Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rules Are For Suckers!

Okay, the above statement is not exactly "true", but hopefully I can explain what I mean. I've been thinking about all the rules were told to follow as writers. Team Member Michael Winchell did a post on this earlier in the month, about all the things were told are bad  to do as writers and I have to say, while writing my first novel I threw all the rules out the window and not because I wanted to--I had to.

When we write a novel, the goal is to create an extraordinary world (realistic or fantasy), remarkable characters, and an unforgettable voice that draws readers in and keeps them wanting to know more, consequently turning every page of our novel until they get to the end and become very, very sad that our book is over and they have no more left to read. 

For the above reason, I threw caution to the wind, killed my first (and second) draft of Nightshade City, and started fresh, this time with my voice and mine alone--and of course my rules. I threw out the notion that prologues should be avoided (yes, my book has one), that all adverbs are evil, to never use the word suddenly (still use that when I feel the need), and that "said" should be the only word used to carry dialogue (there are a few more that work quite nicely), among other steadfast rules.

Once I did that, I freed myself of doubt...all the doubt first time novelists have about writing and what they should and should not do, and the thought of being laughed at by agents and editors, as they all stand around the proverbial water cooler, snickering about the greenhorn writer who was ridiculous enough to send them a novel with a prologue--oh how gauche!

But guess what? That never happened. Not one agent said you've broken so many rules you are permanently banned from writing. And no one said, "Listen you silly, tacky girl--don't quit the day job." Shortly after I chucked those rules and wrote Nightshade City, my way, I started getting several requests from agents for more, which resulted in representation and lucky for me publication.

I guess in a nutshell, what I'm trying to say is writing without rules is a sure way to bring your true voice to the paper. And I'm NOT saying the rules don't matter. For obvious reasons, they do. You just need to write your book on your terms, with no set rules hanging over your head, impeding your thought process. Once you've done that, you can tighten up your manuscript and at that point you can give much thought to the rules you do want to follow or that do make sense for your story, but at the same time keeping your unique and original voice.

Of note, opening a book with the weather is a rule I do follow (at least for now), but this rule was broken by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton who wrote Paul Clifford. "It was a dark and stormy night..." Clearly even breaking this rule worked for him. :)

xoxo -- Hilary


  1. Love it. Rules are made to be broken. It's only important to know them so that when you do break them, you can make sure you're doing it on purpose.

  2. Hilary, I love this quote from your post: "write your book on your terms, with no set rules hanging over your head, impeding your thought process"--that is something to put up on the wall in your writing room or have it be part of a screen saver.

  3. Thank you for the reminder. And I liked that line about writing your book on your terms, too.

  4. Yeah, this is what I was pretty much implying in my post. There is so much out there about what IS bad (what we're told is bad) but we have to decide for ourselves. In the end, the only thing that's bad is something that doesn't work in your story.

  5. Anonymous29/6/11

    Amen! I needed this reminder today!

  6. Thanks, Hilary. Makes me want to go back and rewrite it my way. I have to confess I listened too often to people saying, "change this," or, "you can't do that."
    Then you see it done all the time in published novels. It gets frustrating and confusing. Then, you get to the point of what you're talking about and what Matt said above. It's good to know the rules, but geez... do it your way, sprinkled with wisdom.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I LOVE your rules. I follow them myself.

  8. Writing "rules" are there for a reason, but not every rule can be applied to every book, at least that's what I think! And Jared, like you said these rules are broken all the time!

    Writers = Rebels!

  9. Agreed. Those classic writing "rules" can be pretty good training wheels for early drafts. But the #1 rule could be "you can get away with anyting, as long as the writing is good."

  10. I do have one huge pet peeve with rule-breaking. I can't stand reading drafts with too much head-hopping and no understanding of omniscient POV. There, I've said it. It makes me crazy. Other than that, I'm open to rule-breaking.

    I broke unwritten rules in WILDFIRE RUN, in that there shouldn't be too many POV shifts in middle grade, and no one said anything about it.

  11. I bet no one opened with it was a somewhat cloudy day with a chance of showers.

  12. What is this rule about never using "suddenly"? I USE IT ALL THE TIME! And Madeline L'Engle also opened A Wrinkle in Time with "It was a dark and story night." (It's ALSO what Snoopy uses to start all his books in Peanuts) It's like she thought, "I know this is the biggest cliche of all time, but I'm going to SPANK you with it." :)

  13. Ha! Copyboy, your comment made me laugh out loud! :)

    Dee, Nightshade City is omniscient POV. Which I've learned since I wrote it is pretty standard for animal fantasy, but I've no idea why! Some readers are very picky about their POV's. I think it's all about the writing. If it works, it works! :)

    Ha, Tim! I agree! I jumped suddenly when I read that! Ha! ;)

  14. Anonymous4/7/11



Thanks for adding to the mayhem!