Chips or Fries? Weeks Five and Six

A Letter to the English Language

Dear English,

I hope this letter finds you in the best shape with your vowels intact. Thanks to your recent anonymity, I will be sending this letter to ten countries where I suspect you may be hiding under different names. It’s rumoured that the Queen was unhappy with the way you were being used in America and wrote a letter to the Americans revoking their independence. Is this true? Is this why you have absconded? Do you not want them to fight over you? Understandable.

Though I have known you for long, you continue to amuse me. These days, I spend my time studying at the Seagull School of Publishing hoping to understand you better.

I began studying you from when I was four years old—learning to write each letter of the alphabet carefully and enunciating each word clearly. I found you to be the easiest and the best fit. I chose you as the medium through which I wished to communicate with people and animals alike. You and I became inseparable, a good pair, like a man and his moustache.

It was only after a few weeks of classes that I realised that you have got quite a few parts which I didn’t know existed, parts I had forgotten about and parts that you’ve simply grown to confuse people. Oh you beautiful, beautiful, self-mutating creature! Last week, I learnt more about how creatively, dangerously and, sometimes, lazily you are being used across the globe, with emphasis on British and American usage. Not that we Indians are any less creative; the next time you visit us, you must bring your camera along and shoot photos of the signboards in this country. You may know that Indians are familiar with both forms—British English because of our history with your creators and American English because of Friends and all the television programmes that followed it. Anyway, we learnt that both forms differ in the use of several common words and sometimes differ in the use of common idioms and phrases. I was aware of some, though not all. But little did I expect the difference in the meaning of so many common words to vary so much. I may have to consider standing a metre away from the next American I talk to, insure my teeth even. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

An Englishman wrote the following short note to his American mistress. Please bear in mind that she had only recently moved to Birmingham.

This is what he wrote:

Madeline my love,

I received several hampers and a potted plant at my office last evening. I wonder who sent them. By the way, I wore my new jumper—the one you gifted me—to work today. I must say, I looked quite handsome in it. Remind me to buy you haberdashery and the scented rubber from Wilsons’ before I visit you next week. I may knock up some spaghetti for dinner, wish me luck. I hope you are feeling homely in Birmingham.



And this is what she understood:

Madeline my love,

I received several baskets of dirty clothes and marijuana at my office last evening. I wonder who sent them. By the way, I wore my new sleeveless dress—the one you gifted me—to work today. I must say, I looked quite handsome in it. Remind me to buy you men’s clothing and the scented condom from Wilsons’ before I visit you next week. I may impregnate some spaghetti for dinner, wish me luck. I hope you are feeling ugly in Birmingham.



Poor Richard. Simplicity may be one of the several intended results of evolution but I am afraid that in your case it may have backfired. I am perplexed and I seek clarity. The editors at school have been teaching me/us to use you wisely.

What about the rest of the English-speaking world? Do the meaning of common words vary so much? Do please write to me about that.

I wish you the very best. Write to me.

Yours sincerely,


Suraj J. Menon 

The Righteous Way to Sell Rights

I was apprehensive when I learnt that we were going to have classes on rights. Two things worried me—firstly, rights sounded like international law and, secondly, I was wondering if I could follow a French accent. In fact, I did not know that a rights department had its own niche in the publishing industry and was a potential source of revenue (5% income) for a publisher. Jennie Dorny’s lectures provided an insight into foreign rights in the publishing industry. The first day included an orientation on the nuances of the French publishing industry, which was substantiated by statistics (French publishing houses, annual turnover, employment, genres). Jennie started with the basics and went on to gear us for the ‘rights sales at the Frankfurt Book Fair’.

The three essential elements for foreign rights include:

(a) Income

(b) Influence

(c) Author (satisfaction)

As a foreign rights officer, one has to work with editors/publishers, mail PDF/proofs, ensure timely press releases and marketing, take trips to book fairs, keep a tab on print run with data from the commercial department, check with the accounting department and the legal department.

These skills should be imbibed to be a successful rights officer:

(a) Good memory

(b) A sense of priority

(c) Speed

(d) Writing skills

(e) Language skills

(f) Diplomacy

(g) Multi-tasking

(h) Trust

Deriving inspiration from her own personal experiences, Jennie elaborated on the day-to-day affairs in foreign rights—how to reply to emails, getting the right information from the foreign publisher, not mentioning the advance you are getting from another publisher (just say ‘good offer’), which emails to reply to and not reply to! She taught us to be discreet. ‘Don’t give hopes to the author until the contract is signed,’ she said. Jennie was very patient, especially when she answered all our questions relating to cover prices, royalties, advances and flat rates, and did not hesitate in writing all the cumbersome calculations on the board (at one point, she was literally on her knees scribbling on the board).

Jennie gave us an opportunity, in the form of a mock presentation, to present books at the Frankfurt Book Fair for selling rights to prospective foreign publishers. All you had to do was converse with her. I had decided to sell rights of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China to a French publisher. I had to do some research to figure out if this book would travel—the potential markets, whether the subjects dealt with in the book will be acceptable to the foreign country, what kind of rights we are offering the foreign publisher (primary or secondary), wooing the publisher with our sales figures. She was inquisitive, eager to learn about my book, very diplomatic and guided us through our deal. I heaved a sigh of relief when she said, ‘Do you have a copy, I’d like to read.’ But, when we were trying to formulate the ideal ‘mantra’ to sell rights, I was gobsmacked when Jennie said, ‘There is no recipe to sell rights. It may or may not work. Just believe in yourself and take the risk.’ After our presentations, we learnt that poems or a collection of short stories were a tough deal to crack in the rights department. Of course, a publisher gets excited when he gets more than one offer for a book. Jennie told us how auctions were held to get the best offer, well, for her it’s the most exciting time of the year. But unfortunately, it just seemed to happen twice a year or so if they were really lucky. She did not stop at that. She undertook, with great ardour, the task of discussing all the articles in a contract between publishers.

I was sceptical about a whole week of foreign rights, but Jennie’s classes have equipped me to venture out into this aspect of publishing, especially since I’m not a marketing or administration or publicity person. Foreign rights would definitely be a fun option to explore, especially since it can take you to different places. You feel elated that your book can travel and strike a chord with readers across boundaries.

Janani Govindankutty

The First Week of Editing

After a very interesting week of classes, on the 11th of June, we split up into editing and design. I knew the classes would take place separately, but when I walked into class that day, it felt a bit odd without the design students (although they were just next door!). I had already got used to there being 11 of us, each with our self-chosen seats. Now there were just eight. Eight people I already felt very familiar with. The first few days of the course had been a bit odd, since we were new to the school and new to each other. We either looked at our phones or at the beautiful pictures on the walls to avoid awkward conversations. Now, however, we were perfectly comfortable with each other and sat in our classroom, idly chatting until Bishan Samaddar, our teacher (who requested that we do not call him sir), entered. I was really excited, as this was the part I was most looking forward to. I wanted assignments, I wanted to do grammar and punctuation. We started off with punctuation. Bishan said we’ll be learning about the comma first. ‘That should be fairly easy,’ I thought. Commas were common, and we had been taught in school to use them as much as possible. But no. There were a lot of things about commas I did not know. The first rule was that we should not overuse the comma. There were several terms I was new to, such as subordinate clauses, main clauses, and the Oxford comma (which I have made use of in this sentence!). We learnt about the difference between em dashes, en dashes and hyphens. In fact, there was so much I didn’t know that I was a bit overwhelmed at first, but it was easy enough to grasp and Bishan was extremely patient and helpful. We were also taught proofreading marks that were made in the margins to correct punctuation and grammar in manuscripts. I had wondered why we had been given a red pen along with our file and notebook on the first day, and now it became clear. We were given an assignment on proofreading, which I found tough at first because I was unfamiliar with the symbols, but by the time I was done, it was a lot easier. I didn’t feel uncomfortable about asking questions, however silly they seemed, to Bishan, because he was extremely friendly and helpful (as all the other teachers have been).

We have a coffee break after an hour and a half of class, during which we are given steaming hot cups of coffee with biscuits (I am guilty of eating too many of these). We sit in the neighbouring room, either looking through the amazing books on the shelves, or silently sipping on coffee. In school and college, I hated that the breaks got over so soon, but here I don’t mind so much. Our classroom is beautifully decorated and a lovely environment to learn in. The air conditioner is a welcome relief after the heat outside, although half of us find it too cold and the other half don’t find it cold enough, but we manage to strike a balance.

Well, that was my first week of editing. I have to admit that I was extremely nervous about writing this, because after those few classes, I realized I didn’t know as much about the English language as I thought I did. I know that my grammar and punctuation will come under scrutiny here more than anywhere else, and I was never much of a writer in the first place. I had to share how lovely my experience has been so far though, so I hope you will excuse the mediocre language and the several errors I’m sure are present.

I was really looking forward to this course and it has lived up to (I would even say has surpassed) my expectations. All I can say is, I am looking forward to the next two and a half months, and I’m already dreading it coming to an end.

Daya Subramanian

Designers Are Meant to Be Loved, Not Understood

‘Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Design is knowing which ones to keep.’—Scott Adams

Designers are meant to be loved, not understood. I stumbled across this quote on the Illustrations & Posters section on Pinterest, which was literally my creative respite before Seagull.

I do not know how much truth this statement holds, yet being a designer or any other creative person is a daunting task because you have to put yourself out there. I believe each design is a reflection of some part of your personality, yet the medium you choose to reflect it in is not always easy because sometimes you simply do not know how. You’ve tried picking up a paintbrush but you can never get the strokes right, the eye you tried to sketch looks like a deformed apple, sometimes you resort to the 26 letters but even they seem inadequate to express what you truly feel. Thankfully I came across this wonderful little design course at Seagull which was precisely what I needed to get out of this rut.

Designers are complex, many-layered species, but then the same can be said for every other person. Some choose to express what they feel simply because they cannot contain it inside and they believe that there is so much to share and so much to observe. Not for approval, or even recognition, but with a belief that somebody out there wished that they could’ve put together these elements that reflect their thoughts to a T and get a sense of belongingness in knowing that someone else feels the exact same way. Everybody wants to feel connected,

My design classes at Seagull began with the basic know-hows, picking a machine, learning how to turn it on, manoeuvering around the Mac, which is a dream to operate as I’m cursing my rickety keyboard as I type. After a couple of introductory lessons we were asked to design a children’s book cover on weather. This led me to realize that the most exciting part about design is that given the same odd shapes and tools we all created extremely different covers that exuded each of our personalities. Going through the various book covers designed by Sunandini Ma’am at the end of the class is a dream and it is exciting to realize that sometimes a well-thought-out design can be quite simple to put together. The entire atmosphere of the school is bubbling with creativity and the ideas keep brimming to the top of my head until I’m compelled to draw it, morph it, cut it, layer it or use any other tool to watch it manifest in front of me. Even though I am a non-morning person, I look forward to going to class every day, because there are always some new designs to explore and create. In fact designing is not the only thing I’ve experimented with so far for I have my trials with the coffee—determining the right amount of sugar and milk for my palate still poses a challenge I am yet to surpass.

Before Seagull, I’ve always browsed through illustrations online and pinned some 3000 odd pins that made me wish that I could somehow pour every single creative energy I had bursting out at random moments onto a canvas. But I never knew how. Now I’m beginning to look at designs differently. Instead of curating pieces and wishing I could create something that I could call my own, I can now play with text and images and colours in a million ways that could inspire someone else out there to start creating something beautiful that could change the way one person thinks, if not the world.

Also, now, I am silently judging your font choice.

Unnati Marda