Jauntily Snarky, or Merrily Suave?

When it comes to falling in love with a character in a book, I am very particular about that character’s words and actions. It’s more than just physical appearances; there are the words an author chooses to put into his or her character’s mouth, his/her interaction with other characters and his/her actions in any particular situation. It might be a little obsessive to think this way, but the adjectives and adverbs used to describe them, or their actions throughout the story, make a huge difference in how I picture the character in my mind.

For instance, a sophisticated and somber personality is unlikely to be doing anything ‘jauntily’, or ‘merrily’ (especially not dialogue), just as a light-hearted interaction would not be conducted ‘fiercely’ or with any kind of melodrama. The debonair hero of a romance novel should not, I believe, be attributed with actions or words that are stuttered or stammered, stumbling or diffident. I would prefer ‘hesitant’, or ‘reluctant’, neither of which bring up images of chastised little boys in front of a stern schoolmaster. Though, I may be wrong about the romantic hero part—it really depends upon the character you’ve created—but a hero who is supposed to be self-assured and commanding loses his charm when he’s responding in a ‘small voice’, or saying something ‘jerkily’.

And it’s not just adverbs and adjectives that this applies to. An older woman may ‘chide’ a child, but it’s unlikely that she’ll be chiding an adult—setting them straight, or remonstrating, perhaps. The quirky young college student won’t be ‘stern’, or ‘somber’, though she may be ‘passionate’ and ‘eccentric’. The octogenarian won’t be ‘skipping’ along the sidewalk, and rarely ‘snarky’ (unless he’s very, very cool).

Just like you’d rarely describe the heights of passion as ‘cheerful’, or the depths of despair as merely ‘sad’, selecting the right word for the right character and the right situation is what writing is all about.


Don’t Get Attached

I studied art in high school (or, the British equivalent: O’ and A’ Levels). We had three-hour classes and I would pour my heart and soul into each work of art, even something as mundane as a painting of a clay pot. I loved it. I loved my finished pieces—my parents loved them, my teachers loved them. We’d get them framed and put them up (to this day, a pencil sketch of mine still hangs in the principal’s office of my old high school). My parents showed them off to every unlucky visitor who happened by. Our teachers taught us to respect our own work, to love it, and to love art. Life, and school, were sickly sweet and I was on top of the world.

scrapsThen, I landed in art school. I now attended day-long drawing classes, and the work was intense (anyone who says art school is easy has never spent a whole day drawing).  I loved it, until the day, after a grueling session, we were told to rip up our works of art. What? Yup, that’s right. Rip them up. Into tiny little pieces. Throw the pieces in the trash. Start over.

This, of course, was after the ‘crit’ sessions we had. See, it worked this way. After each session, everyone put up their finished artwork on the wall, and the whole class (about twenty people), would gather round and criticize each other’s work. Occasionally, the teacher would call in reinforcements—other teachers from other disciplines (sculpture, design, language)—and we’d all learn, in front of the whole class, just what we had done wrong, and how we could improve ourselves. It was a shocking reversal from high school, but it was a valuable life lesson.

At the end of the day, our foundation year in college was just that—learning how to improve. We weren’t allowed attachments to a way of working, or to a particular piece. We no longer thought of them as our ‘creations’ or ‘works of art’, because we knew that if we could do it once, we could do it again. It was drummed into us, in every class, that we could always, always do better.

I never studied creative writing, but I suppose it must be pretty much the same. Every sentence crafted by a writer must be like a work of art, and to have someone come along and rip it apart must be like tearing up a painting.

But it takes a little bit of confidence for a writer to recognize, like we did in art school, that writing, like drawing, is a skill easily replicated and improved upon. You may have written a beautiful paragraph, but know that with a little bit of help, the next paragraph will be better, and the next book will eclipse your first one. Like art, writing requires practice and an impartial eye to allow us to be all that we can be.

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Bhavana Murali Talks to Hettie Ashwin

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Peeved, Piqued, Provoked and Perturbed…

decoubertin_epwtnWe received a lot of entries for the Indireads 1st Short Story Competition, which was incredibly gratifying. But it meant a great deal of reading for all of Indireads’ staff over a very short period. We’re still getting feedback on stories here and there, and may end up adding to the shortlist, if we find a gem.

It’s been really tough, though, to go through all of these stories. Not because they were all bad—we had a few that were pure poetry and a pleasure to read—but because some of them were just plain unprofessional.

At the end of the first week, one plaintive cry was wrenched out of me: Would it kill a writer to proof-read their work before sending it out? We actually provided a style guide with punctuation rules for writers to use as a reference. Despite that, conversations trailed on in long paragraphs without a break between speakers; descriptions were convoluted and barely resembled English in their effort to resemble ‘flowery’ language; unnecessary words were capitalized, while proper nouns like ‘Maria’ were not; sentences were fragmented and punctuation at the beginning and end of dialogue was non-existent.

I’d like to point out that punctuation marks are absolutely necessary in dialogue. “This is not acceptable” I say. There has to be a comma or full stop before the closing inverted commas (always, always, before the inverted commas). The dialogue encompasses the punctuation, so DO NOT add a full stop after you have closed the inverted commas, or a hyphen, or a comma, or any punctuation at all. The sentence above, therefore, would be correctly written thus: “This is not acceptable,” I say.

And, please, if you don’t have great language skills, DO NOT use a thesaurus to add big words to your piece. Simplicity is always more powerful, more compelling, and unless you understand the word and it’s correct usage, don’t use it. If you are using the thesaurus in your word processing software, you should also have an option for spell-check and grammar checks. USE IT!!

You don’t need to be an expert, and nuances escape even the most seasoned editor. Just be professional.

After editing the shortlisted finalists, I am hungry (it’s Ramadan, after all), grumpy from lack of sleep and need new glasses. And, I continue to rant, would it kill a writer to proof-read their work before submitting it?