I Am the Writer and Fiction Writer Preity Chibber and This Is How I Work
A career change can be daunting and exciting at the same time, and Preity Chibber experienced both emotions when she quit her job at publishing to become a full-time writer. Taking the leap in 2019, Preity went on to write the Spider-Man book, the Avengers book, and contribute to the Star Wars anthology. Her latest work is Jedi, You Will, a picture book celebrating the 40th anniversary of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back . I spoke to Preity about her transition from a full-time office job to a full-time writer, the joys and challenges of writing pop culture articles she loves, and the added twist she gives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I want to start with your career path. How did you get where you are now?
I worked for a children’s publishing house from about 2008 to 2019. It was my life, but I was also a freelancer because I am a millennial. So I worked in children’s publishing, first at Scholastic, then briefly at HarperCollins, and then again at Scholastic. And all the while, I’ve been writing on sites like Book Riot, Syfy Wire, Nerds of Color and all of these online publications about the culture of computer geeks because I grew up on the Internet.
So I wrote on the Internet about the things I like and then finally I started getting paid for it. And it was great, but part of it was the perfect storm in publishing, understanding how children’s books work, how the publishing industry works, and being able to write about all of my favorite pop culture works, including spiders … The male.
At the end of 2018, I received an email from Disney that said, “Hey, we’re looking for someone who can sort out this related Spider-Man romance very quickly for the next Spider-Man movie.” My first reaction was this: I can’t write a book . Until then, I had only published a short story in the YA anthology with HarperCollins. But a whole book? Spiderman? Of course .
I was able to send them some ridiculous Spider-Man stories I wrote for Syfy and luckily I have a place where I can say that I have a really stupid idea and ask if I can write about it. and my editor said, “Yes, go for it, why not.” I posted these clips and they said it was the perfect tone, this is exactly what they were looking for because this book is for 10 to 12 year olds. That’s how it all started.
I wrote this book in about six weeks, and when it came out I thought this was what I wanted to do . I realized how much I loved it, and I was in a space where I had enough freelance work, and I thought that if I could keep working as a freelancer and write books at the same time, I could really support myself by doing them.
Of course, I had to leave New York. So in January 2019, I left New York from my full-time job and just started doing it all full-time.
What’s the difference between how you structure your day now, as the person in charge of your time, and when you were working in a traditional office?
I think it is very similar indeed. I asked for a lot of advice from friends who are full-time freelancers, and the number one advice I got was for you to structure your time. Make sure you have a clear understanding of how you want to spend your time and your boundaries when you are about to stop working, because people tend to get trapped when you work from home – and I’m sure a lot of people dealing with it right now is that you end up working all the time because there is no difference between office and home life. It’s just a constant job. So I am very strict with my watch.
In New York, when I was working full-time at a company, I had hours when I had to be there: you come there at 8:30 or somewhere else, and you leave around 5:30 or 6 o’clock. or later. if you need to stay late. But right now it’s a lot like, “Okay, I go to my computer at about 8:45 am and try to leave by 5:00 pm or so, barring any calls, meetings, podcasts, or whatever.” I try to be nice to the hours I spend in front of the screen and make sure I don’t get up at 10:00 pm on Saturday trying to sit down and write. I don’t want to be in a position where I’ll burn out because I don’t structure my day.
As far as my seat is concerned, I like to sit at my desk and make sure that I am not in the room when I work. It is very important to have a dedicated work area. The setup is very important, which is what I had in my office. Now the only difference is that I don’t have to go anywhere to get it. I just move to another room in the house.
What is this setup like? Do you absolutely need certain things to be productive?
In fact, for me, this is a kind of learning process. I had a plan where I was going to spend a year at home with my family and figure out how to live my life. I wanted to do it where there is less pressure. And then COVID happened. And so I’m still here – again, I guess a lot of people in the country are going through [something like that].
I find myself in a position where I do not have a permanent place or permanent office, as in my ideal world. In my old apartment I had a separate office where I could work and it was so nice. Now it looks like I have a laptop stand; I have a mouse and keyboard; I have a small letter holder that can hold all important documents or whatever I need; I have some empty book plates if I need to sign more than one book; I have stamps, envelopes and stationery. But at the same time, I am sitting at a dinner table, and this is a very strange experience.
I ended up ordering a folding table so I could move around and retire when I needed to. But I have to find a way to make it less chaotic, even if it’s just a temporary space. Trying to learn how to do this at home was a real experience for me.
Pop culture writing can blur the line between work and procrastination. Can you talk about how you balance these things? What’s the difference between working and watching for fun?
It is very difficult. I think a lot of us are learning this lesson, and I am definitely learning that not everything needs to be monetized. You may have a hobby just to have a hobby. But it’s hard to think about it because I think our instinct, especially among millennials, is like, oh, I’m not using my time productively . What does “productive” mean? I find myself watching or playing games or whatever and wondering if I can write about it? For example, how can I use this to inform about the work I do, rather than just sit back and enjoy it.
I found that with entertainment I failed. I can’t keep my brain from thinking, ” Oh, you can use this as feed when you need to write . “ Even when I’m not looking for it. I just wrote an article for Polygon about a video game created by an Indian development studio and this is one of the first of its kind. And I was in awe of it because I thought, oh my god, this is a dream – this is an adventure RPG with an Indian girl as the main character. And then I got an email asking if I wanted to write about it, and I’m not going to refuse. Of course, I would like to write about it! And then suddenly finishing the game became work. It’s definitely a fun experience and I still love it, but it’s not just an escape anymore.
What do you think about it?
I am very lucky: I can write about what I like. So this is not something I would ever stick my nose from. This is not what I like, oh my god, this is so overwhelming . I watch and play different things and then hopefully get money to talk about them.
But on the other hand, I had to find some kind of hobby in which I cannot immediately monetize it. For me it was like cross stitching. I can cross stitch while I watch, and these little cross stitches are just a bunch in my room, and I’m not going to do anything with them. I can give them away, but they are just for fun. And that’s not where I think, what should I do about it? Nobody wants my four-by-four cross stitch.
It’s Complicated. I don’t know if I can sit back and do any kind of art and entertainment and don’t want to talk about it or react critically to it. Even before I was paid for it, I talked about it. A friend of mine likes to joke that I just started the blog over and over again just to talk about what I like. I really can’t imagine how one can sit back and swallow without any reaction. Even in publishing – I went into publishing because I wanted to contribute to the literature people were reading. I wanted to be part of the art making process. And so for me it always goes hand in hand.
What do you need before you can write productively?
It’s hard for me to start my day without a cup of tea. It’s really hard for me to start without it. I’m trying to get into space where there might be exercise, but we haven’t done that yet.
It’s harder than daily tea, huh?
This is much more complicated than daily tea. At the moment, I think that daily tea is what helps me get through the morning.
What apps do you use to improve your productivity?
Oh yeah. I use Todoist every day. I love this app. I know when every deadline falls on every thing I work on and it yells at me when I haven’t done it and checked the box. It’s really nice because I have a very bad habit of starting a lot of projects at the same time and end up with four podcasts, multiple blogs and all. It is very important to have one application that can describe all the ways that I work. I don’t subscribe to apps often, but I absolutely bought a subscription to it and it was incredible.
Who else would you like to know how they work?
I’m cheating a little because I know how they work, but I was so impressed by Swapna Krishna . She is my co-host on Desi Geek Girls and one of the smartest, most impressive and organized people I know. This is the person I turn to whenever I ask: “How can I do this, please help me.” When I first started trying to find a balance between freelance work and the life of an author, I asked her for advice. I’m just always amazed at how good she is.
However, there is another person I don’t know exactly how they work, and that is Greg Pak . It is so incredible that he can consistently do so much quality work while still being politically active and smart about the way he works. I just think it’s awesome.
This interview has been edited for clarity.