The Most Marketable Skill

The good folks over at Webucator contacted me the other day to contribute to their ‘Most Marketable Skill’ campaign of 2014. The cause is close to my heart, and with thirteen years of experience in the working world, I feel knowledgeable enough to share my words of wisdom with graduates who are about to dip a hesitant toe into corporate waters. 

I wouldn’t be able to zero in on just one skill, but the following three make it to the top. Note that these don’t just apply to newbies but to seasoned professionals as well, many of whom commit similar mistakes. 

Always be ready with prospective solutions

If you have to inform your manager about a problem, always keep at hand a couple of solutions. Also keep in mind which is your preferred solution, because that’s one of the questions your manager will ask you. The other questions she will ask are – the pros and cons of each solution, the dependencies of each, the time taken for each. The only exception to this rule is for issues out of your control, such as you don’t have the required permissions or tools to perform your job. 

Never, ever, present your manager with just problems. If you do this consistently, you will be branded as a whiner, and nobody likes whiners. 

Be proactive

If you’ve finished the work assigned to you earlier than expected, ask for more work rather than the manager finding out much later. 

Instead of looking for something to do, look around and see if you can identify opportunities to improve some part of the work you are doing – either in technical terms or in terms of the process followed. Don’t worry if your proposals are not accepted for whatever reason – your manager will be happy to see you taking the initiative. 

Learn how to explain issues briefly

Your lead is juggling multiple tasks at a time. To help them help you, learn to condense the problems you’re facing into crisp bullet points. This skill will hold you in good stead whichever field you work in. While everyone else is unravelling epic tales about their problems, if you can explain yours quickly and to-the-point, you will get a pat on the back. More details can always be shared when your senior demands them of you. 

This skill applies to emails as well. When offering a status update in an email, start with a succinct update first and then expand upon the issue at hand. The recipient should be able to glean an idea of the subject without having to read a long story of ambitious proportions. 

As you grow on the job, learn to apply the newly-acquired skills regularly. Remember to pick up new ones and don’t get left behind. 

What do you think is the most important skill for fresh graduates?

Writing for Free

I’ve been pondering the question of writing for free which Damyanti at The Daily (w)rite raised in her post some time back. It’s a big question that all writers tackle at some point or the other – should one write for free at all? 

I’ve had a few short story publications, and for all but one I’ve managed to get paid, even if small token amounts.

I have a journalist friend who insists on writing for money, and by that, I mean good money. No pittances like $10 for those 500-word articles that infest freelance job-boards. The quality of her writing matches this attitude. She puts her money where her mouth is. She does not pursue non-paying opportunities, and will never advise you to do that either. Inspired by her, I approached my writing in the same style. I followed her model and determined that I will send some of my stories to paying venues. 

I cannot honestly say whether this strategy is working. I have had some work published, others not. I’ll play out this experiment a little longer to check the results. For a few months more, I’ll try sending some of my stories to the paying markets. Note that alongside I have also sent and am still sending stories and essays to non-paying magazines which I feel are a good fit for the work I’m sending. However, until I’ve garnered more acceptances from either side, I won’t know if I’m on the right track. 

The process of ‘Write. Submit. Repeat’ is fairly time-consuming, because most literary magazines take more than 3 months to respond, and at the end of all that waiting, it may lead to a curt form rejection. 

Seth Godin says that when you’re building a portfolio you should work for free readily. But I agree with what Damyanti said in a comment – when does the giving away stop and the earning begin? I’m not sure of the answer at all. 

Another point to consider: If you don’t even try for the paying markets, then your writing may also get stuck in the same place forever, without any discernible improvement from one year to the next. Submitting to a high-paying market may bring out the best in a writer, and even if they don’t get published in that magazine, at least their writing would have improved by the end of it. 

By the end of this year I hope to offer a positive report on my experiment of writing for pay. 

What is your opinion on writing for free?

What’s in a name?

According to the good bard, a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. I am no rose, and I don’t care how I smell, beyond praying I don’t suffer from halitosis, but I long for the day when I can introduce myself and not have a distorted version of my name flung back at me.

My name is Gargi, pronounced Gaar-gee, rhymes with ‘car key’ but substitute the hard g sound instead. The first time people hear my name, the many unflattering variations they conjure up are as follows.

Gar-gai
Rhymes with Fungi. This name would be appropriate if there existed an organism called a ‘gargus’ and I amounted to many of them together, thus becoming the plural, Gar-gai. Despite the many flaws in my character, no-one has, so far, compared me to a fungus or any other such moldy substance.

Bonus joke:
Q. Why did the mushroom go on holiday?
A. Because he was a fun guy.
(Source unknown)

George
Why don’t people understand – if my name was George, I’d spell it that way, wouldn’t I? Do they think I’ve deliberately changed the vowels just to flummox potential acquaintances?

Greg
Studies have found that people calling me over the phone are especially liable to confuse me for a Greg or a George. They dial my number in feverish expectation of a hunky male voice, and then react in great surprise when my dulcet feminine tones stream down the phone. If I had a dime for every time I answered my cell only to hear ‘May I speak to Mr. Gargi?’ I would be richer than Mark Zuckerberg.

Georgie Porgie
Close on the heels of George came the insufferable nursery rhyme Georgie Porgie. The chants started as soon as I boarded the school bus:

Georgie Porgie, Puddin’ and Pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry,
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away

It only hurt more because Georgie Porgie was a boy.

Jar-gi
This one crosses all boundaries of decency. I assume the offender had consumed one pint too many, and taken it upon himself to spoil my day by drawling my name like this.

Jar-ji
In India, one tags a ‘ji’ to the end of a name to connote respect. So “Jar-ji” would be appropriate if one was addressing a jar, but I am not a jar, even if people might accuse me of being shaped like one.

When spoken with a French accent, ‘Jarji’ sounds like a badly cooked French dish, which again, I am not. Maybe they were aiming for ‘bourgeoisie’ but got ‘jarji’ instead?

Gergi
This is the number one most popular pronunciation of my name. The first syllable rhymes with ‘fur’, and overall it needs only a little juggling of the alphabets to be turned into Fergie, which means I might turn up as a popular Duchess in London. I am toying with the idea of moving there for good, and assuming the title ‘Gergie – Duchess of Dork.’

Garbage
Fear not, this is neither a mispronunciation nor (I hope) an assessment of my character, but ‘tis instead a mere nickname for my humble self. Friends and foes, fed up with pronouncing my name wrong, resorted to this simple word to express how they felt about me. It helped that when you type Gargi in Microsoft Word, it offers ‘garbage’ as a viable alternative. MS Word, I feel the same way about you.

Gags or Gargs
This is, thus far, the most popular nickname I’ve had. Old friends, who still remember my name and on occasion my birthday, refer to me by this affectionate nom de plume. A friend who eventually moved to Australia hit upon an extension of this that became wildly popular among my colleagues – Gags the Bags.

Graggy or Gragi
I think they mean groggy, but I can never be sure. Possibly I got stuck with this nickname the day I downed two glasses of wine and one glass of champagne and tottered to the loo in a hurry.

Jaggery
This is the word for a coarse, dark sugar, especially the one made from the sap of East Indian palm trees.

It’s nice to be thought of as something sweet, but really its not. I’m not that sweet.

Other alternatives offered by MS Word
Gorge
Garage
Garget
Margi
Gage

No thanks, MS Word. I can get myself misnamed without your help. In the meantime, write down my name – it’s spelt G-A…oh hell, just call me Miss G.

How I Overcame Writer’s Doubt and Saved the World

I am participating in the ‘Writing Contest: Overcoming Writer’s Doubt’ held by Positive Writer.

Show me a writer and I’ll show you doubt. Writers all over the world harbour all kinds of misgivings about their voice, the number of adverbs in their stories, the Flesch-Kincaid level of their writing and many other such seemingly trivial issues.

My writer’s doubt was a little different.

Around this time last year, I’d taken a stab at revamping my first novel. Revamping is a polite word – what I really mean is ‘rewriting’. A contest lurked on the horizon, which required 3 chapters and a synopsis. Of course, I didn’t have time to rewrite the whole manuscript but surely I could slap together the first few chapters and a summary, couldn’t I?

Indeed, I could. I still didn’t have a lot of time, but I kept my nose to the grindstone and churned them out. I grabbed my critique partners by their virtual collars and dashed the partial off to them, demanding snappy reviews be sent back ASAP. They obliged, and minutes before the deadline, I sneaked in my entry.

Of course, I didn’t win. I didn’t even place.

That’s when doubt, in all its might and glory, struck me. Now, my hesitation wasn’t the usual – “is my writing good enough” variety.

It was the mega-jumbo-super-mammoth version. The exact words in my mind were:

Do I even have the ability to tell a story?

At this point, I’d had around 4 published pieces in journals spread out over a few years. So when I asked myself this question, I assumed that the previous ones were flukes, and that now I needed to get down and prove that I can tell a story – coherently, succinctly, and for the reader’s general entertainment.

But how to do it? It’s easier said than done. It had taken me 2-3 years to complete each of my novels, by wresting the few free hours leftover after finishing my day job. If I set out to prove my writing chops via novels, I’d be around 80 by the time I had anything to show for my efforts.

So I had a brainwave, and opted for the shorter route. I decided to try my hand, once again, at polishing and publishing my stories.

This time, I pulled up my sleeves and stepped into the murky waters of plot and characterization and that bane of writers existence – literary writing. I read story collections, I collected them like fridge magnets and pored over stories that online journals were publishing, to get a feel of what works and what can be done better.

Then I did the only other thing left to do – write.

I wrote the stories. Then I polished them. I wrote some more, and polished some more.

Since making my ground-breaking decision, I have had 5 stories published in a span of 6 months.

I’m part of the Short Story Challenge, which means I’m sharpening my knives and polishing more stories. Literary journals online are, at this very moment, snowed down under mountains of submissions with my name on them.

I guess there’s only one conclusion to be drawn – I can tell a story! That, and even if I couldn’t, I’d die trying.

That’s how I overcame writer’s doubt and saved the world (from another frustrated suicidal writer). How about you? Do you have a story to share about overcoming doubt in any form?

The Author Training Manual

I am a huge fan of Alexis Grant since her Travelling Writer days, so when she launched The Write Life I subscribed immediately. 

The other day an article was posted on The Write Life which I found very useful, titled 5 Reasons You’re Not Ready to Self-Publish Your Book. I have been following the talk on self-publishing all over the internet, and this thought kept running through my mind – is it really as simple to self-publish as it was made out to be? And even if one could self-publish, surely achieving success in it would be difficult without some hard work. There must be some downsides to it, I thought. 

My questions were answered in this blog post

The post offered a prize of The Author Training Manual by Nina Amir to one commenter chosen at random. Now usually non-US folks are barred from such contests as the prize is mostly a print book which is mailed. To my pleasant surprise, however, it was mentioned here that an e-book would be sent to non-US winners. 

I dropped a comment anyway because I loved the post. A few days later, I got the great news from Heather at The Write Life that I had won the prize!

I am a quarter of the way through the book and it is chock full of advice that speaks to me. Among the many nuggets of wisdom, Nina Amir states one point that I think I need to work on – the Author Attitude. 

The Author Attitude encompasses a range of attributes that a writer must possess in order to get published – the willingness to learn continuously and put yourself out there, the tenacity to persist despite failures and obstacles, and to top it all, a sunny optimism to weather the storm. 

Read more about this in a detailed post by Nina Amir on Writer Unboxed

I am off to finish reading my prize!

We Submit, and We Submit

Gargi Mehra:

A submission party! Never even thought of that – I usually just have a submission party of my own, and definitely not the other kind mentioned in the post!

Originally posted on BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog:

A guest post from Risa Polansky Shiman:

Young woman winkingWe call them Summer Submission Parties. Every two weeks, my MFA friends and I reserve a classroom from the English department. We spread out around the long, conference-style table in front of our respective laptops, armed with bottles of water and Fig Newtons and a community bag of almonds that we agree somehow taste like walnuts (walmonds). Someone writes each of our names on the big, white board at the front of the room, and we get started.

“So-and-so, I think XYZ Review would be a good fit for your stuff – check it out.”

“Guys! Such-and-Such Magazine is calling for experimental nonfiction!”

“Ugh. ANOTHER one that charges three dollars to submit. It’s not the money – it’s the principle.”

“Shoot. I just missed the submission period for Journal That Definitely Would Have Published My Piece Had It Been Accepting Submissions.”

You…

View original 610 more words

The Interpreter of Stories

I was 19 when I first read the Interpreter of Maladies, shortly after it was published. At the time I did not properly understand, or indeed appreciate, many of the stories. The two that stayed with me, but didn’t receive much attention in reviews and discussions of the book, were ‘The Real Durwan’ and ‘Sexy’.

I remember reading ‘A Temporary Matter,’ the first story in the book, and feeling a touch of gloom, but overall it left me underwhelmed. My family and I were all crammed into a car, on a four-hour road trip. My sister was expecting at the time. The discussion turned to Jhumpa Lahiri and her book. I mentioned that I had started reading it, and had finished the first story. My father had read the book before me. When my sister asked what the story was about, I slipped her the one-line premise. My father, unseen by my sister, and strongly suspecting that I possessed the emotional intelligence of a raccoon, gripped my elbow, to stop me blurting out the underlying subject at the core of the story – a miscarriage. He needn’t have worried. I was 19 but not foolish.

As I prepare to write seven more short stories during the year, I am reading the masters to study what works and what doesn’t. I am especially dissecting the stories that resonated with me, made sense to me, and left me thinking about the characters long after I’d turned the last page.

In short, to become a better short-story writer, I have to become an Interpreter of Stories.

Most of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories fall into this category. Somehow her novels never tempted me, though Mira Nair made an amazing film out of her novel The Namesake. An excerpt of her latest novel The Lowland looks promising, but I haven’t got around to reading it yet.

In her second collection, Unaccustomed Earth, I enjoyed the stories of Hema and Kaushik that form the second half of the book, more than the unconnected stories in the first half.

The other story collections I’ve read recently are:

The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran

Revolt of the Fish-eaters by Lopa Ghosh

Have you read any short-story collections lately?

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