I’ve been writing an off and on series on writing, and decided it was high time I got around to what most people (myself included) would regard as my core competence: the writing of fiction. Fiction, whatever its length—novel, novella, short story, microfiction—offers a lot more freedom than non-fiction does. You’re allowed to let your imagination run wild. People (except the occasionally nitpicking, editor-minded reader like me) tend to allow liberties with facts. You can create your own world. Literally.
I was told, some years back, by an editor who’d read one of my short stories, that I’d violated ‘two rules of creative writing’ in the story: one, that dreams should not play an important part in a story (she’d mistaken what I’d meant to be a hallucination for a dream). Two, that the story should not end with the death of a protagonist (which means that Munshi Premchand, Leo Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore—among others—would never have passed the creative writing test).
I did manage to push back on that, but it made me think: can ‘creative’ writing be governed by rules? Can we say that writing is really creative if one is all the time trying to conform to some dos and don’ts, whether dictated by an editor, by a set of vague literary types, or even (perhaps) self-imposed?
I don’t think so. I mean, look at EE Cummings (who styled himself e e cummings, and wrote many of his poems in a similar fashion). Or Peter Carey’s True History of the Ned Kelly Gang, which pretty much dispenses with ‘proper’ punctuation or grammar—but which won a plethora of literary awards.
This article, therefore, is not going to be so much about the rules of writing fiction, but about some tips to help you out.
1. Write in a language you’re good at. This might sound odd, but having read a lot of Indian Writing in English over the past few years, I’ve realized that a lot of Indians want to write in English even though English isn’t a language they’re comfortable with. It probably stems from the belief that if you’re writing in English, you’re part of some elite group: not the truth, because more often than not, the number of readers for vernacular literature far outnumbers the readers for English. What’s worse, if you’re writing in a language you aren’t very fluent in, it shows: in misplaced idioms, in small details that may not always be found in grammar textbooks.
Ask yourself: which language do you think in? Do you think in Hindi (or Tamil, Punjabi, Bengali, whatever) and then translate that into English? If you think both in English and in the vernacular (as I do), read good literature in both languages and ask yourself: which can I manage? Even though I can write well enough in both Hindi as well as English, just reading the works of people like Premchand or Dharamveer Bharti makes me realize that I cannot hope to write with anywhere close to the sheer brilliance of writers like them. With English, I can at least attempt to write well; with Hindi, I know I will be nowhere in the reckoning.
2. Observe. Over the years, a lot of people—both aspiring writers, as well as those who have no desire to write, but like to read—have asked me, “Where do you get your ideas?” To them I’ve answered: from all around. I mentioned this in my post on writing non-fiction, and I’ll emphasize it again: life is really stranger than fiction. Look around you; open your eyes, listen well, read a lot, observe, and you’ll see stories aplenty.
The more you expose your senses to, the more likely you are to get interesting ideas. You may even get lucky (as I have sometimes been) and have dreams that can be made into stories.
3. Know your genre. Really know it. What are the ‘rules’ that govern it (even if unwritten)? What are the elements readers will expect? What are considered the best examples of the genre? There will, of course, be likely to be a range of styles even within the genre, but if you examine carefully the best representations of the genre, you should be able to get an idea of what the genre is all about—and this is crucial to writing a book that does fit in well. A mainstream romance novel, for instance, in which the hero and heroine do not have a happily ever after, for instance, isn’t going to get you many fans. (Note: There is nothing, of course to prevent your breaking the rules of the game, but in order to do so, too, you should know the rules in the first place).
4. Do your research. The other day, reading a story set in the India of 1856, I came across a mention of a man musing over the good things the British had brought to India—among them cinema. Ouch. (As even a cursory look at something as basic as Wikipedia will show you, cinema wasn’t invented till the 1890s). If you write anything with even a hint of history in it, I can’t stress too much the importance of checking (and double-checking) every single fact you put into it. I have lost count, for example, of the number of stories I’ve read set in the pre-Colombian Old World that have mentions of chillies, tomatoes, and potatoes in them—all of which, if you bother to check, were not known outside the Americas until Columbus went on his landmark voyage.
Researching history is essential—if you’re writing a historical. Even if you’re not, you may need to do research to ensure you’re not making mistakes. Let’s say you create a character who needs to go from Point A to Point B within X hours, and without any private vehicle. Unless your setting is completely fictitious (which is a good reason to write fantasy fiction!), you do need to do some research: what public transport is available between those two points? What is the schedule of buses/trains/other public transport? How long does the journey take?
As a writer (the one who mentioned cinema in 1856) pointed out, this may be construed as being nitpicking. On the other hand, a lot of readers will spot the error, and will wonder why you didn’t bother to check. Some will be ruthless enough to point it out. And that, believe me, is horribly embarrassing and humiliating.
So, do sweat the small stuff.
5. Write out an outline of your story. This is especially important if you’re working on a novel-length story, though I use it for detective short stories as well, where a relatively complex plot has to be fitted into a proportionately small word count.
It is, of course, possible—and I’m sure there are plenty of good writers who don’t follow this practice—to omit writing an outline, no matter the length of the story. But my experience is that if your story is very long (a novel, for instance, that goes anywhere above 50,000 words) or something that’s fairly complicated (a detective novel, or something with an extremely intricate plot) it pays to have the basic structure written out somewhere so that you can refer to it now and then. PG Wodehouse, I remember reading somewhere, used to put up notes about his plots on sheets of paper all along the walls of the room where he used to write, until the walls were pretty much papered with the plot of the novel he was currently working on.
What method you use—longhand on paper, typed in a Word document, in an Excel sheet, or even in a mind map—doesn’t matter. Neither does how much depth you go into: I’ve written out outlines of an entire novel in less than a page, and used up six pages to plot a short story. The goal should be to know pretty much where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there.
6. Use description wisely. Now, to get on to the actual writing of the story. Description is crucial to a novel, because this is what conveys to your reader an idea of what you have in your mind. Take a character, for instance: what does he/she look like? How old are they? What is their build? The shape of the face? The colour of eyes, of hair, of skin? And, on a less superficial level, what idiosyncrasies, what beliefs, what likes and dislikes?
Or, settings. The difference between a rain-drenched, wet-grass countryside, the red earth fragrant with petrichor and the sky above gloomy with masses of grey cloud—and a metropolis at night: bright ever-moving lights, the sound of fast traffic and loud music, of people laughing and quarrelling, a drunk yelling into the distance. Or the difference between a Mughal haveli and a modern office. All come alive through description, so pay attention to description.
Here are some tips regarding description:
1. Break it up. Large chunks describing a single character or setting are possible (and have been pulled off by major writers), but—especially when it comes to the modern reader—can be off-putting. Break up description by using dialogue. For example, if you’re trying to describe a room, you might have a dialogue taking place in that room. Begin with a couple of sentences with a cursory description of the room—how many windows, what basic furniture, a carpet (or not) —then, put in some dialogue.
A little further along in the conversation, introduce another sentence or two that describes more about the room (one of the characters opens a cupboard—Wood? Carved?—and takes something from it. Walks to the window. What can be seen through the window? Is there a garden outside? What flowers? Birds? A fountain? Or is there a street, instead?)
Then get back to the conversation; continue for a few sentences, before slipping in some more description.
2. Use as many of the senses as possible to describe something. One comment from the editor who worked on my first novel helped me a lot: she said that I described the look of things and the smells of Chandni Chowk—the glitter of the bazaars, the wealthy people, the shops, the fragrance of attar and fresh flowers, the aroma of cooking food and the stink of horse manure—but where were the sounds?
That opened my eyes (and my ears, my nose, everything) to the fact that description isn’t just what we see, but also what we hear and touch and smell and taste. Bring all of your senses into your descriptions. Write about sights and smells and sounds, textures and flavours.
7. Show, don’t tell. This is nothing new (and it might seem to contradict, to some extent, my previous point). But if you pay attention (and if you practice) you can strike a mean between descriptions and dialogue, the latter being one of the best examples of showing rather than telling.
I was reading—after many years of promising myself that I would—Gone with the Wind some time back. Besides the fact that it’s a gripping story, one thing that really struck me about this classic was the way the author (Margaret Mitchell) shows us so much about the characters in the way they interact, the way they behave, and so on. We are never told that Scarlett O’Hara is self-centred, childish, and vain; but pretty much everything she says or does points to that.
How people behave and what they say is, after all, a reflection of what they think, of what they believe in and what drives them—so dialogue and action are two important components of ‘showing’ something. Another aspect of this consists of the words you use. Being literal is fine, but it can often be uninteresting and trite. Instead, use words that show (rather than merely describe) something. As an example: Shobha said, “I’m so tired!” is literal—and somewhat dull. On the other hand, something like this may be slightly longer, but is more interesting: Shobha flopped down on the sofa and took off her heels. “Get me some water, will you?” she said, pushing her hair back from a sweaty forehead and bending to knead her toes. “I’m feeling like someone ran a bulldozer over me.”
8. Use breaks. I have come across good books—even great books—that have huge chunks of unrelieved writing. Page after page of description, paragraph after paragraph going on and on about one topic.
Yes, some writers can pull it off. If you’re not a VS Naipaul yet, however, I would suggest breaks. Break up text: use dialogue, use section breaks (those breaks within chapters, that act as breaks between scenes, or often even just for dramatic effect). Don’t make your chapters too long. This not only helps keep a reader’s interest alive (there’s nothing like large chunks of text to have some readers begin to mentally switch off), it can also be helpful when you get around to editing—you have smaller blocks of text to work with.
(As a reader who cannot even think of going to sleep every night without having read some part of a book, I have another reason to like breaks in text: they help me break off at a logical point before I have to put my book aside and go to sleep).
9. Edit, and re-edit. When you’re done with your manuscript, put it aside. For a week, a few weeks. A few months, if time permits. When you’ve distanced yourself from it, come back to it with fresh eyes, and read it through all over again, editing as you go. Because you’ve been away from it long enough, you’ll begin to see the mistakes: not just the typos, but also sentences that could have been worded better, dialogue that sounds unreal, plot elements that are superfluous (or—and this is crucial in crime fiction, for example—just don’t fit). Be ruthless. Look at your work as if you were a first-time reader (not an old fan, who will forgive less-than-perfect writing from an author they like a lot). Cut out stuff, change stuff. Remember what I mentioned in my first post on writing: do not fall in love with your own writing.
Important tip: There are times you come across a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph that you are especially proud of, but which doesn’t really fit—and which it pains you to discard. What I do in such a situation is to open a new Word file and paste it there. There are times, when you’re doing another piece of writing—or, sometimes, within the same manuscript, in another place—and you’ll find that it fits right in there. Keep it, at any rate; somewhere, somehow, you may find a use for it.
10. Ask for feedback. Once the first draft of your manuscript is done, self-edited and ready, give it to someone you can trust to read. A few important points to be kept in mind regarding this:
1. Give it to someone who’s qualified to offer an opinion. The most appropriate would be someone who is very fluent in the language you’ve written in; reads extensively (and reads good books); and knows the genre you’ve written in.
2. Ask for an honest opinion. Let the person know you want to know exactly what they think. Not fulsome praise, not “It’s mind-blowing”, but actually what they think. Warts and all. It’s only when you get sincere feedback from someone you can trust that you’ll be able to use that feedback to polish your manuscript further before you submit it to a publisher or a literary agent.
3. Evaluate the feedback you receive and incorporate it as you see fit. Just because your first level editor (that’s what I call my husband, who is invariably to whom I show whatever I’ve written) gives you feedback, it doesn’t mean you must act on it. Sometimes, there may be something that’s escaped the other person; sometimes, they may just be wrong (for example, one person I know pointed out that I’d referred to an English boy as ‘blond’—“That should be blonde”, she wrote back, and I had to tell her that technically, ‘blonde’ applies only to females; males are blond).
Those, therefore, are my ten tips for writing fiction. Next time, I’ll write about submitting manuscripts for publishing.
Very useful tips. Lucid.
Thank you, Banno!
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Writing TIPs from Madhulika
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Good, and useful. I would only imagine that one should have something to write about, first! A real writer has something to convey, after all! A good writer conveys it well. But a great writer changes your life! I do not think anyone can remain the same old person after reading Hardy, or Dickens. Among modern writers, I have felt the same about A.J.Cronin and Nevil Shute, and to a smaller extent, Harper Lee.
I particularly liked what you have said about description. I have loved the descriptions in Louis L’Amour.
I agree with you about Indians writing English. Our English is Victorian still. It suits official notings and essays in exams, but will not pass muster as literature. Somehow I have felt comfortable only with R.K.Narayan among Indian writers. It may be because what he wrote is not really English at all!
Thank you for these tips!
Thank you for the appreciation – and yes, I do agree that the greatest writers can be capable of changing your life with their work. I have, over the past year, been making a concerted effort to read more books either not originally written in English, or not from writers from the UK, US, or India – and I am realizing, even more, how brilliant some writers are. In my younger days, Hardy and Dickens (and Louis L’Amour, definitely!) were among those I especially admired – now I have to add others to the list, all the way from Mario Vargas Llosa to Marlon James to Lee Jung Myung…
I don’t think too many Indian writers now write in Victorian English; I end up reading a lot of Indian writing in English, and we have certainly moved on. The problem is that, barring either the award-winning writers or a handful who are lesser-known but still excellent, most really aren’t comfortable writing in English. Their English is bad. Not old-fashioned, not outdated, just sheer bad.
Thanks for walking us through this process. I imagined that creative writing is all about breaking the rules and thinking beyond the structured style, but I hear you. There still is a lot of planning and research involved depending on the content one chooses to write. I appreciate the details you provided in writing the historical fiction, yes it has be cohesive and should sound (and smell) like the time it attempts to describe. Any inconsistency is bound to undermine writer’s credibility.
I especially like your point about picking the language carefully. The assembly language of the mind (the language you think in) is typically the right choice as you pointed out but I think some people are just so talented that no matter which language they write/speak in, they just have such flair for language that everything comes together really well.
I really appreciate you taking time out and describing the writing process in detail..
Thank you, Ashish! Glad you liked this (even if you don’t write fiction). I agree that some people are so talented that they can actually write in whichever language they choose… sadly, I’m seeing a lot of newer young Indian writers (or perhaps I should call them wannabe writers) who really shouldn’t be writing in the language they’re trying to adopt. And all out of a mistaken notion that it’s more ‘fashionable’ or ‘acceptable’ to write in a certain language as compared to another.
Your “fashionable” comment perhaps goes beyond writing and can also be extended to people/celebrities who somehow can only speak in “English”. You can clearly see how painful it is for those who are listening and trying to make sense of what they are hearing. It beats me why people do not pick the language they are comfortable in..
Very true. It’s not just limited to writers.
On a similar note, what I also find sad is the growing number of people – especially in urban India – who really can’t be said to be perfect in even one language. In Delhi, for instance, I come across so many who are from Hindi-speaking backgrounds but can’t actually speak correct Hindi. Or any other language.
I couldn’t agree more. I noticed that myself and wonder how can people not be proficient even in their mother tongue! I think that must be defined as linguistically challenged condition?
Seriously linguistically challenged! One should at least be fluent in one’s mother tongue. It’s a disgrace not to be.
So, so useful, Madhu. And very well elaborated upon. (Excuse my grammar!)
Thank you so much, Anu! And grammar rules should be broken by those who know the grammar in the first place, I think, so you needn’t ask to be excused. ;-)
I think you are doing this as a part of a course you are planning to give in some university. ” Writing( in English) for Dummies!”. Dry run.. huh. Which is all very good because it does means more much will follow.
Ahem,ahem didn’t you hear about PGW and sticking up notes from some one right here – but wasn’t that for polishing the language rather than plot development.
Ah, was it you who posted that thing about PGW posting notes on his walls? I frequent a Fans of PG Wodehouse group on Facebook, and was under the impression that I’d read this there – though of course I can’t be sure. I do agree that it may well have been a means of polishing the language, but I would think one of the more complicated novels with convoluted plots (most of the Blandings Castle series, especially, including Leave it to Psmith) might have required some very diligent plotting.
Thank you so much for these tips. Though my haiku and haibun have been published in a few journals, I had no success in getting any of my short stories published. I think I need to read a lot. Can you please recommend some short story journals online? I am fond of crime fiction, but anything you suggest is fine with me. Regarding PGW, I like his English public school stories more than the ones he wrote later. My favourite is, “The white feather”. What are your thoughts on his earlier stories?
Online journals that feature good short stories include Earthen Lamp Journal and Open Road Review. Also, do check out Granta, and the websites of the Commonwealth Writers Association and the Sunday Times EFG Prize – they feature the top short stories for the prizes they award, so it’s a good way of getting to read some of the top fiction in the world without having to buy books.
I came to PGW’s school stories relatively late in life: the first stories of his that I read were the Blandings Castle ones, and those have remained, ever since, my favourites. I read the school stories only, i think, in my twenties, and didn’t care for them much – but it’s been so long since I read them, I can’t really say what my opinion of them would be, now.
Hi DO, Thank you very much for the suggestions. I have started with open road review:) Had read “The Mango Tree” in Readers’ Digest and enjoyed it a lot
Thank you! The Mango Tree version in RD was highly edited, though, so didn’t quite retain the flavour of the original.