F or NF?

Ever since I picked up creative writing, I have written a mix of fiction and nonfiction. I launched my writing career with a nonfiction humour piece that found publication in a major Indian women’s magazine called Femina. I followed it up with several more pieces of humorous nonfiction, but I tried my hand at writing fiction alongside as well. In this endeavour, my efforts met with less success. My critique group rightly ripped my stories apart, but I persevered and managed to get a few shorter pieces published to begin with.

In the years since, I find myself equally divided between fiction and creative nonfiction. Some days I pick up my laptop determined to write a short story but it doesn’t flow and a nonfiction piece comes quite easily instead. On other days when I begin an essay, the muse doesn’t cooperate and prods me towards a short story instead.

I’m at the stage now where I go with the flow. Earlier I used to stress about it, mistakenly believing that I should stick to one and master it rather than dabble in different genres and fail spectacularly in all of them.

However, when I researched this problem a little, I found that most writing websites advising trying genres to test one’s mettle and also one’s interest. I have not found myself gravitating to any one particular field yet. Even within fiction, I write a mix of YA, contemporary realist, speculative and magical realism stories.

To add to this heady mix of fiction and creative nonfiction is poetry. I find it tough to write poetry, even though I have had poems published but those are more on the humorous side. My muse often pushes me towards poetry as well. I have written a few serious poems but so far I haven’t tried to get them published, convinced as I am that they are spectacularly poor and don’t deserve publication. However I haven’t got them critiqued either. Poetry is something I plan to tackle later, when I have wrapped up penning the stories and essays that I have already ideated first.

A number of classic novelists were excellent essayists as well. You can read them on Project Gutenberg, like this collection by George Eliot.

A few of my writer friends do attempt to write both, but some are devoted to one particular form of writing – say science fiction or perhaps children’s stories, or even journalistic pieces that involve research and reporting. I admire and envy their single-minded focus, considering my writing is nowadays all over the place.

But after years of experimenting with different types of writing, I realized my attempts would never go to waste. I count all of it towards practice.

And as the old adage goes which we learnt when we were children, practice makes perfect.

At least, that’s what I have pinned my hopes on.

What is your favourite genre of writing? Do you feel moved to experiment in different modes of writing as well? Do let me know in the comments below!

The Prodigal Daughter

I am thrilled to report that my story The Prodigal Daughter was published in Reedsy as a winner of their previous week’s writing prompt. Do take a look and like/share/comment on it!

If you haven’t come across Reedsy before, I highly recommend you subscribe to their writing prompts. They offer editorial consultation and they also host a variety of free courses. I took the course for YA novels and writing short stories, both of which I found extremely useful.

What’s happening on the writing front for you?

The Legacy of Jane Austen, and a New Story Publication!

I’m happy to post that my story Perils in the Post has found a wonderful home in The Ilanot Review in their Letters-themed issue. The Ilanot Review is an excellent literary journal from Israel! Do hop over and take a look.

In other exciting news, 18th July this year marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. How fitting that my essay on Jane Austen was accepted just days ago, for an anthology by Ben Bulben Books. The piece, which I drafted over a week, captures my love for this great author and her delightful work. I would love to share a link to the anthology when it comes out.

Though I’ve read all her books, my favourite works of Jane Austen are the usual culprits: Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. My next favourite after these two would be Emma, followed by Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. I haven’t read Lady Susan yet but as it was her first novel she wrote, the general consensus is that it differs from her later work.

As a Jane-ite, I am not enamoured of all the variations on her work that have flooded the marketplace in the past few years. I’ve read only a few of them, but haven’t had the stomach to read any more. Here are a few that I’ve read: 

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Pride and Prejudice strides into the mystery genre courtesy the late great P.D. James and what an entry it is! I loved this book and would wholeheartedly recommend it.

Austenland by Shannon Hale

This was quite successful but I didn’t enjoy it much. It spawned a movie version as well, and I tried watching it in an attempt to help reading the book, but that did not work either. It’s just one of those where my taste apparently doesn’t mesh with the general reading public. 

Prada & Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard

I read this years ago and though my memory of it is vague, I remember enjoying the read. She incorporates dialogues from the original text as well.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, and others in a similar vein

Pure blasphemy in my humble opinion, but that’s just me. The book was quite popular and well-appreciated, though I am sure it literally left JA turning in her grave.

This is only a sampling and there are many more, but I don’t want to tarnish the image of the original in my mind by reading derivative works. Perhaps at a later stage, I might grow a taste for it, but not now.

What’s your favourite Jane Austen novel?

 

Mini-Update

I have been light on writing-related work this year. No Short Story Challenge, and definitely no other brand new work. I’ve spent most of my available free time on editing and whipping older pieces into shape. Per my records, I have about 28 of these essays and short stories that I need to whittle and carve to perfection, or at least start submitting them if I find I cannot revise and edit them any more.

Despite that I have a couple of acceptances to report. One was my short story targeted for a YA audience, titled Miss Quit which found a home in the lit mag Youth Imagination. I wrote this as part of the Short Story Challenge 2014, and it had been simmering ever since. When I did finally send it out I got a fairly quick acceptance.

The second was my article for writers, titled The Maturation of a Writer at Walrus Publishing. I wrote this last year on the spur of the moment one day, while reflecting on the differences I felt as a more experienced writer now compared to when I had started out.

Do read them and tell me what you think! Feel free to post links to your own recently published work in the comments below!

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard expired a few years ago, and apart from his brilliant books, the best legacy he could’ve left for writers was his ten rules. Do modern novels really follow them? Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the rules.

  1. Never open a book with weather.

The reader is likely to “leaf ahead looking for people.”

There are tons of bestselling books that open with weather, including those by PJ Tracy and Christopher Paolini, for example. So there are exceptions, but it must be done with care.

  1. Avoid prologues.

He thinks they are annoying and if the prologue is backstory, “you can drop it in anywhere.”

I have to say I agree with this a hundred percent, but even then the occasional bestseller pops up flaunting a prologue. It still features prominently in popular books, but I do see the number dwindling every day.

  1. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

Since “dialogue belongs to the character,” anything else is simply “the writer sticking his nose in.”

I’ve spent most of this year reading short stories online and in print. And in stories of all forms, this holds true. Though I have to say, JK Rowling proved it doesn’t hinder the flow for most readers if exciting things are happening. I am also not sure if anyone except writers even notices this as much.

Here’s a snippet from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

“Alastor!” Dumbledore said warningly.

  1. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said.”

He writes that these words, that distract and interrupt “the rhythm of the exchange,” are a “mortal sin.”

See point 3.

 

  1. Keep your exclamation points under control.

Leonard’s law: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

This is true. Though I feel it should be allowed in dialogue, but never in the narrative. If it shows up in the narrative it might be regarded as authorial intrusion.

 

  1. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

“This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.”

LOL at this. It is so true.

 

  1. Use regional dialect, patois sparingly.

“Once you start,” he writes, “you won’t be able to stop.”

True, though I don’t see much of this nowadays.

 

  1. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Leonard cites the famous Hemingway short story in which the only physical description of a couple introduced as the ”American and the girl with him” is: ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” Enough said.

Here’s what I wrote a year ago in my diary about this rule:

I understand this, but isn’t it nice to have a picture to go along with the names? Whenever I’m reading a story that doesn’t offer any descriptions of the characters, I assign a random face in my head to the person speaking, only to have it shattered later on when I find that the person is of a different race/gender/sexual orientation etc.

This is what I think today:

He’s absolutely right. Unless the physical aspects matter to the story and/or naturally come out during the story, does it really matter?

  1. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

They bring “the flow of the story to a standstill.”

By this token, most books would never be published. Rebecca features pages and pages of vivid descriptions of Manderley. It builds an elaborate, haunting atmosphere that would be lost if skipped or cut out. Modern books can get away with little description, but again would be hard to picture a place if it’s described perfunctorily.

  1. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard advises writers to “think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose [with] too many words in them.” And he reminds us, “I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

This is a good one, the ultimate cardinal rule that should serve as a guiding principle for all writers.

Leonard’s ultimate rule sums up the previous ten:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. 

Almost all novels nowadays sound like writing. They don’t always sound natural. Teenagers sound like adults, adult characters in books sound way more sophisticated than the average adult might be, and narrators often use words that send one scurrying to the dictionary/thesaurus.

I refer often to these rules for guidance. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, one must know the rules in order to break them!

What do you think of these rules? Do you have any that you follow strictly? Refer Anne R. Allen’s latest blog post for an excellent takedown of “The Rules Police”!