Saturday, January 2, 2010

How to Write a Great First Novel

By Susan

Two months ago I picked up a book at Barnes & Noble recommended by Pamela. "You must read this," she had emailed me. I had it for a few days before I started it on a Thursday night. Unable to sleep, I picked it up at 10:00 pm and finished it completely 8 hours later at 6:00 am. I passed it on to others with the similar effect: my mother-in-law devoured it. My sisters fought over the one copy I brought home at Christmas. Everyone I recommended it to seemed to love it as much as I did.

What was the novel? It was The Help, by first-time novelist Kathryn Stockett. For me, reading it unraveled every rule of novel-writing that I have ever learned. And it was completely delightful.

I'm not really a rule follower by nature, but up until 2009, I was writing away in an ignorant bliss, not even knowing which rules I was breaking. I knew none of the guidelines to writing a novel; I'd been trained as a journalist. This year, in getting serious about my manuscript (which includes, by the way, actually calling it a manuscript), I joined writing groups, started blogging, and went to workshops. I realized that there are hundreds of books written on the rules of writing a book (I had no idea!). I learned a lot about query letters and agents and publishing. I also learned a lot of rules and formulas. I learned the rules, and they made me squirm.

I started stressing about things like point of view and word count and sentence length. It seemed that the more I wrote, the more I read about writing, which then forced me to go back and rewrite everything I'd written. I started doubting myself (which, the books told me, was normal). I started thinking it was all crap (also, they say: normal). Long story short, I spent more time agonizing than I did actually writing. But I learned the rules.

Then I read The Help. Kathryn Stockett broke every rule that I had spent the past year learning. More than that, somehow she gave me permission to write the way I have wanted to write all along. And so, at the beginning of 2010, I have learned some new rules for writing:

1) It's OK to write a really long first novel...

2) It's OK to mix up points-of-view...

3) It's OK to use vernacular, slang, and stereotypical language...

4) It's OK to go over-the-top without being kitschy...

5) Basically, it's OK to break all the rules of writing...


None of the above are OK unless you are a really, really, really good writer.

Kathryn Stockett is that very talented writer. Yet I can't help but wonder what kinds of doubts and roadblocks greeted her in the journey to complete The Help. I think about well-meaning writing groups or former professors who could have advised her to shorten the length, or pick one voice, or to just choose ONE point of view. How many books are lining her shelves on "How to Write a Novel"? And then I wonder: what would have become of The Help if she had listened to them?

Stockett did what so many writers aspire to do with every submission: She wrote the Great First Novel and while doing so she broke most, if not all, of the rules. Does that mean that I can do it too? Aren't rules just made for breaking? If she did it, does that mean that you can do it too? Of course not. It only mean this: Someone with the talent, the story, and the tenacity to see it through can do it. It can be done.

And that gives me hope that all of my labor is not in vain. I don't know what will become of my manuscript. I'm not just breaking all the rules in a wild stab at becoming the latest and greatest new thing, but I am picking and choosing to whom I listen. The year 2009, for me, was an education in the rules. For 2010, my only resolution is to complete my novel by my rules, not everyone else's. After all, you've got to know the rules in order to break them.


  1. Great post and timely, too. This is the year I'm returning to writing my way. When I achieved initial success and then spun backwards - or so it seemed - I started doubting everything I wrote and so I rewrote everything. Now I'm back to rewriting - my way - breaking the rules I must but following the rules of good writing - I hope. But not all in vain - I've learned so much along the way.

  2. I, too, was encouraged by Pamela to read The Help. I have to admit I started it about a month ago, read the first page and put it down. There was something about the dialect that annoyed me so I stopped reading it. On New Year's Day, I picked it up again, and didn't put it down until I finished it at 6:30 a.m. (no sleep for me!). I absolutely loved it and am recommending it to all of my book club friends.

  3. So funny! A friend of mine who is also a writer just recommended this book to me. She told me I must read it! Now I am even more intrigued to settle down with it!


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