Occupational Hazards for Writers

Since I started writing a couple of years ago I realized that there are some occupational hazards of being a writer. These include :

-Your sleep being hijacked by your characters as they live out the  scenes from your book.

-Your friends no longer sharing intimate details of their lives with you as said details inevitably find their way into your book.

-Being unable to go to any social functions without mentally categorizing people and their quirks for future use in your book.

-Listening with disturbing intensity when coming across anyone with an accent, in case you can use it in your book.

-Shushing people at the movies because they dared to fidget as you are trying to mentally record a scene that might help you with your book.

-Having difficulty concentrating on what your friend is saying at lunch because you are fascinated by the way she chews her food and you might be able to use it for a character in your book.

-Developing an unhealthy habit of imitating grimaces and other facial expressions as you try to write them, but forgetting that you are in public.

-Mentally practicing combat moves for your fight scenes, not realizing that you are acting them out while sitting at a Starbucks and people are beginning to stare.

If anyone wants to add weird habits they’ve picked up as writers, I would love to hear about it.

Prologues: To Have or Not to Have

I have been having this on and off relationship with the Prologue for my novel. I feel that it needs one, but then everything I read tells me that agents and editors hate them. Well at least the majority of them. Because the lives of the characters in my novel are intertwined with the gods and goddesses from Hindu mythology, I feel that it is important to set the scene, so to speak. I personally love prologues and I find that for certain stories they can provide valuable background details. I decided to delve deeper into what people are saying about prologues and here is what I learned:

1. Never use your prologue as an information dump about your characters or the setting. It is better to cleverly work that into scenes and dialogue.

2. Don’t use your prologue as a hook. That’s what the first chapter is for. Also readers will feel cheated if the prologue reels them in, but the chapters don’t deliver on that promise.

3. Your prologue should not be overly complex. This will just confuse readers and possibly turn them off the book entirely.

4. Never, never write a prologue that doesn’t connect with the main story. It will leave the reader wondering  and not in a good way.

5. Ask yourself whether your prologue can just be the first chapter. If yes, then that’s what it should be. Apparently many people don’t even bother reading prologues. In that case, if the prologue contains information vital to understanding the story, you’re royally screwed.

Clearly there is no single answer to the question of whether or not to write a prologue. But at least there’s a lot of good information out there on how to do it right. Since I am the boss of me and I love prologues, I will keep mine. I have a strong gut feeling that my readers will appreciate it.

Here are a couple of links I found helpful:

The Prologue – When to Use One, How to Write One by Marg McAlister: An excellent dissection of the prologue, its advantages and disadvantages by Marg McAlister. She lists several questions to ask when deciding to use or not to use a prologue.

http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/prologue.shtml: An interesting take on the multiple roles a prologue can play in your novel. If your prologue is not doing any of the jobs it’s supposed to, then it doesn’t belong in your novel.

Naming Characters in Fiction

Naming your characters is a lot like naming your children. You have a vision of what you want the character to be like, so you want to pick a name that they can grow into. But there are a few things you want to watch out for.

1.  Your character’s age:

Pick a name that is appropriate for the era that your character is from. If your character was born in the 1960’s for example, don’t name them Jordan or Alyssa. Raid your aunt’s attic for her yearbook and check out the names in there. Or you could just go to your local library. But the attic seems like a lot more fun.

Social Security Name Popularity  List

2. Your character’s ethnic background:

Keep in mind your character’s ethnicity as that exponentially widens the pool of names to choose from. You have to decide though if the character’s ethnicity has a role in your story. You don’t want to choose a name that overshadows the character. Do your research well, so that you don’t end up giving the character a name that will cause you problems later. In many cultures a person’s name, last and first, are indicators of other details, such as religion, caste and geographic origin.

http://www.writing-world.com/links/names.shtml

3. Roots and meanings:

Make sure that you check out roots of names and their meaning. This way you can incorporate some of your characters’ personality traits into the name. If your heroine is a tough cookie you probably don’t want to call her Heather. Also when it comes to choosing  the names of villains you might want to stay away from likable names, unless of course your story demands it.

http://www.babynamesocean.com/impressions_of_names.html

4. Convoluted names:

Remember that if your readers don’t know how to pronounce the character’s name, it may take away from how well they connect. Sometimes, complicated names are unavoidable, so perhaps you could work the correct pronunciation into your story. For example, you could have your character meet someone for the first time and have them ask for the correct way to say the name. That way when your book is made into a movie your fans won’t be shocked to realize that they had been saying the main character’s name wrong the whole time. Of course by that time it may not matter, since you will be rich and famous.

The most important thing is to have a good time naming all the characters in your story. I can’t think of anything more fun than creating entire personalities and watching them grow. On a personal note, I am still trying to come up with names for two evil shape-shifting brothers for my story, so I am open to ideas.

The Woes of Editing: Part Two

I seem to have painted myself into a corner while attempting to edit my novel. I started out making small changes here and there. But then, like bunnies they multiplied and before I realized it, so much had changed that my characters started turning on me. One of them didn’t like the way I made her look, the other doesn’t like his personality. So what do you do if your characters refuse to be who you want them to be? In my mind I’m the boss, but just as it happens in real life, this is just a figment of my imagination. Which is really my point. They wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for me. It’s like I tell my children sometimes (read everyday) , I gave them life, therefore I get to make important decisions. But just like my children do to me, my characters lured me into a false sense of believing that I actually control them. It turns out that I don’t. Most of them are refusing to do the things that I ask, so I started making more changes to make them happy. So now I have to figure out a way to coax them all back into the little darlings they used to be when I first started writing this novel. Good luck to me.

Home Remedies for Writer’s Block

Writer's Block 1
Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate)

Last week I suffered from a particularly virulent strain of Writer’s Block. To overcome my frustration I decided to do some research into home remedies. Here’s what I came up with:

– A Castle Marathon may not be what the doctor ordered, but what do doctors know. It gave me some awesome ideas.

– Dive into your work. I’m a tutor, so my teenage students are great fodder for YA dialogue.

-It’s okay to have a drink after work on a weekday,every day, as long as it’s for medicinal purposes.

-Incessantly messaging your friends on Facebook is legal if it generates ideas for your book. After all there are so many different characters in a novel, the voices have to come from somewhere.

-Telling everybody that you are suffering from Writer’s Block and that you need an evening out is a legitimate excuse to go out for a night of karaoke. A Karaoke bar is a veritable smorgasbord for characters.

And the research continues…

New Adult vs Young Adult: Editing Content for the Genre

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the New Adult genre and it seems that there really isn’t a lot of clarity about this category. Is it just that the characters are older or is the content actually more graphic than the usual YA fare? It isn’t easy to find a definitive answer. Some feel that the New Adult category allows for more sexual content since the characters are between the ages of 18 and 24. Also, the readers of these books would be expecting a little more smut which is clearly something frowned upon in the YA category. My questions is this: if more sex and violence is included in a novel that would otherwise appeal to readers in the YA category, are we losing a big part of the audience? As someone about to self-publish a YA novel, this is particularly important to me. While I do want to target as large a readership as possible, I don’t want to compromise my character’s integrity by adding scenes that may cater more to the tastes of slightly older readers. Although my character was initially written as a fifteen year old, as I’m in the process of editing, I am tempted to make her a bit older. My reason for the change is not the NA vs YA issue, but rather how the character naturally developed as I wrote the novel. However, since I am toying with the idea anyway, I wonder if I should add a little more detail to the romantic scenes. If any writers or readers out there have suggestions or opinions on this, I would greatly appreciate any feedback.

Writers and the Fusion of Cultures

Child_with_red_hair_reading
Child_with_red_hair_reading (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was thinking about the stories we all grow up with. No matter where we spend our childhood, when we move to another part of the world we carry these stories with us and consciously or not, they make their way into the stories we write or tell our children. The folktales we listened to as kids or the stories that Grandfather always told at dinner seep into the world of the characters we create and soon we experience a wonderful fusion of cultures in which the bedtime stories a child might have heard in India merge with the stories of the Brothers Grimm. Thus we create new fairy tales for another generation. Almost every culture has some version of  the knight in shining armour who saves the princess. Or the brave warrior girl who outwits the evil genius. And then there are all the mythologies.  As a child growing up in Germany I devoured the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales. But I also loved the stories that my Bengali father told me and the comic books he bought me from which I learned about Hindu mythology. I grew up in a Muslim home, reading stories about Hindu deities, along with old German folktales. I lost myself in the Arabian Nights and listened to the bedtime stories that my Pakistani mother told me. Fantasy knows no boundaries and stories flow effortlessly across  man-made borders. As writers, we are in a unique position. We can create characters and stories which reflect wonderful aspects of different cultures  and enrich the literature of our times. And never has this been easier than now, when we can  reach such a large audience so quickly and easily. I am grateful for the opportunity to share the stories that created such happy memories of my childhood.

The Woes of Editing

When the freelance editor I hired returned my manuscript with many helpful comments and critiques, my initial reaction was one of relief. I was glad that I found someone who understood the story I was trying to tell and was familiar with Indian Mythology. I read through all his comments, excited by the prospect that soon I would sit down and polish the manuscript and then it would be ready to go out into the world. After all there was nothing that could stop me now, right?

Wrong. I sat down to get started and hit a wall. Metaphorically, of course, but it felt like an actual wall. My head hurt and my heart started to race. It could have just been the aftershocks from the horrible flu I was still getting over, but the panic I felt was real enough.

I had to talk myself out of the dark place I found myself in to get going again. Luckily, no one in my family finds it strange when I talk to myself, and soon enough I got going. Now I’m on a roll again, but it was scary for a while there.

So, my question to you is:

What is the best way to approach the editing process?

The Abandoned Palace: Fatehpur Sikri

Painting of Akbar the Great with Jesuits at hi...
Painting of Akbar the Great with Jesuits at his court; Akbar’s vizier wrote a gazetteer on the Mughal realm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Imperial palace at Fathepur Sikri, near Agra, ...
Imperial palace at Fathepur Sikri, near Agra, India, built in 1580 Français : Palais impérial à Fatehpur-Sikrî, près d’Âgrâ en Inde, construit en 1580 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On our trip to India two years ago we visited Fatehpur Sikri. A lot of the action in my book takes place in old temples and palaces, so this was a perfect spot for some great inspiration.  The Mughal Emperor Akbar had this palace city built in the late 1570’s when he relocated the capital of his empire from Agra to Fatehpur. The architecture is a dazzling blend of Persian and Hindu styles. The design bears testament to the religious tolerance that Akbar was well known for. While the Mughals were devout Muslims, Akbar chose to educate himself on the tenets of Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, as well as Christianity. In the palace he dedicated a large hall, called the Ibadat Khana or Room of Worship. There he invited scholars and leaders of other religions to meet and discuss their faith with the goal of enlightenment and brotherhood. Surprisingly forward thinking for his time, Akbar even invited women to join these weekly gatherings. But he didn’t just stop at gatherings and discussions. Akbar tried to create a new faith which was an amalgamation of all the faiths he had encountered. He called this faith Din-i-Ilahi, Faith of the Divine. Unfortunately for him, the ministers of his court were not quite so open-minded, and prejudices got in the way of his tolerance. Those closest to him began to worry that his open acceptance of the other faiths would pose a threat and political circumstances did not allow the new religion to gain popularity. Sadly, a few years later, Akbar’s court abandoned the palace at Fatehpur Sikri due to a water shortage.Today, the city still stands, nothing more than a ghost town of courtyards and surrounding pavilions. Walking around the complex you can almost hear the echoes of children playing in the gardens while the Emperor’s wives lounged by the pond. Inside the empty palace it is easy to feel the intensity and passion that must have filled the Ibadat Khana when Akbar led the scholarly discussions on the some of the world’s major religions.

As a writer there is nothing more inspiring than a place filled with so much  history and intrigue. Every room seems filled with secrets and stories just come alive as you walk in the footsteps of so many who made and changed the circumstances of their time.

Helicopter Parenting: How much is too much?

Week 36: Helicopter Parent
Week 36: Helicopter Parent (Photo credit: WilliamsProjects)

As parents we often have to tread carefully to avoid stepping on the fine line between good parenting and over parenting. How do we know when enough is enough? Is there a magic age when we can say that we have done all that we could for our children and that the time has come to step back?

I thought I was a helicopter parent. I hovered in preschool, in elementary school and would have continued to hover in high school if I had not walked into that invisible wall as my oldest daughter went off to her first day. It wasn’t an actual wall that stopped me…it was a look of sheer horror and embarrassment on my daughter’s face as she realized that I was stepping out of the car and following her. That look stopped me in my tracks. I realized that I had gone as far as I could. I stood outside her school like an abandoned child for a few minutes, before it hit me. This was it. No more greeting the teacher as the kids walked in and hanging around the classroom if they needed parent helpers. Apparently, once your kids hit high school, parent helpers are synonymous with the plague. I realized that I needed to get a life of my own, hence the desire to start a career as a writer. Also, I had some time to transition since I had another child and her teachers to harrass for a few more years.

Which brings me to the article  about helicopter parenting. Apparently it is a real affliction. It seems that there are parents out there who haven’t heard of the invisible wall I was talking about. And if they did, they may have just crashed through it anyway. I’m not judging because I know I’m just as guilty of hovering, but I do draw the line at calling my children’s prospective employers or future university profs. But extreme hovering tactics aside, when do we let go? Do we deprive our children the benefit of our experiences and failures and allow them room to make their own mistakes? Is it hyper-parenting to want to spare your child the disappoinments that you have faced and give them an edge? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it is a daily struggle to decide when to step in or back off. After all, it is our children’s future that’s at stake.