Ever wondered how a writer could have created the next best groundbreaking tech app? The story of Granthika is as interesting as the nail-biting plot of Vikram Chandra’s books.
For only a writer can understand how difficult it is to keep tabs on every event, scene and structure of the book they are trying to write especially if it has a 60-70 year timeline and lots of characters, no wonder Sacred Games, with a labyrinth of a plot, wouldn’t have been easy to write. And so, Vikram Chandra embarked on a journey to make it easier for the new writers facing a similar problem.
Granthika was essentially conceived so that anyone who is trying to write, is assisted in their endeavor to write a structured plot. After many variations of this one very basic idea, ten years of research later, Chandra finally got around to writing a software proposal, met a venture capitalist, partnered with a tech partner, and founded Granthika in early 2006. The first version of which was released in late 2019. Boris ( Co-Founder, Granthika) and the team are not only making a writer’s life easier but doing groundbreaking engineering by creating a first of its kind Writing Assistant, Editor, Timeline maker, fact-checker, basically a super-app for writers!
We were in conversation with the Sacred Games author, to know more about Granthika!
How did Granthika come about? What was your motivation to start this?
Before Sacred Games I had always been taking notes on the computer, using pen and paper but it would often become a mess. So, when I started writing Sacred Games, 50 to 60 pages in, I knew it was going to be a long book. I knew this problem of trying to keep everything straight, especially something that has a 60 -70-year timeline and lots of characters and locations. So, I started looking around for the software that could help me with this problem. And there was absolutely nothing! I couldn’t find anything that fit the bill.
I met many writers over the years who shared the same problems. On a book tour in Tel Aviv, towards the end of 1999, I met up with an Israeli thriller writer in a bar. While discussing this problem, in particular with thrillers, where you have split-second timing, it’s difficult to make sure that the timeline makes sense. So, we were both complaining about it, when he recommended Microsoft projects. It’s a program for managers who are managing huge companies, and timelines, people and tasks. It chains together tasks, so on and so forth. So, I ended up using that for Sacred Games. But, it was really painful, hard to do, and unsatisfactory.
So, once the book was finished, I started thinking about this problem again. I thought maybe I should try doing something myself. It turns out that adding knowledge to text becomes a really hard problem, and people, especially in the humanities have been trying to do it for a long time. Scholars want to ask how many times does Hamlet speak in the play or Lady Macbeth? So, I spent the next ten years thinking about it and researching, and one night, as I lay in bed, half-asleep, I sort of saw the glimmering of a solution. In the morning, it still made sense. I thought maybe this would work, but the kind of engineering you needed for this is far beyond my paygrade!
I teach at this writer’s conference called Bread Loaf. There, I ran into Paul Vidich, he was one of the people responsible for making AOL really big in the 90s. When I met him, he wanted to become a writer. So I told him about my idea, and he suggested I write a software proposal. I wrote one up and through a series of connections, met a venture capitalist named Roy Bahat. He seemed interested, but I really needed a tech partner. So, I found Boris – the co-founder of Granthika. We exchanged some emails, and within days, he had agreed to do this.
We founded the company in early 2006 and managed to release version one in late 2019. We worked with a small team, and the engineering that Boris and his team are doing is kind of groundbreaking. Nobody has done this before. And now here we are, trying to get the word out.
Granthika seems thorough – do the features on the software embody your writing process?
Yes, it does. It all began with me thinking about what we needed as writers. On the website, we have writer’s advisors, these are people who have been with us from the beginning. After interviewing them and a bunch of other writers about what they’d like to see on the software. I further discussed this with other writers including Ashwin Sanghi to understand what a writer needs so we could accordingly create the software.
Now that we’ve released version one, we’re still in the process of improving it. We’re talking to people who are using it and asking them what their pain points are, what else do they need to write better and smoothly. For a lot of them – the common threads are exactly what we’re trying to tackle. Firstly, keeping track of all the information and making it available on your fingertips. So that when you build this universe whether it’s a fictional universe or a historical novel, the notes you have made, the collection of scholarly literature, isn’t scattered and you don’t end up spending an hour of writing time on finding that single note that should have been readily available. So that’s one problem we are trying to address fairly soon.
Another big thing for me has always been the timeline issue. In Sacred Games, the narrative is set against historical events, so you want to make sure that what you’re doing is factually correct, and that you’re not making people use cell phones before cell phones came out. Plus, some reader somewhere always catches you. Generally, for fiction, they’re fairly nice. They want to just point out that you’ve made a mistake. And it somehow gets through all the layers of editing and multiple readers, who read your stuff, even before the editing. And this is not just for big books.
My wife, Melanie, is releasing her second novel this summer. It’s about an American cult having a face-off with the police, spanning two weeks, and even for that, she was making timelines with pen and paper. If you make a change in the sequence now, you have to redraw the whole thing! You should be spending time on your creative work and not book-keeping. That’s the basic idea. Non-fiction writers face the same problems.
- Set a schedule – and be ruthless about it. Set boundaries with other people. Treat it like a job with fixed hours, and put in those hours.
- Writing is a marathon, not a sprint – you do a little bit every time you sit down, and amazingly enough, if you do a little bit every day, you will finish writing that manuscript.
- Set a word count target – I write 400 words a day, and if you can’t finish the target it’s okay. But as soon as you finish your target, stop there. Set an amount that’s not impossible, but also that is slightly challenging.
- Follow your obsessions – A famous Hemingway line is ‘Write clear and hard about what hurts’. So, if something, an image keeps showing up in your mind, something ugly that haunts you, pay attention to that. That energy contained in that memory or thought is the energy you need to finish the book.
- Take care of yourself – both psychologically and physically. Hemingway’s advice to write about what hurts is great. But it also means that you end spending a lot of time with those wounds, and that’s not always healthy. Normal people actually try to heal. So, take care of yourself, hang out with your friends and family. Go out. Stay connected.
- Go out and talk to people – If you’re writing about a world, try and meet people in that world. And when you physically spend time with people, you notice a lot of other things as well. For Sacred Games, I met a young cop, in his office. Years later, I remembered he was wearing really expensive and technologically advanced sneakers. So, I ended up using that detail in the book.
- Finally, don’t listen to all these tips on how to write! Every writer is unique and any kind of creative art comes from a very private, unique and primal place. You have to figure out what works for you and go with that.
What do you do to take care of your mental health when you’re writing/researching at any stage of your work?
After a day of writing, I want to get away from it. A novel or book you’re writing keeps buzzing inside you – it doesn’t stop. So, I like to go and hang out with my friends, my parents, my sister, close relatives. I try to see them and get away from the writing. Also, I meditate, though I’m horrible at it!
What does that mean?
Well, you know how they talk about this monkey mind. When I try to quiet my mind, it keeps jumping around. And getting away from what I’m trying to focus on – I again start thinking about the book. Or what I have to buy from the supermarket. But, it works really well. This may sound like the most cliched advice in the world, but exercise! Of any sort. So, anything that takes you away from the obsession and helps you focus elsewhere. And, if you need help, ask for it!
So, how do you deal with writer’s block?
Oh, I walk away from it. I’ve never really had a serious writer’s block where the anxiety about writing builds up to the point where it becomes like this vicious circle. But, I’ll reach a point – especially in reference to the plot – where I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I just have the characters in a certain configuration and I don’t know what to do next. So, I give myself a little holiday. I decide that for two weeks, I will not write a single word. I fill that time with watching movies, going out to eat, whatever completely cut off from the writing. And suddenly, a couple of weeks later – often when I’m taking a long hot shower, it pops into my mind. I know what to do next – and it’s so simple that it surprises me that it took so long to come to mind.
When you step away from a problem, your subconscious finds the time to deal with it, and the answer sort of reveals itself. I’ve heard this from a lot of other people – gnawing at a problem doesn’t get you a solution. You have to relax and let the solution come to you.
I believe that to be a successful writer, one needs to be skilled at a lot more than just writing. What are the skills that writers need to develop?
What I’ve noticed in a lot of writers is that they’re really good observers. And often – I don’t want to romanticize this at all – but mostly it’s people who are outliers, slightly at the edge, like that awkward kid who doesn’t quite fit in. So, I think that’s a quality one needs to develop. Especially for a fiction writer because that’s how you create depth in your characters and story. And what we’ve been talking about all along – have patience, and stamina, I guess. I think this happens in all kinds of art, you have to believe that you have something worth selling. Because the path toward completion is full of pitfalls and periods of despair, and self-doubt. You have to work past that and keep on filling those pages.