Writing Novels: The rules

A writer should write what they want to write, and write it how they want to write it. This is a theory I have expressed before, and one I will continue to express. I am aware that some may disagree with me on the subject. They will tell me that you should be writing to an audience, and you should stick to this golden formula, or that golden rule etc. Self-help guides and novel writing courses are full of golden rules. As are the majority of ‘How to succeed as a writer’ posts on Faceache. Which almost always is trying to get you to buy their ‘How to succeed as a writer‘ guidebook for $1.99 on kindle…

One of the ways to be successful as a writer as far as I can gather is to write a ‘How to succeed as a writer’ guidebook and advertise it on every Facebook group in the known universe, five times a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. The reason this must be a formula for success is because the one selling those books are always ‘BEST SELLING AUTHOR’ Joe Blogs. Who much to my surprise, when I go and look them up, appear to have not written any books other than ‘How to succeed as a writer’…Which is fine, though I personally don’t feel I should take advice on writing a novel from someone who has never written fiction…

Unless of course ‘How to succeed as a writer’ is actually a work of fiction, which would explain a lot…

Here is the thing, the kind of advice offered in these books I have always found to be patronising at best. They are based, as all such ‘self-help’ books are, on the concept I alluded to above. That being that there is some golden formula to writing a novel. A set of rules, that if followed, will produce a masterwork. In turn, by following the rules, you will, according to the blurbs:

‘Sell thousands of copies, be lauded by all. You will indeed go on to win awards and be able to write books  as successful as ‘How to succeed as a writer’  by the award-winning, best-selling writer Joe Blogs. Just follow these golden rules…’

On the off chance, you’re reading this in the hope of discovering the golden rules, which as I have a certain degree of faith in my readership I suspect is not that case, allow me to clarify my position on the golden rules by deferring here to the wisdom of W. Somerset Maugham.

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You may not have heard of him before, you may never have read any of his novels, but Maugham wrote some twenty very successful novels, numerous short stories, plays and is undoubtedly, therefore, a man whose opinion carries some weight in this regard.

(Confession time, I knew him only from the quote, until I decided to dig around and realise he wrote ‘Of Human Bondage’, which has been on my ‘classics I should read‘ list for years, despite me not knowing the author’s name. Which says unfortunate things about my literary education.)

So, there are no rules, there are certainly no golden rules, and I guarantee any advice you are given by anyone on the subject is flawed to one degree or another. I include my own advice in that, I am not claiming to be any authority here. But I am fairly convinced that the one place you almost certainly will not find ‘the golden rules’ is between the pages of ‘How to succeed as a writer’  by the award-winning, best-selling writer Joe Blogs, because what those books mostly focus on is ways to game the market…

They will generally tell you to do one of the following as its where the money is:

  • Find a gap in the genre markets, the novels no one is writing and write to it.
  • Research the most successful sub-genres and write for them.
  • Write a YA version of a successful sub-genre with plenty of angst
  • write erotica version of a successful sub-genre
  • have a word count that fits exactly with the most popular books in the genre
  • plan for a series of three books because readers like a trilogy

So that’s clear, what you should be writing if you want to be successful as a writer is ‘teenage paranormal, dystopian fantasy with werewolves.’ Or possibly not as the market may be flooded with ‘teenage paranormal, dystopian fantasy with werewolves‘ and instead you should write ‘werewolves vs paranormal teenagers in a dystopian fantasy world.’ Make it between 70000 words long and 90000 but no longer. Have a plan for the next two novels and write them before you publish or write erotica.  So that’s nice and clear then.

Or you could just write a story, see where it takes you, and write what you want to write. I say this because if you want to write fiction because you want to make money. If indeed your sole aim in writing books is the money that could be made by doing so. You’re making a big mistake, and coming to the craft from entirely the wrong angle. Believe me, there are far easier ways to make money than writing books. Except perhaps ‘How to succeed as a writer’  self-help books because given the sheer number of them out there someone must be buying them…

Now I am not saying you should not write a  ‘teenage paranormal, dystopian fantasy with werewolves‘ if that’s what floats your boat. In fact, if that’s what you want to write, if it sparks all your imaginative neurons and gets you to the keyboard then you should do just that. Just because it’s popular is no reason not to write it. Any more than writing ‘50 shades of grey‘ clones is something I would sneer at if that’s what someone really wants to write ( Please for the love of all things small and furry write something better than the original garbage though.) Here is the thing, as a writer, I write best when I am into what I am writing. When I believe in what I am writing. When I am writing what I want to write and saying it just how I want to say it.

I am sure, due to having spent many years writing one word after another in some form of coherence, that I could turn my hand to writing anything. The basic craft, the construction of sentences, paragraphs, chapters and telling a story, that is something you can learn. No really, for those who doubt this, it is. Write a few hundred words every day, write a million or so over the years. Eventually, you’re going to start getting it right. Eventually, you’ll be able to figure out how to tell stories and make them reasonably professional. So having done that I am sure I could apply the craft to ‘teenage paranormal, dystopian fantasy with werewolves’ or ’50 shades of turquoise’ and in doing so create something that is probably sellable. It would be soulless, and a sham, but I could do it. But I would hate myself, begrudge every word, and it would show in the final print. It would be writing by numbers.

Writing is more than just the craft of writing, writing is putting a slither of your soul on the page. My best work is always the work I believe in. It comes from deep within. It means something to me that no reader could ever grasp, and yet they will recognise that when they see it. More importantly, they would recognise its absence, even if they could not tell you what was missing.

So if there is a golden rule, it is simply this, write something you believe in. Write what you want, how you want. Perhaps you will not find an audience, at least, not an audience as easily as you might with 80000 words long ‘teenage paranormal, dystopian fantasy with werewolves, book one of the howling angst teen chronicles’  the self-help books are not entirely wrong on this score. But when you find an audience they will actually believe in your book, your world, your characters, because you do.

Write what you know, as the old adage goes. But write what you know you want to write I would say. That way writing will always be a joy and never a job …


Adios for now


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4 Responses to Writing Novels: The rules

  1. Everyone wants to be the definitive authority in an art that cannot HAVE an authority because writing is a personal journey. Your style, your workflow, cannot be dictated by an external source, and it’s those two things that make YOU. It was years before I discovered reading ‘How to write your way to a Booker Prize if you follow these steps from a novelist who never made the Booker Prize and all their books are out-of-print,’ really was doing me more harm than good. Twenty years of listening to other people, and trying to fit all that craziness into my own personal workflow resulted in…count them….239 incomplete manuscripts because I couldn’t work one way so I went for another like a rabid dog.
    Eventually, I listened to the greatest writing guru ever: Yoda. ‘Unlearn what you have learned’. And now, at 46, I’m on my final draft. Sure, I’ve taken little snippets here and there, but nothing that hasn’t been implemented AFTER the first draft is written. Which is something these books never tell you.
    The only rules you need are: Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation, Proofreading and Editing. All the rest is subjective nonsense. Including this reply 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. darrack1 says:

    Still trying to get my head around 239 incomplete manuscripts, I have a lot of scrap-ends myself (there is a post about them somewhere https://markhayesblog.com/2017/09/13/scrap-ends/ ) but none of those I would call a manuscript . I do have three novels I am working on currently , and perhaps another 15 or so old ones that are kicking about on hard drives or on paper in some cases (I never throw anything away and some of these date back to the late 80’s )
    I had much the same experiance though, eventually I realised that the only way forward was to set clear goals and stop editing until I had a full first draft… Which is how I finally completed my first novel, that first draft is the hardest in many ways


  3. Heading outside just now to reread my current novel in progress, feeling properly cheered and motivated by this bit. I, too, cringe and am stunned by the volumes of stuff telling you how to do writing; for me, the only thing that’s made the difference is actually doing the writing — and the struggling, angsting, and starting all over again. Thanks for sharing — great writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • darrack1 says:

      hi Louise
      Not wishing to add to the volumes of stuff telling you how to do writing at all, but my own advice would be, write the first draft and leave the editing for the second draft. I say that because I spent years editing myself to death on first drafts until I forced myself not to and to actually finish the first draft completely before I edited anything. But struggling and angsting is what we all do, because we care about the craft, that’s why your a writer, anyone who cares about the craft enough to struggling and angsting is.
      happy writing


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