The other week, my good blogging pal, JM, wrote an awesome post. She’d asked several readers, a combination of writers and non-writers (referred to as “real world readers” in JM’s post), to look at her rough draft. I was one of the writer-readers.
A particular scene had received mixed reviews. Her writer-readers had troubles with the scene because they thought it tended to break a rule or two. The real world readers enjoyed the scene and didn’t mention anything about rules.
JM raises a tough question: “But I wonder if maybe—just maybe— writers, agents, editors, and publishers are missing the boat when we focus on the lowest common denominators (otherwise known as today’s rules). Are we leaving out something those readers might enjoy even more? And might have them reading more books, not fewer?”
I’d like to tackle this question from the perspective of someone who not only writes but also helps other writers with their work.
I offer advice and suggestions based on the “rules.” If a writer wants to be traditionally published, he or she is expected to follow certain rules, not just in manuscripts, but in query letters and synopses as well.
(Hell, writers aren’t even supposed to blog about this stuff, for fear of ticking off a lit agent and getting blackballed in the publishing industry.)
Is the industry stripping the organic qualities from books if those qualities break rules? Probably. Who decided the word count ranges for books? Who came up with ‘tension all the time’? Who said that every scene should have a purpose? I’m sure the rules were formulated based on the experiences of a few influential people and they stuck because someone said they worked.
Rules are like that. When they work, we tend to keep them around.
There have to be some rules to follow, otherwise books will be outta control. Most rules can help authors who don’t know any better, or who can’t navigate a rough draft without something to hang onto.
Imagine the manuscripts submitted if there were no rules to follow? I think all writers know exactly what that would look like, because we’ve all written rough drafts and then stared at the mess we created, wondering how in the hell we’re going to pull the beast together.
Taking an example and running with it. I’m willing to bet that most experienced writers know that just because one unnecessary character may work in their book, that doesn’t mean they’re going to insert 8 more. Why wouldn’t they do this? Because earlier in their writing journey they used to include dozens of unnecessary characters. Until they learned too many unnecessary characters means that each character’s personality and influence is diluted.
Is the above a rule? Generally speaking yes, but I will also say that this rule is flexible depending on the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing in sprawling epic fantasy tradition, then a large cast is more of the norm than streamlined fiction.
This rule (like all rules) is also dependent on your skill as a writer.
We need to treat writing rules more like guidelines, rather than a do-or-die instruction list. When I critique a manuscript and I come across a broken rule, rather than immediately striking it in red, I ask myself, “Does this work?” I honestly try to see it from a real world reader’s perspective, as if I’m reading the book for pleasure rather than business.
We’re in the 21st century, and the tide has turned in favor of the writer. If we don’t want to break into traditional publishing or follow rules that don’t always make sense or apply to us, then we can choose self-publishing.
Indie publishing is a viable route for authors who write well, do their research, build a platform, and market their work. However, indie authors still have to follow rules, at least, to a point. As writers gain more experience and skill, then more rules get broken. Such writers have proven their mettle in the industry, with great reviews, far-and-wide readership, and respect from their peers.
They can get away with breaking rules because they’re good at it.
Until a writer becomes savvy at weaving a storyline and entertaining an audience, then the rules are helpful.
But let’s also keep in mind that not all readers know or care about the rules. Proof that sometimes, some rules are better off broken.
What writing rule do you tend to break?
Have a writerly day!