autumn colors, interspersed with robust humanity. You see these joggers running, huffing and puffing, alone or in a group, you see nannies and moms pushing the pram around and there are those who simply sit in the chairs before the lake and speak softly with their significant others.

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People like me – a tourist/park lover who feels the need to spend as much time as she can at the park before she goes back home! – are decidedly in the minority. I definitely did not see any tourists or backpackers taking the stroll in the park. IMO though, a park visit is as good as doing a bus tour around the city or a day spent inside a museum. The tranquility and views you get here are worth taking the time.

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The squirrels you see in the above picture? They are so tame they will leave you filled with delight. This one in the pic actually climbed up my leg! Before i could snap a pic, though, it scrammed. Still, the whole incident gave me an idea for Day 23 of PiBoIdMo. The seed for a squirrel story was sown in my mind, right then (I know that’s a lot of S!)

Like any park in London, Hyde Park is huge and it is best enjoyed in mild weather, but I surprisingly did not suffer too much in the freezing weather. Layers always help. There are a few cafes and snack stands peppered through out the park at strategic locations, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop or take a break. The friendly squirrels and birds only made the experience better.

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I’d love whipping out my notebook and write while dreamily gazing at the herons on the lake, but in the freezing weather, that would have looked silly. So I contented myself by walking briskly, shooting park scenes, and accosting an innocent bystander to take a picture of me. The brilliant sunlight beckoned me to keep walking, and the end of an hour, I felt inspired enough to catch the 19 to Finsbury Park and hawk at the cityscape from the double deck!

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If you are here sometime, either on business or leisure, take a couple of hours to check out Hyde Park – any park, really. This link will give you a nice intro to the parks of London, and I hope the pictures in this post would persuade you to visit them all 🙂

Reading at Pegasus

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In my previous post, I had written about Pegasus, a poetry group at Islington, London.

Pegasus consists of more or less 10 long term members and several drop ins through out the year. The oldest member is 90 years old but looked 30 years younger. As with any community project, the group consisted of a medley of interesting minds who were dedicated to the art and craft of poetry. Moderated by Tessa Dummett, the group has been meeting every Monday since 2005.

Pegasus poetry group

Pegasus poetry group

On Nov 18, I was present at Pegasus as a guest speaker and the first poem we read was Anita Nair’s IT HAPPENED ON THE DISTRICT LINE. As soon as Tim Leach in his mesmeric voice finished reading it, there were enthusiastic twitters and the poets gaily started the discussion. Being a “London” poem, it was easy enough for everyone present to enjoy it. Most of them intuitively identified with “Mr. Patel”, who travels back home on the tube after an ordinary work day.

The next poem was a different surprise. On reading Meena Kandawamy’s EATING DIRT, I immediately recognised it as a unique twist on the popular scene from Mahabaratha (where Krishna eats muds and when prompted, opens his mouth and his adoptive mother Yeshoda sees the entire universe in her son’s mouth). However, I did not enlighten them as I wanted to know what these poets, with little knowledge of Indian epics, would think of this poem.

After Tim read EATING DIRT, there was silence while the group processed the poem. Then, viewpoints started pouring in. For one, it was the lament of an impoverished mother who, unable to see him starve, feeds him dirt. Another poet glimpsed shades of the current political situation in the world, with the words “sand, sand everywhere”. Yet another person identified a unique theme in the poem, that of caste and colour, with the imagery presented.

Only after enjoying all these perspectives did I reveal the poem’s roots, which was met with pleased exclamations. One poems, multiple meanings. We then moved on to a light discussion on Indian culture, and finished the meet up with a discussion on the planned anthologies. I am not a poet per se, just an ardent lover of poetry and I was glad to be there that day, being a part of Pegasus’ evening of Indian poetry!

In London

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Last weekend, I arrived at one of my favorite cities on earth.

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London is like second home to me. It was here that I attended my first creative writing class (live one), made the decision to focus on writing for children and met a very important person in my life – Tessa Dummet.

Tessa is a poet and poetry teacher based in Islington. We met during my au pair years in London and became friends – IMO every writer needs to have a poet friend to keep things in perspective! We have collaborated on a few projects, the most notable one being the poetry workshop we facilitated at British Council Library, Chennai.

Tessa is actively involved in teaching poetry at community projects in Islington, and we are currently discussing a possible collaboration to publish an anthology of her poetry group’s (named Pegasus) works over the years, along with creating an online presence for them and she had kindly sponsored me to come to UK and meet the group.

So yesterday, I went to Hill drop Community Center, where I made a short presentation on Julia Cameron’s morning pages. The meet up with Pegasus poetry group was memorable, two hours spent talking and discussing about poetry and creativity. The experience reminded me of what I loved about literary London. The city has great, low cost or free projects for those interested in creative writing and those interested never missed the opportunity to be a part of them. Their dedication will stun you.

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Running a community project is a two way process. I have often been motivated to start one in my hometown but have lost focus because I could not work with a single component. Both the organizer and the participant need to be sincere and passionate in what they want to offer each other. Something I wish more writers/readers understood (which is a gripe that belongs to a different post – stay tuned).

After I introduced myself and talked a bit about my favorite creative writing exercise, Julia Cameron’s Morning pages, we read two Indian poems – Meena Kandaswamy’s EATING DIRT (from Ms. Militancy) and Anita Nair’s IT HAPPENED ON THE DISTRICT LINE (from Malabar Mind). I will write about how the readers perceived both poems in my next post.

Why I love outlines

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This CBC 12×12 is not so much for dedicated writers as it is for disorganised, overwhelmed writers like me.

Some use the BOC method and write away. The just sit for an hour or two every day, and keep writing. They write hundreds of thousands of words, and then later start chipping them away.

Some, like me, cannot do that because they are not clear/adventurous/disciplined enough. Or they are not that kind of epic writers, and they cannot imagine writing so. Many. Words and then deleting them all in the name of editing.

Some, like me, need to have a framework to start building a story.

I spent a lot of time – eight years to be exact – trying to write a novel. It didn’t happen. I am a visual writer. I started my career writing picture books/comic books and they remain my first love. I do write short stories, but nothing over 2000 words. I have too many ideas floating around, the thought of faithfully sticking to one idea/novel for months, years, gives me the shivers (rhyme unintended).

So. This is where an outline helps me. When I get an idea for a story, it usually is a WHAT IF question.  I know what the tale is going to be about (So and so is going to aim for such and such, and will they succeed?). Often the ending comes to me first, but not always. But I have no idea what comes in the pages between the first and the last chapter – yep, I have absolutely no idea what happens of all that when I start page 1.

Normally that sends any budding writer screaming to the hills. That is why for a long time I had a folder full of novel ideas and little else. But ever since I started to outline, thanks to a plotting class I took last summer at SavvyAuthors, I found out a way to keep writing and finish that book.

When I outline, I inadvertently flesh out the story. When I separate the plot line into chapter headings, I end up having a workable Table of Contents. And that means I can concretely see the end. I can reassure myself – see, Radhika, there are only 12 chapters. Even if you write 500 words a day, you can birth this baby in a month (there will always be those 5 days where we won’t write anything – may be a special occasion or a family emergency. For me, it usually is PMS, grrrr.) Only that promise of “light at the end of the tunnel” gives me the impetus to be disciplined and committed.

That’s why I love outlines. And that’s how I finished my draft in a month.

Genesis of a plot

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(OR) How real life breeds chapter book ideas! 

In a previous post, I had written about how I started doodling an outline for a 6000-word story, while recuperating from Hepatitis.

Once my cat Moko came home after a week, with dark ring marks around his neck, as if he had been roped. My mom and I immediately knew that he had been caught by a minority group of people who hunt and eat small animals (yes, they really exist in this century, in my metropolitan city – they are called Sparrow Hunters in my language).

TMI in this paragraph – It is VERY difficult for a cat to escape from the sparrow hunters because they usually extremely tricky and cruel means to trap a cat, like an iron lasso. Once they trap the cat, they immediately skin it and cook it (sorry for the gruesome details) and yes I learned this all by talking to an ex-sparrow hunter L. But somehow, my Moko the super cat had escaped!

Sadly Moko died of kidney failure in 2010, when I was studying in London and I didn’t even get to say goodbye :(. After that I was not very motivated to have a pet (and no pets were allowed in my apartment – which sparked a chapter book idea, that I have assigned for July 2014!). I did become a monthly “cat socialiser” at Blue Cross, the animal shelter that is near my parents’ place in Velachery (the Ark in HBD was inspired by Blue Cross).

I was also “friends” with an orange cat that was always hanging around in my apartment complex. Yes, it was a street cat but a nice one and I liked giving it food now and then, and laughing at its antics – rolling in the grass, playing mouse with  bark. Imagine my horror one day when I heard the watchman bragging about how he ambushed that “stupid cat” and dumped it somewhere, far away that it can never come back – now it won’t be bothering everyone with its mews and howls.

I was aching to punch his face but what could I have done? The cat was not even a pet and the watchman would have just lied through his teeth and said he didn’t do it (or worse, that a tenant had asked him to). Not many care about truant cats in my part of the world. Somehow this incident – along with all the fun I had raising Moko for ten years – had triggered a reaction and I arrived at a plot – what if a cat, a sheltered temple cat, is forced to travel alone in the city to find his family?

Here is Plot 101 – If you “suppose” something happening to Person X to make him realise he needs to achieve/avoid something/someone to be happy, and designate some people/thing to help him and some other people/thing to hinder him, it usually results in a WHAT IF situation and you can, if you love writing fiction, always wring a plot from it.

But a plot alone does not constitute a story. There has to be characters, sequence, action and resolution. All these can be glimpsed through the (pantsters, look away!) outlining process, covered in the next post.

How I wrote a chapter book in a month

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In a previous post, I had written about completing a chapter book while recuperating from Hepatitis.

I was sickly from the end of August 2013, yet was diagnosed correctly only on Sept 14. So for three weeks the disease raged in me, while I thought it was a viral flu, the doctors thought it was malaria, then typhoid and only then discovering my yellow-shot eyes and finding out that I had jaundice.

By then the worst was over – the fits, delirium, fevers and chills – and I was left with a weak, lethargic body and an alert, bored mind. Thank goodness! Now I have the perfect situation – I NEED to be in bed rest and not do anything physically straining, but I can WRITE!!! I probably will never get a “writing holiday” like this, so, I decided to see if I can write a 6000 word story.

Why 6000? Because I had read about the South Asian Book Award at Cynsations blog, and only chapter books or novels over 6000 words were eligible. I had been planning to submit my epic fantasy that I had been writing for the past few years (did I mention I was a lazy writer?), but the illness had totally stopped that – no way could I write that climax and make it submission-ready now, not when my fingers refused to co-operate for more than an hour.

But I badly, BADLY wanted to apply. The deadline was Oct 31 (it wasn’t, but we will come to that later) and I decided to doodle my ideas on a possible chapter book plot. Come on! When I was working as a content manager, I had written 6000 words A DAY – that was nonfiction, yes, but still it counts, right? – surely I could write a 6000 word story in THREE weeks! As long as I could splurge on overnight delivery to Singapore, I had plenty of time (or so I thought).

In my world, outlining takes place in the forms of arrows, bubbles, awful renderings of human heads and a lot of flower pots. So it was therapeutic as well, this whole doodling nonsense / outlining my next chapter book fusion thing. In a couple of days I found that I had written a lot of disjointed notes about my deceased cat Moko and one particular memory about him became the seed of the outline and branched out into a plot.

For pansters, this may seem like a terrible idea… which is why I don’t call this part of the process as Outlining. I call it Plot Doodling.

For plotters, plot doodling will directly ease you into outlining. Outlining gives a workable TOC, and if you follow it (with the flexibility to go off-course if your muse decides to), you can finish a draft in a month.

That’s how I finished HOME BEFORE DARK, a 11000 word contemporary fantasy.

Why a chapter book?

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I have short attention span and I hate long projects. I have always abandoned Nanowrimos and even thinking about writing a novel makes me tired. I quit before I start.

But a chapter book is another story. Pun intended.

Because it is a project of perfect length. It is not a short story. It is not a mammoth epic. Typical chapter books are about 5000-12000 words long. The books in the lower word count spectrum tend to be early readers and transition books, and sometimes those in the higher end tend to be early MG.

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Why am I so enthusiastic about this? Because I wrote a chapter book in less than a month. And believe me, I am the laziest writer in the world (or I was). If I can do it… anyone can!

I wrote the first draft while I was recuperating from hepatitis, during the first week of October 2013. Just when I was mid-way into the story, my grandfather died under sad circumstances and left me highly depressed and busy in funeral arrangements (which in India is a week-long affair). I wrote a thousand words a day, and then nothing for the next few days. And so it went, in fits and bursts.

So what should have theoretically taken me 2 weeks to write (if I had written every day), took me a month.

But still, that’s one book a month. If I kept at it religiously, I could write 12 books a year. That’s a number I can live with- since it took me the last 8 years to finish 12 books!

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Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net / Master isolated images