“Let’s read a book about writing every month,” says my group of writers.
We start with On writing by Stephen King, then bird by bird by Anne Lamott. We love these books, but unfortunately we don’t go much further. Our ragtag group of memoirs, screenwriters, journalists, and a ghostwriter are constantly scrambling to meet deadlines, and the books are falling by the wayside.
The Writers Group Exercise offers amazing books on writing, with everything from the psychology of writing to advice on plot planning, character creation, and reviewing and editing.
November is National Fiction Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the perfect time to delve into five of these writing books. Storytellers around the world will spend 30 days in November writing a draft of a 50,000 word novel – join them in reading these books and writing a story you’ve always wanted to tell.
Book 1 of 5: The Elements of a Story
If you want to explore the world of characters, I would start with the elements of a story – character, setting, conflict, plot, pursuit, and the hero’s journey. Lily Character by Robert Mckee to build a believable and powerful character. There is also Dialogue from the same author. Will pass The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker to understand the archetypes of storytelling; ignore them and you’ll literally lose the plot, says Booker. To travel across Literary landscapes by John Sutherland, a beautifully illustrated book on scenery. And, finally, end with Express your enthusiasma perky primer on the art of blurring.
Book 2 of 5: Grammar and Style
What I like the most 25 big sentences is that these sparkling phrases are taken from everywhere. Have you ever been curious about what makes the writing of Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Bruce Springstein and the scriptwriters of the musical Hamilton so catchy? Read this book to find out! You’ll find a wealth of practical advice on writing, editing and revising in Write well by William Zinsser and Draft No. 4 by John McPee.
Book 3 of 5: Specialize
If you write suspense fiction, How to write a crime novel has a fascinating mix of writing tips from detective writers. Jeffrey Deaver says Always Outline, Lee Child says Never Outline – take your pick! Find out how to build noir, YA crime thriller, medical thriller, and humor into detective fiction. For more on thriller fiction, read Patricia HighSmith Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Take a good look at the genius of Russian writers in Swimming in a pond in the rain by George Saunders. The new screenwriter cult classic is save the cat.
Book 4 of 5: Memoirs of Writers
Virginia Woolf wrote A room of one’s own nearly a hundred years ago, but it still feels so relevant, especially when it comes to the issues writers face in terms of space, money, and creativity. Associate it with Virginia Woolf’s Diary with ruminations on writing in terms of content and craft. closer to home, My story by poet Kamala Das is a strong portrait of the angst of creativity that has been forced into a routine. Travels by poet AK Ramanujan captures the magic of exploration, travel and art.
Lily This life at stake by Girish Karnad for more, as Karnad merges a childhood engagement with traditional theater with international influences. Another book imbued on every page with a life of writing is Meanwhile there are letters – a fabulous collection of letters between thriller writer Ross Macdonald and Pulitzer Prize-winning Eudora Welty. What I found exciting was the connection between two writers from very different genres and their literary conversations. Also, read A moving party by Ernest Hemingway for his way of capturing the artistic and literary energy of Paris.
Book 5 of 5 The Piece de Resistance
And now the piece de resistance — the diary of a novel. John Steinback writes journal entries about writing, every day, before he sits down to write his famous family saga East of Eden. What emerges is part autobiography and part writer’s studio. There’s everything here about the creative process of building a novel – from character, setting and action to procrastination and sharp pencils!
Finally, meet Chetan Mahajan, who leads the Himalayan Writing Retreat with online and offline courses for writers. This Kellogg School of Management alumnus turned writing coach tells budding writers to make peace with bad writing and learn editing early.
Edited excerpts from our conversation:
Tell us about your retirement books.
We are a writing retreat, so the books are everything. Our main relaxation area is called the Reading Lounge. My favorite reading spot is a hammock with a great view. There are no bookstores for miles around us. Amazon does not deliver here. All our books come from the city. But even in town, I prefer bookstores to Amazon.
What are your favorite books on the art of writing?
Write well by William Zinsser
Self-publishing for fiction writers by Renni Browne & Dave King
The sense of style (first 100 pages) by Steven Pinker
bird by bird by Anne Lamott
Kiss the demon by Amrita Kumar (one of the very few books of its kind by an Indian)
Memoirs of favorite writers?
I’m in love with Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto. Although it’s not really about writing, it’s a work of genius.
Did an MBA from Kellogg and spent over 2020 years and over years in the business world have influenced your writing and the organization of a retreat?
The corporate world actually ruins those who write. I had to unlearn a lot of corporate bullshit to become a decent writer. The only saving grace was the seven years I spent in the United States, which helped me become more direct and precise in my writing. On the other hand, a writing retreat is a business and involves risk. I am very entrepreneurial. The company’s experience helped with this. I spent time in start-ups, and a few failed too. It helped and guided me a lot.
In your writing programs, you often share writing prompts – can you give us one?
I really like the visual prompts and the attendees seem to like them too. As at the start of the Ukrainian war, I issued this prompt:
These soldiers have just been ordered to invade another country. Choose any. Is he happy inside? Does he hate it? Or do you have mixed feelings? Tell us through dialogue. 150 words.
Which authors have you worked with?
I worked with Rena Katz one-on-one as a writing coach. His book is a memoir, and it was a difficult story, with a lot of raw emotion. I’m glad that An inherited life was released by Wilbur & Dolce last month.
Kamalini Natesan was one of our very first participants. She wrote a fictionalized version of a year she had spent in Norway as a teenager. She had a deal with a publisher in India, but that fell through at the last moment. Undaunted, she wrote to publishers around the world, believing in her book and unwilling to take no for an answer. His novel Naked under the midnight sun was picked up by Olympia in the UK and released in 2019.
Nikhil Gulati is a comic book writer who attended our workshop in 2017. For five years, I watched him rise to the challenge of writing and publishing a graphic novel. His comic strip titled Indus people was released earlier this year by Penguin Random House. It’s a great example of what many might find a boring topic and bring it to life using images, art, and stories.
You organize literary conversations for your writing workshops, tell us about one?
I personally loved the session with Jayapriya Vasudevan who founded the Jacaranda literary agency. I love how she’s so clear about what she wants to do and what her priorities are, and also that they’re not necessarily commercial.
There are so many writing courses online – for someone with a day job and a limited budget, what are your top recommendations?
My problem with most courses offered online is that most of the time they just become “Knowledge Netflix”. You watch Malcolm Gladwell talk about writing on Masterclass. You feel wiser, but you still don’t pick up the pen and write. So it’s not worth it. This is why in our courses we require all participants to write and discuss. I think Masterclass is great: their classes by Roxanne Gay, Malcolm Gladwell, Margaret Atwood. Shani Raja has a great editing course on Udemy.
Finally, what are the 5 tips for budding writers?
Stop thinking and start writing. Too many writers keep thinking about it.
Expect to be bad. You only get better with practice. Give yourself permission to screw up. It is very good.
Learn editing. Far too many writers fall in love with what they write and can’t bring themselves to edit. Editing is at the heart of good writing. Even if you don’t join a writing class, join an editing class.
Put yourself there. Once you produce, submit your work everywhere. Submit to awards, literary journals. Don’t be afraid of rejection.
Lily. Writing without reading is like trying to exhale without inhaling.
On that inspirational note, that’s a wrap for this week. Next week, I’m diving into the world of children’s books to bring you a Children’s Day special.
Until then, happy reading!
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week she brings you specially selected books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, email him at [email protected]
Opinions expressed are personal
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