Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, June 14, 2007

By Sabrina F Ahmad

The teacher surveyed her little kingdom. With her 'subjects' immersed in work, she had time to engage in her favourite pastime: trying to imagine what each kid would grow up to be. That earnest frontbencher with an affinity for math? Most likely an engineer of some sort, or an award-winning physicist. The argumentative twins in the centre? Lawyers, or activists or maybe even talk show hosts. Then her gaze alighted on the girl by the window. With her assignment already completed, she sat, lost in the book she was reading. That one was definitely going to be a writer.

Like my teacher, I also had no doubts about what I wanted to be. Devouring any book that came my way, I would dream about one day joining the leagues of the wise and wonderful wordsmiths who filled my hours with so much colour and magic. That dream eventually became a quest to find out the secrets of writing successfully, and on the way, I encountered many interesting personalities.

Date with Darwin (or how I learnt the art of taking notes)
This dude took the world by storm with his theory of Natural Selection, kick-starting a whole flurry of evolutionism, or Darwinism if you like. His work was the keystone that shaped the thoughts and attitudes of many a theoretician, scientist, poet and politician in the Victorian Era. What does all this have to do with writing, you ask? In his autobiography, Darwin reflects on the influence of observation on his mental development. Whatever Darwin observed, he noted down, and these notes ultimately led to his Journal of Researches (1989), which are written in a lucid, flowing style that generations of readers marvelled at.

Nothing makes a better springboard for ideas the way keeping a diary does. Those who feel like honing their writing skills, could try out this thing I learned from old Charles: at the end of each day, write down ten things that happened that day. It could be something you saw, or something you did, or even snatches of memorable conversations. After you've been doing this for a week or so, start expanding your list by adding some more detail. This helps in two ways; it gives you ideas for stuff to write on, and it really sharpens up your memory, something your teachers will be happy about.

Other famous writers whose keen sense of observation makes for enjoyable writing include Richard Feynman, Sue Townsend and our very own Chintito.

The Field Formula (all about the structure)
I came across Syd Field while taking a script-writing course. For those unfamiliar with this Hollywood heavyweight, he is an American writer who has become one of the most popular screenwriting gurus in the movie industry. Field has written several books on the subject of screenwriting, and occasionally holds workshops that help aspiring screenwriters to produce the kinds of screenplays that will sell in Hollywood. He's pretty big on structure. "There is a definite relationship between story, character and structure. They are part and parcel of the same thing. There is no way to really separate them" he tells us.

In other words, the events one writes about ought to have relevance to the characters in the story, and there should be a sort of logical sequence that leads the reader from page to page. There's an exercise we used to make the students do while I was teaching English at a school. We'd break the story into three parts. The intro, where we built up a setting, introduced the main characters and created the premises of the plot. The body, where we'd talk about three things that happen to move the story along, building into a climax, and finally, the conclusion, where we wrapped up the loose ends and completed the story. It's a good model to follow initially, and you can make the 'body' more elaborate as you become more confident about your skills, by adding twists and flashbacks et al. Consider the fast-paced plots of Dan Brown novels, with their intricate little shockers.

Keats to my heart (of sense and sensuousness)
“Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers”

I was never much into poetry, but John Keats is always a delight to read, because his work appeals to all the senses. Amongst all the literary heavyweights of the Romantic period, Keats owns a special place all his own. Attention to sensory detail really livens up a narrative, and reels the reader in. Saw a really hot girl at your coaching centre? Give us a visual, so we can appreciate how beautiful she is. Grandma made you her special brownies? Make us drool by describing how sinfully chocolatey it was. Authors like Rebecca Wells, Diana Abu Jaber and Bharti Kirchner enjoy exotic appeal for their sensuous descriptions.

Staring at the world through my reviews (read to write!)
Okay, Osama's definitely going to kill me for twisting the name of a song he likes, but I'll take my chances. If there's anything I learned from my literary quest so far, it's that if you want to be a better writer, you have to read a lot. There's simply no getting away from it. Reading extensively, and from a variety of different genres opens you up to a variety of styles, forms, and ideas, and opens up your mind like no other activity can not even travelling. You can use the works of others as yardsticks against which you measure your own. Only by reading a lot can you develop that natural feel for the language, be it English or Bangla or any other lingo, that enables you to find the right expression to convey your message.

At the end of the day, there's no magical formula that suddenly makes a best-selling novelist out of a nobody, no matter what they say. Writing well is a skill developed through practice and trial and error, and as someone who's barely completed the first leg of her journey, all I can say is that it's a lifelong process. That feeling you get, though, when you see your work in print and people actually read it…it's an incomparable high.



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