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Book Box: Kickstarting Your Writing Life 4.6/5 (5)

“Let’s read a book about writing every month,” my writers' group says.

We begin with On Writing by Stephen King, and then Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. We love these books but sadly don’t get very much further. Our motley group of memoirists, screenwriters, journalists, and a ghostwriter, are forever scrambling to meet deadlines, and the books fall by the wayside.

The writers' group exercise throws up amazing books on writing, with everything from the psychology of writing to advice on planning plot lines, creating characters and revising and editing.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the perfect time to dip into five such books on writing. Storytellers all over the world will spend 30 days this November, completing a draft of a 50,000 word novel - join them by reading these books and writing a story you’ve always wanted to tell.

Book 1 of 5: The Elements of a Story

Character.
Character.

If you’d like to explore the world of characters, I’d start with the elements of a story — character, setting, conflict, plot, pursuit, and the hero’s journey. Read Character by Robert Mckee to build a credible and powerful character. There’s also Dialogue by the same author. Move onto The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker to understand the archetypes of storytelling; ignore these and you will, literally, lose the plot, says Booker. Travel through Literary Landscapes by John Sutherland, a beautifully illustrated book on settings. And, finally, end with Blurb Your Enthusiasm, a perky primer on the art of blurbing.

Book 2 of 5: Grammar and style

25 Great Sentences.
25 Great Sentences.

What I love most about 25 Great Sentences is that these sparkly sentences are drawn from everywhere. Ever been curious about what makes the writing of Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Bruce Springstein and the scriptwriters of the musical Hamilton so catchy? Read this book to find out! You’ll find a wealth of practical advice on drafting, editing and revising in On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Draft no 4 by John McPee.

Book 3 of 5 : Get Specialised

How to Write A Mystery.
How to Write A Mystery.

If you are writing suspense fiction, How To Write a Mystery Novel has a fascinating mix of writing advice from crime writers. Jeffrey Deaver says Always Outline, Lee Child says Never Outline — take your pick! Read about how to construct noir, the YA crime thriller, the medical thriller, and humour in crime fiction. For more on suspense fiction read Patricia HighSmith Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Look closely at the genius of Russian writers in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. The new cult classic for scriptwriters is Save the Cat.

Book 4 of 5: Writers' memoirs

This Life at Play.
This Life at Play.

Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own almost a hundred years ago, yet it still feels so relevant, especially on the pain points that writers face in terms of space, money, and creativity. Pair this with The Diary of Virginia Woolf with ruminations on writing in terms of both content and craft. Closer home, My Story by poet Kamala Das is a strong portrait of the angst of creativity that’s been forced into a routine. Journeys by poet A K Ramanujan captures the magic of exploration, travel and art.

Read This Life at Play by Girish Karnad for more on this, as Karnad fuses a childhood engagement with traditional theatre with international influences. Another book imbued on every page with writing life vibes is Meanwhile There are Letters - a fabulous collection of letters between thriller writer Ross Macdonald and Pulitzer prize-winning Eudora Welty. What I found enthralling was the connection between two writers in very different genres and their literary conversations. Also, read A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway for the way it captures the artistic and literary energy of Paris.

Book 5 of 5 The piece-de-resistance

Journal of a Novel.
Journal of a Novel.

And now, the piece-de-resistance — the Journal of a Novel. John Steinback writes journal entries on writing, every day, before sitting down to the writing of his famous family saga East of Eden. What emerges is part autobiography and part writer's workshop. There is everything here on the creative process of constructing a novel- from character, setting and action to procrastination and sharpened pencils!

Finally, meet Chetan Mahajan, who runs the Himalayan Writing Retreat with online and offline courses for writers. This Kellogg School of Management alumnus turned writing coach, tells aspiring writers to make peace with writing badly and to learn editing early on.

Edited excerpts from our conversation:

Chetan Mahajan.
Chetan Mahajan.

Tell us about the books in your retreat.

We are a writing retreat, so books are everything. Our main hang-out space is called the book lounge. My favourite reading spot is a hammock with brilliant views. There are no bookstores for miles around us. Amazon doesn’t deliver here. All our books come from the city. But even in the city, I favour bookstores over Amazon.

What are your favourite books on the craft of writing?

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

The sense of style (first 100 pages) by Steven Pinker

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Kissing the Demon by Amrita Kumar (One of the very few such books by an Indian)

Any favourite memoirs of writers?

I am in love with Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto. Although it isn’t really about writing, it is a work of genius.

Has doing an MBA from Kellogg and spending 20 plus20-plus years in the corporate world influenced your writing and running a retreat?

The corporate world actually ruins ones writing. I had to unlearn a lot of the corporate crap to become a decent writer. The only saving grace was the seven years I spent in the US — that helped me become more direct and specific in my writing. On the flipside, a writing retreat is a business and comes with risk. I am very much an entrepreneur. The corporate experience helped with that. I spent some time in start-ups, and a few failed ones as well. That has helped and guided me a lot.

Himalayan Writing Retreat.
Himalayan Writing Retreat.

In your writing programs you often share writing prompts - can you give us one?

I like visual prompts a lot, and the participants seem to like them too. Like at the start of the Ukraine war I put out this prompt:

These soldiers have just been ordered to invade another country. Pick any one. Is he happy inside? Does he hate it? Or have mixed feelings? Tell us through dialogue. 150 words.

Picture for writing prompt.
Picture for writing prompt.

What are some of the writers you have worked with?

I worked with Rena Katz one-on-one as her writing coach. Her book is a memoir, and it was a difficult story, with much raw emotion. I am thrilled that A life Inherited was published by Wilbur & Dolce just last month.

Kamalini Natesan was one of our very first participants. She wrote a fictionalized version of a year she had spent in Norway as a teenager. She had a deal with a publisher in India, but that fell through at the last moment. Unfazed, she wrote to publishers worldwide, she believed in her book and wasn’t willing to take no for an answer. Her novel Naked Beneath the Midnight Sun was picked up by Olympia in the UK, and was published in 2019.

Nikhil Gulati is a comic book writer who attended our workshop in 2017. Over five years I’ve seen him struggle with the challenge of writing and publishing a graphic novel. His comic book titled The People of the Indus was published earlier this year by Penguin Random House. It is a great example of what many might find a boring topic, and bringing it to life using images, art and storytelling.

You organise literary conversations for your writing workshops - tell us about one such?

I personally loved the session with Jayapriya Vasudevan who founded the Jacaranda literary agency. I like how she is so clear on what she wants to do and what her priorities are, and also how they’re not necessarily commercial.

There are so many writing courses online- for someone with a day job and on a budget, what are your top recommendations?

My problem with most courses offered online is that mostly they just become “knowledge Netflix”. You watch Malcolm Gladwell talk about writing on Masterclass. You feel wiser, but you still don’t pick up the pen and write. Then it’s no point. That’s why in our courses we require that all participants have to write and discuss. I think Masterclass is brilliant: their courses by Roxanne Gay, Malcolm Gladwell, Margaret Atwood. Shani Raja has an excellent course on editing on Udemy.

Finally, what are 5 pieces of advice for aspiring writers?

Stop thinking and start writing. Too many writers just keep thinking about it.

Expect to be bad. You only get better with practice. Give yourself permission to screw-up. That’s fine.

Learn Editing. Way too many writers fall in love with what they write and cannot bring themselves to edit. Editing is at the heart of good writing. Even if you don’t join a writing course, join an editing course.

Put yourself out there. Once you produce, submit your work everywhere. Submit to awards, to literary magazines. Don’t be afraid of rejection.

Read. Writing without reading is like trying to exhale without inhaling.

On that inspiring note, it’s a wrap for this week. Next week I dive into the world of children’s books to bring you a Children’s Day Special.

Till then, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

The views expressed are personal

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