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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Throwing out the rules - sometimes

I cannot tell you how many times another writer has pointed out to me or told me about rules that should be adhered to when you write in order to have a good manuscript that will be published. There are rules for tag lines, pov jumping, starting scenes with weather, varying your beginning of sentences, ending each chapter on a hook, having the heroine and the hero meet soon enough, prologues or the length of them… I’ll stop here, because, frankly, the rules go on forever.

I’m not suggesting that these rules don’t have their merit, they do. But let me borrow a common saying – RULES WERE MADE TO BE BROKEN. I think the best authors know this because they break them ALL the time. The trick is to know when it’s okay to break a rule. You have to recognize your writing voice, and if breaking a rule fits you’re your voice then I say go for it.

Rules have been on mind a lot lately, and I think it’s because at some point in the last month or two I have noticed that the word “felt” really seems to get people up in arms. Try putting this word in a manuscript and submitting it to a contest. I bet you would get a frenzy of red ink and strikethroughs telling you to learn how to show and not tell. I speak from personal experience. What I had not realized until several weeks ago is that usually it’s unpublished writers who jump all over this word. Published authors don’t tend to be so uptight about using the word felt or breaking other “rules” every now and then.

I wondered why this was, and several days ago, I read a great article one of my critique partners passed onto us by way of a link. Literary agent, Rachel Gardner, www.cba-ramblings.blogspot.com, wrote the article. It was about knowing what makes an agent say yes to a story. One thing she said really grabbed my attention. She said usually if she says yes to representing a book it is because she has fallen in love with a writer’s voice. They can break “the rules” if they have a great voice, and the literary world will forgive them and let it slide.


If you haven’t already guessed it, I wholeheartedly agree. If the word “felt” works every now and then for my voice then I’m going to use it. If a book really must start out in the middle of a storm, then so be it. Think about this: if you change your voice to fit a rule then you just may ruin your voice. Now don’t go throwing all the rules out the window all the time. The mechanics still have to be there, but don’t be afraid to go with your gut and take a chance.

Last night I started a new romance by one of the biggest NYT best selling authors. Do you know on one page she used the word “felt” six times. It did not bother me in the least. The story flowed and captivated me despite her risky use of the word! While getting ready for bed, I thought of some of my favorite writers. They LOVE to break the rules. One of them uses long prologues in a good many of her stories, while yet another writer never has had a hero or heroine who met before page 35! Just imagine.

I’ll leave you with this question: what rule of writing seems to be hammered into you the most by others and can you think of an instance when you have seen this rule broken and done well?

Julie Johnstone
The Marchioness of Mayhem


  1. Great topic, Julie!

    I've been known to use "felt" a time or two myself. ;)

    I think when a budding author is starting out, knowing the "rules" is important. It teaches you the craft, but keep in mind, the "rules" can also change at any time. So adhering to them too strongly is not necessarily a good thing either.

    I feel a writer has to be in touch with their story and write it the way it needs to be told. If you're too worried about whether or not you've used THAT too many times, you're not writing your story. If you're overly concerned with the mechanics of your storytelling, your story is going to suffer.

    I see rules broken all the time, and usually there's a very valid reason for it.

    The book I'm writing right now starts out with (GASP) a prologue. It was so fun to break that rule.

  2. I should of used you as one of my examples of great writers who dare to break the rules.

  3. Julie,
    Great blog. When I first started showing others my work and submitting to contests, I became discouraged over all the rules I broke. I tried to follow them and soon my writing began to lose it's voice. I decided to take charge of my own writing and took classes, read articles and bought books on writing. Once I felt (Oops! There's that word.) comfortable with knowing the rules, I didn't mind bending them. Sometimes I completely break them. (Shucks! I just used an -ly word.) Hmm... Did I use the word was? Well, I was going to use it if I didn't. :)

    My biggest pet peeve from contests is when I'm told my heroine wouldn't do something because ladies in 19th century didn't do that. My obvious reaction is, "I'm so jealous you have a time machine." Well, considering ladies mostly wrote letters, changed clothes and did needlepoint, I'd rather watch the paint dry than read a regency were the heroines don't misbehave a little. :)

  4. Great point, Samantha. I too seriously doubt all are darling heroines never broke the rules and did something out of the norm.

  5. Thanks for blogging about this, Julie. I can think of a good example of when breaking a particular rule has been used successfully, with just about every rule I can think of. The trick is to know when to do it and why.

    The only "rules" I strongly encourage blind adherence to are those of grammar. Except - well, to be honest, there are times to break some of those, as well.

    That's not to say I don't think it is important to study the craft and learn what makes strong prose. It is very important. But it is far more important to know what works for you, as a writer, and for your story.

  6. Great blog, Julie! I'm so glad you're talking about this. I love to break the rules. My first manuscript was picked apart so badly - I literally made EVERY change my critique group told me to make - that eventually, it read like a "Dick and Jane" novel.

    Some rules I love to break: Starting a sentence with "And" or "But"; using felt, feel, feeling; using passive voice and/or -ing words; using adverbs.

    I try to do all these things sparingly, but I feel I know when and how to use them. If you don't use different parts of speech, you're not using the English language to its fullest...and how boring would that be???

    I also have to second all the previous comments...everyone seems to have a good handle on breaking the rules :)

  7. Great post. I think every new and unpublished author needs to know the rules and keep up with the rules as they change (because they will change). And, once you know them and tried to write within them, then you know which ones you can break. And, I am all for breaking the rules on occassion. I think I would lose my love of reading if everyone followed every rule out there because there would be no life to the stories. Or at least I assume.

  8. Great blog Julie but I can't think of one example. *shaking head* It will probably come to me later.

  9. Excellent post Julie and I completely agree. I did the same thing Jerrica, in my first ms, I made all the changes I was told to and wrote all the voice out of it. It had no heart. No soul.
    Whatever I had put in it to make it my own was simply gone and it read like you said, a "Dick and Jane" story. What's so sad is new writers will continue doing this as long as there are those who say they must. Must is a big word. We should probably use it sparingly as well. =) Great post!

  10. Julie,
    What a great post. I can hear writers all around the world saying "Amen!"

    One of my favorite reads this past year was Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games series. I think it was Book 2 that started out with the heroine waking up in the morning. The writer then went on to break every single Do-not-start-your-book-this-way rule. And you know what? I couldn't put that book down. It's a best-seller and has won all kinds book of the year awards. Voice trumps rules every time.

  11. I think part of it is because first-time authors aren't as likely to be given a pass as are published authors. Mary Higgins Clark seems to break every rule out there. But who's going to tell her no? I've noticed the longer an author is around, the more often they do as they please. At least, that's how I FELT about it.

  12. Linda,
    I agree! I think authors just become used to their writing skin and don't feel the need to tow the line, so to speak.