Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rule of Threes

 By C.L. Phillips

"Knock. Knock."

"Who's there?"

"Fiction novelist."

Fixin' novelist who?

"Not fixin'.  Fiction."

Raise your hand if you spend more time "fixin'" your work than anything else. We start out with high hopes for our concept only to realize creating the story requires more rewriting than we ever imagined. And does anything suck the life out of you faster than rewriting?

So what do successful novelists do? They work on more than one project at a time.  But you already knew that. Many people say the only difference between a writer and a published author is the published author never quits. But I don't believe that.  I believe published authors master the Writer's Lifecycle and the Rule of Three.

What is the Writer's Lifecycle?  Let's make it simple - four stages, each with entry and exit criteria.  Stage 1 is Storyshaping. Stage 2 is Content Development. Stage 3 is Polishing. Stage 4 is Querying.

You might have a dozen ideas floating around in your head. These are Stage 1 ideas, the concepts you play with and eventually shape into a project you want to move forward. Anything with an outline or more than 5,000 words is a Stage 2 project, one where you develop the content. After you have a completed draft, or better yet, a full second draft, you have a project in Stage 3, the part of the pipeline where you rewrite and rewrite.  Maybe you get reader feedback.  You take a Stage 3 project to workshops and polish the daylights out of the first fifty pages. In Stage 4, you steel your nerves, take a stiff drink of your favorite liquid courage and query until you are successful.

 Here's another way to view the Writer's Lifecycle:

Stage 1 :  An idea; a story concept
Stage 2 :  A story concept with an outline or 5,000 words
Stage 3 :  A completed first or second draft, something you would take to a critque group
Stage 4 :  A query-ready novel, synopsis, and query letter

Stage 1 is your idea sandbox.  You might have a hundred ideas in Stage 1.  But how many of those ideas are you willing to develop? One thing is certain, you won't develop all of these ideas at once, so the other three stages are dedicated to real production.

The Rule of Three says, "Have at least three projects in production."  That means have at least one project in Stage 2, one in Stage 3, and one in Stage 4.  Why?

Because every business has a product pipeline.  Nobody puts all their eggs in one basket, and even if they do, they have new products coming to the market.  Did Facebook claim success when they shipped the first version of their product?  No.  Did James Patterson stop with his first series of books?  No.  And for an author with one series, do they stop with one book?  No.  They keep developing projects.  They keep pushing products into the marketplace.

Businesses either grow or die.  If you don't have a product pipeline, you are doomed to certain death, or you have a wonderful little hobby.  Me, I want a writing career.  This means I must think about my writing projects like a business.  Always have something in development, test, and production.

What would happen if you divided your efforts across different projects, each in a different Stage of the Writer's Lifecycle?  You could easily and intelligently discuss the status of each of your projects to a publishing professional or agent.  You could recharge your creative juices by working on different projects simultaneously without guilt.  You could measure progress and success incrementally rather than reporting the number of rejected queries.

Writers write.  Successful writers keep writing even after an agent or editor says yes.  Outrageously successful writers have a way to spread their precious creative capital across multiple projects.  Do you?  Post your system in the comments for this article. Let's collaborate and find a way to help each other move forward.

The Rule of Three. Try it. Does it work for you?

Write on!

C.L Phillips writes mystery novels while nestled under a hundred-year live oak tree in downtown Austin. Except in August. C.L writes about the the gap between what people want and what they actually do. Broccoli or chocolate chip cookies, anyone? Check out her web site: or find her onTwitter: @clphillips787


Norma Huss said...

I love new systems. And I too have a rule of three. #1 Is priority, #2 get to eventually, #3 keep in mind. But I like yours better. Maybe I'd better switch.

In fact, I keep trying new systems. I've been with mine, augmented with a few others-like write so long a day or week-for a while now. This past week it was growing a little thin.

I have two projects right now - one almost at your #4, and another at #3. I have two hanging out looking at #1. So this system looks like a go for me.

C.L. Phillips said...

Today I'm working on one of my Stage 1 ideas for Nanowrimo....November is coming soon. It's my favorite writing month of the year.


Pat Marinelli said...

I'm in Stage 1 for NaNoWriMo, Stage 2 with a short story, Stage 3 with a batch of short stories and Stage 4 with an anthology and two short stoires, so I guess that makes me a working writer.

Crime Scene: New Jersey 3

Lesley Diehl said...

Some people have difficulty connectingwith their msue. Seh sometimes goes on vacation when they least expect it. In my writing life, my muse won't leave me alone. She visits me in my waking time and in my sleeping time, sometimes awakening me to insert some new story into my sleep-deprived brain. I have to follow the rule of three or she wouldn't allow me to get any sleep. I'm certain the protagonists I create are friends of hers and she's merely an agent trying to get them into print!
Lesley Diehl, A Deadly Draught

Pat Marinelli said...

I’m in Stage 1 with NaNoWrimo (better be, I’m a ML), Stage 2 with a short story, Stage 3 with a batch of short stories, and Stage 4 with an anthology and two short stories. I guess that puts in the right place for a working writer.

Crime Scene: New Jersey 3

Marni said...

I'm in all of the stages with various projects. I find it keeps me from getting bored!

Rosemarie said...

Sigh, I'm a multi-tasker in my career (technology analyst) but in my writing, I put all my energy into one project at a time.

I become my story, I am the characters....of course I'm a pantser, maybe that is my challenge .

Maggie Toussaint said...

I've got the Rule of 3 figured out. The rest always seems to change, but I'm persistent, that's for sure.

Enjoyed your take on this.

Maggie Toussaint

Ramona said...

I am late to the party, but I like this Rule of Three concept. Excellent advice.