Writing “Rules” I Now Break

Author W. Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Maybe there aren’t any rules per se, but there are quite a few suggestions given often enough that they almost seem like rules for writers. And I’ve been thinking lately about which ones I’ve learned to break.

Broken pencil

“Just vomit the words on the page.”

Many successful authors suggest that you write as quickly as possible and with wild abandon. Theories abound that you can tap into that deeper, truer subconscious when you spill your story onto the page like a rushing waterfall. Word sprints and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are dedicated to the idea that you should get out that first draft by surging forth and getting words, words, words on the page.

Yes, I’m sure this method works for many, and I encourage writers to give it a shot. (I even wrote once about my 25k week.) However, I’ve discovered my “muse” often cannot be trusted with such carte blanche. She turns out a lot of horrible drivel that way, with very few gems. I don’t like having to throw out 20,000 bad words I wrote in a hurry when I could use that time to slow down and make sure what I’m putting down is the best I can do. I simply don’t write well this way, so instead I now write at the more measured pace that works for me.

“Turn off your internal editor.”

In the same vein is this idea that you should shut off that pesky internal editor that wants you to fix errors right now. I agree, and have written about, how you shouldn’t be editing with a fine-tooth comb those pages you may very well throw out. That’s a waste of good writing time.

However, I do two editing things while writing now:

1. I start each day going back through the last scene I wrote and tweaking as I go. That gets my brain back into the story but also quiets that little voice in my head that has been wondering since yesterday if “plucked” would work better than “yanked” in that scene (or something like that).

2. When I realize I have a plot or character problem/inconsistency, I go back and fix it where it occurs. Some people just write a note in the margin or asterisk where they need to fix the plot hole or keep a running list of issues to address later. However, my brain goes too far down that wrong road if I don’t go back and fix the problem as soon as I realize it’s there.

I kind of like my internal editor. She isn’t too bossy, but she’s got a lot of helpful things to say. But hey, that’s just me.

“If you’re blocked on a scene, just writing something, anything…just write!”

Writers write and claiming writer’s block for days or weeks while you piddle and ponder is certainly no way to finish novels.

That said, this last week I just couldn’t get a particular chapter down. I finally walked away. I folded laundry, washed dishes, started dinner, and listened to music. Periodically, I contemplated what was happening in my book and why I was struggling. Finally, as I was moving linens from my clothes washer to the dryer, I realized what the kink was in my scene.

Would I have figured out that if I’d continuing plowing through the scene, trying this or that? Or even jotting down questions and answering them? I don’t think so. For myself, I find that I can resolve certain plot or character problems better when I’m nowhere near my novel — when I’m walking the neighborhood or taking a shower or petting the cat or even doing laundry. So for me, no more plugging through a scene if it isn’t working. It’s better for me to take a day off and work out the kinks than keep writing.

So how is my approach working for me? Here’s my weekly update for A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life.


1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. So close, I can taste it! I should be done in a day or two, then I’ll let the manuscript sit for a week before diving in for another round of edits.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. Waiting to finish #1 first.

3. Read 12 books. I’m still at 9 books for the round, having stalled out a bit this week.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Attended the conference, learned lots, and getting close to tying up the loose ends.

So what writing “rules” have you heard? Which ones do and don’t work for you? And how was your week?


8 thoughts on “Writing “Rules” I Now Break

  1. I’ve found that writing prompts the writing start when I’m stuck. But I have to have a plan. I can’t just sit down and wing it. My muse likes a little structure.

    1. Is your internal editor helping or hurting? I think that’s the first question. If you can’t finish the scene or chapter or book, or you’re beating it all to death, then your internal editor needs to be ignored (at great effort by you) until it learns to stop tapping you on the shoulder. But if it’s just stopping you now and again to tweak a bit, I’d roll with it.

      Best wishes, Mike!

  2. I agree. I write with wild abandon, BUT after creating an extensive outline where some scenes are already drafted. I don’t edit while I write—usually. There are exceptions, but I don’t list the exceptions because then they’d become rules. Basically, if what needs changed is nagging me I’ll go back, but I’m pretty good at ignoring that voice. You’re exactly right about the benefits of stepping away to shake loose the blockage. Often I have the solution worked out before I can cross the apartment.

    1. I love that phrase, “shake loose the blockage.” That’s exactly how it felt! Now I would never have stopped writing for days, but sometimes you just have to walk away for a bit.

      Happy writing!

  3. Hey Julie, thanks for this. As I said, I break all the same rules you do. There are often times when I sit down and my wicked little subconscious voice says “I don’t feel like writing today,” but I slap it aside and once I begin, can usually manage to get carried away in the story … as long as I have an outline!

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