What do I do when I’m not writing?

I’m not a full-time writer. I still can’t afford to live on my writing income. In fact many writers are in that position nowadays. But I’ve always been writing while I was working ever since I sent my first unsolicited manuscript out in 2002.  The first 3 days of the week, I write only for an hour or so in the mornings. Then comes the creative part of the week – Thursday to Sunday. pie1But what does that mean? Do I lock myself inside the attic room of a tower and type away on my antique typewriter until the takeaway man rings the doorbell?

Nope – no attic, no tower, no antique typewriter and definitely not the takeaway. Much too fussy for takeaway.

Take the case of a professional racer like Lewis Hamilton – he says he never drives cars when he is not working. He rides a bike (not the pedal one of course). So as a writer what would I do with all the time I have every week for 4 days? My colleagues from my day job think I languish in the garden, enjoy elaborate lunches and go to the theatre most days.

Nope, no garden, no elaborate lunches and not a lot of theatre for sure.

My first priority is always the current projects – if I am in the middle of a book that is contracted, or a magazine article or editing a proposal, that’s what I would spend my mornings on. But sometimes I do get distracted and work on something completely speculative and then force myself to come back to the work on hand.

Then I start on preparation for school visits, updating the website, blogging like I’m doing now, creating additional activities and lesson plans for my books. It’s good to keep them updated and be prepared for the next visit. My motto – Always Be Prepared. I was a girl guide once, and well worth the training.

Of course I won’t have all of it to do on the same day. Some days are just writing days, some days are just extra-curricular work days.

But when the contracted projects have been sent away for someone to review or edit, when there is nothing new to do on my extra-curricular tasks – how do I spend my time?

Firstly just because I don’t have a contract on hand, doesn’t mean I stop writing. I’m always working on something – either a new idea or tweaking an old story, doing creative writing exercises, creating funny characters using a game called Character Relay, thinking up odd titles and first lines and scribbling haiku verses.

I have a notebook like what school children call a rough notebook. I write all sorts of things in it – from What-if scenarios to funny poems about the man I saw in the bus or how the clouds changed shape when I went into work. I don’t censor myself when I write in this notebook. I scratch out, I rewrite, I draw, I write messy and I storyboard. As long as the idea gets captured and I create some sparks in the creative nerves of my brains, I’m happy.

So when I’m not writing, I am doing a lot of other things.

IMG_1217Like all writers, I read. I read lots of different books in many different modes – sometimes it’s a grownup book from the Booker shortlist on the kindle, sometimes a stack of picture books in the library and perhaps a sit-down with a collection of poems. The one thing I’m still reluctant to try – audio books.

Very often reading stimulates and triggers a new idea. Sometimes a puzzle piece falls into place about a plot problem or a technique of writing or a character that needed the extra something. Then of course I race to my notebook to jot ideas down, to take down notes and such.

But some days the reading is hard. Could be because the mind is distracted, or there is a low point in the writing and I couldn’t bear to read a masterpiece that would push me into the abyss even deeper. So I have other distractions.

I doodle stuff – from robots to faces to houses to weird-looking cars and ambulance trucks. I colour them in too when I want to play with my sketch pens.IMG_1593







I do zen tangle patterns – I create boxes of design in black and white and in colour. IMG_1656It calms my mind, focuses me on the design in front of me and makes me feel better when I see some of my own artwork.





I watch birds – I was always a big fan of small birds. I used to stand in front of the huge small bird display at Natural History Museum for hours. I bought a pair of binoculars and a bird identifying poster a few years ago – but I dropped the binoculars and broke it. Recently after watching an urban birding segment on BBC – I decided I was going to find, listen to and watch birds in my neighbourhood. So I reinvested in a pair of binoculars. P1020334 I diligently record every bird – even the innumerable blackbirds, magpies and crows I see and record their calls and try to memorise the sounds.

I cook – I love cooking all sorts of vegetarian food, bake small cakes and I dream of baking good bread. DSCF0178I cook comfort food when I’m feeling low, I experiment when I find some amazing ingredient in the supermarket and try out new salads or soups because I love one-pot cooking. The dream is to write a comfort cook book sometime in my lifetime. But I don’t think I’m big on measuring ingredients – so like my sister says, how can anyone follow your recipe?

I am going to admit two things that would make you gasp. I love ironing clothes while watching the telly and of course I do watch telly when I’m not pressing clothes too. clip-art-ironing-535176Oh dear, watching telly, isn’t that a bad thing? Well anything is okay in moderation and bad in excess, I reckon. Even ironing. But there are some awesome independent productions, 2-part and 4-part drama that is being produced in the UK now that it would be bad to miss out.

As I have mentioned before in earlier blog posts, I don’t really write well in the afternoons and evenings. So I try and take a break from writing and visit museums, meet friends and meet with family after lunch. In any case visiting family or friends before noon is too rude, isn’t it?

But writing does not always involve writing. You have to live life, watch people walk past, listen to people saying funny things or sad things, learn the name of a flower or a tree or a bird. IMG_1570You have to fly kites, chase flying umbrella and embarrass your nephew in front of his nursery classmates.

It’s also about looking into yourself and learning how to express the emotions you’re feeling now and perhaps the emotions of the past – a sad event in the past, a moment of celebration, a disappointment. All of living is fodder for the writing. But living it alone is not enough – I have to remember it and record it for later use.

My belief is Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, borrowing from Maya Angelou’s words.



A wise person once said, because writing comes from inside the writer’s head, via the lens of the writer’s experience and from the imagination that has been enriched with myths, legends, stories, history, life, current affairs and so much more. Therefore the writer has to constantly fill the well with all sorts of stuff – hoping the quiet time, the time when you go for a walk, when you look at an elephant in the clouds, when you listen to music or dance to a new song, the time when you don’t write – will mulch the stuff into material – stuff dreams are made of, stuff imagination is made of.

If you want to write, don’t forget to live, reflect, observe, notice and of course write.

The Third Chutney

As a kid I grew up a big dose of stories – especially traditional tales, witty stories of tricksters and wise tales of Mulla Nassruddin and Tenali Raman and Raja Birbal.

idly Stories were like the third chutney served with my hot idlies – stories were in the recipes, at the dinner-table and in the air.


Most proverbs and advice were delivered in parables. For example, whenever my mum or grandmother wanted to advice me on self-help and doing things on my own, I would hear this story.

“There was once a man who was very devoted to God. But he was very poor. So one day he went to God and asked to become the next lottery winner. God appeared before him and granted him the wish. The man returned the next day after the results were announced. He was not the winner. There was no one outside his door offering a lot of money. He accused God of cheating. God appeared promptly and told him that at the least, the man should have bought a lottery ticket if he had wanted to win.”

I have never forgotten that lesson and my friends know that I’m averse to asking for help. I’d rather do it myself than ask for help. As a girl who grew up in 70s India, it was an advice ahead of its time and stood me in good stead.

There are more stories and fables that warned me about greedy people, about the wisdom of honesty and the joy of giving even if you had only little. One such story that stuck to me was the lake of milk. This is a story that transcends time and accurately depicts human behavior at its worst – when we have to survive, would we eat our young?

In a kingdom that used to be rich, famine struck. People lost crops, and their livelihoods and their livestock. Eventually some were really poor. A wise man said the famine has been caused by people who had no good intentions and if the people couldn’t change their ways, the famine would last forever.

The king was troubled by this. He wanted to believe that his people were not selfish and greedy. So he invited his people to donate a jug of milk for the poor people in their town. He cleared out a huge man-made lake and asked people to pour their jug of milk that night.

The milk deposit was planned for the night. People stood in queues with a jug. In the morning, when the king came to inspect he found a full pool. But filled with water. Everyone had assumed his jug of water wouldn’t be noticed in a pond of milk. Alas, no one had brought any milk to share.

The people were ashamed at their own selfishness and they didn’t need the king to emphasise this. The people gathered to share and to donate what they had with others thereby ending the famine of kindness in their hearts.

I never checked if these stories were from India or abroad. I read voraciously, listened to stories and joined in after dinner reminiscing of family stories.

One such story that stuck with me was the story of the camel and its master. camelCamels are clever animals and I always have a soft spot for them – next only to giraffes and elephants. When I was six and I went to Delhi, I saw my first camel on the street. Coming from the south, used to seeing cows and elephants on the streets, seeing a camel was so different. I loved their shape, their quietness and their angry calls.

I had read so many Mulla Nassurdin stories that camels were part of my staple diet. Couple of years ago, I decided to retell a camel story that demonstrates the cleverness of camel. And then I sent it off to a publisher I work with in the US.

Clever camel8x150And here it is – the finished product illustrated by Eugene Ruble – the story of Clever Camel right from the deserts of the middle-east.

In this story the camel is a trickster and even though it is the underdog, it turns the table on its master.

If you love stories about animals – especially stories featuring Anansi or the Brer Rabbit, you would love this.

You can buy the book here from my website and all copies would be signed. If you want me to come to your school or library to tell the story, then check out the School & Library Visits page.

If you like retellings of folktale, do check out my story website http://thestorytrain.blogspot.co.uk/.





Who Let the Dogs Out?

It’s noisy – no I am not in the middle of a market right now.

Inside my head characters are talking, ideas are jumping up and down like over-excited dogs and characters are talking, arguing, laughing and making jokes inside my head.


Am I going crazy? Hold your horses, chief. I’m not going crazy.

This happens frequently.

What? Frequently? That means it is symptom of crazy!

Hmm, not really! At least not clinically insane. I’m  bit crazy by many definitions anyway.

My head gets noisy when I don’t get sufficient time to spend on my writing. It could be because my day job is busier than normal or when I have too many external engagements or when I’m busy with family commitments and often watch TV instead of having a quiet evening.

It always happens when I don’t get 3-4 hours in the morning just for myself.

Usually I don’t write much in the afternoon – the afternoon hours are dead for my writing. My mind is too lazy and sluggish and sleepy. Evenings are too distracting – for one, I get very hungry by 6 pm and I am focussed on cooking dinner and eating.

I’m a morning person in all sense of the word. I prefer doing most of my important tasks in the morning. Whether it is going to the gym, writing a letter, preparing for my workshops, packing a suitcase. That means the time before 11 am is very expensive – too many things compete with my writing.

I prefer to write in the mornings – when I worked full-time  I had to get up at 4 am and wrote until 7 am. Even now, on the days when I don’t go into work or the days when I don’t have school visits, I prefer to be up before 6 am to get the maximum out of my mornings.

But I digress from my critical condition – the noise in my head. The noise comes from cramming up a lot – like reading, little ideas into my phone app, scribbling notes, reading my plotting cards – but not having the time to ponder, thing, mulch and mince the words.

Sometimes I get an idea and would scratch it up in a notebook or type it into my favourite app  into my phone – Evernote. That idea would start running around inside my head like a little dog chasing a squirrel. The only way the idea would quieten down is to try and write down some thoughts – not the story itself – but usually a storyboard or some plot diagrams or some scribbles.

When I don’t get the time to sit down and think through the idea, then of course the dog starts whining and then barking and like any dog that is cooped up inside for long, wants to be let out.

Sometimes when dogs are barking inside my head, and I am stuck in work meetings, this is what I do to quieten them – they calm down for a bit – but not for long.


Then as the days go by, more dogs join and then it turn into a hullaballoo. Then I start singing this song.


Another big reason for the noise in the head is reading other books. Reading is so important for every writer – I read all sorts of fiction and non-fiction and of course my friends’ books and books on the award list and so on.

When I read something that touches me or when I read a wonderful page of prose or characterisation or a poem that strikes a chord, I’m inspired to write a piece in response. So the more I read, the more my desire to try a new piece of writing. That adds more barking dogs to the mayhem in my head.


So what do I do now? Well I need to find a few mornings soon and start as early as I can (that normally means I am not sociable after 8 pm at night – I need to hit the bed by 9:30 pm) and during summer – getting up in the morning is a joy. But going to bed at night while the sunlight is still fighting the dark forces of the night is not so easy.


I’ll be at the Shoutsouth Creative Writing Festival with other CWISL authors this coming week (Find out more at http://www.shoutsouth.org.uk/) and my first day of uninterrupted writing is at least 10 days away.

Let’s hope I can quieten the dogs and dabble in some ideas, play with stories and rearrange words before being carted off to a loony bin.

Antiques and Me

I’m not an antique – at least not yet. But then you go into schools and the kids do think you are one because your birth year has a 19 in front and not a 20.

I discovered the value of antiques only after coming to the UK. I realised how I complained to my mother after watching Flog It and Bargain Hunt that she gave away some of my grandfather’s antique homeopathy medical equipment.

When I was 11 or 12, I pulled out an illustrated dictionary of natural science from my grandfather’s old trunk – it was beautiful with full-colour illustrations, in glossy paper with lots of fruits, plants and animals illustrated. I used to walk around with it all the time. I carried it everywhere and it was published at least in the early 20th century. The mistake I made – I took it into school and looked at it during the break. Two days later it was stolen. It was gone. I have the habit of still looking for a similar one on the Internet or in antique bookshops – I felt so silly having flaunted it and lost it to some greedy child  but someone who must have liked illustrated dictionaries just like me.

antiquesI love going to antique shops and I still have this one wish that hasn’t come true yet- go to a live auction and bid for something.

christie_s_1813102cThe old man who makes the photo frames near my house says I should go to Christies – they do auctions of watercolours for everyone – and things sell from 50 to 100. My mum loves to watch these auctions on TV and one of these days I would go to an auction.

When I recently went to India, I went to a memorabilia shop and it was run by the government. When I went inside, it had lots of antique stuff. But nothing was authenticated. So I think these are antiques – but quite possibly are not.

The men who flogged these didn’t know much more than the material. Some were from old houses that were pulled down before these apartment blocks are being built (which is the current trend in India).

I found three pieces and I have no idea the value of these items.

IMG_0811One is a Chinese mandarin which has the feel of a really old material. If Flog It comes to London, I would take this piece with me, I think.

falgu_bronzeThe other is a bronze sculpture of a bullock cart and a farmer which was perfect because my books are based around a farmer called Farmer Falgu who rides a bullock cart.image description

The third one is Tara the Buddhist goddess also called Jetsun Dolma in Tibet. She is the female embodiment of Avalokiteśvara – the Buddha quite famous in Tibet, Sri Lanka and many other places. What a coincidence because when I went to Sri Lanka I bought a wooden statue of Avalokiteśvara. It is believed that a teardrop from Avalokiteśvara fell on the plains in Lhasa and became Tara.IMG_0810

I’m not too interested in silver jewellery, cutlery and stuff. I love furniture, little boxes, binoculars, globes and compasses – because there are stories behind these pieces. I love imagining these stories – even I don’t know them. It is strange that I am not a big fan of historical fiction – I do read them but I am very selective. But I love objects that signify a past, a story, a history that could be fascinating and wonderful.

That’s one of the reasons I love folktales and stories from Indian epics – these are stories set in a period, a recording of the culture and minds of people who lived a long time ago and portrays our ancestors and their fears, likes and dislikes.

I live in a modern flat now – not really a place for antiques as such – but I have these little pieces I collect – a pair of red Chinese carved shoes, small silver carvings and a bookcase that perhaps held stories from long time ago.IMG_0812 IMG_0813

Old things have potential for stories –  unlike factory-made stuff produced in an assembly line. The old bookcase might have the ghost of the librarian whereas the bookcase that I assemble from a flatpack set would only have the assembly instructions and recycling packaging.

The Perks of Patience – How One Story Had to Wait 7 Years

We were in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania at a Founders’ Workshop with Highlights Foundation. Jane Yolen was our guru at this workshop.

Farmhouse in Honesdale, at the Founders’ Workshop





One of the mid-week assignments was – pick an existing folklore character and write an original story for this character. The assignments were given late in the evening. That meant we stayed up all night and perhaps early morning to do it and read it out in our joint session, the next morning.

With Jane Yolen and our workshop group – many of us still keep in touch


I picked Anansi. Granted I didn’t know Anansi very well at that point. But I knew he was a trickster. I had assumed Anansi was a female because in India girl names end with an i. Jane and the rest of my workshop friends loved the story. But Jane the doyen of folk literature told me Anansi was a boy. Oops!

Encouraged by a great response at the workshop, I worked on this story constantly and I got some good feedback at a Picture Book Intensive in SCBWI Conference in NYC too. I was so confident of this text, so proud of it and I sent it out.

19I counted it today – I had sent it out 19 times before I sent it to OUP, Pakistan in 2013. Nineteen rejections with two close calls with agents. One agent loved it so much that she said, This is an absolutely lovely picture book text.”

She asked to see more. And my mistake, I hadn’t polished a few more the same way I had worked on this manuscript. The agent didn’t want to take me on, with these words, “As you know I really loved your initial submission but I’m afraid I didn’t like these subsequent stories quite as much. There is nothing wrong with them, far from it, but they don’t sing and sparkle in the way that your Anansi story does.”

Then I got some feedback that said retellings of existing Anansi stories were better than making up one of your own. So I rewrote my Anansi story as an Archie story. The Archie spider did get noticed by Templar – they loved it but unfortunately they had just published another spider story.

anansiThis was one unlucky spider, I thought. I started focusing on so many other things, I put away Anansi’s New Web for about 18 months. Then in 2013 I found out from my Indian publisher that OUP Pakistan had bought rights to one of my Indian picture books.

I studied OUP Pakistan’s list. Their picture books were great – more like the Indian lists. And I thought there’s no harm in trying one more time. Maybe, just maybe, they’d like my Anansi story. So I sent my Anansi version instead of the Archie version and I didn’t get a response for a long time. Then I was told to wait 3-6 months for a decision.


Then when I reminded them 6 months later, they asked me if this was a retelling and I said no. My heart sank.  I thought maybe OUP Pakistan too didn’t want me to write an original story about Anansi – and I realized this was not meant to happen. I put away the story forever. I would never resend to anyone again.

But every 3-4 months, the junior editor from OUP, Pakistan would write to me saying the manuscript was still under consideration and I would thank them and get on with life. At least it wasn’t yet rejected.

For a writer who doesn’t have an agent, the slushpile is a mountain of hope. If the manuscript is not rejected but not forgotten, then at least it means it is on someone’s desk waiting to be read. But a lot of “Thank you, but No,” letters have taught me to expect the worst. Hope for the best, expect the worst.


And then it happened. Yesterday! On the 1st January 2015, the same junior editor told me OUP Pakistan was accepting the story for publication, contracts to follow. I read the email a few times to make sure I was reading it right. After a wait of 21 months, Anansi’s New Web has found a home.


Since I wrote Anansi in 2007, it has taken 7 seven years to be accepted. Perhaps another 2 years would go by to be illustrated and published. Who said patience is not an essential ingredient to writing and getting published? But if I had sat at my doorstep waiting for the postman, I wouldn’t have published another 5 books since then.

Saint Monica is the patron saint of Patience
Saint Monica is the patron saint of Patience

Patience does pay off. If you believe in a story, keep at it. But learn from my mistakes – work on other stories too. If an agent likes one, they do want to see others. Since that rejection from the agent, I have never waited by the door for the postman.


I would send my submissions out – by post and increasingly by email and then forget about it. If they love it, they would let you know. Work on the next one. Polish the third one. Edit a fourth one. Especially in picture books, you can’t rely on one manuscript to make your career.

During the New Year’s party this year, a few hours before the acceptance email came through, a dear friend told me – believe in yourself, keep writing and do what you think is best – stop asking too many people for feedback. He’s right. I rewrote this story a million times as different people told me different things. But the original version (minor editing aside) was liked by many people and has been accepted now.

Sometimes it is tough to keep faith in the story that as been rejected so many times. It’s okay I think to set it aside and work on something else. Every story I wrote and didn’t get published adds to the learning experience of the next story I write.

So my friends, keep the faith. Tell your story – only you can tell it.