Writing Wednesdays

Breaking the Rules

I have a good friend, another writer, who always seems to doubt herself because she’d read or heard a rule somewhere that a writer can’t do this or should do that. I’m not much of a rule follower. I love to bend and break the rules. I don’t like being told I can’t do something, or worse, that I have to do something I don’t agree with. I’m like this with my writing, too.

I do follow the rules—the elements—that make sense. I strive to show rather than tell my stories, primarily because it makes for a more engaging story. Same goes for getting into the deepest POV I can and limiting passive voice. Some trends, like not head-hoping, makes for a more satisfying read, but often comes down to author’s choice. Grammar, usage and punctuation rules are as ageless as the spoken language and are there for a damned good reason. Let’s face it if it wasn’t for the comma the sentence “Let’s eat, Grandma” takes on a completely different meaning. It only makes sense to follow certain formulas that are important to writing a good, satisfying romance novel or not to stick all of the back-story into the first chapter.

Good craft is essential to having a story that will sell, not just to that dream editor or agent, but also to the readers who will shell out their hard-earned moula to buy the book.  Personally, these are the people I’ve been given this talent, this drive to entertain. And in this day and age, an author has more opportunity than ever to get her or his stories in front of those readers.

However, there are a ton of “rules” out there that are nothing more than a particular editor’s or agent’s preferences and have nothing to do with true craft or even good writing. They write these preferences up into blog articles or get them published in some writing magazine… Or even teach them to a bunch of eager writers in workshops—all under the guise of “craft.”  But the important thing to remember is most of these so-called rules often have good solid contradictions.  And that my friends, should be the clue that this isn’t really a true element of good storytelling.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t follow all the agent’s blogs. I don’t fall all over what this editor says is the best way to write a book on Twitter or Facebook. I don’t care. Some elements are universal; these are the important ones to follow—the books to read. I’ve read Deb Dixon’s GMC because that book is just a guide to good storytelling. She didn’t come up with the concept of goals, motivation and conflict, the elements every story has to have; she simply put them into an easy to understand guideline. I had GMCs in my fan fictions and my very first novel (not A Hunter’s Angel but the one I wrote in high school) long before I even heard of Deb Dixon or GMC. I didn’t know what they were called, but they were always there. Not having them makes for a boring story. And yes, I wrote A Hunter’s Angel long before I read Deb’s book, too.

I read Self-Editing for the Fiction Writers (Browne and King) and learned a great deal about many of the elements of good writing, but none of these is new. I learned even more from my fantastic critique partners. And even more, long before I ever started writing for publication and since, from reading and analyzing my favorite authors. I’ve taken a few workshops on craft, but these focused on passive voice and showing vs telling; however, like with Dixon’s GMC, these elements were never new to storytelling.

I have a philosophy. It may be correct or it may be completely wrong. Following rules won’t get you published, telling a freaking good story will. I only strive to follow the rules that are essential to telling a freaking good story. I don’t care what editor is saying that the opening scene should have the heroine standing on her head. I don’t care what agent says she’ll only read stories that open on a Monday and should always end on a Friday. Or that you shouldn’t use semicolons or start stories with dialogue or should have your hero/heroine meet within the first three sentences.

Doing or not doing these things won’t get the story published any quicker if it has other faults. Sure, the acquiring  agent/editor might ask an author to change things. But if the true craft of storytelling falls short, it doesn’t matter how the story started or what happens between  “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after,” getting it published will be difficult.

The key, in my opinion, isn’t how well an author follows the “rules,” but how well an author knows when to break them. Because even passive voice and telling instead of always showing have their place in the right story, but the author has to know, above anyone else, what’s right for the story. They have to know why they are moving away from these universal elements.

So, if a story calls for having the heroine not standing on her head and beginning on a Thursday and not Monday—go for it. If you like semicolons, use them. If you think the hero and heroine shouldn’t meet until the second chapter, do it. But an author shouldn’t ever do anything just because some editor out there wrote a blog article about how they think a story should be told.

Now, once an author signs on that dotted line, all bets are off. However if an explanation can be given as to why a “rule” was broken and it makes sense to the story, most likely, the editor or agent will see it the author’s way…I know my editor did.


14 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules

  1. My favorite is that you shouldn’t have a prologue. Someone once asked an editor about that and she had no idea what we were talking about. She said that was ridiculous. That if a prologue is needed then put one in. Most of my books have prologues and not once has an editor said to take it out. Yet every once in a while the “rule” pops up on the loops that someone “heard” you shouldn’t write a prologue. Others will pop up saying “oh, no. No prologue. Definitely don’t write a prologue.” I just shake my head.

    • I was going to say that too! Allison Brennan says she just can’t seem to write a book without one.
      But I think you should just write. If the premises is good, and they like your characters, whatever the rest can be fixed. If your worried about all the rules, you’ll never finish the book!
      Great post, Cera!

  2. Great reminders, Sara. I’m a rule-breaker, I suppose – as long as the rules aren’t grammar related. I figure, if something fits your book – like a prologue or whatever – it should be there…

  3. I, too, agree that the rules can be bent sometimes. I do, however, get annoyed at ‘Word’ when it’s stubborn about letting me do my own thing-grammatical or otherwise! And, I’m not sure how anyone else feels about this, but when you submit to certain publishers they want the manuscript…just so… but another might want an entirely different font, or size etc. It seems a bit imprudent to break those rules! (If you want them to publish)

  4. Margery Scott says:

    Great post, Cera. IMO, the story is what counts, regardless of what rules are broken. Good writing comes from an author who learned the basic rules of writing good fiction and knows when and how to break those rules. As for prologues, I love them and whenever I can include one that fits the story, I do.

  5. Great post. Having been an English major, I’m a grammar nut.; that part is covered. As for rules, we can drive ourselves nuts with them. If I can tell an engaging story with well-crafted characters and can go deep into point of view, I’m pleased. Agents do have their quirks though. MIne hates prologues and feels one shouldn’t start a sentence with “And” or “But.” I argue every time that these are transitional phrases similar to “However” or “Since.” She’s finally relented. AND I’m happy. Learn to stand up for what and how you write. You don’t have to be beligerant about it, but you should be willing to offer a solid explaination as to why you wrote it a certain way. Again, great post.

  6. D'Ann Linscott-Dunham says:

    I used to belong to an online RWA group called Writers of Non-traditional romance–WNTR. But the reasons I belonged are no longer valid. I had an older heroine. A serial killer who sleeps wtth his mother…. LOL. Ok, that one might qualify me. The point is, I don’t like “rules”.

  7. OMG, this is an awesome post! And I’m so happy you posted it–I hope your writer friend reads this and understands that not all rules are meant to be followed.

  8. AWESOME post!!

    Totally agree with this. There are debut authors who hit it bigtime and no nothing about the rules. Like you said, I think sometimes it comes naturally.
    Following rules won’t get you published, telling a freaking good story will.

  9. I’m glad so many of you agree with me! I hate that about prologues too….HOWEVER, I do think there are times the prologue isn’t needed. When it’s nothing but back story, I think the story would be better served without one. I like the prologues that are a “snap shot” of a moment in the past that shows an event that is crucial to a character’s current actions…. For example, I’ve put a prologue on my rewrite of The Long Road Home. It shows how messed up the hero’s mother’s suicide that happened after a fight between his parent’s affected him when he was 4 yrs old. Those emotions followed him into the the future and is partly to blame for another action he did later (which is also back story).

    In A Hunter’s Wings (book 3 of my Hunter’s Dagger series) I’m adding a prologue that will show how my heroine failed in her duties as a Guardian (angel) … in the year 386 AD in Rome. The first chapter then opens with her rolling into Clayton on a Harley in modern day. But the prologue is important to the over-arching plot that I’ve subtly woven into the the other 2 books–not just important to the current story.

    But I digress… Again, thanks for clicking!!

  10. I wish I had seen this post earlier. I hate the rule “No dream sequences.” Someone on a loop told me editor’s hate dream sequences. Really? I also think the “no prologues” rule is rediculous!

    • Shawn, I hate that rule too. It’s ridiculous because tons of pubbed books out there have dream sequences. In fact, my second chapter of my upcoming release starts out with a dream… and I have a few flashback memories too (another no-no). My editor never said anything about them being included.

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