Saturday, 3 October 2015

Strong Tea and Other Stories

The Literary Equivalent of a Box of Assorted Chocolates.

And just as Addictive.

A fascinating array of more than twenty short stories ranging from murder mysteries to romances to emotive tales that showcase the human condition. Read about the retired music teacher grieving the loss of a son, the elderly bachelor looking for love, the executive with murder on his mind, the disenchanted teacher, the suspicious wife, the lonely widow, the suicidal father...

Richly textured and nuanced, this feast of words is for literary gourmets with refined palates and insatiable appetites.

BUY YOUR COPY HERE:
Flipkart      Infibeam     Dogearsetc    Amazon


THE STORIES

Rastoji’s Rose:
In love with a woman whose husband he killed, a tormented printer seeks the impossible: forgiveness from beyond the grave.

Man Friday:
Sometimes the greatest superheroes are closer than you think - and very real.

The Killing at St Sebastian’s:
Enmity in a public school leads to murder. But solving the case is far from academic.

The Pitch:
An advertising story with an ironic twist is sure to make good copy.

Lift ‘n Shift:
When a retired mafiosi  visits the sheriff’s office on a hot day in Texas, anything can happen.

Winter:
A lonely Anglo-Indian widow finds warmth in winter with an unusual companion. 

The Edge:
When life pushes you to the edge, what does it take to hold you back?

A Violin for Agnelo:
A birthday celebration in the heart of Goa, could lead to a rebirth at 80.

The Zoo:
The year: 3020. The place: a high-security facility for the criminally insane. The moral: watch your step.

The Anger of Mr Sen:
When a small man with an inflated ego goes a bit too far, something’s bound to burst his bubble.

Lights Out:
An unfaithful husband. An indifferent wife. And a jolt right out of the blue...

Club Service:
Bloody murder in a high-end country club in Maple County, keeps the police on their toes.

...and ten more great stories, including prizewinners! 

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Autumn of the Patriarch

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote Autumn of the Patriarch in 1975. I bought it in 1982. It’s been lying on my bookshelf ever since. I tried reading it twice in the past, starting at the beginning and getting a little further into the book with each attempt before giving up.

The reason that one simply cannot continue from where one leaves off (after an extended break from reading) is that Autumn does not have a linear, plot-based structure, with clear chronological markers to which one can refer. Rather, it is a literary version of the Grand Rapids: a relentlessly flowing narrative, with neither paragraphing nor punctuation (except for full stops), and sentences that run into pages. Marquez employs stream-of-consciousness to express interior monologue and fluidly switches points of view, in the process turning the reader into an omniscient presence, privy to the thoughts of the protagonist and the other characters in the novel.

Autumn is divided into six sections that tell the same story (with varying perspectives) of a fictional Latin American dictator and the revolutions, intrigues, assassinations, aborted coups, and atrocities that attend his reign. The protagonist is a composite of real-life dictators, including Gustavo Rojas Pinilla  of Marquez’s native Colombia, Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain, and Venezuela's Juan Vicente Gómez.  

Needless to say, Autumn offers generous servings of magic realism, which brought Marquez into the spotlight with his opus One Hundred Years of Solitude. Autumn, however, is high-octane Marquez: bizarre, mesmerising, ironic, and grandiose. It is a wild, rollercoaster ride down the labyrinthine pathways of one of the greatest minds of twentieth century literature. You will be shaken and stirred – perhaps mildly disorientated – but you will never forget the trip.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Free Fiction for your EBook Reader

What’s free isn’t worth it, right?

Wrong!

There’s plenty of free fiction available on the Internet that’s actually very good – if not excellent – so you needn’t burn your hard-earned moolah for quality lit from Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, etc. to keep your ebook reader busy.

Here’s a brief overview of sites from which I’ve downloaded files (short stories) prior to converting them to a format my reader accepts:

Writer’s Type (writerstype.com)

This site invites writers to compete for Amazon Gift Coupons every quarter. Contests are for first chapters, shorts, and flash fiction, and the winners and five runners-up in each category are displayed on the site.  Click on ‘Previous Winners’ to see the stories and then choose the ones you want by opening them on your computer, selecting them with your mouse, and copy-pasting them in Word before saving the file.

The Short Story (theshortstory.net)  

Not a lot of free fiction available here, but what’s on offer is top-grade.  The site displays First-, Second-, and Third Prize annual winners (shorts) for the years 2011-2013. To download, simply open the story and click on the save/download icon.    

Winning Writers (winningwriters.com)

This site offers serious prize money for poetry, short story, and essay competitions, so it’s a given that the winners are worth a read. The site is rich in content and worth exploring.  As none of the files are downloadable in the strict technical sense, you need to go through the copy-paste routine explained earlier.

Narrative Magazine (narrativemagazine.com)

This site has more than enough to help you tank up your reader for the whole season. Generous cash prizes are offered to fiction, non-fiction, and poetry winners, and all the winning works are accessible to site members. Membership is free, so sign up and harvest truckloads of fine fiction.

Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.net.au)

This Australia based site offers tons of full-length ebooks by famous writers, in a range of categories: crime, romance, children’s classics, poetry, westerns, biography, cookery and home science, to name just a few. There are also helpful guidelines for downloads and conversions. 

East of the Web (eastoftheweb.com)

East of the Web showcases fiction by grey eminences like Chesterton, Maupassant, Wilde, and Doyle (among others), as well as young adult fiction by contemporary writers that’s pretty good.  You can either copy-paste or go to the App Store and download the East of the Web Short Stories App onto your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. This free app helps you organise your fiction in a library for easy access.

How to format stories for your ebook reader

Where sites do not offer downloadable files or applications like the one mentioned above, the copy-paste approach will do just fine:

a) Navigate to the story of your choice and open it.
b) Select, using the mouse, and then copy-paste onto an open Word file.
c) Repeat with all the stories, pasting one after another, but always on a new page, using MS Word’s page break function.
d) Give the file a name and save it.
d) Visit calibre-ebook.com and download the Calibre ebook manager for free. This is a professional yet simple-to-use program that allows you to create your own ebooks (including cover and contents page) from Word files you've created. I’ve been using this program to create ebooks for my Paperwhite, and it works just fine.

So… load up your ebook reader and read happily ever after!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Roald Dahl: The Collected Short Stories

This chunky omnibus is a lavish buffet of short fiction, spiced with the macabre and the mysterious, with dollops of black humor and surprises galore.

The 760-page compilation has five sections, with shorts taken from such best-selling collections as Kiss Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You and More Tales of the Unexpected. There are 48 pieces in all, most of which have a sting in the end; tales of greed and vanity and worse, which demonstrate Dahl's grasp of character and plot and his keen sense of irony.

In Kiss Kiss, the first section of the book, we encounter an array of characters - from the murderously kooky old dame in The Landlady to Mr Foster who comes to a sorry end in the most unexpected of ways in The Way up to Heaven. In William and Mary, William offers his brain up to science but inadvertently makes himself vulnerable to a wife hell-bent on getting even. In Parson’s Pleasure, Mr Boggis sets out to con country folk – with disastrous results. And there’s Genesis and Catastrophe, where we are given a bedside account of the birth of Adolf Hitler that's creepy in its subtleties and ironic in its conclusion.

In the second part of the book titled Over to You, Dahl weaves stories with threads drawn from his wartime experiences as a fighter pilot. There are ten tales in all, with Katina being, in this reviewer’s opinion, the most memorable for its poignancy; a story of a little girl who comes under the protective wing of Dahl’s fighter squadron in Greece, but eventually becomes a casualty of war. Madame Rosette is about the flyboys on furlough in Cairo, encountering a virago in the process of exploring that city’s nightlife. And Beware of the Dog tells of an RAF pilot who is shot out of the sky and regains consciousness in a hospital he assumes to be British, till he discovers to his dismay that he is on the wrong side of the Channel - in Nazi-occupied France. 

Switch Bitch, the third section of the collection, comprises four adult stories with sexual themes. The Visitor is classic Dahl, with the libidinous protagonist getting his comeuppance in full measure. In The Great Switcheroo, a couple of men scheme to bed each other’s spouse unbeknownst to the women, while in The Last Act an unstable woman flies off the rails after her husband's untimely death. In Bitch, the last story in this section, a devious plan to embarrass a woman of standing backfires with delightful consequences for both intended victim and perpetrator.

Someone Like You and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected, the fourth and fifth parts of this omnibus, are loaded with definitive Dahl stories like Taste, Lamb to the Slaughter, Dip in the Pool, Neck and The Bookseller. They perfectly round off a collection that’s worth every penny, paisa or peso spent on it.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Readability Issue

Anybody who makes a living communicating through the written word would’ve heard this little whisper while he or she was thumping away on a keyboard:

Just how readable is this?

It’s a simple enough question – and legitimate as well – but can there be a definitive answer?  It’s difficult for an author to gauge the readability of his own work because he’s been too close to it to recognise the rough spots. His mind, reading what it knows to be there, will for the most part read effortlessly and get the impression that the writing’s as smooth as Drambuie. So, how can an author be sure he’s as readable as he wishes to be?

Do try this at home – or at work, if that’s where you write:

a) Read aloud. If you stumble over a tongue-twister or become breathless with a sentence as long as the Indus, mark out the offending parts for revision.
b) Give your work to your favourite beta reader and ask for feedback on readability.
c) Get online and run your copy through any program that tests readability. Here is a link: http://read-able.com

Among the few programs that test readability, the Flesch-Kincaid Index is the most popular. This gives scores for “Reading Ease” and “Grade Level”, with scores for one test correlating inversely with scores for the other. In other words, the more readable your writing is, the lower the student grade level it can be understood by. For example, if the Reading Ease score is 60, the writing can be read by 17-year-old Americans. Reader’s Digest has a readability score of 65; TIME magazine, 52; and the Harvard Law Review, the low 30s.

The Flesch-Kincaid Index analyses writing with mathematical precision, taking into account the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word. Long sentences with polysyllabic words make for heavy reading, and vice-versa.

The FK Index is all that matters, right?

Wrong! A writer might use small words and short sentences and yet be so disorganised as to leave his reader feeling like he’s labouring through sludge with a millstone around his neck. Conversely, a writer may spin long, sinuous sentences with multiple polysyllabic words and still carry his reader with him. It all depends on the writer – and, of course, the mental age and maturity of the reader. Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way begins with a 599-word sentence. Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch is packed with Nile-sized sentences that run into pages. Both would get minus scores on the FK Index, but no mature reader would argue that either writer isn’t readable.

The FK Index is ideal for gauging the readability of documents aimed at specific age groups: application forms, prospectuses, inter-office memos/bulletins/newsletters, brochures, and advertising copy, for instance. If a brochure aimed at corporate elites scores an 80 on the FK Index, it’s probably too simple to appeal to the literary palates of that particular group. The language used would have to be upgraded to bring the score down to, say, 50.  

Fiction and readability

Some editors want to “dumb down” fiction to make it readable, and some writers like to engage in pyrotechnics. What an intelligent reader expects, I expect, is the middle path. He wouldn’t want the writer’s voice to be sanitized to the point that it sounds like Dr Seuss, and nor would he wish to fill his brain with prose turgid enough to give him an aneurism. In the final analysis, it’s the writer’s call. I, for one, would err on the side of creative freedom, and then tone down wherever necessary. It’s the “first shoot and then aim” tenet that I’d follow. And, of course, I’d refer to Flesch-Kincaid purely out of curiosity.


Incidentally, this article scored 63.5 on the FK Reading Ease test. It should be easily understood by 15 to 16-year-old Americans.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Perfect Write: An Impossible Dream?

It goes without saying that an edited piece of writing has a better chance of getting the golden nod from a publisher or a ‘gatekeeper’ (read literary agent) than writing that hasn’t been comprehensively edited. It’s also a fact that the more rounds of editing a work endures, the more refined it gets.

Which brings us to the question: how much is enough? It needs asking because self-editing is thirsty work, and unless you place a limit on the number of rounds you’re willing to put your writing through, you run the risk of drying up before your next opus – or becoming paralysed with paranoia.

I’d place a cap on six rounds, each focused on achieving a particular objective. Please note that all the rounds mentioned below relate to a work of fiction after its first draft has been written.

ROUND ONE: Be your own critic    

Put the first draft away and start on another project. Read your draft after a week, but don’t concern yourself with grammar or punctuation. Instead, focus on the big picture. Are there lengthy narrative sections (including backstory) that slow down pace? Are there inconsistencies and errors of logic? Stilted dialogue? Inadequately explored interior monologue? Too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’?  

Circle out the areas that need a rewrite, and… rewrite.

ROUND TWO: Enlist a beta reader

After you’ve polished your second draft to the best of your abilities, send it to a couple of beta readers for an opinion. Usually, these are writers who understand the demands of fiction and have an above-average grasp of English grammar and style requirements. They offer free services to writers and seek similar services in return, and they can be contacted individually or at a site (more of this in another post).

Limit yourself to just a few beta readers and stick with them. This will give them a chance to understand your ‘voice’ and fiction preference (literary or genre) and provide relevant feedback. While giving your beta readers carte blanche to dig out all the bugs in your work, it would help to mention areas you want focused on. For example, if you’re prone to overwriting, draw your beta reader’s attention to this weakness. If you have trouble with syntax, mention it. If you’re into crime fiction, ask whether you’ve met the criteria that applies to the genre.  

Beta readers are fresh eyes that will see errors you’ve missed. They will help you write a better third draft – and they’re free.

ROUND THREE: Get to third base

Rewrite your manuscript, keeping the feedback from beta readers in mind (if you think the feedback is useful) and paying attention to grammar and punctuation – assuming, of course, that you’re in the higher percentile in this regard!

ROUND FOUR: Use software support

After you’re done with your third draft, run it through editing programs like ProWriting Aid, Stylewriter, SmartEdit, Ginger, Microsoft Word  and the like (more of this in another post). These programs will tag problem areas in your text that you and your beta readers would have missed: word and phrase repetition, tautology, passive voice, clumsy syntax, parallelism and diction issues, clichés, and so on. Make changes as you go along.

ROUND FIVE: Read… and rewrite

Find a quiet, private place and read your text aloud. The lines should flow smoothly and logically. If they don’t, iron out the wrinkles. This is called line editing and follows the substantive editing process explained earlier.

ROUND SIX: Proofread, proofread, proofread

The crosshead is self-explanatory. You need to check each word for spelling errors. Check punctuation. Check for consistency. If it’s British English you’ve decided to use, make sure you don’t slip into US English in Chapter Ten. Ensure consistency in style. If you’re writing for American audiences, use the Chicago Manual of Style as a guide. If your readers are primarily British, use the Oxford Manual. If the audience is all and sundry, I’d suggest sticking to British English.

Take a long, long break (two weeks?) and then read your manuscript once more.
Make final changes.

Then send it out… and cross your fingers.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of shorts that won a Pulitzer in 2000. These focus on Indians – especially Indian Americans – confronting the complexities of close relationships and the problems of adapting to a socio-cultural environment quite different from India’s.

In ‘This Blessed House’, the author explores the subtle conflict between Sanjeev and his wife Twinkle over the religious items left behind by the previous Christian owners of a house they’ve bought. Sanjeev, ever-consciousness of his Hinduness, is not as accepting of the Christian West as his wife is.

In ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’, tour guide Kapasi studies a US-based Indian couple and their children through the prism of his cultural upbringing and becomes judgemental, even as he fantasizes a romantic liaison with the wife.

‘A Real Durwan’ and ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar’ look at Indian women trapped in a rural world defined by casteism, ignorance, superstition, and poverty. These stories are the oddballs in this collection, to the extent that they do not focus on Indian Americans as do the stories mentioned earlier, and others like ‘Mrs Sen’s’ and ‘The Third and Final Continent’.
  
Lahiri’s writing is simple and straightforward, so readers expecting poetic fugues or linguistic pyrotechnics will be disappointed. Similarly, those looking for Archer-style twists in the tale are advised to give this collection a wide berth. The literary minded, however, will definitely appreciate Lahiri’s ability to craft well-defined characters within the constraints of the short story form and use everyday situations to spin tales that are intellectually satisfying.

It is posited that The Interpreter of Maladies has been conceived as a short story cycle, where motifs and symbolism are used to fuse stories into an organic whole, to provide a nuanced yet incisive commentary on the immigrant experience.