My 12 Best Tips On Writing… and more

My Old Typewriter

1)  Write first, edit later. Let the creative juices flow. Get all your ideas out.  Don’t stop to correct. Later, or after a day or so you can start refining, tossing, changing.  Then go back to it a week later or a month later. With Maha-TEQ I was both working on new sections and editing, touching up, sections I had written.

2) In good writing, it’s important not only on how you write, but where you place it.  You are taking the reader on an adventure.  You decide on when to  give information and when to withhold it.  One of your most important tasks is to sustain the interest of the reader. As an exercise try rearranging scenes or even the way a particular scene unfolds and ends.  In Maha-TEQ, what was originally my beginning is now my ending.

3)  To strengthen the characters you are writing about in your story or article, understand what drives him/her. What does the person/character want? What don’t they want? Once you identify their wants and needs you can more easily flush out their nature and the role they play in your story. In Maha-TEQ, the wants or needs of Yudhisthira, Arjuna, Duryodhan or Karna and others are distinctly defined. Their conflicting wants drive the story forward. Understanding this is essential to good storytelling.

4) In writing Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest I constantly asked myself two main questions:    ONE) How is this scene different from the previous one or from any of the others? What’s the focus? – any one or combination of setting, dialogue, emotional content, tension, action, a striking image, some mystical element. In the style of oral storytelling, my descriptions are sparse. I also tried to evoke the traditional Zen paintings which suggest a setting or an emotion with a few brush strokes.    TWO) How is the scene moving the story forward? What new information is given? Is it provided in an interesting fashion?. Can I withhold any information to arouse the reader’s curiosity?

5) Put yourself in the reader’s place. When people go to a film or to the theater, they go there for the experience. Decide on what you’re offering your reader – information or an experience, or maybe both. The goal of the artist above all is to convey an experience, to take the audience or reader on a journey. And after  they take that journey with you, they should go away feeling a little richer.

6) Make sentences crisp and flowing. Avoid excessive use of had, was, were, that, very. They clog up sentences. Of course, you will need to use them sometime. And when you do, even those words will sound like they’re perfectly in place.. In finishing up Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest, I was aghast when I saw how many ‘that’s’ I had used. I don’t know where they all came from. They creep in, one at a time if you let them. It’s just plain laziness. A writer must be constantly vigilant. I went thru the manuscript yet again. It was like cleaning house and throwing open the windows. Such a relief.

Sentences are the basis. When  crafted well, they are refreshing and amazing. Study how good writers structure and arrange sentences.  Here are some opening sentences to books.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. “—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

and of course –    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

There are a few books out on sentences. I wanted to get one but never did. So I can’t recommend any. I can recommend three good books  in general for writers: 1) Writing For Story by Jon Franklin 2) On Writing Well by Zinsser 3) Stein On Writing by Sol Stein

7) It took me a couple of days to flush out the description of my book which appears on the back cover. From the crude #A to the fully realized #D.

A) Alarm! Intrigue! Destruction!
India’s Ancient Epic!
A civilization at the height of its power
on the brink of ruin.

B) As the foreboding age of Kali approaches,
a dynasty forces the bounds of morality
and hovers on the brink of destruction.

C) As the foreboding age of Kali approaches, a troubled dynasty hovers on the brink of destruction. We encounter celestials, warriors, demons, mystics, men and women swept up in extraordinary conflicts and intrigues.

D) The foreboding age of Kali approaches. A troubled dynasty hovers on the brink of destruction. Celestials, warriors, demons, and mystics struggle for control of the Earth. An epic story that has endured for millennia, Mahabharata reflects the passions and longings of the human spirit.

8) As a  writer, I had always thought in terms of short stories for storytelling, poems, short articles, or scripts for dramas. I didn’t think of full length books or novels. The thing about doing larger works is you have to be pretty well organized. Take notes. Keep files. Categorize. Even research. If you’re not  organized, your work will suffer. And I’m not a very organized person.

I approached MahaTEQ  in short, doable sections. I thought of it in terms of scenes of a movie or play.  I started creating scenes that would often have a beginning, middle and end of their own.  I didn’t work chronologically. I worked on sections scattered throughout the book- whatever was easiest at the time. Slowly, it started to come together. One thing I dreaded was the battle at Kurukshetra. I didn’t know how I would handle it. In Ganguli’s 12 volume set,  the battle takes up three volumes! And the battle is horrific. How many times can you say the ground was soaked in blood. Or that Arjuna riddled his foes with arrows. Or that heads were severed. Finally, I approached it to get  an overview of the battle and  identified the most important elements.  After I broke those down into doable scenes, the work proceeded rather smoothly. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  Toward the end of my work I had to look over the entire MahaTEQ to a see what scenes I still needed to piece it all together, to insure a cohesive, understandable and exciting story line.

As always, I took notes. I had notes for Mahabharata all over the place: on my computer, on scraps of paper, on the back of envelops, in books, and note books. I imagine that I’ll probably find notes for points I wanted to include in Mahabharata for months or even years to come. The thing is: get organized.

9) Lajos Egri, author of The Art of Dramatic Writing, tells us “A novel, play, or any type of writing,  really is a crisis from beginning to end growing to its necessary conclusion.”  So the problems are piling up for the hero or protagonist.  How do they pile up and where are they coming from? That’s up to you, the writer.

The Vedas explain our problems fall into three categories:  adhiatmik, adhidaivik, and adhibautik. The first are problems which stem from the body or the mind – stories that deal with physical handicaps or emotional or mental difficulties. The second are problems from natural occurrences – hurricanes, tsunamis,  tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes (the 90’s especially offered up a slew of such films). The last category are problems caused by other living beings, most likely, but not limited to, human beings. You need to have a clear understanding of what type of problems threaten the protagonist.

Earlier I mentioned that the writer needs to clearly know what the protagonist wants. And the things standing in  the way of what he /she wants helps build the tension or drama. But identifying the problem first comes at the story from another angle. Maybe your character doesn’t  want anything. Maybe they don’t have a problem. Maybe he/she is just enjoying the day. Maybe he’s a retired cop who just wants to be left alone. Maybe he/she is on a cruise ship enjoying a well earned vacation. Then disaster strikes. Have an idea what problems the protagonist is going to come up against. Maybe you’ll even find more once you delve into the writing of your story.

Usually the problems of the protagonist should get more difficult  and mount up as the story goes on. Have fun. This is a chance for the writer to indulge in sadistic tendencies. Bring on the problems! Have your character crawl in the dirt. The writer can be merciful or unrelenting. Of course, when a writer gets really sadistic, that’s called a horror story.

I like Egri’s words  “. . . growing to its necessary conclusion.” That means the ending can’t erratically emerge out of nowhere. The writer is bound by the story he/she is telling and the ending is formed in the context of that story.

10) Nothing we write is created in a vacuum. We get help from many sources. Somerset Maugham tells us, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” But all writers can agree on one thing, that a writer has to read. Reading keeps you within the experience of the flow of words and all they entail –  concepts, description, action, story.  You see how words are used to create feelings and images. How they’re used to create rhythm.  And you gather all these things into yourself.

Good reading helps with good writing. The writer Thomas Mann gathered the books he was reading currently to assist him in his writing on any given day.  It seemed that the right books would somehow appear at the right time. He called these books his “magic circle.”

We’ve been exposed to the concepts, actions and story lines we use in a thousand different ways. Take how Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest begins with rapid shifts in locations.  This dramatic device hits you in the face in the opening of Steven Speilberg’s Close Encounter of the Third Kind. The change of locations and the inquires by the characters immediately draws the viewer into the unfolding mystery of the story. The Mahabharata is a large epic. I needed to catch the reader and draw them in that quickly. It’s a tricky thing because I might confuse the reader with the sudden emergence of all the personalities I introduce as I set the story up. So I asked people who knew nothing about the story to read it and I incorporated their feedback to make it a little easier for future readers.

So in every way we must understand and acknowledge  our indebtedness to those who have come before us, whom we have been inspired by, and those who have assisted us and guided us in many ways: writers, commentators, reviewers, supporters, helpers and readers. And, in turn, it is our responsibility to assist and serve as guides to others.  This is the way a healthy culture functions. Nothing we do or write or start is created in a vacuum.

11) In Spark – a book about creativity by Julie Burstein, the painter Chuck Close is quoted: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Woody Allen puts it this way: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

And Neil Gaiman: “You have to write when you’re not inspired. And you have to write the scenes that don’t inspire you. And the weird thing is that six months later, a year later, you’ll look back at them and you can’t remember which scenes you wrote when you were inspired and which scenes you just wrote because they had to be written next.”

It’s so true. Some scenes or characters may not be easy to approach. You hesitate  because you’re afraid that it won’t come out right and you’ll be exposed as a fool.  But you just have to do the work and  start writing. Allow one thought to lead to another and for one sentence to lead to another. The next day much of it looks like crap. But that’s what I like about writing: you get a second chance and a third chance and a forth chance if you want it. But the writer has to take advantage of those new chances. Don’t depend on the muse. Study your craft.

12) Several years back  I was  attracted by this two full page ad in the NYT Book Review section highlighting two pages of a new book’s opening. It was The Man From Beijing, an international mystery thriller. I had thought of opening the Mahabharata like a mystery story.   Those two provocative and well chosen pages were a powerful hook, although it turned out they weren’t  the book’s very opening pages. I got the book and it promised to be a powerhouse, as was the premise of the book, and the flashbacks. But after mid-way,  the story began to unravel as the author moved away from the basic premise.

Henning Mankell is one of Sweden’s great writers, so it was alarming to see such a potentially good story fall flat on it’s face. The author tried to take the story where it really didn’t have to go. He lost momentum in the process.  If Mankell couldn’t get a handle on his story, how was I going to do it with the vast Mahabharata. Later, I found the reviewers and readers had a mixed response to his book.  A lot of people still seemed to like the book just because it was from Mankell.

For me, however, the lesson was  simple. That is, to stick to the premise of your story. Premise means the purpose, the idea, the essential message or meaning of the story. The basic truth of the story.  The premise should be a compass for the author. It may take a while working with the story to begin to fully define and  understand your premise. It’s easy to start a story. You might have one definite idea or a jumble of ideas and scenes. But in the excitement, you can’t let that jumble carry you away, which it did with The Man From Beijing.  A really good book gone awry.

Once you find it,  keep your eye on  the premise. Don’t lose sight of it. Write it down.  As a writer, that’s what you have to serve.



Practical Tips: getting the word out about your book or CD:

I read something recently about creating a web site to promote your book. But that’s not enough. You still need to get folks to your web site. You’ll need to post interesting and helpful information to entice the reader to your page? 

If you haven’t built a site yet check out WordPress or Blogger. You don’t have to pay someone.  With a little tinkering you’ll do just fine. That’s what I did with this one.

What words would you use to google your book (besides your name & title)? Identify those key words and use them often in the titles of your posts.

You need to ask yourself – Why are you qualified to write the book you did? What’s your connection with the topic? Who is your audience?

Some books have a built in audience. The Civil War for instance, or WW II. Maybe you have a memoir. Why would people want to know about you?

Maybe you have a ‘how to’ book. Perhaps you’re a storyteller writing about storytelling and what it takes to become a professional storyteller. Or you’re an award winning author giving people advice on how to improve their writing.

People always want to read something that’s going to help them along in their journey. So you have to know your audience, their needs, and figure out how to bring them to your site.

Also, authors sell books at their speaking engagements, and storytellers, like myself, sell their books at their storytelling programs. So, for heavens sake, get yourself some speaking engagements. At least make a flyer if not a brochure.

Approach libraries in your area to see if you can offer a talk there. When you meet people at these programs give them your contact info and ask for theirs. Build up a list and stay in touch periodically.

Also, send a press release (along with your web address in the text) about your new book to the college you graduated from and most likely they’ll put that in their newsletter.

Find some one to interview you. If no one wants to, then just start out by interviewing yourself. This is always good practice and helps solidify ways to promote and talk about your book and your writing in general. Some basic questions might be: 1) why did you write the book you did 2) what were some of the challenges in writing it 3) how did the experience help you grow as a person or writer. It depends on the subject of the book you have, but you can look at any interview in The Writer Magazine and other sources to see how you would respond to the questions asked.


One thought on “My 12 Best Tips On Writing… and more

  1. i am ur friend on fb..i view ur site..its great tips for wrighting..i want to wright..but my english is not good….i like the story of mahabharta when YAksha questions to yudhisthra… that time a lot of things hiddne in questions and answers…its gave some msgs… english is not good so i cant explain properly….hope u undersand..thank u

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