Monday, 25 October 2010

time, where hast thou gone?

i am in a tizzy. i'm in such a tizzy, in fact, that i'm forgetting my capital letters. why, you may wonder? why this catastrophic departure from good writerly grammar? well, the fact is, i'm leaving for bangalore in less than 48 hours and i

Have twenty-three things left on my To-Do list, none of which have even been touched yet

Know there's something important we're supposed to be picking up at Asda before we leave, but for the life of me I can't remember it, and I'm sure it will be vitally important to my survival

Can't distract myself with writing. Time constraints have never stopped me from writing ferociously before, but wouldn't you know it, I've run dry? Every time I try to sit down to write, my mind goes magically blank and then fills up with a running commentary of the aforementioned twenty-three things left on my To-Do list and asks why aren't you doing them, Sangu, why?! which, you know, would drive the sanest of individuals into a tizzy

Wanted very badly to participate in Brenda Drake's blogfest, but have completely run out of time and ideas, so I'm so sorry about that!

And there are simply no cakes left in the house, which means I have resorted to biting my lip and fingers in lieu of heavenly sweet goodness.

it's not a good state of affairs, folks. it's a capital-letter-dropping, tizzy-wallowing, running-around-getting-stressed state of affairs.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

4 Questions You Should Ask About Your Novel

I'm not sure 'should' is the right word there. It's more like '5 Questions That I Think Would Really Help If You Asked Them About Your Novel', only as a title I don't think that packs quite as much punch!

I've spent a large part of the last three years at Lancaster University, studying English Lit and creative writing. I graduated this past July and while I don't think people need to study writing to be good writers, I know it helped me. Mostly because it taught me to be disciplined and it taught me to question my own work critically. I think being able to critique your own work is an invaluable skill. It's the thing that makes editing work a thousand times better.

While editing WOVEN - formerly called ECHOES - I found myself asking questions about the story that really helped me make it sparkle. I think overthinking a story while writing early drafts is one of the worst things you can do, because it makes you second guess everything. But as an editing tool, it's one of the best things I've ever done. Not 'overthinking', as such, but questioning.

So here are four questions I think it's useful to ask about your book.

Does it make sense?

Most obvious thing in the world, right? But it's amazing how easily you lose sight of this question. For me, it was often a case of 'ooh, it would be awesome if I could get Echo and Sean to do this, think of the possibilities' while forgetting that the 'this' in question might not necessarily make sense to the story.

From my own experience and from what I've been told by other readers, a whole lot of people throw books down in disgust halfway through because the plot's stopped making simple sense. I personally have flung many a hardback against a wall and then rued my impulsive act because hardbacks are expensive. Alas.

Let's take a classic example. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, a key moment in the story involves the first appearance of Three Witches, who prophesy that Macbeth will be King. This prompts him to plot with his wife and ultimately kill the King in order to fulfill the prophecy.

In short-

THREE WITCHES: Macbeth, old bean, you're gonna be King soon. You feelin' us?

MACBETH: Dude, no way. Must totally tell the Mrs.

LADY MACBETH: But Darling. Cupcake. Princeling. Don't you see? We must kill the King so that you can have the throne! 

MACBETH: Ya think? Oh. Okay.

Now let's imagine for a minute that the Witches never turned up. Let's pretend the story had no supernatural element to it whatsoever. Would it still make sense? Sure, it would make sense in terms of one man killing his King for the throne. But would the story still make sense if it was told the same way? Nope. Because where's the catalyst? When we see Macbeth, he's loyal to the King. If he suddenly turned around and thought 'hmm, I fancy killing the bloke', thousands of readers would grimace and toss the play down. 

The catalyst was absolutely key to the plot. It's the thing that makes the story make sense. So when you're editing your story, stop every now and then, step back, and ask yourself if it makes sense to you. As a reader, as an objective outsider, is this a logical step?

Do they feel like real people to me?

Characters can be anything in the world. They can be horrible people. They can be evil. They can be innocent and sweet. They can be the kind of person you'd fall in love with. Characters can be anything - as long as they feel real to the reader. When you're writing them for the first time, you're the writer. Of course they feel real to you. But when you're editing, you're a reader. That's when you need to sit back and wonder if they do feel like real people. Are they so over the top that it's ludicrous? Are they too perfect? Are they one-dimensional?

There are probably hundreds of great ways to figure out whether your characters ring true to you. Getting a fresh perspective from someone else is one of the best ways to do this, I think, because let's face it, you love these people. You've written about them. They're real to you, of course they are. But you might be missing something important.

This happened to me with WOVEN. When reading a round of edits, my agent emailed me to say she thought my antagonists, Adrian and Matthew, sounded too alike. They're old friends, about the same age, so it's only natural they share characteristics in their speech. But there's a line and I was over it. 

If you strip away dialogue tags entirely, and look at the words by themselves, can you tell which character is speaking them? If the words sound like something more than one or two characters would (and do) say, then their speech patterns need work.

Think of people you know. Your family. Or friends. If you heard them speaking through a door, their voices muffled, wouldn't you still know who was saying what because they each have distinctive speech patterns? Vocabulary others might not use? Slang? Intonation? These little things are what make characters feel real, as I learned when my agent told me she needed Adrian's speech to be more distinct from Matthew's.

What am I trying to achieve with this?

This is a question you should never ask when writing a first draft. Trust me, you drive yourself up the wall. When I fell into the trap of doing this, I spent a week huddled my chair, nibbling my fingers and muttering to myself. Really. Change the scene and I would have fit nicely into a home for the mentally deranged.

The first time I asked this question while editing, however, was when I put together my final-year portfolio at university this past March. As the bulk of my year's work was WOVEN, I put together bits and pieces from the novel. Part of the portfolio's work involved critiquing your pieces, explaining what you wanted to achieve and why you think the scene/moment works.

This is what I did and it was amazing. When you ask yourself what you're trying to achieve, you understand the story on a whole new level. If you find yourself without an answer, you know that that scene or moment can be cut, it's unnecessary. Everything has to achieve something in a good story. Whether to develop character, or show a plot twist, or foreshadow something important, a scene must work towards an end. Trust me, this question is like the Holy Grail of questions. I wanted to prostate myself on the floor and sing in tearful relief.

(Okay, I didn't actually. I was just happy in a quiet restrained way. No need to give people any more excuses to cart me off to the asylum.)

Does it sound good?

This is the easiest question to answer, but it might involve the most work if the answer is 'no'. Ultimately, when you're writing a novel, you're telling a story. And the story has to sound good. Clunky writing offends the eye (and ear). Repetition is painful. Too many adverbs are unwieldy, too few make it too spare. Read your story out loud. Do the words sound good to you? Do they flow right? Do they soar or do they fall with an unpleasant clang?

Writing doesn't have to be beautiful and poetic to sound good. Spare, crisp writing can sound good too. It depends on the kind of story you're telling, on the voice of your narrator (whether in first or third or second). In the end, it's not about changing your voice or style. It's just about pruning, and trimming, and embellishing what's already there, to make it sound good to your readers. My guess is they'll love you for it!

And there we have it. Four Big Scary Questions. Ha! No, they're not that big or scary at all. In fact, if you guys are anything like me, you've probably asked yourself these questions without realizing it already. Asking myself questions while editing my work has helped me no end, so I hope it works for you too.

Do you have other questions you find helpful? Any editing tricks that never fail you?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Happy Birthday, CassaStar!

 My blog-friend Alex J. Cavanaugh has a novel, CassaStar, out today!

To be perfectly honest, I don't read an awful lot of science fiction. I'm more of a fantasy girl. But I watch a lot of great sci-fi movies and I do pick up sci-fi books that sound good to me, and Alex's book sounds good! Check this out:

To pilot the fleet’s finest ship...

Few options remain for Byron. A talented but stubborn young man with a troubled past and rebellious attitude, his cockpit skills are his only hope. Slated to train as a Cosbolt fighter pilot, Byron is determined to prove his worth and begin a new life as he sets off for the moon base of Guaard.

Much to Byron’s chagrin, the toughest instructor in the fleet takes notice of the young pilot. Haunted by a past tragedy, Bassa eventually sees through Byron's tough exterior and insolence. When a secret talent is revealed during training, Bassa feels compelled to help Byron achieve his full potential.

As war brews on the edge of space, time is running short. Byron requires a navigator of exceptional quality to survive, and Bassa must make a decision that could well decide the fate of both men. Will their skills be enough as they embark on a mission that may stretch their abilities to the limit?

“…calls to mind the youthful focus of Robert Heinlein’s early military sf, as well as the excitement of space opera epitomized by the many Star Wars novels. Fast-paced military action and a youthful protagonist make this a good choice for both young adult and adult fans of space wars.” - Library Journal
Okay, so what's not to like about something that calls to mind Star Wars, right? I'm stoked!

Here's a little bit about Alex:

Alex J. Cavanaugh has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and works in web design and graphics. He’s experienced in technical editing and worked with an adult literacy program for several years. A fan of all things science fiction, his interests range from books and movies to music and games. Currently he lives in the Carolinas with his wife.

For more about the book, including a great trailer and links to purchase, pop over to Alex's blog.

I love book release days, especially when it's an author I know! So let's crack open some bubbly and eat some cakes and celebrate this amazing day with Alex!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Little rays of sunshine

As the weather in dear old England gets steadily colder and the days grow shorter, I need all the bright sunlight and cheery things I can get! Let's face it: I grew up in India, where it's hot more often than not (hey! Rhyme!), so how I'm going to learn to love the cold in the UK, I'll never know. So here are a few things I'm excited about...

1. I've just signed up to participate in Nina's FicSwap over at her awesome blog Wickfield! Click on the link for proper details, but the gist of it is that this is kind of a Secret Santa thing. You make a request for a story, while also explaining what sort of stuff you will and won't write, and then Nina will give you someone to (secretly) write a story for, while someone else will be (secretly) writing a story for you.

Quite frankly, I can't think of too many things better than getting a story for Christmas/New Year! So do hop over if it sounds like something you'd like to do.

2. Steve and I are going to Bangalore in ten days. Yes, that's right. To the land of sun. Of course, it's approaching winter in India too, but winter in India is downright springtime-y compared to what it's like here. Holiday! Hooray! I don't expect my blogging habits to change much because I'll be back in my old bedroom in my parents' house for a few weeks, with easy access to my laptop, so expect to hear tales from me.

3. Mary Byrne. She's a contestant on the current series of X Factor. She has an incredible voice, is a great sport, seems like such a nice humble person, and she's in her early fifties and is cheerfully competing against bright cute things half her age or younger - and doing better than most of them, in my opinion. She's such a joy to watch and her spirit is amazing! But the reason I really, really like her is quite simple: she's got a great voice and it's a singing contest. I could listen to her forever.

4. Writing. I write because I have to. I can't not do it. But often, it also makes me feel really excited and really happy. 

What's got you excited this week?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

A Reflection on The Inbetweeners

Believe me, I never thought I'd write this post. In fact, even the thought of trying to be straight-faced about The Inbetweeners is enough to give me a jaw-ache.

Yet here I am.

Some of you may have heard of The Inbetweeners. Some of you may be fans who watch it religiously for the endless laughs. For those of you who have no idea what this is, in short, it's a British TV show about four teenage boys at the end of their high school lives. It's also about four teenage boys who swear, drink, and seem to talk almost constantly about sex. It's also a BAFTA award-winning show, which means somebody has found something to admire in it.

The most important thing you need to know about The Inbetweeners, though - and the thing that I notice most about it - is that there are no lines. The show doesn't take itself seriously. It's not supposed to be taken seriously. It's about silly fun, cheap laughs, and the odd moment of 'aw that was quite sweet' where the characters (sort of) redeem themselves. Just about every Naughty Word has been used in just about every episode. We have seen testicles. We have heard about a million different words for parts of the female (and indeed, male) anatomy. We've seen and heard about various bodily functions. We've seen, for Christ's sake, a squirrel being deliberately run over. And as someone who once watched her younger brother try and fail to save an injured squirrel that fell off our roof, I did not enjoy that.

The other thing you should probably know is that I'm not generally the blushing damsel type. I was raised by a family who didn't believe in censoring anything. I had aunts who loved to squabble (colourfully), an actor father who got me to run lines with him from scripts sometimes filled with profanity and sex, and a mother who is so liberal that the only thing she wouldn't let us read or watch was The Exorcist because she was afraid it would scare the tonsils out of us. Fair.

And when I was in high school, I was pretty much known to most of my friends as the one whose mind was in the gutter. Someone said 'long', I usually finished the sentence with a euphemism for boys' private parts. Someone said 'hard'... you get the idea.

Yet in spite of this upbringing and this high school career, I, Sangu Mandanna, Mind in the Gutter, spend most of The Inbetweeners episodes cringing. And blushing. And wincing.

Which goes to show you just how far the show goes.

I'm sure there are thousands of people who claim the show goes too far. Way, way too far. Sometimes, I even agree. Last week's squirrel-killing episode, for a start. I hated that bit. Steve, who derives immense amusement from the cheap laughs and the silly gags, didn't like it either. In fact, I wouldn't even call myself an Inbetweeners fan. I probably wouldn't notice missing an episode, and I certainly don't clear my day to watch it.

But for all that, I admire it. I admire the writers. The producers. The actors. Everyone who lets the show air exactly the way it is.

Why? Because The Inbetweeners is a rare example of something that's rapidly vanishing: the lack of boundaries. I might not agree with or enjoy everything I see in an episode, but I admire it all the same because there are no lines. In a world where books are being banned from libraries and TV channels censor out kissing (yes, this happens), I think a show like this is a nice, nice thing.

As someone who writes for young adults, whose YA novel is out on submission to publishers right now, I worry all the time. I find myself censoring myself when I write. Is this too politically incorrect? Will someone kick off if they read this line? And I wish I could stop doing that, because there's enough being cut out and chipped away out there already.

That's why I admire The Inbetweeners. It's a show about young adults that doesn't hold back. It airs late in the evening, so that children aren't unwittingly subjected to the swearing or sexuality, and it gives us a choice. If you find it offensive, don't watch it. If you like it, you can watch it, no holds barred and all that. We get to choose. And I love that. 

I'd love to know what you guys think.

Monday, 11 October 2010

[Insert Euphemism for 'Lunatic' Here]

The scene. An ordinary day. A couple of weeks ago. I sit upstairs in our bedroom, painting my toenails a nice shiny plum, when without warning...

ECHO: Hello.

SANGU: You've got to be effing kidding me.

ECHO: You weren't expecting me, then?

SANGU: No, as a matter of fact, I wasn't. I mean, Echo, for God's sake, I'm painting my toenails. Can't you come back later?

ECHO: That colour doesn't suit your toes. Why don't you try the red instead? I don't see why you haven't been expecting me. You know patience isn't, well, my strongest suit. It's not even one of my suits! Put yourself in my shoes! After the way you ended the book, can you blame me for being a teensy bit antsy? When do I get to find out what happens next? When am I to be, once again, nearly killed, tormented, betrayed, loved and loathed? 

SANGU: I suppose you're trying to make a point. If you think I treat you so unfairly -

ECHO: I didn't say that. I'm only trying to point out that you could be a little kinder. There's only so many times someone can be nearly killed before their luck runs out, you know!

SANGU: Well, that's my business. Leave me alone. [Echo looks hurt and Sangu immediately feels guilty.] Sorry.

ECHO: So... Chapter One, then?

SANGU: Echo! I can't write Book Two yet, okay? I have to work on something new in case Book One doesn't sell! 

ECHO: But that's silly. I tell a great story.

SANGU [sighs].

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Have I ever mentioned I hate spiders?

The funny thing is, I didn't have a problem with them until about four months ago. Growing up in India, I encountered spiders occasionally. Sometimes they'd have a web in the corner of a ceiling, or they might scuttle over the floor of an outdoor inn, but these occasions were quite few and far between and the spiders were always of unalarming small size.

In fact, in spite of being allergic to spiderwebs (yes, I get hives), I didn't actually yelp or cringe or gasp at the sight of a spider.

Until I moved into our new house, where, to date, we must have unearthed about thirty spiders. For the most part, they've been the small spiders that end up living in houses that aren't occupied (no one had lived in ours for a few months before we moved in). Occasionally, they've been quite large, prompting a squeak from me and an attempt to curl into the farthest corner of the couch while Steve deals with them.


I kid you not, the spider was nearly four inches long from leg to leg. That's ginormous. And it was smack bang in the middle of the stairs. I didn't see it on my way down, which means I spotted it on my way back up, let out a shriek, and backed hastily down again. I couldn't go back up. Which left me downstairs all day, with my phone, the bathroom and my clothes upstairs.

Yep. I was stuck in a cold house in a flimsy see-through nightshirt until Steve came home from work. Five hours later.

The spider, thankfully, did not move. I checked on it every five minutes. As the day grew darker, I could have sworn it doubled in size.

The moral of the tale? Spiders are the root of all evil. 

And get dressed before you go downstairs.