Monday, June 25, 2018

Keep It Simple by Avantika

When Sara decided that her memoir would focus on what happened at work from October 2016 to May 2016, what she had is called a ‘set-up’. It is the germ of an idea for the story. Could she expand it into an entire story?

Creating a synopsis will help keep you on track for any story that you plan to write. A word of caution, though. You must remember that you’re creating a synopsis at this stage and not a simple blurb.

When is it too simple? 
A few weeks ago, I received a message via Whatsapp from a writer. In less than 50 words, he told me that it was an inter-galactic tale and it had an ‘exciting ending’. The manuscript was 120,000 words-long and he wanted me to edit it. He was considering writing the story as a trilogy.

Although I could guess what was happening, I asked him to send me the synopsis for his manuscript. What I received in my inbox the next day was the same message he’d sent by Whatsapp with the addition of one character and the description of the home planet. This was not a synopsis by any means. At best, a blurb. When I tried to explain this to him, he was annoyed and we parted ways soon after.

Now, a blurb is defined as “a short publicity notice (as on a book jacket)”. Here is the blurb from ‘Ladoo Dog: Tales of a Sweet Dachshund’:
‘What makes dachshunds special? Can a dog be ‘Indian’ or ‘Chinese’? Do dachshunds have temper tantrums? These are some of the questions asked and answered in twelve stories about Ladoo, an exuberant dachshund with a big heart. This collection of entertaining stories will make you laugh and you will certainly appreciate dachshunds even more. Above all, these stories show that if you open your heart to a dog, in return, it will give you its whole heart and more.’

The most important thing to note from the above is that the blurb never tells the reader the whole story. It is meant to tease your readers; they must want to know more about this story.

On the other hand, a synopsis will explain the basic storyline and is written in the present tense. In particular, you need to keep these in mind when preparing to write your own story:

  • Whose story is this?
  • Where is the story set?
  • What is the story going to be about?
  • When does the story take place?
  • What are the main conflicts the protagonist faces and how will he solve his problems?
  • How does the story end?

Sara’s response to this was to say, “Isn’t it much easier to write out the whole book first. Then, shorten it to make the synopsis.”

Writing the whole book first
No doubt, it is possible to write the synopsis after the story is written. There is no right or wrong when working on a story. I know writers sit in front of the computer, type away at the keyboard and are surprised at how the story progresses. I also know that I can’t do this because I tried it once. Frankly, I couldn’t understand the completed manuscript. The story was incoherent and not fit for publication.

From that experience, I developed a new idea: writing a book is like building a house. If you build a house without a blueprint, it’s bound to collapse. But if you plan it well, the house will be strong and last a long time. Likewise, if you plan your story well, you can build on it to create a strong structure and foundation.

A synopsis alone won’t ensure the smooth flow of your story. You still need to map out your story from start to finish to finish to have an idea of how it’ll pan out. It will help you see if your story flows in a logical order. As you flesh out your synopsis and prepare a proper structure and plot, you will find out if there are enough dramatic high points and conflicts in the story. This is what we will be discussing in the next topic.

Join the conversation
Do you have synopses that have landed you a book deal? Share the elements that made them successful in the comments below.


  • Sundararaj, Aneeta. Ladoo Dog: Tales of a Sweet Dachshund. (28 August 2013)

Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
This is the synopsis that Sara prepared:

In October 2016, Sara’s father dies. She is devastated and needs time to recover. As an only child, she becomes responsible for her aged mother and shoulders all the burden looking after the household. She tells her boss she needs some time.
Four months later, Sara senses that all is not well in her workplace. Especially when a new writer is recruited, who asks her if she wants to continue working. Sara tells the new recruit that she’s already explained her situation to the editor and, yes, she’d like to continue working. Meanwhile, the editor has started criticising her work, deliberately forgetting appointments, and scolding her. Sara becomes insecure and aware that the editor is calling her names behind her back.
By May 2017, it all comes to a head when the editor shares a private message Sara had sent to her with everyone in the company. Humiliated, Sara withdraws completely from the group and vows to seek vengeance for the wrong done to her.

Boxed information
Start writing your synopsis in 3 sentences.
Expand these sentences so that you have a paragraph of no more than 150 words.
Expand these again to no more than 500 words.
Then, begin to write your story.


Aneeta Sundararaj tells the stories of a diverse group of people from cardiologists and Ayurveda practitioners to independent financial advisors. ‘Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time’ is included in a collection of stories that she is working on. Subscribe to the free newsletter on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ (

Monday, June 18, 2018

Who Cares by Avantika

“What if I spend all this time writing my story and no one wants to buy it? Or even read it? Then what?” Sara lamented.

Sara had a point. After all, there are thousands of books being published each year. What would make her story so interesting that everyone else will want to read it? When faced with such a dilemma, the elements of writing fiction become very useful even if your focus is non-fiction. The relevant elements are to look for ideas for your story and put a spin on old ideas.

Finding Strong Ideas
To do this, you must become a keen observer and listen to what people say and how they say it. Sometimes, a poignant remark is made with a turn of the head or a particular inflection in the voice. Such observations, when added to the text of your story, will make the story resonate with readers that much more.

For example, say Sara lost her father recently and couldn’t make it in time home for his funeral. These are some of the things writers will observe to help them understand Sara’s depth of sorrow:

  • She can’t complete her sentences whenever she speaks about her dad.
  • She lowers her eyes and can’t look at the person she’s speaking with. She has a ‘faraway’ look in her eyes.
  • There are bags under her eyes because she’s not been sleeping well.
  • She has lost so much weight that her clothes are hanging on her frame.

All these details will make any story Sara writes about this period in her life more plausible.

Putting a Spin on a Classic Tale 
Another tactic to use is to put a spin on a classic tale. For example, ‘Bride and Prejudice’ is an Indian movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic tale, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. In the movie, Mrs. Bakshi is desperate to find suitable husbands for her four unmarried daughters. The whole family has high hopes that their daughters will marry one of the two rich and single gentlemen – Balraj and Darcy – who come to visit. The story takes many twists and turns which jeopardise any possibility of romance. You know you’ve succeeded in using this method when your readers can see age-old characters in new light.

This will work even if you’re writing your own tale. Take Lee Kuan Yew’s story, for example. After his wife’s demise, the main subject he discussed was, of course, his grief. In the process, he also lost weight and concerned about this, he asked his sister to prepare some of his favourite dishes. Their observations about each other became the ‘spin –off’ that provided much-needed light heartedness.

Join the Conversation 
Have you ever struggled to find ideas for your stories? If so, what did you do overcome such challenges. Share them in the comments box below.


  • Bride and Prejudice. Dir. Gurinder Chada. Perfs. Martin Henderson, Aishwarya Rai, Nadira Babbar, Anupam Kher, Naveen Andrews. 2005. Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, DVD, Widescreen, NTSC. Miramax Home Entertainment
  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Tribeca Books (February 11, 2011)
  • King, Sophie. How to Write Your Life Story in Ten Easy Steps. How To Books Ltd (October 21, 2010)
  • Kuan Yew, Lee. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Prentice Hall; 1st edition (October 14, 1998)

Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
Even though Sara had decided to narrow the timeline of her story to eight months of her life, beginning from her father’s funeral and ending when she was told by her boss to leave, she found it hard to write her story and said, “I’m too close to it, Aneeta.”

Instead of taxing her memory about what happened in the last few months, I asked Sara to write about her grandmother’s funeral. As a third party character, she was able to write about those events as they happened easily. She remembered the agony her father felt that he wasn’t there to care for his mother during her last moments of life. Later, she would use all this information to help craft her own story.

Boxed information
Reflect upon your childhood and list five incidents that deeply affected you. With each one, note details such as where, when, how and why it happened. Then, go a little deeper and ask yourself how you’d change these details and their effect on your story.


Aneeta Sundararaj tells the stories of a diverse group of people from cardiologists and Ayurveda practitioners to independent financial advisors. ‘Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time’ is included in a collection of stories that she is working on. Subscribe to the free newsletter on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ (

Monday, June 11, 2018

Why Should I Write My Story by Avantika

“What if I write the truth?” Sara’s question came after I wanted to know why she struggled to go past the first 1,500 words of her story. Here were some of her fears.

  • “If I write about what really happened, people will know I’m a failure.”
  • “If I write about my ex-boss, will I be sued?”
  • “If I try to share what I’ve learnt, it’ll be old news. No one wants that.”

I decided to help her by analysing the kind of book she wanted to write. In particular, she wanted to understand the difference between fiction, non-fiction, a memoir and an autobiography.

I want to tell a story 
We started with fiction. Like Sara, many people think these are story books or novels. That is, generally, true. Novels can be broken down into two broad types:
a) A plot-based novel where the events often appear in a sensible order and the emphasis is on the pace of the story, the twists and the plot.
b) A character-based novel where characters behaviour is analysed and the emphasis is on creating detailed, sympathetic and multi-layered personalities.

It is not necessarily true that every part of a novel is made up. Let’s look at my first book, ‘The Banana Leaf Men’. I started writing what I observed happening around me. Then, I took this new story apart, applied the elements of fiction and put it back together to create a completely new work of fiction.

A good example of non-fiction work is ‘Ladoo Dog: Tales of a Sweet Dachshund’. It is a series of stories about life with my dog. They were true and the events did happen. As such, they were classified as ‘non-fiction’.

Sara, shook her head. “No. I don’t want to write fiction. I want to tell the truth about what happened in the company. I also want to share my knowledge. About managing people. About debt collection. What kind of story is that?”

What kind of story do I tell?
Now that we’d established that she did not want to write fiction, we decided to explore the difference between a biography, an autobiography and a memoir.

A biography is an account of someone written by someone else. A good example is ‘Mad Heaven: Biography of Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Dr. M. Mahadevan’. I was the author of this book and it was an account of the life of the man who was once the Chief Psychiatrist to the Government of Malaysia.

Ten years after this book was published, Tan Sri Mahadevan decided that he wanted to update the story and fill in a few more details. This time, he decided to self-publish the book. The new book has a similar title: ‘Mad Heaven: An Autobiography of a Gifted Life by Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Azlanii Dr. M. Mahadevan’.

“But I don’t want to tell people my whole story. No one needs to know when and where I was born. I just want to tell them what happened in the last ten years of my life,” said Sara.

This statement by Sara brings me to the third option: a memoir. This is defined as ‘a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources.’

The perfect example is ‘Joseph Anton’ by Salman Rushdie. The story starts with the day the fatwa was declared and it ends with the day it was lifted. The story in between is an honest account of the much-celebrated writer’s highs and lows, both personal and professional, during this time.

Not my story at all
Sometimes, when people choose to write a story, it doesn’t have to be theirs and it doesn’t even have to be a biography. Take a book like ‘50 Years National Mosque: 1965 – 2015’ by Ar Azim A Aziz. This is a coffee-table book about the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur and chronicles the journey of the architect who designed the National Mosque – Dato’ (Dr.) Ar Hj Baharuddin Abu Kassim. Aziz not only told the story of how an iconic building was built, but provided some of the behind-the-scenes photos of the interaction among people who were important in Malaysian history like Tunku Abdul Rahman Al-Haj, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Sambanthan. 

Hearing all this, Sara reflected on the kind of book she wanted to write. During our next session, we discussed her worry about whether or not anyone would be really interested in reading her story. That is what we discussed next.

Join the Conversation 
Share the kind of stories, be they memoirs, biographies or autobiographies, that you have enjoyed reading.


  • Mohamad, Tun Dr Mahathir. A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.MPH Group Publishing (8 April 2011) 
  • Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Random House Trade Paperbacks; 1st THUS edition (10 September 2013)
  • Mahadevan, Tan Sri Dato’ Seri AzlaniiDr. M. Mad Heaven: An Autobiography of a Gifted Life. (2014)
  • Sundararaj, Aneeta. Ladoo Dog: Tales of a Sweet Dachshund. (28 August 2013)
  • Azim, Aziz A. Masjid Negara : 50 Years (1965 - 2015). ATSA Architects Sdn. Bhd.; First edition (September 5, 2015)

Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
The memoir Sara decided to write was about the events during the last few months in her company. It would start from the time her boss first started to criticise her work until the time she was booted out of the company. The story would start from October 2016 and go on until May 2017.

Boxed information
Here are some examples of autobiographies and biographies about some of Asia’s famous :

  • Marino, Andy. Narendra Modi : A Political Biography. Harpercollins (6 April 2014)
  • Kuan Yew, Lee.The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Prentice Hall; 1st edition (October 14, 1998)
  • Singh, Khushwant. Truth, Love and a Little Malice Penguin Books India (May 30, 2003)
  • Mohamad, Tun Dr Mahathir. A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. MPH Group Publishing (8 April 2011) 
  • Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Random House Trade Paperbacks; 1st edition (10 September 2013)
  • Mahadevan, Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Azlanii Dr. M. Mad Heaven: An Autobiography of a Gifted Life. (2014)


Aneeta Sundararaj tells the stories of a diverse group of people from cardiologists and Ayurveda practitioners to independent financial advisors. ‘Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time’ is included in a collection of stories that she is working on. Subscribe to the free newsletter on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ (

Monday, June 4, 2018

How to Tell My Story by Avantika

“I want to become a writer,” Sara declared about one-and-a-half years ago. This 49-year-old single mother was retrenched from her workplace of 25 years. Having been in the financial industry, she was in charge of the publication side of the organisation. Sara wanted to chronicle her experiences.

“Very good,”I replied.

I was about to offer some advice about what to do next when she said, “I will do this on my own and start in January.”

I wished her well, but remained curious about what would happen next. I’ve met people who utter such words and that’s it. They have no clue what to do next. Some find they have time. Some don’t know where to start. Some are sure that absolutely everyone is going to read their story. As I expected, by the end of the month, Sara was close to tears because she realised how large a task it was to write a book.

To help Sara, we started all over again. This time, I told her that she needed to keep in mind three things before writing the first word: the right mental attitude, presentation and cultivating good writing habits.

The right mental attitude
“I’ve written every day for ten hours and I’m so tired, Aneeta,” she said. “The last time I wrote like this, I was in university doing my thesis.”

That word ‘thesis’ is a big tell. Think about it. A thesis may be somewhere in the region of 45,000 words. Similarly, a book-length project can also be of the same number of words or more. If writing a thesis can take up to two years to complete, why hurry the writing process now?

Look at writing your story as though you’re on an adventure. There are times it’ll be exciting; there are times you’ll face unexpected threats; and, there are times you’ll be frustrated to the point of tears. Overall, though, there is a sense of wonder. Keep at it, however, and I guarantee that, at the end of the adventure, you will learn more about yourself than you know.

Present your manuscript in the proper way
Assuming that you’d like to publish your story, you must present it in the proper way. Yes, you may like to write by hand. Or, you type in a particular font. However, when you submit your completed manuscript to a publisher, they will have their own styles and guidelines. Generally, the accepted rule is that a manuscript must be written in Times New Roman (12 point) font and double-spaced. If you’ve hand-written the whole book, you will have to either type it yourself or hire someone to do so. Even if you’re self-publishing your work, in this digital age, you will eventually have to convert it to a font that a typesetter can use to print your book.

Write when it feels right
Remember how Sara wrote ten hours a day? That seems a long time to work non-stop. I suggested that she develop certain writing habits and one of them was to develop a routine. Mine is to write in the morning when it is absolutely quiet. So, when I’m working on a book project, I usually work uninterrupted from 5.30 to 8.30 am. By the time I stop, it’s about the right time for breakfast and morning coffee while reading the papers.

Sara took on board all that I said and got into the spirit of writing her story. Two weeks later, though, she had completed writing a grand total of 143 words.

“I can’t work out what to write. I start to write. Then, after a few pages, I can see that it’s all messed up. I go back and start re-writing.”

“What’s your story about?”

“About me. But I cannot decide where to start. At the beginning? Bluff the story a bit or a lot? Or start when it all got bad.”

Essentially, Sara’s problem was this: she could not decide precisely what she wanted to work on – fiction, non-fiction, an autobiography or a memoir. This is what we will discuss in the next piece.

Join the Conversation 
For now, let us know what preparations you make before starting a writing project in the comments below.


Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
Sara surprised me by going further than I expected. First of all, she decided that she wrote better at night when everyone was asleep and there was peace and quiet in the house. Anticipating the huge amount of paperwork she would generate in this process, she decided to find a way to organise her notes. While some people can do this on a computer, she decided to use a ring binder to file printed copies of her notes, synopses, character profiles, drafts, and other information. She also learnt that she was not capable of doing more than three hours of solid work per night. After a few nights, her family became used to her disappearing after dinner and respected her choice to work on her book.


Aneeta Sundararaj tells the stories of a diverse group of people from cardiologists and Ayurveda practitioners to independent financial advisors. ‘Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time’ is included in a collection of stories that she is working on. Subscribe to the free newsletter on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ (