Tag Archives: short story

How to write a novel

My first class at ‘How to be a Writer’ started with a BANG.

“Mr Teecher, how does one begin a Novel?” I asked getting to the point straight. For I was clear, I want to write a Novel.

“Mr Ranga, we will come to that shortly,” said the long nosed thin Teecher.

But that was not good enough. I knew the fellow would start by teaching short stories and limericks. I had been warned of that by my friend Dhiraj. “These courses are no good,” he said, “they teach you to write short stories and limericks.”

So I persisted. “Mr Teecher, we must start with the Novel,” I said and grinned, for it was no good getting the fellow angry.

“All right,” quoth he, and shrugged. “Although it is irregular, but just to give the class a taste of the best in English literature of the twentieth century, we will begin with the Novel. Now the difference between other writings and the novel is that the latter has a setting and is rooted at a particular time and place. It has a set structure, with a beginning and a resolution. It is normally linear and….”

“All that very well Mr Teecher, but how to start it?” I said, knowing the fellow was making it sound too bad, so I would be discouraged. My friend Dhiraj had warned me of these tricks. Methinks, Dhiraj has attended a writer’s class sometime.

“The start of a Novel,” began the Teecher slowly, for he must have known he was going too fast, and he can’t fool us by going too fast, “can be of any kind. There is no set pattern. I will give you some examples of the beautiful starts of some of the classics.”

So saying, he opened his notebook and starts to read. The fellow has not done his homework, or he should have learnt these by heart. Anyway, this is what he said:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Thus began Leo Tolstoy in his masterpiece Anna Karenina, setting the tone for the novel. ‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’ wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea, positing the conflict of the novel in the first sentence itself…”

The Teecher had misunderstood me. “No, no. How do we start writing a novel, I am asking,” I made my good self clear and grinned, so he may not get annoyed.

The Teecher thought for some time. Slowly he kept his notebook aside, and thought some more. “Although there is a set sequence in which the students are introduced to the art of writing, seeing the enthusiasm of Mr Ranga, I will, for a change, begin with some tips on how to write a novel,” he said, getting my point. You have to be firm with these fellows, Dhiraj had told me, and he was right.

“You must have a plot, to begin with. A rough sketch of the storyline, as it were. The names and characteristics of the main characters must be drawn up…” he began, but I interrupted on an important point.

“Teecher, my drawing is not so good,” I confessed, for when you are going for learning, there is no harm in being honest. It gives man honor and dignity, to confess weaknesses, however painful it may be. Mahatma Gandhi did that, and see what happened to the British Empire.

“Ummm,” thought the teacher, made some faces, no doubt because of deep thought, and said, “Ok, skip the drawing part, just write the characteristics of your main characters – the protagonists…”

After a long lecture, in which I took copious notes, he ended by giving us assignment for the next class, which was, to prepare notes for the novel we wished to write.

***

I worked hard all week, with my notes. I even consulted Dhiraj, who said, do not tell all your notes to class, or other students will cheat and write novel of your bright ideas. That was a good point again, and I worked carefully, hiding some important facts about my main story and my main characters.

***

“Mr Teecher,” I began, when my chance came to read out my notes, which was after two silly girls, who wrote about their heroines who were in love with a Pirate and a Vampire, two different girls, I mean two different heroines…Anyway, as I said I began thus:

“Mr Teecher, my story is about a great man, who was a nobody and became a big man, but ended being a nobody at his death-bed, and thought about the missing opportunities he had for love and doing good. But now, he thinks, no good thinking that now, for it is all over, and I have played my innings.”

I paused for reaction, for I knew the idea was very modern. Generally, people do not show their great men coming down again in their novels. But I did not want to write routine old stuff.

“Go on, Mr Ranga,” said the Teecher, for he was hooked.

“That is all,” I said, for I did not want to reveal all to cheating fellows in my class.

“Mr Ranga, you will have to flesh out the plot. Where did the events take place, when, who were the main characters. And even the plot is too generic. Exactly what happens, how the man becomes great, how does his downfall come about,” said the Teecher.

“It happened somewhere in India, in the twentieth century,” I replied, not giving away much. “The hero was a businessman, who hit it rich in petroleum and becomes a Prime Minister.”

Again the Teecher interrupts me. “The novel has to be plausible. Imagination must be tempered,” he said.

I thought of Dhirubhai Ambani, and saw his point. “Ok, I said. The man makes it rich in the petroleum sector and becomes a king-maker. His decline comes because his sons are no good, and his daughters run away with drivers and actors.”

I was clear that it was not a Dhirubhai story, and this ending would make it clear. “At deathbed, he is in a refugee camp…”

The Teecher interrupts again. “Refugee camp? How did that come in?”

“There was a war in which he lost everything. His industry is nationalized,” I reply, grinning. I could see he had not foreseen that.

“But how does that make him feel about missed opportunities?” Teecher asked, clearly perplexed.

“Because he could have gone over to the enemies side, which was more powerful. But details later,” I said firmly, “Now for the characters. Man, his wife, his two sons, his two daughters.”

The Teecher sighed, “Describe your characters. For example, the description could be like – A balding middle aged man, of medium height. Greying, thin mustache on a rotund face. A middle-class businessman with delusions. Frowning and agitated demeanor. Of modest beginnings, which is evident in his style, dressing and language.”

Methinks, the Teecher dislikes me. It was clear he was describing me, hiding behind the great man in my story. But I let that pass, for, as Dhiraj told me later, Gurus become jealous of their chelas when the chelas start doing better than them.

We were given the task of writing synopsis for each of our chapters for our next class.

***

It was difficult to write synopsis without giving out too much information. I consulted Dhiraj, who said caution is better part of valour. No use showing off in front of class girls, he said, keep the synopsis short.

***

My turn for reading out my synopsis came two weeks later, for I had to listen to the rubbish by the girls about Vampires and Pirates. Some parts I liked, where the girls giggled and said there will be some lovemaking, and that gave me some idea to throw in the sexy parts in my synopsis, and I kept on rewriting and improving. But without giving out the intimate details, as they say.

“Mr Teecher, Chapter 1. Old man is born in a cheap family. He is the thirteenth child. He is put in village school. He decides not to join Mahatma Gandhi, for business is what he likes.

Chapter 2. He goes to college and works at night. Teachers are bad to him and girls giggle. Yes, just like that giggly girl in the front seat. But he is not deterred. He also feels attracted to a rich girl, but not says anything to her. This he will remember at the end of the novel, with regret.”

I look around for reactions, and was happy to note that the girl sitting next to me was smiling.

The rest of the synopsis went off well. Mr Teecher said I should start working on the novel ‘in right earnest’.

***

It has been two years since I wrote my first novel. It set me back two hundred thousand rupees to get it printed. My friends liked it a lot, and Dhiraj was very happy too. He said I should write more, but it is costly to get them published, so I will think about it.

Dhiraj was also right about the Teecher. He is jealous sort of fellow. I asked him to write a praise to be printed in the book. And what he wrote shows he wanted to be a writer, but did not have the guts. He wrote:

“The first novel of Mr Ranga is a notable effort in terms of the ground he has covered from being a semi-literate. The first time he showed up in my class, I knew he would write a novel and get it printed. He has that kind of money, and the burning desire to add respectability. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors as a novelist.”

Anyone can recognize the sarcasm, but he was right about the money and respectability, and so I let his words be printed in my book. In any case, one must not snub gurus. It is not in our culture. Also, my large heartedness would make the fellow squirm at his own mean-ness.

I dedicated the book to Dhiraj, my wife, my two sons and my two daughters. It was unveiled at a glittering ceremony by the Prime Minister.

***

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An old friend: A story with a moral

I chanced upon an old friend in the Mall yesterday. He looked pretty chic in his tattered jeans and Benetton Tee. I suspected that he had a tattoo of a snake somewhere on him, though I cannot be sure – but what I could see was that he had one ear pierced, and a diamond stud shone smartly from within that hole.

My friend has struck gold, I thought, for the last time that I had seen him, some years ago, was when he was looking for a job, and then he had looked much older and frailer.

‘What’s up buddy, how’s life?’ I asked cheerily, coming directly to the point.

‘Ommmkkksyy,’ he mumbled, his mouth full of Baskin Robins’ butterscotch.

“Got a job?’ I prodded, brazenly.

‘Job? What job?’ he answered with a frown, after finishing his ice-cream. ‘I am into my own business, my dear,’ he replied sourly, and with great difficulty, and with much ceremony, he fished out a visiting card from a very fat wallet, and handed it over to me, with an expression that said, ‘Behold, and bow.’

The legend on the card said ‘Mr So-and-So, CEO and MD, Ace Travel Agency and Real Estate Brokers.’

On coming back home, I instituted a discreet inquiry into the affairs of my friend- in other words, I called up a mutual friend.

‘His father died recently,’ the mutual friend said, ‘unlocking, as it were, the treasure on which his old man was sitting. The old man’s property sold for a fortune, and with the money our friend has brought a swanky office, funded a Mercedes and a trip to Switzerland, and now lives the life of a king.’

‘Why did the old man not sell the property for so long, and live a high life himself?’ I asked.

‘So that his useless offspring could live decently, even if for a while,’ said my friend, in the tone of a philosopher.

‘He did not sell the property’ he added, anticipating my next question, ‘in his lifetime because he said he would not be able to see his hard earned money being wasted.’

The incident made me wonder. Was the old man right, to live a life less comfortable? Will the good days last for my friend? Does it matter, who deserves what? Should I save or spend the money that I work hard to earn? Is life fair, or even logical?

Frankly I find it quite difficult to draw a moral from this incident, but since I have promised one, here is what I propose: Parents can be pretty illogical.

***


Ethical issues

“Are you feeling disillusioned, de-motivated, depressed?” asked Phil, sensing that I was in one of my gloomy moods. Phil is the HR veteran who had sidestepped the rat race long ago.

“You have just described my whole life,” I sighed.

“So what’s the problem? I mean, you should be used to it by now.”

I glared at Phil for rubbing salt in my wounds. “Pass me the salt,” I said, biting fiercely into my sandwich.

“Apply for training,” Phil said in a sympathetic tone. “It is the best survival tool, though this wild card is generally used a little later in the career, when a visit to the psychiatrist becomes inevitable. But you seem to have hit the spot quite fast.”

“It doesn’t happen to all. Look at Mr A, or Mr X or any of the other managers. Do they look stressed?” I asked gloomily.

“You will be surprised to hear some their histories. Our Superboss escaped the looney bin by a whisker,” said Phil. But such levity failed to pacify me.

“Jokes apart, I feel I do not have it in me to get ahead,” I said.

“Ahead of what? And I am not joking. All of us start with this innocent get-ahead, go-get-it philosophy. It is when we have travelled some distance that we realize that we don’t know where we want to go. Finally it comes to a point where only retirement-point is left as the goal.” That was also the crux of Phil’s philosophy, but was starkly different from that of Mr A, and I said so.

“Mr A wants to become regional head, and even a CEO in time. He is clear about his goals,” I said vehemently.

“So what stops you from setting those goals for yourself?” asked Phil.

“That is where the problem is with me. Those goals do not attract me now. And that is why I feel I am not in the right place,” I said.

“They did once, and that’s why you joined. But what happened then?” he asked. I remained silent, so he continued, “Then you saw what it was all about. Earlier you had only a fantasy about what being a CEO was, right?”

Phil could be a good psychiatrist, but did he have any solutions, I thought. “So what should I do?” I asked.

“That’s for you to decide’” he deadpanned in his usual, infuriating way.

“I think I could do with a promotion,” I said to divert him to a happier topic.

“Promotion is given to people with little skill or specialization, or who are generally useless, so that work does not suffer. Promoting less smart people also keeps the bosses reassured that there is no challenge to their position. Do you qualify?” he asked.

Phil was determined to keep me depressed. I think in the world of ‘not-in-the-rat-race’ types, this technique is equivalent of brainwashing to get converts.

“People do get ahead by sheer hard work and dedication, and I will stick to that path. Let us see where it leads to,” I replied, determined not to get into a negative frame. Phil smiled and offered to get me another cup of coffee.

I was undecided about another cup, but my decision was made when Grey, the Assistant to Admin came stomping in, and Phil ordered another round of coffee. It must have been something to do with the bitterness of winter for we were handed another disgruntled element.

“I will go slow from now,” declared Grey with his usual ferociousness.

“But you are already slow,” remarked a confused Phil. It was not meant to be a slight – Grey was proud of his ‘independence’.

“I…er..will go slower,” replied Grey, after giving the matter some thought.

“Nobody will notice the difference,” Phil pointed out.

“I don’t care,” said Grey, “I am a rebel.”

“What is the problem,” I asked.

“The problem is the absence of any opportunity for getting ahead in this organization. It saps the spirit. No enthusiasm. As if we did not matter. No career planning. I could list the problems, but where are the solutions?” grumbled Grey, putting four spoons of sugar in his coffee.

“David is having the same problem,” remarked Phil, pointing towards me. I was about to protest, but Grey cut me short – “You should also go slow,” he said.

That my problem was not an absence of promotion, and that I did not understand what ‘going slow’ would mean in my situation were difficult concepts to explain and I struggled for words.

“I am not looking for promotion,” I began.

“And promotion is not looking for you,” snapped Grey. “Soapy is going to get it this year.”

Now that was a news. And it jolted me. Soapy, an intern till the other day, and three years junior to me, about to be promoted? “They can’t promote him,” I said.

“Why not. Who stops them?”

If I thought things could not go worse, they just had. On one hand was my philosophy that promotions, career graph, rat race did not matter to me, and on the other was this clear shock of hearing that Soapy could become my boss – or at least a senior. What would my wife say, was an irrelevant thought that crossed my mind. Now that thought would have to be analysed too, at some later hour. The question that my mind framed for this bit of additional angst was – ‘was I working for the fear of comments of the better-half or for my own beliefs’.

I looked at Phil, who was observing me carefully. “Was your side-stepping the rat race by choice, or was it by some similar circumstance?” I asked.

“Ouch,” said Phil, “That was a hit below the belt. You will have to fight it out boy – you are not ready for side-stepping.” He sounded like an Indian guru, who is reluctant but willing to let a favorite disciple go back to his humdrum life. “Ask yourself what Mr A would have done in this situation,” he said.

“Done? Mr A had ruined that lad from Finance back in the nineties,” recalled Grey.

“Ralph the swine?” asked Phil.

“The same thug. And he was the nephew of the then CEO. Beat him at his own game, Mr A did,” Grey said happily. Grey likes dog-fights, both on streets and in the office. He says his grandchildren also like to hear stories of office dog-fights. I have met his grandchildren, and I can believe him on that.

“What happened?” I asked, forgetting my own woes.

“That Ralph was all pally with the GM and threw his weight around. He was given a long rope since he was The Nephew, you see. He was junior to A, and was going to be promoted. Disaster faced A right in his face, but did he feel faint, weak in the knee? You bet not,” said Grey, warming up the story, pepping it up a bit. But it was Phil who carried the story forward.

“It was a period when the new networkable-Pentium computers arrived on the scene and our company was developing a software on that platform. It was a good idea, especially for small businesses and chain-stores. We were on the final lap, competition only a little behind us. The tech team had it all sewn up and the thing was ready to be presented to the CEO. Ralph was deputed to present the outcome in a big meeting on behalf of all. Mr A was to be left twiddling his thumbs, arranging for the snacks at the meeting.”

The next bit was too good for Grey to let go, and he stepped in – “Mr A planned the move nicely. Just before the presentation what does he do? He goes to the GM and tells him that he had lost the only copy of the code, and the entire developing had to be done again. That almost killed the GM, and got Mr A murdered. After lot of hot words, which I had heard then, and I still remember, but would never repeat in a month of Mondays, Mr A had the audacity to suggest that he might just remember the key parts that might put the thing back on track again. But he needed to make the presentation himself.”

“Blackmail!” I exclaimed.

“That is exactly what the GM said, to which I think Mr A may have nodded slightly. Mr A also hinted that in the unfortunate event of his being turned out of the company, a competitor was willing to hire him. Mr A also asked for the best advice from the GM under the circumstances,” said Phil, and laughed heartily.

“Mr A had developed parts of that thing,” said Grey, “And was right in plugging the GM and that Nephew.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“The presentation went off well, and in an inside deal, Ralph was promoted and sent to another zone, while Mr A was promoted here. An unfortunate development was that Mr A was disillusioned of the technical job, and converted into a manager – almost overnight. He hasn’t looked back since,” Phil concluded the story.

“Hardly ethical,” I said aghast, for it shed new light on the character of Mr A.

“And the Nephew? He was right, I suppose?” asked Grey hotly. I thought of the ‘Two wrongs do not a right make’ and such other stuff, but kept quiet for the audience was solidly behind the tactics of Mr A. Instead, I said that the solution presented in the story does not apply in my case, for I have not done anything that I could blackmail anyone with. And on that sobering note we dispersed.

It was a few days later, during a meeting to review customer relations (read agent relations, since we operate through them), that Soapy was given an opportunity to present his plan for significantly decreasing cost of customer-communication. Actually it was a superficial plan based on the idea of using SMSes and social-networking sites, all hyped up to look impressive.

Midway through the presentation, Fred, the Finance Manager, asked Soapy to give some concrete figures. The latter tried to bluff his way through, saying a study would have to be made to arrive at estimates, but going by similar trends in our industry, the cost benefit would be significant. To this Fred took umbrage – it was the type of jargon he used almost daily, and he saw through it immediately. “The presentation is meaningless if it does not deal in any specifics,” he grumbled.

Now Soapy was not a Nephew, and Superboss waited for the lad to save his skin – through bluff or otherwise. At this precise point I remembered that on our very own website we have a report by a consulting house which gives specific figures on that very subject. It would have taken few seconds for Soapy to open the site on his laptop and read out the figures, thus warding off this challenge.

I was about to point this out, from the dark corner where I sat, when suddenly the words of Phil came to my mind – “What would Mr A have done?”

It was an easy question to answer – Mr A would have done nothing. In fact it would not have crossed the mind of Mr A that anything was needed to be done by him. But, said my conscience, I was not Mr A. Another part of my brain said, “You are not Soapy’s assistant. It is not your job to get him out of the mess he has got himself into.”

During the time that I struggled with the morality of the issue, events were moving fast. Fred’s hostility had increased, Soapy’s self confidence had dented and he had confessed, under duress, that he had not thought of making concrete assessments, financially. The mirthless laughter of Fred exposed Soapy to be a sham. Soapy was asked to make practical proposals in the future and the meeting moved to the next item on the agenda.

The meeting dampened all prospects of an early promotion of Soapy, Grey told me later. It did bring give me some vicarious pleasure, but a part of me rebelled against this baser instinct. To this day I am not sure whether I should have spoken up or not. Nor am I clear whether my intervention would have helped Soapy – in fact he would have seen it as an attempt from my side to show off at his expense.

But of one thing I was sure – the talismanic question, “What would Mr A have done?” did play a role in my life. I should give careful attention to this phenomenon, besides studying the methods of Mr A carefully, I told myself once again.

****


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