Archive for June, 2011

For over eight years, my writing was anchored in a single novel. I wrote the first paragraph, the prologue, in 2002, after reading a factoid in a travel guide which conjured up a strong image. Here’s the paragraph, the only one which has not changed one iota in the many (MANY) rounds of revisions:

In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. Five hundred years ago, like today, the monsoons were elusive. In the royal palaces, the walls of the children’s rooms were trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so that when it finally did rain, the little ones would not be afraid. Less fortunate children, those who had grown up looking up at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, would remember all their lives the fear and hope they felt the day of their first rain.

I had no idea I was beginning a book. I just felt compelled to capture the image. The timing was everything: I held that image in my mind just at the time when I was being introduced to kathak dance, and its history. And I had recently returned from Rajasthan. The three together started to form something. A setting, a starting point, an ending point, some characters. Without even realizing it, I had embarked on writing a novel.

Then I did what many novice writers do: I wanted to tell a specific story, and I tried to create the characters who could tell it. I imposed upon them my own goals. The story had to begin at a certain place, and end at a certain place, and certain events had to happen at certain times. Inevitably, I got stuck a few times. And each time, the only thing that allowed me to get unstuck was to try to think about what my characters would really do given the circumstances in which I had placed them. It was tricky, trying to keep the essence of what had compelled me in the first place to write the story, yet letting the characters lead the way. They did not always take the paths I wanted to take, and I had to learn to accept that. And so some plotlines receded, and others came to the fore. One character I loved died much earlier than I’d wanted. Another whom I’d created as a secondary character ended up shining. And after I’d finished the book several times over, I went and changed the point of view.

Now as my manuscript undergoes some edits in the hands of my agent, I am turning to my Next Book. It may well be the next in this “series,” and I put that in quotes because I mean it loosely. It will not be a sequel, but rather a continuation with different characters, set 300 years later, i.e. in the mid-1800s. As I look at the considerable amount of research I already put into this new project over the past few years (each time I foolishly thought my first book was finished and that I had time to look to the next one), I see that I have learned something over the past eight years. (So at least there’s that.)

My first realization is that my ideas to date have been too broad. I’ve thought to encompass too many different worlds and circumstances, too many different characters, too many years. And so, here I am, asking myself the kinds of questions that I didn’t bother to ask myself the first time around, the ones I now feel I should ask myself so as to be more efficient and a better writer: what, really, is the story I want to tell? And whose story is it? And how will that character change over the course of the story? And from whose point of view should it be narrated?

Suddenly, I feel as though I am on a boat at the water’s edge, with endless possibilities. I can sail wherever I want! I can let the wind take me this way, then tack the other way. I can make up any story. I can fashion new characters out of any shred of my imagination. And boy does this all feel daunting! After eight years of writing and revising, working with actual words on actual pages, I need to re-acquaint myself with an entirely different workflow: just thinking. Spending two hours pondering and musing, perhaps picking up a book or two from my shelves and leafing through them, most definitely surfing the Web, and reminding myself that this is as valid a part of the process as the writing and the revising. (It is, right?) I’m giving myself the summer to hone in on the main characters, the specific setting(s), the timeline. This was so much easier the first time around, when I was completely clueless! A little bit of knowledge is a difficult thing to handle.

I wonder, how do others go about launching into new creative projects of this scale? This may be my second book, but it’s nonetheless a new experience. Which is what makes it so exciting.

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A few months ago, we traveled to India. Yes, with the kids. Of course with the kids. In packing for the trip, I put a lot of thought into what to bring to entertain K, the first grader. We were lugging a lot of baby gear, and couldn’t bog ourselves down with the usual multitude of games and toys which we tend to drag along with us on more local trips, and which, honestly, are hardly necessary since we’ve seen with our own eyes K entertain herself with a stick and a handful of acorns for hours on end. Anyway, I came up with a small selection of chapter books, activity books, a travel journal, a few small games and a bunch of pens and colored pencils, feeling proud to be so parsimonious. I showed these items to K, bracing myself for her to announce that she couldn’t possibly survive for two weeks without at least half the contents of her room, but she shrugged and said: “I don’t want to bring anything.”

Me: “But? Really? We’re going for two weeks. There will be looooong plane rides. Time spend just waiting. Are you sure you don’t want anything?

K: “Nah. Well, maybe these two books. And something to write with. And my tooth box, in case I lose a tooth while I’m there.”

A week later, at our hotel in Goa, as the baby napped and we took some time out of the sun, I witnessed a marvelous sight: K curled up on the bed, fully engrossed in one of the books. It was a Magic Schoolbus science book, called “The Search for the Missing Bones.” Over the next couple of days, K took every opportunity she could to read a few pages. Sometimes she did so aloud to us. Sometimes softly to herself.

As soon as we returned home, I purchased three more books in the series. For a couple more weeks, K seemed to relish reading and I was giddy at the thought that she’d discovered the sheer pleasure of immersing herself in a book, of savoring words and encountering new stories. (Not to mention visions of my being able to do a bit of reading myself, uninterrupted, while she devoured pages up in her room.)

And then, something changed. She no longer seemed interested in books. When she dragged around the house at a loose end and I suggested reading, she groaned and flopped onto the arm chair as thought I’d suggested cleaning her room. (Which I eventually would suggest, simply to play my part in perpetuating the eternal dialogue between mothers and daughters, kind of like suggesting that she brush her hair every day. Which I also do.)

Now, I can’t say this for sure, but I have a theory. I believe she started feeling lukewarm about reading about the time that her teacher introduced the Reading Log. (Please note, this is not any criticism of the teacher, for I know Reading Logs are the norm at this stage.) At first, this was simply a sheet of paper with each day of the week on it, and K was responsible for filling in the title of the book she’d read, either in full or partially, and turning it in on Fridays with a parent signature for every day. The first Reading Log was sent home on a Monday with a note to the parents speaking loftily about parents and teachers working together as partners in the education of the children, blah blah blah. Parents were instructed to make sure that children read for a minimum of 10 minutes per day, and to sign the form after each reading session. After a couple of months of this system, the assignment became more involved, requiring the children to use one of six “strategies” to fill in a few lines about what they’d read. The “strategies” are noticing, picturing, figuring out, guessing, connecting and wondering.

Ugh.

Do a quick Google search for “reading log” and you’ll immediately encounter the rants of many fed up parents. So I suppose I’m merely adding my own. Kind of like being the 1875th person to write a review on Amazon for a baby swing. One might ask: why bother? I’m not sure. Perhaps because I’d like some advice on how to handle this. Perhaps for some families, the Reading Log does help children read, and in that case, great. No doubt the parents ranting online are those who come from various positions of relative privilege. I’m not going to delve into the socio-economics of parental involvement in education here. From my personal perspective, for my own family, the Reading Log is a major drag. It makes reading a chore. It sucks the enjoyment out of just picking up a book and losing oneself in it. Every afternoon (for I quickly learned not to leave the reading assignment for bedtime as all it did was drag out the bedtime routine and end the day on a cranky note for both parent and child) I nudge K to do her reading log, and it’s all I can do to refrain from adding “to get it out of the way.” Because I feel this way as much as she does. I am reluctant to let her realize this, for then she might be even less motivated to do it. But, I mean, really? I am supposed to make her read at a specific time, and hover over her to make sure it happens, and then pester her to think of something to write that uses one of the “strategies?” It feels all wrong.

I hear from other local parents that I should expect reading logs every year. We’ve ridden out this year, but I’m very tempted to institute an alternate system next year. Some kind of honor system. To let K just read when she feels like it, and where she feels like it, any time during the week, and to sign the log as long as she tells me that she did read, and that she did what she needed to fulfill the requirement. In the meantime, I plan to fill her shelves with good books for her to pick up at her leisure, and I am SO looking forward to a full summer without a Reading Log. I did hear some rumor that in September she’ll need to turn in a list of books read during the summer, and that she is to read “at least 10 hours,” but I have no intention of actually keeping track of any of it. We’ll figure it out at the end of August. I’m hoping that by not applying any time pressure, the 10 hours will be a breeze.

And, for those looking for recommendations for 7-year olds (mostly for reading on their own, although a few may benefit from some adult involvement), here is a list of what some of my friends have suggested, along with some additions of my own, just to get started:

Series:

  • The Magic Treehouse, by Mary Pope Osborne
  • Judy Moody, by Megan McDonald
  • Rainbow Magic Fairies, by Daisy Meadows (I’m not big on fairies, but these seem to be a hit)
  • The Magic Schoolbus Science Chapter Books
  • Junie B. Jones, by Barbara Park and Denise Brunkus
  • Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald
  • The Faraway Tree, by Enid Blyton
  • The Secret Seven, by Enid Blyton
  • The Five Find Outers, by Enid Blyton
  • Encyclopedia Brown, by Donald Sobol
  • Catwings, by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The Hardy Boys, by Franklin Dixon

Individual books:

  • A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket
  • Diary of  Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney
  • Freckle Juice, by Judy Blume
  • The Borrowers, by Mary Norton
  • The Cricket in Times Square, by George Shelden
  • Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
  • Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren
  • Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

I welcome any and all additional suggestions.

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I signed with an agent this week. It’s official. I can now say I am an agented writer. I am excited, but in a this-is-too-good-to-be-true sort of way. I have to admit, it feels a bit unreal. The agent is very enthusiastic and energetic and engaged, and I’m delighted about that. She read my manuscript in record time (under 24 hours) and offered me representation on the spot. I walked around in a daze for several hours after receiving her email.

I’m still in a bit of a daze. After eight years of working on this book, researching and outlining and writing and re-writing and re-writing and re-writing (and in the meantime freelancing and giving birth to two children—not to mention raising them and occasionally feeding them—and helping run a non-profit) I had begun to feel as though I would be working on the same manuscript, living with the same set of characters, for the rest of my natural life. Now all of a sudden someone else is taking ownership of the process of shepherding it, and them, out into the world, and it’s the oddest feeling. Not a bad one, mind you. Not at all. Just… different. Throwing me off balance. It’s allowing me suddenly to imagine writing other things, creating different characters, picturing a writing career. Part of me is rushing ahead, already planning creative ideas for book signings, thinking of ways to market the book. Another part of me is pulling in the reins, cautious to get my hopes up, remembering just how many manuscripts land in editors’ in-boxes these days.

A friend was just over and while our children ran around under a sprinkler in the unseasonable heat, she told me of the recent bad news from her agent. After having her first book on submission to editors for 18 months and not getting a sale, the agent read my friend’s next novel that she wrote during that time, and doesn’t like it. (The dreaded “this isn’t quite working for me.”) Now my friend is wondering whether she should work to fit the book to her agent’s liking, or scrap it and write yet another one. Yikes! A year ago, this friend seemed in such an enviable position to me. Agented, one book on submission, already part of a draft of a next book. (I still envy her: that she has what it takes to buckle down and write another book, and has ideas for yet another, and can sit and write for hours without getting distracted.) It’s a reminder to me of how things can change, how each step in the process brings its own challenges and highs and lows, and how doggedly one has to keep at it.

It’s a roller coaster ride, this writing thing. But I wouldn’t dream of not pursuing it.

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A powerful storm ripped through Massachusetts tonight, bringing raging winds and ceaseless, sky-illuminating lightning as well as a short but torrential downpour. Watching it from the window of my home, I was vividly reminded of the sights, smells and sensations of summer monsoon storms in Calcutta and Bombay during my childhood. The cawing of the crows flying in circles as the wind picked up. The heavy smell of moist dust as the first drops fell. My sopping wet skirt clinging to my legs. My bare feet squeaking in my plastic chappals, or flip flops, then the cool, slippery sensation of walking wet-footed on tile floors. The whirring power-down of the ceiling fan during load shedding. The slight spray of raindrops on my skin as they broke down against the window screens. The splashing of cars sputtering through knee deep water in the street below. The horrid, probing feelers of a large cockroach emerging from the drain in the corner of the bathroom floor. The chatter of the household help, still referred to as “servants” then, in the hallway, seeking refuge from their usual retreat on the roof amid the drying laundry, makeshift charcoal fires and overturned buckets serving as seats. The clink of ice cubes in my father’s Johnny Walker and the conversation, Bengali with a smattering of English, of the adults as they sat around the living room chatting and crunching on pappadams waiting by candlelight for dinner to be served.

What a different world I inhabit now. As the same sky let loose its lightning and wind and rain this time, so many years later, so many thousands of miles away, I stood in a newly-built home, windows shut tight, my own children sleeping soundly downstairs, cool air blowing out onto my still bare feet through the vent in the floor, the dishwasher whirring downstairs, the lights steadily on, everything indoors dry and still and safe and quiet. I thought for a moment of opening the back door and stepping out onto the deck, letting the wind blow into the house. I didn’t. Instead, grateful to have those memories of storms past, I sat down at my computer, compelled to write.

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