How to write a novel

My first class at ‘How to be a Writer’ started with a BANG.

“Mr Teecher, how does one begin a Novel?” I asked getting to the point straight. For I was clear, I want to write a Novel.

“Mr Ranga, we will come to that shortly,” said the long nosed thin Teecher.

But that was not good enough. I knew the fellow would start by teaching short stories and limericks. I had been warned of that by my friend Dhiraj. “These courses are no good,” he said, “they teach you to write short stories and limericks.”

So I persisted. “Mr Teecher, we must start with the Novel,” I said and grinned, for it was no good getting the fellow angry.

“All right,” quoth he, and shrugged. “Although it is irregular, but just to give the class a taste of the best in English literature of the twentieth century, we will begin with the Novel. Now the difference between other writings and the novel is that the latter has a setting and is rooted at a particular time and place. It has a set structure, with a beginning and a resolution. It is normally linear and….”

“All that very well Mr Teecher, but how to start it?” I said, knowing the fellow was making it sound too bad, so I would be discouraged. My friend Dhiraj had warned me of these tricks. Methinks, Dhiraj has attended a writer’s class sometime.

“The start of a Novel,” began the Teecher slowly, for he must have known he was going too fast, and he can’t fool us by going too fast, “can be of any kind. There is no set pattern. I will give you some examples of the beautiful starts of some of the classics.”

So saying, he opened his notebook and starts to read. The fellow has not done his homework, or he should have learnt these by heart. Anyway, this is what he said:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Thus began Leo Tolstoy in his masterpiece Anna Karenina, setting the tone for the novel. ‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’ wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea, positing the conflict of the novel in the first sentence itself…”

The Teecher had misunderstood me. “No, no. How do we start writing a novel, I am asking,” I made my good self clear and grinned, so he may not get annoyed.

The Teecher thought for some time. Slowly he kept his notebook aside, and thought some more. “Although there is a set sequence in which the students are introduced to the art of writing, seeing the enthusiasm of Mr Ranga, I will, for a change, begin with some tips on how to write a novel,” he said, getting my point. You have to be firm with these fellows, Dhiraj had told me, and he was right.

“You must have a plot, to begin with. A rough sketch of the storyline, as it were. The names and characteristics of the main characters must be drawn up…” he began, but I interrupted on an important point.

“Teecher, my drawing is not so good,” I confessed, for when you are going for learning, there is no harm in being honest. It gives man honor and dignity, to confess weaknesses, however painful it may be. Mahatma Gandhi did that, and see what happened to the British Empire.

“Ummm,” thought the teacher, made some faces, no doubt because of deep thought, and said, “Ok, skip the drawing part, just write the characteristics of your main characters – the protagonists…”

After a long lecture, in which I took copious notes, he ended by giving us assignment for the next class, which was, to prepare notes for the novel we wished to write.

***

I worked hard all week, with my notes. I even consulted Dhiraj, who said, do not tell all your notes to class, or other students will cheat and write novel of your bright ideas. That was a good point again, and I worked carefully, hiding some important facts about my main story and my main characters.

***

“Mr Teecher,” I began, when my chance came to read out my notes, which was after two silly girls, who wrote about their heroines who were in love with a Pirate and a Vampire, two different girls, I mean two different heroines…Anyway, as I said I began thus:

“Mr Teecher, my story is about a great man, who was a nobody and became a big man, but ended being a nobody at his death-bed, and thought about the missing opportunities he had for love and doing good. But now, he thinks, no good thinking that now, for it is all over, and I have played my innings.”

I paused for reaction, for I knew the idea was very modern. Generally, people do not show their great men coming down again in their novels. But I did not want to write routine old stuff.

“Go on, Mr Ranga,” said the Teecher, for he was hooked.

“That is all,” I said, for I did not want to reveal all to cheating fellows in my class.

“Mr Ranga, you will have to flesh out the plot. Where did the events take place, when, who were the main characters. And even the plot is too generic. Exactly what happens, how the man becomes great, how does his downfall come about,” said the Teecher.

“It happened somewhere in India, in the twentieth century,” I replied, not giving away much. “The hero was a businessman, who hit it rich in petroleum and becomes a Prime Minister.”

Again the Teecher interrupts me. “The novel has to be plausible. Imagination must be tempered,” he said.

I thought of Dhirubhai Ambani, and saw his point. “Ok, I said. The man makes it rich in the petroleum sector and becomes a king-maker. His decline comes because his sons are no good, and his daughters run away with drivers and actors.”

I was clear that it was not a Dhirubhai story, and this ending would make it clear. “At deathbed, he is in a refugee camp…”

The Teecher interrupts again. “Refugee camp? How did that come in?”

“There was a war in which he lost everything. His industry is nationalized,” I reply, grinning. I could see he had not foreseen that.

“But how does that make him feel about missed opportunities?” Teecher asked, clearly perplexed.

“Because he could have gone over to the enemies side, which was more powerful. But details later,” I said firmly, “Now for the characters. Man, his wife, his two sons, his two daughters.”

The Teecher sighed, “Describe your characters. For example, the description could be like – A balding middle aged man, of medium height. Greying, thin mustache on a rotund face. A middle-class businessman with delusions. Frowning and agitated demeanor. Of modest beginnings, which is evident in his style, dressing and language.”

Methinks, the Teecher dislikes me. It was clear he was describing me, hiding behind the great man in my story. But I let that pass, for, as Dhiraj told me later, Gurus become jealous of their chelas when the chelas start doing better than them.

We were given the task of writing synopsis for each of our chapters for our next class.

***

It was difficult to write synopsis without giving out too much information. I consulted Dhiraj, who said caution is better part of valour. No use showing off in front of class girls, he said, keep the synopsis short.

***

My turn for reading out my synopsis came two weeks later, for I had to listen to the rubbish by the girls about Vampires and Pirates. Some parts I liked, where the girls giggled and said there will be some lovemaking, and that gave me some idea to throw in the sexy parts in my synopsis, and I kept on rewriting and improving. But without giving out the intimate details, as they say.

“Mr Teecher, Chapter 1. Old man is born in a cheap family. He is the thirteenth child. He is put in village school. He decides not to join Mahatma Gandhi, for business is what he likes.

Chapter 2. He goes to college and works at night. Teachers are bad to him and girls giggle. Yes, just like that giggly girl in the front seat. But he is not deterred. He also feels attracted to a rich girl, but not says anything to her. This he will remember at the end of the novel, with regret.”

I look around for reactions, and was happy to note that the girl sitting next to me was smiling.

The rest of the synopsis went off well. Mr Teecher said I should start working on the novel ‘in right earnest’.

***

It has been two years since I wrote my first novel. It set me back two hundred thousand rupees to get it printed. My friends liked it a lot, and Dhiraj was very happy too. He said I should write more, but it is costly to get them published, so I will think about it.

Dhiraj was also right about the Teecher. He is jealous sort of fellow. I asked him to write a praise to be printed in the book. And what he wrote shows he wanted to be a writer, but did not have the guts. He wrote:

“The first novel of Mr Ranga is a notable effort in terms of the ground he has covered from being a semi-literate. The first time he showed up in my class, I knew he would write a novel and get it printed. He has that kind of money, and the burning desire to add respectability. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors as a novelist.”

Anyone can recognize the sarcasm, but he was right about the money and respectability, and so I let his words be printed in my book. In any case, one must not snub gurus. It is not in our culture. Also, my large heartedness would make the fellow squirm at his own mean-ness.

I dedicated the book to Dhiraj, my wife, my two sons and my two daughters. It was unveiled at a glittering ceremony by the Prime Minister.

***

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About Abhishek

I will let the blog speak for itself...or, at times, for me. View all posts by Abhishek

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