Ten years seems like an interminable period of time when you say it. Yet, the years between turning 30 and turning 40 seemed like a will o’ the wisp, slipping out of my grasp even before I felt I had a chance to get a good grip on them. Plenty happened of course, good, bad and ugly, but the most important development for me was that I became an author.
I made my first “book” when I was seven—painstakingly handwritten and illustrated, and stapled together, a gift for my grandparents—and somehow since then always knew that what I really wanted was to write books. It took more than twenty years to eventually write one, and finally, two days before I turned 30, I saw my name on the cover of a book (that I hadn’t put there). It still feels like yesterday.
And while I can now cringe at some of the stuff I’ve written—and had published—I’d have to admit, that it still feels good to see the spines lined up on my shelf. So, this seems like a good time to laugh about what I’d thought the life of an author would be like and contrast it with reality.
The writing life
What I thought: The ideas keep coming thick and fast, and life is a great big adventure writing one book after another.
Reality: Any author who tells you that writing isn’t hard work is lying; and anyone who thinks writing for teens and younger audiences is easy doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I do say that with a sense of perspective—of course, it’s not hard work in the sense of breaking stones at midday in 40-degrees heat to get your next meal. There are always more ideas fighting for space in your head than the ones that get written. And giving shape to them is always a painstaking process of putting one word in front of the other. All of this is made more difficult by the fact that, as Somerset Maugham once said, “There are three rules to writing fiction. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” There are some wonderfully prolific authors out there—and I’m duly jealous of them at times—but the wisdom that you can’t measure yourself by someone else’s yardstick does come with time.
Making a living
What I thought: I will make a decent enough living from writing.
Reality: Yes, you can. If you’re J.K. Rowling. Most authors, and I believe this is true around the world, will encourage anyone aspiring to join their ranks to hang on to their day job or have a backup plan that brings in enough cash to cover essentials. It helps to have a rich significant other, though you’re probably too busy writing to find one. Overall, no, writing books for children is not a sustainable career choice; you do it because you like it and because you have other means of supporting yourself. Because, believe me, the starving author may be a romantic metaphor but it’s a horrible reality.
Publishers and editors
I’m too old to think this, but this is prevailing wisdom in certain circles: Traditional publishing is on its way out and self-publishing is the new order.
Reality: Technology has made it very easy to be your own publisher, but underestimate the importance of the traditional editorial process at your own risk. There are many self-published successes, but the vast majority comprises substandard books that have not had the benefit of a professional editor vetting them. You may not always agree with your editor—indeed, you shouldn’t agree all the time or else it doesn’t seem like either of is are doing much thinking—but they can be the voices of reason that knock your crazy idea into shape and make it palatable for its intended (and hopefully paying) audience. If you’re lucky—and I have been for the most part—you will worship your editor at times and other times you will want to strangle them, but that’s okay (as long as you don’t actually do it).
Walking into bookshops
What I thought: Every bookshop I walk into will have a shelf full of my works and that will make it all worthwhile.
Reality: Some of this is not really the fault of my overactive imagination, but has to do with the strange place that Indian children’s fiction occupies in the literary space, namely, that distribution is a nightmare. This makes homegrown books notoriously hard to find in bookshops. If you’re lucky, you might find one of your books lying disconsolately in one dusty corner on a shelf marked “Indian writing”. If you seek out the store manager and ask about stock, well, let’s say it won’t be good news. Online marketplaces have changed things a bit and, to be fair, things are in flux at the moment. Moreover, as young adult writers in English, we’re competing with world-renowned authors from the West, backed by generous (or at least more generous than ours) marketing budgets. That would be a whole new
rant discussion, so let’s drop it for now.
Being an “established” author
What I thought: I don’t know!
Reality: Actually, does this even mean? Especially if your particular dream isn’t to be recognized on the streets or be mobbed for autographs? Most children’s authors in India are relatively unknown entities (except in publishing circles, where our favourite pastime is to meet over our choice of food and drink and talk about this). Another back-to-reality smack is to be aware of the fact that as a writer in English, our audience is extremely limited. (Add to this the fact that if you [oh, all right I] have a reluctance to go out and face your audience, you complicate matters even more.) But, as mentioned earlier, things are changing. Over the past few years, the range, quality and number of books has suddenly shot up, and there is much more visibility of books and their makers. Hopefully, in the near future, when I tell someone I write books for children, they won’t ask if that’s because I haven’t quite managed to write for adults.