Novelist Mark Twain once said, “Write without pay until somebody offers to pay.” A century later, his advice still seems to hold. Storytelling happens to be one of the oldest professions, yet it remains one of the hardest to make a living from. Many writers have to hold day jobs to pay their bills. And then there are those who quit high-paying jobs just so that they can write.We speak to two writers, both of whom began their professional careers in different fields—banking and acting—and ask them what made them move to writing. They have quite a few tips for aspiring writers.
Amish Tripathi, 42 Mumbai
Amish Tripathi worked 14 years as a banker before becoming a full-time writer.
How he got here: After a postgraduate diploma in management from the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata (1997), Tripathi joined banking. He worked for several years in Mumbai, first at Standard Chartered Bank, then at DBS Bank and IDBI. “My heart told me that I wanted to pursue writing. My mind told me that I don’t have any inherited wealth, I need to be practical and pragmatic,” he says. So he carried on working as a banker even as his first book, The Immortals Of Meluha, released in 2010, and the second, The Secret Of The Nagas, in 2011, both parts I and II of his Shiva trilogy. He went on to complete the trilogy with The Oath Of The Vayuputras in 2013. Around that time, he was paid a record advance of $1 million (around Rs6.5 crore) for his new Ram Chandra series, which he launched in 2015 with Scion Of Ikshvaku; the second part is slated to release in early June.
On switching careers: “You must use your heart to decide the destination but use your mind to plot the journey. I found people who have not thought through the change that they want to make and just kick their job and jump right into something and fail at it and that becomes a source of dissonance and sadness in their life. At the same time, someone can just suppress their heart and just keep compromising and at age 50-60, when your career is over, you are unhappy with the way your life has been. So you need a balance of both,” says Tripathi.
For five-six years, he worked two jobs: a manager at IDBI Federal Life Insurance by day, and a writer by night and during office commute time.
When he left in 2011, he made sure he kept his options open. “I gave my boss, the CEO, a long notice period. I hired my replacement. I trained him. So I left him on good terms. He gave me a lovely big idol of Lord Shiva as a gift at my farewell party. I also told him, ‘Sirji, if things go bad, I’ll come back to the job’,” says Tripathi, who quit his banking job in 2011. By this time, he had two published books and the annual income in royalties from these was equal to the amount he had made in banking that year. He felt secure enough to leave banking and concentrate on writing full-time. He was then writing the third book of his Shiva trilogy, The Oath Of The Vayuputras.
A typical day: Tripathi is an early riser, normally up by 5-5.30am every day. He sits down to write by 8.30-9am. Most of his writing is done in the study at his sea-facing home. He is currently working on the edits of his second novel in the Ram Chandra series, and also writing his first non-fiction book on the challenges India is facing. “Sometimes I might write all day, sometimes it may be for a few hours,” he says. Later in the day, he may travel to his office in Matunga for meetings or marketing-related work. He travels quite a lot, mostly across India, often for book promotions or other events. And sometimes to write. “Much of Vayuputra was written in Kashi. I hired a place out there. I wrote much of (Scion Of) Ikshvaku in Nashik, in Panchvati,” he says.
Skills needed as a writer: “Banking helps improve business sense. Because there is a business side to books as well—there are contracts that have to be negotiated, there is marketing that needs to be done, there are strategic calls that need to be taken,” he says.
In a way, Tripathi is an entrepreneur. “I am managing the business that emerges from my books. So my banking experience has certainly helped me out there, because we did a lot of innovative marketing things which had never been tried before. For my first book, we distributed the first chapter of the book as a sampler, free of cost; that had never been done before. It worked really well for us. We made a trailer film, it worked well for us. That is certainly a learning, that you need to do proper marketing,” he adds.
Career advice for aspiring writers: Be a good reader. A good reader gets all the inputs, the knowledge, and the insights needed to become a good writer. “When you are writing, you must be true to the spirit of your book. You must write with the honesty of your heart. You should be detached from success or failure when you are writing because it is the voice of your soul.”
His reading list: Shashi Tharoor’s An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire In India. “I am half-way through it. It is a difficult book to read. I have read books on the British Raj before—Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis, The Corporation That Changed The World, Will Durant’s The Case For India—and I always find these books difficult to read because I get angry every 10-15 pages and I am forced to put it down. A lot has been done to this country and I get angry—forget the Britishers, what the hell were we Indians doing? We allowed them to do this. I simply don’t get Indians today who believe that the British Raj was good for us. I am also reading Sri Aurobindo’s book The Foundations Of Indian Culture.”
Money matters: “Unless your parents have left tons of money for you, there is the practical matter of finances. I would suggest, have a job on the side while you write. A writing career is a bit like a movie career or a sporting career. Not just in India but abroad as well, most people actually don’t make that much money. In fact, they can’t even make a proper living out of it. There are very few people who make money beyond their wildest dreams,” says Tripathi. Forbes India reported in 2012 that Tripathi had earned more than Rs10 crore.
Twinkle Khanna, 42 Mumbai
Twinkle Khanna says she wrote poems while she was in school but had no plans of becoming a writer. She entered the film industry as an actor because it was important for her to be independent. She had seen her mother (actor Dimple Kapadia) be self-reliant. “At the time, for a girl my age to make money, a career in films was better. I looked the part so I got a lot of work. Also, because of my parents (actors Dimple and Rajesh Khanna).”
How she got here: Khanna started her career in 1995 with Barsaat. By 1999, despite good reviews and repeat film offers, she was bored with Bollywood. In 2001, she formally quit films and, a year later, launched her interiors store, The White Window, in Mumbai’s Bandra area. Writing came almost a decade later, in 2013, with a fortnightly column for the DNA newspaper, followed by one for The Times Of India. In 2015, she released her first non-fiction book, Mrs Funnybones. It sold over 100,000 copies, making Khanna India’s highest-selling woman writer that year. This was followed by a book of short stories, The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad, in 2016.
On switching careers: “I know being a famous actor and in the limelight is an aspiration for so many people. But I was born in this world. It wasn’t something I aspired to. I used to spend all day on the sets, reading or knitting. I remember my driver telling me, ‘please don’t knit, everybody will think you are an old lady’,” she says. She started working part-time with an architect while she was acting—she didn’t have a degree in architecture but she had worked with an architect when she was still in college.
After her first career switch from acting to interior designing, she was ready to add a new career by 2013. “Sarita Tanwar, the editor of DNA, knew I had an irreverent way of looking at things and asked me if I would write a column,” says Khanna. The DNA column proved so successful that she was approached soon after by The Times Of India, where she began the Mrs Funnybones column, which went on to launch her career as an author.
A typical day: Her day starts at around 6am, with yoga and some meditation. She sits down to write by 7.30am. Khanna says she can write anywhere.“But I do most of my writing downstairs, at a desk off my living room. I can write and also keep an eye on the children.” And yes, she does get disturbed sometimes and irritated by interruptions like “Madam, aaj khane ke liye kya banana hai? (What should be cooked today?).” At which time she puts on a pair of earphones with white noise like the hum of machinery or the sound of a refrigerator. She writes steadily till 10.30am. She works on the fortnightly column she writes for The Times Of India. “Some days it’s easy. So much has been happening around that it is easy to get ideas and write. Then I finish my column in one sitting. Other days I struggle. My last column took me 6 hours,” she says.
Khanna says she sometimes gets into trouble with people for the things she says in her columns. Recently, she made fun of a superstar and his fans attacked her on Twitter. She says her husband, actor Akshay Kumar, occasionally gets calls from political personalities. “Tell bhabhiji to be careful,” they remonstrate. She now runs her columns by her husband before sending them for publication. “He has a pulse on what works. Besides, we don’t want morchas (protests) outside our house,” she laughs.
When Khanna is not writing columns, she works on fiction. “I have three different ideas I am working on—they could come out as a novel, novella or short stories. Let’s see.”
By 11am, Khanna leaves for The White Window in Bandra, where she works till afternoon, meeting clients or making a site visit.
Skills needed as a columnist/writer: “I read, and try and be aware of what’s happening in the universe. And then present my amalgamation of it to the world in a way that’s informative and entertaining,” she says.
Career advice for aspiring writers: “Write every day. Write 1,000 words. Then throw out 800 and keep the best 200 words. Look at life through the lens of ‘what if’—if you meet somebody or some situation, even if it has nothing to do with you, try and think of the backstory. Eat carbohydrates—it’s food for your brain. Read everything. All sorts of genres, whether they interest you or not. Read great books to see what you can achieve and terrible books so that you know you can do better than that.”
Her reading list: Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection by Isaac Asimov, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (“recently read and fresh in my head”), Anthologies Of Science Fiction short stories (“that’s my love”), any P.G. Wodehouse novel (“they always make me laugh”) and Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories (“I love short stories”).
Money matters: Columnists get paid anything between Rs7,000- 20,000 for a piece. Royalties are 8-12% of book sales
Every month, we explore a profession through the lives of professionals at different stages in their careers.