Neelima Vinod is a writer and mentor in Bangalore, India. She is an alumna of the University of East Anglia Creative Writing Workshop and nowadays she runs the Young Author Program, a creative writing workshop for young writers. You can find out more about her at http://neelimavinod.in.
Here is an excerpt from Neelima’s conversation with omemy.com about the nuances of being a writer and how you can overcome your hesitation to become one!
Who is a writer?
"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
— Thomas Mann
It’s strange but there has never been any other time in history when so much content has been created. We all write texts, emails, reports and social media stories; does that make us writers?
It sure feels that way but a writer is someone who dedicates more time to writing content that is relevant in the long run, say a poem, a story, a book. A content creator churns out business communication and social media posts — no mean task — but her output does not necessarily tally with what is expected of a writer.
A writer spends a lot of time researching, plotting, writing and rewriting. She always has notes brewing in her brain. She is constantly worried about not writing when she isn’t. She is continuously translating the world around her into words that she can fit into a page. She is hard on herself and often does not like what she writes. Still she strives!
She writes on good days and bad. She journals. She tries to see stories in everything around her. She fails miserably sometimes but there are days when she weaves the perfect sentence. If you are ready to strive, then by all means you can be a writer.
Do I need formal training to be a writer?
“Writing, I reminded them, can’t be taught or learned in a vacuum. We must say to students in every area of knowledge: “This is how other people have written about this subject. Read it; study it; think about it. You can do it too.”
Nowadays there are umpteen courses for aspiring writers. I run a writing workshop for young writers and around me, I see a huge number of classes mushrooming in the online space. Serious writers can consider pursuing an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing – an advanced degree for aspiring writers.
However, there is no rule that only someone with an MFA can bring out a book or be noticed by publishers. Anyone with a wealth of experience and language skills can consider writing a book or a story. An MFA provides the student with multiple tools to tackle the writing process, an opportunity to immerse herself in the writing life and network with professionals in the writing sector as well as a wide array of job opportunities in diverse fields like journalism, marketing, teaching, etc.
Joining creative writing workshops opens the aspiring writer’s mind to the possibilities that come from critiquing – when a new pair of eyes reads your work, you learn to look at your own story in new ways. When you discover a tribe of writers, writing becomes an act of sharing.
For those of you who want a taste of writing courses, there are multiple short-term courses available online. You can browse through the websites of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) providers like Coursera and Udemy. Sign up for MasterClass and learn the rules of writing by listening to established authors explain how they played God in the lives of their characters. I highly recommend Ruskin Bond’s 28 lessons at the Unlu app.
What can I write about?
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”
— Orson Scott
You can write about what you know – the ebb and flow of your life and the lives of the people around you. You can also explore the things you know nothing about and by exploration I mean research. Sometimes you write in response to the world around you and sometimes in response to the world within.
Everything that you write need not be published. Sometimes you write to make sense of the world around you and that is extremely therapeutic. Writing can also be healing.
You also need not write about something grandiose each time. You could write about something as simple as the love you have for your kitten. What matters when you write is how you feel when you write it for that is often how the readers will feel about it too.
How can I overcome Writer’s Block? / What is Prompt writing?
“Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.”
Writer’s block is an inability to write for long periods of time. You can attempt to tackle the fear of writing or any block that you face by freewriting i.e. just write about anything in the whole wide world. Just type or use your pen and start thinking on the page. Don’t cross out any mistakes; keep at it for some time. Even writing needs some warming up.
Another way to tackle a block is to try prompt writing. A prompt could be in the form of a picture or a word or a story outline. When you write in response to visual or word triggers, you may be surprised by the kind of stuff you come up with.
Writing is hard, especially when you are doing it day in and day out. Where do you get all those words from? It’s like digging a stony surface to find treasure. There are times when rivulets of sweat drip off of your forehead and you sit on your haunches and curse the earth and fling away the shovel. Writing is not rewarding on a daily basis but once you succeed in writing that story or that book, you can breathe easy for a while. Every blank page is a blank page syndrome trigger.
Sometimes you should leave your desk, go for a walk or just call a friend. Listen to your writing block; maybe what you need is a break.
Can only ardent readers become good writers?
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
— Stephen King
You can’t become a great chef if you are averse to food, can you? The same goes for writing. Reading is the bedrock of writing as when you read like someone who writes, you look out for character, setting, dialogue, style…your eyes are open for lessons and which better teacher exists on earth than a very good book? Be immersed in the world of books and then writing will be second nature to you.
What are the elements of a good story?
“Every compelling story has the following five elements:
1) A character
2) The character wants something
3) But something prevents him from getting what he wants easily
4) So he struggles against that force
5) And either succeeds or fails.”
– Libbie Hawker
Every story has some core components:
Character: The characters are the lifeblood of a story. Peter Pan brings Neverland to life; Dorothy’s dreams populate the yellow brick road; Mole, Ratty and Badger try to save the eccentric Mr. Toad. These characters have hopes and dreams. They struggle to achieve their goals. As readers, we root for believable characters.
Setting: World-building skills are the forte of a successful author. A house on a hill could be haunted, the scene of a crime, a happy hearth, a getaway, a historical building…all material is pliable in a writer’s hands. A character’s destiny is intertwined with the setting. Captain Ahab is inextricably linked with the sea, Sherlock Holmes can live nowhere else except for the 221B, Baker Street of our imagination. Gatsby's actions are a direct result of his high-flying life in New York during the Roaring '20s.
Plot: This is the core of fiction, particularly genre fiction. A sequence of events leading to a climax forms the plot of the story.
Aristotle defines plot as the arrangement of incidents. For a clearer understanding of how a story can be designed, you can refer to the Freytag's Pyramid, which charts out the various aspects of a story: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement. A writer needs to keep these goal posts in mind while crafting a story.
What are the different kinds of genres that I can write in?
Literary fiction is more focused on the character arc (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald , To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee) and genre fiction focuses more on the plot. There are all kinds of genres you can write in including romance (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen), horror (Dracula by Bram Stoker), speculative (The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien) and mystery fiction (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie).
If you are writing non-fiction, genres include biography/ autobiography (Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela), travelogue (Sun After Dark: Flights Into the Foreign by Pico Iyer), scientific writing (Silent Spring by Rachel Carson) and history (False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma by Manu S Pillai), etc.
As a beginner, what could be my possible first writing attempt?
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
— Louis L’Amour
Most aspiring writers start their writing journeys at school, usually under the gentle prodding of their English teacher. I remember how my English teacher sat me down in front of a gigantic dictionary to look for the word 'gosling'. I was hooked on words ever after.
You could be trying to write a letter to someone you care for and notice how the words flow and the world around you disappears as you write. That could start your writing journey.
You could be trying to formulate your emotions and end up with a poem about your first love or a story about a dreadful accident you survived.
Each form of writing requires a different approach. To write a poem, you need a sense of rhythm; to write an essay you need to have the gift of clarity; to write a short story, you need to know exactly where your character will go; and to write a novel, you need patience.
If you love writing, your first attempt is far from your last.
Where do I submit my stories?
“The more I risk being rejected, the better my chances are of being accepted.” —Robert T. Kiyosaki
It takes a lot of courage to submit your story. So if you plan to do this, congratulations!
You can submit your stories to literary magazines. Make sure you don't submit your first draft. You need to edit your story first. Read the magazine to which you plan to submit and then send in your piece. If it's a submission call with a theme, make sure you write based on the theme provided. Sometimes magazines provide instructions about how to format your work. Read all the instructions carefully before sending in your stories. Some magazines require a reading fee while others don't.
You can also try submitting to anthologies. An anthology is a collection of stories generally based on a theme or genre. At the Young Author Program, I have featured the stories of young writers in anthologies like Griffins and Gabbar Singh. Seeing your name alongside many other writers gives you a sense of pride.
Don't worry too much about rejection as that is part of the submission game. The best way to deal with it is to very stoically continue submitting stories, poems and essays.
Tips for new writers
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.
That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
― Octavia E. Butler
I always enjoy reading what writers have to say about the writing process and while cats and coffee feature heavily in the lives of most writers, there are some simple tips they offer that we can learn from.
Write often and then rewrite. Remember that rewriting is what writing is all about.
Create a space in your home to write.
Create a writing ritual. You can write at a particular time every day or listen to a playlist that triggers the writing genie to awake.
Save your writing.
Reward yourself whenever you meet your targets.
Share your writing with trustworthy people who can offer some insight into your work.
All that sitting down and writing can take a toll on you. Stand up from time to time or invest in a standing desk.
Go on little adventures as the writing life can get a bit lonely and you need to have new experiences so that your writing stays fresh.
Be patient. Writing is a long journey but worthwhile in the long run.
I wish you all the best with your writing dreams!
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