Writing a Novel: The Rules

“Beware of advice – even this.” ~ Carl Sandburg

How many writers out there have read through (or at least skimmed) dozens of books about the art of writing; looking for guidelines, rules and loads of other bits of advice on how to write the best book in the whole entire world, before finally putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)?

I know I have.

I was so anxious for so many years about getting it wrong and being ridiculed by other writers, readers, publishers and, basically, just everyone, that I went on a mad search for all the highest rated novel writing books that I could get my hands on. I read through most of them trying to soak in all the do’s and don’ts and ooh’s and ahh’s of captivating a reader and publisher.

Here are just a few of the rules of novel writing I came across during this frenzied learning marathon:

  • Write what you know.
  • Write what you don’t know.
  • Write an outline.
  • Go with the flow.
  • Set a deadline.
  • Take your time.
  • Write everyday.
  • Only use “said” to carry dialogue.
  • Don’t start a book with the weather, or waking up, or looking at a reflection.

Boy, oh boy. As you can see, there are so many contradicting “rules”, that all I had achieved by the end of that information vortex, was giving myself a headache and piling on the confusion even more.

All I could really do at that point was to start. Just start writing. I started with an outline first; the plot, the conflicts, the character profiles etc. (Have I kept to the outline? That’s a different matter entirely. You can read about it on my previous post: Planner, Pantser… Maybe a Planster). Then I moved on to my first word, first sentence, first page, first chapter, and so on.

Then I realized…

There are no rules when it comes to writing. At least, not just one definitive set for every single writer in the world. Everyone is different, everyone has their own style, their own methods to keep motivated, organized, in control. By the time I was totally consumed in my story, I forgot all the rules I was supposed to be keeping to and just did my own thing.

I broke the “rules.”

  • I couldn’t only write what I knew. What I knew wasn’t enough to take my story to the places it had to go. So, I had more research and learning to do.
  • I wrote an outline, but ended up changing things around quite a bit. For the better.
  • I set a deadline (I set many), but disruptions in my schedule due to other responsibilities and unanticipated events forced me to put writing on hold.
  • That meant I couldn’t write everyday.
  • I use more than just “said.”
  • And, yes, I started off with the weather. Wanna know why? Because it’s crucial to my story, that’s why.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re setting off on this journey to writing your first novel, don’t worry about the rules. What works for 10,000 other writers might not work for you. Only after gaining some experience and practice, you can maybe set yourself some guidelines to keep yourself in check or to make the process easier.

Here are some tips that I think might be helpful:

  1. Write when you can. Forcing yourself to write (just to keep to schedule or hit your daily word target) when you have more urgent matters to take care of, will only lower the quality of your thinking and focus. You’ll probably have to change what you’ve done once you look back at it.design desk display eyewear
  2. Don’t neglect yourself. Sleep when you have to sleep, eat, drink, leave the house, meet up with friends or family, pamper yourself. Self-care is so important regardless of what you do, but especially more so when you’re writing a book. The countless hours you spend sitting down at a desk or with a laptop on your lap, straining your eyes on the screen, stressing out trying to get the words down on paper as you see the scene play out in your mind. As much fun, freeing and fulfilling writing can be, it can also be stressful and tense and lonely. DON’T FORGET YOU.backlit clouds dawn dusk
  3. When you get an idea, write it down. I can’t stress this enough. YOU WILL MOST LIKELY NOT REMEMBER IT WHEN YOU WAKE UP! Even if you are sure you will… Trust me.blur business close up composition
  4. Don’t let others get you down. Don’t let them stop you, or rush you. Do what you have to do to accomplish your dreams.man in red crew neck sweatshirt photography

2 thoughts on “Writing a Novel: The Rules”

  1. Your #1 also comes with its own risk. From everything I’ve seen and experienced, procrastination is what kills most WIPs. The brain learns habits through patterns of behavior. If the habits it learns involve long gaps between bits of progress, it can really slow things down. Writing can be hard, stressful, and downright miserable when you get stuck, which only exacerbates the desire to keep putting it off. Things that qualify as more urgent might become smaller and smaller tasks. Eventually you might go from “Writing my novel!” to “I started a novel a while back…”

    So, yeah, writing is terrifying, and hard, and sucky, and wonderful, and rewarding, and the best thing that ever happened to me all rolled into one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true. Your point is a perfect example of what I said; what works for one writer might not work for another.

      I tend to write absolute rubbish when my mind is on other things. That’s why when I sit down to write, I want to be at least 90% focused on the task. I procrastinate more when I’m not able to concentrate on what I’m writing.


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