Writing, at its best, is a lonely life, said Ernest Hemingway. But for the growing tribe of writers in urban India, it's time to bend the rules that the American author proposed for a "good enough writer". Going by the emergence of writers groups across the country - Mumbai's Caferati, the writing group by Toto Funds the Arts in Bangalore and the Delhi Aspiring Writers Group in the capital to name a few - it would seem that many writers are rejecting loneliness and reaching out to the community to share their work, get feedback, and network.
Take the Delhi Aspiring Writers Group. Members are drawn from diverse professional backgrounds and include software engineers, architects, retired bureaucrats and homemakers too. "It's difficult to get published, especially for first timers. So while most writers are looking for an honest critique of their work, there are some who are just happy to have someone listen to and appreciate their work," says Vineet Kalucha, who founded the group a year ago. Despite the 'informal' setting, as opposed to a more structured creative writing workshop, members are able to plan meets around specific themes and spare time for constructive criticism of each other's work.
Parvati Sharma, author of Close to Home (2014), believes getting honest feedback or constructive criticism in a "safe environment" amongst one's peers is just one of the high points of joining a writers group. "Writers tend to be lazy, and sometimes, being part of such groups, and knowing you have a dedicated audience, really forces you to write," says Sharma, who has been part of writing groups such as the Bangalore-based Toto Funds the Arts, and the now disbanded, Delhi-based Riyaz. However, writing groups may not work for everyone. "I know of many who feel uncomfortable being part of such groups. People can get very competitive," she says.
Of course, writers groups are not new. "Writers reaching out to each other and discussing their work has always been a known practice. For instance, Ismat Chughtai and Manto would always offer constructive criticism on each other's works. But the presence of social media is perhaps making such groups more visible now," says Arpita Das, who runs the Yoda Press, and is editorial director for the self publishing imprint, Authors Upfront.
Besides writers themselves, such groups are also attractive to literary agents and those publishing houses who view writers as clients. But whether a writer chooses to self publish or is picked up by an established publishing house, she could benefit from the critiquing and support that's part of the agenda of writers groups. Perhaps Hemingway got it wrong; perhaps writing doesn't have to be a lonely life.
Critique over Coffee: Delhi's Aspiring Writers
"We call ourselves DAWG," says Vineet Kalucha, 42, of the Delhi Aspiring Writers Group, which he founded a year ago. An IT entrepreneur and a writer, Kalucha says the group began when his hunt for other aspiring writers took him to meetup.com. Within a week, about 30 aspiring writers had joined Kalucha, a number that has since grown to about 600.
Members meet twice a month at a coffee shop and critique each others' writing, share ideas, and discuss the challenges of getting published. DAWG meetings work around specific themes, such as poetry, fiction or short stories, and anyone can propose a meet.
Every once in a while, a published author or a publisher is invited to address the group. "Authors get to promote their work, and members benefit from their experience," says Kalucha.
Ira Singh, author of The Surveyor, was invited to speak in March and describes the group as a "highly committed and enthusiastic" bunch. "Some of them even sent me their work for feedback. In a lonely business, where you are constantly ridden by self-doubt, such groups are very useful," says Singh, also a professor of literature at Delhi University.
DAWG members come from diverse professions and include software engineers, architects, professors, and homemakers, a trend that Kalucha attributes to the rise of self -publishing.
DAWG co-organiser Hersh Bhardwaj, a marketing professional-turned-writer-turned-literary agent says that with the boom in the publishing industry, there's a spurt in the number of writers who are trying to get published but don't know where to start.
"In the group, we discuss the right way to get published," says Bhardwaj, who says he managed to get a publisher (Harper Collins) for his book on marketing and branding only because of the "brainstorming sessions" he had within DAWG. "At DAWG, members can also get suggestions and advice on related issues such as marketing."
Finding space to hold meetings remains a problem, though, so DAWG now plans to go virtual and operate through Facebook, Google Hangouts and YouTube. "A virtual platform would help more writers connect, share and gain from others' experience," Kalucha says.
- Namita Kohli
English poetry blooms in Kolkata cafés
Six months ago, when a group of Bengali writers in English decided to organise a regular poetry adda, they found refuge in Kolkata's cafés, a popular place for Bengali poets until the 1980s.
"Cafes across Europe have had poetry revolutions. We have heard of heated poetry sessions in Kolkata's coffee houses also. Now we want to revive café poetry and help people express themselves," says Joie Basu, a teacher who heads the Kolkata chapter of the group Poetry Couture.
The group was launched by public health professional Raghavendra Madhu as a "poetry adda" in New Delhi early last year. In a few months, the initiative had found takers in Kolkata, where Madhu spent his childhood and youth. Images of his visits as a college student to Indian Coffee House, a popular haunt of Bengali poets, were still fresh in Madhu's mind when he floated the idea of café poetry in Kolkata. He soon found help in the form of a software professional-cum- writer, a teacher, an advertising professional, a corporate trainer, and an ad filmmaker, all of whom are now approaching cafés for permission to hold poetry-reading sessions.
Café owners were more than willing, many offering free space and free drinks. "We wanted to take poetry to the people. Poetry often creates greater impact when it is acted out. Moreover, such sessions help people in the audience find their hidden talent in poetry," says Madhu.
The first session, at a café at Ballygunj in November 2014, had about 20 participants, and Poetry Couture has been gaining ground ever since. In the last two monthly sessions, held in March and April, the attendance was above 40. The events are open to all and anyone can read their work.
Each meet has a theme. "People had to sit on the floor of the venue of our February session, where the theme was 'mysticism'," says Ananya Chatterjee, who has had two anthologies of her poems published.
Buoyed by their success, the organisers are now planning to bring out an anthology of the poems read out at theirsessions, by the end of the year.
- Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
At Caferati, Support and Feedback Over a Cuppa
"Our imagination can take us places and a writers' group is a great place to meet people who think like you," says Manisha Lakhe, co-founder of Caferati.
Launched in 2004, in Mumbai, with the aim of offering an open platform for aspiring authors and poets, Caferati soon became a buzzing network of writers sharing their work, offering each other feedback and drawing inspiration from one another.
(Suniti Joshi/ HT Photo)
"We set it up because we realised that there were many of us who could write but did not have a platform to share our creations. Through Caferati, we could quench our burning need to share our works with people who thought like us," says Lakhe, a writer.
Caferati started out with 16 members in one city and today has about 6,000 people attending read meets across 13 Indian cities - including Delhi-NCR, Bangalore, Jaipur, Kolkata, Kanpur, Lahore, Lucknow, Pune, Chennai, Nagpur, Secunderabad and Ahmedabad - and overseas, in Dubai and Singapore.
"As we posted details of our meets on social media platforms, people in other cities began to plan similar meets and our network expanded," says Lakhe.
Group members include homemakers, management consultants, students and scientists, all of whom drop by to read their works out at the meets.
"The profession does not matter. We are just a bunch of people who enjoy playing with words," says Suniti Joshi, 60, an interior designer who has been attending Caferati meets for 10 years.
Meets are conducted once a month, usually at a member's home. Writers can read any piece of original work. Each reading is followed by a discussion.
Rs 50 per meet gets each member samosas, tea and loads of feedback.
During each meet, one member volunteers to act as moderator, bringing everyone's focus back to the topic when things start to digress during a discussion.
"Constructive criticism helps a writer grow and, in the company of other writers, discussions take on a different form and you start to view things differently," says Lakhe.
There is also an active Caferati Facebook page, where people are free to post their work and feedback is offered in the form of comments.
"Writing is a lonely occupation. At Caferati, you can find an audience of like-minded people and a platform to share your work," says Lakhe.
Adds co-founder Peter Griffin, a journalist and writer: "Some writers are kind enough to credit Caferati with giving them confidence to share their work elsewhere; that is a tribute to the collaborative nature of the group and the constructive and supportive criticism members give."
- Simran Ahuja
Writing a good book is hard enough. Add to that, the stress of getting a publisher to look at the manuscript, and hopefully, approve of it. Worry not. Here are five tips to help you through the tough process.
1Proof your manuscript
Don't be clumsy. Hersh Bhardwaj, author and literary agent says that it's important that you pay close attention to your work, and weed out silly grammatical mistakes. "A publisher should always get a clean manuscript. Even the slightest of mistakes can be a big turn-off," says Bhardwaj. Get someone to read it before you hit the 'submit' button. Silly mistakes could cost you your book.
2 Network. Get to know people.
No publisher will look at unsolicited work. It's important that you network, get to know the right people and get them interested in your work. Post publishing, you need to market your work. "Writers think that writing is enough. But today, you need to sell your work too by creating a buzz around it," says Bhardwaj.
3 Choose your theme
According to Vineet Kalucha, founder of the Delhi Aspiring Writers Group, certain themes are more popular with publishers. Books based on erotica, political intrigue, science fiction, thrillers, Indian mythology and folklore are sure shot way to get published. Of course, serious literary fiction is not so that high on a publisher's list (we are talking first-timers here). But then, you must write the book that YOU want. It is, after all, YOUR book!
4 Look for your potential publisher
According to Bhardwaj, there's no point in carpet bombing your work to several publishers. Research and narrow down on your potential publisher, and send your stuff across to a select few.
Heard of Fifty Shades of Grey? Or even the home-grown Amish Tripathi? Well, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey and Tripathi both went for self publishing. For those who can't get past a publisher, or don't want to go for a traditional publisher, can now opt for self publishing at several platforms such as Amazon, Kindle and other publishers who offer to print your book for a fee. But Bhardwaj cautions authors of getting exploited or duped by small companies that offer self publishing. Research well on self-publishers before you decide to pay up.