Bombay, Bombay, India
December 31
Icy Highs is the writerly alter ego of Tharun James Jimani, author of 90s pop culture novel, 'Cough Syrup Surrealism' (Fingerprint! Publishing, 2013). He has lived in Chennai, Glasgow, Dusseldorf, London and Singapore over the last twelve years, and is- in Animal Planet parlance- a 'serial immigrant', and averse to nesting. He writes to keep the moss from gathering.


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APRIL 25, 2012 3:42AM

How do you write?

Rate: 22 Flag


"Why do some authors write literary fiction? Because they can't plot."

-Lee Child, best-selling author of something called the 'Jack Reacher' novels


Yes, but does your boss like bananas? 


The words of 'genre' fiction writer Lee Child came back to haunt me this weekend when I was put on the spot by a publisher to basically come up with a 2,000-word story line for a novel on a theme of their recommendation in 48 hours. Yes, that's my indirect way of saying I'm now moving up the ladder of writerly anonymity from Nobody to Nobody-you-know-yet.


I don't want to go into the details for fear of pissing off my superhero agent (he really is, he has the cape to prove it!) who wrangled me the offer, but suffice to say he got them to read my manuscript, they liked my style, and wanted me to write about a topic that they felt would definitely sell. 


A few months ago, when I had a well-paying job and a penthouse apartment in Singapore, I would have hesitated and deliberated and generally screwed the pooch by wondering if writing-on-demand is a kind of 'selling out'and entertaining all sorts of ethical dilemmas, but I'm happy to report I was in this instance thoroughly mature and saw it for what it was- a fantastic opportunity. 


Opportunity, as it turns out, is not the same as ability. The recommended theme is one I feel passionately about (bonus!), something I've spent a good part of my life being involved in, but I couldn't for the life of me come up with a story. I tried writing a chapter, just letting words run riot, and that happened spontaneously enough. But to predict where those words would take me - no cigar!


After repeated back-and-forths between Super Agent and I, I did somehow manage to come up with a basic premise that is promising in theory, but is a long way short of being a full-bodied plot. The experience made me realize just how important the 'writing process' is to a writer, and how differently writers probably approach their work. 


When I sit down to write fiction-be it a novel or a short story or a blog post- I usually have no clue where it's headed. The characters seem to just take on a life of their own, they meet other people, they fall in love and start wars and do the macarena and adopt broken-limbed pets, sometimes against my better judgement. I really have no control over their decisions, I'm merely a medium for their story. 


Even on those rare occasions where I already have a plot sussed out, chances are the finished product is nothing like the story I set out to write. This unpredictability, this constant tendency to surprise and titillate, is why I love and enjoy writing so much- a bit like working for Dr. Julia Harris in Horrible Bosses. (Shut up Charlie Day, sexual harassment is awesome!)


I certainly don't consider myself a 'literary' writer, but neither do I believe in the concept of 'genre' fiction. I'd go so far as to rate fiction by age appropriateness, but no further. I'd hope to be able to write stories that readers of any type of fiction would consider reading, if not actively appreciate, and that it is the quality of writing, and the tastes of each individual reader- and not the 'genre'- that makes a book palatable.


Anyway, I can't help wondering how others 'write' - do you have storyboards and post-its and the rest of the hupla, or do you feel your way forward, arms outstretched in the dark like I do? Is there a method to this madness? Do you have tips for somebody like me, who is suddenly required to change tack? I'd love to hear if you do. In the meantime, here's hoping Super Agent will come through and completely blind the publisher to the glaring holes in my first attempt at 'plot'. 

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These will be interesting comments. Yes, I am going to poach...
Just for that, I wish OS had a 'like' option.
I usually begin writing by stripping naked and opening the window blinds to complete view. This gives the neighbors the motive to run away screaming and gives me complete silence which I need to write.

I usually start out my writing with letters, something fance like maybe a T.

After that, it's all downhill!! :D
I'm a visual artist, not a writer, and write in a process similar to the way I create an image, which is to lay down an underdrawing, then build up glazes over it. A piece of writing can stay wet for weeks or even months, while I return to noodle on it. I hate titles, and I never know what the final line will be until the very end. That always seems to write itself, if the underdrawing was a good one.
My approach is the same as your, and, as I recently finished Stephen King's book On Writing, like King's. I don't even outline...well, I did with the first two novels I finished, but only after I got into the stories so far I started worrying about how they might come out. So, to help the characters help me with what they wanted to do, I did a very broad outline. These outlines, in both instances, served more as safety nets - comforting to know they were there but not restricting. The novels I've started and not finished might have benefited from a similar safety net.

In my opinion, any publisher looking for a genre plot is looking for a stable of ghost writers to crank out formulaic tales for readers who prefer familiarity with a dab of novelty over the surprise of a story that takes them to new places and ideas.

There's a rumor going around that some tried and true genre writer (crime procedural, I believe) wanted to break out and try something new. His publisher nixed the idea, saying the author's readership expected the same old same old from the humble but successful scrivener. Scrivener said, yeah but my name is bigger than the title on my book covers. Publisher sighed and repeated, "That's so your readers will know they'll be getting the same old same old when they buy the book." Horrible trap to be in, I imagine, but one would think a truly imaginative writer could finger-tap his or her way onto more stimulating terrain.

I hope SuperAgent can do better than get you a gig with a pulp mill.
I write as I taught literature...have one central idea in my head then fly then edit then edit then edit then... ... ... and finally let go.

Writing happens after the house is quiet and the cup of coffee is in hand. After that, I cross my fingers and hope for the best.
A plot is a clandestine conspiracy of editors and publishers whose sole purpose is to drive writers crazy. My advice is only this:

To sell or sellout? The answers are yes an yes. Yet there is never a dilemma when you sit before an empty plate in the city park on a rainy day. Good luck Icy! - Duke
Most of my essays are meant to be memoirs of a sort. Hopefully some grand kids will read them when I'm gone. My columns which are written for a Children's magazine, another for a family oriented paper and the third for a woman's on line magazine, follow the guidelines laid out by the publisher. OS..is more personal. And I prefer that.

I have stopped showing my work to family and friends who basically look to correct rather than appreciate a "well turned phrase".

I write everyday. When a topic pops into my mind, I go to the computer and begin a draft on WORD....then head back and finish as needed or as desired. "Simple phrases is me"...

Like Jon, I prefer to be alone. Coffee by right hand.
Some of the best fiction has been written by journalists, talk about "writing on demand"!! Go for it, do the best you can and work it so you can get more gigs. Crongrats on the "super agent" and on the gig.
Whoa, this is what I love about OS -this is some great feedback. And nobody even pulled me up for the totally out-of-context picture of Jennifer Aniston in her undies!

Tink - A T?! Are you kidding me, I usually have to start off at C and work my way up to T.

Greenheron - I think I can relate to that, in the sense that there's usually some sort of idea/starting point bubbling away in my head for a few days before I actually sit down to write.

Kate - Interesting point about research - my first novel was fairly autobiographical so I didn't need any. Wonder how I'll fare this time around.

Chicken Maan - As Texas Means Friends points out, the pulp mill seems rather inviting at the moment, I'll be short of money in another six months. I'm lucky they picked something I would genuinely like to write about though - I couldn't do it if it were a teen vampire thing for example.

Jonathan - You teach literature? You must have some amazing stories of students who're convinced they're the next Kerouac.

Queen Ali - I see where you're going. Maybe coz I've lived alone for so long, and now I'm suddenly smack in the middle of a family with parents and siblings and grandkids - but after interacting with ppl all day, I find I'm too drained to do anything constructive. I really need to be alone, as self-involved as that sounds.

Texas - agreed; good advice!

Ande - Most of my writing so far has been memoir-sorts too. I like that you juggle writing for 3 different types of audiences (and presumably in different formats) -that's just the kind of thing I'm struggling with at the mo. Practice, practice!
Thanks Mac, you've always had a kind word ever since I started blogging here; much appreciated.
Theta waves. You must learn how to induce them and then discern them from your waking moments. The key to the fiction is on the cusp, just before you slip into sleep.
I usually get an idea and go with it. I have tried the outlining method and while it is a great way to get and stay organized, I find myself getting too caught up in the organization process that I soon lose interest in the story. R
what you need to do is to relax, and remember that
the story will come.
this is mystical work.
The story is the thing.
YOU do not invent it, you start it going….
as you say, you are the medium for characters
with a life of their own, in a sort of in-between reality:
in between dreams and waking.
in between writer and reader.
in the between.

Here’s a tip for the ‘start it going’:
write for somebody real. anybody.
Dead or alive…

Plots are where they put dead bodies.
We are part of a process, we writers, no matter how “talented”
We are…a tradition…to tell the ever evolving human story, as it is NOW, as it was or as it could be….
Here’s some inspiration… (never forget to get inspired):
“Art is the supreme task and the truly metaphysical activity in this life…
 Thus the man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life. It is not only pleasant and agreeable images that he experiences with such universal understanding: the serious, the gloomy, the sad and the profound, the sudden restraints, the mockeries of chance, fearful expectations, in short the whole 'divine comedy' of life, the Inferno included, passes before him, not only as a shadow-play — for he too lives and suffers through these scenes — and yet also not without that fleeting sense of illusion; and perhaps many, like myself, can remember calling out to themselves in encouragement, amid the perils and terrors of the dream, and with success: 'It is a dream! I want to dream on!' Just as I have often been told of people who have been able to continue one and the same dream over three and more successive nights: facts which clearly show that our innermost being, our common foundation, experiences dreams with profound pleasure and joyful necessity.”

That should help.
banana gal is semi-inspiring, by the way.
I find writing on demand, which I did in my PR career, painful nowadays. Since retiring (again) I never plan to write. It just happens. An idea jumps into my head, my fingers find the keys (which are never very far away) and I let the words fly. I edit as I go, but after I finish, I read it through, find the typos and the grammatical issues and hit Publish. Of course, I am not aspiring to be be published and I seldom write fiction. When I do write fiction, it is done in exactly the same way as my other posts. I don't seem to have much to say about what ends up on the page. I'm a conduit.

I read one of the Jack Reacher novels and really enjoyed it. I am also a fan of Robert Parker (Spenser and Jesse Stone novels). I've never seen anyone nail dialogue like he can.
For me, it's always been about "the hook." Once I settle on that, the rest seems to flow easily. That's my approach to journalistic writing. Fiction is much, much harder, and a tougher nut to crack. Perhaps if we approached our fiction the way we approach our journalism, it might at least get us into the groove we need to finish a piece of art?

As you alluded to earlier, it's easy to write beautifully. It's much more difficult to devise a plot, create multidimensional characters, and write dialogue that really sings.

For me, starting with bare bones and layering flesh on those bones is the way to go. Followed by revision after revision, of course. My fatal flaw is that I tweak things to death. Guess we need to know when to stop, too ...

You've obviously got the talent. So why spend so much time second-guessing yourself? Just run with it!
Congratulations. Soon you'll rise to "Nobody who sounds like Somebody we saw in a grocery store."

The key to my writing is plagiarizing forgotten 13th Century poets. Since "forgotten" includes 99% of them, it gives me a lot of source material. But translating Middle English just sucks.
you're joking about the penthouse in singapore right? I dont recall reading about that one. frankly if you can be paid any amt of money at all for writing, Id say its a small miracle.
I never had to write a plot or structure ahead of time but I'm sure I could if I were called upon to do so. I know you will, too. And the process of filling out the structure can still be surprising. Let us know what happens, and congratulations on the deal. I'd quit my job in a red hot minute if I had the chance to be paid to write.
I write when the voices in my head tell me to.
Icy,writing for me is a healing method.It is like escaριng in a world I want to live in,like trying to create me the friends I do not have,the beuty that I do not find..and I write as I think...Then,I correct my mistakes!!Only,wish I could do that in real life!!!Excellent work here.Rated!!!!
Thanks for reading and commenting guys. They've asked me to write three sample chapters so they can make a final decision, so I'm now working my butt off doing that.
I just wanted to add this bit from a reader on my other blog where I posed the same qstn:

"The one thing I've learned to do when I write is to keep a character sheet, with all the identifying characteristics, nicknames, facts, etc., about each character in the novel.

That saves me from having a blue-eyed blonde become a green eyed brunette a few chapters later because I forgot to change it."

Sounds simple, but that's something I have trouble with, so if it helps anybody here too, great.

I especially like that most of you guys seem to just go where the mood takes you, as I tend to do - so I'm not that abnormal after all!
no advice from me. You all are the real writers. I'm a lifetime reader.
Thought you might enjoy this:
Plot is hard. I can come up with a dozen characters, but it's figuring out what they DO... I don't think that's a literature vs. genre fiction dilemma. It's a dilemma faced by every writer hoping to tell a compelling story. What helps me is thinking of it as a STORY. Not pieced out in terms of character and plot and themes. We all have experiences in our lives that have evolved in longform that could be condensed down for dramatic effect. I like to read my writing out loud, listening for gaps or stutters. That works for me, sometimes.