In conversation with Reshma Krishnan- author of Fade Into Red- about the joys and tribulations of writing your first book.
There’s a tiny part of you that loathes your office cubicle, and dreams of saying goodbye to all of that- to the endless meetings, to the daily compromises, to the relentless whirr of that office air conditioner which has begun to grate on every last nerve. You want to write, dammit! Or paint! Or build a business from scratch and not just be a number in a large organization for the rest of your life.
And then you gulp down another cup of coffee and go back to that open Excel Sheet.
Reshma Krishnan Barshikar left a job she liked, to find a vocation she loved as a writer. She stepped out of a career in banking to write Fade Into Red- a novel that was both well reviewed and well loved (Now isn’t that a dream come true?). Through this entire process, she has remained wonderfully open and honest on her blog about the effort it takes to get published and become a full-fledged writer.
I had a lovely conversation with Reshma about the rigour it takes to get published, and was struck by her generosity (creative people are notoriously tight lipped when it comes to sharing their “process” ). We also lamented the insidious sexism in the publishing industry and discovered a shared love for intelligent Young Adult Fantasy.
Here is what she had to share about writing her first novel, her views on blending passion with pragmatism, and on the thick skins writers need before presenting their work to the world.
On the Beginnings
I had just returned from a vacation in Italy, and was not entirely satisfied with my job. I couldn’t help thinking that I could write something as good as the book I was in the middle of. One day, while talking to my mother, I began to take her through the germ of a story idea- imagine if I went to Italy on a deal and fell in love there! My mother suggested I write a book with this storyline. To my surprise, the first two chapters just flew organically from my pen. I shared these chapters with my husband and with my best friend- and they were both surprised by just how much they enjoyed them.
That’s when I decided to get organized about this process and actually write down a novel.
On Writing Your First Novel (And Then A Second)
Once you know you want to be a writer, it is important to have the right skill-set. I did a Novel Writing Course at Gotham to understand dialogue construction and began to train like I would have for anything else. Yes it came naturally but honing is critical. I learnt about character development, how to structure my scenes and the importance of editing. I realized that while story telling cannot be learnt, at least 20% of the rest can be acquired. There is technique and a toolbox you can build to better your writing.
Even as the story developed at its own pace, I had to spend time in researching elements, world building and organizing the information in my mind. For my first novel this meant spending some time in Italy, harvesting wine, understanding the people. For authenticity I also visited vineyards in India. Some of these are places I have visited before, but this time I recorded my observations through the visits, and even got a couple of travel columns out of this experience.
Once you have the elements, and the plot- the story itself flows organically. You can break it down into smaller components like a pyramid, first expanding the world, and then whittling it down to what the reader wants to know.
With the second novel, things are a bit different. For one, there is the whole process of deciding what you want to work on next. In my case, I keep a notebook where I note down whatever ideas I come up with. Once I had about fifteen ideas I consulted my husband (it is absolutely essential to have someone who’s opinion you trust on your side!), and asked him for suggestions. There were some he rejected right away, a couple because he didn’t think I was ready for them. But we kept coming to this one- a Young Adult fantasy that began as a dream in my head.
Since the book I am working on is Fantasy, there is a lot more effort involved in creating a world this time. It needs to be governed by an internal logic, and it is important to keep the rules of this very unique world straight.
My first book hasn’t changed a lot from its initial draft, but every revision is an incremental step towards making the whole thing tighter and better. The first draft focuses on story and is indulgent- I had massive scenes that took place in my characters head that I later learnt were of no interest to the reader. The second is about paring away all that’s extra and removing many of those writerly indulgences. By the third draft, it is essentially the same story but much more cleaner and well structured.
It is also essential to write “for” someone. I had an ideal reader in mind, someone who was both literary but also well entrenched in the romance genre, and I found two such readers to guide me through the process. In fact one amazing reader practically read the book with me- chapter by chapter, sharing feedback and helping me write a better version of the story I had in mind.
I also highly recommend getting a professional editor once you’re satisfied with your draft. He/she helps you dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Then you are ready to start sending query letters to publishers and gauging interest. In my case, I was fortunate enough to have an agent who also helped with the editing process.
On Letting The Book Go
In some ways the reactions of people around me was easy, because the book isn’t autobiographical at all. There is no one character who is an exact representation of someone in my family. Yes, the characters are an amalgam of the quirks and traits of the people around me, but I didn’t have any inhibition or worry about being “found out” in any way.
Since my book is a romance, of course there is sex involved. But again, even the sex scenes are informed by the character and her mindspace, not mine, and it was easy for me to make that break in my head.
After The Book
It is not easy to market as a first time writer. First of all us writers are not programmed to market. Secondly, no one knows where to slot you, what to expect- not the book sellers, not the readers, and not the reviewers. This is especially difficult in these times, when the space for reviews is constantly shrinking in print.
I was fortunate enough to have an experienced publisher in Random House who took care of some of these things. It also helps to know that every writer in the room has begun from where you’ve begun- as a total unknown with one agency that saw something in the manuscript and trusted it.
I did a little bit of PR, and was fortunate enough to be invited to the Karachi Lit Fest as a speaker and panellist. This was just a great way to meet other writers and engage first hand with your readers and also build a new audience. I also did a few readings and launches in Bangalore and Pune. The one in Bangalore was especially great because I managed to get a Theatre group to enact scenes from my novel.
What also worked for me was blog tours, and engaging with readers online. I had a couple of book launches to spread a bit of buzz about the book, but really, our job is to write. And it doesn’t help to worry about how and whether it will sell when we are writing!
Thanks for talking to us Reshma. If you are looking for a zippy read full of warmth and believable characters, pick up Fade Into Red, and if you have been planning to start your first book, there’s no better time than NOW (NaNoWriMo is round the corner for those who need further inspiration!) !