Shubnum Khan is an author, freelance journalist, university lecturer and artist. In 2011 her first book, Onion Tears, was published by Penguin Books – a novel about three generations of Indian Muslim South African women. It is a tale of love, loss and life.
The manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Prize for African Writing and then published by Penguin Books. It was selected for the 2011 Exclusive Books Homebru Campaign, long-listed for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg’s Debut Fiction Prize.
Currently she lives by the sea in Durban, teaching Media Studies, freelancing articles, drawing cartoons, completing her second novel, Paper Flowers, and watching as many different series as possible.
1. From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?
An incredible amount – the majority of the writing took one year but it took just over another year to edit the manuscript. There’s a saying that writing is rewriting. You can always make your writing more concise, sharper and stronger. I used to teach creative writing and it surprised me that so many people thought their first work was their best work. The editing changes the whole shape of a book – even the plot and character can change. So I’m not exactly sure how much editing I did, except that it felt like I was editing all the time, from beginning to finish and even after publication. I look at the text and think I could have changed more to make it better. It’s partly why I try not to look at my published book anymore. The thing is, unless you’re some kind of genius, there is always room for improvement and editing shows you that.
2. What research do you do for your book?
My first novel had to do with a community I am intimately familiar with – Indian Muslim women. I have 3 older sisters and my mother has 6 older sisters so I was already in a space that was rich with information – so technically content-wise all I had to do was observe my surroundings. In terms of my style and learning how to describe a story I read many different types of novels from Arundhati Roy‘s detailed God of Small Things to Cormac McCarthy‘s stark The Road. Learning about different forms of writing is a crucial but underemphasised part of research. For my second novel I’ve had to do research about Durban in the 1920s and that has been quite interesting because I’ve lived in Durban all my life but I’m only beginning to understand it now that I understand something of its past. I feel the same applies to people too.
3. How many words do you write, on average, per day?
When I was writing at my most productive I was averaging about 1 500 – 2000 words five days a week. Those moments come in dips and peaks though and it is always changing – at the moment it is very slow. My ideal would be about 2000 – 3000 words everyday but it really depends on many variable factors (which part of the story you’re in, the mood you’re in and so on).
4. Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?
It’s a bit of both but the main thing is that I don’t have the details. I have a vague outline of beginning and end which grows every day in my head and as I write I fill in the details, so a lot of the time the character or plot can take me to places I never planned – but as long as I’m within my (vague) outline then I let the story take me where it wants to.
5. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?
Well, the fact that I don’t plan my work so much does mean I get stuck often figuring out what should happen next – and this is why sometimes, I do think I need to plot my work out more. But that seems, for me, to go against the grain of what creativity is – although some types of writing with rich plots have to obviously be tightly planned to work. There are numerous problems faced when writing but my most current one is to just sit and be able to make the time for writing. Like most art – it takes a lot of time and effort to see real results and so a lot of the process of writing is about cultivating patience which is frustrating, but also one of the most rewarding parts of the writing process.
6. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I watch a lot of series and have a good cry at the kitchen sink. Jokes. Well about the crying at the kitchen sink part, not the series. The important part of writing is to implement a system, so write at a certain time every day. Even if you have nothing to write, you must sit at your desk at the time. I found that as long as I did that, eventually I would write something – it was just about forming a habit and maintaining it.
7. What advice can you give aspirant writers?
I sometimes feel people expect too much too quickly and one of the worst things is the crippling disappointment that entering this field can leave you with. You have to be prepared to work hard – to put in a lot of work which means writing and rewriting, reading a lot, doing research, getting friends to read your work and comment and being able to deal with the criticism that will definitely come. If you can put in the work, real hard work, and believe in your ability then you can definitely succeed.
You can follow Shubnum’s tweets on Twitter @ShubnumKhan and click HERE to visit her website.