Friday, December 27, 2013


We’re told there’s an order to things. Horse then cart. Write, then publish. Later, readings, then hobnobbing with other famous writers.

My life was happening completely out of order. I was writing a book, then I met a writer who soon became famous as her debut novel won prize after prize (Nayomi Munaweera's Island of a Thousand Mirrors, coming to America in 2014), then I began editing my book, then I started doing readings thanks to said famous writer, and then I tried publishing my book.

 The cart and horse were not just out of order, they were in different zip codes and I lost track of who was supposed to be where, myself included. After a few months, I decided to put things on hold at the publishing end (because spending day after day sending your novel out to agents is like spending day after day holding your eyelids open and sprinkling chili powder into them) and focus on a new writing project.

I became comfortable with the idea that my first novel would be practice, would likely never be published and that was okay (full disclosure: when I say ‘became comfortable’ I mean to the extent that you become comfortable with a Bengal tiger sitting on your coffee table while you try to watch TV- you try to look over it but you can never not see it).

But then things started happening.

You should know, at this juncture, that there is a battle in my mind over telling you this. In one corner, the superstitious Parsi aunty in me warns, "Tobah tobah, Phi, you shouldn’t say good things aloud before they happen or else najar laagsay and they won’t happen!" 

They're always watching me, these Parsi women who live in my head

In the other corner is the optimistic Canadian in me saying, why not celebrate small victories, eh?So strong is this superstition, there’s even an English equivalent: don’t count your chickens. Oh heck, the Canadian wins.

Here’s what happened.

A few months ago, I decided to go to Karachi but I was apprehensive: last time I went, I had a novel in hand, a lengthy list of specific questions to ask specific people. This time, I had no novel, only a vague idea of meeting people, learning through their stories the history of Karachi, of Karachi Parsis, which one simply cannot research at the libraries of California. Yet the evil garden snake who lives in my mind hissed incessantly: Isssss this trip simply an elaborate (and expensive) avoidance tactic, Phiroozeh? Oughtn’t you instead be writing novel number two? It’s fiction, dear girl, you're suppossssssed to make things up. What’s all this nonsense about hearing people’s stories anyway? You’re not a biographer. 

A few weeks ago, a new writing project came to me, and a cliché I always rolled my eyes at played out before me: I became possessed by the idea and have furiously working on it ever since. The garden snake was at the ready: is it really a good time to go to Karachi now, Phiroozzzzeh? Shouldn’t you just focus on this story and see what comes of it?

I had to admit, the little critter was getting to me and I began to ponder what the cancellation policy on my ticket might be.

Proud mamma must pull out the wallet photo at every opportunity
A few days ago, a friend mentioned that when I attend the Karachi Literature Festival, there will be Indian publishers there and I should tell them about my book. Book? What book? Oh yeah, I have a book. I wrote a book. I edited and edited (and edited) and polished and perfected a book.

Yesterday, I received an email from Muneeza Shamsie, a huge Pakistani literary icon. I actually thought I was still asleep and dreaming (never check your email before your morning tea). She is also the mother of Kamila Shamsie, my all-time favorite writer. The way Rohinton Mistry changed my world by showing me Parsis in novels, Kamila changed my world by showing me Karachi in novels. Turns out, I had been e-introduced to Muneeza by a dear, dear friend because of my upcoming trip. I now have plans to meet said literary giant in Karachi next month.


And so I find myself at this place of out-of-orderness. I have a completed manuscript in hand, a second one begun, countless readings under my belt, including some I've hosted, fifteen rejections the first manuscript from US agents and now, the scent of possibilities blowing from the east.

It begs the question, are you a writer because you’re published or are you a writer because you write (all day, every day, day after day)?

All I know is I've lost sight of the cart and the horse and I feel liberated. I can have a complete novel whose status is pending, and still work on the second one (by all accounts that’s exactly what you must do after completing the first one). I can go to Karachi with no specific agenda, relinquish my obsessive need for control, for clarity, and let life lead for a while. I can meet Muneeza Shamsie, revolutionary for her empowerment of Pakistani writers writing in English because I AM a Pakistani writer writing in English. I can attend the KLF and see what happens (ie. see what happens when I stalk those Indian publishers and turn on the charm). I’m not counting my chickens (oh come on, this blog post turned into a zoo long ago, what’s one more animal), I’m just … watching the coop from a safe distance, making sure they mother hens are keeping them warm.

It’s a fine balance between doing what you can for your book and then letting it go and letting whatever you want to call it-nature/the universe/life- take its course.  

I learned long ago (and like most lessons learned, promptly forgot): you can make all the plans you want, put your horses and carts in whichever order you deem fit, but life will still do what it wants in the order it wants.

Because life is in charge of this zoo.

                                   illustration of zoo and animals in a beautiful nature - stock vector

Friday, October 25, 2013

Patience is a Virtuous Bitch

It's been 11 weeks since I took a deep breath, procrastinated, took another breath, procrastinated again, and then sent my manuscript out into the world. 11 weeks, 8 email one-line rejections (make that 9-I got one more between writing and editing this blog entry), 4 snail mail rejections, and 2 I've-read-your-MS-but-it's-not-for-me rejections.

Though I'd read the statistics, heard the stories, I had thought I'd be different. I thought my top three agents would not only swoon over my work but fight over me. Three weeks in, they all rejected me within a week of each other. My work, not me. My work.

But I had set my goal to 100. I was going to query 100 agents before moving on to plan B. Last week, I realized I'd queried 40 agents in 10 weeks. This is a bit too fast, a bit too eager. So I've decided to wait.

They say patience is a virtue and that may be true, but she's kind of a bitch about it, kind of righteous in her all-knowing-I-know-what's-best-for-you ways. We can work as hard as we want, but at the end of the day, she calls the shots, she decides when our big break comes. For the sake of any children reading this, I'll call her the B word, but in my head, she's a word that starts with the next letter over.

Once you succumb to Patience, once you resign yourself to her as your boss and life-decider, she blows your life open.

You see that you have more stories in you. Stories that have been waiting to come out except your brain was a car crash site, a shut-down highway crawling with ambulances and fire trucks and traffic eeking by the peripheries (it should be noted I just did a 24 hour road trip to LA) giving these stories nowhere to land, to feel safe. But now that you've calmed down and accepted reality, accepted that waiting is part of the game, they're making themselves known.

There is also the fact that this, your first novel, may have been...sorry I need a may have been...deep may have been...just crawling out from under my desk... practice. It may have been the one you learned on, cut your teeth on, a three-year, life-consuming practice ground that, when you were in it, felt like the real thing, but with 11 weeks of perspective, may not be the one to get published. 11 weeks ago, I'd have laughed at you. 11 weeks ago, I was confident, I was the exception to the rule, I was invincible. Now, I believe them.

The ray of hope is I'm not the only one. Okay, so this particular ray is fighting its way through a giant storm cloud because it's not a lot to hang onto, but it's there, if you look hard enough, long enough (okay, Patience, I get it. You're everywhere and I should accept you. Now go away, this is my blog).

I recently attended an all day workshop where I learned from people who had been writing for 20 and 30 years that:

a) none of us knows what we're doing (there really are no rules to writing)
b) it never gets easier (book 1 nearly kills you, book 2 gets harder, book 3 harder still)
c) none of the above stops us from doing it again and again

Last year at this time, I was actually keeping my calendar free assuming that, two months after submitting my work, I would be on a book tour, sipping champagne from a Parisian balcony below which my adoring fans gathered hoping I'd drop a crumb of my chocolate covered strawberry that they could take home and preserve for posterity.

In reality, I'm sitting in a cafe in Fremont (Desi capital of California, life's not all bad) working on my next story. Because some of you may remember, I can be very stubborn. Or maybe I really am a writer. Verdict's still out.

But then it occurs to me that at this moment, I am sitting across from a dear writing buddy who is part of a fierce clan of writers who hold me up every day. And later I'm going to teach Bombay Jam which fills me with inordinate amounts of happiness.

So it turns out despite the soul-on-a-skewer wait for publication, life is going on.

Take that, Patience.

Friday, August 16, 2013

So When's Your Book Coming Out? Part 2

Thank you all for the well wishes on my last blog entry, about my recently completed manuscript. Now the question on everyone's lips seems to be, "So when's the book coming out?"

Since you've stuck with me this far, and since many of you have told me you're vicariously living through the bumps and triumphs with me, I will fill you in on what's next.

The immediate next step is finding myself an agent. In the US, you can't just go knocking on publishers' doors on your own as a newbie writer. Why not self-publish, you ask? In a word: marketing. I could self-publish but I simply can't self-promote the way a publishing house can. I can't get my books out past California let alone to Norway or South Africa. A dear friend, you remember, the one who won the Commonwealth Prize for her debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors (available next spring), told me this very thing. So that, in a nutshell, is why I'm starting with the traditional publishing route and if that fails, there are other options I won't go into here.

So on August 14th, I send out my first batch of queries (quite apt, as it was Pakistan's Independence Day and that is the setting of my novel). This process was years in the making. I had begun crafting the perfect query letter 1.5 years ago, which, in less than 10 sentences, must encapsulate my 100,000 word novel in a way that's enticing enough for an agent to ask to see the whole manuscript. This letter, this one paragraph of this letter that does this, took me two years on and off. I read countless books on how to draft the perfect query letter and even paid someone to critique it. The last three weeks were spent showing draft after draft to my live-in marketer (hubby), who kindly but firmly pushed and pushed till we were both happy with it.

I then turned to my list of agents. This process alone took me 8 weeks, as I had to find people who were a) suited to my type of novel b) had actually published something in the last year or two and c) were taking submissions at this time. Many reputable agents simply don't take submissions, especially unsolicited ones.

This list of carefully researched agents had been made 1.5 years ago. Some were no longer agents. For the remainder, I had to personalize the second paragraph of the query letter, telling them how I know them, which of their clients I've read and loved, etc., based on my research.

August 13th, I was ready to submit. I got to work, logged onto Facebook and made a big proclamation that today was the day. It was not the day. Without going into too much detail, that was the day I broke up with Hotmail, which took all my careful formatting and blew it to smithereens. So I called tech support (hubby) and that night we got me a gmail account like most grown-ups.

August 14th, letters went out. Nails were bitten. Email was compulsively checked.
Visual approximation of my life at the moment.

August 15th. Two responses. Hallelujah. Clouds parted, angels sang, harps strummed.

At least that's how I had pictured it.

In reality, because of the way gmail is formatted (remember, this was my second day with gmail), it shows you the first sentence of the email on the main page.

Both emails were very sweet in turning  me down.

This was very exciting. I have two rejections under my belt. I'm a real writer. And they actually wrote no, instead of leaving me wondering forever more.

These two rejections really made it official. I had been hiding from this process for months, years really. I posted that my MS was done last week. It was done in July. I just lingered and procrastinated because I knew the worst was yet to come.

And it's here. And it's not bad. At least not so far. I know it'll get worse from here because Stephen King had his first FOUR novels rejected and J.K.Rowling got 100 rejections etc. But I can't worry about that right now. Right now I can only take it one day at a time, one rejection at a time. I've been planning for this phase for so long, I know just which holey shirt I'll spend my days and nights in, I know just what I'll mutter under my breath as I walk around the house in a daze, and I know just which bugs will begin crawling around in my unwashed hair.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Knocked Up- A Photo Journey of My Unplanned Inception

The course was just so good-looking, how could a girl resist?

Unplanned Inception

Oopsie, I couldn't stop and before I knew it...

Coming in at a healthy 350 pages


Teething, potty-training, countless sleepless nights


 Learning basic stepping stones of literary life:
Plot arc, sympathetic characters, protagonists and antagonists, sidekicks and foils,
setting, tone, mood, voice,
suspense, subtext, subplots, brevity of prose,
obstacles and pitfalls, incremental movement towards or away from character's ultimate goal,
chapter division, scene division, paragraph division, sentence variety, effective dialogue
be yourself, emulate others
be original
be marketable



Overnight stay at the beach

Scariest part of any camel ride

Nothing to do with novel, just a proud aunt boasting




Once you've eaten Pakistani food, there's no going back

Naryal  Pani (coconut water)


Teaching Bombay Jam, what a great distraction


Elementary School Teachers:
 Community of Writers at Squaw Valley- the first teachers always lay the foundation...

High school and college teachers: 

Writing group, support line, sanity-makers

International Teachers
 Aspi Mama (L), opened his house, heart,  and fridge to a very invasive house guest
Maju Mama (R), put years and years (and years) of work, suffered countless emails and a hijacking to Starbucks,
 to help his (ex-)favorite niece develop a key concept in the novel

Danu and Sehr were drove me all over Karachi, while I drove them crazy with lists of places they'd never dreamed of visiting
Zarin Mami, kindest, most patient host

Danu and Freyoo, allowing for hours of being grilled on all subjects

Tech support: Kuraish Godsend Irani, answering frantic Facebook messages for the past three years and counting

Zane and Zara, for being my lifeline for all things Karachi,
for doing things they probably didn't want to do to help this novel grow.

And finally, no personal growth happens without a good shrink:

Monthly breakdowns, no cooking, binge cooking, bad cooking, tears, self-doubt, self-hatred,
this man put up with it all

Complete manuscript- June 28, 2013

So that's it. Like any parent, I've done my best. I've provided the best education, the best teachers, the best therapists. And now my baby is going out into the big bad world and I have no more control over her life. Will she find work? Will someone find her attractive and take her in? Will she have a long and prosperous (shelf) life?

I don't know. All I can do is wait and see.

Totes kidding. Like a clingy stage mum, a book parent can do plenty. This one certainly is.
 More on that later...

Monday, May 20, 2013

Korean [Manuscript] Massage

Ever Google "Korean Massage"?
Trust me, enjoy these flowers instead.

Last week, my friends told me about the Korean massage.

"They scrub your skin and pull out all this guk you never knew was there. Then they show it to you and you're like, that all lives on me? Gross."

For those of you wondering why the hell my book isn't out yet, that's why. I'm Korean massaging my manuscript. I'm scrubbing away errant adjectives, repeated phrases, redundant fragments.

How many of us have had Korean massages? I haven't. Yet we all live in our skin and go about our business. But I suspect if we were to have one, if we were to see the pile of guk they scraped off us, we'd be in for life. Can you ever go back to secretly grimy skin once you know better?

Similarly, if you were to read my MS right now (that's industry talk for manuscript), you'd probably be fine with it. But I know better. I've seen what it is to hack and scrape and sandpaper a  piece of writing on other occasions- readings, submissions to writing conferences, etc. And once you've seen how much guk can live happily amid your words, how smooth your writing becomes once you clean it up, you can't go back.

Here's a teeny example:


The main hallway was lined with rooms whose doors were flung open this morning. Sunlight poured into large windows onto ayahs moving quietly about, sweeping and mopping floors, dusting heavy wood furniture, polishing objets d’art of gold, silver, marble, bronze. Each room was a variation on the same theme: excessive opulence. It seemed like the Karachi Mistrys had the same home décor principles as their Vancouver counterpart: to shout from the top tier of their customized crystal chandeliers, “We have money.” Over the years, Mum’s over-the-top taste had included a front yard fountain that at dusk lit up its eight-foot spray in deep fuchsia and violet hues, imposing iron gates fitted with gold-gilded ‘M’s, and custom-ordered Italian marble in the foyer. In high school, when my friends’ parents dropped me off, I pretended I lived in the house at the other end of the road, a plain white split level with nothing but a maple tree in the front yard. I’d hover there till they turned the corner before walking to my temple of shame. 

The main hallway was lined with rooms whose doors were flung open this morning. Sunlight poured into tall windows onto ayahs quietly sweeping, mopping, dusting, polishing objets d’art of silver and gold, marble, bronze. Each room was a variation on the same theme: excess. It seemed like the Karachi Mistrys had the same home décor principles as their Vancouver counterpart: to shout from the top tier of their customized crystal chandeliers, “Look, we’re rich.” In high school, when my friends’ parents dropped me off, I’d guide them to the house at the other end of the road, a plain white split level with nothing but a maple tree in the front yard. I’d hover outside till they left before walking to my temple of shame with its filigreed-till-your-eyes-hurt iron gates with a gold ‘M’ in the center, a fountain that at dusk lit up its eight-foot spray in deep fuchsia and violet, the cherubs that watched you with vacant eyes while you prayed someone would answer the door soon. 

It's like those "spot ten differences" games, right? Most people will never care but to me, this polishing makes all the difference. It's what thrilled me as a bright-eyed English major, and it thrills me today as a haggard old writer. 

In the above excerpts, I've only cut five words. This is how it goes- I cut 20 words here, 50 there, it feels futile. But today, I checked the whole MS. I've cut 4000 words in the first six chapters. And the reason this is so important is that the key to good writing is counter-intuitive: less is more.

A simple rule, but one that is incredibly difficult to accomplish. It can only be done by rolling up your sleeves, taking a wire brush and scrubbing away till you're out of breath, till your body (or body of work) is gleaming and free of guk.

Friday, April 5, 2013

So like, what are you? (Part 1)

I've had different versions of this basic question my whole life. People ask in a hundred different ways: "Where are you from?", "What's your nationality?", "You have an accent, discuss", and my all-time favourite, "Why is your skin a different colour than mine?".

Their guesses? Depends where I am. Abroad they go with Spanish, in California Mexican falls into the mix. Once and only once, I got Native American and once and only once, Singaporean. Persians always think I'm Persian (more on them later).

I always thought it was funny watching people struggle with how to formulate the question, trying to be PC (except for the skin colour guy, he was not PC. He was, however, drunk). But what's even funnier is watching me try to answer (unless you're me, in which case it's not so much funny as sweaty).

Last week, twice in one day I was asked, and both times, I stumbled. The first time, after teaching a Bombay Jam class, someone asked where I was from. First, I groaned, then I began. "Canada. Well, yes, you did see me singing along to the Bollywood. I was born in Pakistan so I speak Urdu. Which is the same as Hindi, really. No, not Muslim. My religion's Zoroastrianism? Zor-as-tree-an."

In my defense, it's complicated. If they're not South Asian, I start with "My ancestors were from Persia but then moved to India." And already I have a problem because I was born in Pakistan (more on this later).

If they're Indian, I go for broke, "Do you know Parsis?". If they're from the right place (Bombay, Pune), they say yes, my teacher/best friend/neighbour/accountant was Parsi and we're done. If they're Pakistani, this works too, followed by my teacher/best friend was your mother's neighbour/accountant.

If they're Persian, I have learned to say with my best, most expansive Persian drawl, "I am Zaaar-thushi". Note: not Zoroastrian, but Zaaar-thushti. Their eyes light up but (and this is key) in the very next breath, I say "But you know, the ones who went to India." At which point they bite back the avalanche of Farsi they were about to hurl my way, which I cannot speak.

It took me years (and a 400 page novel) to figure out where my confusion lies. It lies in the gaping discrepancy between my country of  birth, the country of my religion's birth and the country my culture became what it is today. None of those are the same. So my religion is Persian, the culture is heavily influenced by the Indian culture, but because of Partition, I was born in Pakistan. Had I been born in India, then two out of the three categories would have matched and I might have had a slightly easier time of it all.

But then, I wouldn't be writing this novel (more on that later).