Saturday, February 6, 2010

Writing Rule Fads

Jenn here. 

I remember the beginning stages of my writing career. I had BIG dreams, fanciful ideas, and knew nothing. Then I progressed to a level of learning a few writing rules, that all the famous writers get to break and I couldn't. I began to get a clue that this wasn't going to be an overnight success thing. I would have to work at it.

I progressed through lots of craft levels. I learned about POV, pacing, emotion, character development, realistic dialogue, scene description, layering sensory details, research, etc. After coming through all these levels, I thought I knew something. I began finaling in contests, getting good feedback from my critique partners, things were finally starting to happen. I began feeling confident enough to judge manuscripts in contests. I started noticing mistakes in published works. Wow, how could that happen? 

Then I got an agent and began getting real feedback from editors. They didn't always line up and match what my critique partners said--and sometimes--they did. Confusion gripped me. Another panic of fear that attacked my self-confidence. Who do I listen to? How will I know when they're right or wrong? Will all editors feel the same way as that editor? 

Then the offer for my novel came and I progressed to the stage of finally getting published. No, not all editors will feel and think the same. And neither will agents. And neither will readers. I've listened to people judge and critique books unfairly over the years. I've heard many people who thought they knew everything--judge more harshly than they should. I've heard people nick-pick about stupid stuff until the story sounds almost unbelievable. On the other side of the coin, I've heard people rant and rave about how wonderful a novel is and I thought it was just okay. 

I used to think that writers are more critical of books than readers who are not writers, but that isn't true. Writers only nick-pick at different issues that mainly revolve around the "rules of writing", while readers tend to concentrate more on the "big picture" regarding taste, the author's voice, the storyline, experience, etc. These things weigh more heavily than the mechanics and rules of writing for non-writers. Yes, they are also important to writers, too!

But regardless of what the writing world says about a book when we critique it to death and judge it against every possible scenario, the bottom line is this--the bottom line--SALES! No one is going to tell Nora Roberts she cannot head-hop when what she is doing sells millions. It works. No one is going to dissect her novels and critique them to death because there is no need to figure out what didn't work. 

So I'm just wondering, is a writer like Nora Roberts wrong? Or are the rest of us wrong for clinging to our writing rules? The reason I ask this, is because in the next year or two, some writing expert is going to come up with some new writing rule and will be plastering it around all the writing workshops, while the rest us clamber to sift through our manuscripts and incorporate the lastest and greatest "writing rule fad".

Disclaimer: I am not against writing rules. They are necessary and have their place. Only sometimes I think we, the publishing/writing industry as a whole, get carried away and take things too far.


  1. Hi Jenn:

    I see writing rules as being more like “Rules of Thumb” (measure twice, cut once) that are the most helpful to the novice and stay helpful until the novice more fully learns the craft. You can break any rule if you know what you are doing.

    Nora Roberts could well be breaking rules, (that actually lessen the quality of her writing), but that does not make a big difference, if there is enough other material to make the book a highly enjoyable reading experience.

    I think writers worry too much about ‘rules’ and too little about the ‘reading experience’ they are creating for the reader. Getting the rules right, helps sell the book to a publisher. Getting the ‘reading experience’ right, helps sell the book to readers. Nora Roberts is an expert in creating great ‘reading experiences’.

    I’d like to see a writing contest where the only consideration is the quality of the ‘reading experience’. This is the only consideration a reader is worried about. Unfortunately, judges must judge and judgments need to be based on rules less the judge appear capricious.


  2. Vince,

    Excellent point! I love how you phrased this "Getting the rules right, helps sell the book to a publisher. Getting the ‘reading experience’ right, helps sell the book to readers."

  3. Interesting blog and it is something my critique group and I have discussed several times. I think as a beginner, prior to being published, etc. we need to pay closer attention to the rules without losing our voice. Once an author sells more and more books the less the rules matter. Do readers really know what rules an author is supposed to follow? I know I was never aware of them until I started writing. Now I notice how much they are broken in a lot of novels. I hope to reach the point that I can concentrate mainly on the story and making the reader sigh and not be worring about the tense, or head hopping, etc.

  4. You know, Jenn, I think contests with score sheets have made this worse. Judges have to pick apart the entry into parts for each question on the score sheet. And that pulls you out of the whole "reading experience" as Vince said.

    It's one reason why I enjoy judging the Golden Heart and the Maggie. I don't have to score in individual areas.

    As for the rules... I think there are certain guidelines that need to be followed to give you a chance of offering a good reading experience. I recently judged a published book in a contest that head hopped so often I could not get attached to either character and could not even keep up with who's head I was supposed to be in. It kept me confused and frustrated. That person broke the "rule" such that I lost interest in the book. So in that case, following the rule would have served a purpose.

    Maybe that's the difference. We should follow guidelines that at a minimum make for easy, enjoyable reading. Write a book we'd like to read.



  5. Great post. It's always a good reminder that the writing life is a journey. :-) I always need to remember that.


  6. Amy,

    I agree. The sales are a huge key to writing freedom!


    Yes, for me, the writing long has been a looong journey. I pray you are given inspiration and the perseverance you need to keep going.

  7. Missy,

    That's a good point out the contests and score sheets. I did receive some harsh and unjust comments in the past. Some were from some very inexperienced judges and it showed in their comments. But on the other hand I also received some good feedback that helped me grow into a better writer. You just have to build confidence, trust yourself and God to weed out the bad advice.

  8. I think there's truth in both rules and experience. It's hard to have a legalistic view of everything written so much so that the beauty of the story is lost. Similar to faith. We can be so legalistic that we lose the spirit of the scriptures, so legalistic that the words of the law overrule common sense. Such a sad dilemma.

  9. Vince, I like that... having a contest that judges completely on the "reader experience".

    After all, that's why I buy books to have an adventure, an experience.

  10. Jenn,
    This is a great topic. Nora's books are so good..but as they say, "She's Nora!" She makes it work.
    I remember a contest where I had no hero POV--one of the judges gave me a 0 for the hero part of the entry and wrote something like--this is hurting me more than you--the other judges managed to score me in that area based on the heroines perception of him. This was a first person heroine POV book.
    Anyway, my point is some people are so legalistic regarding the "rules." When I judge a contest I look for the reader experience. I look for the story as a whole..
    We have to learn enough to be professional and correct in our grammar and spelling and such, but I say let the story tell itself. It'll work out----