A Writer’s World# 9 An Ideal Reader

Every writer, I imagine, has an ideal reader. This is someone who gets all the nuances of your story, appreciates the elegant twists and turns and knows the characters as well as you know them. But does a writer ever meet the ideal reader?

In my interactions with the world outside, I have met a variety of people. There are those who have not read a word that I have written. They are a mass of questions, asked hesitantly. How do I write? More important, how do I get published? And then, the vital question – do I make money out of my writing? These are readers who require an introduction to the world of writing and I am happy to give it to them.

There are others who, on being told that I write, immediately ask if I have read their favourite author. When I confess to not having read these books, they launch into an enthusiastic description of the book and reasons why I cannot miss reading them.

There are a few people who have read my books. They are happy to tell me how much they liked these books and how often they have read it. These are the kinds of readers any author likes to meet. It is nice to know that your books have touched lives and have found loving homes in different corners of the world.

But the ideal reader would be someone who knows my books intimately, can ask me questions about my characters and tell me in no uncertain terms where I have gone wrong. These are the people who have engaged with the book for so long and so well that it is partly their book. They speak with great vehemence against perceived wrongs, and tell me with gentle authority what I should put into my next book. They are not ideal because they have read my books or that they show a decided preference for my writing. They are ideal readers because they show me where I have gone wrong, they make me ponder their criticism and suggestions. And most important, they make me long to rush back home, to sit down and write a book that they will be certain to enjoy and remember.

Any reader who pushes you to do your best, is, in my opinion, my ideal reader. And I will remain always grateful to them.

 

Conversations In My Mind#2

 

Books, Bookstore, Book, Reading, Writer

 

Being a writer means you spend a lot of time with just yourself. Even after you have daydreamt to your heart’s content there’s still plenty of time between ideas. And that’s the time my writer’s brain comes up with these conversations with various people, some real, some imagined!  

Conversation with a random person in a bookstore who just happens to be standing by a shelf with your books on it.

This is how it plays out in my imagination.

Me: Hi! Are you looking for books for children?

Random shopper: Erm, yes. Do you…could you possibly help me?

Me: Oh, yes. I would love to. You see, I happen to be a children’s writer.

Random shopper:  As in…you have actually written books for children?

Me: Yes. Here! These are some of my books.

Random shopper: Wow! You are a writer. A famous writer.

Me: (being as modest as I can be) Oh, I wouldn’t say that. But yes…I am pretty well known. In certain circles, of course.

Random shopper: I’ve never met a live author. And these are the books you have written? I am buying them all.

Me: But don’t you want to look at them and…

Random shopper: Whatever for?

Me: Well, to make sure, that your children will like them and…

Random shopper: Why would I do that when a real author has suggested what I buy? I am going to buy all your books. I own a chain of schools and I am going to stock all your books in the libraries there. And, I’d like to invite you to the school. To, you know, inspire the children. I know you must be very busy but do you think you could?

Me: Yes, of course. Anything for a book lover.

 

And here’s what reality does to the above conversation!

Me: Hi! Are you looking for books?

Random shopper: What else would I be doing in a bookshop?

Me: Oh, I only asked so I could help you pick books for your children and…

Random shopper: I don’t really need any help.

Me: Yes, of course. But you see, I am a children’s writer. And here are my books. All 22 of them. They are pretty popular among children. And some of them have won awards too and…

Random shopper: Hmmm, they look kind of interesting. But do you know the most interesting books for children? They are written by this absolutely amazing writer called S S. You must have read her books.

Me: No, I can’t say I have ever heard of this author.

Random shopper: Oh, you must read her books. She writes so well. Such simple prose, such strong messages.  Here, this is her most famous book. You can start with this.

Me: Um…maybe some other time. Bye.

 

A Writer’s World #8 Fifty books and counting…do numbers matter?

A while back my 50th book was published. Of course, the world knew nothing of this but it was a pretty special moment for me.

My first book was a picture book and it was published 15 years ago. I had made up the story to entertain my small son. The joy on his face when I narrated the story to him had been reward enough. And then, I had sent it to a publishing house on a whim. When it was accepted and published, it was a pretty special moment for me. My name on a book was something I had dreamt of, but never really imagined happening. Every book that came after this was a bonus, because my dream had been small and manageable – I had only wanted to have one book published. After the fifth or sixth book I stopped counting. Not because I was tired or had grown so certain of my publishing career but because of something more important.

Publishing my books took a back seat to my desire to write. Of course, I did want the world to read my books but when I was writing and working on polishing my story, that was all that mattered. I dreamt, not of seeing the book in print with my name on it, but of writing a story that would create magic with its combination of believable characters, an interesting plot and a unique setting. And so I glued myself to my chair and thought up worlds and stories, characters and twists. There were years when nothing I wrote was accepted, there were years when I had a sudden rash of releases. There were rejections and long waits for editors to get back to me. There were huge moments of self-doubt, long periods when it seemed futile to write another word.

And then, a new idea would grip me and hold me in its thrall. It would occupy my every waking moment, allowing me no time at all to think of anything else. And that’s how I wrote and wrote and wrote. Why I persevered and sent out sample chapters to editors, and waited patiently to hear from them.

And so, when my 50th book was published it was a pretty special moment for me for several reasons. From dreaming of publishing one book I had come to having my 50th book out. I had risen from the depths of despair where it had seemed logical to never write again and written more. And with every story I plotted, every word I wrote, my voice had become stronger and surer.

It was incredible that something as abstract and insubstantial as an idea, something born in the humble corners of my brain, could have resulted in so many publications. It seemed even more incredible that people were reading the stories I wrote, that I was being paid to do what I would have done for free, that I was recognised for the worlds I had created and peopled.

And then, when I looked at the number of books I had published, 50 acquired sudden significance. It was proof that words can create magic, that they can influence people and create an identity for you that has nothing to do with all the roles you play in your life.

And for that, yes, numbers are important. Every single book you notch up is yet another validation of yourself, and the magic of your words and your stories.

 

Conversations In My Mind #1

 

Son, Mother, Child, Parent, Young, Kid

 

 

Being a writer means you spend a lot of time with just yourself. Even after you have dreamt to your heart’s content there’s still plenty of time between ideas. And that’s the time my writer’s brain comes up with these conversations with various people, some real, some imagined!  

 

Conversation with my son

This was in the days when my son was much younger and spent a good chunk of his day gaining an education and acquiring mysterious streaks of sticky black stuff on his face, hands, and clothes! I thought he knew what I did for a living and hoped he would talk about it to people at school. This was how I imagined a conversation with him on the important topic of what I did for a living would go!

Me: So, how was your day?

Son: It was okay. We discussed jobs and everyone talked about what their parents did.

Me: (heart thudding in pleasant anticipation): And?

Son: And I told them my mother stayed home so she could write amazing stories for children to read and enjoy.

Me: (melting) Oooh! Really!

Son: Yes, I told them you were a famous writer and everyone in the whole world had read your stories!

 

And in reality? This is what happened.

Me: Did you have a good day?

Son: No! I am grumpy and tired. Can you do something to make me feel better?

Me: I have some snacks for you and…

Son: No! Something else.

Me: Umm…oh, you could watch some TV and…

Son: Something better.

Me: I can’t! I am a little tired and…

Son: Tired? But what did you do all day? Didn’t you just lie on the sofa and watch TV? Huh?

 

A Writer’s World #7 Why Writing to Authors is Important

How often have you read a book, enjoyed it, and then set out on a mission to urge it on all the readers you meet? It happens to all of us; a book sets our imagination on fire, it fills us with joy and wonder. The world is a different place because we have just read the most amazing book in the world. All we want to do is to go right back to it and read it again and again.

We look at the poor souls who have not been lucky enough to have enjoyed this magic  and feel sorry for them. And so, we urge the book on everyone we meet, assuring them that it will be a life altering experience, that the beauty of the language will sweep them away and the lovely storytelling draw them in. And every time we convince someone to read the book, we are filled with a sense of jubilation. It is as if you have allowed one more person into a secret garden and can now look forward to discussing the beauties of the garden with them.

In all this joyous celebration of a book, where is the author?

Even the most appreciative of readers will be at a loss if asked this question. True, the author is the person who wrote the book. But that was a long time ago, somewhere in the past. Since then the book has travelled the world, it has passed from hand to hand, making a home and nestling in hearts and minds everywhere. It has spoken in different voices to its readers, and has therefore come to mean something different to each of them. It has, in short, become a reader’s book.

This is wonderful, of course, and exactly what any author would dream of for her book. But, wouldn’t it be nice to invite the author to the party you are throwing in honour of her book? In short, wouldn’t it be nice to write to the author and tell her what you thought of her book?

For the vast majority of people who read and enjoy books, the thought of writing to authors is startling and fresh and new. And sometime even a little frightening. Does one really write to authors? And will the author like to be written to? Finally, how does one go about writing to an author?

Yes, of course any author will be thrilled to hear from readers. Finding ways to contact her is no challenge; most authors have websites and are on various social media.

But what does one write to an author? That is the easiest question to answer- you write what you have been telling the world about her book! You tell her how much you loved it and what you loved about it. Authors are humble people and will accept any suggestions or criticism you offer on the book.

I remember feeling down because a book of mine had been reviewed harshly. I didn’t  mind the reviewer not liking the book, because, after all, everyone is entitled to their views. What I did mind was that it seemed as if the reviewer had not really paid attention to the story and had found faults merely for the sake of finding them. And that was when a reader wrote to tell me how much she had enjoyed the very same book. She had picked it up for her child, she said, but been tempted to read it. It had transported her to the days of her childhood and so, she had decided to write and tell me.

Even if your letter doesn’t reach the author at such a dramatically perfect moment, it is sure to bring a smile to her face. Isn’t that a very small return for all the hours of joy she’s given you?

International Mother Language Day

As a children’s author who has written for children of all ages, I often have parents and teachers sitting in on my sessions. These sessions are essentially meant to introduce children to the magic of stories and so, rather than read out from my books, I tell them the stories that I have written. Of course the children love this. But I am always surprised by the enthusiastic participation of the adults. They laugh and giggle with the children, and they join in with the children to beg for ‘One more story!’

And it’s hardly surprising, is it? After all, it is our love for stories that has us reading books and becoming addicted to long running soap operas. And so, in these days of social distancing, what better way to connect, than through stories?

This is a story that I have narrated in my mother language, Marathi, in celebration of International Mother Language Day.

 

 

A Writer’s World#6 Meeting Other Writers

For most writers, writing is the secret activity that they do in the small pockets of time between rushing around doing the million other things that rank high on the list of things that absolutely need to be done.

Writing tends to get buried under the mountains of other things we do, the expectations and duties of all the other avatars that we embrace. And though writing is usually the most important thing in our minds, it is not often the first or even the second or third thing we speak about, when talking about ourselves. It is often the almost after thought that follows belatedly on the heels of all the other identities we wear. Combine this with the fact that writing is an isolated activity and the chances of meeting a fellow writer are usually extraordinarily slim, and you begin to understand exactly what a writer feels about being a writer.

These were my emotions too. Almost fifteen years of writing alone, cut off from any but the most necessary contact with the writing world, I had no real sense of where my writing and I stood. All communications with the writing world had invariably been from publishing houses. And since these had been a mix of acceptances and rejections, with a heavy tilt towards the rejections, I had no clue how to assess myself and my writing.

And then I attended my first literary festival exclusively for children’s books. Suddenly I was in the midst of people I knew and recognised from their writing, people I had admired without ever hoping to meet and people whose books had given me much joy. These were people who spoke a language I understand and who understood the frustrations of writing and publishing, of making time for oneself and one’s writing in the mad race of every single day. With so many common points established, it was difficult, almost impossible to not make friends with at least some of them.

And I came away with a few friends whose opinions I valued, whose suggestions I considered and whose encouragement I appreciated. They brightened up my day with jokes and send comforting messages when I was down. They also offered suggestions and willingly shared contacts in the publishing world.

And I understood then that literary festivals, in addition to bringing readers and writers together, also allowed writers to meet each other. Just one more act of literary significance!

The Lonely Writer

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The loneliness of a full-time writer

 

 

Whenever I see pictures of marathon runners or of cyclists participating in competitions that take the long way around the world, I am struck by the aloneness of the competitors. There they are, tiny specks in the whole stark loneliness of the world, sweat pouring down their bodies, utter exhaustion on their faces, but filled with a dogged determination that does not allow them to stop.

That’s pretty much a writer’s life, minus the sweat, of course! There’s no getting away from the aloneness of a writer’s life. She is locked away in a world where no one else can walk in, dealing with all-important questions like – should the protagonist be a girl or a boy? Should the bad guy be the Aunt or the Uncle? Will it be better to give the monster six hands or ten? These are important points and make all the difference to the way the story is first written and then, (hopefully) read.

So, what is the solution to this loneliness? I am sorry, but if you thought I was going to offer you some secret passage out of this loneliness, you are wrong. There is no secret passage out of the loneliness. The loneliness is part of the job, it makes you who you are and helps you write what you do.

So, how do you deal with it?

By accepting it, even welcoming it. Solitude is a wonderful gift to a writer whose work involves long periods of thinking. Imagine how it would be if your entire family decided to keep you company and stayed home? You would so distracted. Even if they are the most considerate bunch of people in the world and walk about on tiptoes when you are working, it’s no good. When you are thinking and writing, even the sound of people’s thoughts can disturb your flow.

Think of all those writers who had to seek solitude and be grateful for what you have.

And you can see that silence and loneliness can be the best gifts a writer can hope for.

 

Becoming a Better Writer

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Whatever gets published makes you famous. 

But what doesn’t get published makes you a better writer.

 

This is not a well- meaning bit of sop for all those looking for comfort when they face rejection. It makes sense, a whole lot of it. Think of it, when you write a story, you write it in isolation, wondering all the while if your readers will like it as much as you do. A tiny part of your brain tells you that perhaps you are a little bit prejudiced in favour of your story but you push the thought roughly aside. And then you send the story to the publisher of your choice. When they write to say they are sorry but it does not fit their publishing list, you are devastated. How on earth could it have been rejected, you rage. It was so beautiful a story, with such lovely characters.

But when your anger subsides and you are at that stage where you look at the world through yellow coloured lenses, that’s the time to act. Read the story again. Read it as if you were a stranger, unacquainted with the characters, fresh to the setting and unaware of all the plot ploys you’ve put in. Laugh at the jokes, ponder the sad bits, and cheer for the characters you like. And when you read the last line of the story you will know exactly what makes your story weak, which of the characters are let down by stiff dialogues and which twist is so obvious that anyone could see it from the very first page.

And now, you are ready to rewrite the story. If you do things honestly and ruthlessly, cutting unnecessary bits out, pushing your favourite character into the dark of cupboards where they languish, then your revised story will be new. It will sparkle with believable voices and wit, with humour and laughter.

And when this story gets published, it will make you famous.

But only after it has made you a better writer.

A Writer’s World #5 What Does A Writer Read?

Whenever I venture out into the world and meet children and adults who have read my books, one of the questions I am asked is what books I read. Curiosity is definitely the primary reason behind this question, a very natural curiosity about what a writer herself reads. But I think there’s also the sense that if only the list of my favourite authors was discovered, it would help crack the secret of why I write and perhaps also a little peek into how I write.

I understand that since I too take an avid interest in the reading lists of other people. But because I do this, I can say with the greatest confidence that these lists don’t really make a difference. What I like to read need not necessarily make it to the list of most read books for another person. Or what inspires me may well leave another person completely cold and mystified. I am asked if I read the classics and if I would recommend reading the classics. I never know how to answer this question, because as time passes and I grow in my writing and thinking years and also in human years, the books on my list change. When I began writing, yes, the books I read were definitely the ones that would feature on any list of books that must be read. But as the years passed several of these books were replaced.

I discovered new authors and their books, I was inspired by the style and the philosophy behind the books. I was filled with admiration at the various ways in which language could be used, the elegant bends and twists that resulted in an entirely new way of narration. Here were writers and storytellers who created new worlds that seemed far more real and believable than the one I lived in. These were people whose command over the language left me stunned so I spent hours marvelling at the way they created a sense of the atmosphere. I was impressed at the apparent ease with which they made me love or hate the characters, the magic they wove so that I was reluctant to part from them and obsessed about them as if they were real people. How, I wondered, did they do it? How did they take a difficult topic and weave in a variety of apparently unrelated issues and come up with a story that kept me hooked from the first page?

The answers to these difficult questions lay in the writing and so, I spent a lot of time chasing down every single book, essay and interview by these authors. My respect grew with every word I read by them, every word about them. And so, I returned to their books and yes, I read them multiple times. They seemed sparkling new and fresh with every reading. And with every reading these books managed to show me a new facet, a new angle and a new reason to admire the authors. They gave me reason to think and ponder on the magic these authors wove and the huge skill that lay behind this magic.

Every time I read these books, I came away with something new, something that inspired me and got me thinking about writing. Even better, a reading of these books sparked off an idea so my brain buzzed with excitement too big to contain and all I longed for was to sit down that very minute and write something new.

And that’s when I realised that you recognise a classic not by the number of years it’s been in existence or the number of copies that it’s sold. You recognise a classic by how much it has inspired you, by the doors and windows it has opened in your mind and the thirst it has filled you with. You recognise a classic by the different ways in which it has inspired you, the multiple drafts it has forced you to write in search of that elusive perfection and by the constant need, sharp as hunger, to always improve your own writing, always hoping to come somewhere in the vicinity of the brilliance within its pages.

And that is the kind of book that will always remain on your list.