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First things first. Form that habit.

Image courtesy: Freepik

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up

Jane Yolen

Of all the writing advice that I’ve read over the years, this is the one I like best. The one that makes complete sense to me. I think of writing as a habit – something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it. I started writing seriously when I was 21. I had a job as an apprentice journalist with a leading business daily. I had to write or edit something every single day, whether I liked it or not. There were days when I had to write articles at a moment’s notice and if I said anything about writer’s block, I would have been fired immediately! Over the years, I wrote and wrote and now, not a day goes by when I don’t write something.

If you are an aspiring writer, it would help if you treat writing as a habit and develop it over time. It’s a bit like exercise. If you want to be fit and healthy, lose a few pounds along the way, you must get into a fitness routine. Walk every day or do a bit of yoga. It’s the same with writing. Here are some things that I do that might help.

Set aside some time to write every day. Once you do that, guard that time ferociously. It doesn’t matter what time of the day it is. There are writers who write at the crack of dawn while others write at night. The pandemic has turned me into an owl so I write at night, after all my chores are done. Choose a time that works best for you.

Once you have sorted out when you are going to write, make sure you spend a couple of minutes (to start with) every single day writing something. It can be a few lines of a draft for a story, a character sketch or even a poem. Whatever catches your fancy. The idea is to keep doing it till you get into the habit of sitting down either in front of the laptop or with a piece of paper and pen and write something. As Yolen says, exercise the muscle. Form the habit. It doesn’t matter if what you write doesn’t see the light of day. It doesn’t need to.

Choose a spot. It could be your desk, the bed or even a corner of the dining table. I have a desk but I usually write in bed. Once you have a spot, make sure you turn up every single day with your laptop or your diary. If there is something you are working on, continue with your project, else figure out what you want to write and get cracking.

Exercise: Why do you want to be a writer? Take a sheet of paper and write down three reasons.

In my next post, I’ll give you some ideas on how to get started. For the time being, choose your spot and time. Think about why you want to write.

See you next week!

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Delicious Death

I have often wondered why murder mysteries are referred to as delicious. I have used the term myself on several occasions but death isn’t very savoury, is it? Or sweet for that matter. So why does fictional crime get our literary tastebuds tingling? As far as I know, Agatha Christie, the Grand Dame of murder mysteries first introduced the term in one of her books. She writes about a Delicious Death cake in A Murder is Announced.

The cake is “rich, rich, of a melting richness” and the ingredients needed include “chocolate and much butter, and sugar and raisins”. The cake also has chocolate frosting and “Good Wishes” written on top. In fact, the cake is the last thing one of the characters in the story eats. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind bidding my last farewell with a cake like that. Death by chocolate cake.

Before I start rambling on the topic of food, let me get back on track and tell you about some delicious … erm … delightful murder mysteries I’ve read this year. It’s been such a wretched year that I’m surprised I got any reading done. But there’s something very comforting about curling up with a gripping detective novel. You know a crime has been committed and there’s a vicious killer on the loose but there’s redemption. Evil will ultimately be punished in the fictional world.

The Sentence is Death – Anthony Horowitz

This was my third Horowitz novel and to say that I loved it would be an understatement. The way the author blends reality with fiction in his novels in masterful as is the first-person narrative. I loved the fact that there was a Bengali in the book. I chuckled quite a bit when she and her son were introduced.

The Suspect – Fiona Barton

Barton is one of my favourite authors. I’ve read all her books. She weaves a fast-paced gripping plot that switches between Bangkok & Britain effortlessly. It is chilling but heart-breaking at the same time. Every parent’s worst nightmare come true. I found the reverse narrative method of storytelling particularly intriguing. Barton is one hell of a storyteller.

Salvation of a Saint – Keigo Higashino,

One author I keep coming back to and he never disappoints. Keigo Higashino is a master of his craft. He never fails to surprise me. You think he’s given away the plot right at the beginning and you are confused. How can it be that simple? But the man draws you in and keeps you turning the pages in anticipation with twists and turns along the way. Every. Single. Time.

The Aosawa Murders – Riku Onda

“Connections to people are a curious thing.”

This one was a gift from a generous friend on Twitter and I’m really grateful I got a chance to read this book. However, hype notwithstanding, The Aosawa Murders didn’t work for me. It started well but the narrative style was confusing. Personally I like crime stories with closure. This one didn’t give me that.

The Detective Diaries – Supratim Sarkar

The Detective Diaries, gripping accounts of 11 case files of the Kolkata Police, is a sequel to Sarkar’s brilliant Murder in the City. Having read about many of the cases in the newspapers, it was fascinating to find out about the criminal minds at work behind them. The only thing that put a dampener on the plot was the translation. It could have been better.

Moonflower Murders – Anthony Horowitz

I got to read two of his books this year so I’m taking that as a silver lining.  A book within a book, that requires you to use your “little grey cells.” Besides, one is in the company of writers, the best kind of company really — even if they are fictional. This was unputdownable. Just don’t read this before you’ve read Magpie Murders. You need to be able to connect the dots.

The Newcomer – Keigo Higashino

My second Higashino this year, Newcomer started well but the narrative lost steam midway. Not as compelling as his other novels. Malice remains my #1.

The Legacy – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

The Legacy was terrifying & gut-wrenching in equal measure. Be warned, this book is not for the faint-hearted! I’d be interested in reading some of her other novels.

Murder in Midsummer: Classic Mysteries for the Holidays 

Nothing like a good (fictional) murder to take your mind off things. A fabulous collection of stories from some of the masters of crime fiction including one of my favourites, Ruth Rendell. Plenty of sun, sand and corpses. An enjoyable collection.

No Trespassing – Brinda S Narayan

A book that stunned me with its sheer brilliance – I finished it in one sitting over a few hours. Gripping plot with terrifying twists and fluid writing. A must-read thriller like nothing I’ve read before.

Before I sign off, this is not a paid post. None of these authors paid me to write about them. I write a thread on my favourite books on Twitter every year and this is just a compilation of that thread. Happy Reading and Merry Christmas in advance!

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The Pop-Up World!

Pop-up books are probably the reason I started reading early. The very idea of a book that would move, that you could manipulate with the help of flaps and triggers to reveal surprises at every step, was fascinating for me. I suspect my mother loved pop-up books too since there were loads of them lying around the house when I was growing up. Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood were a few of my favourites.

Mostly I loved the surprise element. Having things jump out at you when you turned each page. Princesses, teddy bears, fairies. Hidden objects that came into view when you pulled flaps. It was like a tableau being enacted in front of your eyes. One you were in complete control of.

When I became a mother myself, I tried to get as many pop-up books as I could for my daughter. I wanted to share them with her. I had so many questions about the books. I was curious to know how it all began. Who invented the first pop-up book? How were they made? So I did some digging.

I found out that the first movable books were not intended for children. They were used for texts on medicine and astronomy. The earliest example is a manuscript dating to 1121, titled Liber Floridus that demonstrates the orbits of the planets around the Earth. Catalan mystic and poet Ramon Llull of Majorca is also believed to have used a revolving disc or volvelle to illustrate his theories in the 13th century.

The first movable for children, the turn-up book or the harlequinade as it was known was printed around 1750. Blue Ribbon Press filed the first copyright for the term “pop-up” for a book in 1932. Among the renowned artists in the history of movable books were Kubašta and the leader of the form, Lothar Meggendorfer. In fact, an award named after Meggendorfer is given by the Movable Book Society for paper engineers, the people who create the movable pieces and work with illustrators and printers to bring pop-ups to life.

How are pop-up books made?

You need a plan for the story at the start. The engineer figures out which parts will be the pop-ups and creates a prototype using card stock. The pop-up then goes into production. The fantastic part is that they are still made by hand as each story is different. One can use software to design it but the design needs to be cut into shape by hand.

Different kinds of pop-ups

Transformations: When you pull a tab and a new scene is created.

Volvelles: Involves the use of rotating parts.

Tunnel books: You can view the book like a tunnel.

One of my favourite books in our collection is this collectible, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Robert Sabuda. Sabuda is one of the most innovative children’s book creators who is known the world over for his amazing pop-up paper engineering. I don’t know about my daughter but I never tire of looking at it.

Here’s a list of some of the must-have books for your collection!

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The View-Master

It started out with wondering how travel would look in the post Covid world. Would virtual and interactive online tours become the new normal? Or could we put on smart glasses and travel like Johnny English with a few hard knocks and tumbles along the way?

It was then that I remembered the View-Master, my favourite toy from childhood, my own smart glasses if you please, that allowed me to see many sights and be part of many stories from the comfort of my bed. My father had bought the View-Master on one of his trips to Japan. My mum would guard it like the Grail Knight. Her grouse was that we kids (there were three of us) would fiddle with the slides, putting our grimy, mucky fingers all over them and she was worried the gadget would get ruined and she wouldn’t be able to fix it. So we were only allowed the View-Master as a treat on special occasions. When we did well in school or when we were unwell. While my older siblings weren’t particularly interested in the thing, they were outdoorsy children, I loved the View-Master. I actually looked forward to getting sick so that I could get it as a treat. Luckily, I fell ill a lot when I was a child as I had weak lungs and was prone to coughs and colds.

I called it কটাং কটাং (Kotang Kotang), because of the sound the trigger would make when you changed slides. I wish I could translate it but it’s just a word for the specific sound in Bengali. A clang clang if you will in English. Or a click click. You get the drift. All day long, I would watch slides. Babes in Toyland, Bambi, Prehistoric Monsters, Dinosaurs, Pyramids, Pagodas. My physical discomfort, raging fever all faded into insignificance when I was on these virtual tours into fantastic worlds.

I was just thinking of how much pleasure the little gadget brought me when I was ill. If virtual travel turned out to be something like that, it might prove to be a panacea for a lot of discomfort that we face from day to day. Covid included.

Facebook tells me that my septuagenarian mother has already signed onto a virtual trip to Jerusalem. Perhaps I will join her. After all, it’s only a trip to her bedroom – next to mine. I do wonder where the View-Master went though. I must ask her to look for it. I wouldn’t mind another go at it.

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The Name of the Game

If there is anything that puts me off about the process of writing, it is the part where I have to figure out what to name the characters in my short story or novel. Short of pulling names out of a hat, I do everything humanly possible to come up with interesting names. Names that reflect the personalities and quirks of my characters.

I think it is important for the main protagonists in your manuscript to have names. I’m talking about the characters that drive the narrative and contribute towards the progress of the plot. The reader should be able to connect with them from the first instance and a memorable name helps build that connection. Look at it this way, don’t you remember people you meet who have interesting, even unusual names? It is the same with the person reading your work.

I do not believe that all characters, especially the insignificant ones, need a name. Too many names can lead to unnecessary clutter and readers may get distracted. In a pacey crime novel for instance, a reader might get confused with too many names. In short stories, characters don’t necessarily need names. Ernest Hemingway didn’t believe in giving all his characters names. You must read A Clean Well-Lighted Place to understand what I mean. The latter is one of his finest short stories.

When I was writing Mr Eashwar’s Daughter, naming the characters was a huge challenge. Since my book was a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I wanted the names to have some similarity to the characters in the original novel. So Anne Elliot became Anamika “Anna” Eashwar and Commander Frederick Wentworth was Farrokh “Freddy” Wadhera. But I didn’t name the characters on a whim. Farrokh’s parents were music enthusiasts and they named him after Freddy Mercury while the Eashwars were landed gentry and Eashwar was a title they adopted.

A few rules that I follow. You might find them helpful.

Do your research well: It is always a good idea to research the period you are writing about or even the region or country and then name your characters accordingly. Inaccuracies stick out like a sore thumb and readers’ can always tell.

Unusual & interesting: I like names that have an interesting ring to them, quirky names even. Or names that reflect the personality of the character I am writing about. Mrinalini from Dragon Aunty Returns! was a staid, prudish Bengali girl and I thought that name would be perfect for her. No offense to anyone I hope, living or dead.

Does it sound good? That’s the question you must always ask at the end of the day. Does the name have a pleasant or unpleasant ring to it? (depending on your character’s traits) Would you give your own child the same name? Your book is your baby, isn’t it? Give it the same importance then.

A word of advice: do not name your characters after your friends, relatives or lovers. It is never a good idea unless they ask you to do it or you get their permission in advance. Make sure you get it in writing so that they can’t take you to court later. Just kidding. Store the note safely somewhere though!

Click here to find out how authors named their famous characters.

The Bait

Image courtesy: http://www.getbengal.com

If you’ve watched the Satyajit Ray classic film Nayak, you would remember the character of Pritish (rhymes with British) Sarkar played by the inimitable Kamu Mukherjee, the owner of Spectrum Publicity, who wasn’t averse to pimping his wife Molly to help him get a business deal. While he was happy to flaunt her in public as being just a “housewife”, he didn’t want her to work. He tells her to be nice to Mr Haren Bose so that he can clinch a deal with him. “It’s a game,” he exclaims when his wife gets upset and locks herself up in the toilet of the train.

Ever since I watched the movie, first as a child and then later on when I was older, the character of Pritish Sarkar has always intrigued me. It was possibly one of Mukherjee’s best roles — the advertising man with shades of grey. A man using his wife as bait to help him catch big fish. In fact, it has always been a dream of mine to reimagine that character in a modern-day, corporate context. The character of Ranjan in my newest short story, My Trophy Wife, is inspired by Ray’s Sarkar. A man who uses his wife to help him rise up the career ladder. Does it work? You will have to read my story to find out.

Click here, it’s free to read. Do leave a review if you like it.

It all starts with a diary

The idea for my first published novel, Dragon Aunty Returns!, a rom-com set in Gurgaon, took shape out of a blog post. My blog, Gurgaon Diaries (which is a book now but more about that later), was about my experiences (mostly hilarious) living and working in the Millennium City where I’d moved from Kolkata. One of the entries was about a woman whose distinguishing feature was her dragon tattoo and her malapropism among other things.

My blog had a modest following in the early days and when I published the post, everyone loved her. Well mostly. There were those who stopped talking to me and inviting me to their parties because they felt I had written about them. More about them another day.

Over the course of writing that post, Dragon Aunty took on so much colour and life that I felt I had to write a story about her misadventures. She couldn’t … she wouldn’t .. be confined to a 500-word blog post. It was almost as though she had taken on a life on her own and I had to follow her orders. If you get to reading the book, you will agree. She is that sort of woman. Bossy, pushy but with a heart of gold.

And there she goes hijacking the plot again!

What I wanted to stress on is that it is a good idea to maintain a diary or even write in a blog every day. You can write about ordinary things, everyday things, whatever you want – but write you must. Give simple things colour and meaning, some sort of structure and who knows, a story may emerge from there. Like the couple you see quarrelling when you are out on your walk or the odd man who spends all his time in the balcony, smoking.

Mind you, I am not telling you to turn into a stalker. All I’m asking you to do is observe. Pay attention to your surroundings. Look out of the window, write down what you see. There may be a story hiding behind the strange looking plant in the neighbourhood park or even the car that hasn’t been washed for days. What happened to the owners?

It doesn’t always have to be something extraordinary. I find so much meaning in ordinary things. It is a good habit to form and a great way to mine for ideas if you are planning to write a short story or even a novel. Try it and let me know how it works out, will you?

The Death Wish

 

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The chalk outline has been washed away, the orange safety cones removed and the greyish black concrete looks as though it has just been laid. There is no trace of her ever having lain there on the ground, cold and lifeless, eyes unseeing.

In 2017, an elderly lady jumped off the balcony and killed herself in the condominium where I live. The incident haunted me for days. I would stare at her balcony for hours wondering what it was that forced her to take such an extreme step. I wished I had known she was going through mental turmoil or even been able to help somehow.

I tried to imagine how she must have felt in the moment before she plunged, ten floors down, to her death. One moment of hopelessness, futility, unloved by the ones she cared for the most in the world. That’s all it took.

I hoped it was all over for her in the flash of an eye. I hoped she didn’t suffer or writhe in pain while we carried on with our lives within the comfort of our homes unaware of the tragedy that was playing out a short distance away. Our self-contained boxes. The incident left me feeling very helpless and vulnerable and I decided to start writing The Ghosts of Gurugram.