About Writing

The Novemberist

This blog is now 20 years old. I know, because there’s a version of this post every few years, and the first of them appeared late in October 2001. I went and checked. You should not read your old writing. Doubly so, your old blog posts, but my excuse was research, and an anniversary, so […]

Keeping Notes

Since switching to a better smartphone earlier this year (an LG G3, for the curious) I’ve taken to using a notetaking app on it. I started off with the phone’s default app, which was adequate, but had a few issues that might have been fine on a paper notebook (ticked list items not disappearing, for […]

Lost Ideas


Somewhere in my latest pocket notebook, in the middle of the page, is a hastily scribbled note that reads:


It is both working title and brain bookmark to an idea for a short story that has been swimming in my head since at least the last week. It was an old idea, but the current form started kicking around in the gauzy background-noise imagination warehouse of my being after a sumptuously talky night out with a friend I hadn’t met in months. Some ideas come in a flash, must be written down, must be captured and nailed into pitifully short, scribbled notes in little notebooks. Others you only notice days or weeks after they’ve already arrived.

And all these ideas may never leave that little notebook page.

Sometimes I will come across an old notebook — or worse, an old To Do list — and see a single name for a writing project among the clutter of crossed-out drawing, email, work entries.


I will stare at it for a minute. The word will mean nothing to my conscious brain. But already in the back there will be the stirrings of a sense memory, the dull echo of the excitement I once felt for that word; a swirling of that gauzy background noise, but not a clue as to what that story or idea was actually about. Confetti strewn on an empty street. Once, that idea must have consumed me. I must have spent hours thinking about it, days planning to execute it, reveling in the clever little turns of plot & dialogue that raced through my brain. At some point I let whatever POLENDRON was slip from my brain, because beginning it wasn’t exciting any more. I may have even begun writing something with regards to it, but either forgot or moved onto another, newer scribble in my then-notepad.

I can complain all I want about never finishing anything, but it’s quite often that I never truly begin things. And when I look back at these things I can’t quite remember, I sometimes wonder if that’s for the best. I would like to imagine a world where I am either absolutely productive, putting to page every single idea I’ve had in immaculate, amazing finished pieces, or absolutely unburdened by these lost projects. I don’t know if I’d like to be the man at the party who never looks up from his smartphone because he’s writing a ripping yarn he thought up in the elevator, or the man at the party who says, “Oh yeah, I have stacks of unwritten novels. I’m a great writer. I have a whole lifetime career of books, if only I’d written them…*”

*(NOTE: I have definitely been this person. If you were on the receiving end, I apologise.)

In either extreme case, I would not be the person who was sitting with my friend that day talking about relationships and dating and expectations, and I would not then go home that night with the background noise necessary to scribble THE NUMBER OF BLONDES into my notepad the following day.

It is quite possible that THE NUMBER OF BLONDES will meet the same fate as POLENDRON. Today, tomorrow, the day after, I may think the premise too flimsy, too pretentious, the lack of an ending already set in stone uncomfortable, and easily set it back out into the noise, replace it with imagining what Star Wars Episode 7 will be like (Oh yes, that just happened). I shouldn’t bother, really, but the imagination always goes where it shouldn’t, and where it is most easily rewarded with the sugary nectar of something old & already well-thought out by somebody else. All the hard work done, just waiting for you to put your own genius spin on things.

But it’s also never yours to lose.


Wagons & Saddles


As usual, I was supposed to write this days ago. Writing always takes the back-burner, is the first to be sent to the back of the queue, behind client work, videogames, and doing nothing. Tweeting scratches the itch to write just enough to make you think you’re doing something, and in three years my persona on twitter has spread to a number of accounts covering everything from myself, to movies, games, books, comics, and even RANTING.

Blogging once held this position.

“I’ll write, but first let me blog about how I haven’t written, my writer’s block, and how I’m going to write.”

Which is basically what this is now.

I don’t think I can classify what I have as writer’s block anymore. Ten years is a long time to have been off the wagon (Why is it that you fall off the wagon, but get back in the saddle?). In the last ten years I have never stopped writing, but I have stopped finishing things. And like the proverbial falling tree in the empty forest, if it isn’t finished, then it may as well not exist. Some of you, kind souls that you are, will point to the short story I wrote years ago as a finished piece of work. And I will grant you that, short as it was, it does qualify. But I also know that it was supposed to be the start of a large number of semi-interconnected stories, and so in my head at least it remains unfinished.

(Excuse me, I just went away to tweet about this post I’m writing)

The strict form on your words that twitter imposes is enticing. Sometimes I consider writing a story in tweets. It’s a gimmick, but then, so is writing an action ‘novel’ in 500 words. Things of great beauty can emerge from that 140 character box, but so can they from the vast, bottomless window of Notepad as well, and I like to remind myself that all novels, great and small, started with no back cover to assure the author of a safe landing.

(Excuse me, I just went away to tweet about this post on the ranty account because the term ‘blogging’ seems funny. It’s 2001 again.)

NaNoWriMo has tried to remedy this to an extent, with the 50,000 word goal. I have participated in most NaNos over the last decade, but have yet to even best my first, NaNo 2001 achievement of 35,000 words. I’m sure that, on average, I wrote about that much fiction per year over the decade, but never into anything finished. Hundreds of thousands of words sitting there like so much risen dough, waiting for a loaf pan (baking is another thing writing has taken a back seat to. I sometimes catch myself thinking of baking like one might think of all their unfinished novels suddenly being ready & successful). But even all that goal-oriented writing doesn’t spur me into finishing things. It only ever gets me to start new things. Like Don Draper (according to Dr. Faye Miller), I only ever seem to love the Beginning of things.

Mad Men, and stories of its quality, loom large over me as well. They are at once beacons to follow & aspire to, and seemingly unattainable masterpieces, hurdles insurmountable by someone who can’t even get to THE END of a first draft. Take the last season (number five), and the way it ended. It’s definitely not the end of the series, but if it did have to end, I can’t think of a better way than employing the theme song from You Only Live Twice, followed by an innocuously-posed question, and Don’s profoundly enigmatic response.

Or lack of one. Because it cuts to the credits before he says anything. Those people know how and when to end something. I’m a little afraid of this post going off the rails (and a wagon and a saddle) into non-stop gushing about Mad Men — which it still could — but the point is that fear is as present in an writer as it is the audience, and often ending something sooner than you think is better than never at all.

I’ve had my share of frustrating, absurd anticlimaxes to things in my personal & professional life, and while that isn’t what we enjoy in fiction, prolonging and postponing things for the sake of word counts or writing traditions only delivers an ending that is nothing but absurd and anticlimactic.

I thought that this blog post would end differently, with some grand proclamation of getting back on that saddle, of promising — as I have many times before — a valiant return to writing, to producing, to meeting word counts and doing heroic feats of typing & first-draftery. But really, all I’m looking for is an ending.

And I’m going to go see if can find it.


Book Review – Perdido Street Station

Fanart book cover of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, cover design by Vishal K Bharadwaj

It’s a fairly well-known fact to anybody who’s read this blog that I’m poorly read, and that fact has always been something I’ve been trying to change (not going to be much of a writer if you haven’t read anything). So with the aim of developing a reading habit, I decided to start picking up books I’d always wanted to read but had never bought, waiting for that mythical
‘someday’ when I would be in a relaxed mental state to kick back and read a bit. ‘Someday’ turned out to be when I walked by the Fantasy section in Kinokuniya and spotted a paperback of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station recently, not horrendously overpriced as books in Dubai tend to be, and picked it up. Instead of relegating it to the bookshelf like several previous purchases, I cracked the thick tome open and started reading the second I got home.

Perdido Street Station is a book I have been hearing about almost since it first came out in 2000, mostly through the lavish praise and the awards & nominations it was starting to rack up back then. Online friends raved about it (What? My real life friends, and read? Not bloody likely), and I’d hear it or Miéville’s name mentioned every now and then, so it was rarely out of my mind. Alas, I almost never saw it sitting on a shelf at any bookstore I frequented, and nine years passed before I picked it up (there are far too many unread books sitting in my house for me to even dare open up the Pandora’s Box that is easy online shopping, so I tend to limit myself to retail, brick-and-mortar purchases). And in all that time I managed to glean very little about the plot, other than that it was set in a strange, highly detailed Victorian-era steampunk-style city on a world called Bas-Lag.

That city, New Crobuzon, is at the very heart of Perdido Street Station. It permeates every page, described in loving (and often excessive) detail by Miéville. But such is the baroque style of the book’s prose, and as an exercise in worldbuilding it is a sumptuous, if indulgent treat (no wonder there’s a New Crobuzon-set RPG in the works). From the mysterious Glasshouse, home of the Cactacae plant people, to The Ribs — literally the towering bones of some long-demised creature — to the leviathan-like presence of the station itself, and all points in-between, New Crobuzon is a gloomy, rotting hulk of a city. An old city where life just seems to keep on chugging. It becomes less a setting and more a character in itself, its various burroughs and neighbourhoods forming a weird anatomy on which its protaginists and antagonists scurry like insects, rather than inhabit, scarcely in control of events and the city’s whims.

We get to know some of the city through the eyes of Yagharek, a garuda (roughly a bird-man — the name comes from Hindu mythology) from the far desert of the Cymek, who has come to New Crobuzon seeking the solution to a peculiar problem that afflicts him. He zeroes in on the scientist Isaac Dan de Grimnebulin, a maverick, his head brimming with ideas of tapping ‘crisis energy’. Isaac’s cricle of friends is similarly radical; anti-government magazine journalists like Derkhan, and his Khepri sculptor girlfriend Lin (she has a human’s body but the head of a scarab beetle). Isaac’s investigations into Yagharek’s problem inadvertantly leads to him unleashing a near-unstoppable, deadly force upon the city. With everyone from the shadowy government to drug-baron gangsters on his tail — and with the help of some very unusual allies — he must rid New Crobuzon of this threat.

You’d think that a plot as simple as this couldn’t possibly fill out seven hundred pages, and you’d be right. So much of the book is spent in worldbuilding, in laying down the structure of the city, the peculiarities of each neighbourhood (oddly enough they all end up sounding pretty-much the same, with only a little less or a little more gloom here and there), and the characteristics of its myriad non-human races, that the plot and the characters tend to get lost.

Frequently, a character will commute from one part of the city to another, and we get a long, detailed account of every area and lane and neighbourhood the person passed through to get there. After about the fifth time you start to glaze over. It often reminded me of a Monty Python sketch about train timings, but I don’t think Miéville is trying to be funny.

Actually, I’m pretty sure he isn’t trying to be funny, because this is possibly the most humourless novel I’ve ever read. On the surface of it, a book about ravenous flying beasties terrorising a city of weird fantasy folk should be funny, but I can’t for the life of me recall anything in the book that wasn’t meant to be taken in a deathly serious manner. Pretty-much everything in Bas-Lag is horrible, a lurid tabloid newspaper version of life, and this fact is repeatedly brow-beaten into the reader. It doesn’t matter if you forget how hot it’s supposed to be in the city, because there are going to be fifteen more times when the heat will be described — usually in very pretty sentences that should be blown up and stuck on a wall. And yet this enormous mudslide of style is employed in the service of what is the plot equivalent of a Michael Bay movie, and you end up scratching your head wondering, “Is that it?” By the time the plot has cleared away its considerable mountain of clutter, all that it amounts to is an action thriller with overegged production design.

It might be acceptable had Perdido Street Station billed itself as a straight thriller set in a well-decorated fantasy world, but the book tries very hard to seem important. It should be a treat: a book that folds hard Science Fiction and Fantasy with Literary Fiction, Dystopia, Steampunk, Clockpunk, Biopunk and perhaps more variations of punk that I’m not even aware of into one big, juicy steak of a tome — but like most dishes that play with too many ingredients, it just ends up an indifferent heap.

Every interesting thread that you think is going somewhere — Isaac’s crisis engine, the weird Mr. Motley — are turned into the most facile of MacGuffins and deus ex machina solutions later on. So maybe Miéville has some grand plan to use all of these elements ten books down the line (two more Bas-Lag set books have already been released, The Scar & Iron Council) but really, do I need any of this information right now? No, of course not.

There are moments when I really wanted to love Perdido Street Station. Every now and then a beautifully-wrought passage or sequence would make me smile, but then there would be another five pages of how much grime that bit of the city had, or how polluted the river was. And then some bits just made my eyes glaze over; there’s a mid-air fight between flying monsters and people flying in pairs strapped to each other’s backs that was complicated enough without trying to remember what a Sinsitral and a Dextral was, and why I should care.

And caring is something I never did for the protagonists either; whom, despite all the text devoted to their actions (and which route they took through which lane & over which bridge to get there), I barely felt I knew as people. They do a lot, and talk a lot, but even I wasn’t sure even they believed any of it. And then there’s the ending, where suddenly everyone who had no problem killing folk left right and centre up until that point suddenly took the moral high ground on things (like I said, Michael Bay movie).

It’s a shame to come to the end of a seven hundred page book, a book of great ideas and occasional beauty, and then conclude that you probably shouldn’t have bothered, but that’s exactly how I felt. Perdido Street Station has everything a fan of speculative fiction could want, from clockwork robots & quantum mechanics to wizards and brain-drinking beasties.

And all of it just seems far less than the sum of its parts.

Section of Fanart book cover of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, cover design by Vishal K Bharadwaj


This post was included in Book Review Blog Carnival #32. Check it out for more great book review links!

A Short Return to Writing Fiction

Click here for the PDF
I‘ve been trying to get back to writing fiction for a long, long time now. In fact, I’ve spent more time trying than I did actively writing fiction from 2000-2003. It’s not that there’s a dearth of ideas or that I have suddenly lost the ability to string two sentences together, quite the opposite. In the past six years there have been short stories that turned into long stories, long stories that didn’t go anywhere; several aborted novels, even more never begun; scripts and outlines and treatments and everything in between, but not a thing among them has been finished.

Well, today that changed. If only in a small way.

Giving myself the most miniscule of writing deadlines — five hundred whole words — and the challenge of trying to fit an entire story with a beginning, middle & end in that space, I set out. Instead of attempting an isolated scene or a standard flash fiction short, I thought I’d try and stretch my muscles. Could I possibly condense an entire action thriller novel into 500 words? Would it read as anything more than an outline? Would it just be a gimmick and nothing more?

Well, you tell me. Click on the image above or here to download a PDF of the short story/micronovel Pendragon. I’ve released the story on a Creative Commons License, so feel free to pass on the PDF file via email or the link to this page to anyone you think may be interested in reading.

I’m fairly satisfied with the way Pendragon has turned out. I don’t think it quite achieves the ambitious ‘novel in 500 words’ goal I set for it, but it does have a beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps in one thousand words I would have been able to squeeze in as many thrills & spills as the average airport thriller.

But you can be assured of two things. One: I am back to writing fiction (and soon, in ways that are bigger than you might think).

And, two: Dirk Cleft will return!


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

allVishal is now on Twitter!

allvishal on twitter image
I‘m not an early adopter. I’m not even a late adopter. So I’m probably the last person on the entire interwub who’s signed up to Twitter, but now I have!


Independence Day

I grew up in Muscat, Oman, and went to an Indian School there. Legend had it that the school had started as a simple gathering under a tree, but by the time I got there in the late 1980s and until I left around ten years later, the school was a gargantuan, organically grown complex of grey buildings, and contained (or tried to) upwards of six thousand children from kindergarten to grade 12. Recess out in the dusty school field was like entering a medieval battleground.

Having so many people from so many different parts of India in one place was a unique experience. Places like Mumbai are highly cosmopolitan, but even though your classmates might be Bengali or South Indian they tend to identify as Mumbaikars first. Not so as expatriates in a foreign country, where many kids’ families had come directly from non-metropolitan towns or villages, places I’d never even heard of. We were aware of the differences — it was often the source of much mirth — but our collective identity was forged as Indians. Being an Indian school we’d sing Jana Gana Mana every day, celebrate all the Indian versions of things like Children’s Day (November 14th, Nehru’s birthday), and get holidays for Diwali, Eid and Christmas (not to mention Holi, Dussera and a host of others — it’s fun being Indian, the next festival is never more than a month away).

Independence Day, that is the day in 1947 when the British officially handed over power (August 15th, today), was always celebrated. Classes were canceled but middle and high school students were obliged to come to school that morning. It was just a half hour or so, nothing fancy; a flag-raising ceremony and a speech by the principal, maybe a song or two by the school choir, and then we’d roam around the field, maybe stalk the eerily empty corridors of the school, play impromptu games of football with pepsi cans (a teacher or two might join in), and then leave.

I was always surprised at the turnout at these events. Not just students, but their parents too would come along. Some of the school buses would ply their routes, and being one of the only Indian Schools in the country some kids lived hundreds of kilometres away, but they’d still be there. Maybe it was because we were Indians in a foreign land. Maybe it was even national pride. But maybe, just maybe, it was the spirit of independence itself.

I don’t like to think of India like most people do, as a nation now only sixty-one years old. India as an idea been around forever, India the place and the people and the intangible spirit has always been there even when it was a hundred disparate kingdoms and villages and hermits’ huts, even before it had a name. For me India is synonymous with independence, with freedom and liberty and fun, yes, fun! I don’t equate it with a flag and an anthem and a political party, and certainly not with a parade of military power.

For me Independence Day is about standing around a place where discipline and order are the norms, and just kicking a can around with your friends.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Comic Konga 2 #5: Megalomania

-I wish I was fabulously intelligent. -You aren't?
-Then I'd program a kickass brew of linux and rule the world!! -I see.
-Geeks would love me. Children would respect me. Women would really love me! -Women love men who program operating systems?
-You're no fun anymore.


Finally, the fifth and final strip of the second Comic Konga!. Dunno why I dawdled do long on this. It didn’t take me long to do. I guess that’s because I had a bunch of other strips planned and never got around to doing them (sorry Dolly!). I’ll have to get around to those soon, or when we do the next comic knoga in a month or two. Come to think of it, I didn’t end up doing any of the strips I thought I would do this time. Most of the ideas were very long, multiple page ideas, and would have required a lot more drawing. Still, I’ve enjoyed all the strips I’ve done (not to mention the rest of the strips).


Don’t Call it a Piña Colada

Further adventures in processed food in this, the fourth and much delayed strip of the second Comic Konga! Click on the image to see the full strip.

The drawing is all over the place in this. I’m just a bit out of it this week, I suppose, running around doing real life stuff. One more left; have the script, should draw it asap.


Comic Konga 2: A Short Intermission

comic konga intermission monks
Due to unforseen developments, I’m going to have to put my contributions to this second Comic Konga! on hold for a couple of days. I won’t have computer access for the next two days, and instead of rushing and putting up some crap or the other, I request my readers to be patient with me for a little while.

The remaining two comics will be posted on Saturday and Sunday (12 & 13 July).

Meanwhile you can look at these monks. Ah, don’t they look serene? You would be too if you were dreaming of comics.


Comic Konga 2 #3: Mint Chocolate Marvels

Third day, third strip of the second Comic Konga!. Today’s strip is a two-pager, so click on the thumbnail above to bring up the first page, and then click next at the bottom to see the second. Alternately, you can click here to directly see the second page.

I can’t say I really hate mint chocolate — the ice-cream version is something I enjoy quite a bit — but most varieties of it are not very well made, and the experience is more negative than positive.

I have no idea what tomorrow’s strip will be. Oh noes!