4 important rules on ‘how to write a novel’ by Neil D’Silva

There are certain things that you do all the time but when someone explicitly asks you about them, you go—“Really? Is this what I am doing?” For most of us authors, writing books easily makes this category. For me, writing is a highly organic activity, for the words just flow out of me when they have to. The ideas come when the time is ripe. The characters build themselves. The scenes create themselves. Hence, when fellow-author Sandeep Sharma asked me to talk about my writing process for this blog post, I really sat down to analyze—“Heck! What IS my writing process after all?”

After giving it some thought, I started to consider the question in this manner: I have published six books so far, three of which are full-length novels. So, the best way for me would be to talk about the driving force that enabled me to create these stories. Since this post is borne out of experience, I guess there shall be no talking out of my hat. What I speak about here is what I have practiced myself. Anyway, here goes.

  • Getting that Killer One-line Idea

 Every novel, even the greatest one ever written, finally boils down to a one-line idea. This is the core concept that drives the story, every minute aspect of the story. Like, for my debut novel Maya’s New Husband, this one-line idea was—a woman married to a mysterious man who is a ritualistic serial killer in an urban man’s camouflage. For Pishacha, it was—a disgruntled vengeful lover’s spirit returns to earth when the lover of his past life is reincarnated. For Yakshini, it was—a girl physically matures earlier than her time and is unable to cope with the pressures of the male-dominated society around her.

If this idea is strong, it will drive your entire story. It is also highly important to have this idea pat down because everything you write will finally need to meander along this line.

And it works not just for standalone novels, but also for entire series. Think Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling’s one-line idea throughout the story was—a boy wizard finds himself destined to fight and defeat the most dreaded evil wizard of all time. For Lord of the Rings—a young man has to return a ring which is the source of all evil power to its place of origin and destroy it, while fighting a dark entity that will do anything to possess it.

It is actually fascinating, isn’t it, to boil down such huge stories to their core ideas? Well, here’s an exercise. Take the 10 books you have read lately and write their one-line ideas down. You will really start looking at novel-writing in a different way.

Pro-tip: If you ever have to narrate a story for an adaptation (such as a TV series or a movie), the one thing the decision-makers are really interested in is the one-line idea. It is called logline in movie parlance.

  • Build Your Characters and Let Them Play

All my stories have been character-driven so far. I cannot start to write unless I know everything that the character will do. In fact, I need to “see” the character. In Maya’s New Husband, my serial killer character of Bhaskar Sadachari (who was ranked among the top villains of the year by many reader clubs) was based on a popular Indian actor who is known for his negative roles. But I am not talking only of physicality either. I am also talking of characteristics and attributes. I want to know beforehand what motivates my character, how will they behave in a particular scenario, how they will interact with the other characters, etc. These things should be really lucid in your mind before you begin.

Let us go back to the example of Harry Potter, a series most of us have read. Consider the character of Hermoine Granger. Now, if Hermoine was in your classroom and facing a particular situation, you know exactly how she would react. You can actually “see” that. How? J. K. Rowling hasn’t created that scene for her. But, here lies the author’s strength. The character is built so strongly in the books that we know how she will act even outside the book. That’s what an author should aim to achieve.

A lot of authors that I have spoken to, practice intuitive writing. I call this the Action and Consequence style of writing. This is where you create your characters and then let the scene build around them. The characters do things according to their individual traits and the story goes on building itself. Characters act and then there are consequences, and then the story goes on. Sometimes, even the climax is not needed to be planned in advance. Just let your characters play it out naturally. That will also give you the most logical ending for your book.

Pro-tip: If shows are your thing, watch Breaking Bad and Fargo. These series are the bible in character-building. Everything that happens in these shows is a matter of action and consequence, which keeps us hooked.

  • Never Plan Your Story Entirely in Advance

The second point actually connects with the third one. There are certain authors who won’t start writing unless they have their entire story planned to the T, including what shirt a character will be wearing in a particular scene. While I mean no disrespect to them (and definitely certain genres like fantasy and suspense need such thorough planning), I feel that such heavily-plotted writing harms the story immeasurably.

The reason, I feel, is that you start toeing the line too much as a writer and you don’t deviate even if new things emerge. And, trust me, new things will emerge. You might be a spectacular plotter, but there are hundreds of things you will not think of in advance. These will hit you in the process of actual writing. And when they do, you have to make a decision of whether to stick to your plotline or to deviate so that more justice is done to the character. This happens more often than you think and it happens to the best of us.

Writing needs to be an organic process. Don’t let it devolve to formula-based writing on a rigid plotline. It needs to have ample breathing space to develop itself.

I never plot my entire story beforehand. I have the characters in mind (not all, only the primary ones), I have some of the scenes that I am going to write, and I have a semblance of a climax. With that, I start writing. The rest of the story is all built up along the way. To let a secret out—with Maya’s New Husband, I did not know till a quarter of the story that Bhaskar Sadachari would be a closeted aghori. And when the book was released, that aspect became the hallmark of the book.

For specific genres, like the horror I write, organic writing works beautifully. When I as an author myself don’t know what’s going to happen in the next scene, I am able to create much better suspense. For a horror author to scare the readers, the author has to scare himself/herself first.

So, don’t overthink your story. Start writing. Build it along the way. If you immerse yourself in the plot, this is going to work beautifully.

  • Be Good to the Language

A lot has been written in recent times about how language is not essential in storytelling. I strongly disagree. It is very important for an author to choose the right words. If you use a weaker word in place of the appropriate word in a particular context, the entire essence is lost.

When I say pay attention to language, I don’t mean your language has to be sophisticated or even impeccable. Maybe you want to write a book in urban lingo. Well, do that. But then do justice to the urban lingo. Chetan Bhagat is the best example here. He has a strong hold on language in real life, but when he writes his books, he chooses to use a simpler language which everyone can understand. Using that simpler language effectively is a triumph in itself. Trust me, choosing to write in simpler language isn’t an easy task.

Only someone who has mastery over language will know how to use simple language effectively.

Well, folks, there is such a lot to say on this topic that I could go on and on. However, I have outlined the core elements here. Feel free to ask me any questions or drop me a line on my social media handles and I shall be glad to answer.

Have a nice day!

3 thoughts on “4 important rules on ‘how to write a novel’ by Neil D’Silva

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