An Introduction to Writing for beginners

I recently did a session with a group of year 7 students and I shared some of my thoughts about getting into writing.


Also while I was in India this time, many asked me about writing and how to get started. I thought the content I created for the Year 7 group would be great for anyone who wants to begin to write.

So here is a slideshow on some key thoughts on writing, as I see it.

If you find this useful, do share it with others.


Balu’s Basket – the journey

Balu’s Basket is the first book where I’m going on a journey from the germ of an idea to actually marketing the book – of course, all in under two years.

Before this when a book came out, I was naive and inexperienced to do anything about it. Sometimes my books would come out only in some countries and I wasn’t sure what to do on the day of the launch, if I found about it.

This time though, I think I’ve picked up some tricks and tips along the way, I should say, thanks to SCBWI and its wonderful family – where people talk about how they do things so you could learn from them.

So, back to the story that I came to tell.

Balu’s Basket was an idea based on my eternal themes – I keep coming back to grandparents, villages, fruits and Indian motifs. I wrote the first 20 lines and I really liked the shape of the story.

Tulika accepted it early this year and confirmed that it would come out in 2013. Hurrah!

Lucky for me, this year I also had plans to go home to Chennai in India. Guess what? Tulika, my publisher is based in Chennai too. The last time I had been to India was four years ago and I thought this was divine coincidence.

People at Tulika were absolutely amazing to me. Right from the receptionist who said, “You’re Chitra Soundar, I recognised you from your photo.” to the publisher Radhika Menon who gave up her valuable time to talk to me.

Deeya Nair the editor who I’ve been working with, since my first book with Tulika introduced me to the illustrator who was working on my book. Uttara a digital design student and an illustrator was right there in the next room working on my book – giving it finishing touches.


That was fun – I could see her originals – she flipped through them. She is an amazing artist and so young. This was her internship project and what wonderful work she has produced.

When Deeya gave me the original contracts to sign, she remarked that this was the first time a contract was being signed in the office by the author and witnessed by the illustrator. A good first, I’d say.

Then I met with the amazing duo – Aneesha and Pallavi. Aneesha manages marketing for Tulika and she is very positive about Balu’s Basket as she loves my first book too. She is my partner in crime, as we plan marketing across two continents.


Pallavi had literally joined that week, but was no stranger to Tulika. She’s going to spread the Tulika word in the UK and US and gearing up for it.

[Pallavi (far left), Aneesha, Uttara]


So from manuscript to illustrations, the first part of the journey is almost over. While Aneesha plans the book launch in Chennai, here I am planning the book launch here in London.

Here is the sneak preview of the coversBalu's Basket Eng-Tamil F.pmd Balu's Basket Eng-Hindi F.pmd! I love the colours, don’t you?

The first one is the English-Tamil version

and the second one is the English-Hindi version.

And of course, this time I am also doing events in the UK where I will sell all my Indian books.  The full circle – from being a writer to an author to a full-fledged author-machine. I kid myself – I’ve just begun this new aspect of my unknown courage. I have signed up to the book launch, I am telling stories to young children (we all know how intimidating that can be) during autumn and winter of 2013.

And guess what the next book will be out in early 2014 from Karadi Tales and the whole thing will start again. I’m excited. Perhaps this book came out at the right moment of my maturing author life. Perhaps the wind was blowing in the right direction.

Blurb Therapy for your Books

“Dexter already knows everything there is to know about kindergarten. His big sister Jessie, went there too, and she’s told him all about it. So Dexter is not scared. Not even a little bit. Nope. Not at all. But his stuffed dog, Rufus, is scared. Actually he’s terrified.”

This blurb on the jacket of the hardcover “Kindergarten Rocks!” sets the scene, the tone and the characters of the story. It introduces the reader to what the book is all about and defines the essence of what comes between the sheets.

Who is the first reader of your story? Even before the darling spouse, the resourceful critique group and the wicked editor – you are the first reader of your book. Then you deserve a blurb as much as the book lovers in this universe – right from a grandma who picks it up as a gift to the alert school librarian who puts it through a rigorous test.

What is a blurb?

Blurb refers to the powerful paragraph written by an editor about the book she sends out to face the cynical world. Blurbs draw a reader in as much as the cover does. Blurbs give a glimpse of the treat in store and keep the reader just a bit guessing on the happenings.

Blurbs tease, baring just enough to dare the reader to peek and holding back so that the reader would take the book home. Blurbs don’t give the story away; they enhance the excitement, promising a jolly good read.

Try this exercise. Pick any book that you have read already. Put on the editor’s cap. Write a blurb to sell the book.

What are the characteristics of a good blurb?

Short and succinct: No one wants to read a critical analysis of the book on the jacket flap. Nor do they want to read an uninformative one-liner. The blurb should be short enough to fit into a jacket flap and meaty enough to help readers judge the book.

Everyone heads out the door, even little Bitty, who follows her big brothers and sisters to school. In class, Bitty stays busy with math, reading and snack time. But when Mama comes for her, the youngest student finds that she is most happy to return home.
School by Emily Arnold McCully

Essence: The blurb should bring out the essence and theme of the story in the blurb. What is the story about? New school jitters or a new step-parent or schoolyard bullies? What is the book all about?

Everyone knows the jumble of feelings that go through a child’s head as the first day of school approaches – especially if it’s the first day at a new school.

Will they like me? Will I make new friends? What if I don’t like it? These are questions Sarah Jane Hartwell asks herself as she tries to build up enough courage to embrace her new school.
Blurb from First Day Jitters by Julie Dannenberg.


Hook: Blurbs should hook the reader in and lead him into a maze of characters, themes and exciting scenarios. It should grab the reader’s attention and force them to feel passionate about the story within the covers.


Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnats. Now Stanley is unjustly sent to a boys’ detention centre, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day, digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes.

Yup you guessed it – the first para of the blurb of Sachar’s Holes.

Lead: Just as much the blurb reveals, it should also be mysterious. Never give out the ending. Make sure to raise questions in the minds of the reader. We want the reader to find out what happened to the character that has been portrayed in the blurb.

It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries todig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment – and redemption.

The second para of the blurb of Holes.

Positive reflection: The last couple of lines or the second paragraph of a blurb should reflect on the writer and influence of her personal experience in the story, the language and the target audience.

Take one disarmingly engaging protagonist and put her in the company of a tenderly rendered canine and you’ve got yourself a recipe for the best kind of down-home literary treat. Kate DiCamillo’s voice in Because of Winn Dixie should carry from the steamy sultry pockets of Florida clear across the miles to enchant young readers everywhere.
Karen Hesse on Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Told with deceptive simplicity, this is the provocative story of a boy who experiences something incredible and undertakes something impossible. In the telling it questions every value we have taken for granted and reexamines our most deeply held beliefs.

Blurb for The Giver by Lois Lowry

 Another exercise to blurb your brain

Put on the reviewer’s cap. Write one paragraph about the same book discussing its merits and demerits and end with a recommendation. All within 200 words.

So what’s in it for a writer?  If blurbs are written by editors, why is the writer bothered? Isn’t it the job of the editor and her marketing team, to sell the book?

As hooks in cover letters

When Becky catches a cold and has to stay home from kindergarten, Grandmas Rosalie and Sophie come over to take care of her. Becky’s grandmas love her very much, but they can’t agree on anything! Grandma Rosalie treats Becky’s cold with hot tea, but Grandma Sophie is sure orange juice is best. Grandma Sophie sings a soothing song, but Grandma Rosalie wants to tell Becky a story. Using wise lessons learned from her kindergarten teacher—including “TAKE TURNS, PLEASE!” and “REMEMBER TO SHARE!”—Becky helps her grandmas to get along and understand that there’s always enough love to go around.

That’s the blurb from Pamela Mayer’s The Grandma Cure. But doesn’t it sound like the opening of a covering letter? Doesn’t it sound like sales pitch at a conference? Isn’t it just the right description of the book in a paragraph?

Blurbs are useful tools to pitch your book or sell your story. It helps the editor to understand the theme of the book and also the main issues tackled inside. But it doesn’t give the story away, encouraging the editor to read the submission attached to the cover letter.

Try this at home! Pick a manuscript that has been coming back like a boomerang. Write a 100-word blurb selling it to the editor of a suitable magazine.

Blurbs can also be useful when you don’t have enough to put as past sales in the cover letter. You summarise the submission for the editors, helping them to figure out if the topic is right for them or not. Just like in a bookshop, you browse the blurbs on different books and pick the one right for you, an editor can read through the different blurbs to find out which one is right for her publishing house.

As a synopsis tool

Imagine what it would say on the jacket flap of the hardcover edition of your book. Imagine how book reviews will present your book. Write down the essence of your book in two paragraphs. If you cannot condense the theme of your book into a jacket flap, it is going to be tough selling the book to an agent or an editor and then eventually to a reader.

Crunching the Blurb One-line Summary

Open one of your favorite books – go the copyrights page. Do you see a one-line summary? How does that help? Librarians often order books not by looking at covers and jacket flaps – mostly by reading the summary in their online catalogs. It can help you understand what’s important in your story and what’s not. It helps you focus your energies on the main part of the story and prevents you from adding flab to the manuscript.

One last word

When you attempt blurbs or one-line summaries on your manuscript, very often you will face a situation where you don’t know what to say. That doesn’t always mean you are not good at writing blurbs. It might mean the theme of your book is elusive. The passions and the core of the book have not been dealt with enough clarity.

Share here if you  have favourite blurbs and if you are struggling to write one for your books.

Make the Most Out of Conferences

Playing catch-up is okay when you are five. But if you are a serious writer and spent a lot of money traveling to a conference or attending a workshop, you should be prepared to take advantage of the events and not play catch-up with the speakers.

Most conferences invite experienced writers and editors for the events. These speakers specialise in a particular genre or are experts in a specific area. Their keynote speeches and lectures would focus on pre-arranged topics.

If you go unprepared for these conferences, you will realize that many of the terminologies are new to you and also that the speakers do not have the time to clarify doubts on fundamental topics.

Some of you might think – “Hey, that’s why I go to a conference. I want my fundamental questions answered.” Why waste the money and take the effort to go to a conference when you can find all the fundamental details in most books and websites. From conferences and workshops, you should strive to learn what the books, magazines and websites cannot teach you.

Let’s assume that you have already done the research and decided on the appropriate conference. You have paid the money and also made travel plans.

What’s the next step? You need to prepare.

Read about the speakers.

If they are writers or editors, read at least two of their books. Based on your reading, choose your workshops. You cannot decide which writer will best suit your work unless you read their work. Reading a speaker’s books also gives you the most promising opening lines in informal conversations. Knowing the work of the editor or the writer will be useful when you are preparing questions for the speaker.

Some speakers might not be good orators. But their writing might be exceptionally brilliant. You will not appreciate their workshops if you have not read their books before.

Plan your schedule.


Whether the conference is happening in your city or elsewhere, don’t plan other social activities during the conference days. If you have family and friends (who are not writers) in the city you are visiting, plan activities before or after the conference days, so that you can spend the conference time working on your conference notes, manuscripts and the like.

If you are traveling to another city or country for the conference, keep a day or two for tourism; don’t squeeze it into your conference days. You don’t want to have a hangover or tired feet and doze off during lectures.

Read up the basics.

If you have done your homework and learnt the basics from books and websites, you will be able to ask questions that have emerged in your mind and are not answered by these books. Also you will avoid wasting the time of speakers (not to mention other attendees) and also have more time to ask questions that are better answered by your speaker.

Learn the Business Basics

Find out what query letters are, what are submissions and how do you submit your work to a publisher or a magazine. You can also find out about market guides, industry practices and about the all-prevailing SASE (US), SAE (UK)

Learn the Market

If you want to write mysteries, read as many mystery books you can. Find out which publisher is interested in mystery titles. You can do that by checking the names of publishers in the books you read. Also you can check the market guides to find out who is publishing what.

By doing this, you gain an overview on the publishers and you can ask specific questions about these publishers during your lectures Q&A session or workshops. If you didn’t even know who is publishing the kind of stories you write (or want to write), you cannot get insider info in conferences.

Prepare for Publicity

Also, if you are already published, please carry a copy of all the books you have written and copies of published magazine articles. This will prove very useful when sharing your work with other attendees and speakers.

The difficult part is done. Now let’s look at what you should do during the conference.


a)           Arrive early (at least 15-20 minutes). Talk to other participants and speakers who have arrived early. If you are talking to another participant or a speaker, discuss their books, the process of writing and selling it and also about their publishers.

b)           While attending lectures and workshops, take notes. Don’t rely on your memory.

c)           Distribute your business cards and collect cards from others during breaks and chitchats.

d)           Seek out speakers during the break and introduce yourself. Start conversations citing their books. Make general fun conversations too. Let them understand that you are not interested in them just as a speaker but also as a fellow-writer. But don’t hound them while they are at lunch or in the toilet. That’s just not professional.

Finally the frenzy is over. The conference is over or at least the first day is over. Is your work over? Not at all.

a)      At the end of every day, type up (if you are carrying your laptop) or write down your notes, your learning and your reflections. Memories fade and learning will be lost. Such notes are useful for future workshops and also for discussing the conference with your writers group or family.

b)      After the end of a day’s event, hang around; speak to organizers or other writers. If there is a group dinner or outing arranged, don’t make excuses and watch cable TV in your hotel room. Go out and enjoy being with other writers. How often do you get to spend time with people who understand terms like SASE, rejections, revisions, not suitable for our present needs etc.

c)      After the entire event is over, give yourself a day or two of rest. Then start the follow-ups. List the names of editors who were interested in your work. Check out publishing houses that others recommended. Send Thank-You emails to writers and speakers you interacted with.

d)      If you have the email addresses of writers and editors, maintain contact. You’ve to balance this with NOT stalking. Keep them updated about your progress, any new articles published, if they expressed interest in your work.  Foster the relationship you created in the conference.

Conferences are expensive. Unless each participant prepares ahead it is not easy to get substantial benefits. Make your money work harder at conferences and you will learn more than what they taught.

Here are some conferences you can attend

SCBWI’s annual conferences in New York City and L.A – visit

Highlights for Children run retreats and other focussed workshops. Find out more at

Society of Authors in the UK run annual conferences too. And especially the CWIG gathering for children’s writers. Find out more at

Winchester University runs annual conferences for writers. Find out at

My trip to the London Book Fair 2013

London Book Fair 2013 This was my first trip to a trade fair – I had read about many before, I had looked at pictures of trade fairs and I knew what to expect.

Although a majority of the stalls were aimed at other publishers, rights agents and publicity teams to showcase each house, the content creators like authors, illustrators and translators weren’t ignored. There were events for writers and illustrators and there were special area for translators from PEN etc.

It was a great way to see how the indies competed side by side against publishing giants. The Macmillan, the Random House, HarperCollins – all having huge displays, televisions and posters, ten times the size of a small publishing house. To be fair, they had loads of imprints and companies under each and they all shared that space. But it was interesting to see how all the rights people, sales and maybe some editors too, making deals. (I didn’t actually witness a deal, but I’m an author after all and I let my imagination run its course).

Turkey was on prominent focus and then there were other countries and groups that represented their members – like one of my favourite group – the Singapore publishing team along with NBDCS. I wandered along trying to find interesting publishers, taking photos of their names, when they didn’t notice and then I came upon the Singapore contingent.

I have been published in Singapore and I was looking at new trends on display. The publishing team in the booth not only recognised me, they were happy to introduce me to their various publishers too.

Before I attended the bookfair, I asked many people whether I should carry my books and such. And predictably and correctly, everyone told me to take my business cards and not to bother with anything else. So I went there armed with a box full of business cards. As I walked through the aisles, I found some publishers having a quiet time. So I gathered courage and said hello and introduced myself. Some of them were very keen to talk to me. They asked for my books. Ugh! I didn’t bring any. I gave them my card and promised to send detailed proposals.

So the moral of the story for me was – to take some covers, some sample books or if you have a tablet, take all the digital portfolios you can- you never know who you bump into.

I attended a couple of sessions for authors – especially the one about poetry organised by BookTrust and it was a great treat. As an author, other than the events organised specifically for writers, there won’t be enough to do for 3 days. But one day in the 3 day fair calendar was a good way to dip my toe into the professional waters of publishing.

This will not still convince me to go to Bologna Children’s Book Fair just for this – unless of course I go on holiday as well around the same time or I have an event I get invited to. If you are on your own, it can get lonely very quickly.

All in all, it was a great way to spend a day – surrounded by books and people who are passionate about them.