“Howard Roark stood naked on a cliff and laughed.”
This is the opening line of one of my most favourite books, ever. The book is THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand and it was first published in 1922, nearly ninety years ago. The plot of the novel, considered far too progressive and damaging for its time is explained in over 500 pages and is basically one man’s struggle to stay true to himself, his art and his passion: modern architecture.
Ayn Rand called this new and novel concept “Individualism.”
It goes hand in hand with capitalism but is a bit more universal than just economics. Individualism basically allows an individual to remain so. To read, think, live, be. Write the way he or she wants to. It appreciates creativity and deplores sameness.
In 2012, a publishing phenomenon took the world by storm. The author was a 50-plus Australian woman called EL James and she really loved the Twilight movies so much, she began her first novel as Twilight Fan-Fic. Her hero was straight away inspired by the pasty-faced, vegetarian vampire half the world hates and the other half loves. She knew no one would take her work seriously, so she self-published in 2011.
By the next year, her books had crossed the Harry Potter book sales in Britain.
The world knows this phenomenon as the Fifty Shades trilogy.
I have two confessions here. I love the pasty-faced, vegetarian vampire Edward as played by Robert Pattinson on-screen. And I am not much fond of either Stephanie Meyer’s or EL James’ prose.
But, and this is the core of my post, I admire both of them. Tremendously. EL James took a huge leap of faith publishing mild erotica with bondage and S&M references and watched it capture the fancy of every woman on the planet. Stephanie Meyer took the age-old formula of vampires versus humans, turned it on its head and gave the world an appetite for preternaturally beautiful creatures.
In doing so, both these women, along with JK Rowling, Tolkien, Ayn Rand, Nora Roberts, did the reading world a huge favour and gave us new stories, new plots and new genres to think on and write about. They gave this reader something new to read.
Other, not-so-mainstream authors like Nalini Singh, Anne Rice, JR Ward (to name just a few), have been writing paranormal romance for years. And I am a product of the 90s cable TV era in India. I am a “Buffy-Spike-Angel” fan.
But none of these other talented authors could cross over to mainstream, populist fiction and fire the imaginations of millions of readers all over the world like Ms Meyer has, including yours truly.
Ditto for Ms James whose trilogy deals with hitherto taboo sexual practices like S&M and bondage and “taking it a bit too far” and is lot more straight-up erotica than, say, a Mills and Boon Romance. Suddenly, the reading world at large and in particular, India is ok with whips and chains and reading about the deliciously unspeakable. It is, WE are, titillated, enamoured, and this is the key word, accepting.
Sex is not taboo anymore.
My friends have seen women in the local trains of Mumbai devouring both the Twilight series and Fifty Shades series with gusto. It is wonderful, liberating.
India, I am proud to celebrate, is slowly but surely rotating on its regressive stance by giving readers, writers, the general public a platform to engage in a social conversation that will define the way future generations think and behave.
Blame it on the internet, blame it on The West, but the things that were taboo, forbidden, not spoken about, much less challenged are now openly discussed, explored and ‘figured out’ on social media, at dinner tables and inside the pages of a book.
Amish Tripathi, Chitra Divakaruni, Ashok Banker, Kavita Kane, Devdutt Patnaik and Anand Neelakantan, to name the top few, have taken this conversation a step further with their exploration of the humanity behind the two greatest epics-myths India will ever see. Banker and Neelakantan with Ramayana and the others with Mahabharata. Amish, the sole breakout, gave us demi-god Shiva, as I have already mentioned in my previous blog. Sexy, hunky, “chillum”-smoking with the fate of civilization resting on his able shoulders.
These brilliant writers have torn the veil of mystery surrounding our mythologies and given them a much-needed breath of fresh air.
They have made them human, approachable, fallible.
Shiva is not just Destroyer of the World with moves better than Jagger; he is also just a man hopelessly pining for his Sati. Uruvi, Karna’s wife, is not just a near-silent, forgotten figure in the epic battle but a strong, independent woman who steadfastly loves the man she calls husband. The great Lord Ram is no longer a mythical, divine figure. He is a man fighting another man who took his wife.
These here-to-fore revered beings, Gods and Goddesses even, are revealed to be earthy beings with the same passions and fears that haunt the rest of us mere mortals. Jealousy, love, lust, revenge and a range of human emotions provide a strong thread in the narrative of these modern, reimagined myths.
And, they detract nothing from the original sanctity of the stories or the incredible impact they have had on past and future generations. The values are not lost by weaving a richer tapestry of inner conflict, self-doubt and most of all, love.
In the end, all these stories are about love. Be it Twilight, Fifty Shades, Palace of Illusions or The Ramayana Series.
Love really does make the world go round.
The reason why I started reading and, later on, writing romances is because there is an inexhaustible supply of human emotions to choose from. Take two vastly different people on opposite sides of an issue, put them in the same space, give it a good stir and watch the fireworks explode. People are endlessly fascinating and wonderfully refreshing to write about time after time.
Love, be it any kind, family, siblings, friendship is a source of enduring inspiration and conflict.
Any good story, especially, any good ROMANCE is only as good as the conflict it generates between its characters. It is amazing that writers from all walks of the literary spectrum tread this line so effortlessly with pleasing results. New ideas and new plots leap off of bookshelves and e-bookstores and into our hearts.
Special mention needs to be made here about the power of digital publishing and how it has single-handedly revolutionized the publishing industry. With the advent of e-books and self-publishing, more and more avenues have opened for this generation of writers. Damon Lindeloff, of LOST fame, co-wrote an entire book on Twitter called “S”. It is now on the New York Times bestseller list.
Writing now has become organic, different, exciting.
Writing romance, and by extension, sex has never been as easy as it is today. In this time. Today we celebrate the coming together of two people, two characters in their hearts, souls and, yes, bodies too.
One of the most pivotal and painful chapters I have written in my life is Chapter Twelve of my debut Harlequin novel Kingdom Come (March, 2014). The heroine Ziya, has undergone the worst trauma of her life. And in her moment of greatest need, she turns to Krivi, the man inadvertently responsible for this tragedy, for comfort and passion. She wants to FEEL something, anything. Even if it is just desire for a man who is anything but “Good Guy.”
The reason it was pivotal was because it changed the dynamics of the relationship between my leads Krivi and Ziya from uneasy partners to uneasy lovers with a murky future and deadly villain to apprehend. And it was painful because translating, transferring, grief into a more positive emotion, a celebration even, was a move that needed to be made with delicacy and sensitivity.
When Ziya mourned, I mourned with her. But when she yearned, I stuttered, faltered, had sleepless nights as I gave her and Krivi the kind of passionate interlude they needed and deserved in the middle of carnage.
The purpose of this blog was to talk about writers exploring new themes and plots to tell a powerful story to a growing audience.
By the end of this post, I have realized that ALL writers tell the same story. About people, relationships, their place in this world or any other of their own making. Stories are inhabited and made stronger by INDIVIDUALS who think and act for themselves. Be it Lord Shiva, who takes up his role as leader by allowing his fellow refugees to be ‘vaccinated’ by the immortal Meluhan, Ayurvati. Or Ziya, who decides to love a man who is not just damaged but skilled in the killing arts.
Choices: such a small word, so much potential.
Bella would have had no story if Edward hadn’t chosen to stop a van from crushing her. Draupadi would have been happily married to Arjuna if Kunti hadn’t thoughtlessly requested the brothers share the gift they had got her. Plots become interesting when the character is faced with choices that, in turn, add to the conflict in the story.
This is a theme that is often repeated in Kingdom Come (March 2014): internal conflict, external conflict, even international conflict, with a hard-core villain called The Woodpecker at the heart of it all.
It wasn’t an easy choice to write, but it was the right one.
I hope, when you see the title at a nearby bookstore, you dear reader, pick it up to read. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.
Have you ever had that wish-this-book-did-not-end feeling after you finished reading it? That’s exactly how I felt after I’d devoured Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. For several days, I couldn’t get the characters out of my head, and I longed to resume the fantastic voyage across the Indian Ocean the author had taken me on board the ship Ibis.
Books tend to mess with your mind. You can’t stop thinking about the characters, plots, locations and the atmosphere. At times, the author’s style is so riveting it grabs hold of you and won’t let go! You often remember snatches or lines from a book you read a long while ago and you never quite forget the wonderful feelings they evoked in you. Re-reading a much loved book is like meeting up with an old friend and picking up a long forgotten conversation.
Then, there are other books that are totally forgettable reads. Even so, if you’re a writer reading is never a waste of time. I’ve cherished an invaluable piece of advice that was given to me by my mentor when I was still a wet behind the ears trainee journalist: a bad book can be a good teacher to a writer.
If you’re a writer you probably do less and less of reading-for-entertainment and more of analytical reading. You tend to deconstruct books, much like dissecting a lizard in biology class. Yikes! That is sure to kill your enthusiasm for reading and would be a disaster! Because as a writer, you need to read. A lot. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
So, is there a way to read-to-become-a-better-writer and not kill all joy of reading? I practice a method called ‘Mindful Reading’. Here are some tips on how to do it.
Become a split-personality reader. Don your “lay reader” avatar and read the book, purely for the fun of reading. After you’ve finished, wear your “critic” glasses and go into review mode. Write a short review – I do it for my blog or for Goodreads.com – keeping the following questions in mind: why did you like or not like it; was it an entertaining read; how was the story paced; did you enjoy the author’s voice and writing style; was there anything you would have done differently as a writer. This approach helped me to read mindfully, be aware of the techniques the author used in his/her work and gain a deeper understanding of storytelling nuances.
Read within your genre. If you are a writer of fast-paced thrillers chances are you also have read most of the top authors in the genre, be it James Hadley Chase, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy or John Grisham. The more books you read in your preferred genre of writing, the better your grasp of story structure, plot techniques and pacing. And what could be more fun than reading a genre that you love!
Read outside your genre. It also helps to read genres that you are not too familiar with. A thriller writer could learn some tips and tricks from a romance writer or the latter could end up developing a new skill by reading non-fiction. Reading outside your genre is a great way for cross-pollination of ideas. For instance when I started developing my plot for “The Indian Tycoon’s Marriage Deal”, I threw in a little bit of mystery to jazz up the romance angle.
Expand your reading universe. Go beyond your usual reading habits. Why not read a screenplay? Or poetry? They can enhance your writing in ways you would never imagine. Scripts or screenplays, for instance, are minimalist in their use of words. Less is more, in screenwriting. As a result, every written word in a script must be worth its weight in gold. Reading (and writing) scripts has enabled me to visualize scenes in a cinematic manner and add a new layer to my novel writing.
Ultimately, mindful reading is all about sparking your creative energies, exploring different types, styles and facets of writing without losing any of the fun.
How has reading made a difference to your writing? Do share your thoughts.