RECIPE FOR SUCCESS: 5 Basic Rules for Fiction Novelists

by | Nov 21, 2018 | On writing | 14 comments

My first cookbook by Betty Crocker

By Robin Burcell

Lisa Black asked an intriguing question on her blog last week: Do you cook like you write? Though she was talking about food, her post immediately caught my interest. I’ve often thought that cooking and writing are skills that can be taught, but (generally) have to be practiced with regularity—and a lot of trial and error—to achieve proficiency. And, as such, I’ve come up with the 5 Basic Rules for Good Writing. (If you’re interested in other writers’ rules, check out this link to The Guardian’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” starting with Elmore Leonard’s famous ten.
Mind you, I am very much self-taught. I may never reach the heights of such literary stardom. But I know what I like to read, which brings me to my “5 Basic Rules for Novelists.”
1.    You need a good recipe. 
2.    Too many cooks spoil the broth.
3.    Sample it while you’re cooking to make sure you have the right ingredients.
4.    You can copy a good recipe, but true success will come from an original dish.
5.    Not everyone will like what you’ve cooked.
I made my first quiche from a basic recipe over thirty years ago—around the same time I taught myself to write. I used to have to pull out that quiche recipe every single time. Eventually, I only needed it for reference to remind myself about how many eggs, or how much cream to use. Over the years, I changed a lot of the ingredients. The original recipe called for 3 eggs. I now use 5 or 6, depending on what else I add to it. In fact, the recipe in my head is so far removed from the original, I could safely put it out there as my own. But I wouldn’t have known how to make it—or change it up—if I hadn’t copied the original way back when. I taught myself to write the same way I taught myself to bake that quiche. Which brings me to my first rule of cooking a book:
       1.    You need a good recipe. 
Think of a successful novel as the signature dish at a great restaurant. Everyone wants the recipe. But what if the chef refuses to hand it over? Or the recipe he hands over is for the basic dish, not the special spices he uses to raise it out of the ordinary? The beauty of a novel, however, is that it contains every single ingredient—but you might not recognize what you need if you don’t study how it’s put together. Can’t recall where I read it, but you can’t break the rules unless you know what they are. This is true with crafting a novel. When I decided to seriously pursue novel writing, I dissected books like they were college texts. I wrote notes in the margins, highlighting how the author introduced new characters, what sort of description (or lack of) accompanied it, the use of transitions to signify time passing, how a chapter ended, etc., etc.  Then I tried to apply those lessons to my own work. 

2.    Too many cooks spoil the broth. 
One For the Money dissection.
There may be a few authors who can turn out a great book without anyone putting in their two cents, but some of us need guidance (beyond our polite spouses who love everything we do) to let us know when we’ve ventured too far off track. When I first started writing, I joined a critique group. We read ten pages at a time then jotted down the advice each critique partner dished out. Problem was that some had one idea of which direction the story should go, while others wanted it another way. What’s a writer to do? Take all that advice with a grain of salt, but don’t put all of it into your story—or you risk turning it into a muddy stew. In other words: be willing to accept critique, but be careful on how you use it. 
3.    Sample it while you’re cooking to make sure you have the right ingredients.
Have you ever stood over a pot of soup, tasted it, and can’t figure out what it needs? Sometimes it’s necessary to hand that spoon to someone else and get their opinion. (See rule # 2 about too many cooks when you do.) The right person can tell you something’s wrong, but maybe not be able to pinpoint what it is. Or maybe they can. Is it missing something big and basic? Or does it just need a dash of a certain spice? Writing is no different. You’ve got to sample it as you go along or you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be. The best way I know is to print out and read it from the beginning—several times through the process. This helps with continuity and identifying what is missing or what needs to be cut. This is where you need to be brave. Especially if you start to suspect that your basic recipe sucks. You might need to dump a lot of words, maybe even the entire novel, and start over. Only you will know. And if you do stop to sample that manuscript, it really, really helps to print out the hardcopy and work from that. If time permits, step away from it for a day or so before reading. Deconstruct your recipe, determine what you’ve added too much of, or don’t have enough of, and fix it from there.
4.    You can copy a good recipe, but true success will come from an original dish.
Some people are fortunate enough to be masters right out of the chute—but trust me, they’re rare. That cooking show where they are given specific (and usually odd) ingredients, and actually create an amazing dish, works because those particular chefs have been doing it a while. They know how to cook. I’ll let you in on a secret: Some bestselling authors probably started off copying someone else’s recipe. (Note that I’m not saying they tried to publish that recipe.) James Rollins once told a writing group that he learned how to structure a novel from a Clive Cussler book. He used it as a template, adding action and suspense in the same places that Cussler included those elements. But Rollins wrote his own story, characters and plot to go with it Eventually he didn’t need the template any more. He became proficient at the basics. He can look in his pantry and know which ingredients will work, when to add them, and how long to cook that plot. He became an international bestseller after he started creating his own recipes. Years ago, back when I devoured romance novels like a bag of Lays Potato Chips (“no one can eat just one”), I read a historical romance that was suspiciously like another from a more established author, except the newer “author” changed the character names, added a quirky aunt, and set it on a different continent. She. Got. Caught. (As have others with even bigger authors. Google it.) I promise, anyone who tries this will get caught, too. So, let me reiterate: It’s okay to copy a recipe when you are starting off and trying to learn. But if you want to publish a recipe, it needs to be new. Your own.
5.    Not everyone will like what you’ve cooked.
We all have different tastes when it comes to food and drinks. And books. Don’t take offense if someone doesn’t like the dish you’ve presented. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up a novel that has received a bazillion rave reviews, only to be disappointed. Sometimes I refuse to read or finish a book that everyone is talking about because I’m not in the mood. Months, even years later, I might pick it up again, and be blown away by just how much I enjoyed it. Or not. Because sometimes, no matter how beloved a book might be to someone else, it is not my cup of tea. Period. You will find this is true with what you write. If you’re not happy with the reception, you may need to revisit rule #1. 
One of many books on writing. 
And there you have it. My five “rules” of writing. Of course, it would be silly to talk about good recipes without talking about the myriad of books that contain them. I still think it helps to be reminded of the basics before I start (or sometimes when I’m in the middle of a book), especially when I know something is wrong with my work in progress. The thing to remember with any book on writing is that they offer variations on the basic recipes from that author’s viewpoint. Consider them guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Anything that gets me thinking about what I’ve written and where I need to go can be helpful. Master these and you might become a top chef. 
So, Rogue Readers, what are your thoughts? Do you have any “rules” you’d like to add to my recipe? Or any good books on writing that helped you to break the rules?  

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  1. Karna Bodman

    What a thoughtful – helpful – list, Robin…these are great "rules" for all authors, especially aspiring writers! When I first started writing thrillers, I remember getting the advice, "read, read, read novels in the genre you want to write. Then write the type of book YOU would want to read." I recall reading and re-reading terrific stories by Nelson DeMille and Charles McCarry years ago…not to "copy" their recipes, of course – but to learn from their "style" of writing. Thanks for a great post!

  2. Ramona

    I have deconstructed Rebecca, The Client, and Gone Baby Gone, among others, because it's useful–and fun! I love the guidelines, Robin. Thanks!

  3. john

    Great advice, Robin!

  4. Robin Burcell

    Thank you, Ramona! I agree, that it is a lot of fun. (Sometimes, though, the books are too darn good, and then I have to remind myself to pay attention to the deconstruction process!)

  5. Robin Burcell

    I so agree with whoever gave you the advice of "read, read, read…" Easily the best advice ever!

  6. Lisa Black

    #6 is a big one to take to heart!
    #2, too. Sometimes you should listen to other people. Sometimes you should not listen to other people. The problem is, you can never be sure which time is which! You just have to close your eyes and leap into the story.

  7. Robin Burcell

    #2, you totally have to go with your gut!

  8. Jamie Freveletti

    I, too, have been to critique groups and one included a toxic guy who was happy to tear down everyone's work. I was glad to leave that one. But later I joined one at my local library branch and they were great. So if at first it doesn't work, keep looking!

  9. Robin Burcell

    Good advice, Jamie! Critique groups can be so helpful–depending on the makeup.

  10. Gayle Lynds

    What an original post, Robin! I love how you weave cooking and writing. I doubt I'd ever have thought to do that. Both can be prosaic, sorta fanboy/fangirl endeavors, or they can be exciting, thinking-out-of-the-box creations. You just did the second one in your blog, plus every iota of thought and advice you gave is true! Thank you!

  11. Robin Burcell

    Thank you, Gayle! It was fun to make the writing/cooking connection.

  12. Chris Goff

    I have been in various critique groups over the years. Early on it was extremely helpful as I navigated learning to write. Later on I discovered after a certain amount of time, it was too easy to write for the group. I knew what they would like, what they wouldn't like and tended to feed them what they wanted. Not always a great recipe for success. Too many cooks… Great advice, Robin!

  13. Robin Burcell

    I've been in a couple myself, and you're absolutely correct. At first, very helpful. After a while, it's like on American Idol, where the contestant picks a song then sings it almost like the original–or as Simon Cowell would say: playing it safe. It can be hard to expand your writing wings in the safety of the critique group!