Monday, July 30, 2018

Does the Air Feel Right by Avantika

When political figures write memoirs, it’s often a study about the politics of the past. For instance, Tun Dr. Mahathir’s ‘Doctor in the House’ chronicles his life in politics and mentions his past struggles and successes. Andy Marino’s ‘Narendra Modi: A Political Biography’ is a story about a man before he became one of India’s most powerful and controversial leaders. The common element in both their books is that stimulated the emotions of their readers. This is what you should aim for when writing your story.

When someone reads your story, they must finish the book and say, “I felt like the writer got under my skin. It’s as though he was writing my story.” When this happens, you will know that you’ve created the right atmosphere in your story. The way in which you can create the right atmosphere include using the five senses, describing images, and creating the right mood.

The five senses 
To create the correct atmosphere, use the five senses of touch, sight, taste, sound, and hearing. Make every scene a feast for the five senses – tell your readers how the food tasted, how cold a gun felt to the touch or how enticing the smell of the female villain’s perfume was.

John Ling, author of ‘Fourteen Bullets’ says: ‘What most people don’t realize [sic.] is that stories are not movies. … Therefore, if you rely on sight, your stories will end up being very flat. A solution is to use what novelist John Barth called triangulation. Triangulation suggests that you should cut down on sight, and focus on other senses such as smell, hearing and touch. You will get a well-rounded story this way…’

Atmospheric images
On the first page of ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts, the author added texture to his story with one word. Roberts wrote: ‘… that looked down upon a busy street, …’

He could have left it at ‘…that looked down upon a street…’ If it was just a street, it’s possible that readers would have imagined a street that was quiet, without many cars or people about. By adding one word, ‘busy’, the mental image he created was something altogether different. The street now probably has lots of traffic, people milling about, and street vendors.

Can you see how using one adjective has radically changed the image and atmosphere of the scene?

Mood makers
One of the best ways to lighten or darken a scene is to use the weather. Analyse published books and you’ll see that it usually rains when a car breaks down; there’s usually a storm (or an approaching storm) when the main person is about to enter a haunted house. A couple will usually kiss under a clear and moon-lit sky.

When you put in the effort and create atmospheric scenes in your novel, you’re effectively allowing the reader to make an emotional investment in the events playing out. When the tale is over, you can rest assured that your readers will appreciate your work. Indeed, fill every scene you write with atmosphere and no publisher will be able to resist publishing your novel.

***
Sources

  • Roberts, Gregory David. Shantaram St. Martin’s Griffin; Reprint  edition (Nov 2005)
  • WritersandArtists.co.uk. Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. A&C  Black (June 30, 2010)
  • Editors of Writer’s Digest Books. The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing: Everything You Need to Know About Creating & Selling Your Work. Writer’s Digest Books; 2nd edition (August 22, 2010).
  • Ling, John. Fourteen Bullets Silver Lake Publishing (15 Jan  2005)
  • Sundararaj, Aneeta. Diamond Writing: An Interview with John Ling (2 August 2006) [http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com/byot/byot44.html]  


***

Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
Let’s go back to Sara’s story and see how she added the elements mentioned above to make the story much better.

“Shekar, there are only two Scorpios in the group and the other one is currently in favour. I’m not. And I talked to three friends about this. They all knew she was referring to me.”
“OK.” A moment later, he asked if there was anything else I wanted to share. “I remember you texting me. Something more about Scorpios.”
I searched my memory then smiled. “Oh ya! I forgot.” I reached out to take my phone from him. “Good ah, your memory,” I said as he put the phone in my hand. I looked for the Facebook app and clicked on it. “When you have only one friend on FB and it’s Molly Gun, not difficult to find.”
“Breathe, Sara, breathe.”
I looked at him. “Huh?”
Waving his hand up and down, he said, “Since you took the phone, you stopped breathing. You’re becoming pale. Breathe.” His eyes were hard and his voice stern.

Boxed information
The Ambience 
Right from the very start of your story, you must know the kind of atmosphere you’re going to create. In Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, you know that the atmosphere he is creating is that of a swampy new country that was transformed into a cosmopolitan city. In the biography of Narendra Modi, the atmosphere in the book is one of trying to create order from chaos. Similarly, if the world you create is cold, grey, and there’s hardly any sun, the story is probably of impending doom. If the world your characters inhabit is sunny and bright, there is much joy and happiness in 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’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

Monday, July 23, 2018

Creating Excitement by Avantika

When I first started writing, I read numerous books. There was one autobiography that I’ve never been able to appreciate. It’s of a local tycoon and I can barely remember his story. Nothing captured my interest from the dialogue and setting to the people he encountered. I tried to analyse the ways in which I would make the story better if I were to rewrite it. And I accepted that to make his story truly stand out, the very least I would do is add a few elements such as conflict, jeopardy, and tension.

The element of conflict 
Conflict in a story refers to anything that acts as an obstacle to achieving his aim. When you assess your story, consider if the events are running too smoothly and whether the protagonist you are being opposed or tested. There is not a single person whose life’s journey is without some sort of problem. Similarly, in yours, there must have been a fight somewhere, an accident and theft or something that disturbs the narrative.

Clearly, not all conflict has to be huge, destructive or violent. In fact, conflict does not have to be external or involve others. An example of an internal conflict is a phobia that you may have. For instance, you are dating this beautiful girl and she is everything you dreamed of. Then, she suggests you fly off to the Maldives on a holiday. You can’t because you’re afraid of flying. Don’t just gloss over this by saying ‘Our relationship ended soon after.’ Instead, analyse the conversations you had (or couldn’t bring yourself to have) about this phobia. This will immediately make your story exciting.

The element of jeopardy
Always remember when writing your story that the idea is that you were someone in a place of jeopardy. This means that the more you have to lose or the bigger the possibility of failure on your part, the more exciting your story will be. You must lose or at least be at risk of losing everything.

The element of tension
Tension means that you always have to play the game of ‘cat and mouse’ with the reader. Never reveal all the information at once. Tell the reader enough so that he follows the story and his pulse quickens, but not so much that he can guess the plot.

One of the best ways to create tension is to write short and tight scenes. The dialogue often appears in clipped or staccato tones.

As you can see, when conflict, jeopardy, and tension are used, a simple story becomes more exciting and helps the reader resonate with the protagonist’s predicament. Use these suggestions to ensure that your story is properly developed. It will make your story irresistible.

***
Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
In the previous article, all Sara did was to write the dialogue. Let’s revisit the last three sentences and see how she’s added the elements mentioned above to make her story better.

“Breathe, Sara, breathe.”
I looked at him. “Huh?”
Waving his hand up and down, he said, “Since you took the phone, you stopped breathing. You’re becoming pale. Breathe.” His eyes were hard and his voice stern.


Boxed information
There is one more element you can add to your story to make it interesting: the element of action. This is necessary because today, your average reader has been conditioned by television and wants stories that are fast-paced, move quickly, and have crisp dialogue. It’s the same with what they read. Here are some tips to ensure that you have enough action in your story:


  • Don’t have too many minor characters crowding your story – in a short story, stick with no more than three characters.
  • Make sure you avoid elaborate sketches of location and setting. 
  • Don’t spend precious words on long conversations that have no bearing on the tale whatsoever. Make sure every piece of conversation has meaning and is necessary. 


***

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’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

Monday, July 16, 2018

What Did She Say by Avantika

“I can remember the gist of my conversations with Shekar. But not every word,” said Sara. This is a common comment I hear from those who write biographies. They have a need to provide documents and tapes of conversations before anyone believes their story.

“It’s evidence,” Sara says.

True, but it’s not always necessary. There are ways of getting around this. Let’s look at my article ‘Umbrella of Faith’ which was published in the New Straits Times (https://www.nst.com.my/news/2015/10/umbrella-faith). My story was a profile piece about the architect of Masjid Negara in Kuala Lumpur, Dato Dr.HjBaharuddin Abu Kassim.

From a monograph written by Azim A Aziz, ‘50 Years National Mosque: 1965 – 2015’, I already knew that Dato’ Baharuddin hates domes. When we met, I asked him about this. This is what was eventually published:
“Eeee,” he shudders. “I benci (hate) domes.”
Determined to avoid the use of onion-shaped domes and the Mughal designs made famous during the Colonial era, Baharuddin chose, instead, to be inspired by what he saw around him and his own history.

I could have written a simple sentence like ‘Domes are the one design element that Dato’ Dr Baharuddin hates.’ Instead, by writing the exact words that he said, the impact was powerful.

Dialogue, therefore, is your way of sharing information without expressly telling the reader this information.

Dialogue has four main functions:

  • To progress the story. Every conversation must involve a crucial piece of information, fact or revelation that the reader needs to know.
  • To create excitement. Your aim should be to make your readers experience what the character experiences. For example, imagine if one of your characters says this: “Oh my God. We’re all going to die soon.” Can you see how this dialogue will create the necessary tension to give the story a dangerous feel?
  • To tell your readers more about a character’s background. For instance, imagine that one of your characters says this: “We need to get that appointment with that famous surgeon, lah.” By using ‘lah’, we convey that this person is Malaysian. 
  • To give pace to the story. Dialogue allows you to convey large chunks of information in a concise manner. For instance, if your character barges into a flat and says, “What a dump!” the reader will understand that the flat is in a mess and untidy.


Believable and realistic dialogue
When I transcribed my interview with Dato’ Dr.Baharuddin, there were times when he stumbled or paused. There were lots of ‘Errr…’ and ‘Um…’ If I followed exactly what he said, the text would have been like this:
“Eeee. Huh!” he shudders. Looking at us, he shakes his head and closes his eyes. “Eeee… I bencilah. I benci domes.”

This would have made the dialogue rambling, repetitive and untidy. Modify such speech so that whatever dialogue you write appears forceful, sharp, and clean.

Direct or indirect speech 
Direct speech means that the reader actually ‘hears’ the words the character speaks. Here’s an example: “I’m angry with you, Sally. How could you have criticised Mary?” John said.

Indirect speech means that the narrator will outline what has been said: ‘John said he was so angry with Sally and questioned why she criticised Mary.’

Naturally, direct speech has more impact, is more powerful and the preferred option for many writers. You should only use indirect speech to summarise huge chunks of information, when the information is inconsequential to the reader or the characters are repeating information already given to the reader.

The suggestions made above are a guide to help you get started. When you have mastered the art of writing dynamic dialogue, your story will become an exciting piece of work that readers will never forget.

***
Sources

  • Coulmas, Florian (Editor). Direct and Indirect Speech Mouton de Gruyter (1 April 1986)
  • WritersandArtists.co.uk. Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. A&C Black (June 30, 2010)
  • Editors of Writer’s Digest Books. The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing: Everything You Need to Know About Creating & Selling Your Work. Writer’s Digest Books; 2 edition (August 22, 2010).


***

Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
Sara decides to pretend that she and Shekar are seated at a table and having a conversation. She will write only the words either one says. Although it is probably not going to make sense right now, here is an excerpt of what she wrote:
“Shekar, there are only two Scorpios in the group and the other one is currently in favour. I’m not. And I talked to three friends about this. They all knew she was referring to me.”
“OK. I remember you texting me. Something more about Scorpios.”
“Oh ya! I forgot. Good ah, your memory. When you have only one friend on FB and it’s Molly Gun, not difficult to find.
“Breathe, Sara, breathe.”
“Huh?”
 “Since you took the phone, you stopped breathing. You’re becoming pale. Breathe.”

Boxed information
Making your dialogue dynamic
Dialogue can be made to appear dynamic by incorporating some of the ideas explained below:

  • Dialogue tags. Instead of common tags like, ‘he said,’ or ‘she said,’ you can try more dynamic ones like, ‘John added,’ or ‘Dorina interrupted’.
  • Slang. While slang might make your novel modern, but it will date your story. 
  • Swearing. The general advice is your characters should swear only under the most extreme situations. Too much swearing and you may upset your readers. But too little, and your character may sound fake. 


***

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’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

Monday, July 9, 2018

It’s All About the People by Avantika

What did you love most in your favourite biography or memoir?

For me, the answer can be found in one of my favourite autobiographies, Khushwant Singh’s story, ‘Truth, Love and a Little Malice’. In the inside cover of this book, it is stated that he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 by the President of India. He returned this award in 1984 to protest against the Union Government’s siege of the Golden Temple, Amritsar. I knew immediately that I wanted very much to read his story. What manner of courage did this man have to return a national award? What was his background and who provided him with such a sense of identity and pride that he was willing to do this?

An Accessible World
The world already knew these men as great people. What made both the stories more accessible was that, through their words, I got to see their humanity, insecurities, joys, and sadness. Also, they narrated major historical events and their interaction with people from all over the world in an interesting way. This was because they understood how to effectively describe each person they came into contact with. They brought all these people to life with a detailed analysis of these people’s character traits and so on.

Similarly, to create compelling characters, try using a ‘police photo-fit’ approach. First, prepare a list that contains basic information about each character. Let’s say your name is Gina and you want to write about your step-son, Jason. He was born in 2002 and he looks very much like his father did when he was young. This is how you would weave the information into the text: ‘Gina smiled. Jason seemed so awkward – at 14, his clothes were too big for his tall frame; his large hands flapped about and even his smile was lop-sided. He reminded her of a scarecrow.’

What if they get angry with me?
Sometimes, writers are so worried they’ll offend someone they write about.

  • What if that person is offended? 
  • What if they recognise themselves?
  • What if they sue me? 
  • What if they hate me for life? 


Answering such questions is often a balancing act.

On the one hand, you should not write with the intention to offend someone else. You write because you have a story to tell. If you don’t tell this story, life will not be complete in some way. It’s your story and you must own it. That should be your starting point.

On the other hand, you must remember this: what have you got to lose by telling your truth? If you were treated badly or unfairly in your workplace, what more can they expect of you? If you’re careful about how you craft the characters in your story, even if they’re based on real people, they will become so unrecognisable in the text that you are unlikely to be sued.

Whenever I’ve crafted characters based on others, they can’t recognise themselves even when they read the story. It’s probably because they’re so self-centred. With their ‘I’m always right’ attitude, they can’t see the flaws in their behaviour. You may manage this so well you may unexpectedly create characters that will become icons for years to come.

***
Sources

  • Kress, Nancy. Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities That Keep Readers Captivated. Writers Digest Books; First Edition edition (July 15, 1998)


Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
The character that Sara chose to work on was her friend and mentor, Sekhar. Here’s the information she gathered about him:- His full name is Shekar Menon. He is a Malayalee and an investment banker. He belongs to the upper middle class bracket, he is fair, has thick, curly hair and black eyes. A techie, he has all the latest apps on his phone and listens to many forms of music. He takes his responsibilities as a father (to one son and one daughter) and wife very seriously. Highly disciplined, he has a fixed timetable that he sticks to no matter what. He is always on time. His one weakness is food; he loves to eat, but has recently become a vegetarian.

Boxed information
Here is a basic template of some of the elements that go into helping you create unforgettable characters:

  • General information – this will include full name, nickname, race, occupation and social class.
  • Physical appearance – this will include age, hair colour, eyes and so on.
  • Favourites – this will include the character’s favourite music, books, expressions and hobbies.
  • Personality – describe the character’s personality. Is he cautious? Is he temperamental? Background – what is the character’s background?
  • Relationships – describe the character’s relationship with his family and friends.
  • Traits – describe the character’s traits. For instance, is he an optimist or pessimist?
  • Problems – what problems does this character face?


***

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’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).

Monday, July 2, 2018

The One Thought by Avantika

Whatever the length of your story, it must carry the reader through from start to end. You still need to map out your story from start to finish to have an idea of how it’ll all pan out. The story must flow in logical order. To ensure this, you have to look into three aspects: theme, structure, and plot.

A theme is the essence and backbone of your story. Roughly speaking, the structure divides your story into the ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’. A plot comprises the elements of a story that go into making it better. Before you start writing your story, you must know what each of these means and how to use them. It will help you answer an important question.

Can you answer the question? 
Each time I’ve had a new book published, one of the first questions people have asked me is, “What is your book about?” If I cannot tell you what my book is about, how can I expect anyone else to know what it’s about?’

As Laura Backes says, “I think with any story the key is to find the universal, timeless theme that will transcend culture. For example, sibling rivalry is something children of every country can relate to, and if the characters are appealing, and their conflicts are believable, the story will apply across the globe.”

A biography in three acts
Any story, however long, consists of three acts. In the previous article, Sara’s synopsis had three parts: the problem, the pivotal moment, and the resolution. In other words, the beginning, the middle, and the end. Similarly, your story should have these three acts to form a comprehensive plot.

The beginning introduces your story and creates the foundation upon which your story is built. In the case of a biography, this is where you’ll introduce the person who is the subject of the biography, set out the main event he is responsible for, explain what’s at stake and any conflicts (both internal and external) and establish the time period of your story.

The middle gives the reader a ‘breather’ and allows you to develop your theme. It could include expanding on the conflicts that the subject of the biography went through.

The end, of course, is the showdown and tying up loose ends in the story. If it’s a memoir you’re writing, the end is the perfect place to suggest that there could be more to this story and entice the reader to want to know more.

Losing the plot
There are several plots you can use to write your story. For instance, the most popular one is ‘the quest’. This means that the biographer finds that his world is turned upside down. He has to make things right, even though everyone is against him. In ‘the race’, there are several groups of rivals, but only one can win. This is usually the case when the book is about politicians. Similarly, in ‘the contest’, there is often a head-to-head confrontation between two powerful and equally matched opponents.

Once the theme, the three acts and the plot of your story are in place, you will have created a balanced story. This means that before you write the first word, you’ll have the confidence to know that it is already good enough. What you do from now on will only make it even better.

***
Sources

  • Bell, James Scott. Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish) (Write Great Fiction). Writers Digest Books; 5th edition (October 6, 2004)
  • Backes, Laura. Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read: 125 Books That Will Turn Any Child into a Lifelong Reader. Three Rivers Press (July 17, 2001)


Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
The theme that Sara chose was ‘Revenge’ and she was inspired by William Shakespeare’s words from ‘The Merchant of Venice’: ‘If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?’

Boxed information
How Do You Choose a Theme?
Choosing the theme for your story should never be something you rush. Take your time and consider the message you are trying to share with your readers. Try to make a personal connection with your reader by helping them to identify with your characters. Even if your tale has an unusual setting, there must be something in your story that makes it feel familiar. Here are some tips to help you choose a theme for your novel:


  1. Consider the keywords you’d like to use in your theme. They should be of emotional benefit to the kind of reader you’d like for your novel.
  2. Remember who your readers are. For instance, if you’re writing a story for children, using big words like ‘circumnavigate’ is likely to confuse them.
  3. Keep your theme as short as possible; it should be no more than 200 words long.
  4. Here are ten of the most common themes used in stories:
  • Power corrupts even the most pure.
  • There is light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Opportunity seldom knocks twice.
  • Love conquers all.
  • No one is beyond redemption.
  • Dreams always come true.
  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
  • When it rains, it pours.
  • One man’s food is another man’s poison.


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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’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).