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.

Inspired by India’s Traffic

My writing is like the Indian traffic. 


It’s chaotic , it is filled with impatience, blaring horns and swerving bikes. I don’t plan much when I write just like the city planners in India. If I plan, I lose my interest to write – at least at the beginning. I have some stories mapped out fully, with outlines, chapter breakdowns and character sketches. Then I put them away because the joy of the telling was satisfied with all of the work I put into the prep. There was nothing left to tell the full story.

Perhaps my impatience is the reason I prefer writing in 12 spreads. Not because I don’t want to write longer text. I want to and love to. But I want the story to be told quickly and with little words. I imagine the pictures. I know what I am saying in the pictures and what in the text. Sometimes I wish I could draw or learnt drawing. I grew up without drawing a single picture, colouring or painting. Except for the once-in-a-childhood experience of egg-shell painting, I stuck to writing, stamp-collecting and reading. It never occurred to me that I could draw or even try learning.

Now I am learning to doodle and the children in my school visits tell me I’m not that bad. I guess it is all in the practice and of course if I start now, perhaps I could be an illustrator when I am 75.

I digress. I’ve been in India for a week now for my book-launch and related stuff. And I’ve been thinking of my writing as the traffic that moves around here. There is no lane discipline – but in many roads, there are no lane markings. Like when I write fiction – there are rules, but no formulae. I just have to figure it out as I go and if I have gotten lost in the melee, I have to find my way back.

IMG_0727I have so many new ideas since I came a week ago. I went to some beautiful old places in Delhi and Chennai, listened to sounds and breathed in smells of this place. Now what I need is a route map to convert one of the ideas into a story without getting lost. It needs patience – the patience to find my way, the patience to finish the journey even if i have to make a lot of detours and wrong turns. I need to trust my driving and not worry about the lanes. I need to make eye-contact with the characters I create and not just wait for traffic lights to tell me how to proceed. IMG_0718And of course call upon the myriad gods in bronze, wood and stone to guide me . 

Connemara_Public_Library_Chennai_18212I am heading to one of the oldest libraries in Chennai – the Connemara this week before I head back to London to find some research on the ideas I have. This trip has been inspiring in many ways – and the traffic is one of those urban miracles in India that has triggered me to draw the parallels with my writing.

Frequently Asked Falgu Facts

  1. Why Farmer Falgu? Why that name?

Firstly why not? falgucloseupI wanted an Indian farmer going on a journey meeting lots of Indian characters in the story. That was the start of it. In picture booksI cannot set the scene with a lot of text. So giving him to the title Farmer would be a shorthand to explaining who he is.

Falgu I made up originally – close to Falgun, but not that word. And then closer to when the book was coming out I realized Falgu was a river in Central India and has significance to Sita in Ramayana. What a wonderful coincidence.

And then when Kanika Nair did the pictures, she made him a farmer from Rajasthan – perhaps because she was living there at that time. We love Farmer Falgu with his turban and on his bullock cart. We would be introducing his wife too in the later books.

  1. Isn’t the concept of a farmer story more western? Is it because you are British?

This is the second most frequent thing I’m asked about, in India. Especially by other people in the publishing trade.

I grew up in India and left India only when I was 28. My grandparents came from small villages and their families still have land in those villages. I have lived near a small village and have visited farms. I am not a farmer myself, but I know a little about them. I am city girl myself. So I am fascinated with farms.

India is a bigger agricultural country than Britain. So why can’t we portray a farmer in children’s books in India? Don’t we have even urban farmers with chickens? We have farmers who have cows and bulls and bullock carts?

I wanted to bring the joy of Farmer Duck and Mr. Gumpy’s Outing to Indian readers in my own way.

  1. Aren’t farmers in India suffering in poverty and are not as joyful and happy as your Farmer Falgu?

In today’s world – we have suffering everywhere.  Do we always have to focus on the suffering? Or rather when we write for children, should we tell them, not to try harder because the world is full of suffering anyway?

There are farmers and potters and artists and so many other professions struggling to rise above a certain economic level. But who is to say they are not happy and brave and resourceful? If we are suffering, should we all be in despair as well?

Farmer Falgu is not rich. Neither does he live in a big house. Farmer Falgu is happy; he is resourceful and he has the spirit of seeing the best in all situations. He is a glass-half-full kind of guy. He doesn’t let the situation of subsidies, the water problems in Rajasthan or the local panchayat elections get in his way of being happy.

Like me, Falgu too, believes in the following words of William Henley.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.



  1. Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip is about finding silence. Why did you write a book about silence? Isn’t this too complicated for children to understand? Why that ending?

The theme of the book originated in my own experience that the world, this earth, this universe even, is never silent. Silence in a vacuum is not real and not good. Silence is absolute and Quiet is not. Joyous things are loud – like a baby being born would cry. Even a giraffe makes sounds that humans can’t hear but its own family can.image description

There is a time to be quiet and there is a time to reflect. But that is not silence. That is just quiet. Like the morning quiet that is filled with bird noises. Like the night quiet that has lizard sounds and a distant sound of a bark from a street dog.

I like both. I like the laughter and noise of a busy and happy family. Like a big Indian wedding and I like the quiet of sitting in a corner reading a book. I wanted children to understand that.

Children get it. When I perform in schools and libraries, we all make a lot of noise and we all stay quiet. Children are quick to point out sounds that they hear in the night when everything is supposedly quiet. Some don’t. Some sleep deep and do not hear anything. That’s fine – everyone’s different.

The book is about Farmer Falgu having a moment of busyness in his head and he escapes from it. But not for long because the old man plays his drums and the snake charmer plays the pungi and the dancers tap their feet. The bullocks are trotting noisily too. What Farmer Falgu realizes is that his farm is not a difficult place to live – just joyous. Sometimes you just have to get away from everything to realize what you miss.

Children don’t just enjoy the words and sounds. They get the theme. Granted 2 year olds might not understand it rightaway. But this will emerge later on when they could grasp it. My little nephew Isaac loves the book and he loves the ssssh part of it and the noisy part of it. Those adults who listen to the story and listen to the inner theme like children do, also get it.

But it is okay not to get it too. You don’t have to understand, relate to, enjoy or even feel good about every book you read. Reading a book is like meeting someone. Maybe Farmer Falgu is not someone you love. That’s okay. Maybe you like Mr. Magnolia. Maybe you love both of them in different ways. Art is subjective, stories are personal and books are therefore what you  make of them.

  1. Why isn’t there a moral in the story? Is the moral – you have to make noise? Is it a moral for the parents?

Moral is different from theme. Do we need moralistic tales all the time? I know much of Indian publishing has an educational focus.

But many books are being published especially by publishers like Karadi Tales that are for the joy of reading.

Books are meant to enrich your life. They show you different aspects of life – be it a small topic like silence and quiet of the natural world or about looking at a situation positively. But that enrichment and theme is after the joy of the story. The story, the words, the sounds, the pictures should bring joy first. Then the underlying theme (not moral) would emerge slowly like a seed that is planted.

This book doesn’t have a moral. It has a theme that I intended when I started. It has interesting characters, words, sounds and beautiful pictures by Kanika Nair. It is a joy to look, read and listen to. That’s what matters.

  1. Is Farmer Falgu a series?

Yes, the second book Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market is out on 29th November at Bookaroo Literature Festival in New Delhi.

Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market - Book Launch at Bookaroo

Again this book is about Farmer Falgu being resourceful, looking positively at life and dealing with a situation that most of us worry about.

Falgu_2 CoverWe are hoping there would be more stories about Farmer Falgu from this team. In the same spirit of Falgu, I think positively about the future and what it might bring.


My first story workshop at Blue Anchor

I volunteered recently with Southwark Libraries to do some creative writing and story workshops at the Blue Anchor Library.


Blue Anchor Library is small and cosy and not far from where I live.  It has a newly refurbished building and staff who are committed to literacy and reading. For a library this size, it has an array of events that are suitable for the community they serve.

Today was the first workshop and as an ode to the Mythical Monsters Summer Reading Challenge, my story woranansikshop was to help the kids write an Anansi story of their own.

Not sure lot of parents were thinking about workshops for this week as it was term start – but the valiant librarians encouraged the children reading and finishing up homework (new term after all) to come and participate.

Two girls who came early and sat and read the Anansi books that the librarian had put out for the event. Then two sisters who had done their homework wanted to join. Then another boy who came to the event seeing the poster. So we had a good group to start us off.

We started off with an Anansi story – I told the story of How Anansi got the box of Stories and realized many visitors were keenly listening to it too. I could see parents hovering by the video section that was closest to the workshop space and listening.Blue_Anchor_children_s_library_for_web

A boy who was doing homework took off his headphones and turned around, but he was too shy to come down and actually participate.

After I told the story, we analysed it. We figured out jointly the structure of an Anansi story. Then I read them a story that I had written a few years ago at Jane Yolen’s workshop – an original trickster tale about Anansi, not from Anansi’s box of stories.

The kids then analysed the story I had written and matched the structure. Now they were ready to create their own. By this time, we had lost two of the participants as their ride had come early.

But the other three were undeterred. They had three different plots and we discussed each plot. By the end of the plotting, we jointly decided one plot wasn’t going to work. Then the children started writing their own stories with it.

I could see the enthusiasm in their eyes. They weren’t shouting and jumping about with joy – but they were seriously working on their stories. I had three converts on my hands – kids who wanted to write stories and read more.

The parents were absolutely thrilled that the kids had sat down and written a story. Other parents came to ask if there was another session. So all in all a good workshop. I always think – if I can I instill the joy of stories and writing in one kid – that’s reward enough for each event I do.

peagreenboatNext week I am in Dulwich, at Rosendale Primary School with Peagreen Boat Books at their Mini Hay Festival telling stories to Reception and Year 1 kids all day long. I can’t wait.


My adventures with Series Fiction – Just Starting

I have been working on a series-fiction character for two years now. I have rewritten the story many times and each time I start I think about the approach- should I do in-depth character studies?   Should I write it as it happens and figure out as I go?

I always thought preparing for a long time, interviewing my characters and writing about their features and likes and dislikes will take away the pleasure of discovering it. I always get put off by the lists, the interview questions, the forms that are available on the Internet to do character studies.

But this time I had to do it. My writing mentor Tony Bradman at Golden Egg Academy, said I need to know my characters in depth and I should spend time on the preparation so the writing is more focused. My groan must have echoed through the city if not muffled  by the constant noise of engineering works on the tracks near my flat.

So how does one plan a character for a series fiction for children? Most character trait charts and interview questions were aimed at fiction for adults. Some were genre specific like world building for science fiction and fantasy.  I decided to start with the hint that Tony had given me – think about why sitcoms like “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Big Bang Theory” work? They are comedies, they are situational, but are heavily character based.


So that’s where I started. I trawled through episode guides of my favourite character-sitcom – Big Bang Theory. I studied the tropes that feature in popular sitcoms. That gave me the basics of how characters should be structured and why these characters have to be exaggerated.

Then I studied the basics of writing a character based sitcom. What goes into? Why is the character important and why does everything has to centre around the character traits.


That gave me the basics. But I still needed to know more about my characters. So, firstly, I decided what I wanted to know about each characters. I trawled through many character study charts and synthesized what I wanted for a young fiction. I created my own character chart (which you can see here). But again, I was bored filling in a chart with traits. I didn’t think it would wake up my creative spirit. I wanted something playful, something fun and something I could enjoy doing.

After a lot of pondering, trials of form-filling and trying out various things, I decided I liked to brainstorm about my characters using the questions. The questions are the guide but the responses won’t be in the form. I would reflect the character’s personality in my character study notebook.

Oh yes, I needed a chance to buy new drawing notebooks. I can’t draw at all – but this exercise made me so adventurous – I started using colours, speech bubbles and all sorts of drawing and pictures. Some I tried to draw using websites that showed me how to draw and some I cut and pasted in my notebook.

I had discovered my most productive form of creating characters. I was able to have fun, confuse the person sitting next to me in the pub and use all the stationery I had in the house.


So there was one notebook for the main character, another for the kids who are part of the main character’s life and then the adults in a separate notebook. What fun!

Then when I thought I had reached my personal heaven, guilt crept up on me. I wasn’t writing. I was playing. Is that good? Am I wasting time? Is this all going to be of any help when I write? I hadn’t written for 4 weeks, working on 6-7 characters, plot ideas, research on background, dogs, cats and all sorts of related things.

Oh and I listened to loads of youtube songs figuring out what songs my characters would like, watched cartoons and worked out what my adventure holiday camp would entail. It was loads of fun!

I  went to Facebook SCBWI group for help. I fretted that I was going to squander away my part-time life. That’s when it hit me and was also advised of the same thing in the Facebook poll – write vignettes, write short essays about the characters. Yes, that would work. That would help me focus on the writing, allow me to experiment with voice and also with tense.

But what should I write? That’s when WritingMaps came to my rescue. I had bought a whole pack of them a few months ago and one of the maps was about characters.

character_cover_compact character_side2_grandeSo on a train to Lille in Paris, at 7 in the morning, I unfolded the map in the train and started to write character episodes for my characters.

That definitely made me feel better- but something else happened. I discovered more things about my characters than I had known before.

This could become a habit – the avoiding of writing doing character studies and vignettes and colouring and drawing and doodling. That’s kind of what David Almond said in a recent masterclass I went to – have fun, doodle, scribble – don’t worry about having fun!

Soon the writing will start and I will report back on how I used the character studies and all the brainstorming I did.