The Unnatural Story Teller
Is creative writing an art, a craft, or both?
For a long time, I thought it is entirely an art form. I believed that story writers are born with that ability. I scoffed at anyone who said they’re taking classes on creative writing. How can anybody learn to create fiction, unless they already have it in them — I wondered! And, if they already have it, what is there to learn? I didn’t know what that it was, but that’s what I believed.
So, for a long time, I thought creative writing is a natural talent. I admired story writers. I also envied them, for I didn’t have it in me; because I couldn’t make up an interesting story.
Then one day, when I was in mid-thirties, I made up an interesting story! Mid-thirties is important to mention, because people who have it in them would’ve written their first story by 15, which is the usual case with natural story tellers.
That makes me an unnatural story teller.
But me being in mid-thirties when I wrote my first story isn’t the only reason for tagging myself so.
I don’t remember when I read my first book, but story books always made me drool. As a child, I spent more time in the school library than everybody else in my school. I mean everybody — including the librarian himself! Soon after he noticed my craving for books, the way I devoured every story, he offered me a job. It was unofficial, of course. He made me his assistant. It meant, among other things, the privilege to be the first reader of every new book that arrived at the library. I also could take home any book I liked, whenever I wanted (as long as I returned it quickly, undamaged).
By the time I was 15, I read more fiction than anybody I knew. (I didn’t know that many people at the time, but I didn’t know that at the time — too). All this reading was in my native language, Telugu. It continued to be that way until I was 25. Then I noticed something: A change I didn’t like.
Around the year 2000, Telugu fiction started turning rather monotonous. Speculative fiction was always rare in Telugu, but it went extinct in the new millennium. No more adventure stories. No more sci-fi. No more detective fiction. In short, genre fiction disappeared. The so called literary fiction is not the mainstream anymore. It is the only stream!
I have never been a fan of literary fiction. It gives me yawns. I don’t find anything worth learning from it. It’s all word play around emotions and an endless stream of thoughts, with no interesting plot and not much happening. I am a firm believer in the mantra simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. To me, a great majority of literary fiction is unnecessarily complicated and ambiguous. (That said, I acknowledge that there is always some well written literary fiction as well as an abundance of cheap genre fiction.)
Any way, I prefer plot driven fiction to character driven fiction. So, as the stream of good quality genre fiction dried out in Telugu, I started to starve. I stopped reading Telugu fiction for an entire decade, because I didn’t find anything interesting.
And then it occurred to me one day: Why don’t I write the kind of fiction I like to read in Telugu? For myself. For those who may be starving like myself. I do have a good grip on the language. I know exactly what I like to read. So, what’s stopping me from making a way when I didn’t fine one?
By then, I realized that the it I thought I lacked is called imagination. I also realized that I actually have it, albeit only a tiny bit (Who doesn’t?). And, thanks to all the fiction I read over the years — particularly thanks to the English genre fiction I read during my 10-year Telugu reading hiatus — I understood that writing good genre fiction is mostly craft and partly art. Too many stories with fine, original ideas had failed to impress me because they weren’t crafted well. A good plot-driven story is less about what is in it, and more about how it is told. One can take a simple idea, and with great skill, turn it into an exceptional story. And guess what — skills can be learned! In other words, story telling doesn’t have to be in one’s nature. Anybody can learn how to tell a story.
That’s how I turned into an unnatural story teller. Since then, I wrote and published a dozen short stories in Telugu, almost all of them of the soft sci-fi genre. I even published a book on story writing techniques for amateurs. (That’s not a lot, I know. But quantity is not important to me)
All of this doesn’t mean everybody can become a great story teller. It takes time, patience, focus and efforts to master any skill; and some folks will never be able to master any skill. But decent plot-driven genre fiction can be built if you’re skilled enough. Don’t believe it? Here is a demonstration: ‘Annie’
So, how do I do it? Here are seven tips for those who want to be an Unnatural, like me. I didn’t invent them. But they’re what I use, and they worked for me everytime.
- First and foremost, know your limitations. I was once asked in an interview, ‘What is your greatest strength as a writer?’. My reply was, ‘Knowing my greatest weakness.’ I can’t take a mundane subject and weave it into a complicated, layered story. But I can do the opposite. I can take a complex subject and explain it in simple terms. So that’s what I do in my short stories.
- Work backwards. For plot-driven genre fiction, ending is everything. It is said that climax is the story; everything else is just a distraction. So think of an interesting climax, and build the rest of the story backwards. As a writer, you already know what’s coming at the end. It’s like taking a child to a dentist. Your job is to take the readers for a ride, but keep them distracted until the ride ended. Decide what you want to hold back until when, and execute it with perfection. This is why I call it building a story rather than writing a story.
- No Prose? No Worries. What if you can’t write great prose? What if you have a limited vocabulary (like me, in English at least)? Then keep your sentences short and simple. Don’t go for elaborate descriptions, if you lack the skill to do so. (Actually, I’d say avoid elaborate descriptions in a short story, even if you have the skill.)
- Pen with purpose. Make every word, every line break, every full-stop and comma count. I revise all my finished works at least ten times before sending them to the publisher, each time finding something excessive — which I felt was required in the previous revision — and removing it. Cut the fat, leave the muscle.
- Indentation is important. This is what gives structure to your story, and makes it readable. I personally don’t like paragraphs that run more than ten lines — no matter who wrote them. So I generally avoid such lengthy paragraphs in my own writings. But indentation is not just about paragraph size. It’s also about emphasis — what you want to highlight and how you want to do it. Use quotes, italics, hyphens, three-dots, question marks, exclamation marks, whatever you need to get the effect you need — wisely and precisely.
- Write for yourself. Do not try to satisfy everybody, because that’s impossible. You don’t know what everybody likes and dislikes. But you do know what you like and what you don’t. So write to please yourself. There’ll be surely others like you, and something that impressed you is very likely to impress them.
- Be a harsh critic of yourself. When you’re done with writing your wonderful fiction piece, put on your critic hat and read it. At this time, forget that you wrote it. Does this wonderful fiction piece, as claimed by you-the-author, have anything you-the-reader didn’t like? Make your own mistakes and let others ridicule you — that’s fine; but don’t let them catch in your writings the same faults you always find in others’ writings.
There are more, but for now, that is all.