Rules for Writing and Revising Your Novel

GIVEAWAY: Khanh is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Bop won.)




Guest column by Khanh Ha, who was born in Hue, the former
capital of Vietnam. During his teen years, he began writing short
stories, which won him several awards in the Vietnamese adolescent
magazines. He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s
degree in Journalism. FLESH (Black Heron Press, May 2012) is
his first novel (contemporary fiction).
Learn more about him and his book touring here.




As an Asian, I can identify with a protagonist who’s brown-eyed, yellow-skinned. I read A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler — one that won him the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for literary fiction. In this short story collection, his protagonist in every story is a Vietnamese, and Robert is white. Well, despite lavish praises from his critics, I could never feel “the voice” in each of his stories, presumably from an Asian.

It takes an extraordinary skill for a writer to write in a voice other than his own, considering his race, his ethnic background, his years spent in the said environment that serves as the locale of his novel.

Writers like Chang-rae Lee and Ha Jin write strictly from their upbringing background through their protagonists. So the Korean voice, the Chinese voice from their works ring true. I take my hat to Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) who put himself (a white male) in the place of a Japanese female as a geisha and, kudos to him, succeeded where many others have failed. But it took him 12 years to write such a novel, having gone through three major rewrites to change the POV, third to first.

And don’t ask Arthur Golden to knock off 50K words in a month for the NaNoWriMo!

(Query letter FAQs answered.)


So you want to write a novel. Do you have a writing routine? I know no one’s routine is like another’s. While writing FLESH, I was regimented. I wrote every day. Each day faithfully by sticking to the seven rules—7 is my lucky number.

#1—find discipline in solitude, in aloneness so you can meet your characters. It’s like a rendezvous with ghosts. Then make that meeting every day or every night with no excuses.

#2—write each scene as if it were the only thing in your universe—it must command all your attention.

#3—write one scene well and that scene would breed the next scene.

#4—leave room for readers to participate: don’t overwrite.

#5—stop where you still have something to say so the next day you won’t face a dry well.

#6—read each day to keep your mind off your own writing.

#7—don’t believe in anybody’s rules except yours.

If you were born to write, write something, even if it’s just a suicide note. Somewhere I remember Toni Morrison once said, “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.”


You finished a chapter.

Now go back and fine-tune it—add, delete—what needs to go in, be taken out. Repair the characters. Do it when your mind is still fresh with the scenes and the characters of that chapter. However, you must be unbiased (which is hard toward what you’ve just written), detached (which is harder from what you’ve just built), so you can see your own creative flaws.

Or it will be hellish after the novel has been written to go back to fix the flaws either on your own courage, or at an editor’s request.

(Hear a dozen agents explain exactly what they want to see the slush pile right now. See if your work is a match.)

On Characterization

Unlike an actor who plays just his role, an author plays all his characters’ roles, like a man who plays chess against himself.

You can imagine characters. Yet until you write them out, you haven’t known them. Put them in motion. Let them interact with one another. Let them live in some environment. It’s then that you begin to explore your characters’ depths. If you ask me what’s the hardest part in writing a novel, I’ll tell you: characterization. That’s what separates a literary novel from a potboiler. Characters shape a story line, not the other way around. You can’t think up a plot and shoehorn your characters into it. If you do, you are writing a potboiler. In fact, well-developed characters create a more convincing storyline, even shaping it or altering it against your original vision. Think about that!

On Hard Scenes

Writing is just like any normal part of our daily life. It ebbs and flows. The worst thing to a writer isn’t writer’s block but illness, prolonged, unbearable illness that can really affect his writing. Other than that, as Hemingway once said, there will be days when you have to drill rock and then blast it out with charges. When that happens, just take a break, do something else and let your battery be recharged.

There are no hard scenes to write. Really. Those so-called difficult scenes are what writers make them out to be with their paranoia. So before they can write such scenes, their anxiety has already killed their creativity to write them.

GIVEAWAY: Khanh is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Bop won.)


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30 thoughts on “Rules for Writing and Revising Your Novel

  1. Bop

    Years ago I was sure I had encountered a “hard scene”. I struggled with it for months, thinking about it constantly. Then I realized that I dreaded every attempt to resolve it. Writing was no longer fun because of my struggle. It really was killing my creativity! Once I realized that, I could begin work again. It became clear that if the scene wasn’t working, it simply didn’t fit the story. I pulled it out, rewrote the whole section and moved on. In the process I got a much better scene and learned not to force things. So, yeah, the writer can make their own scene hard to write.

  2. slakline

    One of your comments especially resonated – go back and edit your scene while it’s still fresh in your mind. I’ve found previous advice to wait until you have a completed story to edit isn’t working for me at all. I‘ve also become a writing advice junky, so there are many other contradictory rules swimming around in my head that are going to rest easy after following lucky rule #7! I always go back to my own motivator: write because you love it. Thanks, Shelly

  3. khanhha

    Hi Paul:

    Though dedication is a must, you can take it to the limit but not over it. There’s devotion to others, especially your loved ones. You can write seven days a week, sometimes late into the night; but when you go to bed and find out the side you sleep on is cold and the body lying next to you is warm, then somebody is really mad!

  4. WriteAndWriteAndWrite

    7 rules that end with: Make Your Own Rules! Bless you for encouraging each individual writer to make their own program, their own map to a finished novel. Yet as much as finding “solitude” to “rendezvous with ghosts” seems the correct way to get in touch with your characters and the story they need to tell, it signifies the sacrifice that needs to be made in placing the loved ones in your life on hold while you give the ghosts your attention. Life is not all about making art in solitude all of the time and that is where I struggle, the balance.
    Perfect advice to “write in your own voice, the one you know!” Thank you!
    Cheers, Paul

  5. rubyblueroses

    Just when I had thought that I reached my minimum word count, telling my colleauges “I already cut 25k words; I can’t go any lower!”, I’m revising again and have cut 2 scenes and several unnecessary sentences which shaved off another 1,000 words! It wasn’t even painful to do (this time around)!

  6. Anna

    A book is nothing without the characters being well developed. It’s those type of characters the reader can’t stop thinking about, it makes them memorable. Sometimes it makes the reader fall in love with them (you know in the reading sense). If only some authors realized that then maybe they might take a little more time to get to know their characters before actually publishing something.

  7. LanaFun

    I needed to hear rule #4. Reading is about filling in the blanks with our own perceptions and experiences, so to “overwrite” is to take that away from our readers. It makes me think of book covers and how they often do not depict the scene or character that I have in my mind as I read.

  8. Ishmael

    “In fact, well-developed characters create a more convincing storyline, even shaping it or altering it against your original vision.”

    So true! I don’t know how many times that, when I’m in the zone – in a frenzy without really knowing what I’m writing, but FEELING what I’m writing – where the words just seem to find their places on the page all by themselves, I look at what’s evolved and find it’s not what I planned, but more what needed to be.

  9. terraluft

    My favorite rule from your list: #7 Don’t believe anyone’s rules but your own. Never truer words spoken! It’s taken me years to learn this for myself. Having your list years ago would have saved me so much! Thank you for sharing your wisdom

  10. dwmillersf

    Great advice. Things to consider both professionally and personally. Characterization is one of the toughest aspects to my writing. Number 1, I’m glad I’m not the only one, and number 2, I’m appreciative to ways to tackle it. 🙂

    I’ve always heard to let your writing sit awhile before revising, but your advice makes sense. I’m going to try it out with my current project.

    Thanks again!

  11. Agersomnia

    I agree with khanhha.
    Actors have the capacity to put themselves in the shoes of others: be it different nationality, skin color, age, or generation. And that same skill, of a variation of it, can be used by writers to change their POV, language, and the style. I’m a 30 something, Latin American born male. Yet I have done improvisational theatre, and had to play a female biker, down to mannerisms. It’s a matter of skills: empathy, observation, imagination.

  12. khanhha

    Hi Hauoli:

    Regardless of what POV you write from, you still need to assimilate yourself with the character chosen through your POV. You can write in a voice of a black, or a white, or an Asian, as long as you can come across convincingly. Read William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” and see how he created Dilsey convincingly, right down to the way she talks. Read Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” and enjoy the British butler’s POV. In fact, you can write outside of yourself — even mimicking a dog — but only when you know what realms you are entering. Otherwise, creatures that you created will become caricatures.

  13. hauoli

    Liked the article, but don’t 100% agree. Whose voice do you write in if you are black, brought up in a white household? White, brought up in Hindu household? Foster parent/adoptive parent with racial mix of children, different ages/backgrounds,involved with kid’s families? What about regional differences within a country? What if you are writing from a dog’s POV? Several different characters? A person with a disability? We live in a polyglot world, with a lot of overlap. Seems to me that, unless we try to write at least a bit outside of what we know, we are restricting ourselves. I don’t mean lampooning or otherwise making fun, but truly bein in tune with the people you are writing about.

    1. AggieCowboy


      I agree. In one piece, I have the MC experiencing the rush of IV drug use. I have never used recreational drugs, so I don’t have personal experience, yet (with enough research) I was able to write the scene with enough conviction and realism that a former user actually believed that I was “writing what I know.”

  14. Keli Wright

    Great insights. I love it when people speak from the heart, from their own experience–their own words and ideas, not a rehash. (That said, I am going to share this.) A lot to consider here, and I’m feeling much better about not making it through nanowrimo the one time I attempted it.

  15. AggieCowboy

    I agree everyone that the 7 rules are great tips. However, whenever I get stuck, it’s often because I can’t get into the mood of the scene for one reason or another. In this case, I’ll jump ahead a chapter or two, making notes as I go along (it’s not uncommon that I have to go back a few chapters and make some fixes because of the organic evolution of the characters).

    I also keep a side project or two going for those times when I need a break from the main project.

  16. Kymberleigh Anne

    Your 7 rules are GOLDEN! Congrats on the book release and being a newly published author. I wish you and your writing much success. I would love to read a copy of your novel, I love reading new authors. Continue writing and giving such great tips like your 7 rules!

  17. qatharms

    I am becoming convinced that discipline, strange as it sounds for the arts, is more important than knowing what I will write when I sit down. When I have a plan for my day, I get work done. When I start by waiting for inspiration, the day ends with a lot of fluff and no substance.If I wander around telling myself i will get going as soon as I do this one little thing, then a thousand little things fly up in my face like a swarm of flies and the day is gone.
    My personal discipline is first, to know that I am a morning person, and second, to keep email shut down till noon. If I do that, then I can plan to write a chapter or a blog post or do research for setting, and I will get it all done. It took a long time, but I am learning that I must be as disciplined about my writing as I ever was when I worked for other people. I must hold myself accountable. I don’t set a wordcount for a day, but I do set a measurable goal for each task.
    I love your seven-point list. I’m going to try to use it to help me grow.
    Thanks for sharing.

  18. JR MacBeth

    Possibly some of the best writing advice I have seen in a while. I completely agree, the prime focus must be characterization. Even the best story idea, with brilliant plot intuition to back it up, is nothing if the characters are flat, artificial feeling, uninteresting. So your advice is spot on. Build those characters! It is awesome when they come alive, taking your story in unanticipated directions, and more often than not, to new levels that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

    I have no idea what FLESH is about, but I will now go out and Google it. The title is a bit intimidating, but I’m intrigued!

  19. DMelde

    Hi Khanh,
    I like your rules. Sometimes my characters talk to me so much they won’t let me go to sleep at night, so I propose an eighth rule, Rule #8—Characters must have a strict bedtime. (Four is my lucky number so eight must be twice as lucky!) Thanks for sharing.

  20. Jan Morrill

    I especially liked the seven rules. . . a rendezvous with ghosts. If a list can be so beautifully written, I’m anxious to read the book. I’m going to post the seven rules by my computer. Thank you!


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