Saturday, 30 November 2019

How Do You Make Space for Yourself to Write? -- Damyanti Biswas

Writing on an ipad in bed at dawn against the light of the electric heater—the writing life demands that you write wherever you are. I’m supposed to be on vacation, but here I am, typing away. 

I’ve written on moving buses, trains. Not boats. Definitely airplanes. I remember tearing apart (physically) an entire manuscript while on a train in Scotland, as stunning views or slow-moving sheep reflected on enormous glass windows. 

An entire short story was once written on a flight to the UK from Singapore. I was tired, grumpy, could not sleep, so I thought writing would help me. It did not. I inhaled copious amounts of caffeine, furiously typed a draft that only made half-sense, and alighted a cranky woman—perhaps the only time that finishing a piece gave me a fit of rage and a crick in the neck, instead of the sense of accomplishment that usually follows. I like having written, more often than not.

A friend wrote yesterday about writing while seated on the toilet, because that was the only place she could get away from her toddlers. Another, on her short commute. A hundred words here or there tend to add up, she said, and she was right.

At a literary festival in Malaysia, there was a question from the audience (for another woman writer)—how do you make space for your writing? 
And the answer was, you have to claw it out, claim it, because no one is going to give it to you. 

This is true of men who hold down jobs and write, as well as look after kids, but it seems to be even more true of women, whose spouses often do not care much for their writing. 

As a writer, you have to fight for the time to write, and then write in that time, no vagaries of the muse or goofing off on social media allowed. I do not have kids, and have a very supportive spouse, and yet, in the past months of promotions for my debut novel, You Beneath Your Skin, I've mostly been writing blog posts like this one.

The pages and index cards you see on the train table in front of me finally became my debut novel. Writing really is this mostly thankless, un-glorious, grinding process, and promotions, even more so. I'm seriously considering quitting on all social media and all events and just curling up with books to read and write. 

I feel a bit of a brat doing that because all my proceeds will support the education and empowerment of women at Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks. So I need to keep scrounging time to write, in corners, on trains, on my phone. (Been writing a flash fiction piece on my phone since yesterday.)

What about you? When and where do you find the time to write?

Friday, 29 November 2019

Endings: N M Browne

I’ve just been editing my novel ‘Badwater’ which I hope will be out next year with the small independent publisher, 'Kristell Ink.'I enjoyed reading it again. I hope it is OK to admit that? 
   I wrote the first draft many years ago. It is set after the impact of climate change has left  most of SE England underwater and, though set in a broken society, it isn’t dystopian. My heroine and her friends are prepared to break with tradition to make their world better.The story was written long before the Extinction Rebellion and my Ollu is no activist, it is far too late for that, but she is brave and resourceful. It was rejected by Bloomsbury for not being an ‘N M Browne’ book, even though, I can assure you that NM Browne wrote it. Reading it again, it is very much in keeping with  every other book I have ever written. By that I mean it is a fantastic piece of work that deserves great success and a plethora of awards,  but in addition to its evident brilliance, I could see in that rejected draft all my usual quirks and idiosyncrasies present and incorrect. Sometimes the best critic is time and distance. 
   I produced the first draft so long ago that I’d forgotten the thought process that had led me to its ending and had no emotional attachment to the words on the page.  I still liked the characters, (who took up residence in my  imagination when I first wrote them and have never left) I loved the world too, but I could see all too clearly its many flaws.
    We all have our writing failings, my chief one is to conclude books too quickly. There are several reasons for that.
1.     I tend to read books at one sitting and read endings very fast in a state of nervous exhaustion at two in the morning: to me as a reader all ending are rushed.
2.     I don’t want the narrative to lose tension and wallow around tying up loose endings for the novel’s last quarter. Every time I see the final part of the film version of Lord of the Rings, I remember how unwise it is to drag the ending out.
3.     I write as I read and I tend to be very anxious to finally get the book done. Exhausted from what is usually an intense and immersive writing process, I’m inclined to gather what is left of my energy for a sprint finish. It is enough to get to the line and stagger over it.
It is also fair to say that different readers have different expectations of endings. Some want everything to be explained, tidied up and neatly put to bed; others want ambiguity, a measure of uncertainty, an opening up of possibilities and a sense that in some ways the story isn’t done. As a reader, I probably prefer the former type of ending (ambiguous endings bother me and oblige me to finish them off in my head) but, as a writer, I almost always plump for the latter and have even committed the cardinal sin of ending books with a cliff hanger; my Shrödinger’s heroine neither alive nor dead trapped in magical limbo. I am sorry, what can I say? it seemed like a good idea at the time? I was young and they told me it was artistic?
Anyway, these days I am a reformed character. The book that will be published is substantially rewritten and has a  satisfying ending, one which simultaneously  ties up loose ends and leaves open the possibility of more story, or at least that’s what  I hope. Don't we all long for a good ending?

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Plagiarism and The Sea of Stories, by Enid Richemont

When does using traditional, or well-known and loved stories such as those by Hans Christian Andersen (one of my all-time favourite writers) and the like, become plagiarism? There must be a HCA estate of some kind, yet versions of these stories appear everywhere - in film, theatre, books and whatever. It's said that there's no copyright on ideas, that ideas are universal, and we all know where Shakespeare got a lot of his from. Might there be, as in Salman Rushdie's children's novel, a "Sea of Stories" into which we dip? I'm mentioning this, because I've recently spent some time re-structuring and shortening one of the stories from the John Bauer illustrated collection of Swedish tales, all of which, I think, must be re-interpretations of much older ones. If you're not familiar with John Bauer's work, here's an 
 idea of it on the left - magical!

Most traditional folk and fairy tales seem to centre on fairness and honesty. The one I've been working on is about being true to your word, and keeping a promise no matter what - which could serve as an excellent primer for our current politicians. 

Back to plagiarism, though. A Costa prize-winning author took the concept of "Groundhog Day" - a day which is stuck in a time loop and keeps on repeating itself - and has written a murder mystery which does just that (tough on both the victim and the observer who is beginning to fall in love with her!) And every author's nightmare - you once, long ago, read a novel which has sunk so far into your consciousness that it starts feeling as if you own it. Was there ever a book, or did I dream it? Wow! you assume - the Muse has been kind to me, so I'll get to work and write it.

And recently, the John Lewis Christmas ad featured a small dragon with antisocial fire problems. Such a clever idea, but seems quite a number of picture book authors had got there first, and, understandably, felt a bit miffed. The upside of this was that at least one of the authors found that her book sales had increased quite noticeably following the ad!

Some time ago, one of my small Franklin Watts books was translated into Arabic. It's a story based on pigeon poo, and it's both funny and rather rude, so I was a bit surpised - well so much for my preconceptions! Is anyone reading this blog familiar with Arabic? It seems to me that there must be quite a few variations on the language because it's spoken over such wide areas. I'm asking for a rather special reason - my family in Cornwall, together with local support, has made it possible for a Syrian refugee family living in a camp in the Lebanon to be housed in Falmouth. There are three children - a baby, a four year old and a six year old, and I thought I might offer them this as a welcome present, but maybe it's a form of Arabic they're not familiar with. Comments, especially from any Arabic scholars out there, are more than welcome.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Can Micro-Influencers Sell Books? - Andrew Crofts

“How do you market a book successfully?” is quite possibly the hardest question to answer in publishing. I would say that it is actually harder than “how do you write a book?”.

In most cases the problem is a lack of decent marketing budgets within publishers. If they have high-profile, brand-name authors, who are already bringing in a steady cash flow, there are several avenues that they can go down in order to create awareness and bring in the sales. For the majority of books, however, there is only really the time and money for a bit of light pr and then it is up to the authors to make themselves famous and their books attractive.

Suppose, for a moment, however, that you have ghost-written a novel for an author and that author decides that they are willing to put a great deal of money and effort into the marketing? Where should you advise them to direct their funds in order to be most effective?

That is the situation that I found myself in this month. The book in question is best categorised as an “ideas-based thriller”, a sort of “Dan Brown meets Paulo Coelho” situation, a page-turner that asks how to save mankind from self-destructing within the next few generations.

All books ultimately need good word-of-mouth, so the question seems to be how to direct the funds most effectively in order to get people talking about the questions raised in the book and recommending other people to read it.

We decided, after much discussion with the publisher and a variety of publishing pr companies, that there is a limited amount that can be done with traditional pr when it comes to fiction from a first time author – particularly one who is not native to this country. We also understand that even a budget as large as this one would be eaten up very fast with traditional above-the-line advertising. Posters on railways stations may be good for recognisable publishing stars who already have dedicated fan bases, but once the posters come down and the money is spent what happens then?

We decided that we would investigate the world of digital advertising via micro-influencers. I mean, if they are powerful enough to propel Trump into the White House and make Nigel Farage a credible public figure they should be able to get the ideas from this book out into the world with ease. Right?

So now we are at the stage of talking to digital advertising agencies and trying to get our heads around this new, mysterious and potentially sinister world of “influencers” and jolly fascinating it is too.

I will keep you posted on our adventures as they develop.        

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Books Read/ Reviewed: 2019

2019 has been a well-read, well-reviewed year for me. Actually, half-year. For most of the books that I read/reviewed happened between the Bengali New Year (Nabo Borsho) in April and the biggest Bengali festival (Durga Puja) in October. They are Bengali markers in an English calendar simply because the first and last books I read – by some chance – coincided with the Bengali festivals.

I took a photo of the small wall of books after reading the last – and felt, strangely, grateful! Most of this year – like most of the last 3 – has been an uncertain one for me; it thus felt good to still have the reassurance of books to fall back on in trying times. I just hope this one factor remains constant in my life! 

So, here's my book list.... 
(NB: they were all read, but not all published in 2019).

My Book List: 2019

My Daughter's Mum (Natasha Badhwar)  The best thing about this book is getting to know how the mother grew up with her daughters & not how she brought them up!

The Scent of God  (Saikat Majumdar) –  To read this book is to indulge in a riot of the senses. The sexual awakening  of Anirvan – in what is supposed to be a spiritual, almost ascetic environment – is explored with great honesty and remarkable sensuousness by the author.

I read College: Pathways of Possibility (by Saikat Majumdar) on an insomniac night – choosing it for its slimness. The idea was to finish it off in a few hours and hopefully go to sleep after being done. No such luck! Because after reading, I found myself doing mental exercises with Howard Gardner’s categorisations of intelligences (dealt with in Chapter 3 of the book): linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, body-kinaesthetic, personal, naturalist, spiritual, existential and moral.
This little book is a delight - equal parts informative and insightful. I was also pleasantly surprised... because I had expected the detached register of the author’s online articles on education in this book, but what I got instead was a fine weaving of a personal journey into the educational history of India. It is precisely because of that, that I found the book very engaging and will remember it better.

How I Became a Tree (Sumana Roy) – A truly unique, genre-defying book of immense beauty. At the heart of it lies not only the author’s profound love for trees, but also a reckoning of man’s organic relationship  with nature – something we all seem to have forgotten. The book resonated with me at multiple levels  - not the least being my own love of trees!

Out of Syllabus (Suman Roy)  Remember the subjects of your school syllabus: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Maths, History, Geography? Here is a book of poems that sees human life and relationships through the prism of those disciplines. I am not a great reader or lover of poetry, but this slim volume arrested my attention – primarily because of the poet’s sustained use of precise images, that are as startling as they are original.

The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community (Sudeep Chakravarti) – Ambitious in scope, imaginative in structure, and inclusive in its approach, this book is a most provocative and insightful study of the history of a community beyond its stereotypes. This is history made accessible to the general informed reader, with a liberal dose of humour and sarcasm.

The Last Vicereine (Rhiannon Jenkins-Tsang) – That Jawaharlal Nehru shared a very special relationship with Edwina Mountbatten  is well known. This novel aims at a fictionalized account of that most enigmatic of affairs. Interestingly, of the two parallel love stories in the novel, the imaginary one (between Nehru’s doctor friend and Edwina’s ‘Special Advisor’) is rendered more imaginatively and successfully than the historical one!

The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration (Joya Chatterjee, Claire Alexander & Annu Jalais)  A historian, a sociologist and an ethnographer come together to pull off a tremendous feat - they fill in a major lacuna in Partition Studies and open up a new discursive space in Migration and Diaspora Studies.

Filling in what is missing in existing knowledge and opening up new vistas of it – both are at the heart of any research in any field. It’s rare, though, to find a single book doing both. And also speaking to our times. 'The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration' is that rare work.

Gun Island (Amitav Ghosh)  Are you holding a copy of Gun Island? Welcome to The Hungry Tide, Season 2. Also, to the fictional sequel of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.  
In The Great Derangement, Ghosh had taken literature, history and politics to task for their failure to grapple with climate change. While doing so, he had not spared himself, too, as a writer. In Gun Island, he seems to be making amends: he confronts climate change and the contemporary global refugee crisis head on with a story that has a Bengali folkloric legend at its core — that of a gun merchant (‘Bonduki Sadagar’), who ended up in Venice when pursued by ‘Ma Manasa’ (the goddess of snakes — celebrated in the cult 14th century Bengali poem, Manasamangal Kavya).

The Ungrateful Refugee – Dina Nayeri’s own experience as a refugee (fleeing revolutionary Iran as a child with her mother and brother) has shaped her life and informs most of her work – including her latest non-fiction book. Divided into five segments – ‘Escape’, ‘Camp’, ‘Asylum, ‘Assimilation, and ‘Cultural Repatriation’ – this book memorably covers the entire arc of the refugee experience. It combines Nayeri’s own life story with other refugee experiences which she came to know through her involvement, after her relocation to London, with organisations like Refugee Support Europe, among others. This is an important book for our times.

Diwali in Muzaffarnagar (Tanuj Solanki) – In most of the reviews I have read of this collection of shorts, the book has been lauded for (if I may phrase it so) holding up a mirror to small-town India. While it obviously does so, I liked it for a completely different reason: I felt that because it is convincingly local, it also ended up being successfully universal. The way I see it, what it basically deals with is the delicate balance of gains and losses that we all have to weigh in our lives (in different permutations and combinations): small town vs. metropolis, freedom vs. responsibility, adventurous uncertainty vs. stagnant stability, romantic vs. filial bonds. Though I liked all the stories, I was particularly drawn to ‘My Friend Daanish’, ‘Good People’ and ‘Compassionate Grounds’. 

Quichotte – Salman Rushdie is a bad habit that dies hard. At least, that's the case with me. Little wonder that I bought and read his latest novel as soon as it hit the stands!

Unfortunately, this book could not add itself to the list of my favourites, but I did like a few (once again, predictable) things about it: Rushdie's undeniable delight in language that suffuses the text, for one (which, unfortunately, also makes it bloated, as he tends to get carried away by it); the meta-narrative, for another - the tale within the tale, the writer writing about a writer in the process of writing a new book. I loved the point where the two tales exactly mirror each other. On the whole, however, I found the mediocre (spy fiction) writer's mid-life crisis (esp. his poignant reunion with his sister after decades) far more engaging than his fictitious character's (Quichotte) picaresque quest for love across America. Hence, the most important aspect of the novel - i.e., Rushdie's 21st century take on Cervantes' 17th century classic - didn't have much of an impact on me. It would have, perhaps, if the "take" was somewhat restricted in nature, allowing me the time and scope to relish the parallels across centuries. But no - the encyclopaedic nature of the cultural references that kept bombarding the pages too often stood in the way of the narrative, impeding its flow and reducing its effectiveness.
Quichotte's imaginary son, Sancho (who else?), held my attention, though (in the first half of the novel) - giving me a major déjà vu of the imaginary Jodha in 'The Enchantress of Florence' (2008). Some of my favourite passages in the book are his musings.

Rasia (Koral Dasgupta) –  Anything to do with dance intrigues me. That’s because I have seen a dancer from very close quarters: my sister, who was born to dance, but didn’t/couldn’t follow her passion. As children growing up in 1980s India with only the state-owned Delhi Doordarshan (DD) for entertainment, we sisters made the most of it by regularly watching the ‘National Program of Dance’; and though I didn’t dance myself, I eagerly watched all the great names of the day – Sanjukta Panigrahi, Swapna Sundari, Leila Samson, Mallika Sarabhai, to name only a few – and knew exactly which Indian classical dance form they specialized in. Most of these amazing artists danced solo, but there was a couple, too – Raja and Radha Reddy. They were a great pair, but they were later joined – both on the stage and in their marriage – by Radha’s sister. A most unusual matrimonial alliance! Rasia reminded me very much of both that famous couple, and then trio, in its delineation of the dynamic between Raj, Manasi and Vatsala. It was a refeshing change to read a book of fiction with dance at its centre! 

You Beneath Your Skin (Damayanti Biswas) – This is an indubitably disturbing novel. It holds up an ugly mirror to a deeply entrenched misogyny in Indian society that manifests itself all too often in gruesome crimes against women. The crime dealt with here is acid attacks on vulnerable women in Delhi. 

It is easy for a writer dealing with such an incendiary theme to easily slip into sensationalism, especially while writing in the crime fiction genre – where people expect “action-packed thrillers”, the “thrill” element coming primarily from the peddling of violence and sex. Biswas steers clear of that route with élan – giving us all the necessary details of what it means to be an acid attack victim (from the nature of the chemical through what it does to the skin to the painfully long and complex recovery process), but never allowing it to slide into a “thrill”.

(My Review in Scroll -

The best takeaway from any book is, of course, the (memory of the) pleasure of reading it! The books I read in 2019 were no exception to that. But it has been a memorable year in another way: not only did I review books by friends but also made new author-friends after reading their work. As always, books have given me far more than I asked for....!