Rules of the Writing Game

There are thousands of books on the market telliing us how to write the novel. Balancing those are Somerset Maugham’s oft-quoted adage, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

The truth is, we can change the rules of the game (assuming there are any rules). Why not? After all, it’s our game. We can do anything if we can make it work. But . . . if we want readers, we have to fulfill our side of the contract by fulfilling their expectations. If we write a boring story when we promised a thriller, if we don’t furnish a satisfying ending, if the book is riddled with typos and inconsistencies, then we have not fulfilled reader expectations.

In this anything goes publishing world, readers’ expectations seem at an all time low, otherwise why would they put up with the unedited, poorly constructed books that are downloaded every day by the hundreds of thousands? Still, most of us want more for our books than to be today’s free download fad. We want our books to have a life of their own, a life for which people are willing to pay a fair price. And for that, we need to know how to write, communicate, and tell a story.

Certain aspects of story telling never change — you need a beginning that hooks people, a middle that makes them want to keep reading, and an ending that satisfies. The writing has to be comprehensible. No reader wants to read the same sentence over and over again, trying to make sense of it. They want to find out what happens to the character. Which brings us to an important “must.” You must have a character who wants something desperately enough to drive the action of the story. Even if the character is unwilling to take action at the beginning, somewhere along the line she needs to take things into her own hands. A character who is unwilling to participant in her own story gets boring after awhile, and no matter how things change, that first commandment of writing will always hold true — though shalt not bore thy reader.

So, what are the rules of your game? What traditional rules do you follow? What rules do you make up? If you create your own rules, how do you make your story work?

The First Commandment of Writing

I just finished reading a dozen chapters of a book online. It wasn’t bad, merely boring; it read like a synopsis rather than a fleshed out novel. Several people left her comments explaining how to improve her writing, and to each she responded, “This is the way I write.”

She seems to be perfectly content in her little world, writing her little book for her online friends. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we can all write the way we want. We can mix genres; we can have long rambling discourses and internal monologues; we can show off our dazzling knowledge in great passages of exposition. After all, we are the masters of our story universe.

We can do whatever we please. Unless, of course, we want to be published. If so, there are certain conventions to which we must adhere. The novel must have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. There must be a protagonist and an antagonist. There must be conflict between the two of them. There must be enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested.

Readers have certain expectations, and they have a right to have them met. Sure, we can write however and whatever we please, but if we want a wide readership, we must consider the reader. And the first commandment of writing is “Thou shalt not bore thy reader.”