Craft, Career & Cheer: Mahtab Narsimhan

Learn about Mahtab Narsimhan, and read her blog.

How do you psyche yourself up to write and to keep writing?

I set a reward before I start writing and will allow myself that reward only if I finish the quota for the day.

Normally that entails surfing the Net or writing a nice long e-mail to a friend; stuff that usually makes me feel extremely guilty if I have written nothing on any given day!

I’m very strict with myself. No quota=no reward.

On the other hand, when I finish the word count for the day and go a little over, that itself is a huge reward. I’m then compelled do it all over again the next day, just to feel that same sense of relief and accomplishment.

What is the one craft book that you refer to again and again? Why?

I find it difficult to limit it to one, so I’ll mention two which I really like. They are Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Faith by Anne Lamott (Pantheon, 1994) and The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White (Pearson, 1919).

The former because it has the most practical (and amusing) advice I have ever read and the latter because it sums up all those common grammatical and other stylistic errors, succinctly.

However, no book can compare to the interaction with a mentor, especially one who is quite accomplished! I want to mention two stellar mentors I worked with last year and the one memorable piece of advice they gave me.

First, Tim Wynne-Jones. The first time I heard him quote Annie Dillard from The Writing Life (Harper, 1989), I thought it was lovely. I found it on Google, stored it someplace and forgot about it.

When I started working with him on a manuscript almost a year later, he again reminded me of it in reference to my plot. I still did not get it.

Only when I finished the course, put the manuscript away and looked at it again after a few months that I really and truly understood, what he was trying to say. Here’s the quote:

“One of the few things I have learned about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now….”

[Cyn Note: the quote continues gloriously, but its length exceeds fair use; get a copy of the book and read it for yourself.]

Next, Uma Krishnaswami.

I worked with Uma on the sequel to The Third Eye (Dundrun, 2007) titled The Silver Anklet (Dundrun, 2009). In the letter accompanying the very first packet, she asked me if I wanted to get off the ride. The critiques would be really tough; was I up to it?

I was, and they were tough…but it was one of the best learning experiences of my life.

Of all the advice she gave me, this bit I will never forget:

When in doubt, go deep instead of wide.

There is so much depth in that simple sentence. Another ball I must remember to keep in the air during the juggling act of writing.

Now when I rewrite, I look for opportunities to deepen a character rather than introduce another one that does little. It works, and the story is so much stronger.

Advice from a book or a mentor is just that: advice, until you internalize it, until the writing becomes instinctive, like riding a bike. I’m still practicing but find that I have to write fewer drafts with each successive novel.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I’m an early bird and do most of my writing from 6.30 am to about 8.30 am. These couple of hours are enough to complete my daily quota of 1,500 words. On weekends, I push myself to about 2,000 words a day.

In the summer, I write in my basement. Sometimes I’ll put on instrumental music and sometimes I write in silence. In winter, I’m normally in front of the fireplace looking out at my snow-covered backyard trying to pummel a story into existence.

I love the fact that on a good day, I’m done with my word-count, my homework, first thing in the morning, and then I have the rest of the day free to do other things! It’s also reassuring to know that if I’m behind on the word count for any reason, I have the rest of the day to catch up.

So far, what has been the highlight of your professional career? Why?

The day I stood in front of a crowd of 30,00 screaming kids at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto and accepted the Silver Birch Fiction Award for my debut novel. 250,000 students participated in this Forest of Reading program across Ontario. It is a moment I have relived often, especially on the days when the words don’t come easily.

This award is special because it was voted as best book by the very audience I was writing for. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my writing career.

Writing this first book was hard; it took four years, countless rejections and more than my body weight in chocolate. I came very, very close to giving up. Now of course I’m glad I didn’t.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

The following is the back-copy for The Silver Anklet:

What if the only way to get rid of your worst enemy was to sacrifice your brother?
When hyenas snatch Tara’s brother, Suraj, and two other children from the local fair in Morni, Tara and her newfound companions decide to rescue them on their own. Tara soon discovers that Zarku, her nemesis with the third eye, is back and intent on revenge.

A deadly game of hide and seek ensues, and Tara and her companions must work together to survive. But it is soon clear that Zarku is only after Tara; the others are dispensable.

Should Tara risk the lives of her friends? Or can she once again defeat Zarku and save her brother, armed only with belief in herself and a silver anklet?

This book once again draws on the theme of believing in yourself, of the strength within if only you can trust yourself.

To me, this also applies to the process of writing. Each novel is a new journey, a new adventure, and at the start I’m so afraid that I won’t be up to the task. I’ve just finished writing the third novel in this trilogy and started out with that same sense of unease and doubt looming over me. But by breaking down the task to a daily word count, I have a workable (and #$%*!) first draft. I’m happy.

Here’s my favourite quote and something I strive to live by:

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” —Les Brown

Here’s a video of Mahtab at the Forest of Reading Festival, talking about her award-winning debut novel.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.