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Writing Rules

Photo by Crystal [1]
Photo by Crystal

Ever since I read W. Somerset Maugham’s quote about his three rules for writing a novel, I’ve been thinking about it. Here’s what Maugham said:

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

It’s kind of joke, I know. But it’s also serious. Maugham wrote twenty novels and a lot of other stuff, too, and he knew what he was doing. I can’t be sure, but I think he was saying that the art or craft of writing is a mystery to even those who are successful—the rules are hard (if not impossible) to articulate. And yet, there are books written, there are rules and there are guidelines. Individually we can each have certain truths we write by (or don’t).

It made me wonder if I have any rules for writing—or truths I write by—and if I do, are they worthy of sharing?

After I thought about it for a few days (and about writing a post about it), I wondered if other writers could or would synthesize their writing process into just three rules. So I did what any modern (and uncertain) writer would do, I asked on Facebook. Specifically the Writer Unboxed Facebook group.

I posted the Maugham quote and asked if anyone had rules for writing fiction.

Here’s what I got. Claire Greer commented with Diana Gabaldon’s three rules: Read, Write. Don’t stop. Lorin Oberweger offered four “extremely valuable guidelines,” including #1, “Really learn and understand scene structure. As an early riser, I really liked what Becky Brandon said she’d learned from her dad: “Write first thing in the morning so that all the characters could be clearly heard.” Steve Harrison said there are no rules or advice, only guidelines and opinions. (Thank you to all who left comments; I really appreciated your thoughts.)

If Three is Good, Is More Better?

But I still hadn’t come up with my own three rules, so of course I branched out to Google, where I found lots of writers (like me) who had taken a crack at their own version of three rules.

But I found more.

Specifically, an article in The New Yorker by Teddy Wayne [2], who said there are not three but eight rules to writing fiction (number 1 on his list is show don’t tell). Kurt Vonnegut [3] also had eight rules, his first: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” Elmore Leonard [3] said there are ten rules (his first: never open with the weather). Open Culture presented twenty rules of writing according to Stephen King [4] (King’s first rule is to write for yourself, and then worry about audience). Matt Haig at booktrust.org [5] has twenty-five rules (his #1 is never be in awe of your own style).[pullquote]The truth is that writing doesn’t fit neatly into rules or into business syndromes or principles or effects. Not everyone thinks or creates alike, so there is no one-size fits all. [/pullquote]

Down the Rabbit Hole

Reading the advice and rules of these big time authors, raised yet another problem. (Stephen King, after all, is the best known writer from my very own state.) As a pre-published and self published writer…suddenly the problem isn’t only about coming up with my own three writing rules, it’s also about my feelings of latent inadequacy…am I even good enough to offer rules about how fiction should be written? Self-doubt aggravated by the impostor syndrome [6] rears its ugly head (The impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments, originally described by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978.)

The imposter syndrome is not new to me. It’s annoying and sometimes inhibiting (like when I’m wondering if a blog I’m writing for Writer Unboxed about writing rules will ever be good enough), but I’d rather feel like a fraud than suffer from the Dunning-Kruger [7] effect which is when you really aren’t that good (in fact you’re downright incompetent) but because you don’t know you’re incompetent, you have an over-inflated sense of yourself. (Although, maybe from a personal happiness standpoint, this would be better because I’d think every blog post I ever wrote, every thing I ever wrote period was fabulous, even if no one else did—and how would I know?) This is kind of the fake it ’til you make it without knowing you’re doing it syndrome.

And I’m also relieved that I don’t have the Peter Principle [8]—when someone rises to their highest level of incompetence, promoted until they reach a position at which they can no longer work competently. Eventually (according to Wikipedia) this leads to all work being done by people who have not yet reached their level of incompetence. This would be like me getting a position teaching about writing three rules for writing a novel when I clearly feel like an impostor even writing this blog.

One thing I know I don’t have is the overconfidence effect [9]—an overblown sense of my own competence—because if I did, I wouldn’t hesitate to offer my three rules for writing fiction and a whole lot more.

Writing Rules!

Now, the transition back to those three rules. The truth is that writing doesn’t fit neatly into rules or into business syndromes or principles or effects. Not everyone thinks or creates alike, so there is no one-size fits all. There are whole books for grammar, for style, for craft, and there are as many or more rules than there are even writing experts. Which brings us back full circle to Maugham.

And my three rules, which I finally figured out:

  1. Write
  2. Revise
  3. Repeat

Because when all is said and done, I have the simplest rule of all. Just write. That’s all I have to offer. Write. Because for me it’s not about the writing rules, it’s that writing rules.

Do you suffer from Impostor Syndrome (or one of the others)? Do you believe in rules for fiction? Your turn to share your three (or more or less) rules for writing fiction.

About Julia Munroe Martin [10]

Julia Munroe Martin [11] (@jmunroemartin [12]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.