writing a novel rule book

Writing a Novel: Don’t Get Bogged Down with Rules

Are you in the process of writing a novel but feel a bit lost? Or do you want to write a novel but keep putting it off because you don’t know where – or how – to start? Have you been researching and reading up and are now more confused than ever before? The first thing to say is “don’t stress”. I know (from experience) that is easier said than done, but honestly, relax and focus on the reasons you want to write.

Before I go any further, I must make a disclaimer. I am not (yet) a published author. I have no formal creative writing training or qualification (I do have various literature ones but not how to teach someone to actually write). I have however done the research, stressed over how to start and ultimately found a way that worked for me to get started. At the time of writing, I’m currently thirty thousand words deep into writing my first novel (you can keep up to date with my progress on my writing update posts here). So, this is my experience and the lessons that I’ve learnt, but I hope they can be of help to someone else too.

At the end of the day, your book will not write itself. No matter how you choose to write, unless you actually sit down and write, your story will never see the light of day. That’s the sad truth of the matter and for many stories they live and die in the imagination of someone who has the idea but never gets past that to write it down and share it with others.

Which brings us to the rules of writing a novel. Well actually, it brings us to the realisation that there are no rules. Yes, there are grammatical rules when it comes to the actual science of writing, but so far as getting started with novel-writing, there are no rules. We think there are, and we sometimes feel constrained by rules, or rather what we perceive to be rules, but, when it comes to it, we are free to write what and how we want.

Here are some examples of what I mean …

Plotter v Pantser

In my experience, I was under the impression that I needed to plot my novel out before I got started. I thought I needed to know every minute detail of what would happen when and how the story would flow before I could write a single word. I then discovered that it was also perfectly acceptable to just write by the seat of your pants and go with the flow and write as it comes. There are no rules as to which is the best way and, like many things about writing, the individuality of you the writer, is the key to what works best for you. You are unique. Your story is unique. How you write it is unique. Bear this in mind and don’t feel bogged down by rules and choosing which route is best for you.

In the end, I merged the two. I started by writing random, unrelated passages that I knew would fit into the book somewhere, somehow, sometime. They came to me “in the moment” and I felt an urge to get them written down while the words were swirling in my head and I was living the moment. I could write from experience as the experience was happening, or in the immediate aftermath. I wrote various pieces before I felt I was in a place to start writing “properly”. I then used [AFF] Scrivener, to plan out the structure of my story with loosely named chapter headings. I knew roughly what would happen in each chapter, so a heading was all I needed to remind me of what that chapter would be about.

Once I had that plan, I went back to flying by the seat of my pants and wrote odd bits here and there before settling to fill in the gaps. I still don’t have a firm plan of the plot. In fact various bits have changed as I’ve been writing. The characters have told me bits of the story I didn’t even know myself and I have enjoyed finding things out this way. I don’t think that would have happened had I plotted and planned the whole thing before I started. This won’t work for everyone but it works for me and I am glad to have ditched the rules and gone with what felt right for me,

Chronological and Linear v Ad Hoc

Another misconception I had was that I had to start at the beginning, work my way through the middle and finally, get to the end. Again, I thought this was the rule. Turns out it’s not. There’s no need to write in a linear fashion unless that’s the way that works best for you. It does work for some people, but it is not the right way for everyone.

I was really surprised that ad hoc worked for me as I am the kind of organised person who would usually follow a path from start to finish. Not so with novel writing. As I said in the section above, I started off writing bits and pieces on scraps of paper before working out the sequence of those sections. Once I had a bit more of a structure, I then wrote a couple of chapters that I felt very strongly about and knew I could write more easily than some of the others. So that’s what I did. After that, I went back to the beginning and started to fill in the gaps, which is what I am continuing to do now. However, if I suddenly feel compelled to write chapter 22 rather than chapter 8, I’m going to go with it and come back to where I am chronologically in the story when I’m good and ready.

One word of warning if you write your novel in the ad hoc way is that (in my experience anyway), things changed over the course of writing and I’ve had to tweak bits I’d written earlier to make it make sense with the plot changes. I guess this is the same if you write chronologically but with ad hoc you have to be careful you’ve caught all the places you need to. This is where proofreading and editing will be crucial, to ensure continuity throughout.

Points of View in Novel Writing

There is no hard and fast rule about whether you should write in the first, second or third person when telling your story. They all work but often the best point of view will depend on the style of your writing and the story you are telling. So long as it is natural and works with your style and story, then choose the best for you. Remember you can occasionally mix things up but only if you’re really careful and it works. The reader always needs to know whose story they’re hearing. This is also important if you’re writing from several different first person points of view in one book.

Writing Medium and Tools

Do you prefer to handwrite your draft, rather than sitting at a computer bashing out words on a typewriter? If so, then handwrite your first draft. You will eventually need to transpose it onto a computer but that does not mean that you have to write it that way. Again, do what works best for you. I personally, have done a bit of both with my current work in progress. It’s mostly been typed on the laptop but I have also done some pieces handwritten in a notebook and then transposed those to the laptop later.

Similarly, there are no hard and fast rules about the tools you choose to use for writing. Obviously if you are handwriting, a notebook and pen are the best way to go unless you use an old-fashioned scribe! But with computers, you can use a multitude of programs such a plain old MS Word, [AFF] Scrivener (which is what I use), Ulysses (which I use for my daily journal), Evernote etc. There is a huge choice and what works for one person won’t work for someone else. Test out a few programs or ways of working before you settle on what works best for you.

I personally use [AFF] Scrivener, which I treated myself to after using their 30 day trial first (which is a great trial as it’s not necessarily thirty consecutive days but thirty days of use – so if, for example, you only use it twice a week, you’ve got a 15 week trial. It’s only if you use it everyday that it’s a thirty consecutive day trial).

As I said above, I use Ulysses for my daily journal and I find that a great tool for doing that, but the one thing that frustrated me was, while it gave me a word count for each sheet, it didn’t give me an overall word count for a whole project. Scrivener gives you a daily word count, a word count per chapter (and sub-chapter) and an overall word count for the whole book. Plus it has a writing history function so you can keep a track of what you’ve written every day. It also doesn’t add the word count of any notes to the overall totals but does let you know in the history how many words you’ve added to note sections too. I discounted using Evernote for similar reasons and because I personally couldn’t see how I could make it work for a book. Finally, I chose not to use MS Word because I thought I’d end up writing it all in one document and it wouldn’t be so easy to move things around if I needed to change the order of chapters.

Editing Your Novel Writing

Do you edit as you go along? Edit at the end? Edit in chunks? What’s the rule here? Well … surprise, surprise … there is no rule. Different writers find different ways of editing work best for them. Find the one that is right for you. Or in fact, the one that is right for your work in progress. You might find that a different project means you approach it in an alternative way and you use an entirely different process.

I have chosen not to edit my book until I’m finished. I read a quote from Terry Pratchett early on in my writing journey that said “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” That really resonated with me and I’ve found working to that is really helping me. I have edited on a very small scale if I’ve had to read over something to tweak it for consistencies in plot changes etc. but I have done no major editing whatsoever and don’t plan to until the first draft is complete. I do not expect that everyone could work this way and other people will edit everything as they go along. Choose what feels right for you.

When to Write

Some people find they are at their most creative early on in the morning before the day really gets going. Some people find their imagination is at it’s peak just after they’ve eaten their lunch. And some people find that as they unwind after a long and busy day doing all the other things they need to do in life, they are able to write freely and openly. We are all individual. We all have different life commitments. We all have different home and family lives. It is true that consistency helps to build a habit and you should get into the habit of writing daily but you are not breaking the rules if you don’t, or can’t.

Test out writing at different times of the day and work out what time is the best for you. Then try to write at that time every day. It is possible that you will find that you can write at any time, just so long as you have some peace and quiet. It was my plan at the beginning, to get up half an hour earlier than I normally would and use that time to write. The house is always quiet at that time and I would be able to just sit in the stillness and get on with it. However, I found that didn’t work for me. I’d be too tempted to look at work emails and clear things off my to do list that I didn’t want to do later etc. I just didn’t settle to writing like I thought I would.

Instead, I have found that evening works better for me. I thought I’d be too tired by then and would just want to sit down and relax, and I will admit that some days that is exactly how I feel and oftentimes, I will give in to that and won’t write (as you’ll know if you read my daily journal). However, it’s the best time of the day, for me, to get my writing done.

A Summary of the Rules for Writing a Novel

In summary therefore, the only rules you need to follow are the ones you set for yourself. Trial things out, mix things up, go out of your comfort zone and away from what you feel you have to do. Telling your story is important. Don’t put it off because you’re worried about getting it wrong. Just write. Freely. Let the world hear what you have to say.

Where are you on your novel writing journey? What rules were you under the misconception you had to follow? What rules have you broken? Or do you think there are rules which should be followed ? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear your experiences.

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