14 January, 2015

#GuestPost :: So you want to be a novelist? by Reshma K Barshikar

Ayra always wanted to be an Art Historian. She saw herself flitting between galleries, talking Michelangelo and Dali with glamorous ease. At twenty–nine, life has decided to make her an underpaid investment banker juggling an eccentric family, a fading career and a long–distance relationship that is becoming a light-year one.
On a monsoon day in June, she is suddenly sent packing from Mumbai to Tuscany to buy a vineyard for a star client. What should have been a four day trip turns into a two week treasure hunt that finds her in the middle of midnight wine deals, dodgy vintners, rolling Tuscan hills, a soap opera family and one playboy millionaire who is looking to taste more than just the wine. Towards the end she finds that the road to true happiness is almost as elusive as that perfect glass of Chianti.

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So you want to be a novelist?

The writing of a novel, essentially long form fiction, is a strange beguiling process. And as a result it gets dissected, almost to a fault. There are writing magazines that do interviews with authors, writing magazines on the art of writing and writing magazines that will list the best writing magazines. There are creative courses, dialogue courses, intensive courses, and books on becoming a writer, the writer’s life, the writer’s mind and possibly even a pen for writers. There are dedicated websites catering to software for writers, notebooks that will bring out your brilliance. Will your book turn out better in a 30-dollar Moleskine notebook, when written on acid free paper using a medium nib fountain pen? I tried, it doesn’t. It does however feel very nice. And the reason it’s dissected so much is because no one knows what makes a writer write good stuff. And like everything else that cannot be explained- Pollock’s strange brush strokes or why anyone would ever read Ulysees, it takes on a mythical veneer. 

So let’s strip of the veneer. While writing is a strange beguiling process, it is nevertheless a process that has certain steps. So here are some of my tips as related to the process that will hopefully demystify ‘the writing process’. 

Plot it out: When I began to write my debut novel, Fade Into Red, the first three chapters almost typed themselves. It has, sadly, never happened again. You’ll find that happening too. That’s because you wouldn’t have started writing if you didn’t have something bubbling inside of you that you wanted, madly, to get out. But like everything that bubbles, it quickly fizzles out. And then you think you’ve reached that other mythical state- writers block. It happened to me. It wasn’t writers block per se- I am yet to have one, I just didn’t know what to do next. I was being sucked into a quicksand of conflicting thoughts. This was because I had no synopsis or plotline at that point.  You might hear great writers telling you that plotlines curb creativity. Now unless you’re Stephen King, who is a God and we all know that Gods manage things us mortals don’t, you need to know what you’re doing next or you will flounder and that chapter you began will pick up virtual dust. You might even hide it because can’t handle the feelings of worthlessness anymore. Plot it out, write a summary, do something that shows you the way. Don’t worry about ruining the surprise. You’ll find yourself veering away from the plotline soon enough. You creativity is sneaky. But having signposts means you know what direction to take, at least your first time round. 

Take a class or buy a book or do both: When I got stuck, I did what I do when anything flummoxes me- I bought a book, well three, and took a class. Yes, a class, or a workshop. It might not be as cool as getting inspired by the universe, but it’s better to know the rules you want to break so that you break them better later. So get stuck into the techniques of good dialogue and learn to plot a character arc. Answer those insane background questions about your character- what toothbrush do they use? What sun sign are they and does it match the character? Interview your character over lunch. I suggest getting a cup of coffee and talking to them. Just do it alone. We don’t anyone thinking you’re any crazier than you already are. Brush up on your grammar and keep going back to it.  You need to know your colon from your semicolon. Adjectives are your enemy. Nothing worse than writing- ‘She said, badly’.  What does that even mean? 

Write, even when you don’t want to write: This is something I am still coming to terms with myself. My big epiphany about this so called magical writing process was this: it is still a job. That means sitting down at your desk and writing. Everyday or every other day, you need to be able to write when you have to write. There is no literary fairy godmother that sprinkles fairy words at her wanton will. Is there? I try to get my behind on a chair at an appointed time every day. Some days are good; other days feel like you’re at the dentist. Two hundred words are better than fifty, which is better than none at all.   

And yet, it is magical! There are those who will say to you, ‘sheesh, it’s just writing’. And most days it is just another job. There are however days when I get goose bumps, sometimes three to four writing sessions in a row.  Some days when it just flows out of me and other days when the tap runs so dry, I begin to see sense in Hemmingway’s words, ‘there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.’ I don’t know where those magical days come from but they usually happen when I sit down, visualize my scene clearly, take a deep breath, and know with astonishing certainty that it’s going to be good. There is no better feeling than getting turned on by something you wrote.  Not Stephen King, not Hilary Mantel, but good old mortal you. 

So go buy that book, take a class, and dust off those chapters. I hope to see your name on a cover soon. Write to me at re.krishnan@gmail.com

About the Author:
After finishing her A Levels at Bridgine School, Windsor, and getting a BA (Hons) at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, Reshma started her career as a Journalist for India’s national newspaper The Hindu, Business Line but left mid-career to pursue an MBA at the Indian School of Business that led to a successful career in Investment Banking. After 5 years in Investment Banking she quit her job to travel for two years and visited Europe, China, and the US. She conceptualized the novel during her travels through the Tuscany wine country. She created the eccentric Ms Krishnamurthy, her precocious cat and her dog eat deal environment. Her deep appreciation for the south Indian family dynamic, experience as a freelance journalist and a passion for Italian wine helped create Fade Into Red.
Simultaneously she also honed her skills as a Travel Writer and has contributed to India Today Travel Plus, SilverKris, Harper’s Bazaar, Grazia, National Geographic Traveller and The Hindu Business Line. She is also co-founder of the literary blog, The Caterpillar Café.

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