Rules, Shmules. Write! by Dean Gloster


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

            He was, of course, mistaken.

            There are lots of guidelines for writing a novel, and for writing generally, but none of them are really rules. They all have exceptions.


            “Show, don’t tell.” Really? Showing something, in scene, is powerful, and we do it for a reason, because it works to move readers. But for less emotionally engaging stuff, covering it in summary is more efficient and more thoughtful of readers’ time. And for some things an even better approach is to create suspense by withholding information—to hint and foreshadow and tease, instead of showing or telling.

            “Write what you know.” Oh, please. Yes, you should write with authority, and should generally set aside the arrogance that you’re the right person to tell other, very different people’s lived experience better than they can, especially without putting in the work. But what about fantasy? Historical fiction? Stories about death, which we living writers haven’t experienced? What about those stories that come to us that we absolutely must write, because we’re grappling with those issues in our own lives? We write them not because we understand, but because we want to understand. A better guideline is probably: write what you’re passionate about, think about whether this is your story to tell, and put in the work.

            When I got serious about writing fiction, I approached it the same way I had gotten through law school: I typed outlines of a couple dozen craft books on how to write that I’d read. That gave me a lot of information on craft, and a lot of guidelines on how to avoid common mistakes.


            But when I read some novels I loved, they went directly against some advice in those craft books. For example, there are lots of really good reasons not to repeatedly interrupt the front story of the novel with frequent flashbacks, but essentially every even-numbered chapter in Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a flashback. And it works wonderfully, because they are gripping, they end in cliff-hangers of their own creating suspense and tension, and they create a satisfying pattern. They come at key times: without them we wouldn’t understand or believe the motives for the protagonist’s next action in the front story.


            It’s mostly helpful to learn basic guidelines of writing craft, especially if you can understand them as just signposts to deeper wisdom: Engage the reader and don’t give them extra reasons to put down the book.


            But as you’re writing a first draft, sometimes it’s helpful to let all those guidelines go and just get that hot first draft on the page, so that you have something to work with and shape and improve later. My favorite quote on writing is from Shannon Hale, who reminds herself at that stage “I’m just shoveling sand into a box so that I can make castles later.”


            Whatever gets words on the page. After all, that was Mark Twain’s advice. He said, “the first rule is ‘write’, the second rule is ‘write’, and the third rule is ‘write’.

            By virtue of the power vested in me by my literary license, I hereby authorize you to follow or break the rules—whatever helps you get those words on the page and then shape them into a reader-engaging story.

Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His YA short story “Death’s Adopted Daughter” just came out in the anthology Spoon Knife 6: Rest Stop from Autonomous Press. He is working on two more YA novels now, one in draft and the other in revision. 


  1. I'm in that sand-shoveling stage right now. Great reminders.

  2. Me too. I realized in order for my current work to work, I have to age my main character by three years, but that will come after I finish the first draft. Great post, Dean.


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