Saturday, May 12, 2007

How To Write a Novel - Part 1

Today happens to be an anniversary of sorts. I noticed that more people especially from Business Schools tend to ask me to address the student groups on Creative Writing. It is a great opportunity to share ideas not just on writing but on some things that I have learnt are very important to be able to write.

I started writing this novel on 13 May 1997 in Mumbai. It began in a very strange way. I had just quit working for an ad agency MUDRA to join Colgate Palmolive in Mumbai, India. That was Jan 1997. I got a few farewell gifts from my colleagues in advertising and one of them was a red colored bound note book. "Write some poems or short stories in it. "

I had on a few occasions thought of writing some short stories. Most of these were incidents or anecdotes about college and my friends that I had written to friends. Some of my friends told me that a few were funny. So I tried to reconstruct them in my mind. But not one of them sounded convincing. A few months went by. It was on 13th May 1997 that I wrote the opening lines of my novel in that red colored note book. It went like this:

"I do not know why I landed in this corporate jungle. Why I chose to do Human Resources Development. Why I did not decide to stop playing a game which I neither understood nor had any desire to learn. In fact, I did not even start off being in Human Resources.
When I joined MIJ (Management Institute of Jamshedpur, Bihar) in the summer of 1982, the course I had enrolled for was actually called Industrial Relations and Social Welfare. At that time, there were only Welfare Officers. But that term really sucked. So some smart cookie who thought like Rascal Rusty, must have decided to “Tweak the formula, change the packaging and make a new commercial with a cute babe in a skimpier bikini,” as the Marketing guys did with all their soaps and toothpaste brands every year, and called it a relaunch."

The germ of the idea was there. I did not even know whether it would be another anecdote or a short story and certainly never thought I would take that forward and turn it into a novel. Notice the reference to soaps and toothpaste brands doing relaunch. That must have crept in based on what I might have seen around me as I interacted with my colleagues and friends in other FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) companies.

Having written the first para I sat back and tried to put together the plotline. I felt I should write a story that would be set in a college campus and then fine tuned it to be in a Business School setting that would give me two campus settings to develop my characters. In choosing to do a Business School campus I had the advantage of showing the transition of characters from being undergraduate college students to being in a B-School where one has to worry about getting jobs and the relationships start to get a tinge of seriousness. By writing that first para I had crossed the first major speedbreaker - what would I write about?

No plotline seemed unique enough. Would I write a love story? A murder mystery? I thought I would write something that would be fairly generic. Everyone seemed to have great memories of being in college. Yet when you look at Bollywood's depiction of college, it seemed to be such a far cry from what you and I would have experienced. So I wanted to write about an experience that would be real. Something that a college student in a small town university would be able to relate to as well as the experience of someone who went to a University in a metro setting. The story had to be a generic experience of growing up in India in the eighties. Instinctively that seemed to be real. I could write about that authentically. It was something I had experienced. A life that I had lived many times - vicariously through friends. There was something common to us all. Each unique life had common threads. The angst of not knowing what to do in life. Of trying to choose between college courses one had no clue about. The generic experience of falling in love in college. Of crushes. Of crazy friends. Over the years I had met college students especially during Youth Festivals and while travelling. From Bangalore to Allahabad, the experiences had a lowest common denominator that was common. that was the genesis of my story. It would be a story that would be a collage of moments that each reader could relate to.

So the first big lesson in how to write a novel:
Make a Beginning: Write about a moment or an event that you have soaked in. One need not have experienced everything to be able to write about it. It just needs to be something that is very close to your heart. If not, it is difficult to get under the skin of your characters.


Ashish said...


Just a thought. Haven't read MBA - so this might be ill placed.But when you say that the "story had to be a generic experience" - aren't you degrading your own unique experience? Isn't the serendipity of finding similarity and resonance in someone else's individual experience more valuable than intending it from the word go?

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Kalyan Shivamurthy .................................................... said...

Hi Abhijit,
Your MBA is really very good, and very influential as well(as far as I am concerned, that is!)...
Thanks to you, I got to learn so many things and it helped me a lot in cherishing the hostel moments! Everytime we friends are together, WC-DMR does get a mention ;)

And I agree, Serendipity is one thing that just occurs in everybody's life....

Poons said...

I BEGAN writing my novel Home Products in the summer of 2003, a few weeks before my wife gave birth to our first child.
But even before I began work on the book I bought a black hardcover sketchbook. In its pages, I started writing down whatever I liked in what I happened to be reading. Among the earliest journal entries is the opening line of a review that had appeared, in the New York Times, of the film "The Hours". This was also the opening line of a novel by Virginia Woolf. I cut it out and pasted it in my journal. "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."
There are no notes around that neatly cut out quote but I can imagine why it had appealed to a first-time novelist. You read Woolf's line and are suddenly aware of the brisk entry into a fully-formed world. No fussing around with irrelevant detail and back-story. And I began to write various opening lines. How to write a Novel