Women want to tell their stories, urgently and purposefully. Nowhere was this more evident on a bright midweek morning in February than at a hall full of women (and a few good men) at The Lalit hotel where the Delhi edition of the annual Women Writers’ Fest was held in February. A recurring question seemed to dominate many discussions here: How best can one write about experiences of domesticity, about marital violence, about changing identities, and find enough readers for these stories?

One of the themes most in demand at the festival has always been how to get published and how to market oneself, confirmed Shaili Chopra, founder of Women Writers’ Fest and SheThePeople.TV. The festival has expanded beyond the metros to become a 15 cities-a-year travelling literary event in its fourth year, adding Hyderabad, Lucknow, Bhopal, Patna, Chandigarh, Nagpur, Surat and Jaipur to the roster.

Voices of protest

“There are writers everywhere, and what we believe in, is going to them and engaging with them in their own environment,” Chopra says; the emphasis is on efforts to “mainstream female writing” and explore subjects like gender, self-care, mental health, business, environment, climate, cities in motion, voices of dissent, poetry, spoken word, romance, erotica, relationships, and feminism, among others. The vibe, thus, is current, provocative and meaningful. Young girls and college students, who are an integral part of the audiences across cities are keen to listen to older speakers, their journeys, the challenges they faced, notes author Kiran Manral, who co-curates the festival.

At the Delhi edition on February 12, a number of panel discussions responded to the protests in another part of the city, Shaheen Bagh. “Voices of Dissent: Chronicling resistance”, featuring columnist Natasha Badhwar, publisher Arpita Das, journalists Rohini Singh and Sunetra Choudhury, and dastangoi artist Fouzia, emphasised on the need to make dissent mainstream and fashionable again, and publish more and more voices of political dissent.

Touching on similar ideas in the context of the changing landscape of the capital city on the panel “Delhi in Motion”, writer Mridula Koshy noted, “What’s happening in Shaheen Bagh is what democracy looks like. Sometimes people use roads to talk.” Delhi often keeps certain people out of certain areas and this is an answer to that. If we do some soul searching, we would understand that power needs to be better distributed, which would make the city safer for all of us, she added.

Forms and genres

Even genres like romance, usually dismissed as fluffy, can weave in important cultural and political moments and address social concerns, as bestselling author Ravinder Singh did in one of his books with the backdrop of youth politics. While talking on “Romance from the Male Gaze”, Singh, in conversation with Chopra, challenged the stereotype that male authors are not emotional. And how does one capture readers in a time of fractured attention spans? “Your book should have a hook and a strong messaging, the way OTT platforms end episodes with a cliffhanger. It has to be a page turner,” he stressed.

Crafting a page turner may not be as easy as it sounds but there are fewer limits to what you can write about, and nearly everything is fair game. On the panel on “Modern relationships: It’s complicated”, authors Shuma Raha and Debeshi Gooptu noted that our notions of what is acceptable within relationships have changed, and it’s showing up in our literature. “The next generation is getting better at responding to the newly confident woman who has come into her own,” added senior editor Vinita Dawra Nangia, while author Manjul Bajaj quickly pointed out that stories of sexual adventures and extra marital affairs have always existed and are nothing new.

But certainly there are more women with stories to share. And at a time when there are possibly more books than readers, we’re back to the dominant question of the day, which the panel “Publishing Trends in 2020: Does your book make the cut” addressed in detail, dispelling myths and dispensing valuable advice. So listen in, we took notes on the top three questions:

What makes the cut? What sets a manuscript apart?

“In fiction, a good story and a strong set of characters, and in nonfiction, solid research, facts and analysis,” said Speaking Tiger’s Renuka Chatterjee. “It could even be a different perspective on a subject that has been written about before. The strength of the writing sets a manuscript apart. It is becoming increasingly rare to find that and it strikes you immediately.” If the first line arrests you and makes you want to read more, and it feels original, then the manuscript stands a good chance, added Diya Kar of HarperCollins India.

In nonfiction, the rigour, point of view and thoroughness matters most. All publishers have submission guidelines and aspiring writers should send the proposal keeping them in mind, with a strong covering letter, explained Milee Ashwarya of Penguin Random House India. “In nonfiction, topicality is important and we want to see what people want to engage in and have conversations about,” she added.

Priya Kapoor of Roli Books said what mattered to her was how clean and well thought-out the mail with the manuscript that comes to her is. The mail shouldn’t – do note – be copied to ten other publishers. The voice, craft and novelty of the manuscript are important considerations too, said Kapoor. Do your homework first, though, and make sure your manuscript is a good fit for the publisher by taking a look at their lists.

What kind of books are publishers looking for?

Really good crime writing, strong women protagonists, dark love stories, sex written well. “We want to see people pushing the envelope, write about things we see, take risks,” said Kar. Other publishers said manuscripts that address what’s trending and is in the news – whether it’s the #MeToo movement or Shaheen Bagh – are likely to get a publisher’s attention. While some of those may be short-lived themes, as long as they are urgent, they’re welcome.

Is it important for an author to have a strong online presence?

In short, yes. “If you have a certain following, it helps in our decision making, along with what the response to your writing is like online,” said Ashwarya. So if you write micro-fiction or insta-poetry that’s a hit online, publishers may be willing to give your work a shot. Authors are expected to be involved in the marketing, brainstorm with the team and use their area of influence to create a buzz.

“Consider yourself a brand, the book is just a part of it,” said Dipankar Mukherjee of Readomania. Kar empathised with authors who aren’t social media friendly, and explained, “Authors write because they don’t want to speak. But the world has changed and authors are forced to meet people and interact with readers at literature festivals and other events. But that’s the nature of the beast today and it does help to have a presence.”

What also helps is having intimate and accessible gatherings for women to talk about writing and have conversations about what’s on our collective consciousness, where a sense of community trumps hierarchy, and the Women Writers’ Fest tries to do just that. As Chopra puts it: “A word after a word after a word is power, said Margaret Atwood. In the same spirit rolls our festival.”