The importance of failing to write

Failure. That fear that makes all of us run, constantly hurrying in the rat race, getting less sleep, tossing and turning in bed at night, worried, worried that we might fail in making it to our dreams, our goals, fail our children and parents’ expectations or worse, our own expectations from ourselves. Failure is a dirty, filthy word in our world. There with shit, vomit and death. Which is perhaps why no one mentions it, no one wants to remembers it, no one repeats or talks about it.

When I first started to write, I had many no-writing days, many days when I would stare at a screen, panic building up in the dark, squishy pits of my stomach, wondering if I could write, if I was writing anything that made sense to me, would make sense to anyone, would be good enough. I was ashamed of it. I felt that if I failed to write one day, one week or one month, that was it. I was a fake, pretending to be a writer, when I couldn’t even frame one sensible word after another. It had to be me, right? For no one else seems to be going through this. No other author/artists/writer talks about this. I thought I was alone. And it did make it all the more miserable.

Now I am different. Or I hope I am. In not that I don’t fail to write anymore, or that I have won over failure because I have written complete works of novels and have been published. No. I am different because I have realised how failing to write is ESSENTIAL for my writing. Failure, or as I think of it, my blackhole day, is the lifebreath, or the vacuum that comes before a flow of creativity.

failure (1)I fail at writing every day. Every damn day. I sit in front of the computer, my hands spread like claws on my keyboard and I do not know what word to put after the first one and then the other. Failure is essential to my creative process. I have to constantly fall right into failed words and failed ideas to know that they’re not working. I stare everyday deep into failure’s eyes, say hello there and know that like the heroine I am writing about, I too will come out of the frozen phase into creativity, into light, into success of expressing the story. But not today.

You have to, and I repeat, have to, fail to write and get over the fear in order to begin.

You have to do it every day, when you ponder on what word comes next, what the character says next and have no clue as to what that might be. You have to fail to write more than write itself. When you are writing, and you know it’s all wrong and you have to delete it tomorrow and start afresh. You have to be wrong, you have to fail.

Tweet in point. For only when you fail, when you stare into the blackhole for a whole day, does your creative mind bless you with a few words to express the story that has been dancing in your head. It’s a blessing really and enjoy it, for tomorrow, in writing that fresh scene, you will start to fail again.

I write this not so much as a catharsis but also as a call out for those desperately looking for a sign of success while in the blackhole. Fail, it’s okay. It’s okay to drop a book unfinished, it’s okay to write a completely wrong or badly sentenced scene. It’s okay to fail. For you have to learn how to fail in order to succeed.

As a quote attributed to Thomas Edison says:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 

And till now, with the grace of the muses who look after me for no apparent reason, I haven’t had a day when the blackhole of failure doesn’t dry up the next day when I am keying in words.

Keep failing, peeps!

 

 

Advice from the baffling publishing industry

It’s been three years since I began writing stories as a profession. I have had three books published so far: The Skull Rosary, The Ghost Hunters of Kurseong, Krishna. Two of these released in 2013. Needless to say, I feel good.

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I started writing without any knowledge on how to writehow to edit, what and where to edit, how to send a proposal, where to send a proposal, who to connect to,  who to approach for getting published, or how to market my books. I have learnt everything all thanks to countless blogs of helpful writers, and advice from writers, authors, editors, publishers that I have been lucky to have found. Of the advice I have received, some has been well meaning, some funny to downright hilarious, insightful, offensive or kind. Here is some of it:

Change your surname: Yes. I got that. A publisher over a cup of coffee told me to change my name and surname and make myself sound Bengali or Anglo-Indian if I wanted to get published in India. Fine, it was a joke and I didn’t really take it seriously but jokes always have hidden truths. Right? So how many of you have seen a book, read book’s back cover, seen the author’s surname and made humongous assumptions about him/her? I bet a lot. No wonder actors change their names, how their names are spelled and their affiliations in Bollywood. And the fact that astrologers are doing so great.

Write more to make money: When I asked a helpful author over email on how he was making money (yes, I can be quite upfront about these things on emails), he told me he wasn’t till the first five books of his got published. But slowly, as little money trickled from each of the book (and believe me, most of it will be littlebee trickles), he’s started to make some moolah. But not enough for designer clothes or big cars. Just enough for survival, a jhola, a glass of wine and not being dependent on anyone. So there. Accept this fact (no Bollywood doesn’t enter the picture) and move on.

Continue to write and write: Advice through a short sweet tweet when I asked KP Singh (Raisina Series) what he did to market his own book after it was published. I personally discovered him not through any reviews / media interviews / friends advice / literary fests, but at a bookstore. I picked up his book because I liked what I read on the back cover. Not because I had heard of him, thought he was cool, liked his name or his  face (sorry, Singh!) If that’s how books get picked up, maybe you need to rethink on that marketing, fellow authors.

Give back some advice: When I thanked, Zac O’Yeah, a well-renowned author for his kind email and advice on writing and publishing which I desperately needed, he gave me another to follow. He told me to continue the circle, to be supportive to authors or writers who approach me, tell them how they can get published, guide people, guide people to fulfill their creative ambitions. And this is one advice I intend to follow. I am not saying that I know a lot about the industry, but whatever I do, I would love to tell you all. I would love to connect you, tell you how to connect with publishers, what to write in proposals (though sorry, I can’t tell you on what to write about). Because we are in the same boat, you and I. Both of us want to bring alive a part of our dreams.

Readers can tell you when something’s wrong, but not what: This came from a blog of one of my ever fave writers, Neil Gaiman. Primary readers (and it’s essential that you get your book read by some) can tell you there’s something wrong in your book, but when you ask them what it is, most probably they will point out to the wrong thing. Don’t ask me why that is, it is. Neil says so. And I know it is so.

You’re published, now sell: That was helpful advice from a publisher. The baffling Indian publishing industry is the only one where the publisher can happily shirk off from the majority of work involved in marketing the book. It’s like a pen-manufacturing company asking the designer of the pen to sell the pen in the market. I don’t know why it is as it is, but it doesn’t look like changing. An author friend told me it’s because publishers don’t have much money to market each book. You should be thankful that they are producing and distributing it. Yes, but they also tend to keep 90% from sales, so they should market all the more, right? Have no clue why that logic doesn’t work in this industry (read the heading). According to me, the books are left in the hands of authors to market, who frankly totally suck at marketing. They have no clue what to do, which is why great titles are completely missed.

Media coverage + lit-fests = your books will sell: This came from a PR friend and lots of other well-wishers I went to after the above advice, desperate to figure out how to market my book. And I did fall for it. Most of it though is bull (Yes, I believe it. Yes, I believe it. Yes, I…). Though this is the game that a lot of authors seem to play. Yes media coverage feels good for the ego, but very less readers actually pick up your book when they read about you in the newspapers. They pick it up because 1) friends recommend it, 2) they like the cover, like the backcover, like how a couple of inside pages read 3) have read your books before. As a debut author, readers don’t know you. It’s better to push your book slowly and patiently in specific groups rather than blast it onto media. And wait for the lit-fests to come to you after one of your books has become successful. For all these will happen AFTER your book gets a few readers. So focus on getting readers, one by one, one book by one book. Of course nothing is stopping you from playing the game, but remember if the game gave all winners, all books would be bestsellers. Well, that’s my opinion on it now. But let’s see what 2014 brings in.

Media coverage / sales for Book 1 means you ensure a contract for your next: Got this from another marketing expert. Nopes doesn’t work. A publisher will reject your next book (unless you are like super duper author), even if book one with them sold well and you frequent page 3 parties. Why? Because the editor might not like the book or it might be a completely different genre like mine was. Nothing to do with you as an author. My debut book, The Ghost Hunters of Kurseong, was accepted by Hachette India through an email submission, from the slush pile, without any agent/connection or media coverage. The editor told me this was the one book in 2012 that they picked from the slush pile. My second book was rejected by Hachette and many other publishers, even though I had made a sort of a name for myself in the industry. Reason? Because it didn’t fit their type of books and the genre was different. And now it’s found another publisher as well. The game goes like this. So there’s no surety on a contract for a book, not even when you make it HUGE. Better to go back to writing.

You’re as good as your last: Neil Gaiman again. (Love that guy!) Even if you dish out the next bestseller, when you go back home horribly drunk and giddy and plan to write your next big seller, you face the empty whiteness of your word document and the silence of no keys plonking, alone. No amount of success, praise, media coverage, people can help you write a better story next time, or give you a great story idea . So be thankful for all the ideas that are swimming in your head and meanwhile, keep writing.

It’s a shitty line of work. Quit: This one was from an author who struggled for quite a few years, with great books out, but not enough sales. This was also two years ago. Now he’s become a best seller and made it huge internationally. I don’t know if he remembers this advice, but I do. And I am going to ditch it. Not because I hope I will make it huge someday like him, but because I seriously can’t stand that Anantya Tantrist wriggling in my head and want to get rid of her by writing her series. (More about that, soon).

That’s it for now, folksies. Will add more as and when I remember the advice.  Happy 2014 ahead.

Why are ebooks so expensive?

It’s a question that came to me and a friend over coffee when we started to discuss Flyte, the newly launched ebook section of online Indian giant Flipkart. Ebook is not a physical book, it’s not printed on paper, it does not take more money to produce more numbers. It does not need distribution channels which eat off a big cost pie of the publisher. It does not need retail space to be sold. In other words, producing ebooks brings down production, distribution and storage costs for the publisher.

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Right? Readers would assume so. For them, ebooks are just another medium but doesn’t exactly mean they own a book. Once you as a reader buy it, you cannot share it with someone or resell it if you don’t like it. In a way as this New York Times article states: You have only rent it from an Amazon or iTunes or Flipkart and your rights on the product are severely limited. You cannot resell and it’s gadget limiting and app-dependent. Logically, if the reader was just renting a book, the ebook’s price should have cost something like a library’s book rental cost – atleast half of the cost of a new book.

Then let us look at what it costs to make an ebook. Most Indian publishers, even the ones who have MNC counterparts, outsource their typesetting work (What is typesetting) to a third-party where plates are made digitally and then a physical final converts into a physical book at the printing press. Since the work is outsourced, the final typeset plates might have been deleted from the printer’s computer or put into raddi . So even if the editors and authors exchange drafts of Word documents and emails, the final version of the book (the typeset one with spacing, font setting and other stuff, etc) is not there in the hand of a publisher, especially in the case of older books, which have already been published say five years ago.

Since most of Indian publishers, especially in non-English languages are still producing books in outsourced press, to convert those into ebooks, they have to incur costs on getting them converted from paperback to OCR (optical character recognition) and then have it professionally proofread for scanning errors. In case they don’t have display rights or digital rights, they might have to procure them. This is a huge roadblock for many smaller traditional Indian publishers.

Then there are new costs associated with producing ebooks. As a New Yorker article put it:

“E-books are cheaper to produce, by about twenty per cent per book, because they do away with the cost of paper, printing, shipping, and warehousing. They also eliminate returns of unsold books—a significant expense, since thirty to fifty per cent of books are returned. But they create additional costs: maintaining computer servers, monitoring piracy, digitizing old books. And publishers have to pay authors and editors, as well as rent and administrative overhead, not to mention the costs of printing, distributing, and warehousing bound books, which continue to account for the large majority of their sales.”

Another article in Huffington Post sums up the costs that it takes to produce an ebook from a publisher’s perspective.

1) Software to create an ebook – Adobe Indesign (One copy costs $699), Photoshop and other softwares to create and edit. Going digital in other words.

2) Cost of hosting the ebooks – maintaining servers themselves or paying rental for third-party hosting service

3) Paying hefty royalty to the new retail giants – “Amazon keeps a bit over 30 percent of every book, because it also charges a “delivery fee” above and beyond the percentage it makes. B&N keeps about 35 percent. Google kept 48 percent on my last report.”

4) More royalty to the author (somewhere between 15-25 percent).

Both New Yorker and Huffington Post’s articles are from old-style publisher point of view. When faced with ebooks, old publishers are panicking and even resorting to illegal measures. In the USA last year, book publishers S&S, Hachette, Penguin, Macmillan and HarperCollins were sued by the Justice department for colluding to raise ebook prices. Out of these three (S&S, Hachette and HC) coughed up money and gave them back to the US customers who had bought up ebooks from 2010-2012. The USA scene happened because publishers were afraid that ebooks will kill the traditional market practices. Some of the publishers were following the traditional market pricing as they simply were in deep sea—not knowing how to proceed in the ebook market.

The Indian market is still nascent. Most Indian publishers shy away from ebook markets citing piracy fears and the fear of the unknown—technology. This fear converts itself into a new cost, a new way of thinking, a new business model. Copying what you were doing traditionally is not enough to keep you afloat. And they are being pushed by demand from readers who have tablets in their hands and want to see the book on various mediums —different ebook devices, audio, print. This generation likes to be served on individual plates. Their way or the highway.

How does one bridge the gap between the MRP that a publisher wants to put on an ebook vs what the reader is willing to pay for it? Maybe a traditional publisher will come up with a new business model which cuts costs. Or maybe we will see exclusive ebook-selling publishers sprouting around us. The Indian publishers need to drastically change their business models, figure out their costs and see the writing on the wall, that they have to change with this paperless times. Else perish.

As for authors, especially people like me who are just starting in the career of creative writing and storytelling, the more mediums I can get to my reader to read on, the merrier for me. Till readers are coming do I care how they read that particular story? I hope the publishers catch up to this reality soon.

My hidden masochist

I have a wee bit of masochism when it comes to writing. Writing doesn’t come naturally (like talking does) to me. It needs to be done in a secluded environment and I mostly hate not being around people. It makes me think, makes me sweat, it makes me run around without any results. It pays badly. Still, I love to do it. I love to write for the simple fact that it’s mostly one of the hardest thing for me to do. It’s the most challenging, the most painful thing I will ever do.

I cannot explain to you dear readers, the excitement and the fears that a blank word document page fills in me. Every time I see a blank page, my heartbeat starts drumming into a frenzy. Will I be able to fill it today? With something that might make sense to someone else? Or will I just be staring at the empty white space?

Why I am struck with these questions is because I have begun on my new book, a fantasy book I was too scared to write two years ago (which is why I wrote Mystery of the Iyer Bungalow first). Now I am finally penning this book down. The story that’s coming alive is not really mine. It’s hers. My heroine’s out and out. What will happen now? I ask myself as I read and re-read things I have already written. I don’t know. I don’t know so many things about her and the book I am writing. I am not in control, it’s painful, but still I prod on. Something impels me to write and continue to write, even though my back aches, my head aches and my emotions are in rollercoaster all the time.

In this writing, I am a medium who is telling a story, almost a shaman who connects you to the ghost. Is the heroine of this book in my head or is she from an alternate world from where, for some reason, she wants to tell her story? Am I completely making her up? Am I lying to you when I tell you that she speaks to me? She’s a person, from an alternate universe. I am a curious bystander. I dread to know what will happen to her in this. She lives in a much more scarier world than I do. She’s more exciting than I can ever be. I am comfortably sitting in my room, typing away to glory. She on the other hand, thrives on action, on the hunt. I am secretly in love with her (don’t tell her that please).

She’s an itch in my head which refuses to go away. Writing about her is not only painful, it’s also some kind of treatment. It’s an obsession. I talk about her with my family with friends. I tell them how she’s feeling today. I don’t know why I am writing about her. Why her? Why her world? Why did I choose all this to begin with? I wonder what a psychiatrist will call my obsession about writing, even though it pains me. I bet modern psychologists have a name for every obsession human beings feel. The only ones normal according to them are the ones who don’t live, don’t have a crazy passion, haven’t fallen in love and haven’t squandered money away. Also, haven’t lived to regret their choices in life. What a sorry state to be in.

So yes dear readers, I can tell you that I am a masochist. My only fear right now is that the world will end (isn’t it supposed to in Dec 2012?) and I wouldn’t have finished this story about her.

Your favourite books, on the digital highway

 

Forget just reading—now you can experience books with soundtrack, videos, animation and games

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced earlier this month that it would stop publishing its 32-volume print edition. Forever. A month ago, in February, a digitally enhanced version of the Game of Thrones, the first book in the much-touted fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, was released as an eBook for iPad. The “book” is much more than a reading experience. It comes with a pop-up column of a glossary of characters and a dynamic map which tells you where all the series’ characters are at any point in the book. To add to the fun, there are clips from the audio book. To call it a book is like asking Marvin, the paranoid android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to get you a cup of coffee.

The book has evolved into a multimedia, multi-touch, customizable offering with the advent of touch-screen devices, especially the launch of the iPad. This evolved version can talk back to you, entertain you with additional videos and references and help you explore itself in non-linear ways. For want of a better phrase, the industry is calling these “enhanced eBooks”.

“Enhanced eBooks are not eBooks, or digital versions of books,” explains Sriram Panchanathan, 41, the Bangalore-based senior vice-president of Digital Solutions, part of the US-based Aptara Inc. “They are something else altogether. They have additional features to an eBook that complement or add to the reading experience.” Aptara works with some of the biggest publishers worldwide, like John Wiley & Sons, Pearson and Random House, and digital publishers like Inkling (www.inkling.com) to create digitally enhanced eBooks of their content. Their most recent titles include The Professional Chef, The Culinary Institute of America for John Wiley & Sons and Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, a self-published title.

According to Panchanathan, you can completely change the experience of reading a book on a touch-screen gadget with extra elements like audio, video, multimedia, scripted animation, a dictionary, or an interactive interface. “A year ago, publishers started with enhancing children’s and educational books with graphics, animations and audio and video but now we see a demand from them to convert non-fiction categories like cookbooks, books on gardening and even biographies,” he says. Take the example of the forthcoming enhanced title from Penguin of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable. It’s a biography of the legendary black activist, features rare archival video footage of his life and photos, and has an interactive map of Harlem, Manhattan, to better visualise where he came from.

What’s helped obviously is that publishers now have the tools to embed multimedia in a digital book in a fast and cost-effective way. Epub 3, the latest update to the open eBook format .epub, and its counterpart, Amazon’s Kindle Format 8, were both released in October. While the .epub version 3 works for almost all touch-screen eReaders, including Android-based tablets and the Nook, Cobo and Sony tablets, Kindle Format 8 works only for Kindle Fire devices. Both formats use HTML 5, which can be used to embed multimedia elements directly into the eBook file, making it look much like a website. “This reduces the cost and size of an eBook and gives creators, the ability to experiment with styling, animation and scripting,” says Panchanathan.

Continue reading “Your favourite books, on the digital highway”

I wanted to blog about an author, but I don’t remember his name

My memory. It was stolen. Just a few seconds ago. Just when I opened a new window to write this blog. I wanted to tell you about this author, a popular guy, a Nobel prize winner, whose work I have never read. His few written words inspired me, ignited me, made me smile, helped me move. This was all yesterday. I don’t remember his name now. My memory just went out, like lights going off in Indian summer heat.

These are a few residual sparks that I gather, urgently, before those also plunge into the no-memory black hole. I wanted to tell you all about it.

  • When I write, I should write for one, not for all. For you.
  • When I write, I should not go back to edit, because that’s just laziness.
  • When I write, I should not depend on my logic but delve into my heart and my unconsicous. I should ponder on things that float there.
  • When I write, I should try to tell the story as honestly as I can.
  • When I write, I should not stop to worry.
  • When I write, I should not remember all this.

 

Just write.

This is all that’s left of him in my heart. I don’t know his name now. I don’t even know what he actually said. All I remember is that he said something, something that hung onto my body like passive smoking. Something that I don’t want to remove with a shower.

I miss my memory about him. All the missing facts and links I could have told you about. But does any of that matter? Does my memory matter when I die? Does it float around in the universe, dropping by various other humans, telling them about this author? Do you hear his name?