Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

It is perhaps ironic that after writing a novel set in the desert of northern India, I now liken the research process to learning to swim. But here it is: moving through the ocean of information with mastery is like being a scuba diver, aware of your depth and your air supply and the location of the shore, accepting the power of the water and the currents, but having the confidence to immerse yourself in observation, to follow an intriguing trail of bubbles to an unexpected coral head. There, in that fine balance of mastery and deference, of the planned and the unexpected, lies the pure joy of researching your setting. But from standing safely on the shore contemplating the allure of the water to reaching this almost magical moment of gliding with control involves many stages, some of them very difficult, all of them necessary.

After taking the plunge, you realize the power of the water, the immensity of the ocean, and your own insignificance. You flail, assailed with doubts. Even once you manage to tread water and keep your head clear you realize you are expending a lot of energy and going nowhere. This is the crucial moment. You can give up, holler for someone to haul you out, or you can give it your all. Once you manage an inelegant doggy paddle, propelling yourself with purpose, hope and self-confidence emerge and you can look forward to refining your stroke and, eventually, diving for details with the knowledge that you can and will resurface, perhaps not exactly where or when you expected, but always enriched by the experience.

Here are the stages, and recognizing them each can be helpful.

Contemplating the allure of the water from the safety of land: Little bits of a story idea, of a different world, have landed on you, like droplets of water, on a summer day, leaving you wanting more. The water shimmers, entices. It is hot out, prickly hot, and the surface calls to you. The clouds are reflected in it, undulating slightly; it doesn’t look that deep. How refreshing it would be to take a dip, to immerse yourself in this other world. You’ve heard there is a whole universe under there: coral and colorful fish and strange anemones with scarlet tentacles. A pelican dives in, head first, and emerges with a fish. Other people make it look so easy, gliding through, cutting the surface with their arms. And fun! Splashing around, laughing. Standing on their heads, their feet waving, and then toppling. Some of them wear snorkel masks, and you wonder what they see. You want to see it, too.

Realizing the power of the water: You take the plunge. You launch yourself into, say, nineteenth century India. Immediately, you are overwhelmed. There is such a vast immensity of information available. Gasping, coughing, you gulp some of it down. You reach out and try to grab at anything you can hold onto. You read everything, or try to. You jot down a lot of facts, many of which you know you’ll never use, but you don’t yet know which ones those are, and you suspect the ones you don’t bother to record are the ones that will be critical to your story. History, politics, journals and diaries, newspaper articles, novels, academic papers, books on daily life, architecture, food and customs, sweeping summaries and minute details alike. They all swirl around you. You enter search terms willy-nilly into Google and Google Books, Amazon, Wikipedia, local library catalogs. You feel hopeless, yet determined. You flail. The more you read, the less you feel you are qualified, authorized, to write this story. But you have to fight the pull of the current. This is a test. Will you give up, be knocked about by the waves, and emerge bruised and dejected, or will you find a foothold and prevail, strengthened by the understanding that you are not in full control?

Treading water: After a while, you get the hang of keeping your head above water. You maintain the shoreline in sight, remember what this is all about. You manage to control your arm and leg movements. Vague story elements start to form. Not just India, but the city of Lucknow. The courtesan and merchant quarters. Not just the nineteenth century, but the years just before and just after the Great Rebellion. You manage to look down into the water and catch sight of identifiable shapes: a clump of rock, a tuft of sea grass. Some of your characters start to come into focus, and this helps dictate the specific settings for your story. You don’t yet see the details, but you begin to imagine them. You go from “he’s an artist” to “he’s a musician” to “he’s a sarangi player.” You are able to eliminate some of the sources for being irrelevant, and to replace them with others, which you now know will be highly relevant. You organize the resources and the research and you make lists. Many lists.

Doggy paddle: Now you are actually making forward progress. The plot starts to form. Getting from Point A to Point B. This is the exciting part, where you realize you are not only staying afloat, but you are swimming! It may be a basic form of locomotion, low on the totem pole of swim strokes, with a silly name, but it is a bona fide style. And now the development of the story feeds the research, and vice versa. You have direction. Instead of researching all festivals and religious celebrations of the time and place, you zero in on the specific one that will feature in your story, the one during which the betrayal, or the discovery, or the moment of forgiveness will happen. Instead of researching all forms of architecture and buildings, you picture and describe the specific ones your characters inhabit. You study maps, learn the layout of the setting. Now you know that it would take a good thirty minutes to walk from your main character’s home to La Martinière, the boys’ school across the river. Now you know that the shore is not that far away, and that you can keep up this doggy paddle thing for quite a while.

Front crawl: You hit your stride. You control when you come up for air. You cut through the water with purpose. You outline your scenes, and start writing some. Now you get into serious specifics. Someone is growing flowers on the roof. You look up exactly the types of flowers likely to be growing there, and the birds that will peck at the seeds. You imagine a specific meal, the food on the dishes, how it smells. You picture what your characters are wearing, feel the fabric, choose the colors. You go from “some European shopkeepers in Lucknow took orders for frivolous objects for their customers” to “Monsieur Carnonge insisted that a cucumber slicer be acquired for him from the latest shipment of European goods that had arrived that morning from Cawnpore by hackery.”

Scuba diving: This is it. You have your tank of air strapped onto your back, and you immerse yourself in this new world. You are no longer overwhelmed by its vast immensity, by the multitudes of lives teeming below you. You know how to navigate it. Now you can take your time, float a while, seek out nuggets of fact or possibility that others unfamiliar with the terrain would miss. There, in that clump of rocks, there is a crevice that you now know is likely to hide an octopus. (What? An octopus in Lucknow?!) You dive down and hover, peering in, slowing your fins, controlling your bubbles, watching, and you are rewarded by a pulpy display of tentative tentacles. Hello, you say in your head, and you smile—insofar as you can do so with your lips stretched around the regulator—delighted with your discovery. Momentary euphoria.

Until you have your first draft critiqued.

Yours truly diving off Harbour Island, Bahamas

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kriti-logoI’ll be at the Kriti Festival, run by Desilit, this weekend in Chicago. Looks like there’s a fabulous array of speakers and topics prepared. Here’s where I’ll be–perhaps I’ll see some of you?

(NOTE: Kriti is co-sponsored by the English Department, the Asian Studies Program, and the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and will be held on campus, at 750 S. Halsted, Chicago.)

Thursday, September 25th:

4:00 – 6:00:  Opening reception, photographic diasporic history art exhibit, and rapid-fire reading, in collaboration with SAAPRI, the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, Campus Programs, and UIC’s students, faculty and staff. (Ward Gallery, Student Center East, 750 S. Halsted St.) This event is free and open to the public. Speakers include featured photographer Preston Merchant. Readers: Fatimah Asghar, Sonali Dev, Anjali Mitter Duva, Syed Afzal Haider, Soniah Kamal, Parul Kaushik, Mina Khan, Neha Misra, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Rajdeep Paulus, Shakuntala Rajagopal, Phiroozeh Romer, Ankur Thakkar, Deepak Unnikrishnan, Vidhu Aggarwal, and Bishakh Som.

 

Friday, September 26th:

Friday 12 – 12:50

Paths to Publication (brown bag lunch)

What are today’s alternatives to “traditional” publishing, and how do you decide if one of them is good fit for you? The publishing industry has undergone, and continues to undergo, massive and rapid change. The array of publishing options now runs the gamut from traditional publishing to self-publishing, each with its own characteristics. What is happening in the middle of the spectrum? How is a writer to decide what path to follow? What are the relative pros and cons, and what are the questions to ask oneself in order to ensure a positive publishing experience?  This panel will address small press publishing, self-publishing, crowdfunding, social media, and more. As it occurs over lunchtime, please feel free to bring a brown bag lunch. (Anjali Mitter Duva, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Rajdeep Paulus)

 

Friday 4:00 – 4:50

Dirty Laundry

There is a clear market in the West for a certain kind of expose/pathos story from South Asia: child prostitutes, wife beating, widows in Brindhavan, untouchables, street kids, etc. When does exposing an evil move over into exploitation? What responsibilities does the writer have (if any)? (Tanaz Bhathena, Nayomi Munaweera, Anjali Mitter Duva, Soniah Kamal)

 

Saturday, September 27th:

Saturday 10 – 10:50

Blowing Your Own Horn: Marketing Yourself as a Writer

With so many new writers emerging, it can be difficult setting yourself apart from the crowd. Writers discuss various methods for marketing themselves and their work, from setting up a web page to hiring publicists and beyond. (Anjali Mitter Duva, Ankur Thakkar, Gotham Mamik)

 

Saturday 12:00 – 12:50

Vocal performance and reading

(Tara Swaminathan / Anjali Mitter Duva) (20 min each)

 

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I’ve signed a book contract for FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN. This is a fabulous, dance-a-jig worthy event for me, after years (and years) of work. And yet, there is also a part of me that has gone into a panic. A panic about actually sending the book out into the world for people–real, live people–to read. And possibly not like. And possibly post devastating reviews about. I remind myself of all the wonderful and complimentary comments I’ve received on the manuscript by well-established editors (who nonetheless declined to publish it), but still.

It has been a decades-long and enriching journey to get to this point of showing my work, my writing, to others. But it remains, nonetheless, terrifying.

Imagine this scene: 9th grade, English class. Our teacher, Mrs. Fournier, gave us a writing assignment. It was a single word: Solitude. In classic French fashion (for this was taking place in France) she told us to take that one word, and fill 4-6 pages. I remember the feeling that came over me as I wrote it. I was giddy with joy at the assignment, and worried that someone would notice. The assignment took very little conscious thought. The words flowed, I loved the feeling of the fountain pen sliding on the smooth paper. I turned it in, feeling confident I had done solid work. But I was not expecting what came next.

The teacher handed back the papers, but not mine. I wondered if it had gotten lost. Then she said that one student’s writing had stood out, and she wanted to read it aloud. All eyes turned toward me, and I wondered how they knew. I felt my cheeks flush. It was the proverbial want-the-floor-to-open-and-swallow-me moment. She read the piece, and as the words came out of her mouth I pictured the story again, the old man in his dim home, at the Formica table stained with coffee rings, the memories of his wife lurking in the corner with the dust bunnies. It was more Loneliness than Solitude, but it worked. The line between the two is blurry. At the end, Mrs. Fournier put the paper down, and there was silence. A roomful of fourteen year olds was silent. Then she said: “Very few 9th graders can write like this.” I felt proud, embarrassed, unworthy all at once. And also awed by the effect that words could have on people, and that I could put these words together myself.

Solitude_Essay
It was a long time before my writing was shared again with anyone other than teachers. I preferred it that way. Besides, I didn’t actually do much creative writing. Some poetry, written in my journal, in my room, then stashed away under layers of clothing in a drawer. That type of thing. I wrote, of course, for college courses, an honors thesis, my work in economic development consulting, my graduate studies in urban planning, my Master’s thesis, and people said lovely things about my writing, but I left it at that.

Then, at the age of 30, moved by my recent travels to Rajasthan, India, and by my classes in kathak dance, I started scribbling again. An image that I found in, of all places, a travel guidebook, sparked it. I researched the background of the image, began recreating a place and time. The faintest outlines of a story started taking shape. It was months before I realized I was writing a book.

I had three chapters drafted when I found out I was expecting a child. I knew I needed to get more on the page so that the body of work accomplished would be large enough, important enough, to call me back once I had given birth to the baby and ensured that she was healthy and thriving. I also knew I needed to acknowledge out loud, to my family and my friends, that I was writing a book, in order to make it real. Not real for them, but real for me.

The baby, K, was born. I worked during her naps. The manuscript crawled along. Finally, I had a full draft. It was summer, the child was three, I headed to France with her to visit my parents, and I left a copy of the manuscript with my husband, J, for him to read for the first time. I couldn’t bear to be around while he was reading it, so I asked him to do it before he joined us in France. He read it on the flight, and on the train down to La Ciotat in the South.

It was a sparkling sunny day on the Mediterranean coast. K and I wore flouncy skirts that danced around our legs as we waited for the high speed train on the quay. It arrived, slowed, stopped. The doors opened in unison, and I scanned the flow of passengers disembarking, blinking at the bright sun, clutching their suitcases. J appeared and we ran toward him, but something made me stop short. He bore a strange expression. We hugged, but he felt distant. What’s wrong, I asked. I was reading your book, he said. My chest tightened. He hated it. My book was awful. I had wasted hours and hours, years. He was disappointed in me. “No, it’s really good,” he said. “It’s just, I was at that really intense and kind of disturbing part.” And I smiled. There it was again. What I’d written had altered someone, at least temporarily. As it had in that 9th grade classroom. “Come,” I said, taking his free hand. “My father’s opened the rosé for lunch.”

Later that summer, I enrolled in a 10-week workshop, Novel in Progress, at Grub Street Writers. It was my first time sharing my writing with strangers, with people who knew nothing about me, probably little about India (where my book is set), even less about sixteenth century northern India. Presumably, they would be candid, unconcerned about hurting my feelings. I was exhilarated, and tremendously nervous. There were twelve of us, adults working on our (for the most part) first novels. On the first day, three students were to read out loud from their work. I was one of those first three. I was happy to get it over with at the beginning, but wished I could hear a few of my fellow students’ work first to know what I was up against. Not that it was a competition, of course.

One person went before me. I recall being generally impressed with the writing without being bowled over. This was good, promising. I felt I was in good company. (And in fact, I was.) These other writers were solid, dedicated. When my turn came, my lips went dry, my voice felt wobbly. I read for my allotted five minutes, acutely aware of how unpracticed I was at reading out loud, wishing I’d thought to put a cup of water in front of me. When I finished, the room was quiet. I avoided everyone’s eyes. Part of me feared they were all simply trying to mask their horror, to think of something kind to say. But part of me knew that was not true. Finally, one of them spoke. “Wow.” That one word broke the ice, and others started commenting as well.

For me, that one word told me that I would be alright. Over the course of the 10 weeks, and then over the course of the years of revisions and rewrites, the dozens of rejections from agents and then from editors, the moments of self-doubt, the times my friends, my writing group and others told me that things weren’t working, that the voice was too distant, the plot twist unbelievable, the character arc missing, I held onto that moment when I got goosebumps reading my own few pages, when a roomful of strangers was reduced to a single “wow.” That is why I write, for those moments, however few and far between. And they cannot happen if I do not show my work.

 

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Hen_and_chicks

Wake up and throw on clothes chosen day before. Brush teeth, toss water on face. Downstairs, check weather forecast, put on water for tea, pack lunch boxes: hummus, whole grain flatbread, baby carrots (cooked for one, raw for the other), salami slices, cut up cantaloup, apple sauce packet, granola bar, milk with ice cubes for Little One. Wake kids. Negotiate appropriate clothing. Make breakfast, slice fruit, nudge Big One to set table, avoid eye rolls, pour drinks. Navigate around husband making his lunch. Extra kid in tow to help a friend. Sit down for 15 minute Civilized Breakfast together. Remove scrambled egg from curly head and inside fold of diaper (?!) Apply sunscreen on melange of limbs and faces. Pack towel, extra clothes, water shoes, diapers, sheet, blanket, sleep animals, sun hat, tuition check. Pack my own bag, remember I have a life of my own somewhere. Where? Computer, power cord, bottle of water, brilliant Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, pack of almonds, fleece for overly air-conditioned coffee shop. Remind kids to fill water bottles with ice and put plates IN dishwasher. Put away perishables from breakfast. Turn blind eye to rest. Switch carseat, grab tuition check from husband of neighbor who forgot to bring hers in. Pile kids in car. Field conflicting requests for music. Preschool drop off. Pry toddler off leg. Camp drop off. Repeat “goodbye” several times until Big One acknowledges she has a mother who is leaving. Fill out liability waivers, yes I agree you will not be responsible for anything that might happen to my child, just take her until 4 pm. Walk back to car, call neighbor to coordinate camp pick-ups, grocery shopping, dinner, evening logistics. Drive to coffee shop, stake out table, order coffee, turn off phone. Now: clear mind, be creative and write. Go!

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Writing Retreat Sun Porch

Writing Retreat Sun Porch, photo by Crystal King

I spent last weekend in the company of my three writing group partners, in a rambling old house on the coast of Maine. It was one of those houses that should be the setting for a story, and in fact makes a cameo appearance in one of our members’ works in progress. Doors and corridors open upon room after room, and even more rooms, with extra mattresses squirreled away under beds. There was flowered wall paper and high ceilings and closets full of family history and old books, and views of the craggy rocks, the pebbly beach and the ocean from most windows. There were plenty of nooks and crannies in which to work, including a massive sun porch, and lots of old roll-top desks with relics of past times still nestled in their cubbies. There were even a couple of functioning rotary phones, a mysterious Back Stair, and an Ice-O-Mat affixed to the pantry wall. It was, in a word, perfect.

Ice-O-Mat

Ice-O-Mat

But even without such an idyllic setting, a writing retreat can be a fantastically invigorating way to remind oneself of those aspects of writing  of which it is all too easy to lose sight, especially if one is also juggling a job, children, and other responsibilities: the commitment to write, one’s reason to do so, one’s capacity for sustained focus over a period of hours. And of course, a writing retreat is an excellent way to make some tangible progress on an existing project. Herewith, 7 tips on how to make this happen.

1. Choose your company well.

It is important to surround yourself with like-minded people, fellow writers or other artists who will abide by the schedule (see tip #4) with seriousness and also provide for stimulating conversation and good laughs during your breaks. The ability to be both silly and serious together is key. (Unless you are the type to favor a solitary retreat. Personally, I balk at the silence and me-ness of a retreat alone, but folks like Joyce Carol Oates would probably revel in it. Since JCO is unlikely to be reading my blog any time soon, I’ll continue with my more social-minded retreat tips.)

Fabulous Writing Group Partners

Fabulous Writing Group Partners, photo by Crystal King

2. If possible, select a setting amid nature.

The coast of Maine is rugged, craggy, salted. Striated rocks jut out into the water, wild rose bushes grow in a tumble along scraggly paths. The ocean is take-your-breath-away cold, the air turns crisper just as soon as one passes the state’s Welcome sign on I-95. One can, of course, retreat to any place that is away from the hubbub of one’s regular life, but being out in nature offers, literally, a breath of fresh air. The brain is oxygenated, the eyes can rest on the horizon, or on a vista of trees or flowers. The blood can pump through the body during a run or a hike on a sand or dirt path, and ideas flow more freely.

Biddeford Pool beach, ME

Biddeford Pool beach, ME, photo by Crystal King

3. Articulate a goal beforehand, and share it out loud.

It’s all about accountability. For some, accountability to oneself is all it takes to sit down in the chair and just do it. For most, articulating a goal to others makes the goal more real and more necessary, and therefore more likely to be met. One writer, of historical fiction, wanted to change the point of view in her existing chapters and pound out at least one more chapter. Someone else wanted to revise an entire section of her novel. Another wanted to get herself to within spitting distance of querying agents. I wanted to plough through a writing block and write a new chapter as well as develop a new character. We all made it to, or acceptably close to, our goals.

4. Set a reasonable schedule, and then adhere to it.

You are here to work. That is the primary purpose. Therefore, you need a schedule that includes a good amount of work time. We set our start time for 9:00 or 9:30 am, allowing for a good night’s sleep and ample time for breakfast, or even for fitting in a morning run. Then 3-4 solid hours of work time, each of us settled in a different corner of the house. I loved the companionable silence, the knowledge that as I worked, three other people were chipping away at their projects as well—musing, pondering, creating. Every now and then, one of them would pass me on the way to the kitchen for a piece of fruit, chocolate, or a cup of coffee. There would be a quick exchange of smiles, in silence as each acknowledged the importance of not disturbing the other’s writing state of mind. We repeated the experience in the afternoon for another 3-4 hour stint.

5. Take long breaks, eat well, and get some exercise.

Perhaps these should be three separate tips, but in my mind they are intrinsically linked. In addition to the solid wake-up and breakfast time we gave ourselves, we took two hours at lunch time to make and pack a picnic together and bring it down to the rocks at the beach, then go for a stroll on the point. And after the second 3-4 hour writing stint of the afternoon, we took the evenings off, exploring the area a bit and eating out. Our group always meets around food, so it was natural one night for us to head to Fore Street in Portland for a fabulous farm-to-table meal.

6. Bring snacks, mostly healthy but some treats, too. No, not quite that many.

In our giddy enthusiasm, we over-packed in the snacks and drinks (as in boozy drinks) department. We’ll know better for next time. But it was great to have a stash of wasabi chick peas, chocolate, almonds, dried apricots and home-made fig cake in the kitchen, sometimes just as an excuse to get up and walk around and ingest a little sugar. And the gin-and-tonics didn’t hurt, either. (What? It was five o’clock somewhere.)

Writing Nook

Writing Nook

7. Make arrangements for your pets/children/spouses/plants, and then put them out of your mind, or at least in its far reaches.

This is your time. You may have several small children at home. You may have a new puppy or a senile cat. You may have other dependents for whom you are usually the main source of care. But chances are that if you have planned a writing retreat, or even if you are simply seriously considering one, you are willing to make arrangements to cover for their care and feeding while you are away. Do what you can to give yourself peace of mind that everyone is in good hands, and then go Do Your Thing. Those who are helping you out back home are doing it for just that reason.

(Bonus tip #8: Bring music. This might not work for everyone, but our group found it inspiring to write to the strains of wordless classical music. When I am on my own, I favor Indian classical: Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Bannerjee and L. Subramaniam among others. The rhythms and surges of the music may well come to match the patterns of your writing. Visit The Undercover Soundtrack by Roz Morris for a great blog series on writers who use music as part of their creative process.)

For additional advice and details, including how we came across the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks and other wonders, head over the Crystal King’s blog.

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What kind of sales should I expect of my debut novel if I go the indie route? This is what I am asking myself these days, today in particular as I draw up a balance sheet of estimated expenses and revenues, to help me decide whether or not to launch into independently publishing Faint Promise of Rain. Of course, part of me feels like it would be the natural thing to do, in keeping with the whole being-the-people thing, but I still need to understand the nitty gritty of it all.

With enough poking around, I was able to obtain some concrete numbers on the expenses side such as the per copy cost of printing if I do a short-print run, the shipping costs for online sales, the standard retailer wholesale discount (which I was shocked to learn is 55%) and other such data points. For other expenses, the Internet is providing me with enough examples for me to make some informed guesses, such as how much to spend on a publicist, and what editorial services should cost for a manuscript which, my agent tells me, is in good shape.

But when it came to what to expect for revenue, the Internet became my enemy . Not only because I cannot find much in the way of concrete examples of debut literary fiction sales figures, but because I am finding posting after posting filled with depressing predictions. Apparently, if I am to believe what the doom-and-gloom folks out there are saying under the guise of bracing indie hopefuls such as myself for misery, I would be lucky to sell 5,000 copies of my book. In total. Not in one year. Not in five years. EVER.

And this is where turning to the Internet can be so destructive. It’s like allowing yourself to drown in a sea of information regarding an illness, and all its possible horrible ramifications, and how it could, it just might, ruin your life, and how in some cases it will cripple you, and how there are support groups to help you cope because otherwise you might just want to end it all now. You read the discussion forums of those who are suffering and while your heart goes out the them, you quake at the prospect of ending up like them. Ok, perhaps this is an exaggeration, but I see it this way: I could choose to throw in the towel and declare that there’s no point for just 5,000 copies, or I could stand tall and say: 5,000 is nothing to sneeze at, and in any case, I can easily beat that. (And the illness metaphor is not totally gratuitous, as I’ve had some experience in that realm.) The darn thing is, I do believe I can beat that. Five thousand copies? That seems like nothing to me! I think of the connections I have in the dance world, in the Indian community, all the people I know who revel in literary fiction, the fact that India is, for good reason, a popular setting and topic in fiction, I think of all the people who have told me my manuscript is beautiful (thank you!), the fun ideas I have for promotion, and 5,000 seems more than feasible.

And yet. Those glum predictions hang over my head, because now that I have read them, I can’t un-read them. Despite feeling confident in my manuscript and my marketing ideas, there is a voice in the back of my head asking me why I have the hubris to dismiss the cautions of people who purport to know more than I do about the ins and outs of publishing. But then, in the nick of time, the Internet comes to my rescue. Because therein is the beauty of the Internet: it can, in one day, in one hour, mete out despair and hope in equal measure. One of my go-to sites for realistic, supportive advice and ideas regarding publishing, Grub Street, posted this entry just today by Terri Giuliano Long entitled “Indie success: hold on to your dreams.” In it this writer takes us back to when she was, essentially, in my shoes, believing 5,000 copies would be her ideal, through her indie publishing experience, and her sales of 120,000 copies in the past twelve months. And that is when I knew to stop trawling the web for information. I’d found what I wanted.

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I find myself confronted with an entirely new situation. I have a story in mind, and some partially-formed characters who are gradually emerging out of the haze, like a colorful and over-loaded truck whose contours and contents take shape in the smog as one approaches them headlong on a January morning in Delhi. (Horn OK please!) I have a specific setting in time and space—one with a richness of sights and smells and sounds. I have some time, carefully carved out with significant effort on my part, to dive in and start writing. And yet, that’s the problem. I can’t find my way in.

My story is locked in some kind of fortress and hasn’t offered me an access point. All I am looking for is a little opening, a crack in the wall that lets me catch a glimpse of a specific scene, a snippet of dialogue, a view of a character in emotional turmoil, a whiff of a thali of food in someone’s home. All I need is a catalyst for words to start lining up in my head. Is it because I have yet to visit the specific locale and am lacking the visceral experience of place that I had for my first novel? But I should be able to break into some scenes regardless. Any good writer should be able to do this, no? Is it because I’m frozen by the knowledge that I’m setting out to write a book, as opposed to simply noodling around with an image and some words? Should I consider that perhaps this is just not the story I should be writing, if I can’t even find a little loose thread on which to tug? Is it possible that I’m not, after all, a writer?

I don’t think so. A quick Google search on “starting a new novel” (yes, such are the ways of procrastination) reveals two equally universal and parallel sets of feelings: hope and possibility on the one hand, and paralysis and panic on the other. So it’s good to know my symptoms are those of a normal sort. The inability to get started, the focus on research because it is easier than writing from scratch. The fear that I might not know how to write a good story, even though I have already done so.

So here’s the goal for 2012: to break through the wall. To put writing first, and not just writing in a vague sense, but actual put-words-on-paper writing. Not just mulling over characters under the pretext that they need to be fully formed before they can start acting. Not just gazing at gorgeous albumen prints of 1860s Lucknow saying to myself this is necessary in order to create a sense of place in my mind before I set my characters down in it. Not just outlining all the scenes of the first few chapters in order to feel I am making sensible progress.

And on the subject of breaking through walls, the second goal for 2012 is to crash through the barriers to publication and get my first book out there, into the hands of readers, whether a traditional (or “legacy” or print or “p-” or whatever) publisher wants to be the one to do it with me or not. It’s time to be the people, and take matters into my own hands. I have a wonderful, enthusiastic and creative agent by my side, and together I know we can make it happen. I look forward to sharing my first novel with you.

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A couple of months ago, a friend—an artistic filmmaker—asked me: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, health and volunteering? She asked this not as a rhetorical question, but as someone who seemed truly to expect that I would have an answer for her. But the fact of the matter is, despite my having written one work of fiction and dreamed up the ideas for others amidst all those other responsibilities and activities, I have no idea. Really. It turns out that just because one has done something doesn’t mean one knows how to do it. Or at least, how to explain how to do it. Even to oneself.

I’m not sure what answer I gave her. I know I felt the need to give her some substance, some words of advice, a recipe she could hold onto and pull out whenever she does have children, a household that needs more tending, a cause for which she feels driven to volunteer, other demands on her time that take her away from her own creative work. That’s what I would have wanted had I been in her place, asking someone else. I suppose I made something up; it was probably neither eloquent nor useful nor satisfactory, although I know it was truthful. I have been to writers’ conferences in which a handful of established and successful authors have sat on a panel and fielded questions from hopeful writers, and on hearing their answers I’ve thought to myself: well, that’s not very helpful. And now I fear that, should I ever be honored enough to sit on such a panel, I will let others down in the same way. But I understand why.

It’s a question I ask myself a lot these days, and it comes in two parts. Part 1: How on Earth did I do it? And Part 2: How on Earth do I continue to do it? And now that I am no longer on the spot, that I have had some time to mull it over, I realize that the recipe is one that is unique to me. It’s a melange of my personality, my background, my circumstances. It won’t fit exactly for anyone else. There are no neat tablespoon measurements, no fixed stirring times. My ingredients:

Dogged—some might say stubborn—perseverance

The compulsion to use every shred of time toward accomplishing something

The belief that 20 minutes is enough time to accomplish something (this ingredient was given to me once I had children)

Patience (this was an ingredient I had to plant and nurture, not one I already had in my pantry)

Organization

(As you can see, none of these are particularly creative.)

I took all these things, and then I linked as many parts of my life as possible to some aspect of my creative pursuit: I take kathak dance classes (through which I get my exercise), I volunteer for the Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance, I incorporated the dance into my novel, and I enrolled my older daughter in a class that I teach. I’d like to say that this was all the result of a well-thought out plan, but no. It’s just how things happened.

The truth of the matter is, I just cram it in wherever I can, between work-related conference calls and school pick-up, during the younger one’s nap times while the older one plays with a friend, at a café while rehydrating and having some lunch after a dance practice, in the evening after tucking the little ones into bed and before their father returns from his martial arts class. As Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, said in a March 2002 interview on Writer Unboxed: “All my life I’ve been doing my work in the intervals between making a living and living my life.” (And if I could write a book half as beautiful and haunting as hers, I would feel fulfilled.)

And yet my version of cramming it in “wherever I can” pales in comparison to what I’ve read from other writers. I don’t have daily word-count goals, I don’t write at a specific time of day or week, I don’t get up an hour before the children as many writers suggest. I don’t think much about my creative projects while doing other things like shopping for groceries, I don’t compose dialogues among my characters while driving, because during those times I usually have chatterbox children with me, or I’m planning out family logistics or meals, or I just want to let my brain float. I don’t tend to work once the kids are in bed because that is my time to spend with my husband, and to catch up on other things like reading and reconnecting with friends on the phone. And honestly, I don’t always feel inspired to be creative. The pressure to produce something in a limited time can be counter-productive. Sometimes I manage to set aside a couple of hours to work on my book, and my mind is blank. But for me the key is to honor my decision and make sure I use that time for something at least related to writing. I read agent and editor blogs, I think about a blog post of my own, I daydream about ways to market my book once it’s published.

There is much room for improvement, and for increased efficiency. And so, while I’m not unhappy with my system, I am curious, and would still ask the same question of others: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, and the other demands on your time?

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For over eight years, my writing was anchored in a single novel. I wrote the first paragraph, the prologue, in 2002, after reading a factoid in a travel guide which conjured up a strong image. Here’s the paragraph, the only one which has not changed one iota in the many (MANY) rounds of revisions:

In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. Five hundred years ago, like today, the monsoons were elusive. In the royal palaces, the walls of the children’s rooms were trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so that when it finally did rain, the little ones would not be afraid. Less fortunate children, those who had grown up looking up at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, would remember all their lives the fear and hope they felt the day of their first rain.

I had no idea I was beginning a book. I just felt compelled to capture the image. The timing was everything: I held that image in my mind just at the time when I was being introduced to kathak dance, and its history. And I had recently returned from Rajasthan. The three together started to form something. A setting, a starting point, an ending point, some characters. Without even realizing it, I had embarked on writing a novel.

Then I did what many novice writers do: I wanted to tell a specific story, and I tried to create the characters who could tell it. I imposed upon them my own goals. The story had to begin at a certain place, and end at a certain place, and certain events had to happen at certain times. Inevitably, I got stuck a few times. And each time, the only thing that allowed me to get unstuck was to try to think about what my characters would really do given the circumstances in which I had placed them. It was tricky, trying to keep the essence of what had compelled me in the first place to write the story, yet letting the characters lead the way. They did not always take the paths I wanted to take, and I had to learn to accept that. And so some plotlines receded, and others came to the fore. One character I loved died much earlier than I’d wanted. Another whom I’d created as a secondary character ended up shining. And after I’d finished the book several times over, I went and changed the point of view.

Now as my manuscript undergoes some edits in the hands of my agent, I am turning to my Next Book. It may well be the next in this “series,” and I put that in quotes because I mean it loosely. It will not be a sequel, but rather a continuation with different characters, set 300 years later, i.e. in the mid-1800s. As I look at the considerable amount of research I already put into this new project over the past few years (each time I foolishly thought my first book was finished and that I had time to look to the next one), I see that I have learned something over the past eight years. (So at least there’s that.)

My first realization is that my ideas to date have been too broad. I’ve thought to encompass too many different worlds and circumstances, too many different characters, too many years. And so, here I am, asking myself the kinds of questions that I didn’t bother to ask myself the first time around, the ones I now feel I should ask myself so as to be more efficient and a better writer: what, really, is the story I want to tell? And whose story is it? And how will that character change over the course of the story? And from whose point of view should it be narrated?

Suddenly, I feel as though I am on a boat at the water’s edge, with endless possibilities. I can sail wherever I want! I can let the wind take me this way, then tack the other way. I can make up any story. I can fashion new characters out of any shred of my imagination. And boy does this all feel daunting! After eight years of writing and revising, working with actual words on actual pages, I need to re-acquaint myself with an entirely different workflow: just thinking. Spending two hours pondering and musing, perhaps picking up a book or two from my shelves and leafing through them, most definitely surfing the Web, and reminding myself that this is as valid a part of the process as the writing and the revising. (It is, right?) I’m giving myself the summer to hone in on the main characters, the specific setting(s), the timeline. This was so much easier the first time around, when I was completely clueless! A little bit of knowledge is a difficult thing to handle.

I wonder, how do others go about launching into new creative projects of this scale? This may be my second book, but it’s nonetheless a new experience. Which is what makes it so exciting.

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I signed with an agent this week. It’s official. I can now say I am an agented writer. I am excited, but in a this-is-too-good-to-be-true sort of way. I have to admit, it feels a bit unreal. The agent is very enthusiastic and energetic and engaged, and I’m delighted about that. She read my manuscript in record time (under 24 hours) and offered me representation on the spot. I walked around in a daze for several hours after receiving her email.

I’m still in a bit of a daze. After eight years of working on this book, researching and outlining and writing and re-writing and re-writing and re-writing (and in the meantime freelancing and giving birth to two children—not to mention raising them and occasionally feeding them—and helping run a non-profit) I had begun to feel as though I would be working on the same manuscript, living with the same set of characters, for the rest of my natural life. Now all of a sudden someone else is taking ownership of the process of shepherding it, and them, out into the world, and it’s the oddest feeling. Not a bad one, mind you. Not at all. Just… different. Throwing me off balance. It’s allowing me suddenly to imagine writing other things, creating different characters, picturing a writing career. Part of me is rushing ahead, already planning creative ideas for book signings, thinking of ways to market the book. Another part of me is pulling in the reins, cautious to get my hopes up, remembering just how many manuscripts land in editors’ in-boxes these days.

A friend was just over and while our children ran around under a sprinkler in the unseasonable heat, she told me of the recent bad news from her agent. After having her first book on submission to editors for 18 months and not getting a sale, the agent read my friend’s next novel that she wrote during that time, and doesn’t like it. (The dreaded “this isn’t quite working for me.”) Now my friend is wondering whether she should work to fit the book to her agent’s liking, or scrap it and write yet another one. Yikes! A year ago, this friend seemed in such an enviable position to me. Agented, one book on submission, already part of a draft of a next book. (I still envy her: that she has what it takes to buckle down and write another book, and has ideas for yet another, and can sit and write for hours without getting distracted.) It’s a reminder to me of how things can change, how each step in the process brings its own challenges and highs and lows, and how doggedly one has to keep at it.

It’s a roller coaster ride, this writing thing. But I wouldn’t dream of not pursuing it.

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