Advice from an Author – 7 things I have learned in 7 years of writing
Keep off the Grass was published seven years ago in 2008. Back then, I had never thought this “hobby” would end up taking over my life. In the years since, I’ve changed careers, taken sabbaticals, exited relationships and entered important new ones, and experienced moments of both overwhelming despair and excitement, all directly or indirectly because of my writing. If you’re a young turk about to break into the industry, here’s some wisdom from an old man (to be discarded in favor of your own experimentation of course!):
1. Writing is democratic
Don’t let anyone tell you need an MFA or be Dan Brown’s niece to break into the publishing industry. Both for my India and US debut, I had zero publishing contacts or insider tracks. I approached literary agents the old-fashioned way—through the slush pile and got a deal, first with HarperCollins, then with Penguin Random House. I’m convinced if your book cracks the combination of meaning (a big idea that can change the world) and entertainment (a page-turning story), you will be published as well.
2. You have to pay the dues
Both Keep off the Grass and Johnny Gone Down got multiple publishing offers within one month of me finishing the novels. Guess how long The Yoga of Max’s Discontent (published in India as The Seeker) took? One day, right? One week, maybe? 1 month, max? Drumroll please! 13 months. Correct. Despite having a publishing history in India, it took me one year of pitching, editing, querying, editing, and re-querying to land a US deal after having completed my novel. I’ve seen this again and again with almost every author I know. You have to burn in the fire of becoming better and better at your craft before you get noticed. If the first novel is easy, it’ll happen at the third novel, somewhere in the journey, you’re going to pay the dues.
3. Choose quality over quantity each time
I see young authors rush to produce a book or more every year. Perhaps you do build a “following” that way like movie stars do. But if the whole point of art is to create ideas that resound in eternity, I don’t know if this temporary fame can be termed as success. The Seeker took five years from conception to release and the effort shows in the way it has touched people’s souls. In contrast, I regret not being more patient with Johnny. It had the makings of something special and would’ve lived much longer if I’d worked longer on it versus rushing it to market. Even though that wasn’t the point, financially too, The Seeker got an international deal, which even as a debut novelist was more lucrative than writing five more bestsellers in just India.
4. You can make money through writing
Note, the operative word here is “through” writing, not “from” writing. I’m very frank about my writing finances and have written a detailed post about it here. But a quick snapshot: despite three bestsellers, my book advances and royalties have been <$100K in ten years. Hardly enough to quit a day job for. But don’t write off writing yet! Both Keep off and Johnny were optioned into films. Neither has been made into a movie yet (and perhaps neither will given how long the process takes) yet my net option payments from the movie deals have been a little more than $150K. I’ve never taken up speaking engagements or magazine columns because I kept pursuing my corporate career but if you do, I’d say you could possibly carve out a decent living from writing if the stars align. You don’t necessarily have to believe in the caricature of a hungry, starving artist.
5. There’s no substitute for full-time concentration
I took a year’s sabbatical from my job to research and write The Seeker and I think it’s my deepest, most personal story yet. The first two novels were written part-time after work. If I had to do it again, I would take a minimum of six months off to write them. There’s no match for complete single-minded energy directed at the task at hand and art demands the sacrifice of making uncomfortable choices. If I’d made those hard choices earlier, I’d probably gotten an international publishing deal earlier.
6. You’re always a beginner
For the launch of The Seeker, I went to the Radio Now office in Noida for an interview. The DJ had never heard of me or read my books. Her boss, who was a fan, hadn’t told her I was coming so after making me wait for a while, she thumbed listlessly through a copy of my book and asked some uninspired questions (eg, why did you write this book? Is this about IIM? variety). For me, this incident is a metaphor for the whole journey of writing. No matter how many copies your previous books sell, you start from scratch, be it in the technique of writing or the act of marketing your book. I taught myself writing again by reading hundreds of articles and books on the craft of writing for The Seeker; and I’m sure I’m going to do it all over again for my next novel. And when the next one comes out in a few years, I’m sure I will meet many indifferent journalists once again. The only commitment you need to make as a writer is to grow and become better with each book because you’ll never arrive. Art expresses the infinite in a finite medium and is never complete.
7. Your life will become a little extraordinary
Soon enough, you realize that to write interesting books, you need to live an interesting life. With each book, you become bolder. You fill your creative well with extraordinary experiences. You begin to witness the play of the world as an observer, a part of you untouched by joy or sorrow, just noting experiences for their own sake, filing away as future material, and life starts moving in unpredictable directions. Without writing, I don’t think I would’ve traveled as much or become a yoga teacher or lived in an artist’s retreat in Portugal or even moved to New York where I met Kerry. And where would I be without all of these? That’s why despite all the ups and downs, I’d say if any part of you is craving to express yourself as an artist, go ahead and do it! You’ll never regret it.
If any of the above inspires you to become a writer or an artist, do drop me a line from the other side. And if you do choose to write, don’t forget to sign up for my full video course on How to get a Top 5 publishing deal.
This is the first time I’ve offered a video course and the response has been delightful. Signing up is free!