3 Rules for Writing a Novel


by Jessica A. Kent

I came across this quote the other day from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (To be clear, I came across this quote on Pinterest, so who knows if Mr. Maugham even said it…) First, there is truth to this. Writing a novel is a completely subjective experience, and every single person will do it differently: at a different time of day, at different speeds, with different prep work, etc. But, that doesn’t mean that I can’t try to give you three rules for writing a novel. Here goes:

Rule #1: Be Creative

Probably goes without saying, but think up a story. A good story. And then dwell on that story in your imagination for hours, days, weeks, years even. Let that story work into your soul and get a hold of your hopes and fears and musings, let it tap into your belief system and your passion and your desire, work on moulding it every day, adding conversations and subplots and characterization, until you have something wrought from your core. Be creative, which means be fearless with your imagination. Do not censor yourself. Push yourself to enter into that world, embody those characters, and internalize that thing until your loved ones start worrying about the distant look in your eyes.

Rule #2: Always Be Priming the Pump

This rule is both a past and a present rule, as the assumption is that you’ve already been priming your pump for ages. Read books. Read good books. Read the classics and read mass-market mysteries and read plays and read philosophy and read history and research topics that interest you and travel to places that interest you and have conversations with people that interest you and kick around on the internet learning new things and click into articles where you’ll learn new things and copy out sentences from books to see how good structure is done and think about story and what storytelling is and means and think deeply about the kinds of stories that move a person and let your curiosity go down the rabbit hole of various strange, geeky, complicated, wonderful interest areas. You will then never run dry on inspiration.

Rule #3: Be Unceasing

Work on your novel all the time. 90% of that is going to be in your head, as you lay awake at night creating new scenes for your characters, sitting on a train wondering how your characters would act on a train, sneaking moments on your work computer to research World War II Liberty Ships or Freedom Trail sites or the fiscal year of a restaurant, taking the chance to tune out of reality to retreat into the world of your novel. And then when you sit down to write, you will never be without material. It’s already been created in your brain; all you have to do is write it down. This cuts out that lousy excuse of waiting for the muse, or needing some kind of ritual to do before you write, or getting distracted. Writing isn’t about taking hours to get out a paragraph, or about waiting for the muse, or about pouring yourself out at the laptop. Writing is about unceasingly thinking about your characters to the point of obsession, and then being able to pull out a laptop wherever, whenever, and write, three sentences, three pages, three chapters.

Those are my three rules. What rules for writing a novel do you have?