Guides and Aspirations

For the past few months, Indireads has been celebrating one year of operations, one year of books, one year of authors from South Asia. In the grand scheme of things, it seems like we’re mere fledglings, babes in the woods that have a long way to go yet. We are and we do, but we see our first year a little differently.

We see it as one year of learning, one year of reading, one year of teaching and one year of making our mark. We see it as a way to understand how to be different, how to stand out, how to keep moving upwards. We see it as the first circle of existence, the first round of readers, the beginnings of great new authors and more books.

Few people know this, but with one exception, all of Indireads’ books so far have been by first-time authors—unknown, aspiring writers who have a story to tell and a passion to learn. They’re authors who have surprised us, even stunned us with their creative ideas, their talent, their desire to grow. Some of them had a single story to tell, but a few have proven to be exceptional writers, potential bestselling authors, even when they were writing for the first time.

We hope, we believe, that they will just get better with experience.

Indireads is still in the business, however, of nurturing new talent. Our Aspiring Author page has a number of excellent resources for first-time authors, including a short writing guide for beginners. The guide breaks down the daunting task of creating a plausible and compelling story into a series of easily digested steps. We also have a general Indireads Guide for Authors that offers more detailed explanations for those writing for the first time, or even for those in need of a quick refresher.

Here’s a quick snippet from the Indireads Writing Guide for Beginners (PDF, opens in a new window):

Revise Your First Draft:

You want your editors and publishers to view you as a professional, so be careful with punctuation, grammar and language. Review the first draft yourself and check for typos, spelling errors and formatting. If your editor is not worried about these things, he/she is more likely to concentrate on the plot and character development. Feedback will be more comprehensive and far more constructive as a result.

You may find that as you write, your story evolves by itself. That’s not always a bad thing, and you may make changes to the plot or a character as you go along. Editor feedback will point out any holes in your story, or weak elements that can be corrected. As objective readers, they tend to see gaps in a story with far more clarity than you will.

While the guide for beginners focuses on novellas, it has all the elements one needs to write any length story. The guide is now part of a new blog section we are working on, IndiWrite (Feedback Fridays is one part of this section). IndiWrite will offer resources, links, downloads and articles from authors, editors and the Indireads’ team for aspiring authors.

Happy Diwali!

Postscript: If you offer valuable knowledge or insight into what it means to be an author, or how to become an author, and would like to contribute to IndiWrite, please contact us with your idea, your article or your post.

Indiwrite Journal

Transitioning from Short Stories to Novels

Writing a novel is like running a cross-country race. You have to keep the pace, but in order to make it to the finish line, you have to make sure you don’t run out of steam too soon. Cross-country is a better analogy than a racetrack because along the way, there have to be alternate paths, diversions, scenic routes and pitfalls that need to be avoided. The finish line doesn’t need to be crystal clear, or anywhere in your line of vision when you start, and the road itself need be neither straight nor smooth.

A short story, in contrast, is a hundred yard sprint. It’s equally acceptable for the track to be crooked, but the finish line is always in sight. All that’s needed is that last burst of energy at the end that pushes the story into a glorious explosion of shock and awe.

The differences between the two forms are clear. With athletes, it’s rare to find someone with the training and adrenalin for short runs who is also a long-distance runner. One requires speed, the other requires stamina. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen—sprinters undoubtedly run long distances to stay fit, and triathlons and decathlons require speed and endurance to win.

There’s no precedence that says a runner can’t cross over into a different format, and when it comes to writing, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a writer can succeed in any format he or she chooses.

Lewis Carroll wrote full-length tales that included poetry, as effortless and brilliant as his stories—his lesser-known Sylvie and Bruno is a prime example of the versatility of this man. C. S. Lewis, best known for his children’s tales, wrote several adult fantasy novels. As well-known and beloved as Asimov’s greatest novels are (Foundation, I, Robot), his short stories are extremely powerful (The Dead Past) and in some cases (Nightfall, for instance), far outweigh the value of his longer works. Just as talented, Kurt Vonnegut is known for Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, but also has several short stories to his name (Welcome to the Monkey House). George Orwell wrote novels (1984), novellas (Animal Farm) and short stories (Shooting an Elephant). Jane Austen is rarely known for anything other than her novels, but like other great writers, she wrote poetry, prose, short stories, even essays.

All these writers (and more, undoubtedly), were prolific, exploring all forms of writing not because they were exploring the form, but because their muse drove them in a certain direction. In some cases, they even crossed genres, because when a story needs to be told, it’s the tale, the plot, the characters, that dictate the length of the work. It’s the ideas that determine the number of words. Orwell’s allegorical Animal Farm would probably have lost much of its impact if he had forced it into a longer length.

The transition from one form to another is not a matter of skill so much as it is an understanding of how best to tell a story. If there were a set of rules for making the transition—and I’m sure there are—the first must definitely be this:

  1. The idea for a short story does not always work for a full-length novel. Short stories don’t necessarily include complete plots, and can be based on a moment in time, a quick glimpse that leads to something profound. So give your novel its own idea. Make it a big one.

The idea for a novel has to have (though not necessarily in a linear fashion) a beginning, a middle and an end. It should take a reader on a journey, preferably one that takes more than a few hours to read! Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just a longer short story—it isn’t. The difference isn’t just in length, it’s the entire concept. But, because it’s a longer format, don’t approach it like a challenge. Look at this as freedom:

  1. Create subplots. The freedom you have in a novel is that it can be richly layered, with multiple characters, so you could conceivably create a network of short stories that work together, connected through a main character(s) and adding depth and consequence to the novel.
  2. Know your characters. Step inside their skins so that when you write, you’re examining several layers of personality. They’re going to be around for a long time, so make sure you love them too, just don’t make them perfect, because people never are. Or, kill them off early if you feel they can’t evolve. Because your characters, along with the plot, should evolve.
  3. Draw a map. Know your plots, subplots, characters and settings inside out. Use this knowledge to avoid lengthy exposition and work with dialogue and action instead. You may be a master of putting together a short story in your head, but novels are meant to be complex. Don’t make the mistake of leaving it all in the air. Put together a plan and stick to it as much as possible. Imagine that you’re putting down the sequence of events that happen in a movie you’ve seen. If you’re a planner, take the time to plan the details. If you’re not, make sure the broad strokes are in place before you start.
  4. Don’t worry about the word count. Short stories have boundaries, limitations that are a reassuring handicap and force a writer to establish discipline. When you start a novel, relax that discipline. If you’ve always wanted to write, then let the words flow. You can always edit it later. This leads naturally to another rule:
  5. Let your characters and plot dictate the next move. Sometimes, in the middle of a sentence, an idea will grab you by the throat and refuse to let go. Listen to that idea. There’s nothing wrong with letting characters write themselves, or plots unravel and destroy a plan you may have in place. Because rules, as you know, are sometimes meant to be broken.
  6. Once you’ve done that, however, keep track of the different threads you have flowing. At some point, either at the end or in a logical sequence, those threads need to be tied together. Unless you’re writing a series and intend to leave cliffhangers and unexplained threads that will find answers in the next book, your readers will want to know what happened.

Finally, have a little confidence in yourself. There’s no shame in taking ten drafts to write your first full-length novel. It’s not always going to write itself, but giving up is never the answer.


Writing is Art

I know a number of people who don’t get the power of Picasso’s work, or who mock modern art. The most common comments I hear center around the premise that Picasso couldn’t draw, which is blatantly false. Picasso himself was a remarkable artist and he didn’t embark on cubism until the later period of his life. By that time, he had the tools he needed to explore new avenues in his art.

He mastered his skills before he distorted them. He could draw, paint in oils, watercolors and a host of other media. He learned them all.

About a month ago, a post by Natasha Ahmed reminded me that one of my favorite American screenwriters was Aaron Sorkin, not just for the great stories that he comes up, but with the staggering command of language that he wields in each of his shows. He’s most famous for A Few Good Men, Moneyball and The West Wing, but I am currently waiting breathlessly for the next season of The Newsroom. He also wrote at least one other show that I know of, Sports Night. If you watch each of the shows, you can see Sorkin refining his tools, his control of language, much like Picasso’s works map his gradual mastery of his tools.

Unfortunately, I’ve found very few fellow fans of The West Wing, even fewer who recognize the sheer genius of Aaron Sorkin (I’m speaking of my own circle of friends within Pakistan—I may be completely wrong about you!). Shows like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Walking Dead, TBBT, Game of Thrones, Pretty Little Liars and Grey’s Anatomy are amongst everyone’s favorites lists. But not The West Wing or The Newsroom, which is a great pity because he can take the most mundane topic and turn it into a work of art. I think that if he chose to write about a rock, I’d be riveted!

One of the best examples of Sorkin’s skill with words is an episode from The West Wing called Galileo. He takes an ordinary, poorly written speech and shows us how to turn it into something magical:

BARTLET: [reads] “Good morning! I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which…”

Whoa, boy…

SAM: [waves and smiles] How you doing, Mr. President?

BARTLET: Who wrote this intro? 

TATE: I did, sir. I’m Scott Tate from NASA Public Affairs.

BARTLET: [gets up and shakes his hand] Scott. “Unique” means “one of a kind.” Something can’t be very unique, nor can it be extremely historic.… Sam?

SAM: Yeah.

BARTLET: [to Tate] He’s gonna make some changes.

TATE: [following Sam] You’re going to clear them with me?

SAM: I doubt it. [to a recording staffer] Write this: “Good morning. Eleven months ago a 1200 pound spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars. You, me, and 60,000 of your fellow students across the country along with astro-scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V.”

You have to watch this scene to appreciate the depth of these words; Rob Lowe does them justice. From ‘an extremely historic event’ to ‘chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V’, this is the kind of writing that should be taught in schools.

A writer’s tools are words. And great writing is all about wielding those words in new and unusual ways that will delight your reader. Picasso may not have delighted everyone, but he was in total control of his tools when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He was enticing us to view the world through his eyes, because a two-dimensional painting is flat—perspective and depth is an illusion created by an artist equally adept at his or her art.

Words create atmosphere, they paint pictures, they reveal harsh realities and images of great beauty. Words create an illusory depth, like Rembrandt, or they can be starkly transparent like Picasso. Both require control of words and lots of practice!

Every published, established and popular around the world will give one common piece of advice to new authors: read. I’m adding to that and saying, watch great shows. Read their transcripts. Specifically, watch Aaron Sorkin’s shows. Reading other books, poetry or plays gives you new ways to approach a scene, a description, a dialogue. It doesn’t mean that you should copy them—even though everything we write has been written before—but be inspired by them.

Sorkin, by the way, is also the master of an understated, low-key humor that requires a double take:

TATE: Look, I don’t want to step on your toes. You don’t want to step on mine. We’re both writers.

SAM: Yes, I suppose, if you broaden the definition to those who can’t spell.


Just a Little Love

One of the biggest challenges to large software corporations has been the open source community—a massive population of coders that provide free code to the world; that share, improve and evolve their software every day in ways that a corporate structure can’t emulate. In many ways, these coders have redefined the internet, and our lives. When Steve Jobs set up the iOS Developer Program at Apple, he did it because he recognized the power of open source—numbers. The sheer number of open source and freelance developers far outweigh the resources large corporations have.

Independent and open-source coders changed the landscape of software development. Independent and self-published authors are doing the same for publishing.

Newly published indie and self-published authors are often unaware of the huge amount of support available to them. From bloggers to fellow authors, there are sites dedicated to editorial, marketing, distribution and PR specifically for indie and self-published authors. More importantly, there are bloggers who will review and promote indie and self-published authors exclusively.

Sites like The Indie View, Indies Unlimited, Pixel of Ink and Indie Book Reviewer, to name a few, are excellent resources for the independent author who has to do more to promote his or her own book than a traditionally published author would. Small independent publishers like Indireads don’t have the resources, the distribution networks or the marketing engines of traditional publishers.

But they have the support of the people. And it’s important to connect with them. For instance, if you’re on Goodreads, there are at least 5 things you should be doing to raise your own profile.

  1. Join Groups & Comment
    This may sound obvious, but I’m surprised that so few people actually do this. There are groups segmented by genre, keyword or by geography.  There are review swap groups, reader groups, author groups—it really is a huge resource. But you can’t step into a social environment and expect an immediate response to your query. You need to make friends first, hence, comment, respond, ask, give as much as you want to take.
  2. Add your book to lists
    Find lists that represent your book—South Asian reads, great cover art, funny books, easy-reads—there are so many to choose from. They call it ‘Listopia’ for a reason. Ask your friends to add your book to these lists, to vote on books you’ve added.
  3. Recommend!
    You may not have large followers, but if you recommend your book to one friend who reads it and recommends it to five…well you get where I’m going with this, right?
  4. Use your own friends
    Not to leave reviews, but to share quotes from your book. Ask friends and readers to share their favorite quotes from your book (don’t do it yourself, that’s just self-aggrandizement!). They could take this a step further and share the quotes on Facebook, though that’s up to them.
  5. Fill out your profile
    If you have a blog, add your feed to Goodreads. Add a picture, an author bio, and read the Author Program page on Goodreads for more ideas.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice is RECIPROCATE. If an author likes your Facebook page, like them back, send them a respectful and friendly message, comment on their posts. If they follow you on Twitter, follow them back, favorite their tweets, retweet them, join in or start conversations.

If you’re expecting the indie community to promote you in return for nothing, you may as well take your book off the shelves right now. The indie community is a friendly group, and they’re willing to help out everyone, without prejudice, airs, or discrimination. But if you decide you’re too good for them, you’ll be relegated in a heartbeat.

They don’t ask for financial return—just a little love.


The Reviews

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.” — T.S. Eliot

Happy 2014, Indireaders. The 12th of January will mark Indireads’ six-month anniversary. Six months—it feels like a lifetime.

In six months, we’ve done a number of things that were firsts for Naheed and myself.  We’ve dabbled in social media and haven’t quite found a groove yet, but we’re getting there. We’re honing our editorial policies and processes and figuring out how to bring out the best in our writers. And we’re laying the building blocks for a permanent place in the publishing industry.

Indireads’ first book reviews are finally making their appearances around the web. Zeenat Mahal has found her way on to, Love Across Borders has its first review on Amazon, as did Andy Paula’s Love’s Labor (both 5-star reviews).

Reviews are the life-blood to any good book’s success. A good review will drive new readers to your book, and in some cases, will generate life-long fans of a writer’s style, characters and plots. At the same time, a bad review may nip a writer’s fantasies in the bud—something that can be remedied.

Bad reviews with constructive feedback should be cherished. Because you can always fix things if you know what’s wrong in the first place. Your next hero can be both manly and sensitive; your writing will improve with practice. Your descriptions can be more realistic, your research can be deeper, and you can always write a better plot. And, as a publisher, you can make sure not to repeat your mistakes.

Indireads has stumbled a few times in the past six months, but we’ve gotten up, brushed off the dust, and started again. We have talent, determination and a great team on our side.

Here’s to always moving forward!


Research is Boring, but Essential

One of my favorite authors of espionage novels is Helen MacInnes. Most readers today will find that name unfamiliar, but about a year and a half ago, Titan Books announced that they would be reprinting and digitizing her works. I’m hoping she’ll be as popular this time round.

Her last book was published (a year before her death) in 1984—Ride a Pale Horse. Her first, in 1941 (Above Suspicion). In forty-five years, she wrote twenty-one spy novels, a prolific rate considering the exquisite detail in each of her books. Her books are long—averaging 300 pages in standard small-print paperbacks. They are set around the world, from sultry Spain, to icy Poland, to the majestic Wyoming mountains (though that particular book, Rest and Be Thankful, was not among her espionage works), and each book takes you so deep into its location that you feel as though you’re actually there.

If you ask me what Delphi and Athens looked like in the sixties, I could easily direct you to the best tavern for political debate, or what the Parthenon looks like against a golden sunset. I could describe the crisp summer air of Malaga, or the narrow streets of Venice that, even in the sixties, was drenched in the stench of stagnant canal water.

She travelled extensively before she started writing, giving her a solid foundation for the exotic backgrounds to her stories. It helped, I am sure, that her husband was a bona fide spy (MI6), because her complex plots were layered with subtleties and mundane details that seemed inconsequential at first. It was often the smallest details, the little flash of memory—a laughing woman’s outstretched arm, a book someone was reading, a word in a newspaper article—that would turn the tide in the plot.

Her heroes weren’t dramatically exceptional like James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. They were often just ordinary citizens caught up in a desperate game, and they each bought their own particular talents into the fray.

What set her apart from her peers was the depth of her research. Her stories were vivid and authentic. So authentic, in fact, that her third novel, Assignment in Brittany (published in 1942), was required reading for Allied spies working with the French resistance against the Nazis (Wikipedia). This wasn’t something I knew until I looked her up (doing my own bit of research) for this article, but I am not surprised. I learned a great deal of history from her books, histories of the West, admittedly, but history nonetheless. She used existing and current events as backdrops to her stories. She researched political and ideological concepts, using them to strengthen her characters’ dialogue. Accordingly, when her nihilist propounded his theory of the new world order in Decision at Delphi, he did so with passion and accuracy. When her journalist heroine explained the subtle differences between disinformation and misinformation, she was authoritative and confident, not fumbling and pretentious.

And the crux of the matter comes down to this: if you want to create a character that your readers connect with, if you want to give your characters words that resonate in the minds of your readers, you have to know not just what they look like or what they do, but how they think. And you can’t do that without research.

Helen MacInnes died in 1985. She never had the power of the Internet at her fingertips; she did her research the old-fashioned way. With all the amenities of unlimited sources of knowledge available to today’s writers, it isn’t too much to ask that if you don’t know something, look it up.


So Excited!!!!

profanityI once read a novel where a protagonist points out that the use of profanity is the sign of a stunted mind. Not only is the person swearing ill-mannered and boorish, but he (or she) obviously does not have the words in his vocabulary to effectively convey his real meaning. Hence the over-use of slang or offensive language to cover his deficiencies.

This made sense to me—after all, if you can’t come up with sufficient insulting words in your normal vocabulary, you’re very likely to resort to swear words that you’ve heard so often.

In today’s age of mobile phones, two words are better than fifteen. It’s so much cooler to say (and easier to type) ‘f**k off!’ to someone than to tell them to ‘take that narcissistic ego of yours and feed it to your troglodyte of a brother’. The same goes for expressing oneself on social media platforms, such as Twitter, where you’re limited by the technology. Even with the over-prevalence of expletives on the internet, you need to shout to be heard online, and profanity normally gets people’s attention.

It did surprise me, therefore (considering the age we live in), that there were very few expletives in the manuscripts we received at Indireads. The sheer lack of profanity, in fact, stands out in our books—something I would normally consider a welcome breath of fresh air.

Sadly, that range of emotion, so easily expressed in two words, hasn’t been replaced with eloquent wit or powerful intellect. It’s been replaced with the exclamation mark. Everything, it seems, is more powerful when said with an exclamation mark at the end. A symptom of the times we live in, perhaps, where expressing emotion concisely and powerfully through an impersonal channel (such as email and text messages) is a challenge. Add several exclamation marks to a word—‘Hello!!!!’—and you easily convey anger, sarcasm or exasperation.

As with profanity, there is no need to tax your vocabulary with unnecessary explanations anymore. Apparently, the exclamation mark says it all.

Except that, when over-used in a novel, no matter how serious the subject matter, or how down-to-earth the story, all the characters come across like thirteen-year-olds embarking on an Enid Blyton adventure. Everything they say, from a normal ‘Hi!’ to an emphatic ‘Stop!’, is punctuated with an exclamation mark.

Nothing, consequently, has any emphasis to it at all, and everyone in the book needs to be heavily sedated.

Back in the Stone Age when I was in school, our teacher taught us that if everything is emphasized then nothing is. In 1926 (I did mention the Stone Age, didn’t I?), Henry Watson Fowler published ‘A Dictionary of Modern English Usage’, in which he says: “Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.”

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I agree with Fowler. The Chicago Manual of Style says this about exclamation marks: “An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment.”

Unless all your characters are overly excited, habitually over-emphasize everything they say, or are chronically ironic, the exclamation mark should be conspicuously absent from your writing.

Spurious sensation is what it’s all about. As far as I’m concerned, using the exclamation mark is the equivalent of swearing, and I am beginning to reconsider the breath of fresh air in the ‘f**king’ clean manuscripts I’m getting!


That Irresistible Journey

When the Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, we were a group of 27 people lining up in cinemas around Central London trying to get tickets. When we finally got in, we were blown away. We’d been waiting, you see, since 1980, to find out what happens to the rebel forces.

My brother and I had toy light sabers, the millennium falcon, x-wing fighters, and the force was strong within us (with two years between us, being Luke and Leia was no big issue). We made sure that our little sister, six years younger than me, loved the trilogy as much as we did.  When we moved to Pakistan, we gravitated towards Star Wars fans almost naturally.

In 1977, when the first movie came out, it was groundbreaking in terms of special effects, and memorable for its epic story. Over the years, however, I have constantly come across analyses and reviews that pick on the fact that the dialogue was simplistic, the plot was trite and predictable and the movies weren’t well made.

No doubt, they are right—but a generation of moviegoers has, nevertheless, immersed itself and their next generation in this legend. Becoming a Jedi was actually a life goal for many young children. Thirty years later, I still love the movies, the story, the characters (of the original movies, mind you—the subsequent movies should never have been made, in my opinion), and if I ever find a way to harness the Force, I will give up everything else and train to be a Jedi, for real.

Star Wars garnered its loyal fan base because it was simple, not in spite of it. The theme, good vs. evil, was complex in its own way (after all, Darth Vader eventually ended the reign of the emperor he served for so long), and the characters may have been unoriginal, but were still loved.

George Lucas was free, within a broad context, to layer his theme with sub-plots and an entire universe of new species and characters, but there were clearly the rebels in the white hats on one side, and the empire in the black hats on the other. Good was meant to triumph over evil.

These are universal themes, ungoverned by borders or religions, races or class. And they are eternal, like ‘Love will Prevail’.  The journey towards this theme will always vary—keeping in mind, for Indireads, the South Asian audience—but the destination won’t. Romance in literature has existed in some form or the other for centuries, and the destination hasn’t changed.

The goal is to make the journey so irresistible, so interesting, that the overarching theme is merely the satisfyingly expected ending. Your reader should be rooting for the cheesy finale, and they should be disappointed if it changes course.

If, for instance, Leia had rebuffed Han in the Star Wars trilogy, there would have been bloodshed. And that’s the bar—our audience has a wealth of stories embedded in their minds, and writers have to supersede old memories with new ones.


Sticks and Stones

I’m reviewing a manuscript where the heroine is the recipient of some nasty comments from a rival, and the author is refusing to let her heroine be affected by these comments. Our editorial panel has tried, in various ways, to gently explain to her that it doesn’t matter how self-assured a person may be. Some things just hurt, and you shouldn’t be afraid of recognizing it.

But she was adamant that words should have no affect on a strong character, on a woman’s self-confidence. That, however true their mark may be, words have no power.

I have to respectfully disagree.

I was very self-assured when I was younger (we’re so certain of ourselves when we don’t know anything, aren’t we?), even with the occasional skin breakout that left a scar now and then. I rarely worried about this because the people around me never commented, and I had everything else going for me. Until this hot young journalist came to intern at the magazine where I worked.  I enjoyed working there—with the exception of a snobby little sub-editor, the place was routinely populated with tough journalists, important analysts and the kind of conversations that, I imagine, shaped our world. We even received death threats after a particularly daring cover story, resulting in a brief police investigation, and a temporary armed guard stationed outside the office.

Never a dull moment!

But, back to my story…

My skin wasn’t something I was thinking about when I sat down and spent a good hour chatting up the intern. He seemed to be as interested in talking to me (we were discussing something extremely important—the increasing use of gangland imagery among urban youth, I think. Yeah. Right up my alley.), and the pesky sub-editor was neatly kept out of the conversation with a little deft maneuvering on my part. All it took to dethrone me, however, was one sentence.

In a lull, she leaned forward and looked at me intently. Then, loudly, and with a hint of condescension, she said, “You know, you could clear up those acne scars by putting some lemon juice on them.”

It was a masterstroke. If I had been standing, I would have fallen, she cut out my legs so effectively. I forgot what I had been talking about, and everything vanished from my head except the sudden clear vision of my face covered in scars. She had the intern out the door before I recovered. I never found the courage to approach him again.

I don’t believe in the old adage, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…’ Words will wrench your gut in a second, and lay your soul bare. Words will bury themselves deep inside you and attach themselves to your skin. They will drive you to despair, and fly you out to the heights of ecstasy. Words have power.

And we are all affected by them.


The Unexpected Side Effects of Trashy Novels

My first exposure to books was my mother’s extensive library. She is a voracious reader, and over the years, she’s collected an impressive array of books, both fiction and non-fiction. I read Perry Mason, Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart at a young age, though I never got into Agatha Christie (for some reason), and when I started making major inroads into her collection, she quietly hid the Harold Robbins and James Hadley Chase books so that I wouldn’t be tempted. She didn’t realize that I had friends whose mothers weren’t as selective about what their children read…

We were undeniably curious. And we did anything we could to satisfy that curiosity. We scoured bookstores, old books fairs and small shops (no internet back then—I know. That really dates me! And, libraries didn’t stock popular fiction, only literary fiction), looking for forbidden fare, and found all kinds of treasures as a result. I found Stephen King and Sidney Sheldon (really, look these guys up; you’ve heard of Stephen King, but you don’t know what you’re missing if you haven’t read Sidney Sheldon), and discovered Mills & Boon and Harlequin in the process.

I got into the habit of reading every night, and couldn’t sleep until I had read something. I was reading trashy novels, and lots of them, under the cover of darkness (and I was also making inroads into my mother’s library at the same time). But I had limited access to books, and very little money to spend on them, particularly as I was in school and not earning. So, either I hoarded all my pocket-money, or I found friends who also read trashy novels. Friends, and cousins; it turned out, there were loads of them. Everyone read, and they read everything—trashy, popular, literary—it didn’t really matter, as long as there was a book in their hands.

We exchanged books and reviews, and that led to other books—non-trashy books—equally entertaining, and worth the amount of time I spent with my nose in a book. I found S. E. Hinton and Paul Zindel because of a cousin who also read Mills & Boon, and we bonded (I grew up outside of Pakistan, and barely spoke Urdu when I returned—books were the first things we bonded over). I read Jean Plaidy because I introduced Georgette Heyer to a school friend. I found Anne Rice, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut because I traded Nora Roberts with strangers on the first day of school (and there were a lot of schools—eight, in total, not counting college—and the best way to make friends, I found, was books). I introduced a friend to John Wyndham, who got me hooked on to Asimov and C. S. Lewis’ adult fiction. And, when my grandfather passed away, and no one but my mother volunteered to take his books, I found Shaw, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare’s complete works, and a bunch of fiction writers I had never even heard of.

Reading gave me all kinds of joy, which led me to choose literature as an ‘A’ Level subject. Over the course of two years, we read fourteen works, and my friends (who were all taking accounts and economics) hated me because all I needed to do was read.

I realize now that I got into the habit of reading because of trashy novels. I often wonder, if they released all popular fiction novels with a disclaimer…

Warning; excessive reading may lead to more serious and literary works, and may be habit-forming and/or addictive. It may also lead to new friends and possible bonding with complete strangers

…more people may be inclined to turn their secret guilty pleasure into an open one. Because the key is not what kind of books you read, but that you love reading.