For the eighteen months or so that I taught novel writing a few years back, I was haunted by a remark of Somerset Maugham’s: ‘There are three rules for writing a novel, unfortunately nobody knows what they are.’ In his teasing way, Maugham is suggesting that while the novel has a recognisable form, it cannot – for a multitude of reasons – be reduced to a formula. What escapes definition is what makes the journey into the unknown worth the effort for both the writer and the reader. The danger is, of course, that such a remark can be used to mystify the whole process and imply that creative writing can’t be taught. You either have what it takes or you don’t.

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