One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Somerset Maugham who said, “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
This has been a very hard truth for a perfectionist like me to accept. In fact, for a good part of my publishing career, I kept hoping that someone with more experience would share a rule or two that would actually make the process easier.
The problem is that just like child-rearing, there are all kinds of theories and schools of thought and none of them are guaranteed to work. I remember when I was in the throes of potty training my first child and the pediatrician kept smiling serenely and assuring me that no one walks down the aisle in a diaper—as if I should take heart that we would have conquered this issue by the time my son reached adulthood. What I wanted was a foolproof method and a guarantee of success; something this doctor and all the ‘how to’ books I read were unable to provide.
Although I have no writing "rules" to offer, I’ve learned some important lessons over a 24-year writing journey that might come in handy.
6 Lessons of Writing for Novelists
Lesson #1: Like potty training, there are as many approaches to writing as there are people writing; it’s not a "one size fits all" kind of thing.
I was incredibly lucky to sell the first manuscript I wrote. This was a wonderful thing, but it also meant that I was under contract and facing deadlines before I actually felt like I knew what I was doing. With each new manuscript, I tried to figure out how to make the process feel less like brain surgery. I was convinced that other writers weren’t sweating it out like I was. But as I got to know more writers (including two longtime critique partners) I discovered something that made me feel better.
Lesson #2: All writers are "sweating it out." If the book is good enough, we just don’t see the sweat stains.
As a reminder of this, I’ve sent this musical number from the Broadway show Something’s Rotten to many of my writer friends. It’s sung by Christian Borle who plays Shakespeare and is called "Hard to Be the Bard."
Over the last two decades, I’ve tried and discarded all kinds of approaches that other writers swore by. There was the fill-in-the-blank plotting notebook that twisted me up in knots because I couldn’t come up with the required two-adjective descriptions of my characters and their motivations. And a color-coded system of plotting that showed how much page time each character and story thread got. One writer friend outlines her entire book before writing a single word and that outline includes which character’s point of view each scene will be written from. I once spent three weeks trying to do this and found it incredibly painful. Worse, when I finally started writing, what I wrote bore almost no resemblance to the outline that had so consumed me. This was not good for a paranoid perfectionist who began to worry that if she couldn’t even write an outline, she couldn’t possibly write a book.
Lesson #3: What works for other authors may not work for you.
Occasionally, you see an article in which an author reveals that their bestselling novel poured out of them without effort. As in words lept from their brain to their fingers, through the keyboard, and onto the page as if ‘auto written by some mystical force.
Although this has never happened to me or any writer that I know, it does sound lovely. This leads me to:
Lesson #4: Some authors may be delusional. Or exaggerating. Or perhaps experiencing the kind of amnesia that allows women to give birth more than once...
I am happy to say that time and experience have helped me come to terms with my own approach, which is highly instinctual, and often messy. There’s still that huge leap of faith required each time I sit down in front of a blank computer screen to begin a 400-page novel. And I confess to a ‘wee bit of whining’ during the months of writing.
Lesson # 5: Whining about the act of writing is acceptable. The amount of whining done while writing has no bearing on how well the book will turn out.
While it would be wonderful if there were, in fact, a set of rules guaranteed to produce a "perfect" manuscript, I’ve come to understand is that there is only one rule that matters. To be a writer you must write. This means you have to put the words on the page. Finish the draft. Complete the story. Once you get it on the page, you can (and will) revise it. This brings us to the most important lesson of all: