Monday, August 09, 2010

There Are No Rules

What I'm reading: Split Image by Robert B. Parker

Contest reminder: There are two contest going on for another week. Click the contest tab above for details – plenty of prizes, and a surprising dearth of entries – join in!

And check the sidebar--I've added another short story to Smashwords. This one's the unpublished prologue to Finding Sarah.


On my recent hopping around the blogosphere, I've noticed many posts listing "rules" about writing. Of course, nothing will get my contrary nature fired up faster than trying to tell me to follow specific rules—especially if I don't agree with them.

In my early, naïve days of thinking I might want to put my works out somewhere other than my hard drive, I was clueless. If you've read any of my bio information, you'll know that I wasn't a romance reader, so when my daughters told me I was really writing a romance, I listened to some friends who suggested I join a RWA chapter.



I looked them up, saw they had a contest, so I decided this might be a way to get feedback from people who didn't know me. The rules said, "enter the first chapter," up to 30 pages, so I did. Nobody told me that the idea was to fudge your first chapter to hit the maximum page length allowed. Chapter One of Finding Sarah (titled That Special Something in those days) was 6 pages long.

I blindly wandered into my first meeting, which was kind of a 'pot luck' of sharing writing hints. There were also accolades to a couple of members who'd just had their first books out (Kresley Cole and Roxanne St. Claire – so I guess I can say, "I knew them when…"). There was all sorts of buzz about some conference in New York, and awards called the Golden Heart and RITA.

When the meeting got down to sharing tips, I got handouts with charts for characters, with grids for chapters, with summaries of the hero's journey … and I was about ready to drop the whole writing gig. These were things I had no interest in. I wanted to write a story.

Now, I'm not denying that all the above are useful. However, being told I had to fit my story into those boxes went against my nature. Knowing that those elements would make a better story was enough. But I tend to work backward, with a very basic plot in mind.

One "rule" that also irked the heck out of me was that the first male character to show up is supposed to be the hero. In Finding Sarah, I unwittingly broke that rule. The first male was NOT the hero. Gasp! That was a no-no. I was told, "this guy isn't very likeable." Well, duh. He wasn't supposed to be.

There was this other "rule" that said my hero and heroine had to meet in chapter one. I think, my first drafts had them coming together somewhere around Chapter Four. Or maybe Six. Okay, I admit I was still learning the craft, and I'd dumped a lot of back story into early chapters, so that "meet" could easily move up. I could also write longer chapters (Chapter One is now 15 pages) so they'd end up together in the first chapter. But why did I have to?

Most of those "rules" were based on category romance—those short Harlequin books that come out each month, and because of their severe length restrictions, you have to get things off to a running start. But I didn't want to write those stories. I tried reading a few, and most of them didn't work for me.

Then, some time later, I read a romantic suspense by Linda Castillo where her hero and heroine didn't hook up until well into the book. And one by Allison Brennan where she killed the guy that seemed the obvious choice for a hero.

Repeat after me. There are no rules. Write a good story. On the flip side, if you're targeting a publisher that has clear requirements, follow them. Or don't submit to them.

This isn't to say there aren't some basic rules you have to follow: good grammar, and solid craft techniques are a given. If you're writing a mystery, the crime had better be solved. If it's a romance, there needs to be that HEA. But in between—write a good story. And if it's stronger because it follows the Hero's Journey, or the 12 Steps to Intimacy, so be it.

Any "rules" that bug you, either as a reader or a writer? Too many rules lead to formulaic writing (by the time I read Allison's book, I'd figured out a lot of the romance conventions, and kept waiting for some explanation of the "mistake" in having the obvious hero die.)

Come back tomorrow when author Susan Oleksiw tells us about a book she's not sure she should write. And enter the contests. Free stuff. What's wrong with that?

35 comments:

Carol Ann said...

Great advice, Terry! Those "rules" can really make a new author cringe away from writing. Too easy to get caught up in the "must do's and don'ts" and suddenly the story is stiff and stilted. Thanks for sharing!

Carol Ann Erhardt
www.CarolAnnErhardt.com

Annabelle Ambrosio said...

I think breaking the rules is especially important when writing the book of your heart. Only problem is trying to convince someone to publish them.

Terry Odell said...

Carol Ann, Annabelle - I've always called these sorts of rules "reader expectation". Or, perhaps, "publisher" or "agent" expectation. Right now the "rule" seems to be -- no vampire, no sale. I understand it's a business, but the big rule is still "Write a Good Book." Finding the magic connection still requires a lot of good timing and good luck.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Terry,

You and I must be on the same wave length.
My blog today on http://www.authorexpressions.blogspot.com/
is really on the same subject, and I totally agree with you!

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - I think there's some cosmic synchronicity out in the blogosphere!

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Terry: I agree. Early on, I went to a chapter meeting where an author had story boards up. As she gave the demo about how she put all these stickers up all over the boards, the more she explained, the more confused I became. To this day, I don't have a clue what she was talking about--and neither does the other author I'd brought along to the meeting. I guess whatever works, though...

Eve Langlais said...

Wow, I never knew the hero and heroine had to meet in the first chapter. I know I've broken that one a few times. Oops. Hanging my head in shame. LOL.

Terry Odell said...

Joyce - I tried the story board too. I found, after several failed attempts that if I used it AFTER I wrote the scene, it would help me keep track. I'll be doing a workshop on this technique in Seattle at the Emerald City conference in October.

Eve - yeah, who knew? I just wrote a book I wanted to read.

Carol Kilgore said...

I think we've shared much of our writing journey. and share common beliefs about formulaic writing. Maybe there's hope for us :)

Tattered Pages said...

Hi Terry,
I loved your post. Spot on! In the beginning of my writing career, I knew NONE of the rules. All I knew was that I loved writing and the stories were popping so fast I had to get them down on paper. First submission and published book later, I'd learned some of the rules. Second submission and published book again, I learned more. The problem in all this? It's hard to create when you have to work inside a box. In fact, it doesn't work for me at all. In retrospect, I was much happier knowing nothing, spending my time with my characters and getting their lives down on paper. Yes, the writing wasn't as solid, it didn't conform to all the "rules" and was in desperate need of a good editor, but my creative juices were at an all time high. Knowing what I know now, things tend to go much slower. And without fail the books I read consistently break those rules I've been warned against using. In fact, I love it when they do. Bravo for a great post!
AJ Nuest
www.ajnuest.com

C.C. Harrison said...

Terry,

I am so with you on this!! Those dang rules hung me up for years when I started writing. My stories just never fit into those rules, and it wasn't until I broke those rules that I sold my first book.

And some of the contest judge comments on my pre-publication submissions were hilarious! One judge told me to GET RID OF the guy in the first chapter because he didn't fit the story - but he was the bad guy! Of course I couldn't let the reader know that up front!

Great post.

Jemi Fraser said...

I didn't know anything about the rules when I started writing more seriously either. I had SO much backstory in my first story I don't think the story started until about page 30. I'm so glad I found great resources and people online and I didn't try submitting that!

Annabel Joseph said...

What a great post! I've been thinking about this a lot as I progress in my writing career. My first few books -- before I knew the "rules" -- had a lot more heart and emotional depth to them. When I started writing to hit the marks that the romance genre puts out there, I found my writing became more and more...ugh...sanitized in a way. I mean, it's still good writing, but that little edge is missing. I think it's really unfortunate for readers. There's a reason romance writing is not very respected by larger reading audiences, and called "formulaic" etc. I think there is a growing group of readers that is looking for something new that breaks out of the mold and carries them away. My editor is actually very wonderful about encouraging me to push envelopes. I don't always get my way, but I know my writing is better when I'm not trying to toe the "rules" line.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - without hope, there's nothing! Write on.

AJ, thanks so much. If we're going to follow 'rules' I think they have to be internalized so they become organic. I'm much more likely to apply them in revisions.

CC - I think contest judges often are too keyed in on those rules. Bad enough they have to use a score sheet and quantify the subjective.

Jemi - welcome to the club!

Annabel. Thanks. And an understanding editor is a godsend.

Rebecca York said...

First, the idea of using post it notes and a story board makes me start to shake. That's not me. Maybe it's an excuse for pretending you're writing?

Second, I do think you have to keep your audience in mind. A reader who is reading a romance wants to read about the h/h's developing relationship. So getting them together as soon as possible makes sense. I think you've got more leway in romantic suspense, where you've got an external suspense plot going on, too.

I might start a romantic suspenes from the villain's pov and not even get to either the hero or heroine until chapter two.

I write the kinds of books I want to write, but I do keep my audience in mind.

Katie Reus said...

I don't know if it's necessarily a 'rule' but I get annoyed when I see some authors say NEVER to use a prologue. I read a lot of romantic suspense and all my favorite authors do it!

Linda Leszczuk said...

I'm still wrestling with the whole POV/head-hopping thing. I like third person omniscient. I like it as a reader and I like to use it when I write. But I keep reading that it's considered a no-no these days. Is this one of hose "rules" that can be broken?

Terry Odell said...

Rebecca - by all means, you have to fit the confines of the genre--as long as they're not too confining. A romance has to have that HEA, but 'rules' about when and how characters meet, etc., is a bit much. My current WIP looks like it's going to have to start in the villain's POV. I can't see the story working any other way.

Terry Odell said...

Linda, many authors use 3rd person omniscient, but the omniscient part is usually used sparingly--and it has to be clear that it's omniscient, not head-hopping. Nora Roberts uses it in her JD Robb series (and probably elsewhere, but I don't read that many of her straight romance books. JA Jance uses it in her Joanna Brady mystery series. I think, as with just about everything, it boils down to doing it well.

Jill James said...

Terry, great post. BTW, Allison breaks all the rules because she believes there are no rules either. Grammar and spelling of course, but your story is your story. For me, I hate the whole must meet as soon as possible, perferably in the first chapter, hell on the first page. Stupid rule!!

Terry Odell said...

Katie - if a prologue is needed, it's needed. Same for epilogue. I don't care for epilogues (why not just have it be the last chapter--but that's just my take.)

Jill - Yes, I know Allison and she's definitely got it all figured out. She also gives great workshops on not plotting. :-)

C.C. Harrison said...

Oh, right. That no prologue thing that began making the rounds a few years ago. Where did that come from? I LOVE prologues - to read them and to write them. Epilogues, too. I remember reading a Susan Elizabeth Phillips epilogue that brought me to tears.

Terry Odell said...

CC - I'm not fond of 'tacked on' epilogues, although a reviewer dinged me for not having one, or it's equivalent in one of my books. Personally, I'd rather leave doors open for future books. Too many romance epilogues seem to exist solely to show the couple happily married with new babies. I'd rather that be left to my imagination; I don't need it spelled out.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Thank you for this! When I start reading too many rules, I get confused and my writing suffers for it. I like your idea better.

I keep hearing this rule for mystery writers that you have to have a dead body in the first chapter. I don't, but I'm not going to worry about it. I've read many wonderful mysteries with no dead body in the first chapter.

Terry Odell said...

TerryS - I always wonder why you need a dead body at all in a mystery. I mean, there are lots of crimes that aren't murders, right?

Mary Ricksen said...

And the weird part is the rules are different for different publishers!

Maryann Miller said...

I think many of these rules, especially those associated with writing romance came about from some publishers of category romance that wanted specific things to happen at specific places in a story. Eager romance authors started sharing those tips as if they applied to all romances, which they don't. Not sure where the dead-body rule came from, but I ignore it when I'm writing and when I'm reading. Give me a good story and I don't care what rule you followed - or didn't follow - to write it.

Delphine Dryden said...

I so agree. I don't know what the rules were supposed to be; crazy me, I just went ahead and wrote a book (two, actually). Then I had to figure out what genre I'd written (erotic romance, woo-hoo!) so I'd know where to submit it. Three submission attempts later, I was published.

Really, the only rule is to write the dang book.

Allison Brennan said...

Hi Terry! I loved your blog because, of course, rule breaking is one of my favorite topics! I did a workshop at national on this with Bantam editor Shauna Summers and author JT Ellison. Shauna used examples from Mary Balogh and other authors about how they broke rules and why they worked, even though on the surface the ideas seemed too wild to work.

That chart you posted! I'm going to have nightmares. (shiver.) I remember a workshop where someone handed out something called the snowflake method. It freaked me out. :/

Terry Odell said...

Mary - yes, they all seem to have their preferences - they know what they're sellinlg.

Maryann, I agree. Romance no longer equals short category, so there have to be other changes as well.

Delphine - I also broke the rules when I wrote a sequel with the same hero and heroine (another reason I don't like epilogues!)

Terry Odell said...

Allsion - thanks SO much for stopping by. You know I've taken many of your workshops--wish I could have been at RWA this year.

Try a nice stiff nightcap-might ward away the nightmares. I think I've seen that snowflake method. Eeep.

Wynter Daniels said...

I think a couple of rules help new authors to head in the right direction. Once you have the basics down you can start breaking them. All the best authors break lots of them.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I agree 100%. Good post.

Patricia

Terry Odell said...

Patricia, thanks.

RCM said...

Hi Terry,
I'm not traditionally published (yet), probably because I don't follow any rules. However, I've had the good fortune to work with many writers in the past few years who are doing fairly well.

What I'd toss in is that rules are not germane to the SFD (er... crappy first draft) or perhaps the 2nd, 3rd, and 10th, but injecting the "rules" bit-by-bit during the rewrite process does seem to increase the tension, expand the readers caring for the characters, and keep the pages turning well into the night.

Ron Heimbecher