Outlining Your Story: A Complete Guide

Some writers like to keep it spontaneous – they start a story with just a blank page and a single idea in their head. Others make a truckload of notes prior to the draft, often extensive enough to be archived in their own right as notes (as with Joyce Carol Oates). I’ve tried it both ways, and multiple times for each. And whether it’s my ADHD brain that needs the extra planning and plotting or simply the part of me that’s satisfied by structure, starting out with an outline and a set of notes won every. Single. Time.

Of course, everyone has their own style, but I’ve found that the best way to prep for a short story is to make a detailed, step-by-step outline of how the story goes. It helps me see what the story is about and iron out any plot elements that aren’t working – and also decide on the best way to narrate this story (from which character’s perspective, one flowing narrative vs divided into little sections, etc). Plus, it’s easy to do and super-flexible – another win for the ADHD brain.

So, for every writer out there sick of ideas that go in every direction except the one you want them to go in, here’s my top-notch, tried-and-tested guide to making outlines that get you way closer to your final draft from the get-go.

Use a notebook with blank sheets

Ruled pages tend to be more restrictive, especially the unspoken need to “stay within the lines”. Blank pages let you put things down wherever you want to and leave enough space for comments later. And while you’re at it, get a notebook with a pretty cover. You’ll be that much more motivated to use it.

Use the flow chart style

Arrows that indicate the direction in which your plot is moving helps you to think of things in sequence as well – so if two consecutive points don’t quite flow well, you’ll know you need to either change one of them or to put one of them at a different point in the outline.

Be as granular as possible

You can keep each individual point simple, such as ‘mother picks up the phone’, but have lots of them. Remember that every little thing matters in a short story! So after the mother takes the call, maybe she’s numbed for a while. Write that down! Her immediate response to the call will determine what she looks like or what she does when her child walks in on her – a child will respond to a crying mother differently from a completely blank-faced mother.

Include thoughts, realisations and description

This is one of the most important things I’ve realised over the last year. Short stories are rarely a series of he did this, she did that. There are pieces of internal monologue, people making observations about other people, descriptions, moments of truth – and those keep the story moving as much as incidents do. So, treat them as part of the flow as much as the events themselves. I’ve often started a story based on an emotional moment that I wanted a character to feel – such as, say, a young girl’s profound disillusionment about sex after walking in on her older sister doing it with her boyfriend – only to realise that the sequence of events leading up to or following that moment didn’t make sense. And I could only see that once I had the description of that moment written down along with the other stuff.

Read it out loud

Once you’ve finished drafting your outline, read it out to yourself, as though you were reading the summary of someone else’s story online. This will give you clarity on how each of the parts work together. Does the plot make sense? Do the characters behave consistently? Are the emotional responses commensurate with the things that happen? How well do “accessories” like description, observation or conversation fit in with the general scheme of things? By the time you finish, you’ll likely have spotted several changes you’d like to make. The next three tips cover how to tackle those.

Add comments that ask questions

When you go back and reread your outline, you’ll likely have extra stuff to add. A good way to weed out things that obviously don’t make sense is to ask “why”. If you don’t quite know why someone says something, or why a certain piece of furniture is described, flag it. You’ll know what to focus on first when you’re reviewing.

Reorder things

I know that the first instinct when you come across a false note in your outline is to just cut it out. Sometimes, though, it sounds false only because it’s out of sequence. Try and see if things make sense ordered a different way. Maybe your protagonist’s observation about his mother’s obesity belongs earlier in the story? Maybe the incident where he steals from the shop window could be the inciting event, rather than a response to something else? One tip you could use to easily reorder things is to draw “boxes” for each point and give them a number, and then just relist the new order by number rather than scratching stuff out and making a mess (I’ve always found that looking at too many scratched-out lines reduces my motivation to do anything with the piece.) You could also use sticky notes that you can reposition as needed (while bearing in mind that there’s a limit to their stickiness, so you might want some backups).

Write down a list of questions about the story

Another thing you’ll likely notice once you read out your outline is that some points just don’t come together fully yet, or that some emotions you want to evoke are missing. Rather than trying to redo your outline straightaway, write down a set of questions that you want your story to answer. Such as – what motivates the sister to bully the brother? Why does the presence of the fruit bowl on the table matter? What do I want the brother to feel at the end? What is the role of grief in this story? Your questions can be as specific or as broad as you like, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. Once you have those down, reevaluate the outline and make notes on how you can best answer those questions. Maybe a few extra scenes are called for, or maybe a character needs to go entirely. Make those changes, and then see how the new version answers your core questions.

Obviously, once you start actually writing the story there’ll be a zillion more changes you’ll make. What the process of outlining does is to give you a clear idea of the what and why of your story. Once you have that down, you can focus on the how – the language, the turns of phrase, the types of description and dialogue, all that cool writerly stuff – without having to worry quite as much that you’re investing in scenes and descriptions that won’t make it to your final draft. And that, as you can imagine, is pretty liberating.

What did you think of this outlining guide? What would you do differently? Are you an outliner, or do you write your best when it’s just you and a blank page on Day One? Over to you.

Yes, I’m Submitting To The Top-Tier Publications – And You Should, Too

By September 2020, after three months of first-page drafting and halfway-through abandoning, I had my first short story ready to submit to magazines. I applied promptly to the names that appeared at the top when I Googled for the best literary magazines to submit to – Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Granta Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, One Story, and the like. I would have send my draft off to the email address on The New Yorker website, as well, had my partner not intervened and told me – kindly – that most people published in The New Yorker had been invited by the fiction editor to share something first.

And so began the journey that every writer embarks upon with every story – that of refreshing my Submittable page and my Gmail inbox every half hour, waiting to be told by a top-tier journal that I was the next Flannery O’Connor and could they please publish me already. As you can imagine, most of those big magazines never got back, and the ones that did sent polite but definite rejections. It took me three months, several semi-breakdowns and an unreasonable amount of ice-cream to accept that (a) I was not going to be published in places like Ploughshares or Michigan Quarterly Review as an unknown beginner, and (b) there are in fact good magazines other than ones like Ploughshares or Michigan Quarterly Review that might be happy to publish my work. And as things worked out, by late December 2020 I had received an acceptance for that first story of mine from one of the oldest online literary magazines – and you can read it right here.

A year on, those big magazines have opened their reading periods again, some for a month, some for longer. I’m not much more of a “candidate” for them than I was last year – I’ve had a handful of short stories published, and I was selected for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference earlier this year – and I still have an objectively bigger chance in smaller magazines.

Nonetheless, I’m doing the same thing I did last year, which is to submit to them all. And in fact, this year I’m prioritising big magazines over smaller ones, to the extent that I’m willing to wait for longer periods to hear back from them.

Why, you may ask. Why am I bothering when I know I don’t have too much of a chance?

Here’s what I’ve realised over the last year. Most writers in the top-tier magazines come with big fat publication bios – an MFA at the very least, plus some major accomplishments like residencies and books published. And I see the point of it, really, I do. When a top-tier magazine gets literally thousands of submissions every year, they have to weed things out somehow, and a stellar bio is in many ways a guarantee of more reliable work than the bio of a relative unknown. It’s the same principle as job recruitment – you pick the ones with the best resumes. And for that reason, plenty of beginner writers just bypass the big places – the odds just aren’t in their favour.

But here’s another thing I’ve realised. Submission is a game of mostly rejections anyway. Why one story got chosen over another, or why one magazine rejected a story when another accepted it, are questions we can’t ever get true answers to. Regardless of the stature of the magazine, there is always a bigger chance of rejection than of acceptance.

Why not go ahead and submit to the big leagues, then?

There’s another reason beginners often skip the biggies – an impatience to be published. Extremely natural, and that impatience drove me all of this year, and I’ll still pay extra for an expedited response whenever I can. And of course, smaller publications will get back to you faster and accept more of your work – so there’s more of an instant gratification there. I got published, I have an actual link to my story, yay! But as someone who dreams of making it big – of having books out, of getting into residencies, of winning literary awards, the works – I can’t forget that where you were published matters too. Small local magazine versus national level magazine with thousands of readers? It’s obvious what anyone will pick on a prestige list. And say what you want about art for art’s sake, everyone’s gunning for prestige.

But isn’t it presumptuous to be thinking of prestige so early in one’s career, you ask. Thing is, when I submit to somewhere big, I’m not doing so out of presumption. I’m doing so out of respect for the hard work that I have put into a draft, and the creative talent that came up with the idea for it in the first place. I am giving that hard work and talent the gift of believing that it is good enough to shine on even the biggest of platforms. And no, this isn’t vanity or presumption. This is me being kind to the side of me that chose to follow her passion and is working extremely hard every day to fulfil it.

The day I tell myself I’m not good enough for a publication, is the day I’m disrespecting myself. Other people will tell me all my life that I’m not good enough, I’m sure as hell not going to do it to me.

So. Prestigious national journals – and journals of every ilk – here I come. And to all my fellow newbie writers out there, go ahead and apply too. You’ll get lots of rejections – of course you will. But you’ll get those anyway, so why not rack up some from places like Granta? And if you feel like there’s no point trying, remember that several new writers have had early success with big magazines even without fancy bios. You may or may not be one of them, but you’ll certainly never know unless you try.

Write hard. Write well. Aim big. Keep going. One way or another, it’ll pay off.

How My MBA Has Influenced My Literary Fiction Writing


Most people are surprised to hear that I have an MBA, and I can see why. Yes, writers don’t necessarily have backgrounds in the liberal arts, but an MBA – especially the cutthroat Indian version – is pretty much the opposite of artistic. People go to Indian B-schools to get the highest-paying job they can get their hands on, and for that you need a variety of qualities, but art isn’t one of them. Art, in fact, is one of the first things people give up while at B-school, along with fitness, sleep schedules and any chance at sobriety.

Truth is, I wasn’t there by choice. It was something my parents wanted me to do, and in most Indian families, kids of my generation are expected to shut up about personal dreams and go fulfil their parents’ dreams. My two years there, in fact, led to several mental health issues that took ages to cope with and come out of – needless to say, I was glad to see the back of it. (Excepting, of course, a few amazing friends I continue to love and grow with – here’s to you, Swati and Shivani!)

One of the side effects of adulthood, though, is deriving lessons from every experience, however crappy. Which means that I can look back now and see that there were in fact things that the MBA taught me – things relevant to my life today as a literary fiction writer. And I acknowledge those learnings and respect them a lot, even if I can’t necessarily be grateful for the MBA experience itself. So, as a response to everyone who’s curious, as well as an accept-your-past exercise of sorts for myself, here’s how my two years of B-school have helped me be a better writer.

I focus on fiction

When I was first deposited at campus, I took to writing poetry as an outlet for my emotions and imagined them profound enough to qualify me for fame. Two years of writing, rewriting and rereading later, I had established beyond doubt that I am not, in fact, the next Pablo Neruda, whereupon I went on a semi-break from writing and didn’t return in earnest until June 2020, which is when I took up short fiction. And it didn’t take me long to see that fiction is my forte. The lesson? I didn’t have to waste time trying to figure out which genre(s) to focus on, which saved me so much time and mental effort. That’s not to say I won’t try poetry or nonfiction in the future, but it’ll be a while before that happens. (Also, I need to grow out of equating poetry with rants about cigarettes and sex and whatnot.)

I take a project management approach

My exposure to business practices, especially one or two Project Management courses I took, encouraged me to seek out content on how to complete projects efficiently. Techniques like defining SMART goals (an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Timely) setting up milestones, having deadlines, doing daily progress reports, tracking time spent on each project and so on are typically things one associates with a business setup – but they’ve helped me so much with my fiction! In fact, my habit of chalking out a complete short story outline (more on that in a future post) before commencing the actual writing comes from these practices.

I’m more inured to rejection

A big part of the MBA experience was going through the placement drive, a harrowing experience where you are dragged out of bed at 4am to appear for an interview in a business suit, expected to talk over a crowd of your peers as you put forth your recently Googled views on the group discussion topic you have been assigned, and then be informed loudly of the people who made it to the next round instead of you – or, if you make it to that round, be dressed down by the red-eyed interviewer for not knowing whether their CEO grew up playing cricket or kabaddi. You do that kind of thing for long enough, and a Submittable rejection is like a gentle tap on the back with a feather. Well, maybe not a gentle tap always, but it’s still a feather. It’s endurable.

I can empathise deeply

I know what it’s like to have your personality crushed beyond recognition. I know what it’s like to be so broken that it isn’t just about picking up the pieces, it’s about finding them all first. The MBA did that to me, and it took me nearly three years to put myself back together and move upward from there. The positive effect of that – I tend to be highly empathetic towards people and give importance to their feelings and experiences, even if they aren’t what I agree with or they happen to cause friction between myself and the person. This empathy also lets me imagine complex situations and reactions to them with greater understanding, which is something you need in order to do justice to a short story – or any type of writing, for that matter.

So, do I recommend doing a wrong-for-you degree in order to learn important life lessons? Absolutely not. No one should have to go through that kind of disorientation and mental turmoil if they can avoid it. But, having been through it already, I’m at a point where I choose to not disregard the lessons in humanity I learnt simply because the experience was a bad one. It took me a while to get to where I am – in terms of both mental health and my readiness to invest full-time in literary fiction – and I’m grateful. And who knows? Maybe I’ll make a novel out of this someday.

How have your educational and/or professional experiences shaped you as a writer? Did you pick up unexpected lessons along the way? Over to you.

To Pass Or Not To Pass? When A Writer You Love Disappoints You

I was recently on a John Dickson Carr kick, seeking a break from literary fiction in favour of something lighter and more plot-based. Traditional detective fiction is a genre I have the highest respect for, as coming up with a really original mystery plot and setting without resorting to gimmickry or deux es machina isn’t easy. Over the course of ten days I read nine of his novels, and while some were truly clever, others fell as flat as week-old soda. And by the end of the ninth book – which happened to be the most poorly written of the lot – I’d had about as much of locked-room mysteries as I could stand for a while.

If I view it objectively, this is actually fairly normal. Literally no writer can produce equally good work every time, except for one-hit wonders, and they’re not who this post is about. I do tend to feel disappointed if I come across a below-par book by someone I really like, but it usually isn’t enough to completely turn me off the writer. Still, it can cut to the quick at times. Almost like a personal betrayal. You’ve counted on the writer to keep delivering, and they have, until suddenly they don’t. And it can be hard to know how to respond.

There are different reasons why a book from a favourite writer might disappoint you. Maybe the book itself isn’t that good, which is perfectly possible. I’d have never thought the same author could come up with something as dazzling as Lolita and as, well, not dazzling as Laughter In The Dark, but last time I checked the name on both of the covers was Vladimir Nabokov, so there you have it. Or maybe it’s less to do with the quality of the writing and more to do with your personal preferences. Maybe the book deals with a theme that’s uninteresting or emotionally triggering for you. Maybe the antagonist reminds you of someone in real life whom you dislike. Maybe you read a similar book just last week that happened to be written better. Whatever the case, it wasn’t your best ready experience.

Of course, your opinion of the book as a reader is yours alone. You either enjoy it or you don’t. But as a writer, I think there’s an important lesson to be taken away from this. Two lessons, actually.

First – that writing stellar content is hard. You think the writer isn’t aware that some of their books are far less competent than the others? Believe me, the writer is the first to know. They’re conscious of it right from the moment they lay down their pen to the time when the book is on the stands and the poor reviews are rolling in. And the sad part is, maybe they didn’t have a choice. Maybe they were under some lethal deadline and had to churn out a draft by hook or by crook. Maybe they were going through something in their personal lives that made it difficult for them to write as usual. Writing well is as much about mental health and circumstances as it is about ability. And even if the writer doesn’t personally feel like their book isn’t the best, they’re well aware that what some people will love, others will hate. And they’ll have to deal with feedback of both kinds. Which, honestly, requires some serious steeling of the mind.

Which brings me to the other lesson – you should take this as a sobering reminder of your own career as a writer, in that not everything you write will be equally good. Someday, you’ll be the one with a hard deadline or a fallow period or some other circumstance that forces you to push out a less-than-ideal manuscript. Someday you’ll be the one crippled with doubt about what people are going to say about your books. Because the truth is, no two people can have the same reaction to a book, because no two people went through the same combination of circumstances that led them to that book. You’ll never know whether one person felt like your book was their salvation means that someone else won’t feel like it ruined their life. And that can be scary, knowing that your brain child, the book you worked so hard on for so long and have finally released into the world, can evoke so many different responses in your readers, and not all good ones.

So before you diss the author of the disappointing book and vow to never read them again, consider – perhaps – having some empathy. Reminding yourself that everyone can’t have hits all the time. And that your individual opinion, while sacred, is one of a million others out there that the author has to contend with, and that that can be intimidating. And that you’ll have to see the other side of it someday.

As for the book itself? It’s perfectly fine to set it aside if you truly aren’t feeling it. Everyone has a finite amount of time, and it makes sense that you’d rather spend yours on books you’ll actually enjoy. And if you do decide to read it out of loyalty to the author? Go ahead. Evaluate it on its own merits, as you would any other book, but don’t let that necessarily colour your perception of the writer’s abilities. The writer is your favourite because they’ve given you reasons – more than one – to be thrilled. Them having written a disappointing book doesn’t change the fact that they’ve written those amazing ones too. Or maybe you can give the book a fairer chance – come back to it after a while, view it with a fresh perspective. You might find you enjoy it after all. It’s what I did with the tenth John Dickson Carr book I read – came back to it after reading other stuff in between, stuff that had nothing to do with locked room mysteries. And by the time I came back, I was ready to be thrilled again. And I was.

What does a disappointing book by a favourite author make you feel? Do you read it anyway, defer it for later or give it a hard pass? The comment section is all yours.

Ill-Advised: Five Overrated Writing Tips (And More Helpful Versions Of Them)

Every now and then, when my creative streak is being particularly uncooperative, I Google for things like ‘tips for writers’ or ‘how to write better’ and scroll through the thousand and one bullet points that pop up. You know, just in case one of them helps me see the light, or at least points me towards the door that might lead to the corridor at the end of which there’s the possibility of light.

And at first glance, it seems like there’s all the light-seeing wisdom one could ask for. You have advice from editors, advice from copywriters, advice from writing teachers, and of course the classic bits of advice from famous writers that get circulated as squiggly text boxes with fancy borders.

But among all of this, I see a lot of the same stuff come up. And I do mean a lot.

Now in some cases, the universally accepted stuff is the right stuff. Most people recommend exercise, for instance, as part of a healthy lifestyle, and it’s true – you do need exercise (it’s an entirely different matter that you need Nutella pancakes more). But sometimes, tips just get circulated over and over and people assume that they’re universally true, whereas if you look a little closer, you see that some of those just aren’t that helpful. Either they’re too vague, or they’re too binding, or they’re too specific. Good writing advice, in my opinion, should be something that provides direction for writers without tying them to anything that they can’t reasonably do on a regular basis. And unfortunately, a lot of the tips shared in the search results for ‘how to become a good writer’ come under this category.

And as the owner of a blog about writing advice for literary fiction, I couldn’t sit by and not respond.

So here are five of those over-circulated writing tips, ones you’ve probably encountered a hundred times, along with more helpful versions based on my experience as a writer and what I think would have more effective results.

Tip #1: Know your character in and out

A lot of writers say that to bring characters to life in a story, you need to know everything you can about them, which means investing time in character biographies. Problem is, you might spend ages working out the details of Character X, only to realise you don’t need around 90% of that information. If your story is about a girl who wakes up in the debris of a plane crash, for instance, you probably don’t need to know the ins and outs of the last test she failed or what she likes to order at McDonald’s – unless those details are integral to how your plot plays out.

More helpful version

Add character detail to bring aspects of your plot to life. For instance, the girl in the plane crash might see charred body parts, which reminds her – gruesomely – of the time they overcooked her burger at McDonald’s last Labor Day. That’s a vivid bit of detail that also tells you a little more about the girl and her life before the crash, but it also has direct relevance to what’s happening in the plot.

Tip #2: Write what you know.

I think this was originally a Hemingway quote, but it’s spread across the Internet like a virus. The typical interpretation of this is that when you’re starting out, write about things that you’re familiar with, like characters similar to yourself or your close circle, or locations like the ones you grew up in. Which is okay, but that’s not a story in itself. Evolving as a writer is all about trying new things. By steeping yourself too much in the people and situations you know, you risk limiting your imagination in terms of where the storyline can go.

More helpful version

Borrow details from people and places you know to add colour. Maybe someone eats their food as fussily as your mom does, or the protagonist is invited to give a talk at a school that looks like the school you once attended a debate meet at. This helps to make those aspects of your story feel more vivid – because they are people and places you have actually seen – but also leaves you free to take your story any place it needs to be.

Tip #3: Have a writing routine.

A lot of writers advocate having a set time and place for writing every day – the idea being that the sameness of the ritual will, over time, jolt your brain into creativity each time you sit down. However, while your brain will certainly be trained into thinking ‘hey, it’s story time’ (Pavlovian conditioning much?), guaranteeing the actual creative output is a whole different ballgame.

More helpful version

When you are in the mood to write, have a ritual in place that you can implement immediately. For me, that ritual is – grab my notebook, write out either the first few lines or an outline of what’s in my head, make coffee while thinking about what I plan to write next, and then come back and write at a stretch, usually somewhere quiet like in the studio or on the balcony. Writing down the first few lines or points is an essential part of this – if I were to start by making coffee, I risk getting distracted by other thoughts. With something down on paper, I can let my thoughts run along that direction and get myself a nice brew in the process. Be sure to have a ritual that’s easy to execute at once, and preferably one that accommodates other people who might be living with you (for instance, if my husband needs the studio, I can go out onto the balcony so that we both have our space).

Tip #4: Write every day, no matter what

Just as our muscles need recovery time after workouts, our creativity needs rest days too. I’m personally not a fan of the whole daily writing goal approach (listen to my podcast episode on the word count fallacy for more), largely because there are certain days when I am all ‘written out’ (probably after a late-night session the day before) and I genuinely need a break. And I know that if I try to write, what I write will be meaningless.

More helpful version

If you’ve decided to write on a certain day, go through with it. All of us have times when we like to procrastinate with our writing even if we have a plan for it, simply because writing is hard. And it’s true. It is hard. But what’s a helluva lot harder is dealing all night with the guilt of having wasted the day despite knowing that you could have written some good stuff if you’d only taken the effort. So make yourself sit down, open the page, and write the first few lines. It’ll just get easier from there.

Tip #5: Just write

These are perhaps the two words that I am most triggered by 😁. While I understand the philosophy of writing what you can in the moment and not getting crippled by overthinking, I have found absolutely no utility in squeezing words out of myself when it just won’t happen. Once again, if you’ve listened to my podcast episode, you know why – TL;DR version, think about trying to make lemonade out of a hundred-year-old-lemon.

More helpful version

When you have something worth writing about, write it down immediately. We often let go of great ideas because we don’t immediately note them down – don’t do that. Open up the Notes app on your phone, grab a piece of paper, record a voice note, anything that works in the moment. Make as many notes as you can about what’s in your head – sentences, character details, bits of dialogue, potential endings, anything. That way, when you have the time and will later for a longer writing session, you have everything you need to get started.

I’d like to clarify that I am by no means being prescriptive, and one or more of these five over-circulated tips may actually be tips that you personally find useful. My main grouch with them is that many writers and writing websites keep parroting these bits of advice without trying to go further into the nuts and bolts of it, or without allowing for the erraticism inherent in creating art. I believe in a writing lifestyle that embraces individual differences and fluid routines while emphasising on as much high-quality output as possible, which is what the reworked versions of these tips should help you achieve. And of course, if you’ve got even better versions of them or brand-new tips that have worked miracles for you, go ahead and share in the comment section. I’d love to learn from you!

Your Old Drafts Matter More Than You Realise

If you’re anything like me, you have cringed over things you wrote long ago. Flipping through old drafts, stories, poems, even diary entries almost inevitably unearths some laughable sections — stuff that was so crudely written, so silly, that you can’t help but wonder how far you have come since then. And sure, a lot of it was immature, poorly planned stuff, and it’s perfectly understandable that you’d think: “Thank goodness I’ve moved on from this.”

At the same time, here’s why I don’t like dissing old writing outright.

When you were your past self, writing that draft — be that five months, a year or five years ago — there was a certain thought process that you were following. Maybe it was an idea that was triggered by a movie you watched, a character who popped into your head after a chance encounter with someone, a conversation that’s ideal for immortalising as a story — there was something about that story that mattered to you. Or perhaps you were going through some sort of deep emotional experience back then, and writing was the only outlet you had for it. Whatever it was, be it inspiration or emotion, it was genuine. And genuine writing always has value in it somewhere. 

Plus, here’s something I’ve seen for myself over the last year or so — a lot of that old writing might be much better than you think. For instance, I recently unearthed the diary in which I used to write poetry back in 2015. I was going through my lowest phase ever back then and I’d spill all my anger and pain into my poems. They were your typical angst-ridden verses, filled with suicidal thoughts and bleak lonely nights and cigarette butts and whiskey bottles and broken hearts. Today, they don’t mean much to me as poetry. I don’t think I’m a poet anyway — fiction is my medium. But some of the phrases I used caught my eye. Some of the sentences I wrote. Some of the ideas. They were unpolished, often pretentious. But they showed promise. More recently, there were story drafts I started writing in June or July of last year that I shelved at the time as bad. But about a month ago, I went back to look through them and realised that they had a lot of potential. As in, they were actually workable into new stuff. And I am, in fact, currently working two of those old drafts into stories. The advantage of coming back to old drafts after a substantially long period is that you come back more mature, your ability to detect (for want of a better word) good writing much sharper. And that lets you judge the old writing objectively on its own merits, rather than while you were in the throes of it, which lets you sort the wheat from the chaff much more effectively.

So, from a writer who used to have night-long cringe fests over the banality of her writing, here’s what to do with those old drafts that seem beyond redemption. 

Come back to each shelved draft after two months

Or any sufficient length of time that allows you to look at it from a fresh perspective, rather than being immersed in it. If you’re a writer-in-progress (as I am), you’ll likely find that even two months can give you a good amount of perspective, but you can define this as you see fit. Once you’ve decided on a time frame, though, be strict about sticking to it. Don’t just randomly open the draft a week after you shelved it — you’ll likely feel the same sense of disdain and be tempted to delete it, or you’ll try too hard to fix it and feel frustrated all over again that it isn’t happening at once.

Identify elements of the draft that work

Once you come back, give your draft a good, long, close read and keep an eagle eye out for the things that currently work well. Maybe the plot needs some rethinking, but you wrote some lines that you can reuse. Or maybe the tone isn’t quite there yet, but there’s a character whose story you simply must tell. Once you’ve identified these, open a fresh page and write them out. You now have workable material you can examine 

See if you can merge two drafts

I’ve more than once struck gold when I realised that elements of two separate drafts worked perfectly when I stitched them together. And when I say elements, it could be something as subtle as an opening sentence. Maybe that, combined with some of the plot elements from another draft, could trigger an idea for a whole new story. 

Create a bits and pieces repository 

All those prettily written sentences and paragraphs that you’ve tried your damnedest to fit into a story and couldn’t? Have a separate document or notebook where you store them all. I call it the ‘bits and pieces repository’, one I flip through on occasion and dip into for those bits of filler content that are so important for a literary fiction story — turns of phrase, metaphors, bits of internal monologue, an impassioned exchange, a description of an empty street, that sort of thing. If you don’t already have something like this, change that — and your old drafts are great places to start from.

Which brings me to the most important part… 

Don’t delete your old drafts

Seriously. I can’t emphasise this enough. Don’t delete your old drafts. Just last week I wanted to kick myself because something I read triggered memories of a draft I was working on a year ago, only to realise that I’d deleted it. Yes, from my Recycle Bin too. I know it may feel like some things you write are too awful to exist, but you just don’t know whether that very draft mightn’t lead to something good later. Instead, have a separate folder (digital or physical) for all your shelved drafts and give it a creative name, nothing negative. Mine is ‘To Do Someday When I Am Ready’. Whenever you’re fed up with a draft, move it there. Come back to this folder once every two or three months (the time frame you decided in the first step, basically), and give them a fresh, emotion-free reading. You’ll surprise yourself with how often they can end up working their way into finished stories.

What’s your story with old drafts? Do you preserve them with tender loving care, or do you follow a let-go-of-the-past policy? Do you think there’s wisdom to be gained from your younger self’s writing, or do you believe in looking ahead all the way? Over to you.

Announcing: My Literary Podcast!

A special post to tell you about something I’d been meaning to do for a while – start a podcast of my own! Introducing The Silent Town Show, hosted by yours truly, where we talk about pretty much everything to do with writing literary fiction!

I’ve designed the podcast to be a companion to this blog (as is evident in the choice of name 😀). The episodes will be about literary fiction and writing, of course, but the content won’t be quite the same as what I blog about. If I were to categorise the two, I would say that while the blog posts will be more technique oriented, the podcast episodes will be more lifestyle and discussion oriented. There will be exclusive content on both platforms, so please do follow both!

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know much about podcasts. I’m more of a textual person than an audio-visual person in general, so things like conversations or interviews I would almost always rather read than listen to. But last year, I was invited to participate in a podcast episode about freelance writing on The Writing Cooperative, and that’s when I saw the potential of reaching out to a whole new audience – one that likes listening to its content rather than reading it. And to be honest, some things are just so much easier to talk about rather than write about. So here we are!

I’d love to hear about your ideas for future episodes – tips you want me to cover, lifestyle suggestions you’re looking for, or pretty much anything that we can have conversations about as literary fiction writers. Because ideally, I’d like to make this podcast about us, not just me talking about myself. And if any of you would like to be featured, please do let me know! Drop a comment below or on the Podcast page on Spreaker. We can work out an episode theme.

Hope you enjoy the first episode! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it!

When The Writers You Don’t Admire Get You Down

It’s one thing to feel disheartened by the greats. At the end of the day you admire them and they’ve earned their stripes. They’re part of the canon.

But then there are the contemporary writers. The ones who are aspiring for greatness just like you, only they’re a little further along in their journey. Scratch the little – they have CVs that cram twenty years’ of achievements into two. Somehow, while you were still scratching your head about whether to take this writing business seriously, they’ve been nominated for more awards that you knew existed. And it seems like they live entirely off fellowships and grants.

As for their actual writing, well, it’s…fine.

Or maybe it isn’t fine. Maybe it’s less than fine. Maybe it’s so palpably not fine that to even use the word ‘fine’ in connection with it is an insult. Maybe it reeks so badly of gimmickry, of overdone themes, of groan-worthy caricatures, of obviously bad prose, that you want to take the next inter-dimensional flight to wherever the Creator lives and demand the last twenty minutes of your life back.

And yet somehow – through black magic, bribery or both – those writers have become literary sensations.

*teeth-gnashing*

I exaggerate, of course. There are many gifted writers out there today, young people several of them. And if they do have stellar publication histories and fellowships and the like, they obviously deserve it. I don’t have to like what they’ve written – they don’t need my approval.

I admit, though, to often feeling jealous of them.

Here’s the deal. The path to literary fame is a lot more democratic than it used to be. You don’t have to toil away in the dark until some bigshot notices you. You can start on your own by sharing your stories online, even if it’s on a personal blog. And honestly, there are so many more literary magazines out there than before that you stand a high chance of getting published somewhere as long as your prose has merit.

At the same time, though, gateways do exist. People with certain backgrounds are likelier to make it as writers than others. For one thing, most of today’s successful writers have literature or writing degrees. Does a degree automatically make one a better writer? Not necessarily. But it is true that people who studied literature, journalism or creative writing in college are much likelier to engage in allied activities after college, and are thus likelier to get in touch with editors and publishers who can give their writing a home. The more they’re published, the likelier they are to get accepted to fellowships or MFAs, which means the likelier they are to get published by major houses (because let’s be honest, getting featured in Random College Grad’s Literary Review is unlikely to make any reading committee sit up with excitement), which means the likelier they are to get award nominations…you get the picture. Meanwhile you’re toiling away at your fiction, spending fortunes on submission fees hoping to get published somewhere (forget Random College Grad, I’ll even take High School Dropout’s Literary Review), spending hours writing application letters for fellowships where the minimum criterion for entry is a Booker Prize shortlist, all while juggling the stress and the sense of inadequacy that inevitably comes with the writing territory.

Jealousy? Completely understandable. At the same time, the usual rules about jealousy being an unproductive green-eyed monster apply. (Plus, it’s plain exhausting to feel venomously negative for more than five minutes at a stretch.)

So how does an ambitious-but-less-advantaged writer move on from their jealousy of the up-and-coming scribes who seemingly have it all?

Remind yourself that their success isn’t at the expense of yours.

You might not want to believe this, but it’s true. Other people being successful does not mean you have a lower shot at making it. It isn’t personal. There’s no pie they’re stealing more of. The world is always open to more fiction, as long as it’s good, and that good fiction could just as well come from you as from Highly Decorated Twenty Something.

Remember that an MFA/Residency/Fellowship is not a guarantee of success.

Lots of people study literature in college, and a fair fraction of them want to be writers. And yet the number of literature students with writing dreams who go on to make waves is actually much lower. Sure, some MFA programmes are better than others and give you more contacts and more exposure. But even at those programmes, not every graduate does equally well. Some end up as one-hit wonders. Some produce a series of semi-successful books that occasionally get long-listed for awards. A whole bunch more simply fade into obscurity. Only a very few really make it to the top – major awards, prestigious teaching appointments, national grants and the like. And those people would likely have made it anyway, even if they hadn’t done the MFA or residency. If you’re here, I’m assuming you want a more enduring career, one that translates to actual, substantial fame. And while you should undoubtedly aim for all the residencies and MFAs you can get (if nothing else for the financial security they offer), bear in mind that they will not guarantee your success. You still need to write excellently – which you can do anyway.

Don’t feel entitled.

This is the part I struggle with every. Effing. Day. That feeling of ‘I’ve been working so hard, I deserve this! How come those writers are getting it and not me?’ or ‘God, a ten-year-old can write better prose, how could a terrible story like this win the award? The jury must have been high on something!’ This is where you have to show yourself some tough love and remind yourself – you don’t ‘deserve’ anything. There are no special allowances for anyone. Within you may lurk enough talent for the world to someday hail you as the next F Scott Fitzgerald, but you need to earn that title just the same. Just like the original F Scott Fitzgerald earned his own repute in his time.

Accept that those writers may, in fact, be great writers.

Here’s something to always remember, now and later, even if you do someday become the next F Scott Fitzgerald – there will always be people ahead of you. Maybe they had better connections, maybe they were in the right place at the right time, maybe what they wrote was thematically in line with what the jury wanted, or you know what? Maybe they’re just better than you. They’ve worked harder at their craft, they have a better sense of rhythm, they can come up with stronger plots. After all, so many prize committees all over the world can’t be dumb, right? Those writers evidently have merit, even if you can’t see it. So you might as well move on from agonising over why they won and not you, and think about how maybe you can improve your own craft so that you have a better chance at winning next time.

Try to learn from those writers.

As if not feeling entitled and having to accept their merit was hard enough, right? Hear me out. Take up a story you don’t like, read through it carefully, and while you do so, try to identify exactly what you don’t like about their prose. Maybe their plot doesn’t move much? Maybe they use too many metaphors or adverbs? Maybe their dialogue is static? The point isn’t to gloat over those mistakes (although no judgement if you do 😋). The point is to see what goes into making a story fail – which is, if you think about it, just as important as knowing what makes a story succeed. And the takeaway for you is a better foundation in the things to avoid when putting your own fiction out into the world.

Focus on your unique story.

When it comes to writing, I have neither education nor connections nor work experience. I studied Economics and then Business Management, for reasons that had nothing to do with choice, and I currently make a living writing business articles that are entirely un-creative, albeit interesting on occasion. No one in my family or friend circle has anything to do with the literary world, and most people thought I was stark raving mad to want to be a writer when I could have a cushy job instead. And honestly, I sometimes think I’m mad too. At the same time, I know there is absolutely no rule that says I can’t make it as a writer because of my non-literary background – I just need to work harder to get my first break, that’s all. Plus, I now have unique life experiences that can add flavour to my fiction. Several of the people I met at B-school and my first workplace, for instance, would make highly interesting story characters (for reasons both complimentary and less so). And the loneliness I felt back then makes it much easier for me to write about things like solo travel, living in a remote place, dealing with the loss of family, being a fish out of water, or entering a new job/university/institution with a strong sense that this might make you or mar you. In other words? Think about the perspectives you’ve gained in your journey so far, and apply them – either directly or indirectly – to produce fiction that only you could have written. And trust me, you don’t need MFAs or accolades for that.

What have your own tussles with the green-eyed monster been like? Have you ranted for hours on end about the million ineptitudes in a single prize-winning story (guilty) or have you withdrawn your own submissions to a magazine after discovering that they feature people who’ve basically published the compositions they wrote as a twelve-year-old (guilty)? And what are the things that helped you bounce back again? The floor is yours.

When The Writers You Admire Get You Down

It happens a few times every week – I read something spectacular, whether it’s a book or just a sentence, and I go, “I wish I’d written that.” Perfectly normal part of reading as a writer, yes? Here’s what tends to happen after that – “I wish I’d written than, but I can’t. I’ll never be able to. I should just stop writing. Why did I ever start writing? I wish I’d never been born.”

Sounds familiar? Thought so.

Here’s the deal. No writer ever became one without being a reader first and foremost. This is especially true of literary fiction, which has as many variants as a sand dune has grains of sand. You need to read widely and deeply to pick up on how to write stories with aesthetics and restraint and emotion in the right proportions – and when I say widely and deeply, I really do mean it. Literary fiction doesn’t have templates you can just tweak, like in copywriting. There are patterns, yes, but there are no templates. In order to write a truly masterful story you need to have a ‘feel’ for how to assemble the different elements of the story – characters, plot sequence, emotions, underlying themes, adjectives, internal monologue and so on – into the perfect whole. And the only way to cultivate that feel is to read the works of masters who already have that feel and know how to use it.

But there’s a flipside to all that reading.

You see, we writers tend to have fragile egos. We’re constantly second-guessing what we write, whether it’s the first draft or the final one. We want to be great, and yet we’re sneakily certain that we aren’t great and might never be. At the same time we’re conscious that great writers do exist. Lots of them. I love most kinds of literary fiction, which means pretty much any book I pick up is likely to have something impressive about it. Some kinds of books I can stick to admiring as an outsider, as they aren’t literary styles I’d personally work with – books written entirely in the patois of a certain region, for instance, or overtly political books. But then you have geniuses like Graham Greene or John Steinbeck or Daphne du Maurier or Sarah Waters, all writers I revere. And I read one of their perfectly constructed sentences or a paragraph that flows like molten butter or a plot twist that takes me delightfully by surprise, and I feel both exhilarated and paralysed. Exhilarated because such triumphs of language exist. Paralysed because…will I ever have such triumphs to my own name? And then I look at what I’ve been working on and it just seems so paltry. So insignificant. So completely irrelevant. No one would ever care about it. Heck, I probably don’t care about it that much myself. It isn’t a classic, it’s a depressed twenty-something female trying to make her mood swings sound impressive. Cue the slamming of the laptop lid and the ordering in of figure-destroying desserts. Bottom line, I’ve been known to have entire evenings written off because I’d read something wonderful and it depressed me to the point of wanting to just quit this whole writing jazz and go into sales. (Fun fact: I was in sales for a while. Completely serious advice: DON’T.)

So how do you stop the spiralling before it sabotages yet another writing session? Here’s what I usually do.

Remind yourself that the writers you admire all started out just like you.

Yes, I know it’s hard to convince yourself of this, but the truth is that the books you’re reading are the product of years of polishing. The writers you admire weren’t born spouting Pulitzer-winning manuscripts – they were kids who felt an itch to say something about how they saw the world, and they were probably intimidated by the great writers of their time too! Yes, there is the oddball who wins some major award with a first book at some absurdly young age. But great writers, for the most part, got there after a long, long time. In other words, if you want to be a great writer, you need to make your way there, just like they did.

Be proud that you can recognise their greatness.

Here’s the deal – not everyone can appreciate great literature for what it is. But you can. You’ve taught yourself to appreciate excellent writing, and that’s an accomplishment. It’s an important step in your development as a writer, even if it may not seem like much in comparison to actually writing excellently. Because hey, if you don’t know how to separate the great writing from the average, you won’t know how to sort the wheat from the chaff in your own writing either!

Read your favourite writer critically.

There’s another mental hack I recently discovered, and that’s reading a story by one of your favourite writers critically enough to identify the things that worked in the story and the things that didn’t. You’re bound to find some faults no matter which writer you pick – nobody’s perfect. And it can help to remind yourself that even the greats are fallible, which means that you’re allowed to be too. However, comforting yourself with other people’s mistakes can easily devolve into schadenfreude, which is an essentially destructive – rather than creative – bent of mind. So note the problem areas in books by all means – it’s important to be objective even about your heroes, and mistakes can be as much a source of learning as triumphs – but keep it to problem identifying and not problem celebrating.

Re-read one of your own stories that you’re happy with.

Sometimes we just need concrete ways to remind ourselves that we’re worth it. Go ahead and read something good that you’ve written and pat yourself on the back. That story, it’s all yours. You came up with the idea, you worked hard on it, you polished the sentences, and now it’s a good story. A story that you wrote. Maybe it’s been published somewhere, maybe it’s still a draft, but it’s all you. And after all the hard work you put in, you deserve to use it as a small ego-booster when you’re doubting yourself especially much.

Remind yourself why you admire the writers who are getting you down.

These folks whose talent is making you feel insecure, they aren’t just names on an honour roll. They’re writers you personally respect and enjoy reading, writers who inspired you to take up your own writing. Why not remind ourselves that we wouldn’t admire them if there weren’t a damn good reason to do so in the first place? Go back to one of your all-time favourite books and relive the pleasure of reading it from start to finish. Do this not as a writer, but as the reader who was enthralled by the book the first time they read it. That enjoyment that you feel? That’s why you look up to the writer.

Tell yourself that if so many writers can do it, you can too.

Think about all of the great books they are read. Think about how many writers have written great books, from different parts of the world. The fact that there are so many good books out there is a reaffirmation that great writing isn’t the property of just one person or one set of people. There are great writers in every generation, from every country, from every cultural background. There are different styles of greatness, and different measures of greatness. Great writers are often as different from each other as chalk and cheese, but their contributions are just as important to the world canon. So what does this mean? It means that if greatness dwells in a writer’s mind, there will be a platform for it somewhere, someday. And yes, that applies to your writing too.

Take a break.

Sometimes the negativity is too much to fix at once. If you really feel crippled by your awareness of your favourite writers’ greatness, try taking a break from them for a while. Read other books, by other kinds of writers. Perhaps writers whom you admire, but don’t necessarily wish to be like. Heck, maybe even take a break from reading altogether. Go out more, cook something you enjoy, listen to music or a podcast, doodle. And then once you get back to the literary world, turn to a fresh page and start writing – as best as you possibly can. And make sure that that best gets a little better every day.

How does reading your favourite writers impact your zeal to write? Are you spurred on to compete with them, do you experience mini emotional breakdowns, or are you one of those exalted beings who can keep their reading entirely free from emotions about their own writing? Go ahead and share below.

The Nonsense Of An Ending: How To Make A Story End Well

Back when I started writing short stories, I got teased a lot by my boyfriend (now husband) about how often I killed off my characters. “But that’s just the story,” I’d protest, “it called for a death.” “Well, it’s interesting that you keep dreaming up worlds where people need to die.” Well, what can I say, I got my Dostoyevsky game on as good as I can. 🤷‍♀️

But let’s get real. Endings. As crucial as beginnings, and even bigger in weight when it comes to measuring the story. You can have the best build-up in the world, but if the ending falls flat? Your story didn’t work. On the other hand, a story with an okayish beginning and middle can still be redeemed by a killer (cough) ending. The ending is the piece de resistance, the final outcome of all the work you put in throughout to make the events work and have your characters behave a certain way and insert the right number of clues and symbols. Small wonder, then, that it’s so hard to get right (witness the number of ditched drafts in my Recycle Bin on account of delightful concepts descending into un-delightful conclusions).

Now if you’re a writer of literary fiction, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you probably don’t want a conventional happy ending for your story. That’s more a fairytale sort of deal, anyway – everything comes right at the end, they defeat the bad guys, live happily ever after, etc etc. Literary fiction is about grown-up life, where bad things happen. And what’s the worst thing (okay, one of the worst things) that could happen to anyone? Death, especially when it’s of a gruesome nature. That’s not to say there aren’t other options. There are ambiguous endings, where you either circle back to where the story began – with conflict – or where you don’t really know how the protagonist ends up. You can also – at most – have a bittersweet ending, although this tends to require a much more detailed catalogue of ups and downs and is best left to novels. But conventional happy endings? Where the hero finds the treasure and gets the girl (or boy, or person, or two-headed shark)? Nah.

Of course, death for death’s sake is clumsy. You shouldn’t kill off characters unless their deaths make sense in the grander scheme of the story, or the world it is set in. Far too often an otherwise good story is ruined when the writer doesn’t know what to do with the protagonist and just kills her off. Never mind how prettily it’s done and how many descriptions of dying visions and tragic drug overdose there are – it doesn’t work. But as long as you keep this in mind, deaths as a story ending are a useful tool, and often an artistic one. And if you’re worried about your plot reading like pulp fiction, who says deaths have to be bloody and violent affairs? I’d say a clever bit of psychological skullduggery that drives someone to kill themselves is as good an ending as any other.

But. Let’s say you don’t want your story to end with a death. Either because you’re trying to break the habit of killing off your characters, or because your plot doesn’t call for a death. You still want a compelling ending, though – one that doesn’t fall flat or rely on something unrealistic working out.

So how can you end your stories satisfactorily, if not with deaths?

End with a life-changing realisation

You can never go wrong with a smartly executed cliffhanger. And it doesn’t have to be too thriller-y either. Bring about a twist that’s unexpected but not unrealistic, and leave your reader hanging. Something that challenges whatever the protagonist has held to be true all this time, or something that will require a whole new set of decisions for him. You might need a bit of deus ex machina for this to work – a letter bearing shocking news, for instance, or a remark let slip by a neighbour or guest. Remember to introduce this element plausibly – panting messenger boys bearing telegrams went out with whalebone corsets.

Explain something that you’ve been hinting at throughout the story

A lot of stories use this technique, and for good reason. Revealing an underlying secret in bits keeps your reader interested throughout and gives you the scope to conclude with a bit of a shocker. This is different from the previous idea in that the twist was hinted at all along, rather than happening at the last minute. It could also give the reader the opportunity to piece it together for himself, like a detective story – which makes it more fun.

Have a character find what they wanted, but with a twist

There just isn’t enough justice done to the ironic good fortune technique. You can have this play out as pure tragedy – the character gets what they want, but at terrible cost – but it’s ever so much more delicious to do it as tragi-comedy or black comedy. So maybe an intern who conspires with a hot fellow intern to overthrow a workplace conspiracy gets to see her psycho boss get his comeuppance, but in the process the the hot intern vanishes without a trace and leaves only a mysterious note that sort of hints that he was part of the conspiracy all along? (This, by the way, is a plot I shelved long ago as too Iris-Murdochian for me to do justice to, but perhaps one of you will make something of it.) Typically this requires a black comedic tone throughout the story, so be sure to structure your plot so that it doesn’t feel like you suddenly changed your narrative register at the end.

Bring the day to a close

This isn’t exactly a plot suggestion, but there’s obviously a sense of closure inherent in a sunset, or the end of summer, or a party winding up. Introducing elements of departure into the setting allows your characters to bow out, without necessarily bringing their journeys to an end. It might even be a new beginning for them. For instance, taking the overnight train to a new city heralds the start of a different life for your protagonist, while winding up the chapter of their life that was represented by your story. This kind of ending isn’t always the most exciting, so it’s especially important to evoke the right feelings with your prose. Descriptions of the surroundings, little details that build up that sense of finality – they all count. As long as you make them that way.

Perhaps befittingly, writing a conclusion for this post is a head-scratcher of a task. So I’ll bypass it altogether (the luxury of this being a blog post!) and open the floor for comments. Do you find it hard to end your stories suitably? Have you tried any of the techniques I’ve mentioned? What short story endings do you regard as #goals – or, conversely, #cancel? Type away.