How to become an author

Someone asked Arthur Hailey (I think it was him) what the secret to his prolific writing was. He replied, “I wake up every morning and I write.”

Sixteen books later, someone asked me, ‘Tell me how to become a writer.’

I replied, ‘Write. Write badly but write now – right now.’

You become an author by writing. Not by talking about how badly you want to become an author. It is like drawing or singing – people hesitate to do it because they don’t think they are good at it. That explains the popularity of bathroom singing because you do it in what you think is isolation and so you are uninhibited. So tuneless though you may be, you still enjoy yourself. It is the same with writing. People worry about writing a best seller more than they worry about writing itself. Logically you have to write first to give someone a chance to like or dislike your work. And with the popularity of self-publishing today and even more in the future, unless you want to make a living out of writing, likes and dislikes are not really material. So stop reading this and start writing now – right now.

I have what I call my 7 – rules of writing which I have found to be very useful. I am sharing this with the hope that they are useful to all the potential authors who are waiting in the wings to be read. For the first requirement for being read is to write.

1.   Forget inspiration

The biggest block to writing is to wait for inspiration. That is not to say that you will never be inspired. You will be. There will be times when the words will flow faster than you can type. The right words will come. The sentences will form themselves and you will watch as if from the sidelines what is flowing from your fingers. But if you wait for that to happen you will wait a long, long time. So do what the famous author quoted above said, ‘I wake up every morning and I write.’ The big secret of writing is to write.

2.   Good research

Depending on what you are writing about, research may be a very important aspect. What’s worse than making a fool of yourself? Making a fool of yourself in writing. The protection for that is research. Another thing; research and quoting the sources adds credibility to your argument. It shows that you are not the only bright spark in the world and that others before you also thought on the same lines and reached the same conclusions. And of course, research may result in your changing your line of thought or argument altogether depending on what you find out.

What is good research?

·         Search honestly: Look at all sources; not only the friendly ones.
·         Don’t read selectively: Actively look for contradictory data. If you don’t, others will.
·         Don’t use data to ‘prove’ argument. Build the argument based on what the data reveals.
·         Data is supreme: Be willing to change your whole approach if the data warrants it.

3.   Create structure

Create an overall structure for the book. You can change this as you go along but a structure is a huge aid in writing. Structure also gives form to the story line and points you in the direction of information you need. Structure gives you ideas about the kind of research you need to do. Structure helps you to visualize the overall size and form the book will take.

4.   Allocate time

Make a time table and allocate time for writing. During this time don’t do anything else. No emails, chores, phone calls, browsing or anything else. Just sit there and write. Discipline is the key. If you can make yourself sit at your computer every day and write, you are well on your way to becoming an author. The time of the day is not material. With a little reflection you will realize which your most productive time is. For me it is the early morning and late nights. Midday is not productive for writing and so I go to the gym at noon. Nothing like adrenaline to get the brain working.

5.   Keep a notebook handy for ideas

Ideas are funny things. They come when they want and they vanish when you need them. Then you are left with a form of sublime torture; having that idea hovering just at the edge of your consciousness; a hazy memory that you can’t access. So don’t pretend that you have a photographic memory. Only a camera has it and cameras don’t write. So keep a notebook handy. That means next to your pillow at night and in an accessible pocket all day and jot down the ideas that come. I have a way of having my book idea floating around in my head 24×7. Then as ideas occur they automatically fit in or get rejected. What emerges I write down. Writing down ideas is very important.

6.   Delete is not a 6 – letter curse word

Never get wedded to what you write. If you think of a better way to say it, do it. ‘Rewrite’ is the best phrase in the book. Where practical get someone else to read what you have written and take feedback seriously. I am not suggesting that you must necessarily accept all feedback and change what you have written or change the way you have written it. But I am saying that reflecting on feedback is a very good idea and where the situation warrants it, make appropriate changes.

7.   Writing and publishing are two different things

Writing in the end is a form of self expression. It is about you. It is the pouring out of your heart. It is the closest that you will come to becoming immortal. So write. If it gets published that is great. If not, it does not matter. Writing will still give you satisfaction that otherwise you would never have got. Today with the internet and blogging and online publishing there are many alternatives to the standard publishing company. So you need not dread getting the famous editor’s letters which is the hallmark of all block busting authors. All of them were summarily rejected by several self important editors who couldn’t see beyond their noses until they found the one who accepted their work and went laughing all the way to the bank. Explore a way to get published by all means but whether you find a way or not, keep writing.

Where did it all go?

A very dear old friend, David Ramse,  a ‘lay’ person with strong religious convictions enough to make him a missionary; a scientist, teacher – sent me this picture taken in 1980 when he used to live in St. Lust on the Berbice River. David and Miriam had a house literally on the river with its feet in the water – a beautifully located structure which Miriam made into a lovely home. I was invited to visit them and spent a couple of days there, when David took this picture of me trying to resuscitate a young Toucan which had flown into the screen door.

When I sent this picture to my brother, he asked me, ‘Where did all those years go Jaan?’ He calls me Jaan – short for Bhaijaan.

Where did they go? 34 years as on date – 1980-2014 – and counting.

I recalled what we will say when we meet our Rabb and are asked, ‘How long did you stay on earth?’ We will reply, ‘A day or a part of a day.’ All our life – a day or part of a day – in the reckoning of time by the Creator of time Himself.

Mu’minoon 23: 112. He (Allah) will say: “What number of years did you stay on earth?” 113. They will say: “We stayed a day or part of a day. Ask of those who keep account.” 114. He (Allah) will say: “You stayed not but a little, if you had only known! 115. “Did you think that We had created you in play (without any purpose), and that you would not be brought back to Us?” 116. So Exalted be Allah, the True King, La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He), the Rabb (Lord) of the Supreme Throne!

So what did this time give me? Memories – all lovely, positive, for which I am thankful. 

Duas asked; some accepted, some not accepted for which I am even more thankful – now that I have the benefit of hindsight to be able to see why AllahY didn’t accept those prayers. A sense of being guided, protected and nurtured. Of being brought back from the straying path without being allowed to suffer its consequences. Of being given the time to ask forgiveness and repent and even more for the good sense to take advantage of that time and ask forgiveness. How can I do anything but be thankful? So what memories, what lessons?

1.    Changed three jobs and learnt that happiness and job satisfaction is not in the job but inside myself.
2.    Lived in four countries, cheek by jowl with people of tribes, races, manners, values, concerns and history completely different from my own and learnt how similar we are to all people, even though we are different.
3.    Made friends – very deep and lasting friendships. Some I lost, to death, others to changes in lives. Learnt that the pain of parting is directly proportional to the depth of relationship. We pay for one with the other.
4.    Shared times, anxieties, dangers, hopes, happiness, grief and simply time with people on three continents and learned that our hearts beat to a rhythm that has nothing to do with the shape of our nose, the color of our skin or what we believe in.
5.    Shared thoughts, ideas, learning and sometimes a sunset or sunrise and learnt that the person I shared it with was more important than what I shared and that he/she enhanced that experience and was the reason I remembered it at all.
6.    Struggled for many goals. Some I achieved and some I didn’t. On the average my batting average has been far more positive than negative and I learnt that success depends on the color of our dreams, not on the color of our hair.
7.    Shared food, clothing, smiles and sometimes tears with many and learnt that it is possible to share both grief and happiness and strangely it decreases one and enhances the other.
8.    Shared silence and understood that companionship is not chattering like an insane magpie but like a pair of Golden Eagles, in sitting silently on a high mountain crag contemplating the world at your feet. Learnt that the best companions are those with whom a conversation is not a necessity. Learnt that telepathy is not fantasy. It happens. And it is fun.
9.    Built a consulting company with clients on three continents. Acquired property. Made profit. Sometimes loss. Learnt that the joy of hard work is more than the joy of achieving success easily. It is the danger, uncertainty and stacked deck which adds the spice of excitement to the win. Excitement is fear that anticipates a happy ending and both pump adrenalin into the system.
10. Ate dry bread, curds and pickle with poor villagers and listened to their dreams which to me were the stuff of normal life, taken for granted. Learnt the great secret of happiness, that it lies in the smile of another, whose dream you helped to come true. Learnt that courage is not expressed in the magnitude of the challenge but in the perspective from which it is viewed – for how difficult something appears is relative to where you stand. Learnt also that current circumstances don’t decide if you will succeed or fail, but only where you need to start. Learnt lastly that nobody ever knows the best that he can do – and still learning.
11. Spent time with myself, with real friends and with crowds and learnt that being comfortable with yourself is the most important thing. That companionship is a factor of respect which nurtures love. That loneliness is not the result of the absence of people but the absence of a particular person.
12. Slept under the canopy in the Amazonian rain forest, under the stars in the Arabian desert, beside a lake in a high mountain valley in the Himalayas and in a dry riverbed in the Aravallies. Learnt that sleep is a factor of peace of mind which comes from a clear conscience which in turn comes from never harming anyone knowingly. When we wish good or evil for another, we will it for ourselves.
13. Listened to many conversations. Participated in a few. Learnt that hatred is fire and its result is always ash. Learnt that it is possible for us to look for people’s faults or strengths and that we always find what we seek. The rest is its result. Learnt that being positive may be difficult in some situations but in those it is even more important if you want to get out of them. Negative thinking is quicksand; the more time you spend in it, the deeper you sink.
14. Through successes, failures, happiness, grief, beauty, ugliness; through anxiety and safety, through hunger and plenty; I learnt to recognize the hand of my Lord – to see, accept and look forward to His plan for me.
15. I learnt to recognize His Majesty, Mercy and Grace and to ask for His indulgence and forgiveness. I learnt to see His art in the forms that He created and to ask in great wonder and joy, ‘Why?’ The more I learnt, the more I marveled, the more I rejoiced, the closer I feel to Him and the more I desire to meet Him.

Thirty four years have gone by – all memories triggered by one photograph. It is highly unlikely that there are another thirty four to go. But then will begin a life that has no end. 

So final set of points to remind myself are:

1.    What more could I have done in these years?
2.    What did I earn that will benefit me in the life that will not end?
3.    What have I earned that I can present to the One to Whom is my return?
And most importantly – more important than all of the above – what can I do, starting right now?

For in the end we will be judged not by what happened but by what we decided to do about it.

Living your Message – Be the change you want to see ~ Mahatma Gandhi

If there is one thing that stands out with respect to Gandhiji, it was his willingness to live by his principles – irrespective of the consequences to himself. He was a classic example of what today we call, ‘Walk the talk’ and that was the secret of his enormous credibility. I recall a story that someone told me in Durban from Gandhiji’s South Africa days. He said that Gandhiji’s son narrated as follows:

 ‘I used to drop my father to his workplace and pick him back after work as we lived in the Indian area (Apartheid segregation) which was more than twenty-five kilometers away. One day I decided to go to the movies – something that my father didn’t approve of – and as luck would have it, I got engrossed in the film and forgot all about the time. When the movie finished I realized that I was more than an hour late to pick up my father. It was even later when I finally drove up to his office. He was waiting for me and asked me why I was late. I told him that the car had broken down and it took time while I had it fixed. Unknown to me however a friend of my father’s had seen me in the cinema and took the trouble to telephone him and tell him about it. So my father asked me, ‘I understand that you went to the movies and that is why you were delayed. Is this true?’
I knew when the game was up and admitted that this was the reason why I was delayed. My father then said something that has remained with me all these years – he said, ‘I have always tried to teach you to speak the truth. But it appears that I have failed. So I will punish myself for my failure. You can go home. I shall walk back.’ Saying that he walked home, twenty-five kilometers on a dark road while I drove slowly behind him. He never mentioned this incident again. And I have never lied again.’
If one needs proof of the power of walking the talk, this is as good as it gets.
I always tell this story when I am speaking to teachers and parents on raising children and ask, ‘What do you think will be the result of our placing responsibility for learning where it belongs – on the teachers/parents?’

In my view my life can be as valuable as I want to make it. It is not how long I live, but how I live which is more important. It is not what I do but the intention behind that action which determines whether that action is worthy of appreciation and emulation or an illustration of something to avoid at all costs.  A life that is lived creating value is a valuable life. One that is lived indulging oneself and one’s desires or worse, creating negative effects is a life wasted. After all animals also live and do whatever pleases them. But they leave no mark of their passing. They live, they reproduce, they die. Most humans do the same, with as much effect on their environment, society and time such that when it is mentioned that they once lived, one is tempted to ask, “So what?”
We only live once. During the course of that life, a large part of it is spent in growing up and growing old. Between the two is a brief period where a window opens. A window of opportunity where we have the chance to make a difference. Whether we are able to take advantage of this window depends on whether we anticipated it and prepared for it. Every one of us has this window in our lives. But some of us, when opportunity knocks, we complain about the noise.

“In the final analysis:
It all matters…
Everything that you do or choose not to do,
Communicate brand value and character.”
In my view there is one thing that takes precedence over all else when we look at the things that add value to human life. That is the establishment of justice. And that begins with speaking and living by the truth. This is what Gandhiji exemplified all through his life.
At all places and in all times, it is the establishment of justice that is the most critical underpinning to all other activity. A mother who brings up her children with a focus on establishing justice creates harmony in the home and brings up good citizens. A teacher who focuses on the establishment of justice in his or her teaching creates a society that is free from discrimination and which encourages merit. A manager who focuses on the establishment of justice creates a work atmosphere that rewards genuine effort and enables employees to find fulfillment in their work. A government that focuses on the establishment of justice ensures that the talents of all citizens are allowed to flower for the benefit of the nation and that strong groups support the weak instead of oppressing them. So the establishment of justice is the single most valuable goal that anyone can work for.
However as I mentioned, establishing justice is not easy. It never was:
“Cowardice asks the question – is it safe?
Expediency asks the question – is it politic?
Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right?
And there comes a time when one
must take a position that is neither safe,
nor politic, nor popular;
But one must take it because it is right.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And that is the key; one must do what is right, no matter what the cost. But then who said it was easy? I only said that it was the most valuable thing to do. Not the easiest.

(Credit for sketch belongs to the artist and NOT to me.)

Gandhi versus Kejriwal Challenges – similar and different

The developing political scenario in India is as interesting as it was unexpected and many are drawing parallels with India’s Freedom Struggle and the role that Mahatma Gandhi played in it. This article is simply to look at similarities and differences with the intention to draw some lessons.


1.    Both are/were mass based struggle where the leader projected himself as one of the common people – Aam Aadmi.
2.    Both bypassed the elite and addressed the masses of India’s population. In Gandhiji’s struggle the elite fell in line when they saw the trend and didn’t openly oppose Gandhiji.
3.    Both highlighted evocative issues and used unorthodox and unusual approaches – like the Dandi Salt March and Kejriwal’s Dharna against police inaction in Delhi.
4.    Both attempted to gain some quick wins especially at thumbing the nose at the Government – Swadeshi Movement and Gandhiji’s Charka (spinning wheel).
5.    Both attempted to include people of every faith – a very critical requirement in a multi-religious and pluralistic society like India.


1.    Gandhiji’s struggle was for the Freedom of India from British Colonialism – a supremely evocative cause that can have no parallel. Freedom movements all over the world have a power of their own.
2.    The ‘enemy’ was clearly visible, was a clear ‘outsider’, was a symbol of oppression and there were clear personal gains associated with succeeding in the struggle.
3.    There was no media to highlight mistakes and egg-in-the-face and in any case the cause was such that followers were willing to forgive anything.
4.    In Kejriwal’s case, the media has been bought and are doing all they can to dig out every little mistake or fault and highlighting it to try to discredit him. The power of this constant barrage on the senses and people’s minds can’t be underestimated.
5.    There was no opposition to Gandhiji’s struggle – there was no counter movement to keep India enslaved. The British were also getting tired of ruling and this came to a head after World War 2 and freedom ensued.
6.    In Kejriwal’s case there is a clear counter movement from the elite who have opened all purses and are willing to do anything to ensure that he fails.
7.    Gandhiji didn’t have to worry about fighting an election or winning a majority in Parliament.
8.    Kejriwal is working to a clear timeline – both a benefit and a liability.
9.    Gandhiji didn’t have to bring about administrative reform – he was not the ruler and was not given the government in any form – so he didn’t have to take decision, pass laws or do anything to gain the commitment of his followers. They wanted freedom from the British and believed that he could get it for them, so they followed him.
10. Kejriwal has to prove that his promises come true right away.
11. Those who dissented with Gandhiji and his methodology – and there were many – thanks to the fact that there was no media to highlight their dissenting comments, simply fell by the wayside and Gandhiji grew bigger than all of them.
12. Nobody who was a part of Gandhiji’s movement spoke against him publicly no matter what they thought of him or may have said to him privately.
13. In Kejriwal’s case some of the high-profile recruits (like Capt. Gopinath) are proving to be a mixed blessing by criticizing him in public. Clearly there is no party discipline in place which leaves room for healthy dissent yet draws the line at washing dirty linen in public.

Having said all of the above it still remains to be seen as to what will unfold as we approach the 2014 elections.

Will idealism and the genuine desire to help this great nation of ours emerge from the morass of corruption that we have descended into be translated into visible action?
Or will we be delivered into the hands of the elite who have prospered at the cost of the masses – once again to be sold, manipulated, corrupted and silenced – so that the powers that be, become richer and more powerful?

I believe that the answer to the above will lie in how many of us are ready to rise to the occasion, bury their differences, keep India in focus and do what it takes to save our nation from slavery worse than the British ever levied on us.

Kejriwal is not perfect. Neither was Gandhiji. But what was different – what Gandhiji had which Kejriwal has to create – is people who believed in him and loved him enough to overlook his faults and idiosyncrasies and focus on his message. Gandhiji’s followers had bought into his dream – the dream of a Free India. What remains to be seen is if Kejriwal can also get his followers to buy into the same dream – the dream of a truly Free India. 

Idealism – Excellence

In the world of entrepreneurship and startups, which I inhabit and have some claim to, we say that you can’t succeed in your startup until you make a significant personal commitment. Most successful entrepreneurs deliberately had no Plan B (second option if the first didn’t work) because of two core beliefs: Their unshakable belief that they would succeed and their belief that a second option blunts the edge. It takes the edge off desperation, off hunger; and that is detrimental to the result. So they remain hungry, remain desperate and they succeed where everybody else thought they would fail. They use other’s derision and naysaying to spur them on to do even more and they prove their detractors wrong.
Excellence in measured in many ways, one of the most important of which is your confidence and ability to stay on your chosen path. You will find when you do that, that other people will often be scared of your high ideals and goals. To remain on the path and not be discouraged by their lack of confidence is a measure of excellence. I have always measured the strength of my goals from the number of people who they scare the daylights out of. Currently the same is true for my dream of the SBA – it scares the daylights out of a lot of people. To me, it means that I am on the right path. You see, the only path that doesn’t scare sheep is the path to the pen. I personally have never had a liking to being penned. Especially since every pen has two doors. One towards the pasture and the other towards the abattoir. 
Danger is both exciting as well as mostly imaginary. But when we embark on lofty goals which are rooted in integrity, truthfulness and the desire to do something worthwhile, the world – what we know of it as well as what is unseen – conspires to make us succeed. Angels walk with you though you can’t see them. Doors open for you where you would not have imagined. People come out of the woodwork to help you not because you asked them to – you didn’t even know that they were there – but because they were sent. The resources that you need to accomplish your goal will flow in your direction. Very simple principle of physics – water flows down a slope, not up it. So when you are climbing a hill and rain falls, water will flow in your direction. If you are running away and going downhill, water will flow away from you. Your position on the hill doesn’t matter (no matter how far from the peak you are). It is your direction which makes a world of difference and quite simply spells the difference between reaching the peak or not. Many people believe that they can climb a mountain walking backwards. I personally don’t know of anyone who managed to do that. If you want to succeed, you have to face your fears and stare into their eyes until they look away. Not turn your back on them. Especially because what is behind your back becomes even more scary. I was never very good at walking backwards myself. 
That is not to say that one must ignore honest feedback or not check one’s assumptions against emerging data and change them if necessary. That too is a measure of excellence in itself but the final goal must not be watered down and diluted because of fear. One is to change the approach because someone has a better way. That is good to do provided that other way stands the test of rigorous proof-of-concept. The other is to give up the goal itself because you became afraid. That is to betray yourself. 
I want to share with you some of my quotes on excellence. All these and more are part of four books, two of which have been published and two more are in the pipeline. Please reflect on these thoughts and see where you and your goals fit in.

  1. Excellence is an expression of self-respect. So is mediocrity. We define ourselves and the world accepts that and treats us accordingly.
  2. Only those excel who revel in the effort. For whom the journey is the destination. Excitement is only in the chase. It ends with the catch.
  3. If you think success is difficult, try failure. Mediocrity ensures that your failure becomes permanent. That drug is called compromise.
  4. Why are there more mediocre people than those who achieve excellence? But who do you want to emulate? Who do you choose as your role model?
  5. Compromise is to attitude what cancer is to the body. The body doesn’t fight but accepts cancer cells until they kill it.

Remember that we all start in the same place – as idealists. But then we allow others (at least most of us do) to dictate what we will do, how we will live, what goals are ‘realistic’, what goals are ‘worth it’ and so on. So the leaping flame of idealism that was in our heart takes a beating and gradually gets reduced and dampened. When you are idealistic people will initially oppose you and push back and try to discourage you, not because they don’t like what you are planning to do but because in your eyes they see what they were themselves like one day; until they allowed the rest of the crowd to dampen their idealism. But remember also that the spark of idealism lives as long as we are alive. You can dampen it but you can’t kill it. 
So when they meet you, their spark starts to get some energy and that scares them. Their initial reaction is to try to put it back in its ‘place’ and dampen it once again because that will justify what they did to themselves all their lives. But if you refuse to internalize their fears and are true to your ideals, you will see that their own sparks will start to grow and will once again become the leaping flames that dispel the fears of darkness and light up the world in ways that neither they nor you thought possible. 
The key is to remain true to your ideals no matter what the world tells you. That, to me, is a measure of excellence. That is why I am a shameless idealist and I hope I remain that to the end of my days. For what is a life worth if one is to live it like a sheep?
I want to end with a short reminder to myself and you about the importance of commitment to excellence and the danger of slipping into mediocrity. The world is witness that people who never lowered the bar of excellence in the name of expediency, diplomacy or any of the myriad reasons we seem to find today are people who even their enemies look up to as role models.

  1. Excellence takes effort. Few make it. Failure is painful. Nobody likes it. Mediocrity is a narcotic which makes destruction seem acceptable.
  2. Failure is not the opposite of excellence. Mediocrity is. Failure is painful and drives effort. Mediocrity is painless failure. It’s fatal.
At the end of my days, I would rather be remembered as a man who died trying to achieve excellence than someone who accepted mediocrity.