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The 3 Rules of Writing Novels

by Caroline Hiley, editor

These are the primary facts of life about writing and publishing a novel:

  1. It’s your story, your voice, your work.
  2. Writing is a craft as well as an art.
  3. Once your book leaves your hands, it becomes a product.

Remember these facts, and you will have little trouble in your journey as a novelist. Here’s why:

  1. It’s your story, your voice, your work.

Every story can be written dozens, sometimes hundreds, of different ways. Just ask anyone who has recast their novel over and over again in response to personal drive, beta reader feedback, or editorial direction. Sometimes the biggest problem is knowing when to stop!

What makes a story yours is how you express it. Just like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two authors’ voices are the same. Even if you’re retelling a classic fairy tale and the story itself is unoriginal, the way you write it is what counts. This is the basis of copyright protection.

Aside from that legal aspect—a work is protected by copyright from the moment it comes into existence—it’s your responsibility to establish and hold boundaries around your work. Some boundaries are intangible, like accepting or rejecting influence, while others are concrete, like contract terms. You need to know yourself well and be clear about your goals if you want to make the transition between writing a novel and publishing it.

First thing to understand is that only the tiniest percentage of writers get their novels shipshape in one draft. The rest of us need help somewhere along the line. The old saying “can’t see the forest for the trees” applies here, in that it’s nigh impossible to perceive overview and detail at the same time. A writer is usually so intimately involved in creating the story world that they can’t detach enough to perceive the package as an outsider would. That’s why we need beta readers and editors. Those other eyes see what the author can’t. Ideally the multiple perspectives combine to make a novel the best it can be.

Having the flaws in your work pointed out is a hurtful experience. Some writers can’t take this and either skip the help phase or get so defensive about it that they draw their boundaries too tightly and reject every suggestion. Others writers swing the opposite way and revise to accommodate every person’s preferences. That rapidly becomes a merry-go-round you can’t get off, and might result in the book getting worse instead of better. Savvy writers manage their emotional reactions and take what they need from the feedback, reject the rest, and move on toward their writing and publishing goals.

Savvy writers also recognize that every reader will have a different reaction to every story, whether they’re your mother, an agent, an editor, a paying customer, or a reviewer. Pleasing all of them can’t be done, so don’t bother trying.

Bother, instead, to get your vision translated into clean, coherent prose and structure so the most readers possible will be able to understand and embrace it. Figure out who you want to connect with and aim your fine-tuning efforts at them.

There is one way you can share your work without anyone else touching it: Take advantage of the various self-publishing options and release the book under your total control. The payback is unlikely to be good, but you’ll have the satisfaction of keeping your artistic integrity unsullied. Every novel has an audience; it might be only one person or a handful, but if you get your book out there far and wide, you will eventually find your reader(s).

However, if you want to be read by hundreds—thousands—millions of people, and thus make money, then you have to adjust your expections, swallow some of your pride, gain patience, and revise the content or style of the novel enough to appeal to readers of diverse tastes and worldviews. That means finding the balance point between what you want to write and what a specific audience wants to read.

If you seek help in doing this through conventional publishing, then not only will you likely have to compromise somewhere, but also you could lose control over your work if you don’t read the fine print in a contract. Once you’ve signed with an agent or publishing house, you can’t change your mind without consequences.

Your boundaries, then, must be solidly understood within yourself before you reach out to others. Look at your boundaries in light of your goals, and be prepared to think hard about what you want so you can respond appropriately when faced with hard choices. Be prepared to accept the consequences any time you stick to your guns; don’t play the blame game. It’s your book, and you are ultimately responsible for its fate through saying yes or no at decision points.

The upside of hard choices is the gain that can come from pain. Commonly, the character, plot, or plausibility point causing the strongest reader or editor objection (and the most distress in you at the thought of changing or cutting it) came from your heart and feels vital to the story. You need to own this problem and solve it by one of two means: (1) Dig deep into your creativity and figure out how to make the problem point work to mutual satisfaction, or (2) just delete the problem (an action known as “killing your darlings”) then use it in another work. Sometimes problem parts truly are extraneous, something you love that just doesn’t serve the story. But it might be that you only need to solve a craft issue, and doing so will set the art free.

  1. Writing is a craft as well as an art.

Just because you write something with all your heart and soul doesn’t mean it’s any good. “Good” is a subjective judgment, based on other people’s taste; but it’s also a technical judgment, based on coherence and convention. A small percentage of the reading public is open to experimental material or has a high tolerance of sloppy presentation. The rest expect novels to follow certain standards of story structure, language use, and genre tropes, and they don’t want to see typos or poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling, or boring info dumps, or unbelievable characters and situations. It’s an insult to readers to foist immature work upon them. They want the best you can do.

Therefore, if you desire good sales and reviews, you’ll have to study writing and story craft as well as find someone who knows what they’re doing to review the manuscript and help polish it. Rare is the writer who has all the skills needed to conceive and execute a story for hundreds of pages so that other people can get lost in reading it. The greater a writer’s experience, the less they have to learn and compromise, but until that experience has been attained, the writer must expect to work long and hard, and receive some negative results along the way to success.

In all the arts—writing, painting, dance, music, sculpture, drama—a common wisdom is, “You have to know the rules in order to break them.” Knowing the rules is craft. Knowing when to break them is art. Writers who don’t know the rules, who think art alone will carry their work to acclaim, generally don’t succeed to their satisfaction. To avoid that, do your homework, and allow people who are farther along the path than you to help. That’s how the successful folks become successful. Learning to write is a continuum, and you are at your own point along it, seeking always to advance along the line. There is no ultimate point of achievement, only process and evolution.

  1. Once your book leaves your hands, it becomes a product.

Many people liken writing a book to having a baby, and revising it to raising a child. Publishing a book is like pushing a fledgling out of the nest to fly or fall. You might retain a connection to the creature you’ve created, but it has become an independent entity that will leave you behind.

That phase begins the moment you let another person read the manuscript. What lived privately in your head becomes an object vulnerable to other people’s perception. The only way to prevent this is to keep the manuscript in a drawer. It’s shocking to learn how differently other people will interpret what seems to clear to you, or react opposite to what you intended. Depending on what you wrote, how you wrote it, who reads it, your relationship to them, and how adept they are at couching critique in technical rather than personal terms will determine how well the book (and you) weathers exposure.

Editors, unlike most beta readers, are trained to view a book in craft and marketplace terms, and their job is to analyze the forest while an author is focused on the trees (and vice versa). They are the test readers before a novel hits the public, who help finesse an author’s work and advance it toward their publishing goals. The keyword here is help. Editorial feedback helps authors make the technical and psychic transitions to understanding their book as a product—the result of art and craft honed for reception in the wider world. Once money enters the equation, either going out or coming in, your art object becomes a consumer product.

Usually when you read an author’s acknowledgments in a published book you see a list of folks who contributed to the project. “It takes a village” is a common theme. Authors who seek help, love help, accept help, reach their goals. Authors who spurn it usually don’t. That’s why it’s important to understand the reality rules of writing and publishing. Own your work, ask for and accept help with it, and recognize that it will become something beyond you, for better or worse.

Then get to work on the next story!


Caroline Hiley is a professional editor who can help you improve your novel.

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