Monday, 30 September 2019

What it feels like to run on empty: #YouBeneathYourSkin

In the last two months, I haven't had an entire night's sleep. I'm lucky if I have five hours. No weekends. No evenings out. Almost no cooking or gardening. The worst thing? No creative writing, and almost no reading. I'm on a hamster wheel and the faster I run, the faster it spins--the book tour gig is not for sissies.

I'm traveling to various cities in India with You Beneath Your Skin, attending panels and discussions and lit-fests and all throughout an inner voice that remains calm and detached keeps asking me when I plan to get back to my current WIP again.

I'm fundraising for two charities I've volunteered with for a while: Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks: all my proceeds go to them. This adds an impetus--I'm pretty sure if this was a normal book, with no causes attached to it, I would have bolted into a hidey-hole a long time ago.

To de-stress and keep myself functional, I've turned to meditation--just learning to breathe and remaining with that flow. I'm forgiving myself for falling a little behind, missing out on a few things, for falling asleep when I'm supposed to be working.

I'm sorely tempted to hide away for a while, but i know I'd have to come back, and things would be far more difficult then. Having a book out in the world is a blessing, and in my case, the culmination of 6 years of effort. Might as well try and enjoy a little of it while it lasts.

What about you? Does doing non-writing things most of the time annoy you? How do you work all of that into your life? What is your personal mantra? 

Sunday, 29 September 2019

On writing of difficult things: N M Browne

Sometimes I wonder why I bother. No, really. What with Climate Change and Brexit and so much depressing news, sitting at home writing stories seems a very inadequate response to the challenges of this world. I have started writing poetry too, which is even more useless; it makes no money, earns me no accolades, takes a lot of creative energy and isn’t even very good.
  Though I’m a writer, I can’t claim I’m competent at communicating, not when the stakes are high, when someone is sick, bereaved, dying: I dry up. I am as much at a loss for words as if I were stranded in a foreign land without a dictionary, barely able to express the most basic level of concern and empathy.
  I was particularly useless when my friend, the broadcaster, counsellor, priest, clown-magician and all round superwoman, Ruth Scott, was diagnosed with cancer. 
 Our friendship was hard to define. She was the kind of person who did not do small talk, so we drank a few glasses of wine and engaged in big talk: she was funny, honest and the connection we made was oddly intimate for the limited time we spent together: I think that was her gift.
  When she fell ill, I was at a loss. A nurse first then a priest, there wasn’t a cliché about death and dying that she hadn’t already heard. Besides, Ruth challenged cliché and easy platitudes more than anyone I’ve known. So I did what most people do - absolutely nothing. Maybe I sent a text and promised a visit, but I had no words.
  I tracked her progress and kept in touch through a good friend who, having lost her  husband a few years earlier, was a native speaker of that tricky language of pain. She suggested I send a card. I was looking for something funny, something off-beat to which I could add some quirky, hopeful message when I found a black and white image of a lighthouse on a rock under wild assault from the sea: it seemed to me a perfect metaphor for Ruth and her situation. Lacking the right kind of everyday prose, I wrote her a sonnet.
   I hesitated for a day or two before I sent it: writing a poem to a woman who might well be dying was perhaps too personal, too intrusive, too awkward, and God knows, I walk far and fast away from awkward.
  My lovely friend died in February  2019 and, as only Ruth could do, wrote a book in the throes of her illness. Ruth was a person who embraced the business of writing about difficult things: she specialised in speaking  about the unspoken. Her book ‘Between Living and Dying’ her reflections on living so close to death, has just been published and is as wonderful, thoughtful and inspiring as I knew it would be.  
  I was moved and surprised to see that in the epilogue she reproduced my poem and wrote of how my Lighthouse image helped her to rediscover that part of herself that was almost lost in the dark storm of her illness. It isn’t a good poem by normal standards – it wasn’t written for publication - but  I am happy if, just once, I found words that said something I wanted to say to someone who needed to hear them. Isn’t that all we ever want to do as writers and as human beings?

Saturday, 28 September 2019

PATCHING, TAILORING and even EDITING! by Enid Richemont

I am a compulsive editor, especially of picture book texts which really have to be spot-on perfect, so from time to time I check over the ones that haven't flown, to find out why, and to see if they can be improved. If I haven't checked them for ages, I feel I'm coming at them from a different place - as a very picky reader. I was once passionate about the concept, but now I'm reading it cold, with all passion spent, and I can see its flaws, often glaring, but once upon a time I was in love with this story, so can it be rescued?

At present I've been re-acquainting myself with my "Little Bad King", partly because it slots into current politics, which won't interest its intended age group one whit, except for the themes of fairness, greed, and nasty people getting their come-uppance in amusing ways, none of which is age exclusive. This is how it starts:




(This is where we see the real king, and he's not very pretty!)




(This is where we see the hype - bulging muscles etc etc)

And, of course, the king will get his come-uppance via an imaginative tailor, and a small boy who just doesn't believe the hype. NB That legal declaration about book characters having no resemblance or connection with anyone living or dead, well I can think of at least three little bad kings, but that's just coincidence, isn't it?

I recently watched a disurbing programme about how to become a dictator (my secret ambition), and learnt about publicity, which I hadn't considered the first time round, so I gave my Little Bad King false images, and even a statue - great to illustrate!

So why the sewing pics? Well, many decades ago, I bought, for £3 in a charity shop, a jacket I became wed to. The fabrics it was made from were quite cheap - the kind of linings you put into a man's jacket, shiny and with a 'shot' effect - two different colours interwoven so they became glazes. Such a shame they're nearly always invisible. A light padding, a zip, two pockets and a simple mandarin collar - also a perfect fit, and the colours so subtle and shimmering. I wore it and wore it, and it was hugely admired, but tailor's lining fabric isn't meant to be long-lasting, and it began to fray. Repair - aka darning - wasn't possible, so I began to patch. Finding fabrics which would blend into original seemed almost impossible, until I began looking at ribbons, which with their built-in selvedge edges and slight glitter, proved perfect.

There is only so long you can get away with this, though, and every year I wonder if this might be the final farewell. This year I resigned myself - IT WOULD HAVE TO GO! But as with much-loved books and much-edited manuscripts, I couldn't do it. We have a small local shop specialising in expensive interior design stuff which also sells ribbons. Well I went, and I looked - I wasn't going to BUY anything, was I?  The rest is history. 

Friday, 27 September 2019

Creating Beautiful Private Autobiographies and Memoirs - Andrew Crofts

I was invited for afternoon tea on a sunny afternoon by and I was intrigued enough to graciously accept.

Image result for ghostwriter Andrew Crofts at Lifebook

As a full-time ghostwriter I receive many enquiries from people who want their elderly parents to turn their memories into books. In most cases these books would have no commercial value but would have infinite emotional value to the parent in question, as well as to their close friends and family. There would also be the benefit for a parent, who might be feeling sidelined by old age, of being given the time to talk about themselves and their lives with someone who is asking genuinely interested questions.

With most enquiries of this sort it is not worth the enquirer hiring someone like me and it would be completely pointless for them to set themselves up for rejection by the Big Five publishers, or even by any of the smaller independent publishers.

The target markets for these books are sniper-sharp and narrow. So I am never quite sure where to send them and usually end up rather feebly advising them to have a go at writing it themselves, which in most cases is never going to happen. 

I am also very aware that there are a number of shady operators in the market who will happily take money off people in this position and provide them with disappointing results. So I was intrigued by the package that Lifebook was offering. 

Although their products can be tailored to suit each individual customer, there is an underlying modus operandi which works as follows:

You – or your parent – contact them and tell them what you want to achieve. They will then find an interviewer who lives close to the author - and that can literally be anywhere in the world. That interviewer will come for a dozen one or two hour sessions with a tape machine and get the author to talk through their life chronologically, prompting them with questions where required.

After each recording session the material goes to a writer who turns it into publishable prose, which then goes back to the author for checking. There is also a project manager back at Lifebook Headquarters, either in the UK or the US, who is overseeing the whole thing right up to the typesetting and printing.

All the author’s pictures will be scanned in their own home, so there is no fear of them going missing. Although the text will be professionally written, proof-read and edited, it will not be fact checked. These books contain the memories of the authors, errors and all. The team will offer advice on how to tell the story well, but the final decisions on what is written and printed will be entirely down to the author. If the author decides that they want to try to sell copies at a later stage, then they will have to arrange for their own legal read to check they are not libelling anyone.

Once the whole book is written it will probably be around 40,000 words. Ten copies will then be printed up to professional, presentation standards, creating a high quality gift item, (apologies for the ad-speak here, but this actually is how it works).

On top of that the author can also read highlights from the book for an audio recording and the company will create a reminder of how they sounded, all gorgeously designed and packaged. 

The whole concept provides many of the same advantages as commissioning a portrait of a beloved parent, only these portraits are in their own words.

Although there are opportunities to print more copies or create more elaborate art work, it is possible to buy the package in the UK for around £6,000 – which I’m guessing would compare pretty well with the costs of having a portrait painted by an established artist.

The whole Lifebook concept is the brainchild of Roy Moëd, an avuncular businessman who stumbled across the idea when he realised that his elderly father was full of stories that Roy had never heard, and that if he didn’t do something about recording them they would be lost forever. He was also looking for a way to keep his father alert and interested in his later years.

So that was why I found myself arriving at Lifebook’s immaculate UK headquarters in leafy Surrey. It’s hard to imagine a more civilised setting. The business side of the company takes place in an airy room which is part library and part conservatory, while the publishing operation takes place in the hushed surroundings of a beautifully converted barn just across the lawn. The place oozes calm professionalism.

Tea and cake were served overlooking the garden, sitting beneath shelves filled with books that the company has produced and I have to admit I couldn't help wishing that  Lifebook had been around when my own parents were still alive to record their stories for me, my children and my grandchildren.   

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Durga Puja in Kolkata

It is that time of the year again - when Ma Durga comes visiting with her four children (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik) to her natal home down in the plains, leaving her husband's (Lord Shiva) abode in the Himalayas for ten days. It is a Hindu festival, particularly special to Bengalis, who celebrate it unfailingly wherever in the world they may be. However, nothing can match the native celebration in Bengal, especially in the city of Kolkata.  

This will be my third Durga Puja in Kolkata after leaving the Netherlands in 2017. For a decade before that, I was always away during this time, visiting the city annually only in Christmas.

The Expat Experience

Honestly speaking, I didn't exactly miss Durga Puja in the Netherlands. As part of KALLOL, the Indian Bengali Association there, we celebrated it with much fanfare at Voorschoten every year; and actually did it in a way, and with an involvement, that we'd never done in Kolkata. But the expat experience is very different - both less and more 'authentic' than the real one. More, because in its eagerness, it often goes overboard in observing the rituals; and less, because it can never approximate the experience of the city.

Back in Kolkata

For the ten days of the Puja, Kolkata is transformed - the whole city is decked as a bride and looks beautiful! I witnessed this after ages in 2017 and 2018. My predilection was actually to sleep through it - the previous two months in both the years having been exceptionally exhausting for me - but my daughter, Srishti, was super-enthusiastic about the Pujas and I couldn't deny her that. Especially, in the first year, as it took her mind away from missing Amsterdam. By the second Durga Puja in October 2018, however, she was already enjoying the Puja for its own sake. 

Incidentally, what she loves most about it - the lights in the streets - is neither  very uniquely Indian nor Bengali. The big capitals of the West are as resplendent with light during Christmas. And for a longer time. The festive mood always prolonged a tad bit (I feel). What is unique about the Durga Puja, however, is the 'pandals' - or pavilions - where the goddess is housed with her family.

'Pandal-hopping' during the Pujas is an inevitable part of a Bengali's (actually anyone's) childhood in Kolkata. I have had my fair share of it as a child and teenager, but had long stopped enjoying that bit later. Because, over the years, I felt, the core of the festival had been overshadowed by the frills. The puja itself - the worship of the goddess, the prayer part - had been pushed into the background; and what became increasingly important was the scale and grandeur of the pavilions. And I hated the gendered long queues before all the reputed pandals, having to spend hours to see just one idol. What an utter waste of time! I much preferred spending the puja days with my two bosom pals at each other's homes, wearing new sarees of course (that part I've always loved), and content with admiring each other!

In 2017, I didn't mind the usual Puja stuff so much as I was seeing everything afresh through Srishti's eyes; and because we did very low-key pandal-hopping, restricting  ourselves to our neighbourhood (with no queues), and a spin through (part of) North Kolkata in our car one evening. But last year, Srishti got a real taste of the excitement of pandal-hopping when, sitting atop her dad’s shoulders, amidst a jostling crowd of some hundreds, she saw one of the most famed and expensive pandals (with its idols decked in gold) at Sreebhumi. She also enjoyed her time with the children of two of my friends who are roughly the same age as her, the meetings allowing inter-generational friendships that added a totally new dimension to our socializing!  

The 'para'

Throughout the Pujas in the last two years, in the midst of all the renewed excitement imparted by my daughter, I was reminded a lot of one of my conversations about vanishing neighbourhoods in Asian cities with Prof. Mike Douglass, a social scientist renowned for his work on urban planning in Asia (in an interview that I’d taken of him at IIAS, Leiden, in June 2016). Because if the Durga Puja is anything, it is one great valorisation of the neighbourhood - the 'para', as we call it in Bangla. For the ten days of the festival, one's identity is principally tied to one's 'para' - and there is fierce competition regarding the pandals. Especially after Asian Paints instituted an award for the best pandal in the 1990s. 'Durga Puja Committees' in hundreds of paras have vied with each other ever since to rope in the best idol-makers, artists and architects in a bid to win the prize. There is tremendous creativity that this months'-long effort and enthusiasm engenders. I admire that enthusiasm - though never unreservedly. 
The unsavoury bit 

Let me share an anecdote to explain why: On the last working day before the Pujas in 2017, I was late in returning home. On my way back from College Street, the only cab-driver who agreed to take me home decided to go for a shortcut - just before Manicktola, to avoid the inevitable longer waits at the main signals on that route during this festive season. But it turned out to be not so much a shortcut of distance as a shortcut to darkness. For within a few seconds, from blinding lights, we were literally plunged into total darkness - a stinking, suffocating darkness, where ghost-like figures in hovels went about resignedly with a cursed existence.

It's such a cliché to talk of the disparities between the rich and the poor in the metros in India (as in most mega-cities in the world). We in Kolkata are used to seeing slums along the road - people washing, cleaning, bathing openly, displaying almost a cheerful kind of street domesticity. But the experience of that pre-puja evening was very different: it brought home to me the fact that all those glittering lights on the main streets in long preparation for festivities to come must necessarily exclude the poor, esp. the abysmally poor. 

It is this disparity that I've found the most difficult to accept after my return, post my ten years in the Netherlands. I had lived in Kolkata for 33 years before that. So the differences of caste and class are not new to me. And yet, the utter disparity between the haves and have-nots now strikes me in a way that it didn't before. Not even during our mandatory, annual 3-week holidays. Have I changed? Or has the city become more unequal? I don't know.

'Pujo-pujo rob'

Durga Puja is in the air. The seasonal markers of 'sarat' - when the Puja happens - are unmistakable: 'shoroter megh, kaash phool' (the clouds of sarat, kaash flowers).... 

Kolkata dwellers don't get to see much of that, though. But there are other unavoidable signifiers: for one, there are the innumerable hoardings for Puja shopping everywhere, with all brands advertising their 'special Puja collection' and all products offering a 'special Puja discount', of course. Not to speak of all female models (read Tollywood, and of late Bollywood, heroines) wearing the traditional Bengali red-bordered white sari to endorse everything from jewellery and clothes to turmeric and cooking oil.  

But increasingly, as the Puja days approach, the most visible sign of its countdown are the work-in-progress 'pandals' that come up everywhere - that not only restrict the traffic flow at several important junctions of the city, but also necessitate all kinds of commuting re-arrangements within neighbourhoods. The resulting inconvenience is usually borne willingly by the residents!   

The ten days of the Puja - with the festivities rising to a crescendo in the last four days - can easily be termed as one of the greatest shows on earth: it definitely rivals the biggest cultural festivals anywhere in the world. But on the tenth and last day - ‘Dashami’ - the gregariousness of the celebrations is toned down by the poignancy of the goddess's return to her husband, leaving her natal home. In a culture where a woman's identity is still overwhelmingly tied up with her marital status, Durga's return has an emotional resonance that few other pujas have in India.

But then, Bengalis look forward to the next year saying, ‘Ascchhe bochhhor abar hobe’, even as they immerse the goddess in the Ganges.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Zzzzzap! by Susan Price

"Where do your ideas come from?" is supposedly the question writers are asked most often, although the question I've probably been asked most is "How much do you earn?" or, possibly, "When are you going to write a proper book?" Maybe I should move in better circles.

 I heard a new question for writers recently, while chatting with some writer friends. One was struggling with several drafts of an idea she loved but wasn't finding easy and asked, plaintively, "How do you know when what you're noodling about with is going to be finished? At what point do you know you're not wasting your time and you're working on an actual book?"

We were floored for a moment. Then one of us offered the suggestion that if you could make it to, say, five thousand words on a project, that meant you were probably going to finish it. Some agreed, some disagreed. Some quibbled about the number.

House, wikipedia

Personally -- and this is only a personal view because I long ago learned that there are almost as many different ways of writing as there are writers and if a method works for someone, anyone, then it's good -- but personally, looking back at my own work, I don't think it has anything to do with word number. A book of mine has never stumbled to its knees and died on the page in front of me because I've written too many or too few words. And if it's dying, flogging myself on to write a few more hundred words -- or cutting some out, for that matter -- has never saved one. (Forgive the life and death metaphor. I think I've binge-watched too many episodes of House recently. ('He's seizing! Quick!')

So, how do you know when the idea you're working on is going to be strong enough, engaging enough, interesting enough to make it through months, maybe years of work to become a finished story or book? (And I include picture books and children's books in this, and non-fiction, which are no easier than any other kind of writing to do well, though, curiously, many people seem to think they are.)

Well, first, I find it can be very hard to tell whether or not my present project has legs. I have abandoned several books after working hard on them for as long as a year. Why? I couldn't handle the material, I couldn't find a conclusion that was 'big enough' or interesting enough to make it worth a reader's effort to plough through all the rest. Never a truer word was said than: Endings Are A Bitch. I'd produce a series of cushions, mugs and mouse-mats featuring that motto except I fear that a quick internet search would show I've been beaten to it.

The General

If you'll bear with me, it reminds me of something I read about Buster Keaton. The great actor/director loved devising screenplays around big technology, so what many think was his best film, The General, featured a young couple alone, on a fast moving steam train which they cannot stop (because their train is being chased by another train controlled by enemy forces.) Another, The Navigator, had a young couple as the only people on board a huge liner which is adrift on the ocean, due to similar hostile machinations. While inventing most of his visual gags himself (and they were often very dangerous), Keaton worked with screen-writers to come up with convincing plots -- that is, to put a framework that made some kind of sense around the stunts he was hell-bent on filming regardless. (Writing books is only different in that we work hard to contrive a plot that makes a sort of sense to frame the scenes we are hell-bent on writing, come what may.)

Buster Keaton
Keaton wanted to make a third film around technology, set in a giant skyscraper, which at the time, were still new and exciting engineering projects. He and his writing team came up with a story about a rich young man who lives at the very top of the highest skyscraper yet built in an apartment crammed with all the latest, exciting  electrical gew-gaws. (This was 1924, nearly a hundred years ago.) When the electricity short-circuits, he is trapped (with the requisite pretty young woman). How will they escape?

Keaton and the writers, no matter how they tried, couldn't invent a satisfying, convincing plot that gave the young couple lots of stunts and adventures but ended with them safely back at street level. After much effort, they eventually put the idea to one side. More time passed and the team split up to work on other projects. The skyscraper film was never made. Decades later, when Keaton had long lost touch with the writers, he was seated in a hotel lobby when, by chance, one of the writers hurried past. Without breaking stride, the writer called, "Don't worry, Buster! I'll get you down from that penthouse yet!"

Quite. You don't forget these ideas you have to give up on. They rankle.

But how do you know when a book is going to be completed instead of just petering out and hanging... for years? Well, for me, it's the zzzzap! I don't know how else to put it. The zzzzap is a jolt of electricity, a light-bulb moment and when you feel that jolt and that bulb lights up, you know you're going to finish this one, no matter how long it takes.

The Sterkarm Handshake
Forgive me for using my Sterkarm books as an example again, but I happen to remember rather clearly how the first book, The Sterkarm Handshake, progressed from a small idea that I sort of liked to something I was going to finish, though Hell itself should bar the way.

It began when I learned about the Border reivers on a walking holiday. I found them fascinating and felt strongly that I wanted to write about them -- but that wasn't enough. I could have invented no end of characters, or borrowed them from history, but I had no plot. And anyway, I realised that a historical novel, set entirely in the 16th century with no reference outside it (or no overt reference anyway) held no appeal for me at that time. I'd written historicals before, I just didn't feel any excitement about doing it again. So the problem became: How to write about the historical reivers without writing a historical novel.

I played around with the idea of having 21st Century characters visit the 16th Century. After all, if a historical novel is always about the writer's own time, no matter how hard they try to be 'historical', why not be open about it and make a novel set in 16th Century Scotland about the 21st Century? That appealed a lot more and warmed the idea up considerably, but still wasn't enough. I still had nothing but a notion and an interest wandering around in a fog.

I thought about ways to mix up the 21st and 16th centuries. I rather liked the idea of a time machine. (I always have liked the idea of time machines.) I considered who would fund a time machine and decided that it would be a multinational company that wanted to raid the past for fossil fuels -- and that heated up my interest a good deal more: the eco-angle, the 'advanced societry colonising a less technological one' angle. But still not enough. I didn't want to launch into writing it because I felt it would keel over and die after a couple  of chapters. (This fear always haunts me when I begin something new. Later on comes the fear that no one will buy it.)

I did start inventing characters and scenes, though I didn't write anything down. I would think about it while I walked or rode on buses or at other times when I had nothing much else to do. Who would the 21st Century characters be, who would the reivers be? I liked the whole idea, I was enthusiastic but still hesitated... Where could the story go? Y'know, 16th century characters meet 21st century characters, 21st century characters murder and exploit 16th century characters -- no surprises there. And there have to be some surprises in a novel.

While thinking about characters and possibilities, I wondered what each side of the time divide would think of the other. The 21st Century attitude was fairly obvious: they would think the reivers primitive, dirty, violent and rather stupid because they didn't have whatever was the must-have gadget back in 1996, when I was doing this thinking. (Lord, how time flies.)

What would the reivers think of the 21st Century people? I imagined a landrover appearing on a Scottish hillside and people in jeans and parkas climbing out. A magical cart that moved by itself. Would the reivers think it had come out of the hill? -- In Scots legend, the elves live under the hills and come out at Mayday, Midsummer, Hallowe'en and New Year, to 'ride.' The reivers would think the 21st Century time-travellers were elves from under the hill.

Zzzzap! That opened up a whole new line of plot development by bringing in the folklore of the Borders. The reivers thought elves powerful but not unbeatable. They believed elves to have magical powers but also very understandable jealousies, ambitions and sulks, which could be manipulated. If a reiver was taken on a trip into the 21st Century s/he would believe it was a trip into ElfLand -- where they must not eat or drink the smallest amount or they would never be able to return to their own world.

The light-bulb in my head lit up so bright, I think the light probably shone out of my ears.

I'm not sure why it was this idea about the 21st Century people being thought of as elves that made the difference when other ideas didn't. I think it's a fairly common SF trope that's been used by many writers before me, so I don't think its galvanising power lay in any originality but only in its personal appeal for me. With the arrival of the 'time-travellers as elves' idea, I had a setting, a situation and a relationship between the characters.With one swoop, the idea connected up my new interest in the reivers with my lifelong interest in social history and folklore: Zzzzap!

As C. S. Lewis put it: our writing develops from 'the permanent furniture of our minds.'

I know I'm going to finish a book when I get zapped. -- How do you know?

Some other books by Susan Price