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  • Writer's pictureKaren Divya Shekar

7 Rules to Follow Before You Begin Writing That Novel

I’ve been writing “novels” since I was eight years old. While some may say those are hardly credentials enough to write a couple of “rules”, I believe first-hand experience trumps everything else.

My first childhood novel was an Enid Blyton-esque adventure story replete with hidden treasure in the mountains and extended cousins, the second was a teenage family melodrama, the third, another teenage melodrama where the female lead heard voices, the fourth, a “Stardust” inspired story about a mad queen ruling over a kingdom, the fifth, an affair between a gardener and the lady of the house (very obvious what inspired this!) and the sixth, was supposed to be a Candide-inspired black comedy that turned into another melodrama.

With personal experience ranging nearly twenty years, I can, in all seriousness, say I have some nuggets of wisdom to pass down to future hopefuls.

1. Decide at the outset if you want the novel published or not

What’s the end goal for you?

Publication or practice?

Messing around or serious about it?

Are you keen to see your name in print or is this a story that you just have to tell, with no regrets if it gets published or not?

All the “novels” I wrote when I was younger, had one aim at their core—practice by copying other authors and styles. The only novel I wrote with an aim to have it published was the sixth one.

The reason I say this is because, a novel up for publication has to written professionally while a novel written for practice, has no rules, no boundaries, no aim.

Takeaway: Don’t lie to yourself. To become a published author, there’s one approach. To hone your craft, there’s another.

2. Always settle on a plot before writing

Now, every writer is unique. Some like to plan their whole plot before they write; others prefer a free-wheeling approach where they themselves are clueless about the end of the story. However, if publication is your aim, free-wheeling is a terrible way to start.

I am a complete free-wheeler. When I was writing my sixth novel, I changed the plot so many times that what started as two characters ending up as lovers turned into them becoming first cousins!

Consequently, I wasted a lot of time getting the plot right. That’s why I urge all future authors, finish plotting first and set it in stone. Unless a massively nicer improvement comes along, don’t change the original blueprint.

However, should you allow every creative wind to sway you?

No. If the plot change uplifts the story significantly, go for it! You’ve got to be your own judge here.

Takeaway: Finish plotting first to save loads of time. Preparation takes up a massive chunk of the writing process.

3. Take time to build “character”

Take “character-building” seriously.

Some of the best novels have memorable characters. In alphabetical order, think Anna Karenina, Bertram Wooster, Clovis Sangrail, Mr. Darcy, Estella, Frankenstein, Gandalf the Grey, Miss Havisham, Iago, Jeeves, Katharina, King Lear, Miss Marple, Noddy, Ophelia, Pollyanna, Don Quixote, Rumpelstiltskin, Sherlock Holmes, Trunchbull, Undine Spragg, Eustacia Vye, the Weasley family, Yossarian, among others.

We remember and love whole novels because of the people that make them up.

Mostly, in the modern novel, the character is usually an extension of the author.

So it was with me!

My female lead resembled me in more ways than one, so there was never feeling of having “created” a new character. I now realise this is probably the laziest way of writing, and also perhaps the easiest.

But it doesn’t make good literature.

Did Tolstoy see himself in Anna or Karenin or Count Vronsky? I think not! But the characters themselves are so wildly alive; it is as though the raconteur gave them the very breath of life.

That’s why it’s very essential to spend time getting to know your characters. More importantly, get to know yourself, so you can check your sub-conscious from accidently spilling over onto your characters.

Takeaway: Create memorable characters. Also, regularly write character sketches of the interesting and dull people you come across. Even the seemingly boring do have stories to tell.

4. Use the rule of “three” to write a first draft

When I was a kid, I used to revise three times before exams. The rule has also become the basis for my writing process. To have a good first draft, you will need to write the novel a minimum of three times.

The first time you write, put everything you know out on paper. There is no need for any prowess to be displayed here. Just plain simple summarising. This is the skeleton.

The second time you write the same novel, fill in the details, add the flesh, the sinews, the contours, etc. Most of the “character-building” should be done at this stage.

The third time you work on the novel, it’s time to wrap it up in pretty skin. Now you are free to beautify the language, add pretty lashes and full lips, “dress it up” essentially.


There’s another reason to write the first draft three times.

It’s the best way to test if you’ve got an evergreen opus on your hands or a one-time read.

If you’re bored with your story by Round 3, so will your readers be…?

5. Rope in two people to act as sounding boards

I made a terrible mistake by not telling anyone that I was writing a novel.

You don’t embark on a journey without informing your family about where you are going. It’s the same with a novel. When you are done with the first chapter, share it with not more than two persons who appreciate literature and stories.

Ask them for feedback or advice. However, always be cautious of who you involve. You should not depend on them for approval or ego-massaging. All you want is their opinion on the story, not on you.

When I later showed my mother my first draft, I got to look at my work from a perspective I otherwise wouldn’t have ever known existed.

Also, writing is a very lonely process. It’s very easy to get caught up with your characters, as you live in a world of make-believe. You will need a couple of people to help you keep a foot in the real world in case the process gets too intensive.

Takeaway: Every writer needs a sounding board. Think Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. The back-and-forth helps to eliminate silliness and personal whimsies, which can mar a potentially good work.

6. Be prepared to go all out

When you have finally settled down to write, make sure you give it your all—even if you are writing just for practice.

Look, no one’s watching except you. There won’t be any criticism or brickbats if it isn’t up to the mark. Just push yourself to the creative limits and explore.

You can play around by imitating your favourite author’s styles, which is a good way to start, or you can try to strengthen your voice.

Whatever you decide to do, just go all out!

Takeaway: The beauty of a written work lies in the amount of interest a writer takes in it. If the writer is convinced beyond all doubt that this story needs to be told, the conviction will show in writing.

7. Don’t self-critique until the final draft

Often, overthinking and a highly critical internal voice are the greatest enemies of a writer. A perfectly decent idea can be killed in the bud because of the level of analysis a person can unleash on it.

This moment of crisis usually happens with me halfway into a novel. I wonder if the story isn’t silly or rudimentary. At thirteen or sixteen, I used to worry if it wasn’t “philosophically fresh”.

Yes, that’s how unreasonable I was!

To save yourself some of this internal reflection, don’t attempt any judgment on the novel until the final draft is on your table. Remember, you are creator, critic, and reader rolled into one.

You cannot play all these roles at the same time. So first create, then critique, and finally read!

Takeaway: Don’t destroy a good story by comparing it to a classic. In fact don’t aspire to a benchmark you didn’t set! Just enjoy the writing process and hold your analysis until it is complete.

Let me know in the comments what are your writing rules!

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1 comentario

27 jun 2021

Well not everyone can write but everyone has a story. People with sensitivity and skill can give a form and life to the story. So keep exploring, experimenting and experiencing as you breathe life into your stories.

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