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School Ties

                                                                                        

It was very unusual for Jai to get so angry. His fists clenched, breath coming in sharp and jaws drawn tight, Suhashini had never seen him so angry. He wasn’t the type who screamed or even raised his voice at his wife. But today he was fuming. All because of a Facebook profile, which she created without his knowledge. He found out and hell broke loose.

“You know how much I dislike social networking sites. I’m uncomfortable leaving behind digital footprints.”

Suhashini, his friends and colleagues teased him about being conservative. His buddy and his tennis mate coaxed him but nothing or no one could convince Jai otherwise. “I don’t want to be the quintessential fish in the glass bowl” was his reply when asked why he wasn’t on Facebook.

She hadn’t anticipated such an angry response. In ten years of marriage, he had never spoken to her the way he did that day.

“What’s the big deal?” Suhashini asked feeling more flummoxed than upset with his outburst. “Why are you so mad at such a trivial thing?” He didn’t speak to her for 3 days, till she deleted his profile.

Jai felt miserable after shouting at her. He wasn’t like that at all. But how could he tell her why he stayed away from such sites? Everyone visited these sites to reconnect with old friends. People from their past and relive the bygone days.

“The past is what I don’t want to remember,” Jai said to himself. He had worked so hard to erase that past and make a life for himself.

From a penniless orphan who depended on aid to study; he had become a successful investment banker. Lived in a plush condo in an elite NY neighbourhood. Married an artist and had adorable twin boys. His friends and colleagues loved him. Jai was friendly, helpful and generally great to be around with.

‘You’re the perfect man,’ his friends often said. He smiled. Suhashini swelled with pride every time someone said that. But sometimes she couldn’t help notice a shadow of a faraway look on his face. Only momentarily. She asked him about it but he laughed it away changing the topic.

Couple of days after the debacle of Facebook profile and its subsequent removal, Jai had to leave for London. It was just like any other day. The day your life changes its course is just like any other day. No premonition. No ringing bells to warn you of what lies ahead. Just an ordinary day with an extraordinary sequence of events!

Jai was packing for his flight. He was going to London for a an important meeting.

“This is a make or break deal for me and for the company,” he said as he neatly folded his shirts.

“I need to swing it my way.”

Suhashini sat on the corner sofa in their bedroom watching him. Being an orphan and having lived his life in boarding school and hostel, Jai was fiercely independent. He liked doing his own things and didn’t like any interference. She knew better than to get in his way.

He got to the airport on time. Jai wasn’t a man who liked being late or rushing in after the last call.

Finding a corner sofa in the lounge, he began working on his lap top, engrossed. He didn’t see the man in the crumpled suit approach him. In fact he didn’t even respond at first when asked, ‘Is the chair taken?’ When the question was repeated, with irritation writ large on his face, Jai looked up. And froze.

So did the man in the crumpled suit.

‘I’ll be damned,’ the man said and sat down with a thud.

Jai couldn’t breathe. Walls began to close around him. ‘So…how are you buddy…ghost from the past or have you forgotten your room mate, Ashok?’

Jai looked at his friend, ‘ASS’. Ashok Sen Sharma. The boy, whose mother had insisted that her maiden surname be part of his name and thus leaving the hapless Ashok with the initials and the nickname.

Ass looked nothing like he did in school. But then two decades is a long time. The lean, scrawny lad now had a generous pot belly. His face puffy and red. Time changes all but traces of the older persona remain. Ass smiled and Jai winced remembering his old friend’s smile. Very few people have smiling eyes. Ass was one of them. Warm, from the heart; his smile always lit up his face. That hadn’t changed. And his sartorial sense or rather the lack of it. His clothes were carelessly thrown over his body. Ass never cared for appearance.

Jai wanted to disappear, vanish. Just get up and leave. But sat frozen. Ass began chatting merrily, as if nothing had happened.  Visibly excited on meeting his long-lost school friend.

“So what do you do, man? I have tried so hard to find you. We all have but you just disappeared. No one knew where you were.”

Jai couldn’t hear him. He was far away. At school. The expensive, elite Oakdale boarding school.  He secured a grand scholarship after gruelling tests and interviews. How else could a destitute orphan pay such fees? Father D’Souza, on whose doorstep he was left wrapped in an expensive Turkish towel, loved him like a son and always said: “Jai, you are made for great things. Your intelligence is God’s gift to you. Use it well. Make a life for yourself.”

Ten beautiful years of his life were spent in that school. A friendly and intelligent boy, Jai was popular with students and teachers alike. Witty and always smiling; it was difficult not to like him. While he had many friends, his best friends were Vinod, Ashok and of course Sunny. With whom he chatted, studied, played and  lived for ten years. They were his life, especially Sunny. He was closest to Sunny; loved him more than anything in life.

And he betrayed his best friend.

It was the last year of school. Before the State board exams, the school held a mock-board exam to test the students’ preparation and also weed out those who weren’t well prepared. No good school wanted any student to fail in the board exams.

Jai knew that he needed to top in the whole State to get the prestigious scholarship, which would fund his studies in the premier college. He had left no stone unturned to ensure success.

Sunny and Vinod flunked in Math throughout the year. Suresh Sir, who taught Maths, was livid.

“You are the worst students of this batch,” he had thundered.

“If you don’t pass the mock tests, neither of you will be allowed to sit for the board exam.”

The Headmaster agreed. He summoned the boys and said, “I know your fathers. They are big donors to the school trust. But if you don’t secure pass marks in Math and Science, I’ll disallow both of you from taking the class XII board exams. I will not have a student of my school fail a public exam and bring shame to my school. Your fathers’ money will not change my decision.”

Jai tried to help his friends but Sunny kept saying, “You worry too much. Headmaster wouldn’t do a thing. My dad always gets his way. And don’t worry I will pass the tests.”

Jai wondered what Sunny had in mind. But he was too busy with his own preparation to notice.

He would never forget that fateful day. It was dark and cloudy since morning; threatening to rain. Next day the mock tests would commence. An air of gloom hung over the senior’s hostel. It was late evening.

Ashok came dashing in the room, panting. “Jai! You have to stop Sunny and Vinod. They’ve gone to Suresh Sir’s room to steal the Math and science question paper.”

Ashok could barely speak. Jai stood up with a jerk. The chair fell behind him. “What! What are you saying Ass? What…what are Sunny and Vinod doing?” Ass nodded his head and collapsed on the bed. ‘Only you can stop Sunny. Please stop him before he…” Jai ran out. Dashing and jumping down the stairs. He had to reach Suresh Sir’s room before Sunny got in.

But he wasn’t fast enough. As he neared the room, he saw Sunny and Vinod coming out of the room. “What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?” hissed Jai.

Sunny’s face froze on seeing his best friend. “What the hell are you doing here? Why are you here? Get out of my way!” growled Sunny.

Vinod added, “Jai, this doesn’t concern you. Go back.”

“No! I’m not going anywhere till you put that paper back,” Jai said.

Sunny and he were now pulling and pushing each other. Vinod also joined in.

‘Guys! If you don’t stop we’ll all get caught and expelled. Please let’s just stop and go back quietly,” Vinod whined.

But Sunny and Jai were jostling. Pulling and pushing; Jai got hold of the exam paper and a big chunk tore away in his hands. Sunny grabbed Jai’s T-shirt and pushed him hard.

“Get out of my way. I’m not letting that Suresh flunk me,” he said. Jai fell down on the floor. Sunny and Vinod darted out of the room.

But they had created enough noise to alert the warden, who came rushing into the room. Jai was caught with a piece of the exam paper in his hands in Suresh Sir’s room. The headmaster and Suresh sir were summoned.

“I can’t believe you would do something like this, son. You are a brilliant student,” headmaster said.

Suresh sir sat on a chair nearby holding his head.

“You are the best student I ever had, Jai.”

The warden said, “Sir, I am certain I saw two boys running out of the room when I came in.”

The headmaster put his hand on Jai’s shoulder and said, “I know you didn’t do this. I also know that you know who they are. Tell us their names and you can go.”

Jai felt dizzy. How could he name his best friends? How could he betray them?

“It isn’t fair”, he thought to himself. “I haven’t even done anything. I wanted to stop them from committing a crime and now I have to make a huge decision. All alone. Nobody to help.”

“Sit down, son,” the headmaster said. “Let me show you something,” he continued. He read out the glowing recommendation he had written for Jai. The recommendation, along with the excellent marks, that Jai was sure to get in the exam, would earn him a scholarship to go to the college of his choice.

“I know life hasn’t been easy for you. Neither has it been fair. You’ve had to work hard. What I have in my hand can make your future. You can make a brilliant life for yourself. A life that you richly deserve.” The headmaster paused, looking at Jai, who had tears in his eyes.

He could see the future, he had so often dreamt of. Only this time it seemed to be fading away.

“Son, the boys who stole the exam paper aren’t worthy of being protected. They don’t deserve to be in this great institute. They have committed a grave crime and should be punished. Remember if you stand by silently, you become party to their crime and hence deserve to be punished too.”

“I know who know who stole the paper. And believe me, this incident wouldn’t even be a minor bump in their lives. Their rich fathers would bail them out. But for you…I don’t need to say how important the scholarship is.”

         ‘This is the last and final call for the passengers on flight…’ Jai jerked out of his thoughts.

         “You going to London too?”, Ass was asking. They boarded the flight together. Ass hadn’t mentioned Sunny or Vinod even once. Jai couldn’t ask. Ass said, “We are meeting for dinner tomorrow evening. Why don’t you come?”

         “We?”

         “Three of us – Vinod, Sunny and myself. We are all in London. The inseparable four would be together. I’d love to see their faces when you walk in.”

         Jai mumbled some excuse about being tied up, important meetings lined up that he couldn’t reschedule. Ass pushed a slip of paper with the name of the restaurant scribbled on it and said, “Try to come, buddy. It would be great.” As he got into his cab at Heathrow, Jai realized that he hadn’t even taken Ass’s mobile number.

         “What kind of a friend am I? I meet my school buddy after two decades and don’t even take his number.”

         He had asked himself the question a million times in the last twenty years. ‘What kind of a friend was he?’ And every time he got the same answer.

         ‘A terrible kind. The kind who betrays his best friend for a scholarship. A scholarship that made his life.’  

         He had to fight hard to focus on work. The meetings went smoothly. The deal was clinched. His boss was ecstatic. “There’s a fabulous party waiting for you when you get back,” was what he jubilantly yelled.

All through, a quiet voice in his mind was murmuring to him. “How long will you keep running? Isn’t two decades long enough?”

“But what will I say to them? How can I explain what the scholarship meant to me? Will Sunny understand? What if they ridicule me?”

He was in turmoil. Questions and more questions to which he had no answer. A part of him desperately wanted to go and meet his old buddies. But then … Once he decided he wouldn’t go. Then after a while, that feeble voice in mind said, “Go Jai. Go. Face your friends. Tell them what you feel and be rid of the guilt that’s plagued you for two decades. Go.” The feeble voice was getting stronger and louder.

He was a nervous wreck as he told the cab driver the address of the restaurant. He was shifting in the seat. Anxiously looking out of the window. He got off near the restaurant. He wanted to walk in the cool evening air to clear his head and calm his heart.

“How would the evening turn out? Am I making a mistake? May be I should return.”

“Don’t. Don’t run away Jai. Today if you run away, you’ll never be able to face your past,” the voice in him screamed.

Taking a deep breath, he entered the restaurant. Friday night in downtown London is party time. Every table was full. Excited happy voices drowning everything else. Everyone was happy. Everyone was there with their friends.

Jai was looking around nervously. He couldn’t see his friends.

“Jai?” a voice called.

He turned towards it. A tall bespectacled man in a fine suit was looking at him.

“Umm…I..,” Jai couldn’t find the words. His voice was lost.

The man hurriedly walked towards Jai. Held his shoulders. Looked at him long and hard.

“What the fuck man! Where have you been all these years.!”

Sunny threw his arms around Jai and hugged him tight.

How I dealt with writer’s block

If you’re a writer, you’ll agree with me when I say, that writer’s block is the thing that must not be named! The dreaded thing that sends a cold shiver down our spine.

I used to consider myself as a wordsmith; having spent more than 18 years writing for publications and companies, ideating, pitching stories all the time, I’ve never been stuck with words. I used to say, when you write for money, you can’t afford such luxuries. Though I never openly said it, I’m too polite to do that but in my mind I scoffed at those who said they have a writer’s block. I believed it to be an excuse for not wanting to write. A lazy mind’s excuse.

I made the transition from freelance writing to fiction easily. First book done in 2016, second one in 2019, a bank of good stories ideas to write on. I was sorted and sure to go cruising all the way. But then Life has few knocks stored up it’s sleeve just when you least expect it.

2020. COVID happened. When the lockdown started on March 24, I was clocking in 5 hours of writing time and feeling on top of the world. My book 3 was looking good, I had chapter outlines drawn out for 30 chapters, the end was clearly defined; as it always happens with my writing. I was good. Nothing could go wrong. I told my editor, I would have the MS ready when the lockdown ended. In my mind I thought I’ll have 2 books ready. What could go wrong huh?

Well, as I would soon discover… a lot!

After about a month of lockdown, I just didn’t feel like writing the story that had been gurgling inside my head. I told myself, never mind, write the next story – book 4. That’s a fun wild thriller too. So I jumped into that. Somewhere, far inside my head, a niggling thought was raising it’s ugly head.

This isn’t me. I’m very disciplined and organized. I don’t behave like. doing one thing today and something else the next day.

For a person who always walks the straight and narrow path, who likes order and precision, chaos is…chaotic and unsettling. But I went along and then one fine day I didn’t want to write book 4 either. I didn’t want to write book 3 also. Both the stories seemed pointless to me. And my mind shut down. It’s like someone flicked the light switch off and I just couldn’t find the damn switch to turn on the light. I panicked. I’m the kind of person who always paints the worst case scenario first so my thoughts were – may be I’m done as a writer. May be I have only 2 books in me. That’s all. I spoke to some of my author friends and lucky for me, they are extremely patient with me. Always.

Maniature garden that I made

They assuaged my fears. Told me, this was happening to loads of authors around the world. I was told to shift my focus to something else. So turned to my other love – gardening. I began watching gardening videos on Youtube, taught myself how to propagate plants by plant cuttings, how to make rooting hormone at home. Then I sought refuge in baking – something I’d never ever tried my hand at. I baked bread, garlic bread with cheese, cookies, croissants, pin-wheel puffs, more cakes than I can remember.

I was trying to calm myself but the truth is…

I was going crazy. Writing is like breathing to me. As far as I can remember I have wanted to write. I have never ever wanted to do anything else in my life. NEVER. And writing is what I have done. How can this happen to me? How can I get stuck? Not even in my wildest dreams did I think of such a possibility.

But it happened. I. just. couldn’t. write. I was blocked and nothing I did could get me out of it.

The reason I’m writing this post is to share not my angst but to tell you, yes! it’s true. Writer’s block is very true and it’s not an urban legend. I used to believe it is. I didn’t believe it could happen but it did. But there’s light at the end of dark tunnel.

While I kept myself busy with other things, I didn’t stop writing, or trying to write. I scribbled furiously in my thoughts journal, I wrote blog posts, I dug out old stories and reworked parts of them. I didn’t completely switch myself off from the write mode. And finally my mind walked out of the funk. I’m hardly the one to give advice but if you are going through what I did, please know that you aren’t alone. I don’t feel nice saying this but misery likes company and it’s ok. Seek solace in numbers, in the fact that you aren’t alone. Reach out to friends. Connect with me if you want to. There are few writing exercises I did that helped, may be they’ll help you too. Writing prompts are good thing to work on when you’re head isn’t in the write space. It’s important to get the stress of the current WiP out of your mindspace but not to stay away from writing completely; hence the writing exercises and the prompts.

I read loads of writing help books, listened to podcasts and audio books. I also enrolled for a writing course with Curtis Brown – a reputed literary agency in the UK that conducts world class writing course. It’s a good idea to use the time to learn, do courses and basically equip yourself with knowledge.

Some of the books that i read and found useful:

Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson

The Last Draft by Sandra Scofield

Save the Cat writes a Novel!

The Emotional Craft of Fiction – Donald Maas

What I talk about when I talk abour running – Murakami. Though this is a book about his running expriences but there are so many writing references and metaphors; this is one of my favourites.

(There are many books that you can pick up. Above mentioned are the few I picked, read and found useful.)

When that which must not be named, strikes; you just need to ride the phase out. Yes, it’s easier said than done and I know it too well. One thing’s for sure, I don’t take my writing for granted anymore. Every day when I sit down to write I say a little prayer and thank the Muse for showing up.

I finished writing Book 3 finally in April 2021 and submitted it to my publisher. Currently working on Book 4, also a thriller.

On the Book shelf with Neil D’Silva

Neil is an author who writes horror stories. An inspiration to aspiring authors, Neil has made the transition from self publishing to now being published by reputed publishers. What many indie authors dream of achieving, Neil has succeeded in doing that. Kudos to him.

He started a YouTube channel – On the Bookshelf and interviewed me for it. Ain’t I lucky to have enterprising friends who think of interesting initiatives and then include me!

It was great talking to him. Do click on the link above to listen to our conversation. I’ve spoken in details about my writing journey and do leave your comments if you feel like.

Thanks in advance.

Interview with Lipika Bhushan

As an author, it’s great to be able to meet other authors, lit agents, book marketeers. During the Pandemic, many people turned to digital platforms as means of interacting with authors.

Lipika Bhushan, an ace book marketeer with years of experience with many reputed publishing houses, started her Youtube channel – Between the lines.

She interviewed me for her channel. If writing is my first love, then talking about writing comes a close second.

Do click on the link above and watch the interview. I’ve spoken in details about my childhood, the loneliness of an only child and how books were my constant companion. I’ve also spoken about how I got my publishing break with Harper Collins in 2015.

There’s a fun rapid fire question round. Lipika fired away some quirky questions and I shot back crazy answers. Unlike most people, I enjoy these rapid fire sessions.

Hope you watch the session and please do leave your thoughts in the comments box.

Making miniature gardens

There’s indeed a time for everything in life. I’ve always enjoyed gardening and plants. I had attended a workshop on miniature garden 2-3 years ago. My interest fizzled out soon after the day long workshop.

In the past few months, due to COVID, like everyone else I’m at home and when home is all you have and nowhere to go, no one to meet; the mind looks for alternatives. And just like that I decided to revisit my earlier interest of making a miniature garden. Actually it started with a friend’s 50th birthday during lockdown. I was thinking of a gift…what to give her. Options were limited as deliveries weren’t happening. So I decided to make a miniature garden for her.

The picture on the left is what I prepared. I wanted to gift her something special that would stay with her. I propagated plant cuttings from the ones I have at home. Thankfully I had the ceramic huts and some stones from an earlier jaunt with miniature gardening. So I put it together to make this miniature garden. Nothing exotic but my friend loved it!!

Made this miniature garden with Aralia & pink Syngonium. Collected stones from my cycling rides around Gurgaon. The kissing boy & girl on the bench are from Amazon.

Table for you. Bought these accessories from Amazon. Stones and chips from another online nursery. The plant is a variegated spider.

And now I’m hooked to miniature gardens. I’m not at all the artistic kind and absolutely have no sense of colour or design. So for now, I’m selecting designs from Pinterest and other online sources to create miniature gardens. These make very cute gifts, don’t you agree?

HOW TO THINK OF STORY IDEAS?

If how do you write is the oft asked question authors face; then a close second is how do you think of story ideas?

Most authors will tell you that the first book literally gushes out of you. (At least that’s what happened with me). You don’t really have to spend much time thinking about what to write. Everything you’ve felt, experienced or believe in comes out in the first one. It doesn’t have to be your biography or memoir; you and your life so far will imprint itself on your debut book in a big way. When my first book A Forgotten Affair was published, my friends scrambled to get a copy to see if they featured in it. Some identified instances of exchanges with them in the story, some found themselves carefully tucked in characters and some knew it was them, outright. Those who found no traces of themselves were offended. “I don’t mean anything to you because I’m not in your first book.” Well, i wasn’t chronicling my life or telling my story but willy-nilly people I love & dislike did get into the book.

But coming back to the topic of the post, how to think of story ideas…if you want to keep writing books, you have to turn on the story receptor in your head. You have to spot ideas and marinade them well enough so that they turn out into a juicy steak. Not rare or medium but well done. (Pardon my food metaphor!)

If you want to write and are struggling with what to write about, here are certain things you can do to get into the ‘write frame of mind.’

READ THE NEWS & WATCH TV

Yes, I know there’s utter garbage in the News and most of which is so off-putting and disgusting. But buried beneath all that garbage is a seed of idea that could become a great book. To explain further, I hate reality TV. I can’t stand the nonsensical drama that unfolds only to spike TRP and fill the coffers of the producers and TV channels. I don’t watch any but I read about them in news snippets and articles. It’s from these snippets that I got the idea of setting Nobody’s child in the backdrop of a reality TV music contest. The story of a young girl from the back of beyond, running away from a difficult past, trying to make a new life for herself in the music world. Her path crosses with vile manipulative people who have an agenda of their own and don’t stop at anything to win. That’s the gist of Nobody’s Child.

Small insignificant news items can often become the base of your story. So look out for those. You can set Google alerts for topics that interest you and news will be delivered in your inbox.

CATASTROPHIC EVENTS

A plane goes missing. A bomb blast in a hotel. Devastating monsoon. Locust attack. COVID19. Tucked in each of them are multiple possible stories that you can cull out and write. Let’s take the most recent catastrophe that has the entire world in its grip – COVID19. I’ll suggest few story ideas below:

A thriller – a building in the outskirts of a city. City goes into lockdown. No one can come in or go out. The cops put out an alert. A dreaded killer has escaped and is hiding somewhere in the area. Is he in the building? Is he going to kill people? What happens…

Romance – a woman goes away to a sea side or mountain retreat to recoup. Lockdown happens and the people in the retreat are locked in. she comes face to face with her ex-lover. They both were together in college. It was a very serious relationship but didn’t work out. Both went their separate paths. She underwent abortion during that relationship, which the guy didn’t know. Now they are locked in together. What happens?

Now let’s think of an earthquake and try to make a story.

A woman, an artist works with an NGO that sends volunteers to a prison to help teach the inmates art. The day she is sent to the prison, an earthquake happens and she is locked inside the prison with the inmates. What happens? Among the inmates she finds an aged woman. Who is that woman? Is there any relation between them?

Read about international events of importance and flex your writing muscles to make a story out of it.

OBSERVE PEOPLE

Getting bored at a party. Arrived too early for the flight or for a meeting. (Of course this is tough given the current circumstances but when life goes back to normal) Just sit back and watch the best show on earth. Life and people around you. How are they talking to each other? What are they doing with their hands, hair? Their body language as they speak with others? Everything will tell you something.

UNSOLVED CRIME CASES OF THE PAST

I’m a huge fan of unsolved cases, true crime or even solved cases that can serve as an inspiration for a new story. I search the Internet about such cases, read them and try to make a story. My book 3 is inspired by an event that happened in the US in the early 1970s.

The main story of Nobody’s Child is from a letter I read in an agony aunt column in a magazine years ago. It stayed with me and I knew some day I would write a story on it. The character of Kamini Pratap Singh is inspired by the case of a rich and influential socialite and businesswoman who allegedly killed her own daughter and is now in prison.

There are stories galore around you. All you need to do is to notice them and get inspired. It’s not easy but then if it were then everyone would become a writer. You just need to train your mind to do it and before you know you’ll be writing away!

If you haven’t read my books, here’s the link for them.

Nobody’s Child & A Forgotten Affair

You want to write but don’t know how to begin…

Visiting book shops with Nobody’s Child

I must begin with an apology. With only 2 published books to my name, I’m no authority to guide aspiring writers but given the limited experience I have, I want to share some of my learnings. Hence, this post.

In another life, I used to be a freelance writer , writing for publications & companies. I’ve done that for nearly two decades. However, it was only in 2014 that I began writing my 1st book. Writing a novel is a different ball game.

Below are few things I have tried on myself. I hope it helps you in your writing journey too.

STOP TALKING ABOUT IT

If talking about writing could get the job done then there would be no problem. So if you’re serious about writing, stop talking and start doing. It’s time to walk the talk. Some know what they want to write but lack the discipline and courage to take the plunge. If you fall in that category, help’s coming few paras down. If you have a vague idea, a ghost of a story that lingers in the far recesses of your mind, get down to it right away. List down ideas or themes as they come to you. Read books in that genre. This could trigger a well formed plot. You need to and have to spend time thinking long and hard about this. Set aside a time every day, when you can be undisturbed. Lock yourself in the room and scribble or type in random thoughts. Think hard what you want to do with the themes. Believe me, inspiration strikes in a flash but you have to prepare the ground for it.

STOP DOING FEW THINGS

You have to make a few, actually a lot of changes to be a writer. You have to forgo social gatherings, fun lunches, impromptu shopping jaunts and etc. Don’t get me wrong I’m not asking you to live the life of a hermit or a social recluse. But if you don’t put aside time every day for this, you’ll never get started. Writing like any other craft needs devotion and time. I made a lot of changes in my life to be able to write my first book. As Ann Patchett writes in her marvelous book This is the story of a happy marriage says; “Show up, show up, show up. The muse will too”. What does this mean? You need to sit with your writing pad or laptop whatever is your chosen writing mode. You need to do this every day. The Muse will come to you. The Muse isn’t your wife or mother who will cater to your whims and fancies. She is your lover and you have to woo her, court her, pamper her. She is temperamental. So show up for her. Every day. And she will come to you. She always does.

SET A ROUTINE

Jot down your thoughts

Many may disagree with me but it helps to set a routine, at least in the beginning. I find it best to write early in the morning, before the crack of dawn, before my family of husband, son and two dogs wake up. So pick your time of day when you think you can get an hour to begin with, undisturbed. Sit down with your thoughts and writing pad every day at that time. Our mind and body follows a routine. Compel your mind to think and write at a particular time to start with. Once you are in the rhythm you will need to increase the time. This will be a struggle to begin with but if you do so for a few weeks, it will get easier.

USE WRITING PROMPTS

If you’re having trouble starting and don’t know what to write but desperately want to; then start with writing prompts. There are websites galore that offer these prompts. If you sign up with them, a new one will be delivered to your inbox every day to flex your writing muscles.

If embarking on this solo journey is daunting, you can get yourself a writing mentor. While this may not yet be prevalent in India yet but there are few established authors who are willing to help aspiring writers. They coach you, hand-hold you through the stumbling blocks and most importantly keep tabs on your writing progress.

JOIN A WRITERS’ GROUP

Writing is a solitary act, done in solitude but it doesn’t have to be in isolation. You write alone but being part of a group will give you company, solace and help when you need it. And believe me, you’ll lots of it. You can exchange ideas, reach out for help, critique each other’s work.  Sometimes it will help just to share your frustration and rant. It helps to know that you aren’t alone. Others face similar problems. For new writers who are just starting the journey, this is a good thing to be part of. It will motivate you to keep writing.

ATTEND BOOK EVENTS & LIT FESTS

At Times Bangalore Lit fest, 2019

Why am I suggesting this? If you want to get somewhere, be in the company of people who are already there. At book events and lit fests, you will hear authors talk about their book, their writing journey; not only will you learn a lot from their talks but watching them with their book will give you the added boost to push yourself. You’ll imagine yourself with a book in hand talking to the audience. It will fill you with i-must-do-this feeling. I used to do this a lot before my first book A Forgotten Affair was published.

 EXERCISE

Yes, you read that right. Exercise. Engage in some form of physical exercise that makes you sweat. Sweating not only cleans your pores, it also helps clearing the blocks in your mind. You may not realise this initially but if you do this regularly, you’ll thank me. When you sit with the story every day, think about it all the time, allowing it to churn in your mind…when you exercise, you get clarity. It will help you tide over the blocks. So don’t forget to exercise.

Writing isn’t easy

The rate at which books get published, it would be easy to believe that writing is easy. It’s not. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the story will just gush out of your head. You’ll have to work very hard. The story will sometimes gush, sometimes trickle and then there will be days when not a word will come out. I told ya, the Muse is temperamental. And it’s very easy to give up when the going gets tough. When the words refuse to flow. When you feel flummoxed where the story is going. It’s not an easy phase to be in. It’s frustrating, emotionally crushing and you’ll ask yourself: do I have it in me? It’s natural to self-doubt. But don’t give up. When you get stuck, remember it’s the Muse testing your commitment. She is watching if you’ll give up or stick to course. This is also a time when your exercise regime will help.

DON’T HURRY

Writing isn’t a sprint run. It’s a marathon. So take it slow and steady. You don’t have to finish the manuscript in a month or two. No harm if you do but don’t rush it. Spend time with the story. It will evolve and  grow beautifully. Stephen King says, “You should have the first draft done in 3 months.” While King is God, I don’t agree on this one. I took 7 months to do the first draft. Take your time but set a deadline and stick to it.

From a person who has written all her life and published her second book in August 2019, I can tell you, this is the most amazing journey you’ll ever take. You’ll rise and fall. You’ll stumble, rave and rant. You’ll want to give up. But then when you finish it…the feeling is something else. The sense of achievement in knowing that you didn’t give in. You didn’t stop. That you did it!! It will change you in ways you can’t even imagine.

So, write-away and write-on!!

Do leave your comments if you feel like. Share your experiences if you want to.

Time to run…time to slow down

​I met her a long time ago. Let’s call her W. In her 50s inching towards her 60th birthday she had a head full of silver streaks in her poker straight hair. A warm smile with lots of laugh lines around her eyes; a reminder of a life well lived; full of laughs and sunshine. The lines couldn’t be erased by any anti-ageing cream. And W didn’t seem to care. She was over the phase of caring and bothering. A qualified professional who had worked for many years and now spent time watering her plants and making cushions out jeans she no longer fit into and didn’t bother herself over it.

I was a year short of my 30th birthday when I met W. Eager, anxious, impatient; with a list full of things to do, the world to see and explore. I was yet to see London, Paris, Louvre. I’d just sipped my first glass of wine. It was heady, tizzy and exuberant. But more than the wine, it was life ahead of me that excited me. Life is indeed the most potent of aphrodisiac.

So W and her quiet days seemed like such a waste of time to me. How could a qualified professional just be content with plants and sewing? How purposeless I said to myself! As i rushed from my editing job at Unilever to Rohan and home.

There’s indeed no better teacher than life itself. It moved, gushed and sped and I ran with it. I turned 40. Rohan finished school and went to college. I wrote my first book. Finally. Then I wrote another one; the second one better than the first. Rohan started working. Sandeep stopped working. My days slowed down. The hours stretched and the 24 hours which earlier seemed too little now seemed long. I filled 3 balcony with plants. Taught myself to propogate baby plants, sowed seeds. watched the saplings grow. Played with Casper. Struggled with my weight. Played tennis. Stopped it. Started cycling.

I have become W. My jobs are done. The items on the list ticked off. I’ve seen London many times over. Traveled to beautiful countries that I’d read and dreamt of. Sipped many glasses of wine. Now I prefer whiskey.

I stopped chemically straightening my hair and learnt to manage, accept and live with my witch crazy hair.

There’s a time to run and a time to slow down. It’s not something you plan and do. It happens. Life slows down and you have to with it.

The angry impatient young waterfall that gushes down the mountain slope, skimming over rocks and boulders…finally comes to a languid gentle flow.

I think I’ll bake a loaf of bread today and enjoy the warm aroma as it wafts through my home.

Love what your write

‘Do you think I will be able to write like Murakami?”

My friend Z said this to me. I’ve known her for a while; both of us with the shared love for words and books. She’s writing her debut book and rued, “I don’t write like the authors I like to read. I’m not a Jhumpa Lahiri, Murakami or anyone of the literary bigwigs I admire. I’m so ordinary.

Then there’s Y. Warm, vibrant, cheerful and with natural flair for words; it’s a pleasure to meet her. So Y is almost done with her debut book and a publisher has shown interest in it. I asked her to tell me more about her debut book.

Pat comes the reply. Oh! It’s nothing serious. You know, just casual…you know…ordinary stuff… her voice trailed, shrugging her shoulders looking almost apologetic. I resisted the urge to box her ears but took a deep breath and dragged her to the far corner of the room.

My lecture to both friends was long and sharp.

Don’t ever do that. Don’t ever minimize your book. Don’t ever call your book ordinary.

What you write is what you create and that can never be ordinary. It’s your story, your words and imagination. Don’t trivialize them. Yes, there are these literary giants who are awe-inspiring and intimidating with their virtuoso, with their flair. And may be what we write is ordinary in comparison but ordinary isn’t something to be ashamed to. Every story is beautiful and precious because it has come out of a human mind.

Recently I read two articles which further cemented my thoughts on this.

First is by Michael Lewis – New York Times bestselling author of multiple books of nonfiction, including Moneyball and many others. He offered this sage advice on writing and storytelling.

Have the nerve to be yourself—you can’t learn voice.

‘You can’t be someone else. The goal is to be the best you. Stop reading [other writers’] stuff, and comparing it, because it’s going to be different anyway, right? Having the nerve to be yourself is very valuable. Even if you don’t naturally have a strong literary voice, try not to sound like someone else.’

The second is an article by Cara Sue Achterberg on Twitter: http://booksbywomen.org/write-the-story-you-know/

A writer and blogger who lives in New Freedom, PA, Cara has three bestsellers to her name. She says:

‘It’s taken me over a dozen years to realize that good writing doesn’t need to be impressive or use big words or have deep metaphors and heavy hidden symbolism. It doesn’t need to be ‘literary’ or follow the format of a particular genre. It simply needs to tell an honest story. A story from the heart. My fiction writing stumbled along for years because I was trying to write like John Irving or Anne Patchett. But I’m not John Irving or Anne Patchett. I don’t have their experiences or education. When I finally just started letting my heart pour out on the page and didn’t worry about a stranger’s judgment or a friend’s shock, my stories came to life. They were fun to write and escaping into them became my favorite part of the day.’

This is so true. Yes! There are literary bigwigs that we admire and gush about. Idolize them, go crazy about them but don’t make the mistake of imitating them. Nobody is interested in reading an imitation of Murakami & others. Cara further adds, ‘More than the definition of the hero’s arc or how to write a query letter, teach yourself to write from your heart. Be brave and don’t let anyone – including yourself – stand in your way. Pour it all out there and follow the stories where they take you. Write your passion. Write what you know. Write your story.’  

I couldn’t agree more with the above words. Be brave and don’t let anyone – including yourself – stand in way. Write with your heart. From your heart. Let it gush out.

I’ve written all my life; for publications and companies. I’ve nursed the dream of penning a book for years. The question that bothered me most wasn’t when would I write my first book; it was what will I write. As a freelance writer I spun yarns for companies and their products but fiction eluded me. There was no story buzzing in my head, no seed that was gradually germinating. And then in 2014, in just 7 months I had the first draft ready. People have laughed, even smirked when I said this: the story chooses the writer and the time it wants to be written. Every story has its Destiny. When you write, just write the best you can. Tell the story that you’d want to read.

Don’t think about what publishers want or prefer. What sells and what will make a bestseller. Just write. That’s what I did. Some people told me that a marital drama will never sell. That only young college romances sell. I turned a deaf ear. I wrote the story that I wanted to tell.  

When you do listen to the voice inside you, often a quiet murmur; it can never be ordinary. You aren’t ordinary, neither is your story. I told both Y & Z the same.

Write what you love and love what you write.

How to pitch your novel

So you have finished writing the story that haunted you and kept you awake. Brilliant. That’s really a great feat accomplished. Take a break. Celebrate. You owe it. For the successful completion of phase 1 you must celebrate but do it more to gather strength for the next phase that awaits. 
Yes.

This may sound discouraging but it’s the truth. You are now at the threshold of an extremely challenging, frustrating and despair inducing phase in the book journey. Unless you are a Bollywood icon, wife of a Bollywood star or a spy who walked in from the cold… Please be warned that getting a publisher is bloody tough. You will need loads of patience, guidance, friends to hold your hand and large doses of whatever is your poison. Mine is wine and pepperoni pizza. So celebrate before you plunge in to the phase 2.

However, before your wait begins, you have to pitch your MS (manuscript) to the publishers. This post is to help you with some pointers to do that.

  1. What is a pitch?

This is a short synopsis you send to the publisher, enquiring of their interest in your MS. In case you happen to meet an editor in person and are able to start a conversation; this pitch could also be an oral one. Something akin to the elevator pitch as they call it. The written pitch, usually via an email is usually accompanied with 3 sample chapters.

2. Finish writing the book
This isn’t mandatory but I think you should have the entire story written out so that you know which parts to focus on in the pitch. I know of few authors who sent few chapters to an editor who fell in love with the story and then asked for the whole. But exceptions don’t prove the rule. So finish writing and then pitch.

3. Pitch isn’t the whole story compressed
A pitch is what you read on the book back cover. The gist that tempts you to pick up the book. You don’t have to tell the entire story. In fact you mustn’t. It must have the essential story line, the main characters and most importantly the hook of the story. Hook means… What grabs the attention of the reader. Please remember there are no original story ideas left. All of them have been told and written. What’s left is for us to tell it in a different and interesting way.
The story of my debut novel – A Forgotten Affair isn’t new. A woman losing her memory and trying to remember her life. I made it different by weaving in emotional abuse, a love affair outside her marriage. What if the woman was in an abusive marriage and had found love outside the marriage… She loses her memory. Forgets the good, bad and ugly. What happens then? The narrative goes back & forth. I used Facebook as a tool for the woman to see glimpses of a life forgotten. And I had a catch line to hook the reader.

4. Catchline..? What is that? Why do you need it?
You and your MS need to stand apart from the 100 other pitches (may be more) that the editor reads or hears. If you have an interesting line that defines the essence of the story then you have an edge above others. While preparing for the pitch, I came up with 2 lines.

LINE A: Sometimes you need to forget everything to recognize what matters the most.
LINE B: There’s something better than finding the love of your life, it’s finding yourself.

I went with the first one. The line features in various places in the story and is the tag line or catch line of the novel.

This really caught the attention of the editors.

5 Who do you pitch to?
Yes, you may send it to the general submission email that’s given on the website of all publishing houses. The publishers go blue in the face saying that they read every submission. I have my doubts. Yes, there have been people who have risen out of the slush pile but those are again exceptions. Don’t bank on your luck to shine out of the pile. I got accepted by two reputed publishers and both of them were direct contacts. So preferably try to connect with editors so that they know who you are. Make an impression if you have the opportunity to. I got the chance of presenting my story idea to a panel editors at Bangalore Lit fest in 2014. That’s where the HarperCollins editor heard my pitch and liked it. Please understand and remember that no one will sign you up on the basis of a 3 minute pitch. This is just an avenue to make a personal contact so that your MS isn’t faceless. The normal procedure of review follows after a successful pitch. In the end it’s the story that matters.


6. How long should the pitch be?
If you are sending it via email; then a short synopsis and three sample chapters. A short synopsis is about a page long, no more. Sample chapters don’t need to be in order. Any 3 chapters that best showcase your writing and the story. Don’t send the whole MS at this stage. If the editor likes the pitch they will ask for the whole MS.

7. Pitching to an agent
The above rule applies. But please remember, no agent of repute will charge you anything before you sign up with the publisher. The agent gets paid once you get paid by the publisher. If the agent asks for money don’t work with him or her. Authors are vulnerable. Don’t be fooled or taken in for a ride.

8. Patience is the key
This is a waiting game. It’s harrowing. Every author knows how agonizing it is to keep checking the email to see if the yes! We will publish your novel email has arrived or not. I remember the wait. But you have to be patient. Don’t bug the editor with persistent mails and messages. A friend of mine was refused by a reputed publishing house because he annoyed them by his constant messaging. It’s OK to drop a line once a month. No more than that. It’s a good idea to follow the editors on social media. Interact with them through their posts and tweets. They will be reminded of you but you wouldn’t be chasing them.

This is where you need author friends. Believe me, your lover, partner, spouse, mom or best friend wouldn’t know what the wait feels like unless they have been through this. Only an author knows. So it helps to talk to people who have felt the same despair as you. The wait is awful. I know it because I have gone through it.

Writing a good pitch is really very important. It’s the first impression your book makes. And we all know that first impression matters. So don’t rush it. Take your time in polishing the pitch and making it very best. So all the very best. Don’t lose hope. Believe. Dreams come true…only if you believe.

My books – Nobody’s Child & A Forgotten affair are available on Amazon.