Updated: Dec 1, 2021
As my baby completes its third anniversary, here’s what I’ve learned from it
I can’t believe it. My book, my masterpiece, PiKu & ViRu, celebrates its third anniversary today! I thank you, dear reader, from the bottom of my heart for all your love!
And if I can blog about so many things, I can’t not do a post dedicated to my baby, which has not only helped raise my profile but also shaped my identity.
I’ve been wondering for months about what to write in this post. And then a few weeks ago, I thought, why not compile the lessons from my writing and publishing experience and share them with you, dear reader, especially if you’re aiming to write and/or publish your first book.
These pointers will also come in handy for me when I’m writing my next book so I don’t repeat my mistakes.
So, here are the crucial lessons I’ve learned from writing my first book. Buy/download, read, and review PiKu & ViRu here if you haven’t yet; it’s FREE on Kindle Unlimited.
Before you begin writing
Firstly, I feel EVERYONE should write at least one book in their lives. I cannot think of a better way to raise your profile, build your character, develop grit, and take your career and social standing to the next level. (You have no idea about the wonders it does to your CV!)
Besides, your writing and language skills automatically improve, you learn the art of storytelling and self-expression, you leave behind a legacy, you heal yourself, and you get to exercise your patience muscles. You connect with people who push and motivate you to do better, and you make friends out of them. And by writing genres such as memoirs, you end up editing painful, traumatic memories, too (I can vouch for this). In short, your life massively improves.
While you can always dabble in non-fiction, don’t ever believe you cannot write fiction. Especially when life itself is the biggest muse. A story will hit you when you least expect it. (Or maybe you already have one but don’t consider it as material worth mining literature from.) There’s no age or stage for it. As Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) says in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” You will get the urge to put it down in written form!
Do I have to quit my job to write a book? The answer is a big NO. Quit your job for other reasons, but not for writing a book. You can easily manage it during your commutes, downtimes, after-hours, and days off. And with many of us working from home now, the process has become so much easier.
Do I have to write every day? My answer: Not at all. Even 3–5 days a week suffice if you have a day job. It helps if you build a routine, though. Maybe an hour of fiction writing before you start work is ideal.
Set aside some savings for your book writing, even if your book is going to be traditionally published. You’ll need the money for professional editing, lawyer expenses (mainly for the publishing contract), and paid promotions at the very least. If all this sounds like a hassle to you, believe me when I tell you it’s all going to be worth it.
What do I write a book on? Your life is a goldmine of unique ideas—you only have to look around and search your mind. You don’t have to wait for a brainwave to hit you like how it happened with a certain Ms. Rowling on a Manchester–London train. If you’re a chartered accountant in a fashion house or five-star hotel, there you have your story! Heck, even if you’re a CA in a usual firm, you have loads to share with the world, especially aspiring CAs. If you need help building your creativity and imagination, I’ve got lots of exercises and writing prompts for you.
Do I need specific software to write a book? Absolutely not, though investing in Scrivener is a good idea. I wrote mine using only Word and Google Docs—Scrivener’s too complicated for me, though you may find it otherwise. I’m trying to plot and write the first draft of the next one by hand.
I don’t need to learn about book publishing or marketing so early on, do I? You need to. The sooner you begin, the better. Learning how publishing works will also help you self-publish your book if required. Other advantages: you know how to build your market, get reviews, grow your book sales, and be smart about royalties and payments. Create a marketing plan and strategy out of all your findings. Besides, isn’t learning something new always a great idea? To make the process easier for you, I’m trying to compile a blog post that has it all. Watch this space.
It’s a good idea to list out all your dreams, aspirations, responses, and goals you hope to achieve with this book. (Wanting to win a Pulitzer totally counts.) Doing so will inform and test out your plot and overall marketing strategy. Wish I’d have done this for P&V, but I’m totally doing it for my next.
Writing your first draft
There’s a debate out there between plotting and writing to explore what happens (the latter technique is called pantsing for some unknown reason). Plotting is more efficient and organised, while pantsing makes your story more organic. You have to find out what works for you.
In my case, I let the entire story form in my head first before I dumped it on Word at a friend’s advice. I allowed the draft to rest for 3–4 weeks (ideally, do what Stephen King says and give it 6 weeks), checked whether the story looked good on paper, and then did the plotting. (More on my plotting methods in the next point.) The idea was to make the story flow organically, but I wish the process was a bit neater.
Prepare a one-page synopsis before your first or second draft (ideally, before your dumping). Show it to a friend for a critique so you can fix any issues in this shorter document rather than painstakingly reworking a lakh-word manuscript. (You'll need to do some plotting here, though, for this reason.) Besides, this synopsis will also serve as your pitch document (once it’s edited) to publishers and producers later on.
Do note that parts of your first draft can veer off from this one-pager, so don’t push yourself to stick to your roadmap. See where the story goes.
If your book is based on or inspired by a period of your life, use real names in the first draft so you can capture all that emotion. Be sure to change them in the second draft.
And yes, your first draft is going to suck, even if you plot before writing it and use the perfect synopsis as your roadmap. You’ll get a chance to fix it in subsequent drafts, so just silence your inner editor while writing it. It also means no fretting over grammar, spelling, punctuation, or typos at this stage.
Which plotting method did I use? I followed the Hero’s Journey template by Joseph Campbell.
I also experimented with mind-mapping for a few chapters. Those were the ones that required minimal edits later on, as the exercise also informed the choice of words I used. That’s why I suggest you mind-map your book, the plot, the characters, their arcs—actually, everything—first before you start either plotting or pantsing. Trust me, it’s a fun process that also promises efficiency.
Mind-map first, then plot, then write a synopsis, then dump, then see whether the story works, then plot again—that’s the order I’d recommend for a more organised yet organic experience. You can use your book title, genre, theme, subject matter, or anything else as the central node.
How did I find out about Hero’s Journey and mind-mapping? By attending workshops dedicated to each of them. Yes, you should sign up for as many writing classes, courses, lit fests, and workshops as possible. (They make for great networking opportunities, too.)
I learned about Hero’s Journey from a free screenwriting course demo held at Mumbai’s FACE Academy in 2016 and about mind-mapping from its inventor Tony Buzan himself at Times Lit Fest 2015. I’d also recommend Anjum Rajabali’s screenwriting workshops—one of his lessons from a two-dayer held at Living Bridge, Pune, in 2016 helped me craft my first chapter.
In between drafts
Read and watch a lot of fiction for ideas, references, and storytelling devices and techniques.
Continue writing across an array of mediums: publications, blogs, films, TV shows, client content, newsletters… You make money, plus exercise your writing skills, too.
If you can, start work on your website right away so you use this time to connect with your readers through blog posts, newsletters, videos, etc.
Join support groups for authors. There are plenty of them on Facebook. Writing can be lonely, especially if you’re the first among your friends to do it. Connecting with those who’ve been there and done that can, hence, be a truly enriching experience.
Celebrate the end of each draft by treating yourself to something. These moments are unlike any other. The book-writing process is so enjoyable, you wouldn’t mind losing your sleep for it. (I didn’t.) You shouldn’t, of course, but you get the drift.
After around 3–4 drafts, you’ll have to send off your book to a few of your friends for a test read.
Choose at least 10 trustworthy people for the task and ask them personally by text or phone call before emailing the lot to them.
Ensure a mix of demographics (gender, orientation, etc.) and include writers as well as non-writers.
Provide them with a firm deadline, but expect none of them to get back. A few of them will eventually do, though, giving you all the feedback you need. For those who never do, please don’t take it personally. You’re testing your book, not your friendships.
Convert your beta reader’s comments into specific action points and then incorporate them into your manuscript. I tried to address every comment that came my way. It was a great opportunity to improve my work and dissolve my ego.
Please thank your beta readers for the time they have invested in reading and critiquing your book and mention them in the Acknowledgments section of your book. Send each of them a free copy of your book.
If you need me to beta-read your book, email me or drop me a comment. While I offer general page-long feedback for free, I charge for detailed reports.
Try your best to invest in professional editing, and ask the editor to also help you write a kick-ass book proposal. (Sorry, but your English teachers may not be helpful enough for this unless they’re proficient in book editing.) For my book, I worked with Varsha Naik, whom I found through an author friend. I’m really happy with the way it all turned out.
Self-edit your work before you send it to your editor. I recommend the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renne Brown and Dave King for this step. Make the most of user-friendly online tools such as Hemingway and Grammarly to clean up your work.
The same advice for your beta reader’s feedback holds true for your editor’s feedback. Address each and every comment. Work in tandem with your editor until all your disagreements turn to an agreement.
If you’re writing a novel, the final word count should be around 60,000–80,000 words. Just check with each publisher or agent’s website, as the exact number varies for all.
Feel free to pen a novella, short story, or picture book for your first if a novel isn’t feasible.
Learning all you can about both traditional and indie publishing helps you figure out the right publishing platform for your book. This prep work is something I regret not doing well enough for my first book, but I’m surely doing it for my next.
Before you start pitching to publishers, it won’t hurt to avail the services of a book or publishing consultant. I worked with Poonam Ganglani for my book proposal, and her inputs have also given me the confidence to pitch my book to film producers.
If you’re keen on getting traditionally published and have a kick-ass proposal in place, don’t give up after a rejection. Treat yourself to a cupcake after one and try again.
Having said that, if you’ve got some film and/or TV producers interested, it’s advisable to focus on a movie adaptation right away.
Never offer a discount during your book launch. Your loved ones are the first to snatch it at the time, and they’d happily shell out even a thousand bucks for it :)
If people are upset or offended by your extremely harmless book (trust me, there will be people like these), let them go!
Keep working on your inner self and happiness. Don't base your self-worth on your book’s reception. Have the attitude, “If it works, great; if it doesn’t, life’s still great.” Remember, no bestseller title, lit-fest invite, or author award can make you happy; only you yourself can.
And please don’t ever read your book reviews.
There are plenty of ways to promote your book for free: blog posts, newsletters, social media, email signatures, CV uploads on job portals.
Put your book’s pic as your cover image across all your social media.
That said, a paid promotion here and there can boost your book sales.
Continue writing, creating, pitching, and producing more works in any medium. The more you write, the wider you’re known.