A letter to aspiring writers | On Writing

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Dear aspiring writer,

The one question I have been asked repeatedly in the last few years, especially by Investment Bankers and Private Equity colleagues, is ‘how did I switch?’ But ‘how’ is not the real inquiry. Because ‘how’ is easy; you just do.  It’s just a smokescreen for the real questions, the ones the subconscious really wants to hear.  How do you actually write? Where do I find the jobs? How do I get published? How do you measure success? How many times were YOU rejected? What do you say when people ask you, ‘ what do you do now?’ and of course, the most important question and the one they often don’t want to hear the answer to, ‘How did you let go of the money?’ Because you do let go, there’s really no two ways about it. You’ll never have that level of income security again. 

We won’t spend too much time discussing the ‘why’ because if you’re thinking of switching careers to writing, you already have your why and everyone’s ‘why’ is different. You came here for the ‘how’.

How do you begin?

Start saving

You want to switch careers? The first thing you do is to start saving. Because, ideally, you need to take some time off to figure out what it is you want to write. Do you want to become a journalist? A novelist? A freelance writer? A style blogger? The world really is your oyster when you start from scratch. If you are a banker, then it’s quite likely you’re burnt out. You can’t figure out  what you want to achieve when you’re working, because the immensity of quitting overshadows what you’re going to do once you quit. At least it did for me. I knew I needed ‘me’ time. I wanted to travel extensively and I didn’t want a Damocles sword hanging over my head. All of this means time and time is a variable of money. I had enough saved (thank god for the mandatory one lakh investment I had to do every year of my working life), so that even after investing ridiculous amounts on art that I shouldn’t have, I was able to survive two years without a regular income. I was also lucky enough to be rooming with my boyfriend at the time; he was quite happy to shoulder the rent. I gave up my apartment a few months before I quit to ensure I could start saving well in advance. Assume it’s going to be at least two, probably three years before you see any money flowing into your bank account. It’s been three years since I quit and while I make enough money to take care of my travel needs and myself, I am lucky that the said boyfriend, now husband, continues to shoulder the rent. There’s a reason why Woolf called it, the luxury of one’s own room. You need time and space to write. If you’re single, go home to your parents. Use this time to get to know them, because you can write from anywhere and you save on rent. This is no time for hubris. Remember, switching careers is a luxury that comes at a hefty price, mostly your pride.

But, I have a family…

It’s going to be harder but the rules don’t change. You just need the most important person in your life to be on your side and shoulder the burden. And you need to save that much longer. And it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to take two years off to travel like I did, but that doesn’t mean you cannot write. Start writing now, an hour a Sunday that you can then stretch to two hours, perhaps when your children are sleeping.

Start writing

So you want to write? Then start writing before you quit. You are not going to be able to finish that book while you’re holding down an IB job, but what makes you think you can write 4 hours a day if you can’t spend a Sunday writing for an hour? See how long you can write for? Does it come naturally? Most importantly, you need to know if you like the idea of writing rather than writing itself? But more than anything, are you any good at telling stories? Writing is an activity that can be learnt, storytelling is a calling. I tell stories all day, even if I’m not writing. In fact, I am a storyteller first and a writer second. Some days, I wish I could write by thinking, I wish the words would materialise on paper, that a little gnome could come in later and fill the spaces with flourishes I might have missed so I can just get on with the story. I dream stories. All writing is story telling be it fiction or non-fiction. Even non-fiction writers are telling someone else’s story. If you want to be a food writer, you are telling a story about a dish, where it came from, how it felt, who made it, why you ate it, the end. The easiest way to start? Blogging. I was lucky enough to have a friend, Afsha Khan, who let me write about books on a website- The Caterpillar Cafe, which soon became my writing haven. Cultivate a reading group that is open to reading your work.  There’s nothing like a friend who will read your work, always. I have been lucky in that respect and have a handful of people whose time, and honesty, is always available to me.

Take an intensive creative class

Again, I was lucky to have a lovely mother-in-law that gave me a Gotham Fiction writing course as a gift. At Rs 16,000 a pop, they don’t come cheap, but they are an excellent investment. The class teaches you the basics of writing no matter which format you choose to pursue. It gives you weekly exercises to ensure you write and, most importantly, it exposes you to criticism- the writer’s frenemy. Every writing class has a criticism aspect to it where you either read out your work aloud or put it up online for other people to critique. The first time is an epiphany. Anonymous online critics don’t lie and they don’t exaggerate; there is no need. Your friends like your work? Of course they do. The real test is if someone who doesn’t know you from Adam says the same thing. They owe you no love. If you get bad criticism, you need to take it on the chin and work harder. Writing is hard work, there is no sudden flash of brilliance where you channel Virginia Woolfe and bring out a novel overnight.

If you can afford it, don’t stop with one class. I have been to intensive dialogue writing workshops, plot building workshops and query letter-writing workshops.  I love workshops, but only the serious ones. I have no time for the celebrity author who plans to spend an hour with you for Rs 2000 and tells you to write something beginning with the word-‘I remember’, thereafter choosing one to read from the lot. That’s not a workshop, that’s just an indulgence and not worth it. You learn nothing in an hour. My dialogue workshops comprise an 8-hour session where my writing is put to work and everyone get’s their work read out loud. There is however lot to be learnt from a published author talking about their writing style or their work ethic, as well as one-day workshops held at literary festivals.

Read

Because you’re saving money and not going out, you have more time to read. If you’re in your notice period, then take the novel to work and read during your lunch hour; there is no classier ‘Up yours’ to the establishment than that. I speak to people who want to switch careers at least twice a month and more than half of them don’t read. Off the bat, I tell them, ‘you not going to be able to write’. Reading is not confined to novels or books. Reading comprises everything, magazines, and comics, even the Harvard Business Review. But reading helps you fill your writing toolbox, especially when you start off because your own voice is still hiding beneath layers of corporate bull shit and it’s going to take some time to become original. Until then, fall back on the masters. Don’t worry about being original right now. Just write. You want to copy JK Rowling? Go for it. After three chapters you’ll probably find you sound nothing like her.

 How do you get published?

Getting Articles Published

The chicken and egg of all chicken and egg situations; this is the question I get asked most at book launches, readings, or on my Linked In page. Editors want to see prior published work but no one will publish you if you haven’t been published before and you can’t get published because no one will publish you because you haven’t been published before etc etc. How do you break this incredibly obtuse cycle? There are two ways:

First way: You wow a published friend. That’s what I did anyway. I managed to get the attention of a lovely well published friend of mine, Sonia Faliero, who, after being pleasantly surprised by a sample piece I wrote, made a small introduction to an editor of a Indian Travel Magazine.  The editor loved the sample piece too, and I had my first published piece in about a month. I forget to add something else- I cheated a little.  I began my career as a writer at The Hindu Business Line and so arm-twisted one of my old bosses to give me one more chance; so I had another piece. That along with my sample pieces and my travel blog- I am a terrible blogger, became my portfolio-a tiny one, but a portfolio nevertheless.  But you need to have sample pieces you love that showcase your work in the best light possible. I showed the same sample piece to my co-founder, Afsha Khan, and she loved it too. Her exact words were, ‘wow, you can actually write.’ Once she said that, I knew I was going to be ok.

I bet you have a question now? Why won’t anyone help me.  None of my published friends help me. There’s a reason. Now that I am published, I don’t share my contacts with all and sundry until I know the person can write because I have a reputation on the line as well. So sample pieces are critical. We are not in competition. Your writing is only as good as your ideas backed by your execution. If your sample piece is great, there is no reason a friend or acquaintance won’t share a contact. But her/his neck is on the line too, especially if you don’t follow through. Because most editors are not our friends, we work with them.

Once you get your first piece, you need to be relentless. Use your banking skills. Remember that we’ve been trained like no one else. We have worked twenty-hour days, 140 hour weeks, and known months without a social life and days without sleep. And for what? For someone else. Now you’re doing it for yourself. Bankers are the among the most efficient and hardworking people I know; we are disciplined, relentless and never take no for an answer. Don’t lose that; it’s going to be your best friend when you quit and stay home to write and pitch every day to get a story idea accepted. Working on your writing pitch is no different to pitching for a deal; it’s way cooler. And if you think the hours get better in writing, think again. This is a completely different animal that requires peace and quiet. That means no calls, no fraternising with colleagues and most definitely, no useless meetings where nothing gets done. Just sit down and write. But once you’re done, then work is fun. It’s reading, writing and reading again. Perhaps a few hours of research and even better, it’s flexible. But don’t confuse flexibility with fewer hours. Think of it like this: you are the master of your day but that with great power, you know I have to add, comes great responsibility. It’s much easier having a 10-8 with someone forcing you to come in. It’s much harder to do a 10-6 with no one watching. Trust me, I know. I spent the first three months reading and watching reruns of Buffy The Vampire Slayer until I realised the book and articles weren’t going to write themselves.

You also need to understand the freelance publishing world. What is a Story Idea? How do you pitch? Whom do you approach? That’s another post. A short cut is to take a small freelancing workshop. This is a great place to meet editors and get their email addresses. A quick rule of thumb: an editor will jump at an article he or she likes. If he or she hasn’t responded in a week, they don’t like it. Pitch it elsewhere.

Second way: If you happen to be a fabulous blogger, then just blog away. If you’re any good and if you are disciplined, you are going to be the next Miss Malini or Miss Pioneer Woman. You ain’t gonna need no editor contact. That just sounded terrible, didn’t it? That’s me trying on a voice for size; it didn’t work. But you get my drift. The likes of Akanksha Redhu and Miss Bubbles don’t need Vogue but Vogue will come running to them nevertheless. If you want to know more about blogging, you need to study them and not me. Actually, don’t study me for anything. Study Stephen King. King is God.

Getting a novel published

I had no help here, and unless you know the editor of any of the publishing houses incredibly well and by that I mean, you see them every week and their daughter calls you ‘maasi’, you are going to have none either. That’s why we have literary agents. Thank god for the literary agents. So if you have a novel, write it. Finish it. And see about getting an agent. If you’ve come this far -to my site, all you need is to go to the personal notes section and find my agent’s number. That’s how easy it is to contact an agent. Once you do, it’s like anything else. If an agent loves your work, she or he will be calling you in the next twenty-four hours asking for your first three chapters. If you don’t have them ready to go, they will be pissed off. Don’t piss them off. Keep everything at hand. That’s all there is to it.

Rejection

There’s a lot of it. If the agent doesn’t get back to you, and most of the time, they won’t, get used to it. Just because one person didn’t like it, doesn’t mean they will all feel the same. You only need one agent to say yes. Once they like it, they are relentless. They will work hard for you because no agent signs you if they don’t think you have it to be published. Remember they only make money if you get published. And while most agents are darlings, if they are anything like mine, they are also forces to reckon with.  I got rejected ten times, maybe more – I started to lose count after a while. But fear not, persevere and you will get there eventually. Or you may not. How do you know when to quit? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you self publish. There are no gatekeepers in self publishing. If you believe in your work, then do everything you can to get it out there. Let the readers be the judge. Also, take a short course on social media so that you can PR the hell out of the thing.

What about the money and all the judgment that comes without it?

There is everything from none to tons, depending on what you are willing to write. On average, a magazine or newspaper writer gets paid Rs 1 – Rs 3 a word. Once you get established and editors like your work, you might be able to ask for more. This is different from doing content work, which you can do on the side to supplement your income. It won’t give you the high of seeing your byline in the Mint Lounge or the National Geographic Traveller but it will pay for your drinks and maybe even your rent.

There’s also part time work. I teach part time, and that is starting to pay off. I plan to teach more, it’s a career I have stumbled upon and developed, and one, which I think, is going to be almost as fulfilling as writing. Teaching is a great part time job, especially teaching your craft if you’ve managed to get the hang of it.

Book advances are tiny for the debut author and range from Rs 50000 to Rs 2 lacs for a novel you spent two years writing. I know it’s harsh. But if you become successful and the next Amish, well all that can change. But my husband, bless his soul, keeps telling me something. Don’t do it for the money, he says. If you are a banker and have had your entire self worth dictated by how much you make and you measure success by how much you make, this can be heart breaking, gut wrenching and emotionally draining. But you need to change your measurements of success if you want to be in the writing business. Another inspiring friend, Nayantara Sood, posted something the other day – Change the Game, don’t let the game change you. McNamara follows that with, make the money, don’t let the money make you. This sounds terribly flighty and even somewhat romantic, it’s not. It’s a very practical stance to take if you want to survive. I am still struggling with it, but everyday gets better. My measurements of success are changing. You need to stand on your own two legs, but if your crutch is well and able to hold you up for a while, use it until you can make it on your own. It’s tough to shed your old life and your old ideas, especially when people around you are going to judge you by those yardsticks whether you like it or not. The judgments hurt but everything changes when the book comes out; my husband said it would. ‘They’ll all shut up when you’re published,’ he said. It’s true. But don’t wait for that, because then the goalpost just moves, like in all careers. Now that Fade Into Red is done, I am already worried about my next book. All that matters is what the people you hold terribly dear to you-you can count them on one hand, think. If you happen to get them, and most importantly yourself, on your side, then as Kipling says,

“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…”

I hope this helps.

Warm regards and all the luck in the world,

Reshma

 

 

 

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