write to win

How to write a rom-com in a recession

A novelist explains how the economy and the advice of friends affected what she wrote.

I didn’t start out to write a comedy, though I’ve a flair for it being Punjabi, the most rumbustious of the entire lot. My first novel, The Recession Groom was meant to be a melancholy story, chronicling the fall of top investment banking firms on Wall Street and its effects on the life of my protagonist, a top-shot banker or techie-turned-junkie, lost in love and life.

However, I’d not even started when I got a creative nudge from a dear friend: “Look, I’ll read your novel only if you write a comedy otherwise…” and the sentence was left for me to complete. For days I racked my brains, tossing around several ideas about how to infuse comedy into a recession. In my frustration, I told my mother what I was going to write about, asking for help, and she in turn passed the buck onto our extended family settled in parts overseas.

Soon enough, five of my relatives raised their hands for playing the part of the protagonist, one even going on to explain how he became a manic-depressive after losing his job, ruining his chances of finding a perfect partner. The more I interacted with people, the more I realised how much evocative material I had around me. The panic was unnecessary.

I was mid-way through my magnum opus when my mother advised me to “forget writing-whiting, and pursue a PhD”. Why this sudden change, I wondered. Now, bent as she was to find out if I was the next JK Rowling in the making, my mother had shown my horoscope to our double-divorced family pundit who had clicked his tongue and announced, “the girl doesn’t stand a bright chance writing books. Ask her to pursue higher education instead.”

Was I destined to be out for a duck then? This was a different challenge. More eager to prove the pundit wrong, I worked day and night in my tiny London bedsit, finishing my first draft in three months. There it was, my masterpiece, and I was sure going to sell it and prove the naysayers wrong.

Taking inspiration from Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, I printed out an abundance cheque, filled my name alongside an amount in six figures that I wished to receive from the Bank of the Universe, and put it on my vision board before setting out to email my proposal to publishers and literary agents across the globe.

A couple of “global” rejections made me take a fresh look at the cheque and reduce the amount to something more reasonable.

Nothing still! Unbeknownst to me, publishing houses the world over were trying to consolidate in the wake of the recession and had stopped taking bets on new authors like myself. I couldn’t get it. So was my fledgling career going to be sacrificed to the insatiable greed of some stupid American bankers who couldn’t differentiate between prime and subprime buyers of home loans?

I had almost conceded defeat and was looking up options to get a PhD when I decided to give my manuscript one last chance, this time deciding to get professional help. That’s when I got my second creative nudge and realised I’d probably written my book as a hardcore business story (thanks to years spent working as a business journalist), infusing it with bits of comedy that sounded as forced as two keys in one lock (imagine Sucheta Dalal writing a Jug Suraiya column!), and in a language that could at best be an example of literary showboating (my desperate attempt to be the new Arundhati Roy or Amit Chaudhuri, you see).  As if that wasn’t enough, my peers at a writing forum advised me to add more romance to the story.

A romantic comedy on recession, but how was I to do that?

All my romantic instincts had dwindled after my five year stint in London; away from my family, a single woman, working as a management lecturer in a college, and leading a life as dull as a snail in a golf course with enough grub but little romp (a Bridget Jones in the making!) That besides, I’d grown up on a crop of motivational stuff, documentaries and self-help books. How was I to write a romance?

As I toiled (and roiled) on my manuscript once again, I remembered something that Mother Teresa had once said: “I know god won't give me anything I can't handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much.” It took me about two and a half years to redraft the whole story, ensuring, first, that I’d infused enough comedy to comply with the wishes of my dear friend; and second, that the recession was relegated to the background and the protagonist’s life and his romances took precedence (to comply with the wishes of everyone else); and third, that I didn’t try to sound like my literary heroes/sheroes and more like myself.

The Recession Groom is out now and I’ve got an excellent response from my readers, though many still complain about the bit about romance. A reviewer recently pointed out how the protagonist needed to do much more than getting his hand under the skirt of his beloved while my muse just sneered in response.

Whoever said “fiction is written from your soul” failed to realise the power of creative nudgers, advicemongers, soothsayers and well-wishers in creating good fiction. My conclusion: it is not just talent that you need to be a writer (and the rest of the mumbo jumbo about motivation, perseverance, hard work, skill, and god knows what), but also these histrionics and the people behind the scenes that help you enrich your stories and create memorable characters.

Vani has worked as a business journalist and is the author of The Recession Groom. She is currently writing a sequel to the novel.

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