It is the start of 2015 and in keeping with the time of year, the first book we are publishing this year is an anthology of short stories penned by a group of new and talented young writers. Some of these writers have been previously published, while the larger majority is being published for the first time—hence our title—Voices Old & New.
Voices Old & New encompasses the scope, values and aspirations of Indireads as a publishing house. The genres of stories are in the realm of popular fiction, the space that we occupy and aim to excel in and ultimately revolutionize by creating homegrown Sidney Sheldons, John Grishams, Nicholas Sparks and Nora Roberts. Romance, Drama, Crime & Mystery and finally Paranormal, the anthology provides something for everyone in all these popular categories.
Some of the stories are by writers we have come to know via our 1st Short Story competition, some are by writers and bloggers with whom we have developed ties over the past months, but fittingly, most are by new writers whose enormous talent we have been delighted to discover. All these gifted and passionate writers reaffirm our own faith, in our commitment to uncover new voices and showcase them to a global audience.
Finally, the winners, and this year we had two winners for each category, were offered the chance to work with us to challenge themselves and move beyond short stories to create a full-length novel. We salute them in this endeavor and commit to support them with all the learning, craft and experience we have garnered in working with over 40 new authors, some who completed the journey and others who found that they could not.
We begin the New Year with this brave new group of writers and hope that they will make it all the way to the top. And we present to you this year, an exciting new line-up of books by those who have already made the journey and have emerged victorious in this labor of love. Thank you for your support and we hope that you will show your love and appreciation to the new and exciting stories that will be emerging from our press—for you and your enjoyment. We toast you all, writers and readers and celebrate the New Year with voices, both old and new.
I have to admit that I really, really, enjoy reading fairy tales. Yesterday, my mother found an old tattered illustrated book (or what was left of it) of fairy tales in a box. The book had no cover (I am not sure what happened to it) and the frayed and curled edges barely held the pages together. It was obviously well-read, if not so well taken care of. I think (though without the cover, I can’t say for sure) that it was Mother Goose’s Fairy Tales, since it included Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.
This was the sanitized version of the tales, naturally. I wasn’t reading the Grimm brothers’ original tales as a child. These were tales from far-off lands, of princes and poor girls who found unlikely love, vanquished dragons and lived happily ever after. Wait a minute, did I just describe every romance novel ever written?
Let’s see. We have the main protagonist—a young, incredibly beautiful woman battling peculiar odds and seeking happiness (though she doesn’t always know it)—like Cinders and Sleeping Beauty. We have a charming Prince who, while he’s a leading character who will eventually rescue the heroine, doesn’t have a major role in the story unless it’s in connection to her. We have evil stepmothers/stepsisters (read jealous ex-wife, ex-girlfriend or meddling mother-in-law) who do everything they can to drive a wedge between the leading lady and her one true love. We have friendly souls who only wish the best for the heroine and help the lovers come together (the best friends, the romantically-inclined aunt or grandmother). And we have a dash of magic—the universe conspiring to connect these two lovers—that lights the spark, like the kiss that wakes up Sleeping Beauty or turns the frog into a prince.
This isn’t a new thesis. People have been comparing modern-day romances to fairy tales for decades now. In fact, the biggest criticism of romances has always been that they create unrealistic expectations in women who read them. Are we measuring every man we meet against our own Prince Charmings? Are we dreaming of castles and white knights, of seven little men who will wait on us hand and foot while we wait patiently for our hero? Which begs the question, are little boys forever seeking the most beautiful woman in the land for their bride, ready to ride high and low and across the world to find the woman with the prettiest foot that fits the glass slipper?
I wonder about ‘false expectations’ we should be on the look out for if our romance novels were modelled on Grimm’s original fairy tales. Do the critics of the romance novel worry about stories where a mother urges her daughter to cut off her big toe in order to cram her foot into a golden slipper (in the original Brothers Grimm tale, Cinderella wears golden slippers)? Or where a thieving husband readily gives away his firstborn to a wicked enchantress in order to save his own life? Do they worry that parents will be instantly driven to save themselves over their children, leading them into forests and leaving them to fend for themselves, if they read too many stories like Hansel and Gretel?
Rapunzel and Her Parents
I haven’t read all of Grimm’s original tales, but the one that stood out as being the most altered was Rapunzel. Unlike the Disney take in Tangled, Grimms’ tale is a vicious little story of a 14-year-old girl trapped in a tower. Her prince, when he comes, impregnates Rapunzel, sneaking into the tower at every opportunity. When the wicked enchantress finds out (through a stupid slip of Rapunzel’s tongue—“tell me, dame gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young king’s son”), she banishes the girl to a desert, ‘where she had to live in great grief and misery’. The prince, tricked by the enchantress to climb the tower, leaps out of it in order to save his life and falls into a bed of thorns. The thorns pierce his eyes, blinding him and leaving to roam the world in despair.
He does, in time, find Rapunzel, who is raising twins, a boy and a girl, in complete ‘wretchedness’ in the desert. And they do return to the prince’s kingdom to live happily ever after together. The enchantress, however, lives on. She isn’t vanquished by the prince (quite the contrary). And Rapunzel isn’t a long-lost princess whose parents are pining away for their first-born. Her father, in fact, got her into the mess by stealing rare rampion that his depressed wife desperately craved from the enchantress’ garden. When he was caught, he readily acquiesced to paying for the rampion with a child.
More than the obvious violence in these tales is the underlying callousness of human beings, parents in particular. In the original Cinderella, her ‘kind’ father is as much to blame for Cinderella’s plight as her stepsisters. When the prince comes seeking the mystery woman belonging to the golden slipper, Cinderella’s father describes her as a ‘stunted kitchen-wench which my late wife left behind her’. The miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin faces death because her father, in an effort to make himself appear valuable to the king, lays false claim to her ability to spin straw into gold. And despite the clear evidence of the King’s greed, the girl’s fate (her happiness at becoming queen, perhaps?) is tied to his in marriage.
I have never read a modern version of Rapunzel that portrays her parents as anything except deeply saddened at the loss of their daughter. Several, in fact, suggest that they were desperate to get her back. Cinderella’s father was always clueless and distant, never in total agreement with the evil stepmother in any 20th century story I have read.
The more of the original Grimm tales that I read, the more I wonder at the mind that thought these were good tales for children. Or how they turned from homilies on the evil of mankind to stories of love, beautiful women, charming princes and fairy magic. It seems to be a pretty wide leap, a centuries-old game of Chinese Whispers that has stripped the darkness from the folklore.
Children, however, grow up. It’s easy to find the original tales. Fairy tales are no longer fairy tales, but fantastically grim twists on something we associate with Disney songs. This generation isn’t shivering at the thought of Smaug in his mountain, instead it’s dreaming of owning, as pets, Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal. This generation is watching the (yet more) revisions of their fairy tales on TV (Once Upon a Time) and in the movies (Snow White and the Huntsman) and cheering on the grimy Huntsman in favour of a prince. This generation has already eschewed the sanitized versions of Disney’s Snow White for a sword-wielding warrior.
It seems that the only real fairy tales left anymore are the ones we find in romance novels. The only question is, how soon before they, too, embrace the darkness?
The other day, I was having an argument with the husband and the son, both men who try very hard to see the world from the female perspective if only to anticipate what I am going to be up to next. The argument began because both of them were emphatic that wealthy men do not fall in love with their cooks, as my hero, Ranbir Dewan, does in A Scandalous Proposition (ASP).
“True romance needs an economic divide,” I told them. “The wider the gap, the better. There has to be love enough to bridge the gap. That’s why Pretty Woman works. Every girl is looking for a Prince Charming.”
“Not today’s girls?!” said the son disbelievingly.
“Even today’s girls,” I said firmly. “And it’s not just the traditional Mills & Boon TDH (tall-dark-handsome) formula they are looking for. [Nobody in India at least wants anything to do with dark, except retailers of fairness creams!] They want a man who will pamper them, spoil them and give them a lifestyle they can only dream about. They want their own fairy tale!
“Remember the nursery rhyme?” I continued. “‘Curly locks, curly locks, wilt thou be mine? Thou shalt not wash dishes, nor yet feed the swine, But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam, And feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream’. That about sums it up.”
“So what’s in it for the men then?” asked the husband. “It seems to me like a lot of giving and very little getting.”
I had no immediate answer. The son may be grown up, but no parent is seriously convinced their child is not still impressionable, and the argument I was taking up was not travelling along a track conducive to producing a ‘happily ever after’ scenario for the young man in the car.
“It’s not quite as mercenary as I’ve put it,” I began slowly, belatedly trying to make amends. “See, it’s about biology [when in trouble, turn to Mother Nature!]. A girl will automatically be attracted to a man who is not only attractive, but also able to provide for her and her children. So, a rich man is attractive biologically too. But when a man is attracted to a girl, he looks at her body—breasts, hips, legs—again because those are the signs of fecundity, signs that she will be able to continue his lineage.”
The son gave me one of his famed ‘Really Ma?’ looks. The husband stopped himself from also doing so just in time.
“Well, let’s look at your own book, ASP,” he said. “What does Ranbir see in his cook?”
“First of all,” I retorted. “Mira is not Ranbir’s cook. She is an English literature graduate. She is working in the office canteen because she loves cooking and because she needs money to support her family. At Dewan Kutir, she enters the kitchen only when she is asked to. She is independent, ambitious and entrepreneurial, as she shows when she takes up the annual conference dinner proposal.”
“But what does he seen in her?” persisted the husband.
“Ranbir is a traditional-minded man, even though he does not realise it himself. He may be spoilt by all the attention he is used to getting, selfish like most young men his age are.” I ignored the piercing look I got here. “But he has been brought up by his Dadi and, somewhere along the line, her values were instilled in him. When he hears about Reema and Tarun, he takes Dadi into confidence and then moves ahead with the plan to get them together. He thinks Mira is a pest till he sees how devoted she is to her sister, how concerned about her well-being. It echoes his own feelings for Tarun. He is further impressed when he sees how tactfully she handles the situation with Maharaj.”
“But he’s so stupid he needs his Dadi to spell it out for him,” pushed in the son gleefully. “What a wimp!”
“He’s a typical man who can’t see what’s under his nose,” I said with a straight face. Both men were silent. Score one for me.
The son was the first to recover. “But you said women are naturally attracted to rich men. Mira’s not attracted to Ranbir because he is rich. She’s quite happy till he starts invading her space.”
I sighed. Sometimes, it’s tough being a woman among so many men.
Growing up we had limited choices—one kind of bread, one kind of cereal, one children’s program on television per day—and life was a lot simpler. In these days of plenty, ‘too much choice‘ is a recurring problem and when paired with the modern ‘time is money’ dilemma, it results in continual decision-making stress.
To escape from stress (and housework and responsibilities) I have turned to books my entire life. Open up the pages of a book, new or old, and I am guaranteed several hours of happy absorption and oblivion. However, this aspect of my life has not escaped the ‘too much choice‘ phenomena and resulting selection stress. The books I am drawn to read these days are by South Asian authors and the sheer range and assortment of books being published is mind-boggling. Gone are the days when a few select South Asian elite authors held sway over the English writing market. Nowadays there is something for everyone and it almost seems like everyone has a book out there.
The problem then becomes which book to read? As much as I would like to, I can’t read everything out there, and in more cases than I would like, I wouldn’t want to read many of the books on offer.
After a great many cases of hit and miss I have finally perfected a three-point system that I am going to share since it might work for you as well. First off, I read the blurb of the book. A typo or a grammatical mistake here—and believe it or not a good eighty percent of books from the region mess up this critical element—ensures that no matter how good the story sounds, I will not go forward with the book. Call me elitist or over-critical, but if the author and/or publisher couldn’t be bothered to craft a good blurb, one of first points of reference for a reader and a primary marketing tool, what are the chances that the book was given the editing and attention it deserves?
If the blurb is well written and the story seems engaging, my next point of reference is to head off to Goodreads and check out a couple of reviews. I specifically go to Goodreads and not to Amazon since I find the reviews there to be much more balanced and more authentic. My strategy with reviews is to find a couple of longer ones, which generally tend to be written by thoughtful and articulate people. If you find a few of these and they seem favorable, there is a good chance that the book merits the review. My final step is to now move to Amazon and check out the preview of the book, such a wonderful feature and completely free. If the first chapter intrigues me, I happily add the book to my cart and proceed to checkout. If not, well, move onto option two.
While the process isn’t foolproof, it generally results in a good read and since I am planning to spend both my time and money into the book, I for one am happy to make the investment. Thank you Goodreads and Amazon!
Writing a novel is like running a cross-country race. You have to keep the pace, but in order to make it to the finish line, you have to make sure you don’t run out of steam too soon. Cross-country is a better analogy than a racetrack because along the way, there have to be alternate paths, diversions, scenic routes and pitfalls that need to be avoided. The finish line doesn’t need to be crystal clear, or anywhere in your line of vision when you start, and the road itself need be neither straight nor smooth.
A short story, in contrast, is a hundred yard sprint. It’s equally acceptable for the track to be crooked, but the finish line is always in sight. All that’s needed is that last burst of energy at the end that pushes the story into a glorious explosion of shock and awe.
The differences between the two forms are clear. With athletes, it’s rare to find someone with the training and adrenalin for short runs who is also a long-distance runner. One requires speed, the other requires stamina. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen—sprinters undoubtedly run long distances to stay fit, and triathlons and decathlons require speed and endurance to win.
There’s no precedence that says a runner can’t cross over into a different format, and when it comes to writing, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a writer can succeed in any format he or she chooses.
Lewis Carroll wrote full-length tales that included poetry, as effortless and brilliant as his stories—his lesser-known Sylvie and Bruno is a prime example of the versatility of this man. C. S. Lewis, best known for his children’s tales, wrote several adult fantasy novels. As well-known and beloved as Asimov’s greatest novels are (Foundation, I, Robot), his short stories are extremely powerful (The Dead Past) and in some cases (Nightfall, for instance), far outweigh the value of his longer works. Just as talented, Kurt Vonnegut is known for Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, but also has several short stories to his name (Welcome to the Monkey House). George Orwell wrote novels (1984), novellas (Animal Farm) and short stories (Shooting an Elephant). Jane Austen is rarely known for anything other than her novels, but like other great writers, she wrote poetry, prose, short stories, even essays.
All these writers (and more, undoubtedly), were prolific, exploring all forms of writing not because they were exploring the form, but because their muse drove them in a certain direction. In some cases, they even crossed genres, because when a story needs to be told, it’s the tale, the plot, the characters, that dictate the length of the work. It’s the ideas that determine the number of words. Orwell’s allegorical Animal Farm would probably have lost much of its impact if he had forced it into a longer length.
The transition from one form to another is not a matter of skill so much as it is an understanding of how best to tell a story. If there were a set of rules for making the transition—and I’m sure there are—the first must definitely be this:
The idea for a short story does not always work for a full-length novel. Short stories don’t necessarily include complete plots, and can be based on a moment in time, a quick glimpse that leads to something profound. So give your novel its own idea. Make it a big one.
The idea for a novel has to have (though not necessarily in a linear fashion) a beginning, a middle and an end. It should take a reader on a journey, preferably one that takes more than a few hours to read! Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just a longer short story—it isn’t. The difference isn’t just in length, it’s the entire concept. But, because it’s a longer format, don’t approach it like a challenge. Look at this as freedom:
Create subplots. The freedom you have in a novel is that it can be richly layered, with multiple characters, so you could conceivably create a network of short stories that work together, connected through a main character(s) and adding depth and consequence to the novel.
Know your characters. Step inside their skins so that when you write, you’re examining several layers of personality. They’re going to be around for a long time, so make sure you love them too, just don’t make them perfect, because people never are. Or, kill them off early if you feel they can’t evolve. Because your characters, along with the plot, should evolve.
Draw a map. Know your plots, subplots, characters and settings inside out. Use this knowledge to avoid lengthy exposition and work with dialogue and action instead. You may be a master of putting together a short story in your head, but novels are meant to be complex. Don’t make the mistake of leaving it all in the air. Put together a plan and stick to it as much as possible. Imagine that you’re putting down the sequence of events that happen in a movie you’ve seen. If you’re a planner, take the time to plan the details. If you’re not, make sure the broad strokes are in place before you start.
Don’t worry about the word count. Short stories have boundaries, limitations that are a reassuring handicap and force a writer to establish discipline. When you start a novel, relax that discipline. If you’ve always wanted to write, then let the words flow. You can always edit it later. This leads naturally to another rule:
Let your characters and plot dictate the next move. Sometimes, in the middle of a sentence, an idea will grab you by the throat and refuse to let go. Listen to that idea. There’s nothing wrong with letting characters write themselves, or plots unravel and destroy a plan you may have in place. Because rules, as you know, are sometimes meant to be broken.
Once you’ve done that, however, keep track of the different threads you have flowing. At some point, either at the end or in a logical sequence, those threads need to be tied together. Unless you’re writing a series and intend to leave cliffhangers and unexplained threads that will find answers in the next book, your readers will want to know what happened.
Finally, have a little confidence in yourself. There’s no shame in taking ten drafts to write your first full-length novel. It’s not always going to write itself, but giving up is never the answer.
After seeing her books everywhere—she is Canadian after all—I finally picked up a book of short stories by Alice Munro. Let me state clearly that I am a big fan of the short story format. Gems like The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, Jane by Somerset Maugham, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and anything by Roald Dahl are touchstones in my mind, and I return to dwell on them fondly. But by and large, short stories are, in my opinion, quick, interesting short pieces of fiction that offer a pleasing journey and a satisfying conclusion. I expected nothing more or less from Munro.
From the first page of the first story I was hooked. The story came alive as I read it, characters and situations were presented with the intimacy and depth of a five-hundred page novel, layers of underlying meaning and emotions were unveiled and there was no need for the obligatory twist at the end; the conclusion of the story was more insightful and yet more unexpected than any twist could offer. Alice Munro richly deserves her Nobel prize—her stories are intricately crafted works of art, each unique, each containing a world within it.
Reading her stories rekindled my love for literature and the written word, and made me fall in love yet again with what I do, namely finding new and untapped writing talent. Some with a knack for telling stories, some with a burning desire to make a point, some who make you look at things a little differently and then the rarer ones, masters who work magic, wielding their pens like wands. To uncover this talent is a rare pleasure indeed and one that is my privilege and honor.
Towards this end, we at Indireads run a short story competition every year. This year we received over a hundred entries, out of which five stories were selected in the genres of Crime/Mystery, Drama, Sci-Fi/Paranormal and Romance. Each story was judged on merit alone, author names, gender, affiliations were withheld and each entry was reviewed several times. Not surprisingly, the stories that made their way into the shortlist were the ones that scored highest on style, content and impact time and again. The stories are written by new and not-so-new writers, who are not yet masters of their craft, but who someday might be. This is the start of their journey, so read their stories, encourage them and let their talent and confidence grow and bloom under the light of your attention. I hope you will take the time to read each story, vote for it and leave some words of encouragement for the authors. For who knows, you may just have come across a future Alice Munro.
The brief in the beginning was that there should be a social message in the Indian context. To that end, the theme in this one is a class difference. While caste is a social evil people talk about with scorn, the class divide is equally prevalent in all corners of the globe. So here’s this story about what happens when two people from different strata of society meet and finds the sparks flying between them.
In the normal course, these should never have had their paths cross, but after the initial coincidences, they continue to. The chemistry is strong, Abhimanyu, the man about town, who has it all, thinks Sanjana is a fortune-hunter. Continuous meetings make him see the gentle soul she is and he falls in love with her even without realizing how the change has come about in him.
The setting of this story is one of contrasts, his palatial home and lavish lifestyle and her modest one. He rubs shoulders with the elite whereas she roams the mountains for relaxation. The difference in attitude comes through from the contrasting behavior and demeanor of the two sets of parents as well, all rooted in their own value systems and the lifestyles of their respective milieu.
In this one, there are fewer Hindi words as the more moneyed you are in this country the more anglicized you become. The friends move in similar circles so the background is often luxury hotels which are the playground of this class.
The friendships are strong in this one, too, perhaps begging for their own story. The mother-in-law from hell is a cliché, simply because she is reality. However much mothers know their sons, they can be totally off when it comes to their sons’ love interests. The interference can have disastrous consequences. In a romance novella you know love will prevail and in reality you hope it does.
Sanjana’s phenomenal success is really a slap in the face of Abhi’s mother’s and a proud achievement for her own parents. What is interesting is that they are so totally unaffected by it that they cannot understand why she needs to make changes in the house when she comes visiting.
Small town life and its slower pace of life along with the gentleness of the hill folk are true of places outside the big metros. Hospitality is losing its warmth with the breakneck pace of life in the cities, but remains central in small town India. Atithi devo bhava is what every child is taught, the difference is that in the heart of India it is actually a reality.
These were the considerations that went into writing the story and creating the setting for the characters. Since love is universal, these after all are the differences; the emotions remain the same anywhere.
Indireads turns one today. This statement doesn’t seem very momentous, or earth shattering, but for me it is both. June 12th, 2013, a year ago today, we launched the Indireads website, bringing over 18 months’ worth of hard work to fruition and publishing 30 books simultaneously (that has got to be a record for a brand new publisher). I hadn’t slept in months, my house was a mess and my husband was on cooking duty—but euphoria held me up and kept me going.
And then, reality set in. Book publishing is a tough business. Writers can be difficult and demanding, editing is never-ending, the world of e-books and social media is evolving by the minute and loyal readers seem to be in danger of extinction. And although there have been more times than I can count when I have asked myself ‘why am I doing this’, I did not stop. Could not stop is more like it. And the thing that kept me going and going and is simple—the sheer joy of seeing (not holding) the finished product. Someone’s story, translated into words and dialogue, edited, tightened and polished to become a book that we can all be proud of. A feeling of achievement that is unmatched.
One Year Later…
An entire year filled with high highs and low lows, accompanied by an extremely steep learning curve. Learning everything about the business, from contracts to marketing and from social media to sales. While there is too much to pack into one neat blog, I do want to share the top three things I have learned about writing, publishing and reading.
Indireads came about because I felt strongly that the times were changing and that people, especially women, wanted a chance to express themselves and tell their stories—their kahaanis—for themselves and to the world. Everyone asks me how I went about finding writers and whether it was difficult. Finding writers has never been difficult for us, right from the beginning. Blogging and social media have opened the floodgates of self-expression and have swept away inhibitions. People want to tell the stories they have carried inside them and are not afraid to share them with the world. In this new world of connectivity and sharing, our stories are important, timely and deserve to be heard. And we are proud to play our part in helping people achieve their dream of becoming a writer.
This plethora of people wanting to tell their stories also means an explosion of books coming out, with vanity and self-publishing, hitherto unheard of, playing an increasing role. Gone are the days of a handful of established publishers dominating the landscape. New, innovative publishing companies are coming up, offering writers new avenues. These new publishers are needed in order to serve the demand from the writer’s ranks, creating original and inventive content. Others, however, are mere facades that front the business of self-publishing and demand payment from the author, adding no value in terms of editing or vetting. It is easy to get lost in this deluge of books and it is often disheartening to be lumped together with all sorts of unscrupulous publishing firms. But throughout I have held firm to one tenet—that hard work and attention to detail will win out in the end. Time and again, readers and reviewers have come back and praised the quality of our books, the writing and meticulous editing. Quality shines through, good writing trumps bad writing every day of the week and readers will come back for more, if they like what they got the first time.
And finally we come to readers—the one person all the writers and publishing houses are searching for. Where are they and what do they want? In this time-strapped world of live updates and hyper-social-connectivity, do people even have the time to read? And how do they go looking for what they want to read next. I know that readers are out there—as addicted to books as other may be to Twitter and YouTube. Looking for a good book and a satisfying read. They are, at the same time, more exacting and less critical—they will research and read reviews before buying one book, and purchase another simply because someone else has. But the bottom line is that they exist, they buy books, they read and they will come back for more. And the more they read, the more they can differentiate and the more they will hone into what they like and what resonates with them. Which, in the end, will be writing that they can resonate with, written by writers from amongst themselves. This is what I know and I believe.
And so that, summed up, is my learning over this year as a new publisher on the block. Many people have told me that while South Asian literary fiction can compete with the best in the world, popular fiction, the space that Indireads occupies, is unoriginal and unexciting for the discerning reader. I know that the times are changing. Popular fiction writers from this region can and will compete with the Sidney Sheldons, the Danielle Steeles and the John Grishams of the west. We—South Asian writers, publishers and readers—are all growing, learning and competing. What will emerge from this apparent chaos are strong writers, worthy publishers and readers who will demand homegrown, quality fiction.
And that is what our aim is, one year along at Indireads. Join us on the journey.
Thank you for sending “XXX.” Your work received careful consideration here.
We’ve decided this manuscript isn’t right for us, but we wish you luck placing it elsewhere.
Yes, yes, I can see all of you aspiring writers out there nodding your heads at the painful twinge of familiarity that letter caused. But, guess what?
You are not alone.
Those are pretty much the words I read everyday when I checked my email circa 2010 when I started to send out my first submissions. Every day, I would screw up my courage, cross my fingers and toes and pray to everything I believe in for a break, one break, please let today be the day, and click open my inbox.
And there they would be, the mails from people who just did not have space for my writing, even though I would find out, from careful perusal of their sites, that they had ample space for the floozies and ghost writers of the world. I would judge away as hot tears added a touch of salt to my bucket of chocolate ice cream. Some spirited wailing later, I would sit down again. It would be time to send out my manuscript to someone else.
By the summer of 2011 when my first book was released, I had 22 rejection letters carefully filed away in a folder called ‘Motivation’.
For, despite the stinging pain they caused that is what they really are. Words that cut you to the bone and force to you to look at your work or research whom you send it out to or even reword your submission letter. Words that strengthen your resolve to get published. Think of it as a rite of initiation, even the best of the best have to pass, to call themselves published writers.
Don’t believe me? Well, then what about Stephen King? He says:
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
Of course, some of us can have actual laundry baskets filled with these blessings in disguise, but that’s a different story.
So, do you have a rejection story that changed you for the better?
The first question of the English language paper in school was always a composition. Out of five topics, we had to write any one piece of 350-500 words. While the rest of the class would start scribbling the moment they got the paper, I spent at least twenty minutes of the allotted two hours thinking. I marvelled at how others could write a creative piece without prior thought! Middle school upwards I started scoring the best grades in my favourite subject and was consistently delighted about it. I secretly scorned those who ‘mugged up’ essays in a bid to score high. So deep was my satiety at doing well in English that I seemed to not notice that I was terrible at Math. Once, my composition ‘A House on Fire’ was read out in class and folks hailed it as the next big thing. The same day, the Maths paper revealed that I’d failed to score the minimum forty. I pondered upon what I ought to feel more—elation at the highest or dejection at the red line in the report card. That was Class VII. The thinker was graduating to a philosopher.
I used to take Math tuitions with a neighbour who also taught English to students. He gave me an assignment to write an account on ‘An Uninvited Guest’ once, although English was not what I went to him for. When I took it to him the next day, Bijon Kaku asked me if my mother had written it for me. He was amazed that someone who was so poor with numbers could have a way with words. That convoluted compliment remains one of my best ones so far.
Later, as a university student, I wrote a letter to my professor complaining about my room-mate who had no concern for her health, ate khichdi day after day, distressing me with her Spartan life and spent days poring over books. This girl, Subhalakshmi, was a diligent academic and would attend classes which she had not opted for. For the bindaas in me, this was not acceptable, especially because the professor urged me to ‘look at her, learn something from Subha’ all the time! The letter I sent to him through Subha—who had no inkling about the content of the envelope—as she went to his house after class for extra notes. He read the letter, declared it a mock epic and showed it to all who went to study under him. ‘Fame’ felt euphoric, especially as it came from someone with exacting standards.
In retrospect, all these stray incidents may have portended toward a glorious writing career! Except, I was so content teaching English and writing the odd article for the school journal that I never gave any serious thought to a literary pursuit. Didn’t reclusive people who lived in the mountains or by the sea go on to become famous writers? Surely not a small-town girl with two thick, oily plaits who rode to school on a cycle and thought life was all about Jagdish’ chanachoor, reading Mills and Boon hidden in the Geography book and scraping through the Physics exam! Just that, whenever life happened—and it always did—I found myself wondering how it would read in a book or look in a film were somebody to capture it.
Significant incidents I did capture in a diary, but the task of keeping it in a secret place was so bothersome that the practice discontinued, with the silent hope that someday when I became a writer, I’d write about things from my journal. The ‘someday’ took many years to manifest. And I thank God for making it later rather than never. There are so many people who sleep-walk through life without ever knowing where their heart lies that I live in eternal gratitude for my blessing and the awareness of it.
Love’s Labor came at a time when I was travelling for my husband’s posting and had quit my corporate training job. We were in London, had visited places, tried the local cuisine, seen museums and musicals and had had our fill of the sun and the snow. Gradually, when I’d exhausted my quota of euphoria of being in the land of literary giants, I took to blogging. I wrote about whatever I observed or anything I cooked, about the places we explored and suggested our friends do. The blog was well-received and people wrote in to say they enjoyed it or they missed it when I didn’t post anything. That gave me the shove to write furiously and I did it till I was in London. Blogging put me into the discipline of writing. When Indireads approached me, I knew I could sit for hours and type. The groundwork had been laid under the invisible supervision of The Greats.
There were shockers in store for me, though. After my second round of feedback from Indireads, I gave up all notions about my supposed greatness and felt like a student who is pulled up for every line she writes. The manuscript came back with so many red lines that I had to strain to see the original text. I shelved the book and told myself that blogging was all that I could possibly do, not a full length book. And then, after over a month of a dry spell, I got a call from the publisher urging me to ‘forget all feedback and write what you originally wanted to’! I was too stupefied to remark that by then I’d forgotten that too. This divine intervention made me resolute, though, that if I write just one book in my life, this had to be it. The story had been festering inside me for over a decade and I wanted the catharsis as much as I needed to see myself as a published author.
That’s how Andy Paula, the author, was born. I made my debut with a name my friends had christened me with and the added ‘Paula’ just gave it the right zing. When they ask me why Paula, I ask them why not. Being a published author has brought about changes. There are changes in my dimension for example. Writing is a fattening job and I had to shift to a floor arrangement when the chair shrunk without warning. It belongs to the cat now; I cannot fit into it even if I want to. What hasn’t changed is that when I go for a walk, people still don’t recognise me.
With the dynamic and the static is the realization that there are few other highs than seeing one’s name in print. The book reviews, the interviews, the blog posts—all so heady, so intoxicating. And ten years from now when eBooks are the norm rather than the exception, I’d like to look back and think we’ve been the pioneers. I live for those times.