Monday, January 26, 2015

An Ode to the Ordinary Muslim

Sometimes I look to you, minority citizen, to understand what it means to have faith in the motherland. 
There was a time when many of you could have left India. Hundreds of thousands did, after all... But you did not go. You stayed.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

On writing, getting published etc

I often get approached by aspiring authors who want to know how to get published, and what my own experience has been like. So I thought I should collect my thoughts into a single post that will serve as a response to all questions that I am able to answer. Treat all advice, however, as general advice. Each writer has a different journey and therefore different points of view on the publishing process.

1. Finish a manuscript. There are no fixed rules about how long/big a book has to be, but you have to know that you will be satisfied with a book of 'this' particular length before you take it to a publisher.

2. Edit the manuscript to the best of your ability. Format it properly, check grammar and spelling.

3. Send a query letter directly to a publisher. You will know of most publishers if you are a reader (and if you are not a reader of books, I don't know what you are doing trying to become an author).

4. Most publishers have websites. You just have to run a google search. Many Indian publishers these days do encourage you to query directly, so send an email. Try and make sure your email has complete sentences and full words instead of sms-ese.

5. Find an agent if you are confident that you will get a good advance. India has very few literary agents but Siyahi and Writers' Side are two examples. For foreign agents, you will have to again send out query letters. I am afraid I don't know anything about finding foreign agents. I don't yet have any agents myself.

6. There is some good advice, from those who are clearly more experienced than me, here :


I recently talked to Cosmopolitan (India) magazine about how I got published. Here's the Q and A, which might be useful to some readers:

1) What made you take to writing? What were some of your motivations, aspirations, goals etc? Anxieties, concerns too?

A - I do not recall ever making a conscious decision to 'take to writing'. I wrote a bit in high school, but mainly essays or my speeches for debating contests. As an undergraduate, I used to participate in all extra-curricular activity - song, dance, drama, fashion show. The college had an extempore (on-the-spot) poetry contest and I participated, and to my surprise, won. I began to take writing a little more seriously then, mainly because of the encouragement I received by my English Literature teachers. Soon I began to co-edit the students' magazine. By the time I finished college, I knew I could write decently, and didn't know if I could do anything else. I had no clear ambition or, indeed, motivation. But I did write quite a lot of letters, diaries, poems. Mainly to express myself, I think. Nor did I have many anxieties in the early years. I had the arrogance and confidence that very young people often do. I think I needed it knocked out of me, and that happened very quickly when I moved to big cities and my reading widening to include contemporary Indian writers who was clearly leagues ahead in terms of both creative expression and basic knowledge of the world, society, culture and so on.

2) Did you start by getting feedback from your inner circle? How did the aspect of support and encouragement from family/ friends play out?

A - I rarely sought feedback in college, though I did show my poems to close friends. It was only a couple of years after college that I began to think about what I could do to get better. I began to read a lot more contemporary work from India as well as translations from everywhere else, that it began to sink in that perhaps I was not ready yet. I began to seek peer review groups and found a couple of places online. 

Friends and family are reasonably supportive, though I do not show my work to them while it's in process. Unless these friends happen to be writers themselves. We've had well-known writers in our family before (my maternal grandfather), and in any case cultural growth has always been encouraged in my family.

3) Were there steps involved? A progression? author conventions & seminars...networking...print? Would you recommend that to aspiring writers?

A - Yes. Like I said, I wrote a lot of letters and essays initially. I began working for newspapers and magazines and wrote almost daily from the year 2000 onwards. At home, I would try to work on fictional stories though none of them came to fruition. In addition, I blogged a lot, from 2005 on, and was offered my first book deal on the strength of those posts.

I don't think seminars or writer conventions helped in the publishing process. I am not good at networking and when I attend, I do so in a quiet way. However, it is always good to hear other writers speak of their ideas, and be introduced to new kinds of writing through such seminars. Writers come in all kinds of personalities, so what they take from a gathering of writers depends on what they came looking for.

4) What's the best way to pitch/ put together a proposal and make oneself stand out in the clutter?

A - I wish I knew. I've rarely attempted book proposals, and when I have, I have not been successful. I prefer to just write the whole book and then try to get an editor interested in the manuscript.

5) Could you please dwell on the writing process itself? Timeline, schedule, any experimentation involved? Learnings from the process? What was particularly fulfilling/ frustrating? What to guard against?

A - I like to experiment with genre. I want to try and write in as many kinds of ways as I can, so I give most genres at least one shot. I also get rejected a lot, and some of my work is a failure even in my own estimation. My main learning is that you've got to keep at it. 

I don't have a fixed schedule, but I try and write regularly, and I read regularly too.  

What's most fulfilling is when I've finished something - a poem or a story - and it is just where it needs to be. For now, this is the best it can be. The feeling that I've said what I wanted to say in the genre I chose. Most frustrating is not being able to do this - to start something and then not finish it as I'd hoped.

6) How would you summarise the publishing and writing industry in India currently? Is it a good time for first time writers and is there a general openness towards new voices? In your opinion, what are the challenges first time writers are likely to/ can potentially face in this setting?

A - There is a fair degree of openness. But this is not a good time for everyone in a commercial sense. Writers whose voices are very experimental, or who do not translate easily for foreign markets must be content with very small print runs and very few readers. The Indian English market is very crowded, and there is not just a lot of intellectual laziness and creative stasis, there are also a lot of below-average writing available at a very low cost. It is easy to be lost in the crowd.

7) Do you think it's tenable to be a full time writer in the Indian context? How do you manage it? Tips on how to follow one's calling and also keep the roof up?

A - Not easy if you're a fiction writer. Impossible if you're a full time poet or playwright. I have thus far made a living from journalism and related media formats. But I continue to struggle, so I really should not offer anyone any advice.

8 - What was the response to your first book like and what's in the pipeline?

A - There were decent reviews when 'Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales' first came out. I'm not sure how much it's sold but it did go into a second edition, which was good news. I'm trying to work on a novella and also editing an anthology for next year.

9) Any general pointers/ insight that you'd like to share that's not been covered in the questions above.

A - General advice - read. Read constantly. Those who live in the world of words must be familiar with the landscape. Reading is what you want others to do, when you write. You better know the worth of what you're offering before you expect anything from readers. 


If you're looking for more details from my own personal experience, here is another interview:

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Thela aur thithak: kuch yaadein

I have been searching online for the English translation of "thithak" – "baulk" comes closest but it does not quite capture the mix of emotions – hesitation, surprise, confusion, discomfort – represented by the Hindi word "thithakna".
Thithakna is what happens to regulars at a roadside chai stall whenever I stop by for a cup of tea like the men do – alone, sipping slowly, looking at the passing traffic, street signs, posters pasted on walls.
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