Writers’ rules, rules, rules?

masksThere are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” W. Somerset Maugham

Similar thoughts are applied to comedy, theater, even to relationships. P.T. Barnum’s solution: “There are two rules.
One: always leave them wanting more…

Of course, Maugham meant “writing a successful novel”, however success is defined. The modern aspiring author scours the web for guides and hints, for tips and techniques to aid his/her quest for the creative Holy Grail – publication, income, recognition, income, affirmation, income, adulation, income…

Long before the web, writers had to sacrifice cats or their firstborn or their mothers-in-law for the secrets. Perhaps Shakespeare hinted at the source of his playwriting success when he wrote of the Three Witches or Weird Sisters in “the Scottish Play” (dare I name it? be brave…) officially called, “MacBeth”.

Shakespeare coined phrases and invented metaphors with a will*. Post-modernist artists and “pre-literate/post-literate” writers break many rules, although most of these are better described as traditions, yet they can still succeed critically and sometimes commercially.

Bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly made his mystic pact in south Rosedale, USA, where Highway 8 intersects with Highway 1. But the locus of soul-selling must have moved on as little else of note* has emerged from that location.

Inspiration is one thing (see my earlier post about Inspiration), but the skills to turn that wonderful idea into something presentable, something the wider world will admire and enjoy – now THAT is something different. Can it be developed by hard work? Is it a mystical gift? Does it require a sacrifice at the crossroads? Or can I get everything I need from the many, many, many, “how to write” websites? Regarding the latter, I found many to be excellent although much of the content is based upon college course notes and many sites offer the same content presented differently.  (I will revisit this issue in coming weeks.)

After extensive research and pondering, my conclusions are as follows:-

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

There are two rules.  One: always leave them wanting more…

Happy reading! Happy writing!

* puns intended

2 thoughts on “Writers’ rules, rules, rules?

  1. I think it’s just a shot in the dark, Andy. You can break rules and achieve success (Faulkner comes to mind), write crap and succeed (50 Shades of Gray) or obey them all and sound like recipe. No one knows the real rules for success.


    1. I agree. The success of James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness novel “Ulysses” is another example. Hitting the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, is a major factor in success. Maugham was actually saying that there are no rules for writing successful novels. All we can do is aim for success and try to ride the wave when it comes.

      But I do feel a writer must at least know the rules of grammar so s/he knows how to break them effectively! Grammatical rules ARE knowable, after all.


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