Skip to main content

6 Lessons of Writing for Novelists

As the author of 16 novels, Wendy Wax shares her top 6 tips for novelists to help their writing journey go as smoothly as possible.

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 Parenting Break: Finding Your Way Back to Literary Citizenship)

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

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.

The Break-Up Book Club by Wendy Wax

The Break-Up Book Club by Wendy Wax

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

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.

The Art of Storytelling 102: Showing vs. Telling

In this course, you'll learn the difference between showing and telling and when it’s good to tell instead of show, how to balance showing and telling to create memorable characters and realistic, seamless dialogue, and much more!

Click to continue.

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:

Lesson #6: You can fix anything. Except a blank page.

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Abbreviation vs. Acronym vs. Initialism (Grammar Rules)

Learn when you're using an abbreviation vs. acronym vs. initialism with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

What Is Investigative Journalism?

What Is Investigative Journalism?

Alison Hill breaks down the definition of investigative journalism, how good investigative journalism makes for sweeping societal change, and how the landscape of the work is evolving.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 6 WDU Courses, an Upcoming Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce six new WDU courses, a romance writing virtual conference, and more!

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Past experiences taught bestselling author Alan Russell to tread lightly when it came to collaborating on projects. Here, he discusses how the right person and the right story helped him go from a “me” to a “we.”

From Script

Short Film Goals, Writing the Cinematic Experience on the Page and Sundance Film Festival 2022 (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, set your creative goals with a monthly guide to write and produce your short film, provided by Script contributor Rebecca Norris Resnick. Plus, an exclusive interview with Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monahan, a Sundance Film Festival 2022 day one recap, and more!

Your Story Writing Prompts

94 Your Story Writing Prompts

Due to popular demand, we've assembled all the Your Story writing prompts on WritersDigest.com in one post. Click the link to find each prompt, the winners, and more.

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

Historical fiction relies on research to help a story’s authenticity—but it can also lead to developments in the story itself. Here, author Lora Davies discusses how inspiration and research helped shape her new novel, The Widow’s Last Secret.

Poetic Forms

Saraband: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the saraband, a septet (or seven-line) form based on a forbidden dance.

Karen Hamilton: On Cause and Effect

Karen Hamilton: On Cause and Effect

International bestselling author Karen Hamilton discusses the “then and now” format of her new domestic thriller, The Ex-Husband.