Breaking the Rules

Cross-posted from Cera duBois.

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.

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Categories: Writing, Writing Wednesdays | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules

  1. Nice post! Rules are made to be broken and there really isn’t a right or wrong way in several cases. Each editor, agent, publisher has their own personal likes and dislikes but if you have a wonderful story, they will want to work with you even if you use semi colons and they hate them…these are things that will be hashed out in edits.

    It doesn’t hurt to know what all the trends and “rules” are that are flying around, but you have to have enough confidence and faith in your story to know when to use them and when not to. Like you mentioned, there are times to be passive in a story, or when to tell instead of show….you just have to know how to mix it up based on your story.

    As for Debra Dixon’s GMC book…one of my all time favorites!

  2. Jennifer Lowery

    LOVE Debra Dixon’s GMC book too! Have it right on my desk where I write! A must have for all writers. I believe every story is meant to be written a certain way and you should go with your muse, then worry about the rules later in revisions.

  3. Sheri Fredricks

    Sara – Good for you in doing it your way! Rules, I believe, are meant to be guidelines. Not laws by which we should write. When an author obeys all the laws, it’s reflected in the writing. Your philosophy is spot on!

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