Breaking Rules, Revised

on June 9, 2011

I didn’t have a blog idea for today because my daughter Kelly was supposed to write a blog about the whole Wall Street Journal opinion piece calling (practically) for the censorship of a glut of YA books, including several that Kelly read and enjoyed. And she wrote it, but didn’t finish it, and she’s sleeping now (because it’s one in the morning) and while I debated waking her up to meet her deadline (I gave her five days!) I decided to let her sleep. (Who says I’m not a considerate mom?) I’m going to make her finish it and I’ll post it this weekend. But in summary: we both think the WSJ article stinks. You can read up on responses to the piece at Twitter by searching on the #YAsaves hashtag. Or go read my blog about it at Murderati.

So because I don’t have Kelly’s blog (which, what I have read, is very good and decidedly sarcastic), I’m just going to embarrass her for the next 750 words I’ll talk about one of my favorite subjects: Breaking Rules.

I’m working on my presentation to the San Francisco RWA chapter this weekend, revising my BREAKING RULES workshop. I created this workshop in 2007 (I think) to respond to all the so-called “rules” some people toss around as Gospel, as if the “writing rules” were the Ten Commandments. (I’m restructuring my workshop as a tongue-in-check “Ten Writing Commandments You Can’t Break.”)

The reason I created the workshop was because I was tired of well-meaning writers–both published and unpublished–telling people (read: me) what I HAD to do and what I COULDN’T do.

I’There are some publishers and lines who have more stringent “rules” about what can and can’t be in their books. It benefits you to listen. And, if you’re like me, you’ll twist those rules and give them exactly what they want while breaking every single one of them just because they had the audacity to tell you “you can’t do this.” Okay, maybe not. 🙂 . . . Confession time: When someone tells me something can’t be done, I will usually go out of my way, lose sleep, work all night, and do whatever it takes to accomplish the goal because, well, I don’t like being told “it can’t be done.”

On any writing loop, inevitably, once a week, someone will post a “rule.” It’s not only in romance, but romance writers tend to talk about the “rules” more than thriller and mystery writers. I’ve heard most of these commandments before. You can’t write in any POVs other than the hero and heroine. The hero and heroine have to meet by XX point in the book. Blah blah blah.

Then this week, I heard something I hadn’t before: that one of the Harlequin lines (I can’t remember which) doesn’t like love triangles. This brand new author who is nearly done writing her first book heard this rule and decided she had to go back to the beginning and rewrite it, though she was torn because the love triangle was so integral to the story.

My advice to her (and anyone else considering doing something like this) is STOP! Finish the book. Edit it until it shines. Maybe this book isn’t for that line. Maybe it’s for HQN. Or MIRA. Or another publisher all together. If the story is good and you love it and your characters come alive, why change it?

Maybe a love triangle is a harder sell. But if it’s done well, it could be the top seller for the month. If it’s done well, it could hit lists. It could make your career … or not.

Playing it safe is one strategy, and I’m sure there are many authors out there who have carved out successful careers for themselves by playing it safe with their stories.

For me, I like bold, both when I write and when I’m reading. Shake things up, do something different, give me a great story. Sell me on the love triangle. Tear me up inside because of the emotional power of the situation. Is it hard? Hell yes. But writing safe isn’t easy, either. In fact WRITING isn’t easy, it doesn’t get easier over time or after ten books or twenty books.

Now, it may be that your voice fits a specific line and the editor of that line said no love triangle, we won’t even read it, don’t send it, and then you can decide to write something completely different for the line that they want, or polishing your doesn’t-fit story into a submission to another house. That’s your choice. We all have to make choices in our careers that, at other times in our career we might have chosen different. Don’t let people tell you you’re wrong. You might screw up and make mistakes, or you might be a huge success. Or both. What’s important to remember is that this is YOUR BOOK. Your story. Be bold and daring and sometimes that means breaking a few rules. Those are the books that stand out to readers, and they also stand out to editors and agents. (Most of the time. There are of course some people who want to play it safe. Bear market and all that. So you always have to consider what’s happening, your voice, your career, your goals, and make your own decisions.)

Then yesterday another “rule” popped up. This one I have heard before, but not too often. Don’t have travel scenes.

Well, this is kind of vague. But the person who mentioned it said that her critique partner said absolutely no scenes where the characters are traveling from point A to point B. And I start scratching my head and thinking, damn, another rule I’ve broken in every book I’ve written.

My rule about travel scenes? Don’t be boring. Actually, that’s a good rule for every scene: Don’t write a boring scene. Something needs to happen. People need to react.

What the rule-monger SHOULD have said is, “Travel scenes are hard because they can be boring if you show too much about the traveling that isn’t related to the story. So make sure the scene is tight and essential to the story, that there isn’t another way to show it.”

Again, good basic writing rule: Make sure every scene moves the story forward.

These kind of rules pop up time and time again. Most people mean well. I originally thought they were all rules by unpublished authors, but shockingly, that is not the case. Many come from published authors who found success by adhering to certain rules, and they generously want to share their method with you.

Except. What works for them might not work for you.

The #YAsaves situation illustrates rule breaking in a bigger, more general sense. There are YA authors who are shattering story rules. Creating worlds that had been reserved for the adult fantasy market, but putting in teen protagonists. Creating mysteries with a contemporary framework. Creating stories with characters who have suffered — through rape, drug abuse, cutting, bullying, and a myriad of other problems. I’m 41 and there were no YA books. At 13, I moved from Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie and Judy Blume (who’d I’d already outgrown, along with Trixie Belden) right into Stephen King. Sure, there were a bunch of “classics” I had to read in school, many that I adored, that were written to be accessible to YA readers but weren’t truly “YA” lit. I’m thrilled with the selection out there today. Kelly had even read books–full-length fiction–written entirely in verse. YA has exploded because this new crop of writers is being bold, breaking rules, and giving readers something they want, and–most importantly–doing it well.

So as I said, I’m updating my workshop for my Saturday presentation. I’ll go through some of the “rules” I broke in my earlier books, and why. (For example, a love triangle, killing off a major character, multiple POVs, flashbacks, prologues–yeah, I break a lot of “rules.”) Please share some of your experiences with rules–keeping them, or breaking them. Do you have an example of something new and different and bold that caught your eye because it threw conventions out the window, but did it so well you loved it? Share!

P.S. I’m behind in getting out books and such to blog winners from the last six weeks. Between deadlines and the kids getting out of school, everything got pushed aside. I’m working on getting everything out this weekend. Bear with me! (My mom’s coming over today to help me organize my office and get this stuff done. Thanks mom!)

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