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.