Top 5 writing lessons from 2013

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I wrote my first children’s story in 2004. By 2006, I had published around 12 picture books, with 20 more under production. For a brief moment, it looked like I had arrived.

Then I spent the next 8 years trying to write a children’s novel. 

Yes, really, I took that long. Criminal, isn’t it? And it’s not even some epic magnum opus, just a 12000 word chapter book! Somebody, pass me the whip.

Well, I won’t say I accomplished nothing at all in those years – there were lots of happy events like working as a the online editor of the oldest children’s magazine in India, au pairing and studying creative writing in London, and getting married to a great guy who likes my writing 🙂 – but I will be the first to accept that it is rather a horribly long time for a 12000 word chapter book to get written.

Naypong

Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net / Naypong

So, eight long years after the idea was hatched, I completed the novel in 2013 – that’s why 2013 will always be special in my heart – but the actual writing part took only a month.

Needless to say, I learnt a lot of painful lessons this year.

LESSON 1: Writing is exactly like a muscle
Exercise it everyday. Preferably at the same time, in the same place (weird, but works for me). Otherwise your talent gets flabby. And useless, and sad. Like how mine was, for eight long years. When I started writing again after such a long gap, it was like pulling tooth from a rabid beast. Trust me, you don’t want to do it this way. Treat writing like a ritual, like a daily pooja. Because, it is one – a sacred ritual that unearths stories from your soul. But, really, just write every single day.

LESSON 2: Writing > Brushing your teeth.
A discreet (and fictional) survey that I conducted revealed that having 2 jobs, 3 kids or even a deadly disease never stopped anyone from brushing their teeth. At least I think so. So I decided to put writing above dental hygiene – I wrote 4 pages a day as soon as I woke up, and my stinking gums had to wait till then (not that they ever complained). And I wrote a book in a month.

Write more, and you will publish more. Write less, and you will achieve less. Simple math!

LESSON 3: Writers heart communities 
Man is a social animal. A writer is no exception. Creative artists cannot run on auto forever; they need at least semi-frequent injections of inspiration and cheer from like-minded souls. Listening to working writers talk (as opposed to self-flagellating inner muse talk) does wonders in getting those words on to the paper, without pressing delete continuously. Next time you feel lost in your writing path, check out online writing forums like Absolute Write or SCBWI Blueboards, read the inspiring posts, find a writing buddy or two, and I promise you, you will see light. 

LESSON 4: Don’t hesitate to get help
I started a novel in 2006. I got stuck in Chapter 2. I waited till May 2013 to get help, a.k.a, enroll in a plotting class. Five months later, I finished the novel. Moral of the story – No matter what your writing ability level is, you can always benefit from taking a class. Writers do not write by rote, or some divine power they’re born with. They write and create literature by constant practice, and more often than not, some kind of education that teaches them to better their craft. Read how-to articles and books, enroll in a writing workshop, do everything that will make you the best writer you can be.

LESSON 5: Goals + deadlines = Complete Manuscript
After years and years of “trying” to write fiction (translated as having a lot of 2-page ideas lying around and quitting when I get stuck), I completed a chapter book in Oct 2013, thanks to a challenge thread called Finish a draft in October, at the ever-helpful SCBWI Blueboards. Without that deadline-based challenge, it’s doubtful whether I could have done it at all.

Everyone needs goals, everyone needs deadlines. Without them, we will all be happily living in a rut – at least I would be. I have pledged to myself that I will write the first draft of a new chapter book every month. Am I going to succeed? I don’t know, but I’m going to try my very best. As Nora Roberts said, you can edit a bad page, but you can never edit a blank page. Even if I fail in CBC 12×12, I will have 12 incomplete manuscripts that I can edit in 2015.

What will you have?

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Children’s writers’ meet, Chennai: Jan 18, 5pm

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Let’s meet up and talk about the art, craft and business of children’s writing, over a cup of coffee 🙂

TOPIC: Gear up for 2014!
DATE: Jan 18, 2013 at 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm
VENUE: CCD Lounge, Nungambakkam, Chennai

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Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net / Stuart Miles

The meet up is informal, and anyone with a genuine interest in writing for children is welcome – and I only say this so that I don’t want to attract, um, non-writers to this writing-specific meet up 🙂

You should definitely attend this meet-up, if:

• You want to write a children’s story and don’t know where to start

• You’ve already written a few stories (or even a novel) and looking for ways to proceed to the next level

• You are serious about getting a children’s story or a novel published in 2014

You can bring a work you want to read and critiqued (such as a short story, novel chapter etc.), but it’s not mandatory. You don’t need to be published to attend!

For more details and RSVPing, go to http://www.meetup.com/Childrens-writers-in-Chennai/events/156398642/

My CBC 12×12 List

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What fun is there in life without lists?

I too have made one. An official swearing-in list!

Here are the 12 chapter books that I hope to write in 2014, for Chapter Book Challenge 12×12.

JAN – Tracks on a Train
About a cat and his existential crisis (Contemp. Fantasy)

FEB – Saras and the Superstar
About 2 cats and their enmity (Contemp. Fantasy)

MAR – The Story of Jhangri-La
About a girl and her food-crazy family (Contemp. Tween/humour)

APR – TGD 1
About a boy and his goal (Myth/Fantasy)

MAY – TGD 2
About a boy and his quest (Myth/Fantasy)

JUN – TGD 3
About a boy and his revenge (Myth/Fantasy)

JUL – Chronicles of C&S: First Encounter
About a boy, a girl and a crazy weekend (Contemp. Humour)

AUG – Chronicles of C&S: School Edition
About a boy, a girl and their school adventures (Contemp. Humour)

SEP – Chronicles of C&S: Camp Terror 
About a boy, a girl and a camping trip (Contemp. Humour)

OCT – Not yet decided

NOV – Not yet decided

DEC – Not yet decided

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Yep…. By making this post public, I am committing, in full writing, in front of the whole e-world, that I will follow the list faithfully and may the Gods of Challenges strike me dead if I don’t give everything I have to win this 🙂

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Credit: Marwamorgan/Photopin.com

How to write a chapter book in 30 days

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There are innumerable resources out there on the art and craft of writing for children… and the actual creative process (for eg. How did I know the ending?) is still a mystery to me and even if I try to explain, I will probably do a dismal job of articulating the process – after all, I am only one book old!

But I can tell you the physical method of writing a chapter book in a month – at least the method that worked for me.

Step 1: Outlining (2 days)

Step 2: Writing (2 weeks)

Step 3: Resting (1 week)

Step 4: First edit (1 week)

Bonus step – Beta testing (optional)

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Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net / Photokanok

STEP 1 – OUTLINING

Spending a couple of days on creating a rough outline puts me in the Concept Zone a.k.a the mood to get immersed in that book. I don’t outline like others (if you want to know why, click here) and outlines are not must for fiction writers, I feel like everyone would benefit from plot doodling. The more I scribble and doodle on my outline journal, the clearer I get about the direction of my book.

Make no mistake, it can still veer off in a totally direction direction… but I need these 2 days to get myself excited and committed about the characters and their journey.

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Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net / africa

STEP 2 – WRITING
Ah, the actual part of writing, which has always been the toughest step for me. Since I am a master procrastinator, it takes a lot to get me started on a new, non-paying project… but challenges are another matter. I love challenges! So I will just use the BOC method, spend an hour every day early morning – it takes me around 15 min to write one MS word page (including frowning, day dreaming and head-banging on the monitor) – and keep writing.

See? It’s simple. Just pick an hour everyday, morning, evening, night, any one hour, sit tight, and keep writing until you have completed 4 pages (roughly 1000 words, which is the minimum you should write on any challenge. Really.)

If you are attempting the one-hour-a-day method, feel free to go beyond page 4. I usually stop on Page 4, because I am also working on other projects plus my laser-treated eyes tend to go too dry and I don’t want to burn out before noon (My magical time to write is 6-7am). So, based on your schedule, customise your writing time.

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Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net / sakhorn38

STEP 3 – RESTING
Wow you finished a draft! Good for you – now let it rest.

Whether you are writing a chapter book or a magnum opus, you have to let it rest for a few days – no leeway here! “The perspective, or the ability to see your work for what it is, rather than what you hoped it would be, is impossible to attain when you are caught up in the frenzy of the creative process,” says Ray Morton, in the article Rewriting is writing (which is more about script writing, but the principles are the same).

I can’t stress enough how important this step is. You need to step away from your story for a brief time, to let your eyes and mind switch off from writer mode and switch on editor mode. As soon as you write THE END, close the document (or notebook) and don’t open it again for at least a week (ideally 2 weeks, but I find that a week is enough for a chapter book). For more articles on letting your story rest, click here and here.

Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net / Ideago

STEP 4 – FIRST EDIT
Now, this step differentiates your initial manuscript from utter crap to manageable mess. Just because it is a first draft, there is no excuse for it to have glaring spelling or appalling grammar issues. A first draft should be readable, not disposable. When you read through the ‘rested’ manuscript, you will be able to fix most of the grammar, punctuation, and language issues.

You may, possibly, fix more too – like, change a name that suddenly feels unsuitable for a character, or check if a certain consistency is maintained throughout the story (“why does the heroine have red hair in chapter 2, and black hair in chapter 8?“). And now, your manuscript is truly a first draft – a workable, edited first draft ready for beta testing. In a later post, we will look into how a children’s writer can greatly benefit from a beta testing phase after the first draft.

Does CBC 12×12 seem too much for you? Then consider another challenge to write one chapter book in one month! Sign up for the ChaBooCha in March at http://chapterbookchallenge.blogspot.in/p/sign-up-for-chaboocha.html

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Planning CBC 12×12

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A challenge like “writing a chapter book a month” cannot be done without three things:

1. Pre-planning

2. Discipline

3. Desire

PRE-PLANNING

I am spending this month planning for the entire year’s stories. I pulled out all the ideas I had in the past decade, sifted through them and selected 10 best ones that I felt I needed to write about. And I have assigned each idea to a month.

Why only 10? Because I don’t have any more. For Nov and Dec 2014 projects, I am going to wing it.

pre planning

Ideas are everywhere. I’m sure I will get a couple of them during the next 10 months :)… and also, I want to prove that a writer can also write a book without pre-panning!

If you do not have that many ideas, say, if you have only 1 or 2, you should still consider joining this challenge. Doing so would
1) get you a finished draft of a book in the next month
2) Inspire you to write more
3) be motivating enough to give you more ideas.

So take a pen now, and write down three story ideas that intrigue you. If you need inspiration, here is a link that you may find useful. As always, StoreStarter.com and RPG are good places to churn out wild, wacky ideas!

DISCIPLINE
Oh, boy. The D word. I am such a notorious lazybum that I am hardly qualified to talk about discipline, but I have failed enough times in my life to know that without discipline, books don’t get written.

I didn’t write my book until I religiously sat down every morning and penned 4 pages without fail… We all have busy lives. Every thing we do survive eats away into time, time that’s allotted to us. And only by dedicating an hour or two, every day, without making excuses, without giving an inch, can you hope to make your publishing dreams come true.

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DESIRE
This may be a strong word but I am using it only it sums up the feeling nicely. To make it through the next year, to make it as a good storyteller, you should have the bottomless, relentless desire – to become the best, to work as hard as you can, to create great children’s literature. Without desire, there is not incentive to keep going… the destination is still unknown, so the only payoff for all those lonely hours of writing is your desire to get it done. Without the interest, the passion, and yes, the desire to create… it’s impossible.

In many ways, this step is vital. You could be a maverick who can write fiction without any sort of preplanning (plenty of good stories have been written this way). You could be an adrenaline junkie who can write without consistent discipline (most freelancers work like this!). But without the desire to create and do what needs to be done, you just won’t make it.

So make sure you are in this for the right reasons!

One in a million

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I assure you this is post is about writing. But we will take the round about way to get there.

If you follow Bollywood at all, you’d know the movie RAM LEELA has proved to be the highest grosser of this year.

Now, RAM LEELA was widely marketed as an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The director has made a career of offering over-the-top romantic fare. The lead pair are the latest it stars of Bollywood, and no strangers to doing intimate scenes.

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The movie itself had set the background for a devilishly handsome hero and a spunky, mischievous heroine. They meet for the first time on the day of Holi, which positively has to be the most sensual publicly approved festival in any culture (ambushing with water and manually smearing powder on one another – COME ON!).

With all that set up, the movie kicks off when the feisty heroine surprising the bedazzled hero with a kiss and one would think that it is expected from a romantic musical. Yet, if you read through most reviews, both experienced reviewers and amateur movie enthusiasts are repeating over and over – how can a woman kiss a man on the first encounter?

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Now, if the guy had initiated the kiss, I am sure he’d be hailed as a passionate go-getter who swept the lady off her feet by planting a sloppy smooch on her lips. But because it is the woman who initiates it, we now have national newspapers publishing features on Indian women who kiss and tell. 

Even if that generalization – let’s assume for a crazy minute – is true, aren’t there always exceptions to a rule? So… perhaps Bhansali’s Leela is that one in a million woman who WILL kiss her hero on their first meeting, without stopping to feel coy/cautious?

I think she is. Otherwise Deepika Padukone cannot have played that part so naturally, and the character would not be as iconic as it is now.

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Let’s stop here, make a multi-degree turn and land in the world of writing.

When you write your story, do you write about an average Joe/Jane or do you write about an extraordinary character, making extraordinary decisions?

Whenever you are about to write a scene, do you find yourself saying, “Oh but an Indian guy/parent/child won’t do that!” or “That’s too fantastic! It would never happen in real life.”

While writing a story, do you confine yourself in a narrow box and only write about what you know? Do you let your prejudices and pre-conceived notions about the world taint your story and infect your characters?

If you answer yes to the above questions, do you really think your tale, your book, will be interesting enough to live forever in readers’ memories?

Do you want to be remembered as a run-of-the-mill author… or a one in a million one?

Investing in your craft – 2 (the muse)

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Click here for Part 1

Like any middle class Indian, I love bargain hunts.

I love flea markets, yard sales and stores going out of businesses. I practice and understand scrimping, but please – not when it comes to writing!

A lot of budding writers remain just that – because they fail to go that extra mile to pamper their muses (by muse, I mean whatever power or magic inside you that inspires you to write!). They cite family, financial or personal issues as reasons for their reluctance to nurture their muse, and I am quite sad to see so many pass on opportunities just because the timing is not right or it is all too much to commit for “just” a writing project!

IMHO –  you are only as best as you allow yourself to be. If you are only going to pick an apple that’s closest to you, chances are that you will never eat apples after a while.

muse

The relationship you have with your muse is just like any other relationship – it needs regular TLC. Sometimes your muse asks for hard-to-procure stuff and that’s when you get creative and try worthy substitutes. But don’t you ever refuse her too long. If you starve your muse too much, you will never get her to be the best she can be.

The next time you see a great but expensive book, or hear of a writing workshop being held at a different city, don’t immediately dismiss them – and don’t just consider the possibility, but really try your best to make it happen. At every stage of your writing life, look at what you and your muse need. Buy yourself a SCBWI membership, enroll in a craft course, and if possible take the time off for a workshop or a retreat. You and the serious writer waiting to emerge from you deserve all that.

Who is a serious writer? Any writer who wants to be a beloved storyteller and is not afraid to work for the crown. After a point, you become a serious writer, which by itself is commendable – not many graduate to this level. Because it is here that you enter the arena and compete against lions, lions long gone, lions still living, lions in whose presence you will feel like a darn minuscule mouse (that’s how I feel in a book store!) – so never, ever hesitate to invest in yourself, in your craft, in your muse.

Sometimes, the only thing that may differentiate an almost writer from a real one is the willingness to indulge in one’s passion.