On being prolific

Prolific is a word that I’ve begun to hate. No offense, but everyone exclaims that I’m so prolific when they hear that I’ve written ___ books, I don’t know how to explain it. How do you do it, they ask. Well, I thought I might as well put it down here, once and for all.

This is me trying to look creative although my mum has said it looks like my tummy is hurting.
This is me trying to look creative although my mum has said it looks like my tummy is hurting.

a) I write every day. At least I try to. Immersing myself in the lives of my characters is so much more interesting than the real world any given day, so I don’t see why I can’t do it all the time. The truth is, I’m addicted to writing. It’s my vice and I let it control me. It’s not always a good thing, believe me.

b) I don’t have a job. I used to, but I wanted to write more than I wanted a dependable salary every month and so here I am. Again, this isn’t something I recommend to everyone. I’ve done this before – quitting job and focusing on writing, so I’m used to being broke most of the time. (Although now, thanks to demon(that which shall not be named) everyone around me also seems to be broke, so I don’t mind it so much.)

c) I love writing. I don’t look at it as a job but I treat it like I treat a job. When I’m in the middle of a book (writing one, I mean), I make sure I get at least a chapter written every day. It’s always tough to get started but once I hit around 10k words, the story, characters take life of their own and all I have to do is just show up at the laptop and let them unfold on their own.

Scribbling my name on notebooks in school prepared me for this. Who am I kidding? I *love* signing my books. Is the only time I feel I'm doing something remotely glamorous.
Scribbling my name on notebooks in school prepared me for this. Who am I kidding? I *love* signing my books. Is the only time I feel I’m doing something remotely glamorous.

d) I write in a bubble. Writers are just as insecure as any other creative person. I don’t like being in that place where I’m jealous of another writer because of whatever they have accomplished, shortlists they’re in, awards they’ve won, deals they’ve signed, because none of it is in my control and if they’re getting all of the above, it’s because they deserve it. Since there’s no point in me lamenting about why I don’t get all of the above, I focus on doing what I know best. Writing.

e)  Determination – Or maybe ambition. I don’t know. Probably a little of both. The truth is, I just have an inner drive that propels me to write. And most of the time, the writing happens without any thought of publication. I don’t stop to think about who will publish it, or will it get published at all. I try to keep my focus on the work and finish it before all those aspects can factor in.

 

That’s it. I’m just a crazy person, a glutton for punishment (I hate weekends) and I love to write. This is why I’m so prolific.

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Show, don’t tell!

Any writer worth their salt will tell you how important it is to show, not tell, especially when you are writing a work of fiction. You’ve probably heard it at many creative writing workshops and yet, when you’re writing, you don’t know how to make sure you’re showing and not telling. Hmm?

I won’t say I have this in the bag completely because I’m still learning the process of writing. But there are a few things I do know after all this writing I’ve done. So, here I go, sharing my gyan once again.

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1. Crackling dialogue can do what sentences and sentences of portraying your characters feelings can’t. If you’re character is going through something, it’s a good idea to use dialogue to showcase it. Sometimes banter, sometimes a serious conversation and sometimes even repartee can reveal your characters innermost flaws or feelings, as the case may be.

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2. Sometimes how your character reacts to a situation shows your readers all that you want to convey. So instead of writing a scene where you want to tell your readers that something is happening, create a situation that speaks for itself. How your character reacts to it will tell the reader a whole lot without actually telling them. Here’s an example from my own work. Ahem.

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Hope that explains what I mean!

3.

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Dialogue has its place when it comes to showing something to your readers but what’s that old cliche about actions speaking louder than words? That holds true. If you make your characters react to something, or act on something, you can reveal a facet of their personality or their innermost feelings without actually spelling it out. And for that, we come to tip no. 4.

4.

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Reader experience as you well know is subjective. What I might deduce from a scene may not be what you deduce and that’s the beauty of a well written piece because it’s open to interpretation. This is exactly why showing is more important than telling. But how does one do it? By following tip no. 3. Your characters are like puppets (most of the time) and they will do or say what you want. It’s up to you to ensure that you do the right thing.

5.

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Sometimes atmosphere shows things best. The right atmosphere or setting can convey so much to your readers. All you need to do is to ensure you don’t go overboard with descriptions. That is a real danger, worthy of another give writing tips post. But do remember that sometimes atmosphere can be the best thing about a scene or chapter. You can often make your characters emotions stand out in contrast with the atmosphere of the moment.

I hope these writing tips are helpful! Do tweet to me at andaleebwajid and start a conversation if you want to discuss writing further.

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Getting ideas

One of the questions I’ve always been asked is, how I get my ideas. I wish I could tell exactly how but it’s not really possible to tell how my mind works right? In fact, there are times when I don’t know what it is that has prompted me or provoked me into a writing something. As a writer you’re always on the lookout for something that can be made into a story or a book or even a blog post. I thought about this for quite a bit and then decided to do a Writing Tips post for the blog.

Here are five tips on how I get my ideas and convert them into stories.

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1. This might sound like a no – brainer but keep your eyes open. As writers we have to be like sponges and absorb things around us. Something somewhere might click. I once spotted a man talking to a woman while I was waiting for my mother to finish instructing her tailor and I was fascinated by their dynamics. They were discussing something important and yet there was an element of sadness to their conversation. I made up a story about them as I continued to observe them. This was a goodbye I thought. The woman was saying to the man that they can’t meet again and the man is convincing her to give them another shot. While I didn’t exactly use this scene directly, it did become the basis of a story in one of my books.

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2. Truth is stranger than fiction is the often used cliche and it’s true. There are hundreds of weird things happening around the world. It’s up to you to choose one and twist it and make it what you want. I read about a girl who had the sleeping beauty syndrome, and I used it in my time travel trilogy as the possible cause for the protagonist’s condition.

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3. Get inspired by history. If current events don’t really cut it for you, then go back in time (am I losing the subtle touch in plugging my books?) and look for inspiration there. History is always a rich source of stories and events that you can use as the basis of an idea. The point here is that you need to keep an open mind and think of anything and everything as a possibility for a story.

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4. Make a list of things you like to write about. Then put two or three together and see if you can weave a story out of it. Sounds too random? Actually it can be fun although I rarely use this method. But it’s even better if you time yourself. Give yourself five minutes to come up with a list of things you like and then do a mix and match. What you’ll get here most likely is the premise of a story. It’s up to you to build it from there into something more viable.

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5. Sometimes all it takes is a sentence, a look, a description, a word to plant an idea in my head. What you need to do is to not let go of it. Write it down somewhere. Hold onto it. Go back to it every now and then and see what you can do with it.

That’s it from me. Do you have any inputs or feedback on how you get your ideas? Do feel free to share them with me, either here in the comments below or tweet to me at andaleebwajid.

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Working around writer’s block

If there’s one thing every other writer will tell you or post on Facebook or tweet, is that they’re having writer’s block at some point or the other in their writing career. Of course, if you are a writer, you know for a fact that writer’s block can strike you unawares and the novel that you were working on is no longer flowing from your finger tips on to the keyboard. This feeling of being stuck, of not being able to move forward is typical of writer’s block. But here’s a secret. Writer’s block doesn’t exist.

What?

Yes. True story.

Writer’s block has more to do with your mental disposition at the point of time when you’re trying to write, rather than actually being the thing it is made out to be.

Over the past years as I’ve been writing my books there have been times when the words just didn’t seem right. There have been times when I haven’t felt like writing. A typical question that students I speak to, or interviewers ask is how I deal with writer’s block. This is how.

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1. By acknowledging that it does not exist. I try not to get discouraged and I certainly don’t label it as a writer’s block. Typically you may get this block either when you’re in the middle of writing something or you might find yourself unable to start something new. Ideally don’t decide that you have writer’s block and go on with your life. Also, names/labels have power. The moment you decide that this is it, I have writer’s block, you’re relieved because you have something identifiable, something that other writers also face. It just makes it all the more difficult to work around it. When you feel this way, stop before you proclaim to the world at large that you have writer’s block. Instead, just say that you didn’t feel like writing.

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2. Believe me, this one works. When I feel that the book isn’t flowing like free flow salt from a shaker, I shut the lid of the laptop and I do something as mundane as baking a cake. Or you can take a walk in the park. Go watch a movie with friends or read a book with your kids. In your head, just tell yourself that you’re having some downtime. And it’s okay. You’re allowed to have that. Even if you’re in the middle of a climactic scene in your novel or even if you are just before an all important scene when you don’t know how one scene will segue into the next, it’s okay to take a break. You never know when your subconscious will unlock so check out if you feel like writing after a couple of days. Ideally, don’t take a very long break because then you’ll lose interest and that’s the ultimate killer. Also, one thing I heard from Kamila Shamsie at her book launch last year (and that scared the crap out of me because I’d decided to take a break from writing in 2014), was this – Her aunt, Attia Hosain, told her once that writing is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. 

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3. I have a select group of friends who always read the books I write, while I am writing them. It gives them the kicks but it also helps me streamline my writing. Of course, we talk about the book but I try not to let their opinions influence my writing. But sometimes, when you’re stuck, it helps talking to friends who know what you’re writing. Even if you don’t want anyone to read your work in progress, you can talk to them about it, give a gist and sometimes something they may say might change the way you view your own work. Friends like these are like sounding boards. Use them! They’ll be most willing to help!

 

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4. For a clutter lover and slob like me, I am meticulously planned and neat (questionable since my handwriting is such that only I can understand it), only in one thing. My notes. When I decide to write a novel, I take out a note book and start writing notes. This could be a stream of consciousness putting down of what I want in the book or it could be a more organised plan. I like to have a two or three page idea of what I want in the book before I start writing. You’ll see that people who write non-fiction do not or cannot work without a plan. Planning it down to the chapter level is a bit too much for me so I don’t do that but having an outline helps a lot. That way when I get stuck, I just have to refer to those notes and it helps me move forward. 

 

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5. Picture this. If you’re walking somewhere and you come across a road sign that says, road under construction, wouldn’t you just approach your destination from another way? Or if there’s a boulder on your path, you’ll walk around it, right? Just like that, think of the block as something that you have to tackle from another angle. What also works is if you try writing something else. Do you have a blog? Then write a blog post. If not, focus your energies on writing something else. It could be a book review, or even a short story that you may never want to publish. That’s okay. What helps is that it gets the flow moving. 

 

Is there any other way in which you handle writer’s block? What works for you? I asked this question on Twitter a couple of days ago and these two responses were interesting and useful.
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Would love to hear your comments on this, either here or on Twitter. You can tweet to me  @andaleebwajid and I’ll get back to you and do a follow up post featuring your tweets as well, provided I do get more responses! 

Till then, kick that block and get back to writing!

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Five things I can do now that I’ve finished writing my novel

So I finished writing my novel last night. My twelfth novel. I still remember the exhilaration I’d felt when I finished my first one in 2005. Now, it’s more relief than exhilaration. Because now, here’s a list of what I can do, now that I am done writing! 

 

1. I can get my life back. All these days my life was split between the lives of my protagonists and my own. In my head, they took up more place than real life people did. It’s not just that. I created and altered the events in their lives. I had to make sure it all mattered in the long run. Yeah, although I can get my life back now, what’s the fun in that? 

2. I can go back to watching TV shows without feeling guilty. (Arrow, here I am!) I used to sneak in an episode here and there as reward for finishing a chapter. Now I can binge watch. Oh yay! 

3. I can read a book without worrying that what I’m reading will colour my writing. I used to not read books at all when I started writing my second novel. I was scared something from what I read would slip in and I’d end up unconsciously internalising something I’ve read and spew it on my pages. Now that doesn’t happen but even when I’m reading, a part of me stays separate and doesn’t get involved because I don’t want to. 

4. I can finally give some much needed rest to my wrists, palms, arms, shoulders. I’ve gone to sleep some days with aching shoulders and hands that hurt so much that I can’t even dream of holding a pen. Writing is physically hard work guys! Even when the words flow as you type them out, it ends up tiring you, mentally too. At the end of the writing day, you’re strung out and yet raring to go as soon as the next day comes. 

5. I can stop worrying about what happens next because I bloody well know it now. I did know it when I started the book but it was mostly a hazy set of events that I’d constructed and noted down in my notebook. Once I get down to the actual writing, I have to either expand those events or change them altogether based on what’s happening. 

 

So that’s my list of five things I can do now that I’ve finished writing my novel. Anyone wants to add anything to it? Go on. Help me make a list of things I can do now that I am done writing! 

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Writing unforgettable characters

When I’m reading a book, what stays with me after I’ve finished reading is not just the plot but the characters as well. So I asked my Twitter friends to tell me some of the characters in fiction that they find unforgettable.

Quite a few people responded and it’s added several books to my reading list as well.

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The Kite Runner was a book that haunted me too. I recommended it right, left and centre before it became a big thing. I think the little kid in the end, Hassan’s son, stayed with me but yes Amir too.

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A Fine Balance is a book that I don’t want to go back to, anytime soon. It fascinated me but depressed me as well. What an ending!

And there are some books which have been added to my reading list now.

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And then there are these favourites too.

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As a writer, I’m fascinated with characters and what makes them unforgettable. Continuing my Writing Tips series, I tweeted five pointers about characterisation. A little expanded version is here:

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1. How well do you know your characters? Do you know what clothes they like to wear, what food they like to eat, what TV shows they watch, what books they like to read, what they don’t like… Everything about them. Keep a notebook about them and make notes about the characters. As much as you can at least. Keep those notes, refer to them whenever you get stuck about something and get writing!

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2. No one likes perfect people. In real life or in books. Characters with flaws are what everyone can relate to. In fact the more flawed the character, the better the story is, depending on whether there’s a redemption story in there. It’s why we so often fall in love with anti-heros like Sidney Carton. Even if they can’t be redeemed, there’s something so relatable about them that they stay with you long after you’ve rest the book. Like Scarlet O Hara who annoyed me like anything. But she’s still unforgettable.

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3. Sometimes an analysis of your favourite character might work. Trying to understand them, why they are the way they are. I’ve noticed that layered characters are the ones with rich back stories that allows writers to work their way back and forth. One of my favourite characters is Snape from the Harry Potter series. And what a character he is! Sometimes characters might not have any back story as such or you may not really be bothered with that because they’re so quirky. Whether it’s Hercule Poirot or Psmith, these are characters that live forever.

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4. When I posted this tip on Instagram, a friend commented that this sounds a lot like having multiple personality disorder! It’s actually true. When you’re a writer, you’re leading multiple lives. Often you’re immersed in the world of the book, the problems of the protagonists and how they’re going to solve them. It’s what gives that dreamy air to writers and causes my mother to lament that I pay more attention to fictional people than I do to real people! Not true by the way. It’s just that my characters are real to me and I like them to achieve whatever they’ve set out to achieve. If they can’t, I stand back and commiserate. And sometimes I just find it hard to let go of them even when the book is written and sent out for publishing. So sometimes I make up fan fiction with them in my head. But that’s okay. You don’t really need to know how crazy I am! But it does give you an idea of the level of my involvement with them I suppose!

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5. The most important one of all! Contrary to what my family thinks, I’m not always ‘lost in my own world’ because I’m looking at people carefully. I’m observing everyone around me and it all gets stored somewhere in my head where I’m not even aware of, but I draw inspiration from that hidden store whenever possible. The thing is, I don’t do this consciously. Neither the observing, nor the drawing out. It’s a part of my psyche. So try and start people watching (unobtrusively please) and make it a habit. You’ll discover a wealth of information that you might eventually use in writing about a character.

Well, that’s it for now now! I’ll be back with more writing tips on how to deal with writer’s block (err… What’s that?) and other such helpful pointers.

As for my favourite characters –

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Actually I’m sure there are more but these were who I could recall off the top of my head during the Twitter session.

Follow me on Twitter to get involved in other such discussions in future. My Twitter id is andaleebwajid.

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Five Writing Tips

Many people have asked me over the years about how I write and I’ve always felt weird giving this answer. See, I may be writing my 12th novel, even as I blog here, but I don’t feel like I can honestly tell others how to do it.

Still, people ask me for tips and I thought I could come up with a series of tweets about this and I tweeted them today.

I thought I could get into this, a little bit more in detail here in my blog.

1.

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Don’t deliberate –  If you’ve always wanted to write something, don’t wait for the perfect moment. Don’t wait to retire or wait for your kids to grow up. Life goes on and writing is like that. It has to go on. The right moment will never come. You have to take a deep breath and plunge into it. And pray it will work.

2.

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When I wrote my first novel Kite Strings, I wrote it blind. I had no idea how to move forward from the first page on to the next. I had a vague idea of how I wanted the book to end and I stuck to that. But it took me a really long time to fill the space between page 1 and the last page. So despite being a creative person who normally hates plans, I like them when it comes to books. I like formulating the story beforehand. I usually follow a stream of consciousness method of putting down the story and anyone who has made an actual plan might laugh at it but it’s what works for me. It’s just me talking to myself. That’s my plan.

3.

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Sometimes having something in front of you visually, triggers words inside that may not be there otherwise. Give it a shot. Put up a cork board or even a thick cardboard sheet above your desk. Paste cutouts or use a marker to scribble on it.

4.

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This is crucial. Finish a chapter and you will feel amazed at how soon your novel will get over. Never leave a chapter hanging. Even if you don’t like how it’s going, go ahead and still write it. You can always change it in the morning. I try to finish one chapter every day when I’m working on a book. When I get more than a chapter written, it’s amazing. But it takes a toll physically. Hands, shoulders, neck usually start hurting so I try to stick to a chapter every day. Once you get that flow going, you won’t want to stop!

5.

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I love stationery especially notebooks. So I use any excuse to hoard notebooks and since I’m a writer, I don’t really need an excuse. I like to dedicate a notebook to every novel I write. I scribble about characters, about events, about possible endings in the notebook. Then I also like to make notes in Google Keep. It syncs across my devices and I can access it easily. Evernote users can stick to that and there are plenty of note apps out there. I prefer Keep though. Putting ideas down solidifies your intent. Eventually you may not use it but you can go back to it when you’re stuck and find a way to get out of a corner.

So that’s it for now. Hope this has helped! I hope to come up with more such tips and little pointers. Just a request. If you find me obnoxious and pretentious with my advice, just tell me! I’ll probably hate you, but yeah, I’d like to know.

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