For the last several months Whatay.com has been suffering silently. Why? Because Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin 'Einstein' Varghese has been the cynosure of my non-office creative pursuits. Dork, as I have begun to refer to it lovingly, is the book. The book.Yes. High fives all round.
Dork was the thing I referred to sheepishly when people asked what I'd been doing with this writing business for the last four years. "Where is your book dude?" blog readers would ask. I'd squirm and hem and haw impatiently.
You see this publishing business is slow. Slow and nerve wracking. Slow and nerve wracking and soul-draining. But it is awesome when it happens.
And now that the book is at advanced stage of completion, I think it is time we had a long talk. Sit down. Espresso? Good.
So sometime in early 2006, I decided to shed my MBA ways and become a freelance writer. I immediately started work on a manuscript. I went about it in a very mongol-like fashion. No plans, no contracts, no ideas; just long, sleepless night of typing and retyping. I made up the plot as I went along.
Four months later, in May 2006, I had a complete manuscript. And then I realized, while re-reading it for the fourth or fifth time, that it didn't have a single joke in it. I mean it had jokes in it. But it was largely like the hygiene humour bits in the first twenty minutes of slasher movies.
Ha Ha Ha Stab. Ha Ha Stab. Ha Stab. Stab Stab Stab Stab. Nude scene.
It was not a sad book. Or a tragedy. Just that it didn't have any joy in it.
And really, here we are all about the joy no?
Thus I decided. This would not be my first book. Maybe second. Ideally fifth. But not first. I just didn't see it being my debut novel. (Not that I had a single publisher returning calls at the time. Not like there were editors clamouring at the door. But still.)
The book was saved away somewhere on the web. (It still doesn't have a name. But it has a wonderful character name that I am proud of.)
I moved on from the "book project" and deflected all questions about it deftly. No point in approaching it without a plan, I told myself. Perhaps I should sell an idea to a publishing house first. Have a chat with a few commissioning editors. Draw up a chapter outline. Make a list of characters. Do what proper authors said they did in all those "books podcasts".
Also I was quite exhausted after the first manuscript. And mildly pained that I had gone about it all wrongly.
Months passed. Maybe a year. Till a moment of epiphany happened. At the Marine Plaza Hotel, on Marine Drive, in Mumbai. More specifically, around one of the corner tables at Geoffrey's pub.
Friends from London were down, and joining us was the great Total. Total is a dear friend and a brutal observational comic. You laugh first, understand later and break down in tears eventually.
"Dude what happened to your book da?" Total asked. I broke down in tears. I told him about the manuscript in cryogenic storage. "Machi, you should at least see if you can sell some of your blog posts as some form of anthology. And a few of your columns and all. People will buy da. Try try." Total was incessant. So I went back home thinking: "Why not? Not everyone in the world read my blog. Some people might actually pick up a copy. Yes it was reusing free content. But wasn't Scott Adams trying the same blog book stunt? So why not? Nothing to lose."
Eventually I decided I'd pad the book up with 25% new content. So, in a worst case scenario, at least the few thousand blog readers would pick it up. There was wind in my sails again. The loins were girdled. I took a full print-out of the blog, every post, and the missus and I began to sit down and sort. And edit. And rewrite.
But unlike last time, this time I went with a plan. I had emailed a bunch of bloggers for publishing contacts while starting the first book. And this time decided to email all of these leads asking for advice. One of them, a prominent writer of and about books, was also now heading a new publishing house. And I knew someone who knew someone who knew her. I tugged at this network.
Prominent Writer cum publisher wrote back! "Of course we'd like to do a book with you. Your blog is good. What ideas do you have?"
Joy! Ecstacy! Celebration!
I told her about the anthology idea. She seemed excited. Not thrilled. But interested. A thick batch of edited posts and columns was shipped out. I waited. (Notice how I stopped following up with any other publisher. But then I was going through the "beggar not chooser" phase. So...)
She responded a few days later. "Like the work. Like the style. It is funny. But the format is problematic. The tone doesn't work in an anthology format." She suggested I try working on a fresh novel idea. A full length, new novel. Maybe based on campus culture or MBA lifestyle. What about an MBA murder mystery? That was a new one no?
After my bitter experience with the first manuscript, I was quite miffed by all this. I was just beginning to think this anthology idea was good. And that I could have the finished product in a few months time. Thinking, conceptualizing and writing a fresh novel would take so long. BUT I WANT TO BE PUBLISHED RIGHT NOW! I WANT TO SEE MY NAME IN THE IMAX WADALA CROSSWORD RIGHT NOW! WHAT IS WRONG WITH EVERYBODY IN PUBLISHING!
I mailed back Prominent Writer promising to think about her advice. I would send her a list of plot possibilities and she could tell me which ones would work. Slightly demoralized and more than a little pained, I picked up the whole blog anthology print out and sat with the missus looking for ideas for a novel.
And we saw it instantly. An old blog post that just might survive being expanded into a full novel. (NO. NOT TRAVAILS. NO. Thanks.)
The tone of this blog post was odd. The voice quirky. The premise somewhat innovative. I mailed Prominent Writer an excited email. I think, I told her, that we could pull this off. And it wasn't that experimental, because we had proof of concept: there was this very popular series of British humour novels somewhat along this line. And then I waited.
A few days later the email came. "Let'd do this! I like the idea! We'll pay you ___ rupees for it plus royalties. When can you deliver?"
Brain exploded with joy. Finally I was going to graduate from writer to author. Sure it was a small, low profile imprint. Not a Penguin or a Harper or a Random House. But it was a start. Some people asked me to talk to the bigger brands as well, jostle for more money. At least see if anybody else was interested in talking about the idea. I decided not to. Still begging, not choosing. "Send me the contract!" I emailed back.
A bizarre series of events happened after that. Now when I look back it seems all providential. But at the time it drove me insane.
The first draft of the contract had my address wrong. I sent it back. The second draft of the contract had my name spelt wrong. Sent it back. And the third draft of the contract had my PAN number wrong. I was livid. "How can you guys edit my whole book, if you can't make a 10-page contract correctly? This is MY NAME goddammit!"
At which point they just fell off the radar. Prominent Writer stopped replying to emails. Her subordinates at the publishing house stopped replying to emails. Phone calls went unanswered. And I had three copies of the contract with assorted typos in my cupboard. But by then I had started work on Dork. And was pushing through a few thousand words each week. It was coming along nicely. But the deathly silence from my publisher was killing me. Not a single rupee had changed hands yet and no contract was signed. Three months later, sometime in October 2008, I realized that perhaps the project had fallen through.
My book was jinxed. Sob.
Which is when the missus made a stunning entry. Stage right. Screaming motivationally. Loving toughly. "Go talk to the other publishers good man! Take your 30,000 word long semi-manuscript and peddle it. Peddle it like your life and my future interior designing consultancy depends on it. Go go!"
So I did. All November I cleaned up the 30,000-word Dork draft and collected contacts at Penguin, Harper, Random House and so on. In December 2008, just before taking a week off to relocate to Delhi, I sent out emails to all of them:
I have this book idea. It almost got contracted with Prominent Writer. Would you guys want to have a look? Please?
Two editors, including one at Penguin I found on LinkedIn, wrote back. Send us a copy. We'd like to have a look. I did. I was very, very excited. This was Penguin and *Other Big House*. What if this worked out?
I mailed out massive PDFs and then waited patiently over the Chirstmas and New Year holidays. Meanwhile we moved to Delhi. Missus was very hopeful and optimistic. I was less so.
On the 5th of January Penguin emailed back. They liked what they saw. But what was going to happen next? How would I wrap up the story?
A flurry of emails went back and forth. A week later Penguin made an offer. I accepted. (I told you this no?) (Other Big House reverted later too. But by then I'd given my word, if not stamp paper, to Penguin.)
Three months, many sleepless nights and two re-writes later, I submitted a 70,000 word manuscript to Penguin on 30th March 2009. Just a week behind contracted schedule. There was a minor hiccup as my assigned editor quit the flightless avian. But a splendid new one came in and picked the project up very smoothly. The initial feedback was good, my editor liked the book. thought it would work well and called me over to the Penguin office in Panchsheel Park to discuss edits and corrections.
In that meeting we lightly touched upon the idea of sequels. Did I see the incredible Robin Varghese sustaining more stories? Did his character have longevity? It seemed to everyone involved that the book had adequate sequel potential. In the last week of June I sent them a proposal for two sequels, to make up the Robin Varghese trilogy.
While Penguin debated the sequel ideas internally two things happened: further rewriting on the original manuscript, and I hired a literary agent to handle contracts and paperwork. (In a moment of splendid genius I lost the first cheque Penguin sent me for Book One. Not a good move. I told my agent I will do nothing but write and email. The rest, including moneys, was upto them. Mita agreed graciously.)
In October Penguin sent a proposal for Books 2 and 3. By then we also decided to call it the Dork Trilogy. Because, you know, Robin Varghese is a dork. Last month I signed 95% of the contract for the sequels. (Two pages had typos and I need to sign them separately.)
Meanwhile Dork One will go to press in another two to three weeks.
So what is Dork One about?
Dork is about offices, office culture, naive employees, one love life, two YouTube videos, thousands of ball bearings, some dogs... But most of all it is about Robin 'Einstein' Varghese. And ball bearings. But wait. That is too cryptic. Let me make it a little easier for you to figure out. The following image shows the 200 non-regular worlds that appear most frequently in the manuscript. Bigger size, means greater frequency. See if you can figure out what the book is about:
Now for some quick Dork facts in jaunty QnA format:
Q: Is it a campus novel?
A: No. Well there is one chapter of campus-ness. But otherwise no.
Q: Do I need to have an MBA to "get it"?
A: No. Not at all. I've checked. High school education is sufficient but not necessary.
Q: How many pages does it have?
A: Around 240 I think. In nice readable font. Some white spaces here and there.
Q: So this is definitely auto-biographical right?
A: 60% of what happens in Dork is based on things I've seen or heard about. The rest is made up. Crazy shit.
Q: When do we get to buy it?
A: Last week of January 2010. Delhi first. I think.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: Secret. But cheap enough to not buy it from a traffic signal. I hope. No, but quite cheap.
Q: How many ball bearings are in it?
A: Thousands. Maybe millions. I stopped counting at one point. They are critical to the plot.
Q: There is a plot?
A: Good question. Maybe.
Q: I've never read your blog. Are there lots of in-jokes?
A: Welcome. No. There aren't any in-jokes you won't get. But blog regulars will know when they are getting a hat-tip or two. Irrelevant to plot.
Q: And when does Dork Two and Dork Three come out?
A: Don't know yet. But in gaps of 9-12 months I think. I've started work.
Q: I live abroad. I want to buy Dork. Will I be able to?
A: I think so. Penguin is doing something. Fingers crossed.
Q: You've already sold movie rights haven't you?
A: Nope. Not yet. Interested?
Q: Office culture?! Means no sex or violence?
A: Little bits of both. But nothing to scare the kids away. Except the language. There is bad language.
Q: I know a friend's friend called Robin Varghese...
A: Not based on him.
Q: But he is a real dork...
A: Not based on him.
Q: But he also works in an office...
A: Stop it Robin.
Q: Wait. What does "Dork" really mean?
A: A quirky, naive, socially inept person. Not unintelligent. Just a little odd. Out of touch.
Q: So you've started giving interviews, releasing excerpts and all?
A: Soon. I had to start with a detailed note on Whatay.com first no? International media splurge is being planned. Perhaps FIFA 2010 World Cup sponsorship. Imagine.
Q: How do you pronounce Dufresne?
Q: Cover design?
A: Yet to be finalized. The general idea is to go minimalist.
A: Shitting bricks man.
Q: Any message for your blog readers?
A: You guys made it happen. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you.