Pravina Maharaj has my admiration (and envy) for consistently placing her short stories in weekly print magazines: those guilty-pleasure reads kleinsus and I like to flip-through and read over a nice cup of tea or two; those same magazines and stories which make any wait at the doctor’s surgery go that much faster, and leave you feeling just a little better, even before you’ve seen the doc. I’ve always wondered how Pravina does it. And, you know me, I had to ask! Here’s what I asked, and what she replied 🙂
I often find I begin a story thinking it’s going to be a short one, then find it growing longer and longer. How do you manage to condense what could be a novella or a novel into 2000 or so words? Are you strict about limiting your story to certain scenes, or is it in the way that you choose to tell the story?
It is so difficult to condense a story into ±2000 words! Actually, my earlier short stories were 2000 words before YOU magazine changed the length to 1500 words, which has made it more challenging. When writing a short story, I find I have to keep it to one central theme, or idea, and limit the characters and scenes. The story has to revolve around a few characters and the action has to take place over a short space of time, which could be just a few days or even a day.
Romance and slice-of-life fiction is where you’ve cut your teeth. Since then you’ve moved into romantic suspense. Do you find you have to change your ‘writer’s cap’—your approach to these different genres? What is the most exciting/annoying aspect of this?
I don’t really feel I have to change my ‘writer’s cap’ when approaching these different genres. Often it just depends on what my mood is. Sometimes I am in the mood to write a short story because I have inspiration for a new story. Or, sometimes I am in the mood to write a longer piece of fiction.
When I sit down to write, I just know that I have a story to tell and, of course, at the outset I know whether it’s going to be a short story, a novella or a full length novel. So I just write and see where the story takes me. Incidentally, my debut novel Angel of Ice started out as a short story for YOU magazine, and I was rather surprised when the characters took on a life of their own. I suddenly realised that Angel of Ice had to be a novel, and so I developed the plot further. It’s always exciting to see where a story can lead me to.
What, in your experience, is the single best way to get the most impact into those 2000-3000 words?
There are a few factors. You have to start with a great hook. The first few lines of your story has got to grab the reader from the outset. You set the scene for the story and present your character’s problem or challenge in the first few paragraphs.
With a short story, you don’t have the liberty of delving into too much of background history, or back-story, as you would in a novel. You have to weave all the pertinent information into the story while keeping an eye on your word count. You have limited space to convey everything, so word economy is crucial. You have to build up to a crisis point in the middle of the story and then quickly get to the climax and resolution at the end.
Apart from a great opening hook, you also have to surprise your reader at the end, and often in a short story there must be a twist in the tale. All of these elements work together in creating that desired impact.
Polishing/editing a story is often the most tedious, but also most rewarding part of writing it. What do you look for when you polish your story?
I often tell aspiring writers that they should begin writing short stories first before moving onto novels. One of the reasons for this is that a short story is excellent practice for learning how to edit and polish a story. As I mentioned earlier, with the short story form you have a certain word count that you’re restricted to. So when writing a short story, you’re forced to chop off unnecessary characters, words, sentences and even scenes. You have to be brutal with your editing. When I am polishing a story, I check for anything that I need to edit which is irrelevant to the story and which doesn’t move the story along.
I also spend extra time analysing the ending of the story and whether the surprise or twist in the tale is effective enough. I often end up rewriting the ending of a story several times, until I am satisfied that the twist in the tale will indeed surprise the reader.
The thorny question of beta-readers and editor’s suggestions which may lead your story down a different route or to a different style: how do you decide which ones to take on board or to discard?
I believe a writer needs to trust their instincts, but they also need to keep an open mind and try to see the point of view of beta-readers and editors. It can be difficult trying to find a balance. I personally pay very close attention to feedback from editors because I know I have to trust their expertise. In most cases, I have found that following their suggestions, actually enhances a story. A good editor will help you make your story shine. So, I often would go with what the editor suggests.
The feedback from beta-readers is also very valuable. Often, as writers we are so close to our projects that we can’t always see the flaws. Beta-readers are great for spotting those niggling issues. And if your beta-readers have similar comments about something specific, then one definitely needs to pay attention to that feedback.
How do you know when your story is finished and ready to be sent out in the world? Is it a feeling that it’s done (like a cake in the oven) or is it a certain number of hours you’ve worked on it? Or is it something else entirely?
I have to feel confident with my story before I send it out. When I am writing a short story, I can dwell on it for a few days or sometimes even weeks. I play around with different scenarios in my mind. I toss the story over and over in my mind and then I write along. I end up with a few drafts before I am ready to submit a story. When I am satisfied that I have written a good story and that all the loose ends have been tied up properly, then I know the story is ready to be sent out in the world.
You’ve been successfully placing many of your stories into popular magazines. Congratulations on your newest (and first) placement in Drum Magazine 🙂 Any tips for newbies regarding approaching and working with magazine editors?
Firstly, find out what the submission guidelines of a particular magazine are. Some magazines prefer certain genres such as mystery only, etc. Once you know the kind of stories a magazine is looking for and the word count, etc. You can then begin to write a story meeting that criteria. Ensure that your story is well-written and edited. Then just submit and be patient!
Magazine editors often work with high volumes of submissions, so they may take a while before giving you an answer. If it’s going onto two months and you haven’t heard back, you can send a polite email enquiring about the status of your submission. And if an editor gets back to you suggesting changes to your story—just make the changes! No arguments. If you want to be published, you must follow the suggestions of a magazine editor.
Now that you’ve made your début as a novelist with Angel of Ice, will you continue with your short story writing or will you concentrate on your new love—the novel?
I’m currently working on a new novel and a short story! I enjoy both forms of writing equally. I took a break from writing short stories while I was working on Angel of Ice and I really missed it.
I feel working on short stories keeps my writing fresh and I so enjoy it. I definitely want to continue writing short stories while handling larger writer projects.
Thank you, Pravina. We’re looking forward to reading more from you in our favorite magazines.
About Pravina Maharaj
Pravina Maharaj is a radio producer living in Durban, South Africa. When not scripting radio shows, she loves writing short fiction and passionate contemporary romance. She’s had numerous short stories published in YOU magazine and had her romantic novella Giovanni’s Christmas Bride, published in Second Chances—A Love Anthology, available on Amazon.
She holds an English Honors Degree from the University of South Africa and is also a graduate of SA Writers College. Her debut romance novel is Angel Of Ice, and she is currently at work on her next novel.
Pravina loves to hear from readers—connect with her online:
Read Pravina’s newest short story out in Drum Magazine, 1o May 2018.