Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Reliving a history that never was...

When I was in school, History was by far my most beloved subject, and I still remember reading about past battles, conquests and empires- all wonderful fodder for an already overactive imagination. The best thing about being a writer is that you can pretty much create the world you want, populate it with characters of your making and then let the story unfold. When I began writing, I always had in the back of my mind that one day, I'd combine my love of History and writing- and this month, the result sees the light of day. My novel, Hindustaan has just been released- and will over December be making its way to your friendly neighbourhood book-shop in India courtesy my publishers Vitasta and Times Book Group, which is marketing it.

In writing Hindustaan, rather than just picking up a historical period to set the story in, I thought I'd have a bit more fun and throw in what is perhaps one of the coolest `what ifs' of Indian history.

What would India be like if it had never been conquered by the British?

Here's a litte bit about Hindustaan to give you a feel of what went into the story:

Till the 17th century, one superpower accounted for almost a quarter of the world’s income- the same share as that of the United States today. That superpower was what we know today as India under the Mughal Empire. Years of internal strife, attacks by Afghan raiders and finally conquest by the British led to the decline and destruction of this mighty empire.

But what if India had never been conquered by the British? What if it remained a mighty and prosperous nation under the rule of the Mughal Empire?

A nation known as Hindustaan.

Dilli, 1857. The Mughal Empire is at the peak of its power and is gearing up to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of its victory over the British, an occasion where the popular Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar is widely expected to announce his successor.

The Empire is thrown into sudden chaos when the Emperor is assassinated and a new regime seizes power in a bloody coup.

In this maelstrom, three unlikely companions find themselves thrown together by fate. Ranveer, a young officer in the elite Mughal cavalry, who is now hunted by the very Empire he served; Theo, a rakish English traveller with a mysterious past and Maya, a beautiful and spirited Princess they rescue.

Together, they embark on a series of dramatic adventures across Hindustaan. A journey that takes them from bloody skirmishes with Afghan raiders, rescue missions in remote forts, joining a coalition of rulers who band together against the new despotic regime to protect their independence, and finally back into the heart of Dilli for a dramatic mission.

The stage is set for a monumental struggle that will decide not just their fate, but that of the whole of Hindustaan.

Just got my first copy and as usual, am flipping through it, looking at the cover, re-reading portions- a dozen or more times a day, and living the best part of being a writer- finally seeing what was an idea in the back of your mind come to life.

While it works it's way to bookstores, anyone interested in Hindustaan could just get it from my publishers' website .

What other `what ifs' in history would you find interesting to have a story set in? Let me know, and I'll add it to the ideas circulating in my head for my next effort in the genre…..

Keep reading, and I'll keep writing…


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Of lost wisdom (teeth) and being neighbours with Stephen King & George R.R.Martin

Am back to Scribbles after ages- and you have my tooth (or rather what used to be my tooth) to thank for it. After several weeks of excruciating pain, finally gave into the inevitable and went to the dentist today to have an errant wisdom tooth taken out. Suffice to say, it wasn't much fun, and has left me looking a bit like the elephant man with a swollen face and in a fair bit of pain. To add insult to injury, the doctor informed me that at my `age' (hey, I insist that I refuse to grow up, even if I happen to grow old) the operation would be tougher since the roots would be more difficult to take out. Not wanting to add antibiotic and painkiller addled thoughts to my WIP novel, thought I'd at least write a bit here.

So, what's up? In real estate, they say that location is everything, and pretty much the same goes for books. If your books happen to be displayed or shelved near a bestseller or a big name, chances of it being noticed grow exponentially. Now whether a reader just notices it, or goes ahead and picks it up, and ultimately buys it (or in the digital equivalent, clicks the book's page and then clicks the 'buy' button), depends on the stopping power of the cover and how well the book's contents lead to closing the same, but being in the consideration set is half the battle won.

So my agony (real and also admittedly exaggerated to express what I consider very well-deserved outrage at having my mouth poked, drilled and cut open and at being called old) was considerably soothed when I found who my neighbours on Amazon are. In my last post I had mentioned my upcoming books, and one of them is the science-fiction thriller, Vimana. The paperback comes out courtesy the fine folks at Penguin India in March'2012, but I've had the ebook up on Amazon for a little while. So this afternoon, when I checked the Amazon charts I caused myself a fair bit of discomfort in trying to whoop for joy (given how numb my face was after the anasthesia) when I saw the Amazon science fiction bestseller lists. It's right here for all of you to share in- your's truly at #7, two `houses' ahead of Stephen King and three `houses' away from George R.R Martin. Couldn't have hoped for better neighbours, especially since these are two authors I love.

Now, I just hope more such moments won't require the loss of more teeth.

Keep reading, and I'll keep writing

Monday, August 8, 2011

Perspiration versus Inspiration…..

I have been maintaining radio silence on my blog for a while now- and for a very good reason. As far as my writing goes, I have been very busy- though not in writing alone (as in the inspiration of the creative process most people associate with writing) but in the hard slog of getting ideas to readers through the publishing process- the perspiration that most readers will never see.

Now it’s all pretty much sorted out for the next 18 months or so, and I can once again focus on writing some new stuff- and also take a bit of a breather from writing. The total time I devote to writing is roughly 30-45 minutes each day (With a full-time day job and a family, that’s all I want to take away for my writing) and when I’m traveling on work roughly twice a month when I get a flurry of writing done in flights, hotels and airports. It may not sound like much, but if one sticks to it in a disciplined way, it all adds up. 45 mins each day, every day, writing on average 600-750 words a day means I can write more than 250000 words a year (or more since I get much more written on holidays and when I’m traveling)- at roughly 70000 words a novel- that’s three books a year.

That’s the core insight behind this post- about how, as in many things in life- work, relationships, losing weight etc- discipline and perspiration is sometimes more important than one isolated stroke of genius. No idea, no matter how brilliant, counts for much unless a writer can slog away day by day, page by page, to bring it to life in the form of a book. Then of course, comes the perspiration that goes into putting all that inspiration into a masterplan of what gets published when, and by whom. So I’ve spent the last two months polishing off some ongoing novels, and closing open loops on all my projects on hand that will be published for the next 12-18 months. A friend messaged me on Facebook yesterday asking which book of mine was next. To her, and to all of you, here’s the calendar of what you can expect to see.

OND11: Hindustaan, a historical thriller published by Vitasta Publishing. A sneak peek:

Till the 17th century, one superpower accounted for almost a quarter of the world’s income- the same share as the United States today. That superpower was what we know today as India under the Mughal Empire. Years of internal strife, attacks by Afghan raiders and finally conquest by the British led to the decline and destruction of this mighty empire.

But what if India had never been conquered by the British? What if it remained a mighty and prosperous nation under the rule of the Mughal Empire?

A nation known as Hindustaan.

Dilli, 1857. The Mughal Empire is at the peak of its power and is gearing up to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of its victory over the British, an occasion where the popular Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar is widely expected to announce his successor.

The Empire is thrown into sudden chaos when the Emperor is assassinated and a new regime seizes power in a bloody coup.

In this maelstrom, three unlikely companions find themselves thrown together by fate. Ranveer, a young officer in the elite Mughal cavalry, who is now hunted by the very Empire he served; Theo, a rakish English traveller with a mysterious past and Maya, a beautiful and spirited Princess they rescue.

Together, they embark on a series of dramatic adventures across Hindustaan. A journey that takes them from bloody skirmishes with Afghan raiders, rescue missions in remote forts, joining a coalition of rulers who band together against the new despotic regime to protect their independence, and finally back into the heart of Dilli for a dramatic final mission.

The stage is set for a monumental struggle that will decide not just their fate, but that of the whole of Hindustaan.

JFM12: Vimana, a science fiction thriller published by Penguin India. A sneak peek:

'Gods' fought a terrible war in our skies 15,000 years ago. They have returned to finish it.

Ancient texts refer to 'Gods' flying in craft called vimanas and waging war with what sound like nuclear weapons. These accounts are today classified as myth or legend.

What if they turned out to be real?

Vimana is an edge-of your seat sci-fi technothriller about a young college student who stumbles upon an ancient war between good and evil. A war that we thought was merely a part of our ancient myths and legends, but unknown to us, is still being waged everyday in our skies. He discovers his hidden destiny is to join the forces of light in bringing this war to a conclusion. At stake will be the continued existence of the human race.

Star Wars meets Transformers in this exciting new thriller that will keep all science fiction fans satisfied.

AMJ12 (or perhaps earlier): Zombiestan, a thriller published by Severed Press, a cool Australian publisher specializing in horror. A brief summary:

The War on Terror just took a terrifying new turn.

It began with stories of undead Taliban rampaging through Afghan villages, and faster than anyone could have anticipated; the darkness spreads through the world.
In a world laid waste by this new terror, four unlikely companions have been thrown together- a seventeen year old boy dealing with the loss of his family, a US Navy SEAL trying to get back home, an aging, lonely writer with nobody to live for, and a young girl trying to keep her three year old brother safe.

When they discover that the smallest amongst them holds the key to removing the scourge that threatens to destroy their world, they begin an epic journey to a rumoured safe zone high in the Himalayas. A journey that will pit them against their own worst fears and the most terrible dangers- both human and undead.

A journey through a wasteland now known as Zombiestan.

In addition to these, there is a non-fiction title which I am about to sign with Random House, which should be released in 2012. Again, it’s early in the process so will share details later.

In case you can’t wait or don’t want to kill any trees by buying the paperbacks when they come our, thanks to the wonders of ebooks, all three titles are already up on the Kindle store (the cool process of e-publishing is huge fun- and the way books are increasingly reaching readers through the web and ebooks deserves another post all of it's own). Just click on the covers below:

So, that’s it- over the next 12-18 months, the perspiration of the last couple of months will see four new books out. Sounds like a lot, but remember the 45 minutes each day add up- that’s the power of perspiration!

Now for a well-deserved (at least I think so) break from writing for a week- when I will polish up my website which is way out of date. Then back to my keyboard- because I do have another flash of inspiration I need to get perspiring on!

Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

So you want to write? 7 tips for the aspiring writer

I got in touch with an old friend on email a few days ago, and it was wonderful catching up after more than ten years. One thing we chatted about a lot was writing. He has just started writing the first draft of his first novel and wanted some tips on how to take it forward. In particular, he had no idea of how to get it published and also how to actually see it through and finish it, given the demands of his day job. Should he take time off? Did I know any publishers who could help him? As if on cue, the same day, I received an email from a reader who has also finished his novel and is now `in the market', asking for advice on how to find a publisher.

I am hardly an expert on the subject, but as they say, have been there and done that, so thought I'd share some thoughts for anyone wanting to dip their toes into the sometimes little understood world of professional writing. Note the emphasis on professional- if writing is a hobby you want to pursue, scribbling poems or stories for your own satisfaction, go ahead- but if you want to actually be published, and pursue it as a professional ie. where someone pays you to do it, it's a whole different ball game. Here are five tips for my friends and anyone else who wants to write for a living. Even if you don't have any intention of writing, I hope it helps to demystify the world of writing.

1. Don't give up your day job…yet.

Sometimes people believe that being a published author must mean you earn millions. If only. The reality is that of course some authors do get huge advances and sell millions, but for the vast majority of writers, writing is something they have to do on top of their day jobs. So, if you're starting out on writing, don't go and piss off your Boss at your day job- you may need to keep that job after all. Also, if you know a writer, cut him/her some slack and buy the drinks once in a while- they aren't as rich as you may think. I said `yet' because, while certainly your first novel won't earn you a huge bundle (unless you are exceptionally lucky and exceptionally good), it all adds up. You keep earning royalties years later, you sell subsidiary rights, you sell movie rights, you sell language rights, you put your ebooks up on Amazon, and yes, you write more books- and soon, you discover that you've entered a virtuous cycle where your earnings go up exponentially every year. You may not be able to leave your day job anytime soon, but there is light at the end of the tunnel- just have realistic expectations as you start off, and hang in there for the long run.

2. Don't pay a cent to get published- that's not how it works

A very common pitfall for the young writer desperate to get their work in print is that they get taken for a ride. By unscrupulous agents who charge `reading' fees, and by publishers who ask the authors to pay for the `privilege' of being published. Sure there will be those wolves out there- but that's not how the real world of publishing works. Have pride in your work, and have pride in wanting to be a professional writer. If all you want is to somehow see your book in print, go ahead, but if you want to create a writing career, stay away from these offers. You hire an agent by paying a % of sales to sell your work- no self-respecting agent will charge you to just take you on- but take a % once you've sold your work. No self-respecting publisher will charge you to publish your work- that's called vanity publishing, your book will likely never be seen in a store (what's their incentive? They've already made their profit) and they will never market it. If you do find that getting a traditional publisher is tough- don't fall for this- self-publish or go digital - just put it up on the Kindle store. The latter costs next to nothing, and the former, even if there are some start up costs, the profit is all yours. Nowadays, with the digital book market exploding, it's fast becoming a great option for new authors to go digital first and then get spotted by traditional publishers- and for many, to create a lucrative career self-publishing digitally. Just go to and see how you could self-publish the old fashioned way or straight to Kindle.

3. You have to create time to write

A common question is how I `find time' to write. Look, I have the same 24 hour day as everyone else, and I have a day job and a family. So, nobody gives me extra time to write. Like any other writer, I have to create that time, and if you want to write professionally, you need to decide where your writing can fit into your schedule. I do thirty minutes of writing every night, and get a lot of writing done in planes and hotels when I'm traveling on work. Other writers will have their own code. But just remember, if you want to write for a living, you need to make conscious trade-offs. In my case, missing airline food may not be much of a trade-off, but given that we all have finite time every day, realize that there will be things you will not be able to do because you are writing.

4. Be persistent

Writing a novel can be a daunting task. Even if you are disciplined enough to write every day for an hour, it will probably take you three months of writing every day to finish a full length novel. Throw in the reality that you probably won't write every single day, the editing, the proof-reading, and from the time you have that brilliant idea, it's probably six to nine months later that you even have something that can be called a manuscript, forget getting it published. That takes a long term commitment to it- and the only way to do it is to get disciplined. When I start any project, I create a spreadsheet, where I track progress I make every day in terms of storyline and words written- doesn't sound exceptionally creative or sexy, does it? But having it down on paper in front of me every day keeps me disciplined. At any point in time, I have a three year pipeline of projects with a CPS on when I start on the next book, when I edit the one I am on etc… changes, but it keeps me grounded. Again, makes it hardly seem like a creative pursuit, but if you want to write professionally, at some level, you need to start thinking of it as a business and drive it with the same discipline. Otherwise, you'll never last.

5. Read

It's a truism that to write well, it helps if you read, since that helps open your mind to new ideas and inspiration. But if you want to write professionally, reading takes on a new dimension. It's a part of understanding the landscape and the competition. So you must read, but if you want to write professionally, read in a deliberate way. As you get started on a project, ask yourself, who are the bestselling authors in the genre? Study their craft, understand what works in the genre, and importantly, what doesn't. The point is to get a better understanding of what ideas have already been used, what unwritten conventions of the genre are, and also to think through what will set you apart. Also, read up on writing. Seriously. If you want to be a professional writer, it's not enough to pretend raw talent will get you by. Imagine you're pretty strong and fit, but would you step in the ring with a professional boxer. No, right? Same thing here. Writing, especially fiction, is in equal parts talent and imagination, and also crafting and technique. Some books I've found useful:

6. Be professional

If you want to be a professional writer, act like one. Just as you know what professionalism is at your workplace, you need to behave like one when it comes to writing. Even if you've not sold your first novel, act like a professional writer. If you act like someone for whom writing is a hobby to indulge in your spare time, you won't last. The reason is that you are dealing with people- agents, publishers- for whom this is their day job. A few thought:
- Get an agent: Especially if you're writing fiction, it can be daunting to wade through how to even get into the consideration set of big publishers. When I started out, I didn't know any better and would send out submissions to publisher after publisher, many of whom probably never even read them. Most big publishers won't even look at unsolicited submissions, simply because they get thousands and prefer to work with established authors on their list or through agents. It makes good business sense for them- established agents help do quality control. Read Writer's Market to see agents for different markets and genres, and if you're interested, I work with an amazing duo called Jay and Priya at Jacaranda.
- Deliver your commitments and understand the production process: When you're asked to submit drafts by a date, beat it; when you have to show up for an interview, make the time. Most of us are not JK Rowling or Stephen King, so being easy to work with and dependable are things that will make publishers want to keep working with you. Also producing a book is like producing any other product- it involves numerous steps (design, proofing, printing, distribution)- take the time to work with your publisher to understand it and where you fit in and what you need to deliver in. A lesson in humility- yes, you write the book, but once it enters production, you're not at the centre of the world any more- dozens of people and suppliers have to work to a tight CPS to ensure the book hits stores on time- understand and respect the timelines v/s playing prima donna (no, you're probably not big enough to claim you have `Writer's Block' so cannot deliver on time), and the publishers will respect you and be more open to working with you in future.
- Have a financial game plan: Man, I am making this sound boring, right? But if you want to write professionally, this is important. Don't hope to make big money early on- for a new writer, the unwritten rule is that the first advance gets invested in publicity, but over time, map out how much you make and when you really start making money. If you have a day job like me, a good rule of thumb may be that what you earn from writing can be reinvested for the first couple of years- to get publicity, to buy books, to travel- but at least for me, ensure that it doesn't bite into what I get from my day job- then, it's all purely incremental. And over time, as you start getting into a virtuous cycle that I mentioned earlier, you'll see more and more profit. Get your own gameplan that works for your circumstances and track it.

7. Pay it forward

The great thing about writing is that you aren't competing with anyone except perhaps yourself. Readers buy dozens of books every year, and every bookstore has dozens of authors in every genre- so it is never a zero sum game. For you to win as a professional writer, nobody has to lose. So, as you progress in your journey and learn more about what works- pass it on- the best thing you can do as a writer is to help another one succeed. I firmly believe what goes around comes around and if you selflessly help others, then opportunities will open up for you where none existed. That's the nature of the world.

Also, even as you succeed, don't forget those who helped you when you were not as successful- I still am thankful to Renu at Vitasta Publishing for giving me a big break with Line of Control and even though now I have books with Random House out and Penguin in the works, she is on my list of publishers for my books in the pipeline. As with most things, being a decent human being is perhaps more important than being successful for it's own sake and don't forget that as your writing career progresses.

Phew, that was a bit- but haven't written on the blog for some time- being busy with a new novel, and with a vacation coming up, won't be writing for a week or more. Hope this demystifies the writer's life a bit- may not be as glamourous as many imagine, but then, I hope it gives some concrete tips and ideas for any of you starting out on writing. If you're thinking of dipping your toes into the world of writing, don't hesitate, dive right in- it may seem like hard work, but like anything else, all you need is your passion and knowing a bit of the rules of the game.

Keep reading and I'll keep writing.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Those who forget history….

One of the genres I love reading is historical fiction, and I have eagerly devoured the works of writers like Conn Iggulden, Bernard Cornwell, Robert Harris and others. Whether it’s the Roman Empire, the exploits of Atilla or Genghis, the World Wars or the Crusades- almost all major historical events and characters in the West have been immortalized and often brought to life for new generations through fiction. That was perhaps why I loved History as a subject in school- if you look beyond it as a collection of dates and events, it helps you get a glimpse of what life and people were like in a totally different age, and good historical fiction helps bring those to life in a way bland statistics and dates can never do.

Given the rich history we have in India, it’s always been a question in my mind as to why we don’t have more books offering fictional accounts of our history or heritage. There are some notable examples like the Great Indian Novel or Empires of the Indus, but by and large many of the most important and interesting aspects of our history are left alone by writers- such as the Mughal Era, the 1857 Revolt, the freedom struggle and so on. Imagine a novel about what actually happened to the Harappan civilization? What would have happened if the British had never conquered India? What if Subhas Chandra Bose had lived? What if the 1857 Revolt had succeeded? All questions that would provide wonderful material for any novelist and would certainly be something I would love to read- but all subjects that, among others, seem to be taboo for Indian writers.

Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that as a people, we have a pretty poor sense of history- and are very quick to consign history or historical figures to the realm of myth or religion. And once you do that, given all the special interest groups in our country, it becomes very difficult to write anything that contradicts or even throws a new fictional light on some of the characters and events we have chosen to deify. So Bernard Cornwell can easily write a novel like The Fort where some of the leading lights of the American Revolution are shown in a less than flattering light, but imagine if an Indian writer were to produce a novel about some of the leaders of our freedom struggle or the 1857 Mutiny. We either seem to get sugar-coated Bollywood fantasy like Mangal Pandey or hagiography, never anything that provokes- and if anyone does try, we have the usual cast of characters calling for book bans and burning.

For the world’s largest democracy, that’s one area where as a reader I find ourselves really lacking in terms of having a true democracy of ideas. And as a writer, I itch to get around to doing something about it. As I write this post, I think perhaps I will. Watch this space….

Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.


Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fact is indeed stranger than fiction

This is an idea for a thriller.

In the late 1960s, a young Army Officer of 28 joins with like-minded young officers to overthrow the King in their Middle Eastern country. He seeks to establish a modern republic in the place of the corrupt and archaic monarchy. The British Secret Intelligence Service organizes a plan to depose this new leader by using a group of mercenaries and ex-SAS soldiers but at the last minute, the US Government asks them to back down, since they feel that this new, young leader is someone they can work with to act as a counterfoil to Soviet ambitions in the Middle East.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and it is but a matter of time before this young leader transforms into a despot. He surrounds himself with cronies, amasses great wealth, and starts harbouring delusions of global influence and power. With no checks and balances to rein him in, he starts supporting terror groups around the world, including a bizarre plan to train Australian Aborigines to wage a war of terror against the Australian government. In general, his behaviour does not win him too many friends and the same US Government which had let him stay in power now finds itself on a collision course with this dictator. There are several skirmishes in the sea off the coast of this country, and after this leader is found guilty of sponsoring deadly terror attacks against US interests, the US, which at the beginning of his career had literally saved him by asking the British to put on hold their plot, launches air strikes against him to kill him. The dictator escapes unhurt, but his adopted infant daughter is killed, sparking an even more intense period of confrontation. His secret services fund and launch several more terror attacks against the West, including the bombing of an airliner that kills hundreds.

With the world changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11 and the War on Terror, the dictator realizes that his days may be numbered and he starts to make peace with the West. He pays $10 Million to each family bereaved in the airliner bombing, and opens up lucrative oil contracts to Western companies. The same British SAS, which at the beginning of his career, was planned to be used to remove him, now comes to his country to train his elite forces. He even gives a speech at the UN General Assembly, and his westernized son is paraded as the new face of his nation, someone the West `can do business with.’

An uprising in his country and his brutal crackdown on civilians suddenly brings him to a collision course with the West again, and the US and NATO decide to support the rebels and start an air campaign against his forces. In a twist of fate, one of the leaders of the rebels fighting under Western air cover is a member of Al Qaeda who has spent time at Guantanamo Bay, and the government special forces fighting him have been trained by the British SAS.

If I were to send this to a publisher as the synopsis of a new novel, they would most likely laugh at me and reject it- calling it too convoluted and with too many implausible plot twists. However, this is not something I’ve conjured up in my imagination- this is the true story of Gaddafi and his love-hate relationship with the West. You won’t get this story from a Tom Clancy or Frederick Forsyth thriller, you just need to turn on CNN. When reality is as screwed up and convoluted as this, I wonder what fiction writers can possibly bring to the table?

Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing,


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lessons in Rejection….Life lessons I learnt from my collection of rejection letters

Being rejected is an intrinsic part of the human experience. Whether it's being denied a treat when we were kids, to being turned down by the object of our affection in school, to not getting into the college we wanted, not getting the job, not getting the promotion, not getting credit…I could go on and on, but you get the picture, don't you? We all know what being rejected feels like, and in ways big and small, we face rejection every day. However, what makes a writer's life unique is that a writer faces rejection hundreds of times more than the average person. Simply because a writer has to deal with that dreaded part of becoming a published author- rejection letters.

It's a myth that bestselling authors are somehow immune to this. Margaret Mitchell got 38 rejections before a publisher bought Gone with the Wind. Stephen King had so many that he put the bundle up on a spike in his room. For the most part, what the new writer gets is a `form' rejection letter, an impersonal, sterile, often two or three- line rejection of all the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into a book. The rare editor sends a personal note, and an even rarer breed actually offers suggestions to improve the work before re-submitting. When you're starting out in your writing career, getting a rejection letter can be a nerve-wracking experience. There's nothing impersonal about it for the writer- it's a simple and often brutal rejection of one's labour of love. It crushes egos and makes one really question oneself. I've had more than my fair share of rejection letters, and now I think I'm old (was about to add `and wise' but then realized that adjective should not be loosely used, especially in my case!) enough to look back and realize that while the frequent rejection may be tough to deal with at the time, those rejection letters have taught me several lessons. Lessons that have made me a better writer, and a better person.

Am sharing those with you. Even if you've never written anything other than a shopping list and never received a rejection letter in your life, I think these lessons hold relevance for a lot of us, no matter what we do with our lives.

1. Balance
The first lesson is something we often forget. No matter how important something seems at the time (and selling the first novel is about as important as it gets to an aspiring author), and no matter how hard rejection in it is, we always need to remember that our lives don't revolve around that one thing. There are other things that could give us joy and support, if only we looked. So when my first novel was not going anywhere, I moped about in near-depression for some time, but then realized all the wonderful things I was lucky enough to have- a very supportive and loving wife, a job I liked, some good friends; and used all of them as a support system while I kept at it. It's the same even if you don't write- a bad meeting or a promotion delayed at work can seem crushing, but don't bring let that disappointment darken other things in your life- your family, your kids, your hobbies. Instead, use them to brighten your mood and give you strength while you deal with that rejection.

2. Empathy
When I got `form' rejection letters, I would curse the Editors of big publishing houses for being heartless creatures, sitting in their ivory towers, passing judgements on writers without even having the decency to tell them why their work was being rejected. That was till I was first published by one of the `Big 6'- Random House. I realized then that their Editors, PR people and others were not faceless ogres but perfectly decent, nice people. People with families. People with jobs to do. That was when I got some insights into why they send out those `form' letters. They deal with huge numbers of submissions every day, and especially in a tough economic environment, with pressures on the bottom line, they, like any other business, prioritize their proven `brands'- their current list of bestsellers, and so betting on new, unknown authors is a big risk. I didn't have to like it, but at least it made sense. I then put myself in a different context where I perhaps do the same. In my job, I interview perhaps 50 or more people every year, with the ability to decide whether we offer them a job or not. Those are all young, eager, smart people, and yet I have to reject several of them. In a way, to them, I am no different from the Editor sending a `form' rejection letter to a new writer. My writing experience has made this an integral part of my values- I always try and put myself in the other person's shoes before I judge anyone.

3. Humility
As a young writer, it's tempting to rail against the rejection and say that the Editor just didn't see the brilliance of the writing or the ingenious plot. The harsh reality is that most early work is rejected because it actually is not competitive enough. I still remember one of my early rejection letters was not a `form' letter, but a very personal letter from the Editor saying she saw potential in the idea but the characters were not fleshed out enough. I took it very personally, and refused to act on it. A couple of years later, when there was enough distance between the experience, I went back to the letter and to my manuscript and saw indeed that what at that time had seemed a perfect submission, now with more writing experience behind me, seemed inadequate, and the Editor had been spot on. I revised the work, and the novel is now in it's third print run. Lesson learnt for me- if only I had taken it to heart a couple of years earlier. When you get rejected, don't assume the other person is missing something, have the humility to introspect and see what you can do better.

4. Persistence
No writer, no matter how famous he/she may be today, would have gotten there unless they had persisted through early rejections. There's a lesson there for all of us, one which I have tried to bring to life in my own way. I've learnt to focus not on the setbacks, but on the ultimate end goal I want to get to, so that I don't get bogged down by disappointment, but keep going towards my goal. I used to keep my rejection letters. A few years ago, I threw them all away. There's nothing to be gained by reliving disappointment. Instead what I do now is that whenever I start work on a new book, I make a draft (and it is usually pretty ugly, given how well I draw) cover with the title and my name on it and stick it next to my bed. When I go to bed, and wake up, the thing I see is what the book will look like when it's published, and not just ideas in my head or on my computer. There may be setbacks along the way, but as long as I keep focused on that end, it does wonders for motivation and the ability to keep going. I've learnt to use the same thinking (of visualizing success) in other aspects of my life- including my day job.

As I said, we all face rejection, perhaps writers face it more often than others, and we all learn our lessons from it. Nowadays, I don't get `form' rejection letters, not because I don't get rejected at times, but because I have a great agent who deals with publishers and then passes on the bad news in a very nice way. But the same lessons keep me going as a writer, and I realize, have helped shape who I am as a person.

As I was thinking of this, my three year old son was calling me to watch his cartoon with him. I started saying `no' and then looking at the disappointment on his face, realized I was giving him a `form' rejection letter. I told him Daddy had some work to finish and I would be with him in five minutes. He smiled back at me. As soon as I press 'Publish' on this post, I'm going to go over and watch Mickey with him, thanking my rejection letters once again for yet another lesson in rejection.

Keep reading, and I'll keep writing.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lust of the Mohicans...and other scribblings on editing

First of all, a disclaimer that I mean no disrespect to James Fenimore Cooper’s classic. The Last of the Mohicans was one my favourite novels when I first read it more than 20 years ago, and even today, that same well worn copy occupies pride of place on my bookshelf. However, as I was drudging through editing my latest book, my mind wandered and I reminded myself to pay attention and thank God for what I have today- spell checks, auto-corrections and Find & Replace. Mr. Cooper had none of those, and a single substituted letter could have given a whole new dimension to his novel. To be honest, it may have made it even more likely for me as a fourteen year old boy to pick it up, but I doubt it would have enjoyed the stature it enjoys today (then again, you never know!).

Back to the point- editing.

When non-writers think of writing, they think it’s a lot of creative joy and then the glory of seeing books in print and on bookshelves. They totally miss a critical, and at least for me, not a very fun part of it- editing. That’s when you re-read every single word a few times over, discover all the places you screwed up, learn that you somehow changed a character’s name mid-way through the creative haze (am being charitable- I just couldn’t make head or tale of my handwritten notes), and realize that when you thought you were on a roll, your grammar was worse than a Grade 1 dropout. Okay, am being harsh, but for someone who loves the creative part of writing, and like any other writer, loves enjoying the end result, the editing process is a bit of drudge. Having worked in the corporate sector for over 15 years, I keep reminding myself that I don’t have to enjoy something to have to do it well. A poorly edited book, no matter how brilliant the idea is a bit like producing a shampoo bottle with a brilliant product inside but a cap that falls off the moment you touch it and the brand name spelt wrongly. If that’s a bizarre analogy, cut me some slack- I worked on Hair Care for 13 years! So it has to be done, and this is how I have learnt over the years to make peace with the editing process:

Make it real

The first thing I do when I finish a draft of a book is to print it out, staple the pages together and slap a cover on it. Usually a horrible hand drawn cover (and believe me, I can’t draw). What that does is that at one stroke it transforms a correction process on a laptop screen to the first time I hold `my book’ in my hand. That works wonders for motivation.

Get a trusted second opinion

I don’t know about other writers, but I love what I write. My reasoning is simple, if I don’t believe in and love what I do, why should even a single reader believe in me enough to pay good money to read my work? But what that means is that I may be blind to all the times I do screw up, and again, like all writers and their first drafts, those exist galore. So what I do when I finish my first draft is that I run it by my wife. She’s not a writer or an editor, but a voracious reader, and someone I can trust totally to be both brutally honest and amazingly supportive all at the same time. So that becomes not just an editing exercise, but a cross between editing and market research. It helps me uncover misses, and also sometimes points me in directions I may not have thought of. Most of all, it makes editing fun- since I am sharing my labour of love with the person I trust most.

Put some distance between us

I do get so immersed in my books sometimes that I dream of plot lines and twists and wake up itching to write it down. The downside of being so immersed in something is that you lose objectivity and find it hard to look at your work dispassionately. So after the first edit, I take a break of a couple of weeks. I read a lot of classics in the genre I’m writing, I start scribbling ideas for my next book, and only then do I get back to a second round of editing with a fresh mind.

I was about to press `Post’ and then I stopped myself and edited what I’d written once before posting it. You know what they say about old habits….

Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.


A post of firsts

Welcome to Scribbles! For the first ever post on this blog, thought it appropriate to start with a post about 'firsts' in my writing. But everyone writes about their first book. first review and all the cool stuff. This is a post about some of the `firsts' that may not be as glamorous but still make me who I am as a writer, and to some extent, a person.

My first 'publication'
Now I don't remember when I first felt that way, but as long as I can remember, one thought had somehow firmly entrenched itself in my mind- I was born to write. So in Grade 7, I solved that term's Maths textbook problems and stapled the solutions with my poems (figuring nobody would pay money for my poems alone!) and then sold them to my classmates at 50 cents a copy. Earned enough to splurge on ice cream and comics for many weeks to come. And most of all, for the first time ever, saw my name on the 'cover' of a 'book'.

The first thing my first publisher told me
"Are you serious?"
This was Mr. Khosla, a wonderful old man who ran Khosla Publishing, a pretty well known academic publisher in Delhi, when I went to his office as a 2nd year college student, telling him I had a book on Economics I wanted to publish. Am I grateful he took me seriously. Probably helped that my Mom had gone along with me!

The first thing I did with my first royalty cheque
Brought a huge box of pastries for Mr. Khosla and his family and then went out and partied with my Mom, gorging on junk food and laughing ourselves silly. Then spent a bit of it on cigarettes (which when I was in college, was a carefully hidden secret from my parents).

What I did with my first rejection letter
Can't even remember which publisher it was from, but I was young, and was trying to sell my first novel. Got what I now recognize as a `form' rejection letter, and was naive enough to write back to them thanking them for the reply and asking if they had any tips on how I could improve my chances. Needless to say, never got a reply.

Keep reading, and I'll keep writing.