The Three Rules For Writing A Novel


Well, I don’t have a reading list/library haul for this week. I’ve been battling deadlines and other life events this week and haven’t had a chance to do much reading. My “to be read” pile is toppling over and I’ve vowed to check nothing out of the library until at least Monday. Hopefully I can catch up a bit before then.

So, since I don’t have the usual post, allow me to entertain you with this quote:

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

-W. Somerset Maugham

This may seem like a big “duh” moment, but it’s actually a brilliant piece of wisdom that we writers would do well to internalize and draw upon, both when writing and submitting for publication.

Repeat: No one knows the rules for writing a novel. Not you, not agents, not editors. Sure, we all have things that we prefer to see in books, but there is no checklist that someone can consult and say, “Yes, Yes, No. Sorry, you broke the third rule so you’re out.” No one can tell you that your book doesn’t qualify because you wrote the ending first, wrote it in first person, or wrote it as a series of letters rather than a straight narrative. No rules.

At first glance, this seems to encourage capricious rejection or sloppy writing. “Well, if there aren’t any rules, then who knows if my writing is any good. Agents and editors could be rejecting me for reasons that make no sense. And who cares, anyway. I’ll just churn out whatever and hope for the best.” It can actually feel discouraging not to have any rules or guidelines to follow, or to use to make sense of your rejections. Other than other novels, which may or may not be “good,” there’s nothing to measure yourself against.

Even if there were a rulebook, I suspect that the judging would be more like a figure skating or gymnastics competition. Highly subjective.

True, it would be much easier if we were all being judged on how well we adhered to the rulebook. But, even if there were a rulebook, I suspect that the judging would be more like a figure skating or gymnastics competition. Highly subjective and subject to vote buying and other misbehavior. Readers and gatekeepers would be looking for ways to boost the things they like while marking down the ones they don’t. You could do everything right and someone would still find a way to disqualify you. Yikes.

It’s likely best that there’s no rulebook. At least we can take comfort in knowing up front that the judging is subjective and that we don’t have to adhere to any rules and neither do our critics and gatekeepers. It’s a free for all. Do what you want, accept that there may be positive or negative consequences, and keep doing your own thing. There are no rules for you, and there aren’t any for anyone else, either. It’s a level playing field.

I find it very freeing to look at this quote often. With no rules, I can write whatever I want, however I want, and it may achieve some success. Obviously the story has to make sense and be worth telling but beyond that, there is no universally accepted rulebook for how I get to the end, what characters I create, or what I write about. When the writing gets tough, it’s comforting to read this quote and remember that I can’t do anything “wrong.”

How many times have you seen a book praised as, “Incredibly unique, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, unusual, unprecedented, revolutionary, or inventive!” Chances are that it’s earning these superlatives because some perceived “rules” have been broken. The book has done something different from what you normally see in a genre or format. In other words, the author realized there were no rules, did his or her own thing, and someone, somewhere thought it was brilliant. It happens.


(Photo courtesy of bloomingmimosa)


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