Shahrukh is a writer with 20 published books—fiction and non-fiction for adults and children. Several are bestsellers and they’ve been translated into 14 languages). She has also written 11 commissioned screenplays (the movie of one was nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA) and 2 performed plays. She is currently working on her first novel. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
Why did you begin writing?
I can’t remember when I didn’t write. It must have been when I was taught handwriting at school. Maybe that’s why Mark Twain’s words ring so true to me: ‘If we were taught to speak as we’re taught to write, we’d all be stammerers.’ I was allowed to write in the same way as I learned to speak…no restriction or control, or even thinking. It came into my head and I wrote. So the writing still comes easy.
Are you a seat-of-the pants writer or an outliner?
My natural inclination is to write the same way I did as a child and then rewrite. Screenwriting taught me how to outline carefully and write detailed treatments. Then, when I was writing regularly, I realized that in order to be commissioned before writing, I needed to present my ideas in a coherent form so that my publisher would get a clear idea of what they were committing to. Agents like that, too.
I liked the idea of getting a chunk of money in the bank to allow me to spend more time on my writing instead of grubbing around for other work to bankroll the writing. It has to be done when you start out but if you can help yourself by getting organized—even if it’s not what you’re about—then it not only fends off the stress but also gives you a solid base from which to begin.
For example, I could sweat for up to a month on a film treatment (around 12-15 pages) but when I came to actually writing the script, I sometimes wrote it in less than three weeks. Then I had a couple of months tinkering, shaping, molding, developing characters, sharpening scenes. That’s what I truly love.
Same goes for the retellings—a proposal meant I had my list of stories, my categories and the sources already and could go straight into writing. Some years ago I decided to write a novel in my own time—I did not plan it. It’s taken me literally years to get it right and I’m hoping the typescript will be ready at the end of this month. My advice is have a plan. It’s not graven in stone but you have a guide which keeps you roughly on track.
Do you work better working on one writing project at a time or numerous?
I fantasize about the luxury of writing one thing at a time but it’s not in my nature. I always work on more than one writing project at a time. A script and a rewrite, a long work alongside a small one or fiction with non-fiction.
The thing is, I always have many ideas on the boil and the release of creativity into one piece often causes lots of little geysers to spout all over the place. Holding them down means that my mind builds up a head of steam and then the whole thing starts boiling over and I have to get it on to paper. I have many, many, gorgeous little notebooks filled with ideas, paragraphs, thoughts. But one of them is demanding to be written so I do as I’m told. Then there’s the commissioned work and deadlines which must be obeyed and seem to overlap all the time. Chaos! But then that’s how the greatest creation, the cosmos began even in the earliest mythological accounts.