Can you learn how to write? Or is it something you are born with? Shakespeare is said to have penned a few of his greats based on his own personal experiences. Do you see that as a thumb rule for an author; always base your writing on what you have been through? Or, to put that the cliched way, where do you get your ideas?
You can learn. Some people are born with it; others get there through a mixture of being stubborn, open-minded and aware of at least a few of their shortcomings. In any case, some of the most successful books of the last few years have shown us there’s no such thing as good or bad writing – just writing that can be sold, and writing that can’t.
If I had been through what I write about, my life would have been a) very exciting b) very over. If you’re writing something big and fat, it’s impossible to keep yourself entirely out of it, but most writers who write for a living tend to lead unexciting life. Always base your writing on what you can convincingly lie about having been through might be a better rule. I get my ideas via registered post letters that come to my flat addressed to the last tenant.
Are your characters based on people you know in real life?
Yes. Especially the monsters. The protagonists are usually people I wish I’d met instead.Do your characters take over and dictate the narrative? Or are you the boss?
Characters almost never behave the way you want them to. But with skilled parenting, you can make them believe they want the things you want them to want. Once you’ve made people up, they exist; they are people, and sometimes they won’t do as they’re told. It’s best not to play power games with them; you’ll end up killing them just to show them who’s boss. What's the best way for a first-time author to get a publisher to read her manuscript?
Five years ago, it would have been by getting to know publishers, hanging out at book launches, being friends of friends. But things are far better now. There are a fair number of publishers, all of whom are looking for good work across categories and are more than happy to take chances with newcomers. A whole lot of people are getting published now, with books no one would have tried out a decade ago. There’s also the option of writing a book, sending it in, and learning Zen-master levels of patience. My first book was published 20 months after I submitted it. Which was standard Indian publishing time then. In tougher, more saturated markets abroad it takes much longer. Finish it first, is my advice. Then do what you have to do. Don’t head out there with an idea and nothing to back it up with, unless you’re already incredibly famous. What are the steps towards becoming a published author?
Write book. This is the only fun part, and the only part you have any control over. Submit. To agents or publishers. If directly to publishers, skip next three steps. Wait. Agents love your book. Pick one. Wait. Publishers love your book. Wait. Offers arrive, pick one. Wait. Contract. Wait. Book comes out. You are now an author. Well done. How difficult is it to write your second book?
Depends. You now have an audience beyond your mother and your childhood stalker. They have expectations, and they all want you to write exactly the book they want to read. You, on the other hand, are reliving every disappointment you experienced the first time around. The joy of discovering you can write a book no longer provides motivation. You are older. Pressure is higher. This makes writing your second book more difficult. On the other hand, your writing is hopefully better, and you are wiser, more patient and have matured like wine. You have been through the grinder once, and know what you have to do, and are ready to do it better. Hopefully you will make new mistakes, not the old ones all over again. This makes writing your second book easier. What the overall balance is depends on how much of a happy bunny you are in general.
How do you stay disciplined to write, especially in a job that does not require a set number of hours or a person to report to?
How do you plot your story? Do you decide the structure and plot beforehand or as you write? Do you write the end or beginning first? Does this depend on genre?
I plot first, fairly carefully. Final story usually deviates from the initial plan, but that’s allowed. Characters behave differently, are more or less interesting than you thought they would be, things change. People who make it up as they go along usually get stuck somewhere and take a really long time to move on. I usually write from beginning to end — it depends more on the structure of the overall story than the genre it’s in.
With great difficulty. Not having any other skills, having to write for a living, having a job that involves doing something I actually enjoy — powerful incentives. I’m not particularly disciplined, but I get it done on time. It’s like school exams. Do you have to be famous or have something extremely tragic for your novel to be successful?
No. Do you get a lot of rejects?
What sort of rejects? Some of my friends are not very lucky in love, but they all bathe regularly. If you’re talking about rejections from publishers, sure. It takes time for books to find the right publishers. But I don’t have any finished unpublished work at the moment, if that helps. Do all publishing houses pay fat signing bonuses?
Yes. Not to you or me, necessarily, but they all do.How much does marketing, packaging decide the success of a book?
Selling the book in the first few weeks depends entirely on marketing. This is largely because 21st century attention-span is a second at most. After that, it depends on distribution, word of mouth, sustained interest. Essentially, if a book is good it’ll stay on shelves, if it’s not it’ll disappear eventually, even if thousands of copies sell in the first month. It’s more difficult than films, less difficult than video games. How do you plan to face the digital challenge? (Easy pirating, people wanting free content, and so on.
I love the digital challenge. I want there to be a way to distribute books for free and make a living as a writer at the same time. I hope someone discovers a good model for doing this soon. Do you recommend posting one's writing online in forums and blogs?
Yes if you want peer feedback. No if you want said writing published. Want to fix this? Crack that digital challenge! Remember, people might see what a good writer you are from your posts. And they might want to publish you, but you’ll have to write something else for them to publish. So yes, post work online, but not the work you’re also looking to get paid for. Look at our blogger-authors, Amit Varma, Meenakshi Madhavan, Sidin Vadukut, Arnab Ray and the Fake IPL player. Build an audience with your blog, use it to help convince publishers that your book is a goldmine. Do you get weird fan mail? What was the weirdest to date?
Yes. I don’t want to talk about it, because the people involved would be very upset. We all have our off days. Or years. Have any of your readers fallen in love with you and told you about it? How have you handled it?
We’re just good friends and this is rumoured to be a publicity stunt. How do you deal with a bad review?
I get annoyed for about a minute and make sure I’m far away from a keyboard. Try not to get worked up about it. Critics are people, too. And in India, reviews don’t really affect sales anyway. Even the glow you get from a really good review shouldn’t stay with you for too long — it’s not like every reader of the paper is going to drop everything and run off to buy your book.(As told to Peter Griffin)
(This story appears in the 05 February, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)