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.

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.

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.

Bookaroo – Day 2 – Workshops & Storytelling

Header-logo-unit-DELHI2My first session of the day was at 10:30 am and I had to get to central Delhi from Gurgaon, a neighbouring town where I  had gone that morning to meet friends from Duckbill Books and a brilliant breakfast. In spite of the numerous warnings about traffic jams, I got back in plenty of time.

At first, the Amphitheatre was empty – after all, it was Sunday 10:30 am – and I thought most people would have a lie-in, a late breakfast and perhaps some newspaper browsing. But eager readers from New Delhi came in droves just in time for the session.


The first session was IDEA BLASTER – we were going to take off into StoryWorld with things we can find around us.

With the help of the young people in the audience and some grownups who were brave enough to reply, we built three stories out of nothing but our imagination and some prompts from the world around us.


Our first story was about an eagle called Narangi – because it was orange in colour and it was stuck inside the Matti Ghar that was on the premises.


The second story involved Astro-Cat fighting with a superhero to take control of Mars.


The third story involved an Astro-Mutt and a cartoon superhero villain with gadgets.

All in all, we had super-fun.

Then I had some time to make sure I get some selfies with writers and friends I had met during Bookaroo and visiting the illustrator gallery. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

The afternoon session was a wildcard – it was about story shapes – shapesbut it was right after lunch. Would people listen? Would children fidget and want to run about?

I was scheduled to start at the Kahani Tree and there was already a big audience seated there. Then as I welcomed them, many opted to stay back, much to my joy (and relief?)

We did long stories, tall stories, never-ending stories and counting stories.As we began the story of the biggest liar, we tested the waters and found out how well the children can imagine.

lie-clipart-liesThey made up stories about themselves – being a princess, a fairy, a dragon, a superhero – even the littlest ones had a lie to tell. Then I told them the story of the biggest liar (A Tall Story).

We followed that with the never-ending story – the story about the twins Only and Again.

gola_webWe talked about stories about going home, journeys and landscapes with Where is Gola’s Home? which was a big hit with all ages – they were busy trying to spot the various characteristics of riversides, beaches, deserts and jungles.

I like counting like every other 7-year old. So I told them the story of the 11 travellers. But we didn’t just tell the story – we played it out. We had 11 eager volunteers up front who were being counted. We had a wise girl solve their counting problems.


The crowd was hungry for more – so we did another counting story with Birbal and the crows in Delhi – an apt story for a Delhi Bookaroo!

That was my last session at 2014 Bookaroo and I hope to come back again and meet more readers and budding writers.