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The Name of the Game

If there is anything that puts me off about the process of writing, it is the part where I have to figure out what to name the characters in my short story or novel. Short of pulling names out of a hat, I do everything humanly possible to come up with interesting names. Names that reflect the personalities and quirks of my characters.

I think it is important for the main protagonists in your manuscript to have names. I’m talking about the characters that drive the narrative and contribute towards the progress of the plot. The reader should be able to connect with them from the first instance and a memorable name helps build that connection. Look at it this way, don’t you remember people you meet who have interesting, even unusual names? It is the same with the person reading your work.

I do not believe that all characters, especially the insignificant ones, need a name. Too many names can lead to unnecessary clutter and readers may get distracted. In a pacey crime novel for instance, a reader might get confused with too many names. In short stories, characters don’t necessarily need names. Ernest Hemingway didn’t believe in giving all his characters names. You must read A Clean Well-Lighted Place to understand what I mean. The latter is one of his finest short stories.

When I was writing Mr Eashwar’s Daughter, naming the characters was a huge challenge. Since my book was a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I wanted the names to have some similarity to the characters in the original novel. So Anne Elliot became Anamika “Anna” Eashwar and Commander Frederick Wentworth was Farrokh “Freddy” Wadhera. But I didn’t name the characters on a whim. Farrokh’s parents were music enthusiasts and they named him after Freddy Mercury while the Eashwars were landed gentry and Eashwar was a title they adopted.

A few rules that I follow. You might find them helpful.

Do your research well: It is always a good idea to research the period you are writing about or even the region or country and then name your characters accordingly. Inaccuracies stick out like a sore thumb and readers’ can always tell.

Unusual & interesting: I like names that have an interesting ring to them, quirky names even. Or names that reflect the personality of the character I am writing about. Mrinalini from Dragon Aunty Returns! was a staid, prudish Bengali girl and I thought that name would be perfect for her. No offense to anyone I hope, living or dead.

Does it sound good? That’s the question you must always ask at the end of the day. Does the name have a pleasant or unpleasant ring to it? (depending on your character’s traits) Would you give your own child the same name? Your book is your baby, isn’t it? Give it the same importance then.

A word of advice: do not name your characters after your friends, relatives or lovers. It is never a good idea unless they ask you to do it or you get their permission in advance. Make sure you get it in writing so that they can’t take you to court later. Just kidding. Store the note safely somewhere though!

Click here to find out how authors named their famous characters.

It all starts with a diary

The idea for my first published novel, Dragon Aunty Returns!, a rom-com set in Gurgaon, took shape out of a blog post. My blog, Gurgaon Diaries (which is a book now but more about that later), was about my experiences (mostly hilarious) living and working in the Millennium City where I’d moved from Kolkata. One of the entries was about a woman whose distinguishing feature was her dragon tattoo and her malapropism among other things.

My blog had a modest following in the early days and when I published the post, everyone loved her. Well mostly. There were those who stopped talking to me and inviting me to their parties because they felt I had written about them. More about them another day.

Over the course of writing that post, Dragon Aunty took on so much colour and life that I felt I had to write a story about her misadventures. She couldn’t … she wouldn’t .. be confined to a 500-word blog post. It was almost as though she had taken on a life on her own and I had to follow her orders. If you get to reading the book, you will agree. She is that sort of woman. Bossy, pushy but with a heart of gold.

And there she goes hijacking the plot again!

What I wanted to stress on is that it is a good idea to maintain a diary or even write in a blog every day. You can write about ordinary things, everyday things, whatever you want – but write you must. Give simple things colour and meaning, some sort of structure and who knows, a story may emerge from there. Like the couple you see quarrelling when you are out on your walk or the odd man who spends all his time in the balcony, smoking.

Mind you, I am not telling you to turn into a stalker. All I’m asking you to do is observe. Pay attention to your surroundings. Look out of the window, write down what you see. There may be a story hiding behind the strange looking plant in the neighbourhood park or even the car that hasn’t been washed for days. What happened to the owners?

It doesn’t always have to be something extraordinary. I find so much meaning in ordinary things. It is a good habit to form and a great way to mine for ideas if you are planning to write a short story or even a novel. Try it and let me know how it works out, will you?

The Death Wish

 

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The chalk outline has been washed away, the orange safety cones removed and the greyish black concrete looks as though it has just been laid. There is no trace of her ever having lain there on the ground, cold and lifeless, eyes unseeing.

In 2017, an elderly lady jumped off the balcony and killed herself in the condominium where I live. The incident haunted me for days. I would stare at her balcony for hours wondering what it was that forced her to take such an extreme step. I wished I had known she was going through mental turmoil or even been able to help somehow.

I tried to imagine how she must have felt in the moment before she plunged, ten floors down, to her death. One moment of hopelessness, futility, unloved by the ones she cared for the most in the world. That’s all it took.

I hoped it was all over for her in the flash of an eye. I hoped she didn’t suffer or writhe in pain while we carried on with our lives within the comfort of our homes unaware of the tragedy that was playing out a short distance away. Our self-contained boxes. The incident left me feeling very helpless and vulnerable and I decided to start writing The Ghosts of Gurugram.

Retelling Jane Austen

 

I read Pride and Prejudice when I was eight years old. Along with Les Misérables, Mill on the Floss and Lorna Doone. My father had just died and a generous friend of my sister’s had loaned me a collection of her books and comics to help me deal with the pain of losing a parent. It was an abridged version of Austen’s classic, dog-eared with big lettering and black and white sketches.

I loved it.

I was always slightly precocious for my age, the youngest of three siblings, and the story of a mother trying to get her three daughters hitched to wealthy husbands appealed to me. I was hooked. I devoured all the books in the pile. As I grew older, I read the unabridged versions one by one. The pleasure I got from reading them was undiminished.

Austen’s novels take a humorous look at society and life in the late 1700s. There is irony and realism in her plots, characters and the worlds that they inhabit. So much so that if you transport any character to the current world that we live in, they would fit in quite well and you would relate to their predicament. Women, marriage, dysfunctional families, money problems, greed, pride and the biases that all of us hide. These are things we come across daily, don’t we?

The reason Austen’s appeal has stretched across centuries.

Imagine my delight when my publisher Juggernaut Books commissioned me to retell one of Austen’s classic novels last year. Persuasion is the last novel fully completed by Jane Austen and was published at the end of 1817, six months after her death. The novel follows the life of Anne Eliot and her ex-fiancé Commander Frederick Wentworth.

It took me three months to write the novel. While there have been many retellings of this particular tale, I didn’t read a single one of them. I wanted to stay true to Austen and write the story in my own way keeping the modern milieu as a backdrop. My novel takes readers to North Bengal (Siliguri & Jalpaiguri), Kolkata, Gurgaon, Dharamsala and Mcleodganj – towns and cities which are special to me. There’s music, tea, doomed relationships, quirky parents and second chances. Not just that, the protagonist is named after legendary singer Freddy Mercury. In my novel, Commander Frederick Wentworth is reborn as Farrokh “Freddy” Wadhera.

Mr Eashwar’s Daughter is available on Juggernaut Books. You can buy the book here.

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The Heart of the Matter

A friend asked me on Twitter after reading my post on writing short fiction, how does one get the reader to experience an emotional connect with what you are writing? There are some stories in which the plot isn’t particularly new or extraordinary yet they manage to make the readers feel a myriad of emotions.

Now I can list out all the different techniques that you can use to write your stories so that your readers get hooked. The way you create your characters, using plot, descriptions and twists in the narrative to hold their interest. You will find most of that on the Internet if you look for it.

What about the emotional connect then? How do you write something that will move your readers? In the words of Ernest Hemingway: write hard and clear about what hurts.

As a writer, you need to feel emotion when writing to be able to convey that feeling successfully to your readers. If your writing leaves you cold, how can you expect your reader to be moved to tears by it?

It’s a dangerous proposition. Difficult even. It can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed. But whoever said writing is an easy job? And the simpler your tales are, the more complex emotions they will tap. You need to be prepared to journey to the dark places inside your soul, play with your own feelings and life experiences so that you can tell your tales convincingly. You have to make people believe, giggle uncontrollably, shed a tear or perhaps feel terrible rage.

These journeys will not be easy and they will leave you emotionally drained. But it will be worth it. That part I can guarantee. My last short story, The Red Thread, about a young apprentice tailor who falls in love with disastrous consequences left me weeping after I had written it. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience but recent events and a trip down memory lane prompted me to write it. Do read and tell me what you felt. I’d be curious to know.

Have you ever read a story that moved you to tears or rage or intense contemplation? Have you wondered what it was about that story that made you feel this way? Write back, I’m waiting to hear from you.

Meanwhile, you can read some of my other short stories on the Juggernaut Books app here.

The Long and the Short of It: Writing Short Stories

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“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”

(Neil Gaiman)

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many different forms of writing but the short story has always eluded me. Always by accident, never by design. In the light of recent developments, I view this as a shame.

I have recently finished writing a collection of short stories and I find that writing short fiction is hugely enjoyable, at least for me! It holds a lot of promise. I would actually go so far as to say that short stories are, perhaps, the most challenging thing I have ever worked on in my entire career.

You may ask me why. Well, I’ll tell you why.

Brevity

You don’t have the luxury of writing till the ink in your pen runs dry or the battery in your laptop out of charge, the latter a more likely scenario. You don’t have the luxury of 50,000 words or more. Short stories are typically between 1,000 to 7,500 words though some pieces of short fiction can be as long as 30,000 words! But let’s forget about that for a minute. Say you have a limit between 2,500 and 3,000 words to tell a good story. You need to make sure you keep that limit in mind when setting out or else you may get terribly lost and waste precious time.

Plot

It’s always good to have an idea fleshed out into a tidy plot before you start writing. With a well-defined plot in hand (or in mind) you will find it easier to stick to the word limit rather than amble along as you may have in the case of a longer work of fiction or non-fiction. Figure out how the storyline will develop within the word count. I found it helpful to have a beginning, middle and end and have an approximate word count for each section.

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Characters

Don’t go overboard with a host of characters with complicated sub-plots. Keep it fairly straightforward unless you have a plan to weave all the different characters and their stories into your main plot. Remember, you are not writing a novel and it’s difficult even for an experienced writer to have different things going on at the same time. The story becomes heavy, clumsy and loses focus.

Twists don’t always work

You don’t necessarily need a twist to make your tale work. Often, there is great value in simplicity. Also, open endings work really well. The reader can interpret it whichever way he or she likes. That increases their engagement in the story and which author doesn’t want the reader to get engaged?

Short stories are good practice before you go ahead and write the longer novel if you haven’t written one already. You can write a couple of short stories and then expand them into proper novellas or works of fiction. One of my short stories was actually an idea that I had (inside my head for years) for a longer novel.

My head is already buzzing with more ideas for stories I’d like to write down. What about you? Go on, give them a try.

If you would like to read my short stories, do click on this link: http://bit.ly/2x7mBUm

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