Friday, November 7, 2008

The Three Rules of Writing a Novel

“There are three rules of writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” W. Somerset Maugham

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of conflicting rules on novelling. November is nanowrimo territory, so many of my friends are happily ensconced in that world where writers should:

  1. write 50,000 words as fast as you can.
  2. if your story isn’t working, write more. All first drafts are crap.
  3. just keep writing damnit!

Meanwhile in my workshop the rules are something more like:

  1. read the best novels to become a better writer
  2. slow, quality work is better than fast junk work. Edit every day, along with writing.
  3. this might take a while, and that’s ok

I’m feeling split between two worlds, because while I excel at the quantity method where there’s lots of company at write-ins and no grief over clich├ęs or poor research, putting more time and thought into my writing is certainly giving me better quality work (albeit at a snails pace). I wish I knew those three magical rules to novelling, so I could continue on either path knowing I was guaranteed an exciting end product.

Now maybe you’re thinking the “three rules of writing a novel” is a joke. And sure, maybe it is. Just like immortality, the singularity, extraterrestrials, and robot super-intelligence. You know, all the best inevitable things in life that somehow the mainstream has given up on. Well, not I, my friend, not I.

Think how much better life is going to be once we figure out those rules. All the time we’ll save as writers, and as readers, too. No more reading 200 pages into a crappy book before you realize you just can’t slog through another page. By page 5 if you haven’t seen the scrappy sidekick or the terrier or the prominent use of the color green or whatever, you just toss it aside.

Or maybe we’ll decide not to use the three rules all the time. But won’t it be nice to know them anyway? Like discovering how to make gold or the final resting place of Amelia Earhart – the knowledge doesn’t serve any practical purpose, but isn’t it nice not to have to wonder about it any more?

So dear reader, I invite you to join me as I embark on a quest to discover the three rules of novel writing. I ask for your help, as we identify possible rules, try them out, and publicize the results. Please invite others to participate as well.

In the spirit of all scientific quests, I'd like to establish three guidelines for participation in discovering the three rules of writing:

  1. Put together three rules for novel writing, whenever possible drawing from at least two novels or a published author for each rule. Rule groups should be named to make it easier to discuss and compare them later.
  2. Share the three rules either by posting a comment to this blog (if you post as anon, please sign the comment), sending a note to the facebook page I’ll set up, or some other method. I’ll post the rules for others to try.
  3. Try out the three rules in at least one writing session of at least 500 words. You don’t have to incorporate each of the rules in that body of text, but you do have to have the rules in mind, so they can influence the writing you do. Did they work?

To break the ice, here’s my first attempt, which I’ll be taking for a test drive tonight:

Three Rules of Writing, Intrigue Version

  1. Include a big eye in the sky. (Sources: The Great Gatsby, Harry Potter, and The Stand)
  2. “Make [your] characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water.” (Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to his students)
  3. Somebody dies (too numerous to list)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


This morning I jumped out of bed a half hour early with no trouble at all – finally voting day! After 8 years of W we’re guaranteed a new president, and I’m so ready I can barely stand it.

Tonight Greg and I have Greek class after work, so we had to get up early to hit the polls right when they opened. This seemed like a good excuse for breakfast from Dunkin Donuts, and a free coffee (after voting, of course) at Starbucks. Ah, sweet indulgence. What fun to be at Dunks when all the trays of donuts and bagels were still full and enticing. We had our pick. It was wonderful to be up early, out among hoi polloi (see, already using that Greek) when conversation was buzzing and everyone was ready to marker in some circles on behalf of their favorite candidates.

Living the city life sometimes I’d give my right arm to have a car to get me from A to B, but on days like this, public transportation is perfect. The city feels like a cozy family of blue folks. Strangers on the T chat easily about ballot issues and for the first time in a long time people seem united about something besides hating the Yankees. Granted, it would probably be lonely to be a McCain supporter in Boston about now, but for a Dem it feels pretty good.

But the best part of the day is the part you do all on your own -- filling in that ballot. It sounds cheesy, but all the stuff you learn in elementary school about our rights is true. We have choices! We get votes! We shape the future of world with the circles we fill in! Freedom and Liberty baby! (in Massachusetts even for greyhounds and pot smokers!) Tomorrow most of the world will cheer or smack their foreheads when they see what we’ve decided, but today we get to decide. And everybody from stock broker to key grip to student gets one vote. Not even the pundits with their pie charts get more than that. (not to mention a free coffee from every Starbucks you mosey into)