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Short Break

This blog is on a short two week break. Regular programming will resume approximately around Aug 25th.

The history carnival will be published as scheduled on Aug 15th

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Writing Tips from Orhan Pamuk, Suketu Mehta and Kathy Sierra

(Image by Haagen Jerrys

When  Suketu Mehta, Orhan Pamuk and Kathy Sierra offer advice on writing, it is worth listening, for it reveals that great writing comes from hard work. These writers also reveal techniques which can be used by us to better our writing

The Idea: Orhan Pamuk’s idea fror creative writing is to combine things which are taboo to be put together. In  The Black Book, he found his voice by combining Sufi Islamic mystic allegories and postmodern experimental writing. This combination was not intentional; he started reading about Sufi mysticism with a nationalist agenda to find more about his own culture and that in turn helped him find his voice.

An engineer by training, he applies engineering principles to his writing as well. When he starts a novel, he imagines that he has a big blank wall which needs to be painted. He draws something on one side of the wall and something on the opposite side. The task then is to fill the portion in between and for that he does chaptering and plotting. Once the architecture and engineering is done, he takes time to execute the plan and typical novel takes him about 3-4 years.[Orhan Pamuk on KQED Radio]

Tools: Most of us write on the computer and  are held hostage by various text editors and their quirks. As you write a paragraph, you get an urge to format. Once you start formatting, each paragraph starts looking different and  in trying to tame that dragon, you lose perspective of what you want to communicate. There is a growing trend towards zenware — software that does not hold you back.

But if, when it comes right down to it, full screen is your holy grail, and the ultimate antidote to the bric-a-brac of Word, then you must enter the WriteRoom, the ultimate spartan writing utopia. Where Scrivener calls itself a “writer’s shed,” which suggests implements like duct tape and hoes, WriteRoom pitches itself as the way to “distraction-free writing” for “people who enjoy the simplicity of a typewriter, but live in the digital world.” With WriteRoom, you don’t compose on anything so confining as paper or its facsimile. Instead, you rocket out into the unknown, into profound solitude, and every word of yours becomes the kind of outer-space skywriting that opens “Star Wars.” What I mean is this: Black screen. Green letters. Or another color combination of your discerning choice. But nothing else.[An Interface of One’s Own]

Editing: Suketu Mehta spent a lot of time in Mumbai getting involved in the lives of gangsters, dancers and various nefarious characters filling his laptop with raw data. Converting that into Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a fast read,  was not easy.

So I rented a studio—a beautiful studio on Clinton Street in Cobble Hill—and I just wrote. I went to the MacDowell Colony for two or three weeks. I’d written everything in these notebooks on my computer, and so it was like having an enormous mass of unwashed laundry and separating the whites and colors and the delicates and the knits, and just seeing what went in which world. The whole process of constructing and editing the book was another four years after the reporting. Then I worked with an international all-star team of editors who tore their hair out and helped me turn this thing into a book. Altogether I took six and a half years.

Also, the impression readers have that Maximum City is a quick read is a false one because it was certainly not a quick write. But it takes a lot—Hemingway taught me this—to make writing seem effortless. It took me a long time before I learned how to write simply. My early sentences back in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were long. As Indians we tend to like longer sentences. [Interview with Suketu Mehta]

And here is how Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden.

Thoreau spent two years living at Walden Pond, leaving the woods in 1847. He spent seven years writing and re-writing Walden, condensing two years of journals into one year of time for the book. He wrote seven complete drafts before sending it to the printer.[The Fantastic Five]

Finally: It is hard to make Enterprise Java Beans an interesting topic and that is what Kathy Sierra did with her best seller, Head First EJB. According to her, if your writing produces an emotional flat line in the reader, then it does not become memorable. For example, if you whine about communists all the time, readers can predict your pattern and the blog becomes boring. One way to save that writing would be to write  boring stuff like history, or by applying techniques from the film world. For her technical books, she applied lessons from the screen writing book Save The Cat! creating three act stories.

While most of these tips are for books, there are lessons for bloggers as well. Pay attention to the structure of the post, spend time editing it and finally make it interesting to read. If the not the emotional graph of the reader will look like the electrocardiogram of Fidel Castro.

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Keep Those Resolutions

4000 years back Babylonians started the New Year by paying off debts and bringing back borrowed goods. In Rome, the New Year was considered a time to expunge old ills and set a pattern for the next twelve months. Every Jan 1st, we make a bunch of resolutions which we promise to keep for the year only to find that by Jan 31st, we can’t even remember most of them. If you are such a person, you are in the majority for statistics show that only about 15% of New Years resolutions are kept.

There are three simple ways by which you can keep your resolutions

  • One by One: Instead of starting a whole bunch of tasks on Jan 1, space it out and start a new one each month

    Each month of this
    year develop one new habit. Make it simple and doable. At the end of
    each month decide on a new “habit” for the next month and continue
    doing the existing habit. At the end of the year 12 habits will be

  • Be specific: Instead of saying I will write every day, set a measurable target like, “I will write 300 words every day”. Instead of saying I will read more books, be precise by saying, I will read at least 5 pages daily. Once these resolutions are quantified they can be tracked.

    My first habit was to drink at least 2 quarts of water per day
    This is a pretty simple habit but it did take some planning to accomplish. I had to make sure I had a way to measure the water I was drinking and that I had a good source of water that I could take with me in the car and to work. I decided that 1 liter bottles of drinking water would do the trick. I bought a case of them from Costco and took some to work with me. It’s real easy to see if the goal has been accomplished as I will have 2 empty bottles at the end of the day.

  • Track the resolutions:Once Brad Isaac asked Jerry Seinfeld how to write better jokes and Seinfeld replied that for that you have to write every day.

    He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big
    red magic marker.

    He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a
    big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just
    keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing
    that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your
    only job next is to not break the chain.”

Have a happy and productive new year!

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Site Update

On the side bar of the main page of the blog, you can see a new box titled
“Interesting Links” which displays some  articles I have read. These
articles are also listed on a
google reader site
and can be subscribed using your feed reader. This
feature comes via the

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Eight things about me

I have been tagged by
and so here are some random facts about me which will enrich your life.

  1. I always wanted to be an astronaut. That dream came to an end on the
    realization that I puke even on the simplest of a theme park rides.
  2. I hate bananas. This is considered very strange for a Malayali.
  3. One of the countries I have lived is Brazil.
  4. Till 1999 I had no interest in history. After that I got deeply interested,
    but there is no defining moment for that transition, unless it can be proved
    that the revolt against white washed history by the eminent historians lay
    dormant in my subconscious mind and during one session of meditation that
    vritti came
    to the surface and manifested)
  5. I have met
  6. I cannot cook. The only thing I can make to perfection is green tea and that
    too only if hot water and tea bags are provided.
  7. In college I (along with three others) hand wrote a monthly class newspaper
    which pissed of pretty much everyone in the class.
  8. I had an e-mail address in 1993 in India.

Now I tag the following eight:
Sabarish and
Kuttan. I hope all of
you have read enough chain mails to know what will happen to you if you don’t
continue this meme.

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