“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”
– W. Somerset Maugham
I’ve always been a fan of rules. I read the directions before assembling IKEA furniture, only wear white between Easter and Labor Day, and come to a full and complete stop at every stop sign. When I started writing novels, I went looking for rules. Everyone had something different to offer.
Write what you know.
Show, don’t tell.
Lay out your entire plot before you write the first word.
If the action stalls, add a new character.
Never start revising until the first draft is finished.
After a whole lot of trial and error, I’ve figured out which of these are useful to me and which are best left to someone else. Write what you know was chucked out the window after I discovered I was far more interested in writing about things I had yet to learn. Lay out your entire plot resulted in several abandoned drafts before I realized I wrote better stories when I started out with a solid beginning and ending, but only a vague idea of what would happen in between. Show, don’t tell and Never start revising until the first draft is finished are valuable tools, but I can’t bring myself to consider them rules. So far, the only true rule I’ve discovered is this one:
You can’t do it alone.
Of all the things I’ve tried to improve my writing, the most helpful one was finding a good critique group. I meet up with a handful of talented writers once a week to write, share critiques, and gripe about our projects, in an event we affectionately refer to as Panera Sunday. Without Panera Sunday, would I still be a writer? Absolutely, but I doubt I’d be in my current position, with an agent and a publisher and a novel coming out in April. I couldn’t have done it alone, and I’m grateful every day for the people who helped to make it all possible.
And if the action in your novel stalls but adding a new character doesn’t suit your plot, try killing one off instead. (Not a rule. Just a suggestion.)