Writing Short Stories: A Primer

One of the first rules about getting into literary fiction seems to be that you start with short stories. Novels can be too unwieldy for a beginner – short fiction is a safer arena to practise in. All the stalwarts of literature have done it, which means that newcomers looking to cut their teeth ought to do it too.

My own feelings about this rule have changed over the last two years. My first foray into literary fiction was a novel, one I gave eighteen months to. I was actively against writing short stories, in fact, chiefly because I didn’t much enjoy reading them. I would far rather have savoured a good long novel that really fleshes the plot out. Plus, the very fact of there being a rule about starting out with stories put me off them.

Last summer, however, I decided that my novel needed to be shelved for a while so I could come back to it with renewed perspective on how to fix it. In the meantime, I opted to swallow my prejudices and try my hand at short fiction – influenced, largely, by Joyce Carol Oates’ short story course I took on Masterclass.com – and proceeded to come up with about half a million bad ideas that I ditched after varying degrees of effort to salvage them. I did, however, also complete a few stories that I’m happy with – one of which became the spotlight feature in Eclectica’s Jan/Feb 2021 issue (#bragalert). And for the foreseeable future, I plan to work on getting better at this particular form of fiction.

From a craft honing perspective, here’s why short stories are ideal for the beginner – they’re short. No matter how difficult it may be to write a good story (and believe me, it’s hard as hell most of the time), the fact remains that you don’t need to come up with hundreds of pages worth of good writing. Anywhere between two to twenty pages of coherent prose and you’re done. Which also means that they’re a good exercise in learning not to ramble, because there just isn’t enough space for rambling. You learn to keep only the things that count, be it dialogues, descriptions or characters. And that, believe me, is a skill that will make you a finer writer even if you choose to later specialise in 1000-page novels – because you’ll have learnt by then to keep the fluff to a minimum. Bottom line? As someone who tried starting with a novel and then moved on to short stories, they’re honestly your best bet if you’re just starting your fiction journey.

One battle I’ve faced a lot with short fiction is, how do you know the right amount of detail and scene-building to put in? How do you build your characters enough so the reader cares what happened to them, yet not so much that you complicate the plot? And for that matter, how do you come up with plots that aren’t just the same old story? Over the last eight months or so I’ve tried to find some answers to these questions, both from great writers and from my own experimentation. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far.

Let one thing happen

I recently took Neil Gaiman’s course on Masterclass.com, and when it comes to short stories he advises letting only one thing happen. That’s actually a great rule of thumb, as long as one understands what he means by ‘one thing’. Your story should basically centre around an important incident – such as a birthday party, someone’s death or a theft – and delve into the details and events leading up to and/or following it in sufficient detail for the story to feel engaging and complete. It doesn’t literally mean that you talk about one thing throughout the story.

Don’t be afraid to keep characters as names

One thing I’m terrible at is knowing how big a role each character needs to play. Do I give the postman who drops off the pivotal letter a home to go back to? Does the alcoholic mother need to reveal why she started drinking? While the shorter landscape of a story means that the characters that do make it to the plot need to all matter somehow, know that it’s perfectly acceptable to have someone speak one line and then vanish. Maybe the line includes an important bit of information, maybe it’s comic relief, maybe you just need a quick glimpse of the person to add colour to a setting – whatever the case, they don’t need any more attention than just that one line. And that’s okay.

Keep the cast small

On that note, try to avoid having too many characters, even if they just have cameos. Most stories will work just fine with four or five characters, or even less. The more people you have, the more you need to worry about making each of them count, and then you could end up having too much of setting and dialogue and not enough forward-moving plot.

Keep descriptions short

I know the pain. You’ve laboured all morning over the perfect description of a waning storm, and you’re determined to fit it into your story by hook or by crook. But but but – it disrupts the rhythm of the story. It doesn’t fit anywhere organically. And you want your story to breathe as a whole. Which means – exeunt waning storm description. Of course, that doesn’t mean exeunt entirely. I have a separate Google Doc titled ‘Bits and Pieces’ where I store all those pretty lines and paragraphs that didn’t make it into any of my stories. It’s a repository of sorts that I can refer to if I’m feeling stuck with a future project. The thing about good ideas is that they can be reworked – they rarely belong to just one context and nothing else.

Backstory is great – in small doses

Some amount of explanation is usually helpful in setting the context for your story – family dynamics, for instance, or why the failed professor on a road trip failed in the first place. What’s important, though, is to weave the backstory into the actual story rather than devote an entire section to recounting it. Let the facts come out in bits, maybe through dialogue, incidents, parallels or flashbacks.

Invest in building your storyline

One thing I’ve observed in the short stories I’ve read is that a lot of them tend to be variations upon the same handful of themes. Divorce, affairs, troubled parental relationships, angry siblings, failed holidays, dinner parties gone wrong. You can’t have too much going on, so you make the story as dramatic as possible, which often translates into picking one of these well-worn themes. And I think that was the original reason for my beef with stories – too many of them are too similar to each other. Of course, I know now that this isn’t the failing of the craft, but of the writer. It’s our job as fictioneers to ensure that every story we put out has something special about it. Does that mean your story can’t have a divorce or an angry sibling? Absolutely not. But always aim to weave something into your divorce/angry sibling plot that makes the reader think ‘I’ve never seen it done quite that way before’.

Read more short stories

Goes without saying, you can’t nail a short story unless you see how the masters have done it. Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant, O’Henry, Saki, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Anton Chekhov, Bernard Malamud – take your pick of the greats. Many of the top online literary magazines are free to access and publish some impressive short fiction in every issue, both by stalwarts and by up-and-coming writers. Read the stories – then, read them again and try to spot what worked for you in the story and what didn’t. Were the characters sufficiently formed? Did the themes come out naturally? Did the sequence of events make sense? Did the characters show a convincing growth arc? Was the language compelling and aesthetically appealing? There’s a tremendous lot to be learnt from just paying attention to how other people’s stories are constructed before you start constructing your own.

Where do you stand on short fiction? Do you love working with it, or does the page limit bother you? Who are your favourite short story writers? Love to hear your thoughts – and of course, if you have any short stories of your own published online, leave the link below, and congratulations!

Writer’s Toolkit: Milanote

It seems like everywhere you look, there are tools to do something better. Want to schedule your Instagram posts a month in advance? There’s a tool. Want to pick up relative pitch? There’s a tool. Want to train wild leopards to move to your commands? There’s likely a tool for that too, although whether the leopard will be amenable to picking up the training tips is another matter.

Writing tools are no exception. There’s a plethora of them, and I don’t just mean spellcheckers. Chances are you’ve heard of Ulysses and Scrivener, two of the most famous – maybe used them too. They’re supposed to be the thing for writers in a digital-first world, although I’ll personally take pen and paper any day. I do type out my final manuscripts on Google Docs, but the outlines and first drafts are always by hand. Writing tools have always struck me as a little too gimmicky. I haven’t ever bought one for myself, but I’ve tinkered with the free trial of Scrivener and found it too complicated to use comfortably. Which kind of defeats the purpose of writing productively and at length.

There is, however, a lesser-known tool I discovered recently . It’s called Milanote, and it dubs itself ‘the app for creatives’. I was Googling ways to organise my thoughts and ideas and this showed up, and the initial impression was admittedly a good one. Now I love drawing mind maps as much as the next doodler, but sometimes all the hand-drawn stuff gets a little…messy. I get these cravings for an aesthetic chart of literary ideas, you know?

I’ve been using Milanote on and off for the last few months, and I figured I’d share my honest opinion of it as an aide to creative writing. I’ll start off with a disclaimer that I haven’t actually used all of its features, so this isn’t by any means a comprehensive product review, but I do have the general hang of what a writer might be likely to

The features

Milanote allows you to create your own boards with cards for each piece of content (text, images, file uploads and links). Cards get slotted under columns, to which you can add a name like ‘Character List’. You can rearrange columns as you like, rearrange cards within columns and add arrows that connect columns to one another. You can also drag a card out and position it by itself on the board. You have all your basic text functions, like bulleted lists and headers, and you can add a colour to the top of each column to help them stand out.

Here’s a small section from one of my boards to show you what it’s like:

One interesting feature they’ve added for writers is a collection of pre-made boards for things like character profile and story outline, where you have a set of pre-filled cards with sample characters and plots. They’re supposed to give you a good place to start your own profile/outline, and while I’m weird and like to do my own outlines from scratch, the template boards are helpful if you’re looking for a bit of a shortcut.

The usability

Pretty good. It’s all intuitive. You can move cards around by drag-and-drop and extend the length/change the directions of arrows to create different types of connecting pathways. My only minor disappointment was about the cards not being swipe-able by touch, although that might be there on iPads – I couldn’t do it on my Microsoft Surface Pro laptop.

The cost

It’s free! At least, for the first 100 cards. You can get 20 more each time you invite a friend to sign up for an account, and you can get unlimited cards for about $12 a month. I’ve managed so far on the 120 allowance (got the husband to sign up), and when I run out of cards I’ll probably delete the content on old ones so I can use them up again. I don’t really see myself paying for more cards, although you might benefit from that if you have a large number of simultaneous projects or are doing some highly complex worldbuilding.

The value-add

This is the big question – does Milanote live up to its claim of being the app for creative people? How much does it really enrich the writing process? Here’s what it does for me – it helps me organise my random ideas into a nice neat chart and move them around as I develop connecting threads and more complete storylines. Is that useful? Certainly. Is it aesthetically pleasing? For sure. But is it the thing for me? I’d still say…nah. Nothing beats the freedom of pen and paper, even if it can get a little messy.

Of course, that’s just my personal opinion. Objectively speaking, I would say that Milanote is certainly a useful tool for organising thoughts and developing storylines, and its biggest advantage is that it’s extremely intuitive, without any unnecessary features. And given that it’s free and that it can be used on all major operating systems, I’d definitely recommend you give it a try. Who knows – if you’re looking for an upgrade from your notebook, this might just be the answer for you.

Writing Goals for 2021

What a year it’s been for everyone! A near-apocalyptic state of affairs, and to think there was a time when we were just swapping articles about ‘that Wuhan virus’. I see a lot of content online about bidding good riddance to 2020, but I chose to take the kinder approach – be thankful for what the year has given me, and be excited about how I can make 2021 my own.

2020 was special for me on two counts. First, I met the love of my life, spent the lockdown with him and then married him in December. Secondly, I started writing fiction in earnest. The latter is something I was honestly unsure about – it would mean devoting most of my time and energy each day to becoming better at an art form that might never bring me success. And that daunted me. I won’t deny it. It scared the bejesus out of me to think that I might toil away at my writing for years and years and never make it in the literary world. But the truth is, I’ve always known that I would be a writer, and there was no better time than the enforced home-staying to do so. And thus the journey began, in May 2020, and it’s been crazy hard and worth every second of it.

It’s the first day of the new year, and I believe in the potential that clean slates hold. I have a brand-new planner at the ready, a bunch of story ideas waiting to be brought to fruition and a ton-load of motivation to write, write, write. And because I love having concrete goals to work towards, here are some of the things I want to focus on in 2021 as I continue on this wonderful new writing journey.

Preserve my incomplete drafts

I’m a perfectionist by nature, and I tend to ditch story drafts if I sense that they aren’t quite living up to their initial promise. However, I’d like to minimise that in 2021 for two reasons. First – a less-than-promising draft might reveal new ways of completing itself if I come back to it after a gap. Second – even if the draft itself isn’t that good, its concepts and/or characters might still be good enough to work into a new story. I’ve seen instances of both happen over the last few months, and I want to stop deleting and start preserving so that I have a bank of ideas to return to whenever I’m looking for something new.

Edit until my inner critic is satisfied

It’s often said that you can never edit a story enough, and thus you needn’t be too hung up about making it perfect. I agree, but with one caveat – you should edit your story until your inner critic says ‘yes’. And I don’t mean obvious edits like fixing plot holes or unnecessary adverbs. I mean – listen to that voice that says there’s something just short of okay about the opening line or about that piece of dialogue. Because that voice is telling you the truth – it needs rework, even if it means deleting all those lovely lines you spent so much time on. I had an awful time killing my darlings, and more than once I tried to talk myself out of editing it because it was pretty much okay and that was okay…right? It was not okay, as I found out the hard way, and now I’m willing to put in the extra effort and listen to my inner critic, until I know the story is ready. (And yes, you will always know when it’s really ready.)

Log regular hours

I used to be very mood-driven about my writing when I started out. If I felt like writing, I wrote; if I wanted to stop, I stopped. The problem with that is that sometimes I don’t feel like writing for more than five minutes, but if I just push myself past that feeling and keep going, I’m likely to get some solid work done. I use Toggl to track all my work projects every day, and the goal is to log at least 20 hours of fiction writing every week (in addition to my freelance projects, blogging and other important tasks). This will keep me accountable and keep me going even if I’m not necessarily feeling super-creative – as you might already know, it’s often necessary and sufficient just to get your words out on the page so that you have something to polish.

Read more

This might seem too obvious to mention, but I read shockingly few books in 2020 (there were extenuating circumstances, but even so) and I’d like to change that. The goal is to read 100 books, mostly classics and literary fiction from my to-read list. I’ll try to focus on writers whose style I admire and whom I’d like to learn from – I love Saul Bellow’s observational powers, for instance, and there are five books of his I want to read this year. Of course, I’ll keep the list flexible – there’s always new books you come across and end up loving.

Put my work out there

I want to get published. I am prepared to do anything it takes to get my stories published, and I flatter myself that my fiction isn’t quite so unremarkable that it doesn’t deserve to be shared with an audience. I already started sharing some of my work in late 2020 (hopefully I’ll have good news to share on that front soon!) and I’ll be doing a lot more of that, targeting both big-league journals and smaller publications. Of course there will be rejections – dozens of them. That’s part of the game. The key is to remember (and this is something I am still working on) that a rejection doesn’t have to mean that my story is bad. It just means the story wasn’t right for that particular issue of that particular magazine. Neil Gaiman once said to see a rejected story as a letter sent to the wrong address – you just need to find the right one! And while I do feel unhappy whenever a rejection email comes along (and there have been a good many of them already), it only spurs me on to keep sharing my work to more places until the acceptance email finally comes along.

Focus on mindful positivity

It’s no secret that writing is hard, and there are often times when I feel not only dejected, but absolutely miserable. I loathe myself for wanting to be a writer and consider looking for accounting jobs instead. And I’m not going to try and fix that with fake positivity where I go “Hey, at least I have two working hands and a working brain, life’s peachy!” That may work for some people, but it doesn’t work for me. What I will try and do instead (and this is very much a work-in-progress) is to remind myself that I chose this life after several years of not being able to, and that I chose it because this is who I am. And while it is extremely hard, I have it in me to keep pushing because this is home, and you fight to keep your home. Over time, I hope these affirmations will help to control the mood swings, even if they can’t be eliminated. At the very least, I hope the affirmations will help me push through the mood swings and continue to write, even if I don’t feel like it in the moment. Writing is like any other kind of task – you need to push it sometimes. And that’s how it should be. And that’s how many of the most memorable stories are born.

A very happy new year to everyone, and lots of luck with your own writing goals!

Power Naps, And When You Should Take Them

If there’s one thing I’m excellent at, it’s taking long naps. My fiancé says that he’s never met anyone who slept as much as I did, and I take that as a compliment. I’ve napped after lunch, before lunch, after my evening coffee, post dinner and pre-bedtime – you get the picture. And a nap has often been exactly what I needed to shake off a spell of writer’s lethargy and get to work.

All said and done, though, there is such a thing as too much sleep. Our bodies often keep us in the land of Nod much longer than we need to be, and the consequences are, well, not nice. I tend to be completely disoriented after too long a nap, which means I drift around for a few hours trying to find something to focus on, work myself up about how worthless I am and then just end up going back to bed. That kind of nap usually happens if I didn’t get much sleep the previous night, which explains things but doesn’t solve them. I’m still cranky. I’m still exhausted. And I’m still going to not keep any resolutions about waking up extra early to compensate.

Which means, the writing ain’t happening as it should.

Now let’s get one thing out of the way – everyone’s sleep needs are different. Maybe one person can power through all day on seven hours of sleep at night, maybe someone else needs to recharge a couple times a day. And if you’re the kind of person who needs naps, well, that’s who you are and that’s how you should be.

I hazard, though, that you wouldn’t be reading this post if you were 100% sure about needing daily naps. You’re probably more like me – fond of napping, aware of the benefits it can have, but prone to over-long naps and the guilt that follows.

So how do you move from excessive napping – the kind that makes you feel like you’re made of lead when you wake up – to naps that leave you feeling healthier and more pumped and do, in fact, live up to the ‘power’ appendage?

The first thing you need to do is to identify a threshold level of sleepiness that merits you taking a nap. If you’re just feeling drowsy after a heavy lunch, consider shaking it off with a walk or a cup of coffee. You could even put on some catchy music and dance a little. About fifteen minutes of this should get rid of mild drowsiness – and if it persists, maybe you do really need some shuteye.

Next, decide on how long you would like your nap to last. Are you okay with a ten-minute nap? Or do you need half an hour to recharge properly? This depends on your body’s needs, but I wouldn’t recommend keeping power naps longer than 40 minutes – especially if you plan to take more than one through the day. Because if you overdo your nap, you’ll wake up feeling groggy and irritable and guilty about having lost so much time – and you don’t need me to tell you that that’s not fun. If you’re prone to oversleeping, definitely set an alarm – as loud an annoying an alarm as possible. Or ask someone at home to wake you up after a specified time. (You’ll need to ensure, naturally, that they don’t fall asleep too – or that they’re better at waking themselves up than you are.)

And if you do overnap? Apart from moping for the rest of the day, you have two options. The first is to make up for it by staying awake till later at night. This is usually what I do, and as a night owl it works. But if your schedule doesn’t allow you to stay up too late, here’s what you do – swallow your pride, be as productive as possible for the rest of the day and tell yourself that you’ll do better tomorrow. Is this hard? Massively. But sometimes, things just are. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, you can’t reclaim lost hours, but you do have a shot at making the most of hours yet to come.

Plus, here’s a kinder way of looking at overnapping. If you were asleep for all that time, maybe you were more tired than you realised. Maybe your body needed that extra rest. If so, there’s nothing to feel bad about – you were just responding to your body’s need for sleep, and now you’re ready to work harder for longer. And maybe it’s a sign that you need to get more sleep in at night, so that you don’t need quite as much rest during the day.

Bottom line? Nap as much as you need to, not a minute longer, and you’ll have no reason to feel bad about that postprandial snooze. And if for some reason you’re determined to not give in to the napping urge, why, there’s always coffee. I prefer to not see the two as rivals – I see them as friends, to be had in turns. Which do you prefer? Drop a comment, let me know.

Help! My Hero Is Just Like Me

It’s a trope we’re all warned against. The ‘coming-of-age’ novel that is in fact a thinly veiled lament on how cruel the world is to the author, a misunderstood genius who only does drugs in order to connect with a higher state of being. Bleurgh. Not to say that there aren’t exemplary takes on this trope too, but most of the time it’s bleurgh. And it’s more than understandable that you wouldn’t want to be classed as one of those writers.

I’ll tell you what you shouldn’t be doing, though – actively avoiding your own self as a source of writing inspiration or even as a character.

Let’s talk about human nature for a second. We like the familiar. We like the comfort that comes with things and ideas we know well. When we start out with writing we tend to feature familiar things in our work, be it a place we lived in or a subject we studied in college. And whom would you know better than your own self? (Of course, you could go all existential and say that none of us really knows our own selves, but for now let’s put that aside and assume that we know ourselves reasonably well, certainly better than we know our next-door neighbour or the barista who made our flat white today.) It’s instinctive, really, to introduce our realities into our first fiction. And there’s no need to ignore those instincts unless we have solid reasons to not wish to disclose aspects of our reality.

Moreover, writing about yourself is cathartic. There’s most likely a journey that brought you to the point where you decided you would be a writer. There were moments of indecision, perhaps discouragement or even mockery from your family and peers. There were books that inspired you, maybe movies you watched or conversations you had. Chronicling that journey can help you understand your own motivations better and act as a record you can refer to whenever you want. Of course, you could just write a diary entry about it, but fictionalising it gives it new depth and allows you to come to terms with yourself in a new way. And in the process, perhaps, you could discover answers to questions you’ve had about yourself but never really thought about in a concrete way.

I did the same thing. In my first novel, the main character (unlike me) is a man. His parents (unlike mine) are divorced. His ethnicity (unlike mine) is half-British, half-Punjabi. His experiences with reading and writing, however, have strong parallels with mine. His hunger for recognition, for escape from the path chosen for him by external forces is the same as mine. Both of us went to B-school, both of us have a strong fondness for American literature, both of us have made unfortunate mistakes in love but are capable of loving deeply and sincerely. The novel itself is a work-in-progress still, but giving it one and a half years of my life taught me so much about what I wanted and needed. In fact, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that writing that novel made me a more rounded person – and showed me beyond any doubt that fiction is where I am meant to be.

If you’re concerned that your protagonist is too much like you, or if you can’t seem to be able to work with characters who aren’t like you, try branching out bit by bit. Maybe write about someone who’s largely like you but differs from you in one very significant way. Or about someone with the same interests as you but a different culture. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try is to write about someone who’s completely different from you – different gender, different ethnicity, different history and characteristics, different loves. Flip everything about yourself around and see what you get – and create an interesting plot for that person while you’re at it.

I personally believe, though, that it’s absolutely fine to have the protagonist of your first novel be a lot like you. In fact, I’d even recommend it. All of us have at least one bildungsroman within us and there’s no shame in giving it the space it deserves. It might not necessarily be your best work, but it’ll be an important piece of writing all the same. And don’t be too worried about sounding egotistical or whatnot – this is your space, and your story that’s being told. Once you have this story down, you’ll be able to tackle other stories about other people with a freer mind. And – if you’re very lucky – you might just have the seeds of a new ‘Catcher In The Rye’ in your hands.

Identity Bites: When You Hate Yourself For Being A Writer

Anything can trigger thoughts like this.

Perhaps you’ve been having an unproductive morning (or day, or several days).

Or perhaps you read a story that’s been published in a reputed journal or that’s won some major award, and you think “I wish I could write like that” or, worse, “I can write like that too. Why does he/she get published and I don’t?”

Or perhaps you’ve been reading some fabulous work of literary fiction and oohing and aahing over sentences that seem to have been crafted by magic, and you’re suddenly reminded of the draft you’re working on right now and how paltry it seems in comparison.

And then, before you know it, it starts.

You look around you, at the books in your room. All the writers you admire, whose craft you try to model your own on. Great writers, all of them, with decorated careers. They’re the movers and shakers of the literary world. Theirs are the names mentioned in hushed voices by the intelligentsia. They made it, and now they’ll be remembered by generations to come. Who are you to presume to stand in such exalted company?

Or you start thinking about other people in your life – the non-writers. They have regular lives, with work and hobbies and family and friends. They have their share of problems, sure, but they don’t have to deal with this crippling self-hatred. They don’t have to look at their work every day and question the premises of their decision to take up that work as a profession. They don’t have to worry about whether or not their art has meaning. Heck, they don’t have to care about art at all except in passing. Unlike you. You care, because you have to care. Desperately.

And if you start thinking both trains of thought in parallel (as I do all too often), they’ll collide to form one hell of an explosion.

Why did you have to want to write? Why couldn’t you have been satisfied with some nice safe salaried career? Why did you have to pick a life where there are so many others ahead of you already? Why are you like this?????

And the aftermath of that explosion is your battered, anguished, inconsolable mind.

Now it’s very easy to say ‘then don’t think like that’. If only we could execute things by the simple act of mentioning them, life would be so much easier. Alas, we must learn things the hard way here as in all spheres of life.

So how do you overcome this identity crisis soon enough and completely enough to move on?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I believe in the importance of riding out your negative feelings. To immediately try and think of solutions or force yourself to ‘be positive’ is to deny yourself the chance to understand the exact length and breadth of what you’re going through – which in turn will make it harder to think of concrete solutions rather than general feel-good fixes. Instead, take some time out, go to a quiet place, make yourself comfortable and feel. Switch all judgement off and allow yourself to feel as low and negative as you want. Tell yourself that you’ll never be a writer, dwell on missed opportunities or bad experiences in your past, write “I hate myself” over and over on a piece of paper – do whatever you want to do, as long as it’s not dangerous (and by dangerous I mean anything upwards of binge-eating).

But here’s the trick – allow yourself only a fixed amount of time to be negative. It could be half an hour, it could be one hour, it could be two hours, that depends on you. But you’re only allowed to feel your feelings for that specific interval of time. Not one second more.

Once you’ve ridden out your designated ‘negative time’, you’ll feel calmer, if not exactly better. And now’s the time to think of the way forward. Yes, the life of a writer is hard. But since you’ve chosen this life for yourself, why not spend less time wishing you hadn’t and more time making the most of it? Chances are there used to be a time when you’d long with all your heart for the opportunity to write fiction. Well, you have that now. You’re following your passion, just like you promised yourself you would. You’re a writer – a writer of fiction, potentially a very good one. You’ve started out on a tremendously exciting new journey because you were brave enough and passionate enough to do so. That’s something to be proud of, not grumble about. Plus, all those great writers you admire? They started out just like you did – nervous, unschooled and unsure of their own abilities. They weren’t born with Nobel Prizes to their names. Why fret over the selves they became after years and years of hard work when you could be putting in those years towards your own writing?

It’s the same for me. I only recently started writing fiction full-time after three years of dabbling with a business career. On paper it’s my dream, but in reality I have those self-hatred moments as often as anyone. It’s so important to keep reminding myself to be grateful for this chance I’ve been given. Yes, gratitude is infinitely easier to talk about than to practise, but as my boyfriend says, it’s when it’s the hardest that it’s the most important. So I do it, imperfectly and with gnashed teeth, but I do it. I work on myself until I can feel grateful and positive again. And then I get back to writing the hopeful, amateurish prose that might someday be polished enough to get me that recognition I want. But it’s a long way till there, as it is for everyone. The trick is to learn, over time, how to enjoy the journey. Preachy much? Unfortunately the sermons do often get it right. I used to think all this gratitude and keep-going business was hot air, but I learnt the hard way that that’s really the only sustainable way to live. The life of a writer is a tough one, an uncertain one. What you need more than anything else is conviction, and that won’t come from hating yourself for being a writer.

(Oh, and all those books about self-hatred being a crucial part of understanding yourself? Read them for interest and for picking up craft tips, but do not be swayed by their precepts. There’s some very depressing literature out there, written by very troubled young people living through times of enormous upheaval, and at a certain stage those seem like Bibles to swear by, but don’t. Just, don’t. Self-hatred is perhaps the least poetic thing in the world. Believe me – I went through two years of it myself, and I do not wish to ever go back again.)

One of the opposites of self-hatred is self-love, and there are as many ways to practise it as there are people on this planet. I could write a post about it later, but for now I’d like to hear your take on it. Do you take lengthy bubble baths? Do you eat an entire tub of ice-cream? Do you volunteer at cat rescue shelters? Drop a comment below.

Dealing With Unproductive Days

You’ve been staring at the laptop screen or notebook for what seems like ages, downed umpteen cups of coffee, checked your Instagram every five milliseconds and somehow ended up watching funny animal videos for sixty-seven minutes straight. Unproductivity has many shapes and forms, but for most of us it’s a guilt-inducer. And while we do try and guard against it as much as possible, sometimes the very act of squeezing productivity out of ourselves leads to less work done.

We’ve all had days like these, and we’d all love to be handed the key to permanently warding them off. There’s no such key, I’m afraid, but there are ways to pick oneself up and keep going despite having had such days. (And believe me, I’ve had a colossal number of them).

The first thing we need to understand is what goes into an ‘unproductivity fit’, so to speak.

There are two aspects to it. First, there’s the fact of being unproductive itself. You were supposed to get work done, you didn’t. There were goals you had set, which you didn’t meet. Time that could have been spent on useful pursuits got wasted because you weren’t focused enough. That’s the ‘material loss’ aspect.

The second aspect is the guilt spiral that kicks in. You didn’t work today. And you didn’t work yesterday either. Look around you, everyone else is working. They’ll go on to accomplish things. You won’t. You’ll just stay at the bottom like the sad sack you are. You’re ruining your own life. You’re no good and you never were any good. You don’t deserve for anything good to happen to you. You’re a failure. You suck.

If you ask me, it’s hard to pick which is worse. And unfortunately they always seem to come together. (As if one negative emotion weren’t bad enough to deal with.)

And if you’re a writer, that’s not where the story ends.

You see, the writer’s psyche is a complicated one. We’re high-strung folks. We’re prone to fits of negative emotion. We’re always on the lookout, consciously or not, for opportunities to shove work aside and hate ourselves instead. It sounds melodramatic, but then we are melodramatic. It appears to be the nature of the beast – if you want to create art, you need to be at least partially a mess. And then there’s the other bitter pill to swallow, which is that creativity simply can’t be forced sometimes. Even when we try and block out distractions, even when we divert our mind to other activities in the hope of breaking out of creative lethargy, it doesn’t always work. “If you don’t succeed once, keep trying” doesn’t necessarily work. We’re forced to deal with the fact that our creativity – our lifeblood – can and does often fail us. And when it fails us, we’re left with a void – a void of black despair about what we’re doing with our lives and why we’re so unlucky. So while non-creatives might recover quickly from having been unproductive, we writers are likelier to take a big hit to our mental health, one that leaves long-lasting after-effects.

In short, we need to take extra care to keep the negativity of not having been productive within manageable limits.

So how do you do that?

The first step is to define what ‘manageable’ means to you. Are you fine with grumbling for half a day and then spending the last hour or so watching Netflix because it’s too late to start anything new? Okay. Are you more the sort who’d cry furiously for an hour, take a hot bath, make some coffee and then restart? That’s okay too. There’s no right or wrong way to cope with feelings. What’s important is to do the coping and allow them the leeway they need to wear themselves out. So whether you’ve given yourself half an hour or half a day, make the most of it and lament your heart out.

After a point, you’ll find that you’re tired. Those feelings have taken a lot out of you. Now’s the time to relax, get yourself a nice hot drink and think – calmly, without stressing – of things you can do to salvage the day. Maybe there isn’t enough time left to work in earnest on a project (or maybe you’re just not in the mental space for it) but can you write some notes for a project? Can you read a couple of short stories? Can you freewrite for one or two pages? Can you look up some magazines you can submit your work to? Anything that counts as progress towards your writing goals, counts as being productive. And maybe, if you’re up for taking a crack at your writing regardless of how much time is left, you could end up surprising yourself. Maybe, fuelled by the guilt of not doing anything all day, you could produce some fine writing in that half-hour before bed. And even if you produce only average writing, it still counts. It’s still work that would not have happened if you hadn’t pushed yourself. It’s something positive you did, and you should feel proud of yourself for it.

And if you do try salvaging the day and it still doesn’t work, take a step back and have another look at your feelings. Maybe there’s something more serious on your mind that isn’t letting you relax? Maybe you’ve been stressed for a long time and it’s all coming out now? If that’s the case, it’s healthier to lose one workday and let yourself feel and recover as you need to. Consider it an investment in all the days to follow – if you’ve given your stress centre-stage today, chances are you won’t need to give it a role at all tomorrow.

Ultimately, everyone has unproductive days even when they try to avoid against them. The trick is not to wish that they won’t happen but to be prepared for dealing with them when they happen. Know when to give yourself leeway to feel all day, and know when to push yourself harder and get down to work despite not feeling your best. The more such days you go through, the better attuned you’ll be to your needs, and the less risk you’ll run of succumbing to the allures of cat videos when there’s a great story to be written.

“But It’s Not Literary Enough!”

They make sense, you know that. They follow a sequence, they build up your plot, they convey just enough meaning without going overboard.

Except that they’re just…sentences. Of the sort a middle-grade student could compose.

Where’s the literary part of it?

As literary fiction writers, we tend to be more snobbish than most about how our writing is perceived. Is the theme weighty enough? Is the language sufficiently sophisticated? Are the characters as rounded as real people would be? Is there at least one eloquently written description of scenery or weather? (Admit it, part of us will never rest unless have that.) And that’s important because that’s what literary fiction is largely about. We leave it to purveyors of genre fiction (which can be a problematic term, as I’ll discuss in a later post) to write the simple thrillers and romances and horrors where language is just the medium and not a participant on its own.

Problem is, too much emphasis on keeping prose literary can make us hyper-critical of ourselves. We’ll start refusing to pass sentences that don’t look as though they’ve come straight out of a Nabokov novel, and we’ll waste nights on end trying to craft the perfect simile while ignoring the rest of the story. As you can imagine, that doesn’t make for much progress. And guess what? It’s a completely unnecessary approach that’s actually stopping you from being the best writer you can be. As someone who’s lived long enough with this approach and successfully come out of it, here’s some no-BS advice on how to not get hung up on whether your writing’s literary enough.

Remind yourself that too much of anything isn’t good

Think about an action movie, maybe one starring a dangerous beast that’s on the rampage. The thrill scenes are the high points of the film – the moments that make us draw our breath in sharply or even scream out loud. But guess what makes those thrill scenes so effective (apart from good execution)? The quiet scenes. The scenes where the main characters have paused to smoke a cigarette, or where the underlying romance angle is explored a little more. These interludes between the high points are what provided the much-needed contrast (and an opportunity for us to breathe easy for a bit). If every single scene featured the beast bursting out of a wall or chewing a character in half, it would very quickly lose its shock value.

Stories work in a similar way – yes, even the literary ones. If every single sentence is elaborately crafted, pretty soon you become inured to their beauty. You might even find yourself skimming through the rest of the story or stopping altogether, because it’s too much input. (I’ve lost count of how many paragraphs and chapters of supposedly ‘great’ novels I’ve skipped because of their density.) You wouldn’t want to be known as that writer whom no one ever reads in full, would you? Well, then.

Pace your elaborate pieces out for max effect

Ornate writing has its own place, and an important one. The right simile or adjective can lend an otherwise dull act or character its own colour and give your reader a reason to pause and approve. And quite apart from overcrowding your story, you should give your ornate writing some space to stand out so that readers can linger over it (as you want them to!) without missing anything important immediately after. So if you’ve used a top-notch simile in one paragraph, feel free to make the next few lines a little less, well, extraordinary. It might pinch at the time, but your readers will thank you.

Try not to include literary stuff for the sake of it

Advice like this might seem to go against the very grain of what literary fiction is like. It’s literary because it delves into little details and ways of seeing things! But if you stop to think, tricks like work best when they have some connect with the rest of the story or with the author’s voice.

Let’s take Charles Dickens, for instance. He has chapters in every novel that are basically commentaries on the setting of the book or the kind of people in it. Most writers, however famous, wouldn’t be able to get away with that much commentary. But with Charles Dickens you never feel like it’s just rambling for three reasons. One – he talks about themes and facts that have a direct bearing on the plot. Two – he is known for his ironic depictions of working-class England, which is where most of his novels take place. Three – the writing’s so damn good you can’t get enough of it.

To use literary tricks to the best of their advantage, use a few of them and use them consistently throughout your piece. So for instance, instead of just one rhetorical question here and there, you can use a series of rhetorical questions to drive the plot forward at crucial moments. Something like this, maybe – But what is hope? Is hope what we feed ourselves to sleep better at night? Is hope what sustains the notion that things always right themselves somehow? Is it hope that the housekeeper felt when she received the news of her father’s sickness? Is it hope that propelled her to ask for a week’s leave off to go tend to him up north? Is it hope that made the daughter of the house choose the pink silk over the blue gingham that night when she saw through her bedroom window that Mr Morley had come back? Is it hope that inspired the son of the house to make holiday plans for next month despite having only a month to live? (I actually enjoyed writing that.)

Go ahead and write some genre fiction

You know what’s messed up about the world of literary fiction? It’s so damn snooty. It goes on and on about social significance and linguistic devices and whatnot and treats the plot itself – the heart of the matter – as almost incidental. Hollow vessels, I like to call stories like that – all noise. I couldn’t care less about how accurate the author’s portrayal of the antebellum South is or how inspiring the underlying anti-nationalist sentiment is if the story doesn’t engage me. I say raise the middle finger at prigs who can’t see beyond trickery and write your story however you want. I used to be hung up for months about writing detective fiction until I re-read some Agatha Christie novels and reminded myself that one doesn’t earn the title ‘Queen of Crime’ for nothing. That’s when I started my own murder mystery story, and it’s currently one of my most promising drafts. If genre fiction is what you feel like conveying your story through, go ahead and do it. Being authentic has no substitute, even in literature.

How do you deal with your writing being not literary enough? Are you open to being more frugal with the literary tricks, or can you not see yourself writing anything that’s less than Joycean? Lots of approaches, lots of solutions. Let me know what works for you in the comments below.

Staying Productive: Things To Do When You’re Not Writing

Here’s a truth many of us find it hard to swallow (as I did for the longest time).

We can’t devote our lives to the sole pursuit of writing literary fiction.

Now when I say this, I don’t mean that writing literary fiction is not a feasible goal. It’s a hugely feasible goal. And it deserves a lot of your time, and it can and should be your top priority if you want to make a name as a writer. What I’m saying is, you need something else to turn to during the day – something that isn’t Netflix, Instagram scrolling or complaining to your friend/parent/partner about how the world doesn’t get you. For some, this could be your day job or other source of income. For others, this could be a secondary hobby that you pursue regularly and that feels rewarding. And in fact, I’d recommend having a hobby or hustle in addition to your income stream, simply because it’s healthy to have productive recreation in your daily life.

I used to be in corporate before I transitioned into freelance writing. To put it mildly, the corporate world didn’t work out for me. I did want to keep making money, though, so I donned the entrepreneurial hat and started building a freelance business. I did well for a while, but it still wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. My chance to write fiction full-time came along a little later (courtesy my wonderfully supportive and generous boyfriend), and I’m currently making the most of that chance along with a little freelancing here and there. And for my own productive recreation I have two main activities – cooking and painting.

My fondness for cooking stemmed from my sojourn in Vienna as an exchange student, when eating out was too expensive and there were three grocery stores within walking distance of my student accommodation. After a quick bagel-and-cheese for breakfast and a cold sandwich bought at the campus cafe for lunch, I’d look forward to a hot, hearty dinner to warm me through the cold Vienna nights (in addition to several gallons of coffee). Sure, they were pretty much all of the pasta variety, but I found several different ways of jazzing up the humble spaghetti (hummus sauce with chicken and kale, anyone?) without spending a fortune, and had a ton of fun in the process. The next few years involved cooking occasionally, but I never really got back to experimenting with it until the Covid-19 lockdown. I had a partner to cook for (which is always a motivation) and a new healthy diet to follow, which spurred me on to create delicious balanced meals that combined both Indian recipes and international influences. We make sure to cook our own meals as much as possible, and it’s done wonders for our tummies (and our takeout bills).

The painting happened entirely by chance. We were looking to repurpose some Amazon boxes into bookshelves rather than buying new shelves, and I thought of buying some paint and decorating the boxes to make them look nicer. Somehow, I found myself enjoying the feel of a brush in my hand more than I’d imagined. So I bought some canvases and art supplies and voila! I was creating abstract art as though I’d been doing it all my life! I watched some YouTube videos for inspiration, but mostly I let my natural feel for colour, design and symmetry take over. I’m currently working on both small and large abstract paintings with different colour combinations. I’m taking it quite seriously, in fact, to the extent of planning to get prints of my nicer paintings and sell them online. Do I aim to be the next Picasso? Probably not. But it’s a pastime that keeps me positively and artistically engaged and I love it.

If you aren’t sure what to pick as your form of productive recreation, ask yourself – what’s something you enjoy doing enough to devote a couple hours to every day? It could be painting or drawing. It could be quilting. It could be dancing (I’d certainly love to do more of that). It could even be making travel plans for when this pandemic goes away. Anything that has a concrete outcome and keeps you happy is valid here.

And if you’re thinking ‘I don’t have enough time for that’? One thing I’ve learnt the hard way is that there’s always something else you can be doing with the time you can’t write/don’t feel like writing. Even if it’s something as simple as taking a walk, that’s twenty extra minutes of exercise you got in. To be clear, I don’t advocate working all the time – we need our rest too, and lots of it (doesn’t it feel sometimes like our very identities as writers are the most crushing burden?). But if we weigh up the hours we’re not working with the hours we’re actually resting, chances are there’s plenty of wasted time left over. And if we can divert at least some of that time towards picking up a new skill or practising a skill we already have, we’re creating a happier and more rounded life for ourselves – which will make us better writers too.

On Continuity, And The Power Of Asking “Then?”

“Then?”

To my boyfriend, it’s a way to break a pause. He says this whenever we’ve been silent for a while and he’d like us to talk of something new. It’s one of the zillion things I like about him.

But when I think about it, I realise that pretty much all of life is a then. There are pauses longer than others, and for good reason. But at some point, we are all asking ourselves – or being asked – that simple question. “Then?”

What happens next? Where do we go from here? Does where we’re going make sense, or do we need to take a step back and reassess?

I have always known that I will write literary fiction. The English language astounds me with how many possibilities it contains, and I wouldn’t be doing justice to the language if I didn’t explore and expand on as many possibilities as I can in my writing. Literary writers are all about using the language to convey emotions, build scenes and expound on themes – over and above the plot itself. And more than once I’ve been awestruck by a clever description of an outfit or a comment on marriage or an unusual use of adjectives, even if I didn’t love the story as a story.

But here’s the catch with that.

We literary writers often get caught up in the beauty of what we’re writing. A killer simile here, a slick juxtaposition there. It reads like a dream and we’re all but giving ourselves the Pulitzer already. Till a few years ago I was the same, hung up on the literariness of literary fiction. “Hey, that’s a really cool way to describe a disappointing sunset. Oh wow, I finally found a way to use ‘senescence’ in a sentence! I want to write something that begins with a cow falling out of the sky.” I’d make careful note of every line and phrase that I thought of and wow myself at how seasoned I sounded. When I’d go over them again, though, my practical side would speak up. “Yes, that’s a nice line about a sunset, but does anyone in the story have the kind of eye and vocabulary to make that observation?” So what I’d end up with, most of the time, was a handful of pretty sentences that had only the most tenuous links to each other and practically no idea of how to weave them into a full-length story. Enter self-loathing, enter angry crying, enter conviction that I will never make it as a writer and I should just stop trying.

I’m different now in my approach. I’ve come to recognise, more than ever before, the importance of having a solid story first and foremost. It’s like steak – if the meat itself isn’t good, doesn’t matter how much sauce you pour over it. Every line, every character, every incident in a story needs to make sense as part of a bigger picture. And now that I’ve started pairing my pleasure reading with critical reading (more on that later!) I can see for myself which short stories are good stories in themselves and which ones use linguistic tricks to cover plot holes. (And you’d be surprised how many stories by ‘famous’ writers fall under the latter category.)

And the most foolproof test of whether or not a story is good boils down to one question.

“Then?”

Does every paragraph, every motif, every new character, tie back to a central theme that has a beginning and an end that are plausibly connected?

And the same applies to anything that you are writing.

If you’re new to approaching your fiction this way, there are two ways you can get started.

The first way is to write out a summary of the story as you envision it. Keep it to one page and focus only on the sequence of events, not on any linguistic devices or motivations the characters might have. Then, read the summary through and ask yourself whether it makes sense as a story. Does every incident follow as a consequence of the previous one? Do the hints given throughout the story resolve themselves properly at the end? Are the characters’ actions consistent with who they are as people? Remember, this is about having a plot that works. It doesn’t matter how Nabokovian your language is, if your story doesn’t make sense it won’t work. If you find that your summary isn’t quite as strong as it could be, take a step back and figure out what you’re trying to say with the story and how you want things to work out at the end. Once you have that in place, you can move on to writing it prettily.

The other way – and this can be much harder – is to start writing the actual story in a single draft, just as you currently envision it. I say this is harder because here you’re working on the story itself, but you’re focusing more on the plot movement than on the language – which can be agony for us literary fiction buffs who want every sentence to be perfect. I struggle with this method myself, which is why I tend to go for summaries first. The advantage of this method, though, is that you get to see how the plot works in the actual setting rather than in a theoretical abstract. A face-off scene at the bar might seem cool as a bullet point in your notebook, but what if the flow of events preceding it calls for the protagonist to be by himself at the bar instead? Things like this often come to light only when you’re working on the actual draft, which is where this method scores some points over the summary method.

And if you’d like to start off even simpler, just create a flow chart of events. Start with the opening scene, mention each important event/conversation/character intro and see whether the final step adds up from all the ones above. This is a barebones approach that might miss out on a lot of crucial detail, but it works at a pinch if you’re looking to do a birds-eye check on your story.

If I’m honest, I realise as I complete this post that continuity isn’t a separate aspect to plot-building. A plot must by default have continuity, or it isn’t a plot but a hotch-potch of events. So asking yourself “Then?” at each stage when you start a new story is really a way of developing it all the way to the end, and not just checking an existing story for loopholes. Who would’ve thought, right? Just a one-word question, but it’s so important. It’s helped me out of many a tight spot with my fiction, and it’s sure to help you too. By all means, though, do keep the pretty similes and the outre scenes. Continuity makes for a strong skeleton, but those make for an attractive overall structure. And you need both to have a winning story.