22 Jan 2015

The Three Rules For Writing A Novel

So, having thought about and dreamt about being a writer for weeks/months/years, you finally decide to get on and do it.   But once you’ve decided to write, how do you decide what and how to write?

"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  W. Somerset Maugham

Much as I love this quote – and its underlying message that writing rules can be vague and not always helpful – I’d like to suggest, with the utmost respect to a much more venerated writer than myself, three fundamental and helpful rules for writing a novel.

1. Write What You Know

Mark Twain – the great writer accredited with this quote – dispensed his fair share of writing and life advice, but this is one of the most misunderstood or misapplied.

Most of us don’t have exciting enough lives to create a great story, in and of itself.  Fiction is not pure memoir, but we’ve all had experiences that can be used as the basis for fictional scenarios.  I’m willing to bet that JK Rowling has never been to a wizarding boarding school or that Tolkien ever tried to steal from a dragon, but they will have faced some of the same issues and challenges as their protagonists.

“Write what you know” is best applied to emotions and universal experiences.  With my Work In Progress (WIP), there are times when I’m writing what I know.  I know what it is to feel confused about who you are and how you fit into the world.  I know what it’s like to have crap friends or to struggle with feelings I shouldn’t have for someone.  For the stuff that I don’t know I employ the next piece of advice:

2. Write What You Can Google (other search engines are available!)

In this internet age it’s even less necessary to stick to your own experiences.  Instead with a few clicks you can read about other people’s lives or gather information that would have taken days/months/years of research a couple of decades ago.  Hey presto, you suddenly “know” new stuff and you have new experiences to empathise with and understand!

I’ve never been to the places in the universe where my WIP is set although, thankfully, neither has anyone else!  My world is futuristic and predominantly fantastical so I could just make it all up.  However I make sure I do as much research as possible so that any details I include, especially those that have any basis in reality, have an element of accuracy and plausibility.  I’ve also discovered lots of fascinating information which add to the story world I’m creating, making it a deeper, richer and more interesting place.

With so much information easily accessible it’s crazy not to mine it as much as you can.  If it’s a topic you’re interested in (and you should be – see the next point) then the research will be almost as enjoyable as the writing itself.

However, following people or topics on Twitter, Google Alerts or Instagram can feel overwhelming at times.  There’s too much information available.  It’s also far too easy to see other writers’ successes and start to think that you have to write a certain genre or include specific elements in order to be successful too.  That’s why the most essential piece of writing advice is:

3. Write What You Love

The bottom line of good writing is passion and voice.  Agents and publishers seem to mention this constantly when talking about books they’ve taken on.

Passion is so glaringly obvious that we often miss its importance.  If you don’t love what you’re writing then why should anyone else? 

“Write the kind of story you would like to read. People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.”  Meg Cabot

If you love reading romance, but think you should write crime because that’s what seems to be particularly successful at the moment, then your writing is unlikely to have that special spark that will make you stand out.  It could even be mediocre rubbish.  No sane writer should ever have that as their goal.  In everything in life, passion carries you that bit further than talent and hard work alone.  Don’t ever write in order to fit in with a (perceived) trend.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”  William Wordsworth

Voice gives every story its distinctiveness – the unique combination of the writer, the characters and the story.  When agents are trawling through their slushpile they want to find something different, fresh and new.  Even if you can write like a particular author’s identical twin, don’t.  You will always be second best at being someone else. 

Only you can write your story with your voice.  So why not get on and write it?

I'm writing mine and I don't just love it, I absolutely adore the characters, their story and their world.  I hope that you will too!

Word Heart


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