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Tag: writing


Q&A on storytelling and tradition...and The Tale of the Sands

30maro_slide05You are creating wonderful stories about what our heart is telling us, but today more than ever we fail to reconcile our heart and our mind. Why are they tugging us in different directions? What do you do when your mind shouts louder than your heart?

As you say, I am telling and creating stories, and that’s what’s so central here. Storytelling appeals to the default setting of mankind, the core programming that’s in-built within us. We don’t really know why, but culture is arranged around storytelling – revealing information, ideas, and entertainment through stories. We can’t help but retell experiences in this way because we are programmed to do it. And, bizarrely, most people have forgotten that humanity operates with stories as their language. I sometimes find myself wondering whether other animals, or even insects, do the same and tell stories as a matrix like we do.

At the same time as live to tell stories, we reside in a world that’s so incredibly at odds with the realm our ancestors knew. Yet, in this mad frenetic, frenzied stew of life, it’s the stories and the storytelling that present themselves as a recognizable thread – a kind of communal backbone to humanity. We grasp hold of stories whether they be in the form of a book, a Tweet, a blog entry, a TV commercial selling soap, a movie, or even in the guise of a video game.

You mention your father very often in your works. Would you say that your story is a sequel to his? To what extent are our hearts beating together with those of our ancestors’? Does our storytelling begin where theirs has stopped? Read more


Q&A on Writing and Travel

TS101. The explorations and adventures in most of your work are set in exotic places that are shrouded in mystery and rich in history and tradition, and it seems as though you have traveled just about everywhere. Do you happen to have any connection with a small and relatively mainstream place like Belgium?

When I was a child, I was sent to stay with friends at Ypres. I was eleven years old, and I remember the visit vividly. Of course I have returned to Belgium time and again since then, but it was that winter journey that is so burned in my memory. My sisters and I were taken to the Great War cemeteries there. I can see the headstones now – all lined up perfectly, glinting white in the flat winter sun. I remember reading the names and ages of those men. They were so young – their lives having hardly begun. A day doesn’t go by on which I don’t think of them. And it is for them that I remind my children daily: Carpe diem! Seize the day!

2. I recently heard you tell a student group that they could and should be explorers. As far as I know, there are no significant mysteries here in Belgium, though there is a great deal of history. What sorts of explorations do you think have yet to be pursued here? What do you think is the best way for parents to make explorers of their children?

Read more


Q&A with Tahir Shah

Tahir_bio_pic 2013bI just did a Q&A with myself, based on some of the questions I’m asked on a regular basis.


There are both huge differences and huge similarities. For me, book writing (any writing for that matter) is about storytelling. Tell the story in the right way and the reader will do a kind of dance through your work. The most important thing for me is that my reader has the right experience, and that’s achieved by giving a great deal of thought to the way a passage will be read. I devote time to thinking about the reader whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

Naturally, though, with fiction you can let yourself loose a whole lot more. But, having said that, I think there’s enormous scope for non-fiction writers (especially travel writers) in observing what they think they know and understand, in new ways. It’s a great challenge, but one that pays great dividends when you get it right.


June 9, 2010 Posted by tahir in Books

Oh My, Oh My...

It’s just how I am… in a word it’s obsessive. I can’t help myself. Always been like this and as the years slip by my obsession needle seems to arc forward a little more every day. When I started blogging I wrote masses and masses (if you haven’t, please please please have a look at my older posts)… but then I got obsessed with other stuff and the blog obsession waxed and waned. Then of course there’s the be dreaded crisis which has hit poor happy go lucky writers hard. My friends with proper lives and real salaries would hear me wax lyrical about the writer’s freedom, his teflon-coatedness. Ooops. Well it all sounded good at the time. Then I wrote a biiiiiig novel and have been waiting to be paid for that for a very very long time. The great pipeline of work dried as I spent all my time editing the novel and talking about it (talking is something I do a lot of… something that irritates the people around me and pays nothing at all). Well, I’m rambling now. Rambling has generally increased recently, as I try to explain to anyone and everyone I meet just why impecuniousness is my new middle name. So, after weeks and even months of feeling glum, I’m cranking out work again. I like to think of myself as a short order chef who’s got ten pots and pans on the burners, and he’s juggling them. I’m in my element when juggling pots. And the greatest thing of all is that the dark days of dire uncertainty got me thinking… got me back on the knife edge on which all writers should live. I’m going to write this blog as often as I can but I’m not going to do it every day… hopefully every week. And the entries may be short… half a line or a single word. Because it’s all about staying in touch. To anyone who checked my blog in the last months, gawd bless ya!, and thank you sooooo sooooo sooooo much for following my work. You have no idea at all how much it means to me. TS



With experience I learned that it wasn’t good enough writing one article and then starting work on the next when the first was done and dusted. Rather like a basket maker, I gradually refined the process of creation and started a kind of pipeline. There were several articles in production at the same time. The starting point was an ideas file, which I always tried to keep packed full with stuff, gleaned from as many difference sources as possible — newspapers, books, conversations overheard on a bus etc. Then I’d have the research stage. This would be broken down into the planning, and the actual research. Over time, I refined my methods and learned not to do more work than I needed to do. At the beginning, I used to buy and read entire books for an article on, say, Death Row, but gradually honed this process and so the research could be done very well, but much more efficiently. The writing part was always quite easy, and it should be if your research is in place. It’s actually a relief to write the thing. And then I’d either start with the selling, if I was doing it on spec, or send it to an editor if there was an commission. When I was doing a lot of feature writing, I’d have as many as a dozen articles in the pipeline at any one time… all in different stages of development. It worked very well, and taught me to create in a structured way, something that I later used when writing books.



I used to spend all my time dreaming up ideas for articles which I planned to sell. The ideas got better and better. Editors even told me they were great. But no one bought them. Why? Because there wasn’t a reason for publishing. Remember that most magazines and newspapers have limited space. For this reason, they need to be able to qualify why a certain story is going to run. The editor will often have to be ready to defend his choice to his own boss. So enter the idea of the ‘Peg’. It’s simple: If you write an article about London’s Tower Bridge, you may find it hard to sell. Editors will ask ‘Great, but, er, so what?’ But if you work out that it’s the 300th anniversary since the bridge was built and, better still, that there’s going to be an anniversary parade, you have a sure fire seller. Other pegs include political or military acts and anniversaries of any kind. You can get the Media Guide (in the UK) which gives details of up-coming anniversaries. But remember to pitch early. A magazine may work five months in advance, and a newspaper features’ section five or six weeks.




 The difference between making $1000 for a story and making $25,000 for the same story is in the rights, and how you sell them. I’ve written already about how I started an agency to sell my books. Well, I used it for selling magazine features as well. The beauty was that, whereas editors will offer what they want to a writer, when they are dealing with an agency, they’re a lot more respectful. As the agent, it’s you who decides the price. And it’s you who chops the world into territories and sells a story again and again, as First British Rights, First Australian Rights and so on. You assign the rights in a contractual letter or a form that the magazine sends. And if you’re a journalist starting out be very careful they the magazine doesn’t assume they are buying all rights. You may have to fight them, but the truth is that they probably don’t even want world rights because they don’t have an active sales’ department. I’ve sold the same article dozens of times, and if you own the photos, you make twice the money again.



One Man Band

With journalism there’s always a budget for the story… and if you’re smart you’ll try and get as much of that budget for yourself. The best thing you can do is to take the photographs as well, and limit the amount of work others have to do. I have always taken my own pictures, although I sometimes like working with a photographer, to have a travel companion. These days cameras are so amazingly good that you can pretty much point and shoot. I’ll make sure to give some photo notes soon though, as there’s a specific way to take pictures, especially for magazines. It also pays to cut out assistants, fixers, researchers, and all the hangers-on who will take a piece of the pie. The more you can do, the more self-contained you are, and the more money you’ll make.



Human Interest

Whether you’re writing books or journalism, the best way to engage the reader is to write about people. In journalism it’s usually called ‘Human Interest’. It works in a way I can’t really explain, except to say that people are interested in other people. It’s what makes us who we are. If I’m given a wadge of research about a bomb attack in, say, Gambia, I search through and put aside most of the numbers and statistics. I can slot a few of them in, but they don’t tell the story. What I do is to look for a person, someone with whom my readers can identify, someone who’ll tug at the heartstrings. If you don’t believe me, read any article in the tabloid newspapers and they always lead on a person, rather than on figures. Start with the human, and spiral out, telling the story, weaving in a few facts, conflict and so on. It works every time.



Start Small

There’s nothing wrong with starting small. Actually, it’s a fine place to begin. Before I wrote books, I wrote for airlines’ magazines and was paid in airline tickets. Most of these were on Ethiopian Airlines, working for a larger than life publisher called Mohamed Amin. I used to knock out 2000-word articles on just about anything that was politically neutral, usually from the back of my bedroom. The editors lapped the articles up and I had a way to travel, albeit to destinations on the Ethiopian destinations’ chart… most of which were off the scale amazing to someone who wanted real adventure. The other thing to do – if you’re really serious – is to get a job on a local newspaper. It’s without doubt the best way to learn your craft as a writer. You handle all sorts of stories and learn the human interest angle in ways that no other training will teach. What’s so important with any craft is to have a strong foundation, and there’s no stronger one than learning at the grass roots.