Following the Rules

I have always been ridiculously bound by rules. I'm that person who would rather die than take the department store shopping cart out of the store and into the hallways of the rest of the mall. After all, the cart says right on it: Do not remove from store. So you don't. It's that simple. Instead, you slog through the mall with thirty-five pounds of shopping bags while trying to keep a hold of the hand of a preschooler and bellowing like a drill sergeant at the two older boys who are chasing each other in circles, threatening to barrel into every senior citizen within a hundred yards. That wouldn't break any printed rules.

So what does this have to do with writing? The more I write, and the more I seek feedback on my writing, the more I come into contact with the current "rules" that govern fiction. They usually start with some kind of stomach-punching qualifier like, "If you want this thing to have a chance at publication, you need to..."

I admit, I am very easily steered by such ultimatums. After all, I do want to see my manuscripts make it to traditional print. That's the goal. So it's in my best interest to listen to the rules that say you need to kill adjectives and adverbs. The edicts that declare a certain number of words too many for a first novel. The wagging fingers that kick into motion if you start blathering about backstory. But to what degree?

 I try to keep in mind an adage coined by Jeff Gerke of Marcher Lord Press, who says, "Be teachable. Then stop being teachable." The trick is this: using that time where I'm teachable to get good enough at this writing thing that I can start making my own rules for the sake of my story. How do you get to the place where your readers will say, "Sure, it doesn't adhere to compulsory rule #28, but man, it's so good, it doesn't need to." More importantly, how do you reach that point in the eyes of an acquisitions editor?

The kicker in all of this is that I get the sense that the things that get published aren't the stories that follow the rules, but the ones that know how and when to break them to serve the narrative. I hope I can get to that point. Otherwise, I'll have spent a lot of time on formulaic words that don't break out enough to get noticed.

 It's going to be tough for me. But I begin to see where friends of mine have always been right that I can be lawful to a fault.

So what about you? What rules of writing (or reading) do you think you break well? Are there some rules of the day that you think ought be followed with Victorian British Nanny strictness? And are there those you think ought be run out of town? Feedback welcome.

My Valentine's Day gift to you will be up and running on Monday night, Lord willing. The Windrider continues on February 14th.


  1. Rules I try to adhere to: 1. Prefer the simple to the complex. 2. Cut all unnecessary words. 3. Describe enough to give readers a sense of character and place but not enough to be boring. 4. Use strong verbs.

    Rules I break: 1. Sometimes I use passive--because it sounds better to my ear at that certain point and perhaps it gets across a certain "feel." 2. I use some adjectives and adverbs. Sometimes they are needed and again it "sounds" better. 3. Sometimes I tell and do not show--if showing becomes awkward or too wordy, or if it's not important to show. For example--"He went into the room." Going into the room is not the important thing. What he does in that room is the part I need to "show."

    That's what popped into my head, but I'm sure there are other rules I follow and some I bend. :)

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Sheila. You sound like a lady who's working with a healthy dose of common sense when it comes to your writing. :)

  3. To borrow from Captain Jack Sparrow: its a list of guidelines :)

    Story trumps all. Those "rules" are there to help shape a good story. But if rules come before story, then they're in the wrong place. I've heard of people who's POV was all over the place but it was their story that attracted the editor who in turn helped the writer fix those problematic places.

    Here is a link to a great set of articles about the editing that happens after one's book is acquired:

    In these articles Ramona Richards talks about the editing that will happen to your manuscript. It was eye opening for me and made me realize that even though I strive to do my best to make my manuscript perfect, it will still need editing. I just need to make sure my story comes across with as few problems as I can :)

  4. Funny, I actually have drafted a blog post about this very thing that I haven't put up yet. I was so in the mood to vent on this topic the other day.

    My issue is with rule tyrants. Those writers who feel that you must be a newbie if you haven't blown every "was" out of your story. As if a fantabulous story is going to be rejected by an editor for a few instances of passive voice.

    I agree 100%. Learn all the rules. Learn them, though, so you can learn WHEN to break them.

  5. OK, you inspired me. I went ahead and posted my draft. You can read it here if you'd like:

  6. Thanks for the great links, ladies.

    And yes, I do have to sympathize with Kat's misery over folks that insist that a being verb never has any place in a story. Yes, indeed they need to be used only when a more picturesque verb won't do. But labored, ridiculous sentences rather than a few being verbs? Silly.

    As a friend over at another forum I frequent often says: "All you need to do is be brilliant." Then you can do whatever you please. :)

  7. Don't know about my ability to break any particular grammatical rule well, but I'm fairly passionate about breaking the polite Christian rules about how characters behave.

    Good people make shameful choices too. Good people can be rough around the edges and sport bad habits. And sometimes those bad choices don't come back and directly haunt us in life altering moments of new leaf turning.

    I don't like the idea of being told 'they cant do that and be the hero.' They cant? Why, do you know them? Well, they're human and they just totally did it anyway, so there. Us humans are notorious rule breakers like that.

    But that's the best thing about God... He can work with ANYTHING we bring to Him in life, so he is equally capable in fiction to renew and transform any character in any stage or form of rebellion. He gets the Glory.

    So I fail to see where we think we need to sanitize human behavior of it's reality in order to call it 'Christian'.

    And this leads me to think about Tim Downs' awesome message at the ACFW conference last year about how his books are not permitted in his church library because they aren't 'Christian enough'. And he begs the question What does that even mean, 'Christian book'? We ought to be simply Christians who write books. And I am climbing down off my soap box. :)

  8. Excellent points from the soap box, imladrisnine. I know I could do more with my characters if I closed my ears to the little voices that ask, "But will anyone publish it?" The fact of the matter is, for a fantasy author, the number of spaces in the Christian publishing world are very few if they exist at all right now. But that's a whole 'nuther subject.

    The point I'm making is not that we should dirty up our work so it will fly in the secular market, but if you do choose to write characters with realistic flaws and you have to go to a secular publisher to get them between the faces of a cover, is that really such a bad thing?

  9. No, I don't thinks it's bad thing anymore than I thinks its a bad thing for Christian men and women to teach in the public school system, or work at any secular job. Each circumstance just supports different sets of challenges.

    And despite my grumbles against the corner I feel pressed into at times, I will wholeheartedly say that I love my Christian writer community with all my heart. There is a spirit of love and encouragement on all fronts that usually gets me through the day with my chin up. That is irreplaceable.

  10. Amen to that. I am so thankful for the support Christian Writers are to one another. Granted, there are back-biting Christians, just like there are sweet and encouraging people in the secular world, but so far, I've had much better luck finding camaraderie in Christian circles than I have elsewhere.

    Maybe sometime later I'll write a rant about my short experience on Authonomy as a case in point. Or maybe I'll let it lie. We'll see.


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