Eeeks! Last month it rained awards and I forgot to write about it here. My science book They Made What? They Found What? which shares stories of Indian inventions and discoveries, has won the Publishing Next Industry Awards 2021 for best book in children’s category. The eighth edition of the annual Awards were announced last month. The Awards were presented in 10 categories.
The same week that this book won an award, it was also a finalist in the Auther Awards 2022 (See the glamourous award night photographs here).
About the book
In ‘They Made What?’, kids meet India’s brightest scientists and read all about their incredible, groundbreaking inventions in this first-of-its-kind book. Whereas, in ‘They Found What’, they are introduced to India’s brightest scientists and read about their incredible, groundbreaking discoveries. It’s a marvellous, fun to read, fact-filled science flipbook. Buy on Amazon.
About the award
Established in 2011, Publishing Next was conceived as a Goa-based conference where publishing professionals could come together and discuss threadbare the issues that they face at work, or in the industry they worked in. The Publishing Next Industry Awards were established in 2014, the only ones of their kind in India, were presented in 11 categories in 2020, and seek to reward innovation and leadership in the Indian book trade.
How you can deal with guilt when not being productive, how watching Korean dramas helps and a cool, free futuristic game you can play online.
Dear Penpal is a fortnightly newsletter by me, Shweta Taneja, to support you in your creative journey with tips, opportunities, insights and inspirations. Subscribe or read the archives here.
How has your fortnight been? I’ve already become better.
When I wrote to you in April, I told you about the tough time I’ve been going through. Writing it brought me messages, emails and phone calls from a lot of you.
Most of these messages were like those unexpected gifts life gives you. I reconnected with a friend I hadn’t spoken to or thought of for years. A colleague who I had worked with a decade ago asked after me. I did a video call with an old friend, surprised that I hadn’t heard about the crazy upheaval her life had last year.
It was lovely to reconnect, to laugh and perhaps, grieve together.
Thanks to the pandemic, I’m regularly calling people I love, people I took for granted that they will remain in my life. My family, school mates, college mates, mates from different cities and professions that I’ve been lucky to travel through in life.
With Death creeping in to take from us, life has suddenly become valuable. I am thankful for the life I’ve led, for the conversations and the meals I’ve had with everyone, including you.
Countering nagging productivity prompts
All of April, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t think. My brain couldn’t process anything productive.
It was frustrating and I kept feeling guilty about it.
The other day, while scrolling one of the socials, I came across a well-meaning social post about Einstein who wrote part of his theories of relativity and motion under lockdown during Great Plague of London (the post was probably based on this article last year by The Washington Post).
The post suggested that you’re under lockdown, why not write your next novel? Why Netflix your time away? In other words, remember the guilt I mentioned?
I’ve put myself through pressure like this before.
Maybe you have too. Being the product of a data-based modern world that rewards productivity and efficiency, we all constantly feel guilty when we don’t produce things.
When I’m relaxing, or lazing or even daydreaming or reading – activities that I know help the brain create, think and get better ideas – there’s a nag in my brain that keeps countering these down times with productivity prompts. An author I know online wrote ten books a year! I should NOT take a break for I’ve produced only one. Another author has sold that many books. This one keeps doing events.
My society, peers and myself, perhaps even you, look at creativity as a productive machine that should produce more and more.
Put out new products in the market so we can get a good economic value for them (aka make them a bestseller). Isn’t that what success is for most of us?
Be over productive in creativity doesn’t always work
The truth is comparing productivity in creativity or forcing your brain through creative churns DOES NOT WORK.
We’re going through a tough time. Even if you are lucky to have health and money to sustain you, and a family that’s healthy too, you’re going through a seriously stressful time. Every day, you’re being exposed to media – relentlessly – on Whatsapp messages, on Twitter and Facebook and even in the news.
We’re scrolling through one tragedy after another, endlessly, without respite.
It’s okay to feel anxious and want to zone out.
It’s okay for you to give your brain some rest.
It’s okay to be selfish about this and NOT create things.
These letters to you are helping me, dear reader, find my creativity again. Find the creative activity that gives your brain rest, that sparks your creativity further. Don’t get bogged down by productivity expectations.
I bet Einstein never bothered to be productive at all times. And we don’t know about all the hard times he went through, all the daily failure and ridicule he faced in his scientific journey.
The story only has the rosy apple that fell from the tree.
Play a futuristic, free game online: Play Survive the Century, a brand new, indie, free online game written by some fantastic science fiction writers out there including my friend Rajat Chaudhuri.
Surreal but dark read on Prague: I somehow tumbled into the surreal The Ultimate Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera which made me miss Prague. Save it for it’s beautiful, but don’t read it if you can’t do dark fiction right now.
Beautiful North-South Korea romance to watch: Talking of dark, I’ve become hooked to good, average and bad Korean shows on Netflix. (Thank you, Gunjan!) The old-fashioned, real love stories of hope are helping me navigate the dark times. Of course, beautiful boys always help. Highly recommend Crash Landing on You.
My Writing Joys
A laugh-out-tale about a robotic bride: An Indian family heads to a boutique in Delhi to look for a perfect robotic bride for their boy. Read my just released, hilarious science fiction story, for free on The Antonym magazine website.
A Live Session on National Technology Day: I did a Facebook Live Session on teaching science to kids with Professor Amit Agrawal from IIT-Bombay who is part of my flipbook on science They Made What? They Found What? It was an insightful panel hosted by Starmark Bookstores. See it here.
Hilarious Screen Time diktats: I’ve put Screen Time limits on all social and video apps on my phone. I was recently tossed out of my Instagram Live chat because time for Instagramming was up. Once at work, I was tossed out again. But I still use these limits. Still using them, as the blanking out of screens does kick me out of my scrolling daze.
I’m sitting in the dusty, but cuddly, indie bookstore Goobe Book Republic in Bangalore. This was a Sunday afternoon in early March. I signed a whole box full of my latest book to ship to people across the world. Finished it off with a three-way conversation over samosas and piping hot filter coffee with supportive spouse and Ravi, the owner of the bookstore.
Ahh, a perfect day.
Is guilt a productivity motivator for you?
Do you feel guilty when not being productive? Do you compare yourself to other writers, other creative people, and constantly feel this need to be productive? To write more, to sell more, to be more? Does this push motivate you or bog you down?
I would love to hear how you do it, dear reader.
Signing off with a warm hug and positive energy towards you,
You need the right food to keep your brain healthy. A study published in The Lancet in July concluded that one in three cases of dementia could be prevented if more people looked after their brain health and strengthened the brain’s network by improving their diet, not smoking, doing exercise, keeping a healthy weight and treating high blood pressure and diabetes.
Brain health is easy
Without the right nutrition, the brain cannot produce neurotransmitters or neurochemicals like serotonin or dopamine that are responsible for mood, social behaviour, appetite, memory and even sexual desire, say Luke Coutinho, doctor of alternative medicine and founder of the health start-up Pure Nutrition. “The right foods can boost numerous aspects of mental health, including memory, concentration, intelligence, cognitive thinking, and help in the prevention of diseases like depression, Alzheimer’s, etc,” he says.
Have you been tempted to write a romance bestseller lately? The other day, I was chatting to an author about how speculative fiction is such a hard-sell in India. (It’s the usual conversation between science fiction writers. There’s a handful of passionate us, and a handful of equally passionate readers. The others, don’t really care if it’s not mythology.) Immediately, I get a WMA (well-meaning advice):
“Write romance. It sells like hot cakes in winters.”
Umm. Frankly, all Indian writers, be it of any genre or creed, have thought about romance once in a while. After all, it’s the most selling genre in our country. I did seriously consider it for a second. I did!
And then I remembered, that the last romance I read and appreciated was between the Oankali, alien genetic engineers who touches DNA in humans to have sex and a woman named Lilith. Author Octavia Butler‘s Lilith Brood gave me as many goosebumps as decades ago Sharukh Khan’s ‘palat’ in the movie Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge had done. And I don’t read much romance myself, unless it has alien spit or monster claws involved. So I turned my eyes away from the temptation of writing that romance bestseller we all think we can write and decided to plod along on the current science fiction mess I’m in the middle of.
Should you write a romance bestseller?
Which is why when I came across this witty sketch by author Sarah Maclean over Twitter, I had to share it on my site. Sarah is a period romance writer based in New York. The flowchart tells you how to decide on whether you should write a romance novel or not. As I read it, I was ‘out’ in the first step itself. If you’re considering writing romance like me, due to a WMA given by another or by yourself, do read and go through this flowchart. You’ll figure out the truth, I promise!
Have you ever considered changing your genre and writing something else that is selling well nowadays, like mythology or romance? Do tell me the truth!
I’ve always found the job of a literary agent very curious. Since as an author I know that most Indian authors don’t make much money, I do not understand how a literary agent, who charges the author 10-20 percent commission on royalty, makes any money in Indian publishing. This curiousity led me to ask these questions to Kanishka Gupta, a friend and my agent in India for YA/A novels.
Kanishka runs the literary agency Writer’s Side and has represented more than 400 authors in his short six years as an agent. I find him superquick in his responses, honest about his feedback and open to debut authors. In this excerpt he answers all those questions about agenting that had got me curious. I haven’t edited the blog, so it’s rather long. Take your time.
Q) A literary agent is rather an unusual profession. People who come into it, either wanted to be writers or publishers. How did you start as a literary agent?
As an out-of-job, out-of-sorts struggling writer in my early twenties, I was deeply perturbed by the lack of a support mechanism for writers in the country. At that time there was just one literary agency ( yes one!) and publishing editors were like inaccessible government bureaucrats. After freelancing briefly for a literary agency and a well-known novelist, I took the entrepreneurial plunge and founded Writer’s Side. In the beginning WS was more of an editorial consultancy but over time we have shifted our primary focus to author representation.
Last few months, got a few journalists asking me to give a quote for a lot of interesting stories they were working on for their media houses. Listing down my absolute favourite ones! This is more for my reference than your reading, but go ahead and read it if you’re looking for interesting stories around storytelling.
Shattering the idea of feminism with wit – Bangalore Mirror
This was a fantastic story that talked about new age women in all careers who are trying to face-off chauvinism, patriarchy and bigotry with humour, wit and a slice of lemon. I loved the story, though I didn’t have to say much I’ve always struggled with the idea of feminism and what it represents in India (aka feminazi) though I bet Anantya would disagree.
Who I want to see at Jaipur Literature Festival – HT Brunch
Douglas Adams! That’s who. Imaginethe author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy coming down to Jaipur with his massive wit and observing the whole gamut of the festival and the bustle crowd around literature without a book in their hand. He would have a blast, I tell you. I loved the answers of others in this too. Read the whole article online here.
Reared by the wolves – Firstpost.com
Firstpost did a great article on why we remain fascinated by the human child that grew up in the jungle, aka Mowgli. I got to add my two bits along with Ashwin Sanghi and others.
“Shweta Taneja, a speculative fiction author and a Charles Wallace Writing Fellow, offers this perspective: “I feel the idea of growing up in the wild, away from social norms, is tied up to having a re-look at society and what construes social norms and civilisation. When a character grows up in the jungle so to say, his/her perspective to our society is fresh, explorative, almost child-like in its curiosity, innocent and simplicity. This kind of storytelling is a way to explore the society that we live in from a fresh, almost innocent perspective. The writer, who is invariably city-based and grew up in the civilised environment looks at the jungle/forest space as something which is chaotic and dangerous, but at the same time has codes that are untouched and untainted by the civilized codes.”
Have a story you’re doing? Write to me. I would love to give in my two bits.
Do you suffer from writer’s block? I’ve been thinking of taking a break because writing is coming tougher to me nowadays for various reasons. A friend mentioned maybe it was a writer’s block. Since I’ve never fallen for the whole idea of a wall blocking your creative side, I thought I will write about it. And just then serendipitously I came across my wonderful author friend Andaleeb Wajid’s rather helpful blog on the same subject. Andaleeb is a superstar author who keeps churning out one fantastic book after another, while taking care of a vast family, doing workshops on creative writing and generally being a fantastic person. So if she’s talking about this block-monster-thingy, believe me she knows her stuff. And this is what she suggests you do.
What’s this Writer’s Block?
If there’s one thing every other writer will tell you or post/tweet is that they’re facing a writer’s block at some point or the other in their writing career. Of course, if you are a writer, you know for a fact that writer’s block can strike you unawares and the novel that you were working on is no longer flowing from your finger tips on to the keyboard. This feeling of being stuck, of not being able to move forward is typical of writer’s block. But here’s a secret. Writer’s block doesn’t exist. What? Yes. It doesn’t. Writer’s block has more to do with your mental disposition at the point of time when you’re trying to write, rather than actually being the thing it is made out to be.
Over the past years as I’ve been writing my books there have been times when the words just didn’t seem right. There have been times when I haven’t felt like writing. A typical question that students I speak to, or interviewers ask is how I deal with writer’s block. This is how.
1. It’s in your mind. It doesn’t exist. Believe it.
In workshops at schools, at literary events, festivals, interactions with writers, strangers and friends, I’ve met some really funny responses to the fact that I am a writer. The awkward conversation starts in a party or a hangout, when you chat to a stranger. Or when one is trying to get through immigration or getting a passport renewed. (shudders)
‘What do you do?’ someone asks jovially, a drink down. Heading for another. ‘I write,’ I answer with my winning smile. Blank stare. ‘Books and articles and stuff,’ I try again. Blank stare. ‘I am an author,’ I venture. ‘An authorpreneur?’ I try again, my tongue doing Patanjali-trademarked yoga on the twisted word, desperate now, mentally kicking myself for paving in to the popular perception and respectability of the word ‘author’ rather than the more humdrum ‘writer’ which is how I see myself.
‘Oh,’ says the stranger.
What follows can be any of these responses and my response to it.
‘You know, I’ve always wanted to write a book.’
‘Great. Write it.’
‘I have an idea about a book.’
‘Great, write it.’
‘I wish I could write.’
‘Practice makes people perfect.’
‘Will you write a book for me? I have an idea.’
‘No. Ideas are like flies. They’re everywhere. Why don’t you go flush yours down the toilet? See where that leads you?’
‘Do you make any money?’
Oh, you mean like Chetan Bhagat?’
‘Yes. We both write fiction.’
‘Give me your book, I want to read it.’
‘I don’t carry my book, the same way you don’t carry a factory or the excel sheets you make at office all day long.’
‘Will I get a free copy?’
‘Sure. Can I drill your empty head and stuff it with empathy. Please?’
‘Oh. I need a signed copy.’
‘Great. Order a book, call me. I am always up for signing copies.’
‘Acha hai. You have to do something for time pass.’
‘I am rather fascinated to find the overflowing vat of idiocy behind that bushel of hair that grows so proudly on your head.’
‘Isn’t writing a hobby?’
‘It can be. I just do it all day long.’
‘Wow! So you will become famous like Chetan Bhagat and earn lots of money?’
‘Not really. Most of us don’t earn. It’s a silly profession. Work hard, get nothing. We have no idea why we do it. But we do. Kind of like being addicted to alcohol. Or cigarettes. Or coffee.’
‘Why don’t you make a movie out of it and earn lots of money?’
‘Did I say I was a director?’
‘I have this fascinating idea, which I think will make a really good movie.’ (From a hair stylist, cutting my hair)
‘Ok-ay. (politely, since I did want a nice haircut) Did I say I was a producer?’
‘You don’t look like one.’ (From a rather judgmental 11-year-old)
‘Oh. See my name on the tag of this literary festival? See the name on the book I’m holding? Can you even read?’
‘Oh, I am so jealous. You have an easy life. Sitting at home, making stories.’
‘Try it, will you? Please do. Practice by staring at a screen all day long, waiting to see if your brain will work and produce a publishable phrase.’
‘So how do you earn?’
‘I don’t earn from books. Period. I get my income, depending on mood, from selling peanuts on the road or stealing from overpaid MBAs, by hitting them with a running shoe.’
‘So you will get famous soon?’
‘One hopes, but no. Most authors don’t.’
‘Where can I buy it?’
‘Everywhere. Do you go to bookstores?’
‘Sorry, I don’t read.’
‘What a loss of a perfectly sound brain. Oh, wait…’
‘How was the response to your latest book?’
‘Umm. How many times have you had sex this week? This month? …year?’
A sunset crunched in 3 seconds. A party shortened to a few minutes. Time-lapse videos used to be a pain to shoot but now with smarter apps they’re as simple as, well, taking a selfie. Here are a few apps to turn you into a video pro.
If you’re an Instagram workhorse, Hyperlapse is the app for you to capture a speedball video. The app smoothens hand-held videos using a fantastic image-stabilization software that uses data from your phone’s gyroscope to measure and remove frames that are shaky. Run, walk, jump, fall, drive and take a video and get a cinematic feel without lugging around a selfie stick or a tripod. All you need to do is hold the phone camera up, shoot a video, choose how fast you want it to go (it can speed up your videos up to 12 times)and upload. The only downside of the app is that it is available only on iPhones.
Free on iPhone and iPad. Hyperlapse.instagram.com
One of the few apps to create timelapse on Windows Phone, the Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile comes with a simple, easy-to-use interface. It offers 32x speed, so you can crunch hours of videos into a few minutes. And you’re not limited to just the app. You can import any video, taken anywhere and speedball them up. What we also loved is that it can record 1080p videos. That’s pro- quality video for free and just right to be seen on the biggest screen in your home. This app can also stabilize videos, though that happens only if you choose 1x speed.
Free on Windows Phone and Android. Research.microsoft.com
Build by Noida-based computer engineer Nishant Singh as part of his project in the last year of his B.Tech course, the app comes loaded with features to take a hyper video. You can adjust the frame interval, speed, zoom, autofocus, adjust white balance, choose the front or back camera, set video resolution and take a video in landscape or portrait. You can also set up a video duration to stop recording automatically. So just place it in a corner of a party and let it do all the work while you mingle. The Pro version, which costs $2.99 (around Rs204), has added advance functions like sleep mode that reduces battery drain while recording and customization of the length of the video, exposure and frame interval.
Time is a thing of beauty. There are moments it trickles, slows down enough that you can hear your heart beat, beat by beat. There are flashes when time zooms, taking you on a journey full of laughter and glee. That’s how my 2016 went. Flew by, waited tiresomely and pondered. So I just want to list down the things I was thankful for.
Made new friends
Beginning of the year, I shivered and learnt from Booker Prize winners at Chichester as a Charles Wallace fellow. Gave a talk in London. Worked on three books simultaneously, editing two and writing a new one. Learnt how empty it feels when you finish a project you’ve been with for years. Wandered in loneliness and heard myself. In the process, hung out with new people and made new friends.
Learnt about failure
The book I started, refused to come to me. I lacked the skills for it and had to park it. I learnt to breathe and learnt about patience. I learnt to let things go. Attended a wedding in the middle of July in Delhi. Roamed on the streets. Found bugs with nephew and saw them through a lens so we could appreciate the beauty in their wings.
Did things new to me
Saw a zebra running wild and a lioness being licked by her cubs. Found how hard it was to plant a tree. Launched a book and became a hybrid author. Started a new book, which I’m halfway through as I write this and am hoping to finish. Joined an ATM line, two days after demonetisation was announced and read a book on my Kindle. Joined two startups as their communication advisor.
All through this, I made many new friends and spent time with my old ones. Wandered the streets, chattered over filter coffee and green tea. Heard stories, nodded in empathy and danced away the nights. I’m so thankful my year went so beautifully.
As you read this, I’m off somewhere in Madhya Pradesh, with my closest buddies, doing what I do to recharge my creative batteries: Walking, hiking and listen to collective wisdom on the road. I’ll come back with new stories, probably of ghosts, woes to share, ideas to write down and more things to be thankful for.
Have a wonderful year end, peeps.
Read, learn, make new friends, be merry, share laughter with strangers, fall in love, learn a new skill, slow down, get fit, plant a tree and listen to what it says to you. Take your life away from gadgets and make time for the people you love. For we won’t be here forever. And remember to be thankful for everything the universe has given you. Oh, and keep having that tea with Mad Hatter.