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How to write a first book

How to write a first book
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First Published: Sat, Jan 16 2010. 12 09 AM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Sat, Jan 16 2010. 12 09 AM IST
The first thing to do when you’re writing a novel is to write. Anything. And lots of it.
My book is, as it were, a pure crystallized expression of the post-modern dialectic that envelops us all in the modern workplace. It is a startling, unsettling piece of fiction that cuts perilously close to the existential reality that is us. By which I mean you and me. All of us. Firmament.
Listen to first-time author Sidin Vadukut sharing his theorems as he introduces us to his protagonist Robert ‘Einstein’ Varghese. We also chat with the musicians of the Black Mozart Ensemble, who are touring India, and the Tokyo-based founders of PechaKucha.
Actually no. Dork is a 240-page-long humour novel that captures approximately the first 12 months in a naïve MBA graduate’s professional life. But enough of the book. How does one go about writing a debut novel?
I can’t vouch to speak for every author out there. Some of them struggle with their writing. Some of them don’t. Some of them plan books over many years. And some, like James Patterson, launch one book before and one after lunch daily, except on weekends. When he catches up on his pending work.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
But in my case I began my book with equal amounts of inspiration and desperation. I was desperate first, and then went seeking inspiration later. The desperation came out of realizing, in 2005, that I wanted to be William Dalrymple. I’d just finished reading his From the Holy Mountain, and realized immediately that I wanted to write for a living.
I promptly quit my proper MBA-like job, installed an Internet connection, arranged for a hardy laptop and began to write. Driven by a mad desire to be Dalrymple as quickly as I could, four months later I had a manuscript ready. It was born, not out of inspiration, but out of desperation. Pure, rabid desperation.
I had to finish a book. So I did.
Dork is not that book. In fact I have no intention of publishing that book right now. It was written in youthful impetuousness, devoid of real thought. One day, perhaps I shall resuscitate it. When I have the time and energy to edit and rewrite around 130,000 words.
But that first manuscript helped me immensely with one thing: dealing with the process of writing.
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Whenever I listen to an author interview I am amazed when anyone says that the writing comes easily to him or her. Or that the process itself was enjoyable in any way.
Because for me the process was long, hard and exhausting. By the time I started writing Dork, sometime in mid-2008, I was already working as a journalist in the day, and running back home to write at night (by then I had inspiration though. I had the plot in my head, and I was obsessed with the character of Robin ‘Einstein’ Varghese).
And what made this doubly difficult is the fact that Dork was always meant to be a funny book. It wasn’t a novel with a little humour thrown in for flavour. Here humour was the only flavour.
And humour is awfully, painfully, excruciatingly difficult to produce on demand. Especially at 1am when you are at least 3,000 words behind your weekly schedule. And you’ve had a teeth-baring fight at work. And suddenly, after dinner, the next scene involves a joke with ball bearings.
Thankfully I never had to come back after a bad day and scrap thousands of words. I recently read an interview where an author said he did this on a regular basis. Scrap thousands of words every once in a while. How dreadful!
One way to cope with this focus and productivity problem, and sadly I only did this for the second half of Dork, is to make two documents: first, a list of all the characters that would appear in the book. This list had their names, quirks and purpose in the story. I used this to trim some useless characters who served no purpose, and focus on other more important ones.
The second document was a plot outline.
For years I’d written columns, stories and articles without ever outlining anything (that’s also because I’m writing everything at the last possible moment). Then when I began work on Dork, my publisher wanted to know where I was going with the plot. How was I going to end the book? This forced me to draw up a somewhat detailed plot outline comprising scenes. Each scene would be a mega-gag that would break down into several individual diary entries and funny incidents.
The moment I drew up this outline, writing became much easier. And actually fun. When you have that particularly funny gag 2,000 words away, you’re dying to reach there and put it into words. It makes you impatient, eager to type again when you get back home.
Otherwise my process was simple. All night after work, and most Sundays, I sat at a quiet table over a laptop and typed. To avoid disturbances, I would usually listen to some form of classical or instrumental music on my iPod (someone once told me that any music with lyrics you can understand would make the brain wander. Hence Gypsy Kings. Yanni).
On the last weekend before the manuscript subscription deadline I went to my in-laws’ house, had a heavy breakfast, arranged for a supply chain of black coffee and then wrote for 10 hours straight. Till I was done. I was overjoyed, over-caffeinated and never wanted to type anything ever again.
If you do this long enough, i.e. type continuously to a plot outline, you eventually end up getting a novel (which is also why there are so many budding novelists).
But then there is the little matter of getting your baby published.
I tried pulling every publishing string I could, but the one that eventually worked best was a search for publishing company names on Linkedin.com, the professional networking site. I knew someone, who knew someone, who knew somebody at Penguin. A flurry of emails followed and contact was made (at the time I had only half the manuscript. I emailed it and waited).
Penguin and one other publisher reverted. I went with the big P.
What next? Cash the advance. Alert bank on forthcoming royalties. Retire and buy 2BHK in the hills. Correct? Not quite.
Getting a publisher to accept a book is just half the work. There are books. And then there are books. I recently heard that a million new titles are published each year worldwide. Hundreds of fiction and non-fiction book titles are published in India alone.
So if all anyone reads are Bhagats, Wodehouses or Ludlums, where do all the other books go?
Nowhere.
Publishers are perfectly happy to pick up a book, print around 3,000 copies, recoup their investments plus a little, and send you a little cheque. Sure you’ll have a book on your resume. But that’s not the point no? Booker is the point, no?
This, unfortunately, is not entirely up to the merit of the book. You also need to sell it to your editor at the publishing house. Who must then sell it to the marketing and sales guys. Who must then sell it to the shopkeeper who will ask him why he is shipping him books called Dork by people called Vadukut.
In short, there are many random variables. Sometimes they come together nicely. Often they don’t.
Which is why you must be thankful for Facebook, Twitter and spam email. If you massage your social networks nicely, you can create a buzz for your book cheaply. And if you don’t have any friends you can still do that old trick: Book a nice restaurant, invite random people and one kebab-fellow, arrange for Johnnie Walker by the case and do a reading.
The Indian literary scene likes nothing better than a book reading with booze and a handful of ex-MLA/parallel cinema types.
The only thing left after this is to deal with the bitter feelings of insecurity. The moment your editor tells you that the book has gone to press you realize a few things: The book sucks. People will laugh at you. Your writing career is over. You will never ever become William Dalrymple. The whole thing was a horrible idea to start with.
No one will buy it. And for the rest of your life you won’t be able to visit a bookstore without seeing copies of your book in the discount bin.
“Buy two Dorks and get four free.”
I have realized that non-stop Bloody Marys work best in this situation.
As for your first book, a good place to start is perhaps with a few audio interviews with the best authors. These interviews will tell you not only how these writers find inspiration, but also how, where and, most importantly, why they write. Get them here:
• BBC World Book Club: www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/wbc/
• CBC Writers and Company: www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/
sidin.v@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Jan 16 2010. 12 09 AM IST