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Is that a novel inside you or a short story?

By T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
November 04, 2017 09:00 IST
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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan reveals the trick to writing a successful book.


Three years ago, after I had finished extolling the virtues of those who write in newspapers, a particularly irritable, acerbic, and permanently discontented but very dear friend challenged me to write a novel and/or short stories.

Her dismissive and derisive tone -- she used to be a publisher, after all -- hugely annoyed me. So, I decided to do both, that is, write a novel as well as short stories.

I took my revenge by making the novel about publishing, and my short stories about people like her. I had a lot of fun doing it.

A novel, in the end, is nothing more than a bunch of fabrications told around a kernel of truth. Mine was the same and was accepted by a publisher earlier this year.

So were two of the nine short stories I had written by another publisher, who was represented by an astonishingly young person -- just 28 years old. This kid gave me a lot of serious advice -- as only the earnestly young can -- on how not to be childish. I'll try, I said with equal earnestness.

Happily, no such homilies were forthcoming from the publisher who had accepted the novel.

Their first suggestion ran to all of three words: Add 20,000 words. Then a few weeks later came one more suggestion, in six words this time: Capture the sense of the times.

As to the short stories, the publisher sent me a contract which was very one-sided. So, I refused to sign it.


Their game

A novel is long and a short story is, well, short -- a bonsai of words, as it were. Both present difficulties of different sorts.

The hardest part comes at the very start: Deciding the length. You can write one 800-page novel, or two novels of 400 pages each, or three each of 250 pages. Likewise, you can write a 10,000-word short story or a 5,000-word one, or one of 1,000 words. Or, if you need to, an even shorter one.

I chose 250 pages for the novel. I didn't want to forget on page 300 what I had written about on page 50. It happens.

For the short stories I decided on 1,000 words.

This 1,000-word format has an illustrious pedigree. John O'Hara wrote hundreds of them for the Saturday Evening Post. I had always wanted to emulate him, and I think succeeded just as well as he did in terms of quality. But there is one important difference: Newspapers and magazines in India no longer publish short stories, at least not in English.

Be that as it may, when the contracts arrived, I found they covered all possible contingencies. These ranged from the publisher acquiring the rights to sequels, movie rights, TV rights, radio rights, and, lest we forget, Braille. There were some other options they took as well.

I will write about these contracts next month. They defy every principle of equity and fair play.

I write from inside knowledge because 40 years ago, when I was working in a publishing house, I used to treat authors in exactly the same way. There was special joy in making them forgo royalties, which didn't amount to much. But still, bullying is its own reward.

Length matters

But seriously, how long or short should a novel and a short story be?

Who decides: The publisher, the author or, god forbid, the reader?

Fat novels are hard to read because of their weight. Also with other competing sources of entertainment, they are hard to finish reading.

A long short story doesn't quite work. The reader knows it is a short story and wonders why it is going on and on. Many writers who shall remain unnamed join together what are really a series of short stories and call it a novel. I call it the 'one damn thing after another' format.

But having been there and done that, here's what I think should be done. It requires an iron will to execute.

First, ignore the publishers.

Second, make your novel like a limited overs match or a normal curve in the way it is laid out -- a good start of 50 pages, crap in the middle and a good ending of 50 pages.

And third, if it is a short story, always end it in a surprise because otherwise it will be just nonsense.

Try it. You won't regret it.

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