Friday, December 4, 2009

Rules? We Don't Need No Stinking Rules!

There is much discussion within the writing community about rules. Rules for how to plot a book before you write. Rules for how to write--what should go where and when, what you can and can't get away with, and for Pete's sake, GRAMMAR people!--and rules for what to do with your writing when you're finished. Rules for how to approach an agent or editor.

It's enough to make a girl go a little crazy.

Don't get me wrong. Some rules are necessary. Like the one that says stalking a literary agent into a restroom and handing your manuscript under the stall door is TABOO. That's a good rule.

And the rules of the craft, the basic understanding of how to write a compelling sentence, an excellent paragraph, a knock-em-dead chapter, and work it all into a HOLY COW good book are necessary.

To a point.

But in every writer's life there comes a moment when you have to throw out some rules and start experimenting. It's how you gain a Voice that sets you apart from others. It's what defines your style.

When does that moment come? I don't know. I'm sure it's different for every writer, just like how every writer chooses to approach writing a book is different. Maybe you have to be good enough within the "rules" to be able to break some by choice. Maybe you have to practice long enough to start feeling constrained by the old school ideas.

I'm not here to tell you what rules YOU should break. (Though I definitely wouldn't hand my manuscript to an agent under a bathroom stall unless she'd specifically asked me for toilet paper and I had nothing else available.)

I'm here to tell you the rules I break. I didn't start off doing this. In fact, it took a few drafts of my first manuscript for me to realize my Voice was dependent on not just my ability to craft a compelling sentence, but my ability to artistically and strategically throw some rules out the window.

Rules I Break:

1. I love using fragments. Love it. Really. I use fragments to both establish my character's voice and to manage the pacing of a scene. Sue me.

2. I start sentences with And or But whenever necessary. I'd been told by a published author that was her biggest pet peeve. And yanno, if I did it every other sentence, it would be my biggest pet peeve too. But, I don't. I only do it when it works in dialogue or, again, for pacing.

3. I don't use the hero's journey or a formula stating at which point in my book I should hit each next escalation of plot. I don't think those are bad things at all. They just don't work for me. They shut down my imagination. I'm a more organic writer (Look! Pesticide free!) and while I do a blurb and some one sentence chapter plotting ahead of time, I let the book and the characters tell me when I need to slow down or speed up. Pacing for me is something I can feel as I write. Trying to shut down that sense and use diagrams etc. instead makes me slightly homicidal.

4. While I do read heavily in my genre (and two other genres that interest me), I don't agonize over whether the story I'm telling fits perfectly within my genre. I just get to know my characters, flesh out the plot, discover its twists and turns, and do my absolute best to remain authentic and truthful to MY story. I think that helps give me a unique Voice. I think it probably also gives my agent a headache. So, yanno, use this one at your own risk.

5. I write in first person. There isn't actually a rule against this, per se. But there's plenty of scuttlebutt warning new writers away from this. Some told me it was too risky. That until I had an established sales record, no editor would touch it. Some told me no agent would sign me either. I tried third person and it worked. Sort of. But my Voice comes alive in first person. And my Voice is what attracts (or repels) readers from my books. I decided first person fit best and plunged into it and I've never looked back. And guess what? My agent loved that I wrote in first person.

Which just illustrates my point. You can break any rule you want to break if you know how to do it well. And maybe you won't do it well at first, but that's what practice is for. So, go ahead. Be a rule-breaker. Experiment. Find what makes your Voice stand out and then practice that until it knocks 'em dead.

What rules do you break? What rules do you absolutely hate to see broken?


  1. You've seen Crooked Fang. I break every rule there is. With a generous dash of commas. LOL.

  2. I intensely dislike head-hopping. It looks sloppy to me to have four POV switches on a page, no matter how famous the author doing it is. No, really, readers do NOT have to know every thought in every character's head the instant they have it.

    I'm all over the fragments and Ands and Buts (I prefer a more relaxed, conversational narrative as opposed to textbook prose), pantsing, and telling THIS story, not somebody else's, so nothing to add there.

  3. Oh, I hate head-hopping! With a little effort, a writer can communicate other characters' thoughts and emotions through one POV.

    Also, I really dislike constant "telling" when the writer could be "showing." Especially when the writer keeps telling me the same thing in case I've forgotten.

  4. Haha love this post, I totally agree that rules were meant to be broken...but within reason, for a worthy purpose and only after the writer understands that they are in fact breaking a rule. Then I say, go nuts! I like starting sentences with And, and But too, btw. I try to keep it down but sometimes I really feel it's necessary for pacing.

  5. Also, "Never end a sentence with a preposition." I'm perfectly aware of how to reconstruct a sentence so the preposition isn't at the end, but it almost always makes the sentence clunky, awkward, and unnatural, and I won't sacrifice flow of language for some pedantic pseudo-rule.

    *burns literary bra*

  6. I knew there was something else I forgot to mention as a rule I ignore. I use a preposition at the end of a sentence if it flows best too. Totally agree.

  7. I think that a good writer is one who has confidence in their work. If you aren't confident in your ability to write, you consult the rules and abandon the possiblity of writing an engaging story.

  8. When drafting, I break every single rule. Thinking about the rules at that point stifles my creativity. Once in the editing process, however, I scrutinize all the rules I've broken. If the broken rule adds to the full effect (fragments, terminal prepositions, And/But...), I break it. If the broken rule does nothing to further the effect? Off with its head!

  9. I am such a fragment user, too. And I so often start my sentences with But and And. I write how I think and how I speak. And goodness knows, I don't always speak in complete sentences. :)

  10. I love this post!!! I find it very interesting that I too did not find my true Voice until I wrote in 1st person. Genetics seems to have a bit to do with these rules.

    I like breaking Historical rules. It happened like THIS makes me want to dig in and come up with an entirely new explanation to what happened.

  11. I love this post. I HATE, hate, HATE, head hopping. What rules do I break? Well, fragments, definitely. ; ) People speak in fragments, if you want to have believable dialog... well? And starting with a conjunction… yup.

    So far I’ve had no luck with the genre thing… too YA.. too similar to what’s out there, too different to what’s out there. LOL I think I need to find my niche before I break any other rules

  12. I also like fragments. Just because. And and is my favorite way to start a sentence. Deal.

  13. Fragments. I like these, too. If we didn't use them we'd never get the wonderful stuff like. "It's quiet. Too quiet."

    And (ha!) in the last book I wrote, fragments helped keep the pace of it, too.

    Something no one mentioned/quoted thus far and, CJ, I'm surprised you didn't: More like guidlines.


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