Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Interviews On My Writing Process (and Most Recent Book)

I am fascinated by articles and books that discuss the writing process of other writers - reading some of the routines and processes employed by my favorite writers over and over again. Assuming that other readers similarly enjoy reading about writers' routines, I answered many process related questions about my writing in a few interviews that came out in November and December last year. I have posted some excerpts below from the interviews. Follow the links to read them in full - they cover a lot of ground regarding my writing and books in general.

Excerpt from the interview with Joyce T. Strand (Strands' Simply Tips):

Q: Do you try to deliver key messages or to educate your readers? What is your primary goal when you write?
I remember reading somewhere that even if you have a message to deliver as an author, you should hide it very subtly within the story, and above all, seek to entertain. I am not sure I have achieved that yet, but I definitely keep that advice in mind when I write. Since I write non-fiction I guess it is acceptable to try to educate my readers, but my goal is really for the reader to gain a new perspective on the subject, or to ask more questions and think about the topic even after they have finished reading the book.

I guess my ideal goal would be that my books are read by those who have only a passing interest or even none at all in the subject, and my book kindles a deeper interest in them, or they feel that they have learned something unexpected from it. Personally, I have always had absolutely no interest in astronomy, I don’t even know where most of the major constellations are, but I happened to read this one book on the demotion of Pluto, and it kindled this passion in me for astronomy. Now I am hungry to read more books on the subject, and learn more about it. That’s the power of non-fiction, and that's really what I am aiming for, although probably not quite getting there, yet.

Q: What tips can you offer about “being creative and productive every day?”
Well this is a pretty vast subject, one that I feel I am only scratching the surface of. I write about being more productive and creative on my blog, to share what works for me and good advice that I come across elsewhere.
The most important advice I guess I could give would be a derivation of a quote from Ira Glass, the radio personality. As creative people, our ability is far less developed than our taste, and so what we create may well be far worse than we would hope for, at least initially. I used to personally get discouraged by this, and give up. What Ira Glass suggests, and I concur, is to keep doing the creative thing, whatever it is, no matter how bad it is. At some point, it stops being bad, and moves to tolerable, and sometimes, it is even good. And then, when you keep at it long enough, suddenly you are really good, and on some lucky days, even great. Believe that that moment will come for you. And my unique take on this advice – find whatever productivity hacks that help you to keep at it, even when it is hard, or when the work feels hard, or when you're sure it is intended for the stink pile. With some rare exceptions, most of the greats in your chosen field got there because they learned how to get through the really bad output, the really bad art, and keep going till they got better.

Excerpt from the interview with Sara Chatterjee (The Page-Hungry Bookworm):

As a student, what was the greatest difficulty you faced while studying or preparing for tests?
I think the psychological barrier is the hardest to overcome. By that I mean, if it was a subject that I thought I was good at, like English, I usually started to prepare enough in advance, and didn’t find studying for the test particularly painful. But for subjects that I struggled in, just thinking about the test made me run towards the TV remote!

I think when you don't like or do well in a subject, the biggest difficulty is simply in knowing where to start. Maybe this is because you don't study or learn the material as you go, but expect to somehow figure it out a week or even days before an exam. I know I did this a lot in school, and this was the cause of most of my stress. On the other hand, for rare subjects where I did the learning as the school year progressed, there was so much less aggravation during the study prep period, and I could focus then on really preparing to answer questions and get the most important facts committed to memory, rather than encountering the bulk of the information for the first time.

Is there a common flaw that you have noticed in the study pattern of most students? If so, how would you advise them to correct that flaw and improve the study process?

That's actually a great question! I think the most common mistake that students make (and I myself certainly wasn’t immune to this) is to study passively. Reading through a textbook and simply highlighting passages without taking notes or sitting in class and not paying attention; it may seem like you are studying but really you're not learning anything. Research has shown that highlighting your textbook or simply reading is the worst way to learn, because weeks later, you remember very little. And it's worse because it gives you this illusion of having done the work.

The best way to learn? Do some active learning. Take notes that summarize the main points in what you are reading, answer questions on the text or take a short quiz. Anything that requires you to put your brain through a mental workout, manipulate the material and make it your own. This actually is harder in the moment than passively reading, but since it speeds up learning so much, it can actually save a student a lot of time.

Excerpt from the interview with

What inspires you to write?
I like to write about topics that get a hold of me, that keep coming back to me in some way over and over till I give in and decide to spend time writing about it. In general I am inspired to write by reading great prose, watching inspiring movies and listening to uplifting music. Any piece of art, and I define art quite loosely, that speaks to me and moves me, inspires me to write.

I am also inspired by other artists – those who are authentic, true to themselves, and create something that touches my heart in some way. Growing up in Calcutta, India, I was always surrounded by books and people who loved books – in fact I am named after the Nobel Prize winning book of poetry from India’s first Nobel Prize for Literature – by Rabindranath Tagore. I guess, in some way, when my mum chose my name, she wanted me to be creative in some way, and I ended up following that path unconsciously.

What do you think about the future of book publishing?
I think people will always read books. The mode of how they read may change. I do believe that more and more people will read digital books, and I definitely believe that markets outside the US will play a bigger role than they currently do, in terms of numbers and maybe even changing the landscape of the types of readers used, the languages in which books are available and many other parameters. I don’t think we have any idea of how much will change, we can only speculate.

I also think that although democratization of content is great, discoverability will only get harder for authors. I read somewhere that given how many books are being written and published every day, there is no longer any room for average. The market can only support excellent books, in the sense that they will be the ones that get discovered and read. I totally agree with that. Readers want a lot more now, and our job as writers is to deliver it. Word of mouth and reader recommendations will continue to gain in importance. My own strategy is simple, I only want to write something that excites me or pulls at me in some way, and I want to write the best possible book I can. I hope that with each book I write, I become a better writer.

Excerpt from the interview with IndieView:

Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?
I usually write my first drafts longhand, sometimes in a dedicated notebook, sometimes on one side of used printer paper. I like to use something as everyday as possible, so that it will signal to my mind that there is no pressure, the writing is no big deal, I am simply jotting a few thoughts down. Once I have a written draft, I type it up (this can take a long time or not, depending). I try to refrain from making major edits as I type, or differentiate the edits from the original. Invariably, at this point I realize that the draft is dreadful, and despair that it could ever improve.

Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?
I usually don’t outline till I have a draft, although for Anyone Can Get An A+ I had jotted down a list of topics to write about, in no particular order. I am still refining my writing process, but at the moment, once I have typed up my draft, which for this book I did in Scrivener, I try to move the pieces around till I am happy with the structure. Then I edit the individual chapters and sections.

Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?
I usually like to listen to music while writing first drafts, or doing the tedious parts of writing such as checking references and compiling the bibliography. I usually edit in silence, but it’s not a completely hard rule. I also listen to music when I am writing in a public place, to minimize distractions. Each book usually has a different soundtrack. For my book on cluster munitions, I listened to Celtic music as a nod to the location of the signing of the Convention. Anyone Can Get An A+ was written while I listened to classical music (I played Handel, Mozart and Beethoven on a loop), and was edited to Coldplay and Gregorian Chants.

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