Monday, March 8, 2010

Rebel Without an Eraser?

Here's something you should know about me. I like to follow rules. Some family members insist I like to follow rules too much.

In writing, of course, there are A LOT of rules. And you would think someone like me would happily follow all of them.

Well, I don't!
Now there are many writing rules I do follow. The ones that make sense like, "Never ambush an editor to pitch your manuscript while she is taking a bathroom break at a conference" and "Don't type your cover letter in a funky font on bright pink paper and add sparkly glitter to the envelope".

But there are other writing "rules" (or at least commonly offered advice that has taken on the near sanctified status as “rule”) that I haven’t followed as strictly.

“Don’t write a picture book in rhyme,” we are told. “Just don’t”. And I understand why. My beginning attempts at writing in rhyme were awful! I had no idea what it meant for my lines to scan perfectly and I sometimes threw in a line just for the sake of the rhyme (a huge no-no!). But I just had a rhyming picture book accepted for publication. So perhaps that "rule" should read, "Don't write a picture book in rhyme unless you're willing to take forever to study how to write rhyme well." This is incredibly frustrating to do and I completely understand why the typical advice is just don't do it. It is only worth it to break this rule if you are willing to put in a lot of hard work. (And those who think writing in rhyme comes easy for them, might just not realize how much work it is.)

"Don't write about anthropomorphic animals," we are told. "And especially don't write about anthropomorphic objects." And again I understand why. "Timmy the Toaster" and "Tommy the Toothbrush" stories must drive readers of slush piles insane. But this again is a rule I have broken in manuscripts that have been well received by editors. I have heard this rule modified to say something along the lines of, "I have no problem with talking animals. It all depends on what they say." This makes more sense to me, but the strict "Don't do it," definitely serves it's purpose. The beginning writer is warned that these types of stories are a lot harder to write than they might first appear."

With both these examples (and there are many others I can think of), I think that first we need to learn the "rules" of writing enough so that we understand the why's behind them. Once we do, we as writers can make conscious choices. We need to know when we are breaking a rule that was put in place to keep us from doing something stupid. Only then we can decide if we are breaking that rule stupidly or breaking it well.

So, do you break any writing rules? If you don't, why not? If you do, what makes you think breaking that rule works for you?


  1. I break rules all the time, but I only because I learned them first. Because if you try and break them without understanding them, you end up with stories like Suzie the Snail. :)

  2. Brianna and Laura, I agree. You have to be an expert before you can break the rules and get away with it - rhyming being a perfect example.

    One rule I find hard to follow is letting my work sit and age for many, many months before submitting it.

  3. Congratulations on breaking the rules and getting something accepted for publication. Just goes to show rules are meant to be broken, but only after they've been learned. Before Picasso went all cubist, he drew and painted very realistically.

  4. Laura-- Glad to meet a fellow rule breaker! Thanks for stopping by!

    Gale-- Letting a manuscript sit for many, many months before submitting is another tough rule for me. But again, once writers grow enough to not be so emotionally attached and make major changes more quickly following that "rule" isn't always as essential as it used to be. (I think the more experienced we become, the more we know when a manuscript needs distance and when it really is ready quickly.)

    Bish-- I totally agree. Learning the rules first is essential. Breaking rules you don't know often leads to breaking them badly. :o)

  5. I used to break rules more than I do now. I thought rules didn't apply to me. Then, when I didn't find much success, I realized maybe the "rules" were there for a good reason and I should start paying attention to them. I'll break them again later, when I know what I'm doing.

  6. Okay, note to self: return glitter to Michaels...

    What a great post, Brianna!

    Not sure what rules I break - maybe the first person rule. I love books in first person, so that's the way I write them. It's the way I *hear* them as well. Now, the jury is out on whether I do it well...

    Congrats over and over again on your sale. Can't wait to see it in the bookstores.

  7. Great perspective. We have to know the rules before we break them; otherwise we're just breaking them instead of breaking them for a reason. If we have a reason, we're so much more likely to make it work.

  8. This is a fun conversation!

    MG-- I definitely identify with what you're saying. I cringe when I think of the rules I used to think didn't apply to me. (Let's just say I rushed my first barely clever, hastily written, un-critiqued picture book manuscript into the mail and off to a major publisher. (Needless to say, that resulted in a speedy form rejection.)

    Robin-- I think you can be quite comfortable in breaking the first person "rule". You do it exceptionally well! (And glad to hear you're returning the glitter to Michaels. ;o) )

    Marcia-- Nicely stated! Knowing the reason we're breaking the rule and the reason behind the rule in the first place leads to increased likelihood of success (though MG's point is definitely well taken!).

  9. I think rules were made to be broken, but you have to break them very, very well to get away with it.

  10. I generally follow the rules. In fact, I eagerly seek new rules. My collection of books on writing continues to grow and I discover more and more rules to follow!

  11. One of the rules I teach my writing students is never to use fragments. But I use 'em all the time in my own writing, both fiction and non-fiction. (I also tell them not to begin a sentence with "but", like I just did!) I agree with Laura, Gale, and others who said you need to understand the rules before you can break them successfully. In my classes, it's a clear case of do as I say, not as I do. My hope is that one day, my students will be ready to break the rules too!

  12. I definitely break the rhyming rule, but that's because I am now studying how to write it properly - rhythm, scansion, etc. It is so easy to butcher rhyme, I can see where the editors are coming from. That is why I intend to break the rule, but only after I'm sure how to break it properly!