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 clichés 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)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I feel totally lame for not coming up with a set of rules. I've been thinking about it for DAYS now, with your blog post sitting untouched in an open tab. Me = Teh Lamez0r.

--Julia (who still can't comment unless she chooses anonymous)