There Are Three Rules for the Writing of a Novel

Somerset Maugham? Oscar Wilde? Mark Twain? Bret Harte? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: With the rapid growth of ebooks it seems that everyone is writing a book. Here is the funniest advice I have heard on this topic:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Several prominent authors have offered writing advice in the form of three rules. Could you explore the background of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of this comical piece of non-advice was published in a 1977 volume providing guidance to neophyte authors titled “Maybe You Should Write a Book” by Ralph Daigh. This volume was not designed to teach the reader how to write, and Daigh illustrated that point with the following anecdote: 1

Somerset Maugham is credited with summing it all up when in addressing a friend’s class on English literature he was asked by a student how to write a novel.

Maugham’s answer was:
“There are three rules for the writing of a novel.
“Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

Popular author, Maugham, died in 1965, so the documentation for this attribution is not ideal. Perhaps future discoveries will provide further substantiation.

Further below, this article will discuss writing advice that has been attributed to the prominent authors Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde. In each case the guidance utilized a three-fold structure. The article will also present several variants of the quotation credited to Maugham in domains such as: politics, moviemaking, and aviation. Immediately below, an antecedent of the jest in the realm of card games is discussed.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Three Rules for the Writing of a Novel

Notes:

  1. 1977, Maybe You Should Write a Book by Ralph Daigh, Quote Page 7, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)