Exceptions to Novel Writing Advice

When I got to grad school, one of the first things impressed upon me was that if I wanted to write novels, I needed to pay careful attention to character development. Within the course of their journey, my characters needed to grow and develop. A strong “character arc” was absolutely essential.

But here’s the thing. Some of my favorite novels, particularly those in series, are populated by such wonderfully quirky characters that I’m delighted to return to them again and again, precisely because they don’t change. It’s a bit like going to your favorite diner and knowing that the chicken and biscuits special is going to be just as yummy as it was the last time. When I read one of Janet Evanovich’s mysteries in her Stephanie Plum series, for example, I’m delighted that Lula, Stephanie’s full-figured sidekick and an ex-prostitute, is still talking smack, wearing spandex, and demanding they make a quick stop at “Cluck in the Bucket” for a snack. I love her just the way she is. I don’t want her to change.

Then there’s the case of Danielle Steel, whose romances have sold in the millions for decades. Reading one is like studying what novelists are constantly admonished to avoid doing. She spends much more time telling rather than showing what her characters are up to, repeats herself ad nausea, and moves her stories along at a pace that doesn’t even qualify as glacial.

And forget those endearing flaws and foibles characters are supposed to have. Steel’s heroines are irritatingly perfect—fabulously successful, stunningly beautiful, and beloved by all. Despite painful childhoods, they’re unerringly sensitive, thoughtful, and kind.

Yet, despite breaking all these “rules” about writing novels, Steel is a master at the only rule that really counts: She consistently hooks her readers and keeps them turning the pages.

For that, I take my hat off to her, even as I continue to wonder how she can manage to do everything seemingly wrong as a writer and have legions of readers who adore her work.

All in all, I’ve decided that W. Somerset Maugham had it right: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

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