Friday, July 29, 2011

Writing Well


If I begin with the sentence, ‘The art of writing has been mastered by a few’, I would be doing something partly right and partly wrong. Right – because it’s a simple sentence that communicates the idea well, using no big words unnecessarily; and wrong – because it’s the most clichéd sentence one could begin the piece with. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction or even an email, good writing is always about writing clear English – with no grammatical mistakes. In fact, that’s the major difference between a professional writer and an amateur – the professional has learnt the significance of plain English, while the amateur is still wading through all the accoutrements.

Unfortunately, a lot of aspiring writers, even the ones who do know their language and grammar, often fall into a common trap – the trap of overwriting. Very few can steer clear of ‘flatulent orotundity’ defined as ‘a form of high-flown language that tries to impress, but instead obscures’. Some writers probably feel that because they’re writing professionally, they need to sound bombastic. It’s a misconception. So…

Rule number one: Write plain English; talk as you normally do.

Author mistake: But it is ‘my style’!

Yes, it was my style too – a couple of years ago – before I realised what an awful style it was. Good writing is considered ‘good’ because it is lucid and comprehensible to your reader. It is a bad idea to stuff your language like an overeager taxidermist. Remember Hemingway’s famous quote, ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.’

The fact is that one doesn’t require verbosity; rather the reverse. The best writing comes from some good ideas presented in the simplest language, with certain fresh and pleasing expressions, a new word or two once in a while, and a bit of subtle humour sprinkled here and there. Look at O Henry, GK Chesterton, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri … in fact, any of your most favourite literary greats. Revisit their writing. They have learnt the art of getting the balance right.

Creative writing does not mean chaotic or esoteric writing. The best writing is sparse, subtle, and crystal clear. When there is ambiguity, the ambiguity is deliberate. When there is repetition for the sake of emphasis, it's a deliberate device and remains unobtrusive.

Rule number two: Use a more familiar word in place of a big, bombastic one. When you deliberately aim to send your reader to the dictionary every two minutes, it backfires.

Author mistake: But a discerning reader will pick up the dictionary!

You are flattering yourself if you think that even a discerning reader would make that effort in your honour every two minutes. Instead, he/she would lose interest very quickly and dump the book in some corner from which it’ll never resurface.

Yes, to avoid monotony, pedestrian writing, or an insipid style, one may use big words once in a while. But, please remember, those should be used for garnishing and not be confused with the dish.

Rule number three:Eschew obfuscation!’ J Avoid ‘circumlocution’ or saying something in a roundabout manner using too many words. If a bombastic word can be substituted with a simpler one, use it. Don’t make your sentences sound contrived.

Rule number four: Opt for short sentences. Usually, one idea in one sentence works best unless you’ve mastered the art of writing complex sentences without losing focus, becoming muddled yourself, or creating a confusion regarding the subject of the sentence. 

Rule number five: Do not use fifteen words where five will do. Avoid clumsy constructions. A sentence such as, ‘He was a man who had two cows, who had two buffaloes, and who had one goose,’ is the first nail in your coffin as a writer. Better to say, ‘The man had two cows, two buffaloes, and a goose.’ This is called tightening your sentences. Learn the art well, and it’ll take you a long way.

Rule number six:  De-clutter your writing by cutting out every extra adjective, adverb, verb, etc. One is enough in a sentence to convey the meaning. One makes more impact on the reader. Trust me on this one.

Author mistake: But I like double adjectives!

They clutter your writing. The aim is not to show off how many words you know; the aim is to kindle your reader’s imagination and let him/her enjoy his/her own journey. Unnecessary words are a hindrance. It is better to use fresh similes, metaphors, or imagery. Put your creativity to good use.

Rule number seven: Use active voice as far as possible. Unless one is writing an academic paper where language requirements are completely different, modern-day writing encourages the use of active voice and strong verbs. Try using them in your script and see what a difference it makes. 

Rule number eight: Avoid clichés. There is no point saying what has already been said thousands of times exactly like that – which is why it became a cliché in the first place.

Rule number nine: Introduce an idea, but don’t hammer it in. Repetition over and over again takes away from a piece of good writing. Readers don’t need you to preach to them or drill something into their heads. It’s a bad idea again to underestimate your readers or talk down to them.

Rule number ten: Never lose focus. It is even more important when you’re writing fiction. A clear plot should emerge right from the beginning, and the sub-plots should be built around it.  

Author mistake: But you didn’t read enough; the story starts building up from chapter eleven!

Well, chances are – if your script has not got the reader/editor’s attention by chapter ten, he/she will not make the effort to go to chapter eleven. Why waste the first ten chapters? By doing that you’re wasting your breath, probably a lot of paper, and the reader’s time.  

So, all in all, write clearly and simply. Do not wallow in vagueness and abstractions, language from Shakespeare’s time, redundancies, or ‘Indianisms’. Offer your reader something meaningful and worthwhile – something for keeps.

[You can find professional help here as well:]

Helpful material:

Indlish: Jyoti Sanyal
Oxford Essential Guide to Writing: Thomas S Kane
How to Write: Stephen Leacock
On Writing Well: William Zinsser
The Complete Plain Words: Ernest Gowers
Troublesome Words: Bill Bryson
Usage and Abusage: Eric Partridge
The Cambridge Guide to English Usage: Pam Peters
Contradictionary: Fritz Spiegl
Fowler’s Modern English Usage

Friday, July 15, 2011

How to get published (Part 2)

(This is the follow-up piece to the article that Divya wrote on June 30th 2011 about becoming a published author. Click here to read Part 1 of ‘How to get published’. Part 2:
With more queries popping up about submissions to publishers, it’s easy to see that many first-time authors have certain fears regarding their manuscripts and publishers – that are quite unfounded.  It is true that landing up with a wrong publisher may be injurious to the health of your manuscript. At the same time, it would be unfair to judge the entire publishing industry on the basis of such exceptions. Most publishers are friendly and more than willing to answer any queries their authors might have.  Some questions are standard, and can be easily answered here. Let’s have a look at those in the FAQ format.
Q. I am a first-time writer. Should I approach big publishers with my manuscript? Would they consider it at all?
A. Of course! Why shouldn’t they? As long as it’s a good script, any publisher will consider it regardless of whether you are an established writer or a new one. It is a myth that big publishers only publish big writers.
Q. Do I need to register copyright before sending my script to the publisher?
A. No, you don’t. It’s your intellectual property. Even after the book is published, you are the copyright holder (especially if it’s fiction). You could put a copyright symbol and your name and year – and your manuscript is safe enough. Please remember – editors and publishers deal with hundreds of manuscripts every day. It’s a routine affair for them. Nobody will misuse your manuscript. It would be against their own interests, for they would lose credibility completely. No writer would ever go to them in the future. Now, which publisher would want that to happen?
Q. Should I submit my manuscript to one publisher at a time?
A. Ideally, yes. However, in case you have submitted it to another publisher at the same time, it is best to be honest and mention it to them. In case someone has already expressed an interest in it, please tell the other one.
Q. Can I get my script back if the publisher doesn’t accept it?
A. It is practically impossible for publishers to return hundreds on manuscripts in hard copy that come to them all the time. It makes sense to keep the original with you and send them a copy.
Q. Is it the same process for children’s books and non-fiction?
A. Yes, it’s more or less the same. If you have illustrations, send copies and in low resolution. Keep your mail down to less than 1 MB.
Q. If the publisher asks for the complete manuscript or certain changes in a chapter/plan, does it mean they’ll publish it?
A. Not really. It’s simply an expression of interest, not a commitment. That is communicated to you clearly. The publisher will publish the book only when he/she is completely satisfied with the final script.
Q. If my manuscript is accepted by a publisher, would I have to bear the production costs?
A. No, not at all – unless it’s vanity publishing. No mainstream publisher makes the author bear production costs; it’s the publisher’s responsibility.
Q. How do I know if the contract is a standard contract, and the publisher is not trying to rob me?
A. Always read your contract carefully. If you are not sure about something, or do not understand a point, discuss it with your publisher. Most contracts have standard clauses. It is very important that you should understand everything properly.
Rather than treating publishers as villains trying to squeeze maximum ‘profits’ out of their authors, it is better to look upon them as friends and work together as a team. Then a good rapport can be established and, of course, the final outcome is much better.
Finally, here is a list of a few Indian publishers (big MNCs as well as small independents) where you can submit your script (fiction) for consideration:
This is a guest column by publishing entrepreneur Divya Dubey, founder of Gyaana Books. Turtle Dove: Six Simple Tales is her first collection of short stories. Her other short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as Out–of-Print, Muse India, Kindle Magazine, Urban Voice 4, and New Fiction Journal (forthcoming). She has also written for The Hindu Literary Review, Hindustan Times, Indo-Asian News Service, Pravasi Bharatiya, All About Book Publishing, Book Link, The Publisher’s Post, Chicken Soup for the Indian Couple’s Soul, etc. She occasionally conducts lectures on publishing and creative writing. She was one of the finalists at the British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur Award for Publishing in 2010. Find out more about her journey as a publishing entrepreneur here. You can also read her blog on publishing here.
Through this column, Divya Dubey will be sharing insights into the publishing industry with the readers of

Friday, July 1, 2011

How to get published (about fiction)

Over the last couple of years, the culture of publishing in India, especially reading and writing in English, has seen some sweeping changes. Once upon a time, perhaps the only familiar publisher names for a lay reader in India used to be Penguin and Oxford University Press, and leisure reading was synonymous with Sidney Sheldon, Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith, Agatha Christie and battalion. Parents encouraged their offspring to read, but most frowned if they saw a Mills & Boon or a Barbara Cartland in their hands. Indian writing was serious business and an area where most non-literary angels feared to tread.
Post the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon, the scenario has changed completely. Pulp fiction seems to be redefining trade publishing, and popular fiction for the Indian palate is now in great demand. With more and more multinationals setting up Indian offices, and independents mushrooming all over the country, not to forget self-publishing avenues – both online and in print – getting published has become much easier, especially for young writers.
Unfortunately, every published book does not qualify as a good book. There are people who publish bad scripts, and publish quickly – without making an effort to give you any editorial input; and there are people who publish good scripts, with everything in place – even if it takes more time. Make sure you make the correct choices. Once your book is out there in the public domain, your name will be associated with it forever. So consider whether you simply want superficial ‘stardom’ that might last a few weeks, or whether you want to become a genuinely good writer. Never mind if you wish to write pulp. Some years from now, your reader should remember your novel and remember it with pleasure.
Now – on the road to getting published!
You must have a strong story. Don’t write something that has been done to death already. Remember ‘formula movies’? They lose their charm after a while.
Organise your material well. It should be crisp and clearly written. Usually, an average novel is between 40,000 words and 65,000 words, though there are no hard and fast rules.
Join writer groups, online and otherwise, for group discussions and helpful feed back on your script. You may need to edit/rewrite/revise a hundred times. Do it.
First impressions are important. Publishers are more receptive to scripts that are well written and well presented. These days you can get professional help even before you approach a publisher. You can search for such avenues on the Internet.
Correct language and grammar also make the editors more inclined towards reading your script. Get professional help, or ask someone with strong language skills – maybe a friend/teacher/professor to help you with your own editing.
There are two ways of submitting: direct (unsolicited), or through a literary agent. Before sending out your script to a publisher, make sure they publish the genre. Check their website for submission guidelines and other details. All you need to do is follow them step-by-step. Most publishers ask for a synopsis of the book, a brief bio, and two or three sample chapters.
You could approach literary agents (India has some now), to negotiate with publishers on your behalf. Literary agents have their charges (which usually vary from one to the other), but your script has better chances of being accepted and usually moves faster.
If you wish to do it yourself, choose a good publisher and follow their guidelines. It helps to have some knowledge of the Indian publishers. Trust your own judgement. Browse their websites, read some of their books, attend their events; you’ll find the answers to most of your questions. If you have a good script, most mainstream publishers would be willing to consider it.
Write a short, clear synopsis (about a page at the most) giving an outline of your story. Mention what is special about your script. Remember: your summary shouldn’t be longer than the script!
Write a letter accompanying the book proposal. Mention your contact details – email ID, postal address, phone no. clearly on it. You can also insert the contact details as headers on your script. Check the submission guidelines regarding how you need to submit it – soft copy or hard copy.
It is preferable to send a spiral-bound proposal if it’s in hard copy. Once it is accepted, ask the publisher if they would prefer the entire script as bound or loose sheets. Different publishers prefer different formats.
Learn to wait. After submitting the proposal, give the publisher the amount of time they have asked for to get back to you. After that, you may send them a gentle reminder.
Most publishers and literary agents have a presence online – websites, blogs, groups on various networking sites, etcetera. You could begin the process right away.

[You can find professional help here as well:]
This is a guest column by Publishing Entrepreneur, Divya Dubey, founder of Gyaana Books. Turtle Dove: Six Simple Tales is her first collection of short stories. Her other short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as Out–of-Print, Muse India, Kindle Magazine, Urban Voice 4, and New Fiction Journal (forthcoming). She has also written for The Hindu Literary Review, Hindustan Times, Indo-Asian News Service, Pravasi Bharatiya, All About Book Publishing, Book Link, The Publisher’s Post,Chicken Soup for the Indian Couple’s Soul, etc. She occasionally conducts lectures on publishing and creative writing. She was shortlisted for the British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur Award, Publishing, 2010. Find out more about her journey as a publishing entrepreneur here.
Through this column, Divya Dubey will be sharing insights into the publishing industry with the readers of