There are three types of fiction you will come across. Works which makes you stop and ask yourselves, ‘I can never ever write like this. This is absolute genius’. For example, Juggi Bhasin’s The Terrorist, Kiego Higashino’s Devotion of Suspect X to name a few. Then there are works which make you say out loud, ‘Fuck this! I can write so much better than this’ and the examples for these are peppered across any shelf which boasts of books being on display. Then there are works which fall somewhere in between this small spectrum.
I know I am generalizing when I say this, but most of us start writing as a form of catharsis. And the things which we write are basically a deluge of emotions we feel and things which we experience. Ranging from heartbreaks, rebelling against societal norms and conventions, trying to tell people that all you want is somebody who will understand the things we don’t speak, to the thrill and excitement of your first kiss. Which I suppose is one of the main reasons why we thrust passages from our favorite books in our friend’s faces, email/facebook/tweet links to blogs which talk about all of these feelings which are better articulated and wished we had written them.
And hence, I reckon it is safe to say that all writers are readers first.
And an amalgamation of all these factors, in varying quantities is what makes us want to write. As writers, I think it is important for us to hear other people’s stories. I am a sucker for Yash Raj and Karan Johar’s brand of romantic stories and I am always interested in knowing how two people in a relationship met, who said what and what made them say yes, even though I don’t really write love stories. I am more interested in the two characters, their feelings, their personal beliefs, the inner emotional turmoil before they decided to choose a certain path of saying yes or a no. And I think the reason we read is because we want to know what made somebody/anybody be and behave in the certain manner that they do.
If you look at movies, they are nothing but stories being played out on a white screen rather than the screen inside your head. And what do you remember from movies, you remember characters and dialogues. I ask you to name me one movie, or anything fictional for that that you have read or seen where the characters and dialogues played second fiddle to the story itself.
I think being a man it is easy for me to say that I am still a kid who is easily impressed by fancy things and strong characters. And nothing impresses me more than a badass character. I think the last big character which left a BIG impression on me was Heath Ledger’s The Joker, Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock, Max Williams as Gunter Vogler in recent miniseries, ‘Bullet in the face’ and James Bond to name a few. Do you actually remember any Bond stories? I definitely don’t. But God! I love that character to bits. I want to be him. I want to talk like him, dress like him. Just be him.
For me story telling is a very organic process but within a confines of a restrictive formula. Your characters and dialogues are the unknown variables in this equation. If you find the right mix for characters and dialogues, a run of the mill story becomes explosive dynamite. Take for example, the usual suspects. It was a simple formula of whodunit meets a heist set up. What made that movie exceptional was the absent presence of Keyser Soze, if you take John Cusack’s say anything, you still remember the boy who stood outside the girl’s window a boombox over his head. The character of Joker may as well have starred in 500 days of summer if you ask me, and I would still relished every single moment he occupied the screen and fantasized about him and his actions when he was not on screen.
These movies or books are meant to be watched or read and savored. No matter how much you gush about them to your friends, you can never really answer the question of ‘What was the story actually about?’, because when you do, you feel you are trivializing your experience and time spent investing in those characters. And that is what great works of fiction do.
Which probably explains why I find it difficult, to tell the subject of my next novel. I mean if I just said that my next story is about a pair of conjoint twins who play arm chair detectives to a psychotic woman raised by a cannibalistic couple, you would be like ohhhh-kay! Much like if you explained the story of Dark Knight or any of Sherlock’s stories to somebody who hasn’t watched the movie or read Conan Doyle’s work.
The next thing I say may be construed as being controversial. Nobody can write a story based on an original idea. Everything is derivative. The story premise stay the same be it love story, murder, vendetta, heist, betrayal. Pretty much everything Shakespeare wrote. But what differentiates one story from the next, are the characters and the dialogues.
Which brings me to the most abused and thrown about phrase, ‘Writer’s block’, especially amongst the people who like to write. Writer’s block is now used to describe those instances when you think you have a great idea, but when you open up the word doc, you don’t know where to begin and the more you stare at the screen, the faster the idea dissolves into oblivion. Writer’s block is used to describe those instances when you feel the ‘keeda’ to write but just can’t write. Pretty much a mutation of the previous instance. I think that writer’s block is our subconscious stopping us from writing absolute vapid drivel. I know I have writer’s block when I am not kicked about a character. And I embrace it and I go back to my drawing board and try to imagine a person who would elicit an emotion from me, any emotion. And this I suspect is what filters out the great writers from the has-beens and the wannabes, the ability to elicit emotional response from the readers.
So, you have managed to conjure up a character from the inner confines of your subconscious and you vast expanse of imagination. You even have managed to think of a clever little plot comprising of emotional conflicts your characters will face. And then you finish writing it. You feel happy and proud. You are backslapping yourself for having finished writing your first ever full length novel, short story whatever. But, I wished somebody had told me back then, that what I had done was the simplest of all tasks involved in whole life cycle of writing a story and seeing it in print.
Because after you finish writing a story, you then have to write a synopsis, possibly a chapter outline, summary of the story (which by the way I have learned is very different from a synopsis), and an attention grabbing cover letter amongst other things. Different literary agencies and publishing houses have different sort of things they want from you. Now, I still don’t know how to write a synopsis or any of the other elements which comprise a proposal kit, I sort of outsource it to a friend of mine.
But say you don’t have that problem or you have a gracious friend like I do, and say you aced each and every single element in the proposal kit and a commissioning editor agrees that what you have written is worthy enough to justify trees being cut to make paper on which your story shall be printed. The commissioning editor then asks the guy in the legal department to draft an agreement.
This is where you realize that you should have paid more attention to your mother arguing with the vegetable vendor over the price of tomatoes and onions. For most first time authors, you don’t get a choice to have a say in things, it is a very ‘my way or the highway’ route. And because you have struggled with your characters and lived their lives along with living yours, you take it. Your story finally comes out. This is not the end, because it is lot like getting a tattoo. Once you are hooked, you are on. And I hope that your story gets good mentions and other publishing houses and literary agents take note of you. Because when they do, the next time you are waddling through the murky legal document called the Author agreement, you get some leverage, some bargaining power when you are negotiating for your next set of characters and their trials and tribulations. You get the power to talk about wanting to use a pseudonym and bargain over the royalties and if you are really good, you can even press your luck and ask for a token advance payment.
I would like to end my note by saying that people are not wrong when they say writing is a lonely job. If you are serious about writing, then you need to have a masochistic gene in your being. Much like the dude who calls up at the more inopportune moments to ask you if you would like a loan or a credit card. So keep writing, and if the writing doesn’t work, there is always space for one more person to offer loans and credit cards.