Breaking Rules

on March 8, 2007

I’ll be down in Jennifer Apodaca’s neck of the woods this weekend speaking to the Orange County Romance Writers of America about Breaking Rules. One of my favorite subjects!

I can see hints of my rule breaking future in my past. While I was pretty much a good kid, a straight-A student, I usually found the easiest way to do anything. For example, I really didn’t like to do homework, especially at home. Because I was smart, I usually finished my homework in class while the teacher was talking. Surreptitiously. Or five minutes before class I’d whip out the 20 question math paper and figure out all the answers in my head.

The thing was, you’re supposed to SHOW your work in math. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how I got the answers, I just intuitively knew how to do it. And if I had to explain it to the teacher, it probably wouldn’t make any sense. But my answers were RIGHT. And isn’t that the whole purpose of math? To get the right answer? Why is HOW you do it more important than the result?

Same thing for books. Is HOW you tell a story more important that telling a good story?

For better or worse, my math teachers all liked me. If I had a stickler, I’d write down the answer first, then go backwards and figure out how I got it. It must have worked because until Geometry, I had straight A’s.

I broke rules, but the final result was the same. And in some ways, I had an edge on everyone else. SATs and standardized tests I breezed through because I could just write down the answer or circle the bubble.

It’s probably a good idea to KNOW how to do a math problem, but that’s secondary to getting it right. (Math teachers, bare with me here, I have an analogy.)

In writing, some people like to follow the rules. And there are some rules that are probably good to follow, like punctuation and capitalizing the first word of a sentence and not having fifty page chapters or hundred line paragraphs. But forcing the hero and heroine to meet in chapter one? Limiting POV to only two characters? Only writing in third person? No flashbacks, prologues or epilogues?

My speech on Saturday is over an hour long because I have some great examples and stories to share, but it really boils down to two pieces of advice: Be true to your voice and trust your instincts.

This isn’t to say that you can’t improve your writing. You need basic writing skills. You need to have basic storytelling capabilities. But you can learn to write better and to bring out your stories for maximum effect. Once you get to that point, you need to trust yourself. Writers sell because they are doing “the same, but different.” The same is delivering an eternal story that resonates with readers. The different is breaking rules that stifle your voice.

Think of your favorite writers. Why do you love them? Do you love them because they don’t heap hop, they stay strictly in two POVs and they never use flashbacks? Or do you love them because they tell a good story that, when you’re finished, you are satisfied that it’s time well spent?

If you’re a writer, what “rule” do you break? If you’re a reader, what “rule breaking” authors are your favorite?