Tag Archives: novel

Notes from a Wannabe Novelist

inspiration

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. – Matthew 7:7

There are days I wait for inspiration to strike me, knowing fully well that true writers can grab inspiration out of thin air, and make words up from even the most mundane. And then, I remind myself that what I imagine to be a true writer is really an idealization of what a “true” writer looks like.

In reality, all writers experience the void of self-doubt ever so often, and that self-doubt itself is a part of the process.

So, I stretch my hands out, my palms open, waiting for an offering. A sign of sorts.

And there you are, handing me exactly what I need, your question telling me what I need to know, the only affirmation I need in myself:

Don’t you want to become a novelist?

Don’t I?

I accept, holding your question close to me, reveling in the lightness it brings to my writer’s being, that indescribable feeling of contentment, that unnameable vital energy I have been running after, hoping that it will solve the puzzle of me being who I think I am. And accepting that conviction isn’t enough. The “doing” is also important.

Or else, how am I supposed to become a goddamn novelist? How else am I going to say that, yes, yes, I am! I am a writer.

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W.T.F.

book

Disclaimer: This one got a little personal.

I have been questioning my life choices lately.

Here I am. Finishing up my first year as a doctoral candidate in English. On the cusp of thirty.

Not that age should be a factor. I am not worried about getting older. Hell, I am actually ready for the big 3-0 (still several months away). Nor am I in a rush to get married, having recently extricated myself from a relationship that wasn’t really working that well.

No, I am just wondering why I haven’t done it yet. Written the book, you know? There was a time when I saw myself a published author by the time I hit my thirties.

A joke really, considering that one only gets one chance at that first book. Fuck up, and you are fucked.

Pardon the language, but really, W.T.F?

A writer friend who is also as engaged in academia as I am states that she is unable – unable – to be both a creative writer, and an academician.

I beg to differ. I can be both. For me, it’s not about the switching between the academician and the creative writer that’s the problem. But the mental space. The time one gives oneself to become both – not necessarily at the same time – and do it well.

Well, well. That is the key word, isn’t it?

How does one do it well? How does one know that one is doing it well? And, how does one do it and know that one is not fucking up?

I have realized these are questions that have their own answers, depending on who you are asking.

Me? I am still searching for my own versions of truth.

But I feel them shimmering. Hovering just out of reach.

But there they are. Right there. See?

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Havana Calling

havana

Freshly painted pink car in Havana – © iStockphotos.com/Christian Bernfeld – Source: http://www.timeout.com/travel/features/392/20-great-things-to-do-in-havana

This post comes a little belatedly, not because I didn’t know what to write, but because I was/am busy finishing up before I depart to feed my soul for two whole weeks.

That’s two weeks without working on my thesis, or thinking about deadlines, or marking papers, or answering questions to concerned parents who unknowingly turn up the stress factor by affectionate nagging.

That’s two weeks of engaging with an unknown place and people and experiences through creative writing and photography.

Godammnit, I can’t wait!

But le sigh. I have to finish a mountain of work before I get on that plane.

So on the eve of 23rd April, I completed four years of being a blogger. Ta-da!

What did I do that day? Nothing substantial. Meaning, no celebration as such. But possibly worked on a thesis chapter, as I have been doing every day now.

So here’s the lowdown. I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but I haven’t been publishing much lately. Not because I haven’t been sending my stuff out, or writing anything at all (Oh, but I have! So. MUCH.), but because I have been aiming higher.

By higher I mean I have been sending my work to journals where I truly want my work to be seen (won’t take names. Don’t make me! Not yet…). The result has been that I have also been getting a lot of rejection letters. Not form ones. Actual letters with feedback where most of them say:

We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, your piece was not selected for publication. We sincerely hope you will submit again in the future. 

ps. Thanks for the chance to read this. You do a great job of capturing voice in this piece. It made the shortlist for this round.

It made it to the shortlist! Atleast on three different occasions. Which means I am getting something right. In this essay on academics/writers and fashion, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says as much. She calls it “progress of sorts”. That’s where I am right now.

I have also been fashion blogging. It’s a one year project (not just for now. It just is.). It has been evolving and frustrating and fun and all kinds of mixed feelings. From a post every week, I have dissolved it to every alternate week just because it is too much work. Mad respect to fashion bloggers all around. Also, just like my little sister, if anyone else is wondering WHAT THE EFF IS THE POINT? You will find out in a year, when the project’s done.

And for those of you not in the know, my second MA thesis has a creative writing component. Which is really parts of my work-in-progress novel. And, for which, I was allowed to take Carolyn Smart‘s fiction and poetry workshop classes over the past eight months.

In fact, Smart is so awesome that she even edited a short story for a competition. I didn’t make it in, which sort of broke my heart, but it just makes me want to work harder on the story. It will find a home elsewhere, I am sure.

So, there you have it. This is what it has come to after four years of blogging online.

Not a writer yet, but getting there.

Meanwhile, HAVANA CALLING!

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Writing an Awesomesauce Novel isn’t easy. Please understand. OkayThanksBye.

Sigh. Story of my Life.

Sigh. Story of my Life.

It’s no secret that I haven’t been writing my novel. Okay, maybe it has been. Kind of. The truth is I have been finding this novel writing very cumbersome. It has been coming to me in spurts, like tetris blocks that do not belong together. Or, broken jigsaw pieces.

It doesn’t help when people who know about this novel-in-progress, ask me, “So, how is that novel coming along?”

How about you shut the eff up? No offence, but really.

Aunties, uncles, friends, friends-of-friends, foes, random person I just met, mom, dad, sis etc… I apologize in advance, but I am in no mood to kowtow with you on my novel, okay? It’s my novel. I am writing it. I will finish it when I think it is finished. So, if you will please bugger off until then, it will be much appreciated.

To boost my inspiration, I have started working on my short story ideas. It is easier to tackle the short form. For the most part, my approach is very clinical (very similar to my academic essay writing tactics):

1. Make an outline

2. Detail the outline

3. Follow the outline

It works every time.

Well, almost every time.

When it comes to poetry or flash pieces, I have taken the free form route. You know,  just write? Unlikely narratives have emerged that way.

But this novel… it already has a structure- in my head. The details, however, come in bursts.

Yesterday, for example, while in that zone of half asleep, half wakefulness, I wrote an entire excerpt. In my head, of course. Then, I fell off the edge (not literally). In the afternoon, I forgot all about it, until something I was reading triggered the memory. I sat and jotted it down. A novel excerpt, complete! Ta-da! You may clap, now.

I suppose there’s no method to the madness. The modus operandi differs from person to person. So far, this cut-piece method seems to be working. I have written more in the past two months than I have since September.

I have even joined an intensive writing group in the hopes of beating my quarter written novel into a recognizable shape. A shapely mass. A shapely mess?

Anyway, just a word of caution in parting. The next time you are compelled to ask me, “How is the novel writing going?”, don’t be surprised if I ask you to mind your own beeswax. And not too sweetly, either.

And this.

And this (for you-know-who-you-are).

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Breakfast with Teju* (Cole)

Teju Cole, author of Open City (2011)

*Because we are on a first name basis now. 

Yes, it’s true. I had breakfast with Teju Cole.

But of course, like every life changing event (because yes, it is indeed a life changing event for an aspiring writer to have a meal with a world famous writer), this one had a series of causalities that led up to it.

For one, I happened to be in Kingston this year because I am a student at Queen’s University.

Two, I am at Queen’s because I decided to do a second Master’s. I mean, how many people do you know who willingly signs up for a second Master’s? Exactly.

Three, I am friends with Bilan Hashi, whom I had met with as a consequence of her being a student in my program at Queen’s.

Four, Teju Cole happened to be in Kingston this particular year for the Kingston Writers Fest.

And five, both Teju Cole and Bilan happen to follow each other on Twitter.

Of course, Bilan may have never actually messaged Mr. Cole to meet with aspiring writers like herself and her friends (like me) if one of her acquaintances hadn’t done the same with Junot Diaz. Which had worked. Because not all famous writers were stuck up people and actually cared about meeting other writers-in-progress. Hmmm. Who knew?

So, this was the morning of 27th September. Bilan and I are in the lobby of Holiday Inn on the waterfront. We have a breakfast appointment. With Teju Cole.

It’s 9:30. We are on time. I haven’t had more than an hour’s sleep the night before on account of Foucault but had dragged myself out of bed at 8:00 because you didn’t miss these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities unless you were stupid.

We are contemplating whether to approach the lady at the reception, who is eyeing us suspiciously anyway, when the elevator doors open and Bilan goes, “There he is!”

Teju is all smiles.

There is a round of hellos and handshaking and introductions.

We are about to head into the hotel restaurant when we are stopped by none other than Michael Ondaatje.

Was that a sharp intake of breath? Hold on. There’s more to come.

“Teju. We are leaving at ten,” he says. He is talking of their drive to Toronto that morning. Teju leaves on a plane to New York later that day.

“Ten? Can we leave at 10:10? Or, 10:15? I was going to have breakfast with my friends,” and here, Teju introduces us, “Sanchari and Bilan”.

We shake hands with Mr. Ondaatje (while slightly in awe, if I may add).

“You can have 10:20,” Mr. Ondaatje smiles.

We walk into the restaurant, take our seats, and order coffee and breakfast. While Bilan goes for pancakes and I for a garden omelette with fries, Teju settles for a croissant.

The conversation is organic. We discuss our research interests. Bilan talks of her experience of living the underground life in Jeddah, to which Teju makes up a first line of a possible short story where the narrator finds herself snorting coke with a mother of three in Jeddah. We laugh. He shows us Variations on the Body by Michel Serres, a book he is reading at the moment. He tells us about how he quit his doctoral degree halfway through just to finish his novel. We talk of (Jhumpa) Lahiri, who he’s friends with, and whom I admire.

Then he follows me on Twitter right in front of me. And soon, the half an hour is up and I have forgotten the questions I had planned to ask him. He had not at all been what I had expected. Friendly but not superficial. Intellectual without being pretentious.

Before we can protest, he has paid for our breakfast and scampered away with an impish smile.

For a few seconds, Bilan and I are in a daze.

We solemnly agree that yes, we can now successfully cross ‘having breakfast with Teju Cole’ off of our bucket lists. Like it’s no big deal. Yup, none at all.

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A Novel Idea

Ok, fine. It’s true.

I am pregnant.

With an idea for a novel.

So, after much arguing and shooting down of parental objections-

“How can you go alone?”

“You will be bored in two days!”

“Wait till you fall sick…”

“Is this how you waste your hard earned money?”

“What are your plans for the future? When do you plan to get married?”

and so on it went- I bought a ticket to the city of my birth for a four month stint.

With Calcutta, there is no method to its madness. There is no modus operandi waiting to be cracked.

Winter is not cold. The streets are choked with dust, screaming in silence for the monsoons due to arrive six months later. Cars honk without stopping. People stare and spit, obnoxious and devoid of shame. Mosquitoes serenade you after dark (right before they deliver their love bites). And, the volley of questions… oh the questions.

My mejo jethu asked on our first meeting, “I just don’t get it. How did your father allow you to come alone?”

“I was planning to run away, in case he didn’t,” was my pensive answer with a polite smirk. I am becoming quite adept at these polite smirks.

My maid asked, “What time did you go to bed last night?”

“Late,” I answer again, my polite smirk popping up undeterred. Who the eff cares? You are being paid to clean the house and cook occasionally.

My friend from my nursery days, “You guys are so forward. Your parents are really liberal, aren’t they?”

Just the smirk this time. Oh, if only she knew.

And after being hit by a bout of fever, vomiting, cough and cold, and delhi belly (which should be rightfully renamed to India belly)- all in the span of two weeks after my arrival- I rolled up my sleeves and got down to work.

Work meant research. Work meant reading. Work meant revisiting my thesis ordeal last summer.

Flashback to last summer:

I am trudging through a hundred page Master’s thesis on religious identities of Indian women through fictional representations. In other words, I am screwing myself royally, while the saner of the grad students are taking the easy way out through summer courses. There are nights when I cry myself to sleep, reminding myself constantly of my trip to India that lies beyond those hundred pages.

In the present time, I stare at the books I have ordered. They are filled with academic essays on the time period I want to research.

Smile, dear child, my muse mocks. This is what you wanted, remember?

*I am currently in Calcutta, India, until the month of April, researching and working on my first novel tentatively titled, Blood Red Sky.*

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Good Indian Girls Do Not Waste Time Writing Books

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 24th May 2011.

*FYI: Beti = daughter, Samajdar = sensible, Thik hai = Alright, Jaldi = Hurry

“You want to do whaaat???!!”

Write a novel. Now calm the eff down.

Ever wonder how it would be to take a hiatus from life to follow that one niggling dream that dances on the edge of your consciousness day-in and day-out? I do. All the time. And, being an Indian girl let me tell you, it isn’t easy. An Indian girl is a ticking time bomb.

“Do you want to be the only thirty-something to marry the leftovers? Life isn’t Sex and the City.”

Jeez. Leftovers. That’s what my dad calls the baldies and the divorcees, since that’s who you will get if you decide to get married post-thirty. Why, thank you. That does mean I have a neat little bracket of five years left, right? Right?

Wrong. If you are a brown girl baby, you will know that we have two very neat choices (no, infanticide is not one of them): academics or marriage. Ever since I started my stint at grad school with my Master’s in English, daddy dearest laid off with all the “beti*, don’t you want to get married?” Now that my year is winding down, and I have to decide for either the PhD route, or the working girl route, there it is again. I am reminded of my expiry date, my limited shelf life, my doomed future as a single brown girl. See, Indian parents do not hand you a Kit Kat when you decide to take a break from life. A break from life is a luxury that does not exist in the Indian dictionary.

I don’t ask for much. Just want to be a Mistry or a Roy. Maybe, a Lahiri at least. Just not a contrived cow. “A contrived what?” you ask. A contrived c-o-w. Now what is a contrived cow? The market of fiction is filled with contrived cows. In other words, books that pass for literature but are instead filled with superficial plots driven by clichés and contrived platitudes. Books that are great for mass market sellouts, but won’t be remembered twenty years down the line.

There is nothing wrong with being a mass market writer. To each his own. The books sell. You make millions and then you are forgotten. If you like money and fifteen minutes of fame, you might consider the route of mass market. But some mass market writers know how to write and make money, while some are just contrived cows who end up making money by chance. Jeffery Archer and John Grisham belong to the former category. Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon also belong to the former category but to a lesser degree, while Twilight series writer Stephanie Meyer is a contrived cow who just got lucky.

I don’t want to become a non-contrived-cow mass market writer either. That is taking the easy way out. I want to create literature. Get short listed for a Booker, if not win one. I want people saying my name with a hushed reverence within literary circles. (Small dreams, sigh.) Or, atleast give it a try. See if I can. How on earth can I concentrate on creating history if I have small versions of myself crawling around me, tugging on my t-shirt and competing for my attention? So, here I am. Dreaming of taking off for a few months and writing my first novel. Yes, you read that right. I am still at the dreaming stage. But even that comes with restrictions.

“No, no. You can’t write on that… it’s too controversial!”

Err, dad. Are you a realist fiction expert? No? Didn’t think so. Back down, maybe?

“But, but, BUT! Can’t you write on something else?”

Hmm. Can I? Sure. Do I want to? Nope.

Now if I had said instead, “Daddy dearest, I want to get married. Here are some high resolution photos of me in an Indian and a Western outfit (you know, to show the purrrfect blend of Eastern and Western values. As if it can be discerned from some lousy pictures the high blends that I am made of!) that you can put on Shaadi.com. Jaldi!* I am so ready to give up my freedom and make babies,” I would have been rewarded with the aren’t-I-lucky-to-have-such-a-samajdar-beti* look. Now, who doesn’t want to be one of those samajdar betis? Do I see hands? No? Shy, are we?

Instead, this not-so-samajdar-beti decides to take a year off from academia, fly off to the city of her birth and start working on her first novel. Yes, he says finally. Thik hai, go. I am sure you will meet someone in India.

Indian parents, I tell you. Will never change.

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