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Tag: Doris Lessing

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Q&A with Tahir Shah

Tahir_bio_pic 2013bI just did a Q&A with myself, based on some of the questions I’m asked on a regular basis.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WRITING FICTION AND NON-FICTION?

There are both huge differences and huge similarities. For me, book writing (any writing for that matter) is about storytelling. Tell the story in the right way and the reader will do a kind of dance through your work. The most important thing for me is that my reader has the right experience, and that’s achieved by giving a great deal of thought to the way a passage will be read. I devote time to thinking about the reader whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

Naturally, though, with fiction you can let yourself loose a whole lot more. But, having said that, I think there’s enormous scope for non-fiction writers (especially travel writers) in observing what they think they know and understand, in new ways. It’s a great challenge, but one that pays great dividends when you get it right.

HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH IDEAS FOR NOVELS? Read more

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Mentors

One of the problems about writing is that you are shut away a lot of the time and you can get the feeling that you’re detached. A bit of being detached is a good thing. Actually, it’s a great thing. But once in a while it’s even better to get a sense of where you are… whether you’re on the right rails. And a way of doing this is, over time, to get to know (preferably personally) a writer who influences you. I have had several great influences, and they have affected me in different ways. Some have touched the way I think, my outlook, and other the way I work. For the kind of life I want to live, Wilfred Thesiger was an enormous influence. I adored his clear reasoning, and the way he never ever ever altered his views depending on the audience. He was consistently politically incorrect, which was so refreshing. He said what he believed and didn’t live a life couched in fear. It was Wilfred who encouraged me to go to Ethiopia, and to go for a walk in the Upper Amazon, where he hinted I would probably meet ‘some interesting fellows’.  Hugh Carless has been another great inspiration to me. He was with Newby on ‘The Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ (the journey was actually his idea). Carless has the finest conversational delivery I have ever heard, and is quite the most impeccable man I have known. As for writing, my father was an enormous influence. He used to tell me ‘we are basket weavers, Tahir jan, that’s what we do… we weave baskets’. My one memory of childhood is the clicking of a manual typewriter from morning till night. And, as I mentioned the other day, Doris Lessing, who is a writer’s writer. But even more importantly, is her plain-speak. Like Thesiger, she’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind.



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Write, write, write

Something that drives me CRAZY is that publishers don’t want an author to write much. They try and curb your output to levels. It’s like telling a painter to stop doing what they do. I’ve often suggested two books at once and offered to submit them both within a few months. After all, most people who read books are capable of reading two books within a few months. Do that and (cue posh English accent) you get the standard response: ‘Steady on old boy, don’t want to give your readers too much of a good thing!’ I believe that if you are a writer, then you are writing because you like doing it… that by writing you are venting an energy that would otherwise be building up. And I have no qualms at moving publishers or agents, because the key point about being a writer is that you have to write first for yourself, and second for anyone else. I like it if people bother to read my stuff, but in a way I don’t give a damn if they don’t. We have an old family friend, who won the Nobel a year and a bit ago, Doris Lessing. She told me once that she has to write and she doesn’t know why, but that by writing she stays on an even keel. She’s been the greatest inspiration to me, and what I love about her is that she’s not writing for anyone except herself.



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The Craft

OK. I’m going to state the obvious but please give me a break. If you want to get good at something — just about anything — you have to work at it. And it goes for writing more than just about anything I know. Here’s a trick that I learned. You give yourself half an hour. Put a clock on the table if necessary. And write a short paragraph. Describe something. Anything — just a jug of flowers on the window ledge, or your favourite painting, or a person you know. When you have written it, turn the paper over, or away from the computer screen for three minutes. Then read what you’ve written. Can you add to it? Can you make it flow a little better. Does it need chopping about? If so, work on it. Then turn away for another three minutes and, again, read through and rework. When I have written something (except this blog, so forgive me for that), I constantly re-read and rework. I substitute words, tenses, and lots of little things with the aim of creating a product that’s easy to read. In my opinion, it’s far better to write a paragraph that’s blindingly clean than pages of stuff which are full of mistakes.



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Tingling Spine

When I’ve written something, I read it through endlessly, making little tweaks. Then, if possible, I sleep on it, and read it through the next morning. It’s then that you have some distance, and distance is an important thing when you are creating anything. What you think of as fabulous one minute, you can feel is unadulterated garbage the next. But the thing that I am always aiming for is that tingle down the spine. If you have that, then you know there’s something magical there. And the more times you have read it, the better. Because, if you get the tingling spine after reading it through twenty times, you know the magic’s all the stronger.



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Meeting

Another great way to meet book business people is by joining societies and other associations. In the UK there is the brilliant Society of Authors, which champions authors, although there’s quite a steep annual fee. The benefits are The Society makes available free brochures on specific author-related information to members, as well as reading through contracts and answers technical questions. It’s likely that such a society would be able to help make introductions to agents and so forth. There’s also (in the UK) The Royal Society of Literature, which is extremely affordable to join, and is a great forum at which to meet writers, publishers and specialists in the book business. There are similar societies in the US and across the world.

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Reviewing

To get published, a really key thing is to get to know people in the book business. The more people you know in the field, the more your chances increase at finding an agent, a publisher, or a line to get your foot in the door. I have a found that reviewing books is a really good way at meeting editors. The important point here is that all book editors read book reviews, especially of the books they have edited. If you review, and if possibly give favourable reviews, those reviews will be read by the editors you are hoping to meet. They will read your byline, and get a sense that you can write. Just about anyone can write reviews, and it’s pretty easy to pitch to reviewers, partly because they don’t pay well normally, so they want text. And they love it if you are an ‘expert’ in the field of the book. You can also review books on your blogs online. An author will often get sent links to such blogs, and it’s a good way to communicate with writers. If you tell me that you tried to break in to book reviewing and failed, then it’s simple – you didn’t try hard enough.



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Giving Up

It was Winston Churchill who said: Never ever ever give up. And, God, was he right. Remember that the difference between massive success and total failure is no wider than the thickness of a hair. I must have said it before. And I’ll say it again, because it’s the slogan the has taught me more than just about anything else. As you struggle to break in to publishing, or anything, most people are also struggling, and they tend to drop out. Why? Because it’s easier to get an office job or to wait tables instead. With every person who drops out, you are closer to the summit. Never forget that. When you are in the long dark days of drudgery, strain yourself away from the anguish and look at the horizon. Success is there, and it’s really not far. But to reach it you must keep that horizon in your sights.



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Detail

It’s all about detail. Look around you and if you’re lucky you’ll see it. Yet most of the time we’re blind to it. Look at the coffee cup that’s sitting on your desk. You hardly realize it’s there because it’s always there. There’s a few drops of dried coffee on the rim, a hairline crack near the base, a scratch on the inside where a teaspoon was stirred a little too hard. Lift it up and there’s a patch of condensation on the desk, because you forgot to use a coaster, miniature droplets of moist. And on the bottom of the cup there’s the monogram of the company, and a chip almost too insignificant to see. I’m obsessed by detail, and often find myself ruled by it. I have a problem sometimes at seeing the bigger picture, but I value a level of detail that many people miss altogether. A great trick when you are writing is to take a bus ride, and keep a notebook in your lap. Look at the people who come on and off. Study their faces and see how the details of their appearance, their manners, all sync up with the full impression. The first five people who step onto a bus, any bus, are the characters for your novel. 



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Do the Work

There’s a vast abyss between would-be writers, and the ones who are really prepared to do the backbreaking work. I never ever show work in progress to anyone, not even Rachana, my wife… because I don’t like to be judged or critiqued until something is what I would class as very clean. People try and send me bits of books they are writing the entire time. I suppose that all authors get this and I really wish would-be writers would spend their time writing and not sending half-baked material out, hoping for praise. Remember, a book isn’t finished just because you have written a draft. That’s the real starting point. It’s the clay from which you can sculpt a work of genius. Here’s an example that’s stuck in my head. A few days ago a close friend asked if I would read a book that her ex-boyfriend had written, and give him feedback. She added that it was rather good in her opinion. The manuscript was emailed to me. I scanned as much of it that I could endure. It was clear from the start that there were some very serious problems. The first and main one was that as a ‘first book’, the writer was relishing in ever cliché that had ever been invented. The other faults were a total lack of character arc, narrative voice, themes, detail etc. So I wrote to my friend and suggested that she send my comments to her ex boyfriend. I told her that as I didn’t know the man, I hadn’t really got an idea what he wanted. So I wrote two different letters to her, and asked her to judge what he wanted and send on the appropriate one. The first letter was one of unctuous praise. I assumed the man had written the book, and was now showing it to me, because he wanted attention. I raved about his great work, complimented him in the most over the top manner, and wished him luck. The second letter explained that the book was totally flat, a complete heap of nonsense, without hardly any merit at all. BUT, I said, if he worked and worked and worked at it, he would eventually reshape it and could turn it into something worthwhile. If he did that, I explained, he would have what it takes to be a published author. I don’t know which letter she sent on.



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