The Rules

The rules of writing are easy to understand and follow. Every reader knows them. Writers, on the other hand, develop difficulty and subjectional amnesia as soon as a blank page is within their gaze.

First, there is only one rule.

Second, the one rule: write what is necessary for the story.

Third, the hang-up: what is necessary for this particular story?

Fourth, the answer: only the writer can know.

“But,” says the novice writer, “I’m inundated with advice about rules so there must be more?” Of course there is, but they have nothing to do with writing. Those rules have to do with marketing. They have to do with sales. They have to do with a whole herd of different people’s expectations— but NOT THE STORY.

Then what do the rules mean to us as writers? First, we must separate the issues masquerading as rules into three parts. The first is the rule mentioned above. The rest is a whole ‘nother basket of issues, but luckily for us, they too are simple. Remember THE RULE is the most important thing for any story. It is the reason why when a daring author appears to bend or ignore some ‘rule’ the story is still wildly successful. The other two parts are marketability and customer/reader expectation.

Let us delve into some of the many things disguised as rules. If an author is writing with the ambition to become famous as a writer, they must get their writing under publication. To get a story accepted for publication, it must pass muster by an acquiring editor and perhaps an agent too. The expectations of acceptable stories for publication change by what has successfully been published and sold. Therefore, all stories have to meet proven criteria of someone else’s sales to be acceptable now. Those expectations are shaped by the emotion of the times, sales volumes of like stories, genre, and personal taste of decision makers. Let’s take each of them one at a time.

Sales volume and like stories. Famous writers cannot write fast enough to fill the market and they have a limited life span of writing. New writers who are writing similar books are used to take up the slack. As new writers develop their own following and as their own writing voices mature, they will begin to sway the market by their work proving itself acceptable to the market and the buyers of writing will begin to do two things, they will either find more to fill in the gap of a surging market or they will bring in some fine, but unusual writing by a new writer to test the book buying public to see if its taste is ready for a change on the reading menu. For an example, imagine the difference between a Barbara Cartland book and a Stehanie Lauren’s tale. They are two authors with examples of very similar work if compared carefully, but very different in complexity and flavor. Both of these extraordinary writers break, by very wide bounds, the ‘rules’ that are being sported around as definitive ways to write. Yet, Barbara Cartland in her time had more books in publication than any before her. I do not know if the current most prolific writer has passed her in production yet, but few of us will ever come close.

Genre. Each reader of each genre and each subheading of every genre has their own set of expectations (rules) for stories they are willing to read. And these are VERY specific. Many of the rules used to hit newbie writers over the head come from this group of expectations. Cozy mysteries have less description of the victim/treasure than the experience and flavor of the investigator or the town they live in. Cozies are about the people. There are mysteries that spotlight the science of the investigation. Leave out the science and that bunch of targeted readers will go elsewhere for their books. The reason professionals in the writing world tell writers to READ and RESEARCH is that readers must have their expectations fulfilled to wish to continue reading your stories.

The reading is in the genre or subgenre you wish to write in so that you know what these subtle clues are that signal the current set of expectations of what is in a story so that you can scratch the specific itch for which your readers will come to you instead of some other writer. There are two ways to run afoul here. One is to ignore reader/editor/agent expectation. The other is when research goes too far. If during your research of the ancient world you get so fascinated by blowing loess that it is mentioned on almost every page in your newest book, you will quite likely lose the readership that made The Clan of the Bear Cave by Jean Auel a household word for several years. People like details of other places and times. They read for the story more. Too many details and not enough story make for unemployed writers. The fact (unsubstantiated) that all true corsets have twenty-six holes for the tightening ribbons maybe interesting one or two times. Mentioning the number each time each lady removes her corset is too much.

Emotion of the times. Would a story about war and surviving war be really popular during peacetime? Would a wounded hero story be popular then? Would a recovery story about a piano player with only seven fingers be a good bet? It depends upon the writing of course, but there are some subjects that are not as appealing depending upon current events. The overall mood of the public will be different also. This public mood is revealed by architecture as well as the books that are published. Fantasy reading goes really wild when things are easy. Readers want to play what-if. When things are uneasy, confidence is shaken, they go for substantial feelings. Buildings that look solid. Stories that reflect basic values. Then people tend to want to touch base with sturdy tried and true values. In a time when children who are pregnant at ten years of age hit the news, the desire for fundamental goodness and redemption spread the book market. What does this mean for a writer? It means that what is acceptable in phrasing at some other time and place may not be as acceptable now. We do not generally use the word ‘nigger’ these days. Yet, in period writing and other famous writings of the past, words of that nature certainly were. If we write stories set in time periods, the story will be read by people of today. Readers of today are not necessarily going to appreciate the stark language of that time! Therefore, the reader’s emotions of today top the accuracy of yesterday in the competition of publication. There will be stories so well written and so compelling that will reduce any of these problems to dust. But, it will be a rare occasion. Editors are the guides in this area.

Personal taste of the decision makers. Women, today, make more upper level decisions than ever before and along with having decision making personalities are more attuned to women who are decisive. They like women who lead. Therefore, they are more likely to find stories that are about women like them more appealing because they UNDERSTAND them. Have you noticed the trend towards self reliant, decision-making, heroines with deep public responsibilities and abilities? Good luck getting a heroine that wants to sell the ranch she’s inherited so that she can get a desk job and marry a man who only expects her to bear his children, cook for him, and sew on his buttons because SHE wants to be taken care of in all ways. Such is our current ways and times.

If we had more men in the early decision-making on our books and up the ladder, then we might be able to squeak a few by, for a man’s view of a woman’s role is often different from those of workplace- related women. There are still many women in our world whose reason for being is to be wonderful mothers and wives and housekeepers and nothing else. It is their art. They are good at it. They are domestic leaders and shapers of our future. However, their stories are not necessarily those being selected for publication at this time in this current social structure. Again, I point you to Barbara Cartland stories. In her time, the heroines could hardly take a deep breath. They gasped a lot. But, that does not preclude a homemaker as a heroine, it merely means the writing will need to be extraordinary to catch and keep the attention of our new crop of decision makers.

Make no mistake. Publishing is a business. Writing is not. Published writing is a business act. If a writer wishes to engage in writing something that will be published, the writing must be engaging AND it must be of interest (different enough to engage the jaded reading palate) AND it would help if it were similar to an already published and wildly lucrative product. When a writer runs into advice about marketability, these are the qualities people are talking about. This is another area where the advice is to do research. The reading and searching is to find what published book is similar to your own and approach the market who published it to see if it would also like yours. However, a compelling story well written about something entirely new may see print. Try Heart Mate by Robin Owens. She is known for breaking new ground and starting a new genre.

Then there is grammar, word choice, point of view and all manner of things to sling at a new writer: There shouldn’t be an ‘ing’ word. Take out all adverbs. Shorten sentences, don’t you know that we compete with television? People have shorter attention spans you know.

Know this. Every writer makes their own decision on how to make the language express what needs to be expressed. It stands to reason that writers will disagree on the best way to express an idea. Listen to your own writer’s ear and heart. Only the original writer knows the story best. Every portion of a language has a purpose. ‘ing words are as necessary as ‘ly’ words. Long sentences with lyrical phrases are as necessary as passive verbs. Try reading a Stephanie Lauren book. She is a very popular writer in her specific genre area. There are strings of extraneous, repetitive phrases and unending paragraphs of similar emotional content and yet she is a favorite of many—because it works wonderfully for the sentiment and kind of story she writes. Strip her stories like some would have us do as in ‘let no word stay that does not add to or further the story’ or ‘throw out passive verbs and replace them with more forceful action verbs’ and there would be many unhappy fans of hers. There are as many different reader desires as writer styles. Just like there are men with very hairy bodies, there are women who love all that fur. It is wise to attend to all well met advice. It is foolish to follow all of it. Writers should do what is right for their story. When they don’t, it ruins the flavor and individuality of the story.

So, in a nutshell, writing rules are specific to genre expectation and what is necessary to get the story across to the reader as well as the writer can do it. Things like the use of commas and subject verb agreement are grammar rules—cross them up at your peril.

21 comments:

Roxann Delaney said...

To be able to break the "rules" successfully, one must know the "rules".

Should publishers be slammed for looking for new authors whose work fits within the ideas that are selling well at the time? I don't think so. I've seen a few published books that have broken one or two big rules. In the end, it's the story. A writer CAN break those rules, but it all comes down to how it's done, and that goes back to knowing the rules to break them.

Roxann Delaney said...

However, their stories are not necessarily those being selected for publication at this time in this current social structure.

I kind of have to disagree with this a little, Nina. There are books that still have homemakers. But, although romance books in some respect are fantasy, they still need to be based in reality. Women today are marrying later. Those women need an income to live, and that puts them somewhere in the working world, whether it's farming the family land, having a "traditionally female career" such as teaching, or being the CEO of a huge corporation...and everything in between. Most women aren't going to have a trust fund to fall back on. :) A writer with a homemaker-type heroine will need to explain how that heroine can live without a job or career. Everybody has to eat. :) Make it believable, and there's no problem.

What I find nice (and believable) in today's books, especially those written by women, is that women are now portrayed in all kinds of professions and situations. By reading these kind of stories, women are being empowered to do what they want and be what they want. These are the same books that were around 30 or 40 years ago, and we should all celebrate that!

Roxann Delaney said...

Great post, by the way! Very thought provoking!

Joan Vincent said...

Nina, you blow my mind with a completely different take on writing "rules" than I would ever have come up with. Grammar and structure are what I thought of as fundamental rules. I think breaking the rules just for the sake of breaking wouldn't work. It DOES come back to all being about the story. Thanks for giving me much to process.

Starla Kaye said...

Excellent post with lots to think about. I tend to write outside the "norm" for our group of romance writers. The submission guidelines I go by are far more lenient than for the big publishers. What my publishers and others like them seek is far different in some ways than the more staid big publishers. Yet they all have "rules" of their own.

A writer has the freedom to write the story of their heart, in the way they choose. But in order to sell the work, that heart-felt piece will have to be revised in some ways you might not have wanted to do. This is that whole "marketability and customer/reader expectation" thing you mentioned.

Nina Sipes said...

Oops! I thought I kept mentioning that rules are only broken by VERY compelling stories. Publishers shouldn't be slammed for their marketing plans. Their marketing plans make sense. I don't know how many times I've read writing advice--'write the story of your heart'. Well, that's a fine idea and the story written may be very compelling, but it may not be marketable. I think false expectations are raised. If, however, those expectations are tempered with research by reading books in the genre the writer wishes to break into (if the writer intends publishing as their goal--it is NOT the only goal for writers), then the writer is better prepared and informed. If publishers didn't market, we couldn't eat. They HAVE to be in touch with the market a more than writers are because they see sales info across the board. Their companies support more families than my small efforts. I've been listening to those 2004 conference tapes to authors who have tried to change genres or other items and their public did NOT move with them. So, authors can get in a squeeze with those pesky expectation issues. Even ones they've created for themselves in the hearts of their fans. Hence, the same author different pen name thing.

Nina Sipes said...

Uh, Rox, did you know you were a woman of decision? I agree that modern writing is wonderful to showcase different careers for women. But, I'm not about to exclude those who want and only want to be housewives. They may be doing other work to survive in these economic times, but I have found quite a few women who have always dreamed of only being a wife and mother with traditional pursuits. I'll take your word for it that there are home and hearth girls in some of the stories being accepted for publication. I hadn't see any for a really long time and thought they were virtually extinct.

However, I stand behind the idea that 'the rules' are different for every publisher. Assuming a new writer is trying to learn the rules, it would be helpful to know that little bit of info.

Also, we generally write commercial fiction in WARA. Should someone wish to write for the literary crowd, they have unwritten rules that differ widely from ours.

Nina Sipes said...

Joan, you are right, grammar can't be left out either because it also is part of word choice and ease of reading. Those willing to remove all 'ly' words to tighten stories also remove some of the effect they create. I've heard writers told to 'tighten' their work. Maybe their work needed tightening, but all action verbs do not give a reader the small ups and downs required for a comfortable read vs an exhausting read. It has the same effect as all short sentences. So, some of those rules that can go wrong are also grammar choices.

Nina Sipes said...

I should have used less words and merely said, there are rules. Learn them. Some are in unexpected places. Learn them. Writing a compelling story is like a handful of get out of rules jail cards. Good luck finding all the rules. May you prosper.

Nina Sipes said...

Oh, and ladies, gentlemen, and the public at large. A little disagreement makes for a lively conversation/blog. Sometimes it is downright educational. Please do not mistake objections or differing opinions for rancor.
Thank you.

Roxann Delaney said...

See, Nina, we do agree. That's one of the reasons discussion is good. :)

You mentioned reader expectation when it comes to certain authors, and I think that does become important and something authors should keep in mind. That type of thing breaks it down to the base of the author, herself, not just the publisher's "whims."

But even when it comes to publishers' whims, mistakes are made. Entire lines have been brought down by editors eager to see changes the readers didn't accept

Writing can be a joy. Even when following the "rules" it can be a joy. Reading and knowing your market is the key...which brings us back to knowing the rules, when it comes to types of stories, characters, settings, etc. Even acceptable language.

Becky A said...

Oh my, I don't think I'm in Kansas anymore!

Thanks, Miss Nina, understanding is finally penetrating my brain. Sometimes, the more you know, the more confused you get but tonight you have managed to clear off a layer of mud. Between your blog, the comments and WARA's meeting, I'm beginning to see the light.

There is so much to learn in this business of writing. I apologize for pestering everyone with all my questions. I appreciate the help, information and patience my friends at WARA have shown me over the last year.
Thanks!

Roxann Delaney said...

Becky, we all start in the same place, just as different times.

We thank those who help us on the road to our goal, whatever it is, by helping others.

Years ago, I wrote an analogy about the road to publication and how my critique partners and I experienced it. Only it was a tall, tall staircase, similar to a mountain. One cp was farther along than I was, several steps up that stairway. When I would stumble, she'd reach back and help me up. As cps and friends, we were always there for each other, with hugs, tears, laughter, encouragement and sharing information. That's how it works.

Elaine Morrison said...

Nina,
I see that you are an excellent non-fiction writer. Thank you for the well written and informative blog. I learned a lot.

Nina Sipes said...

Roxann,
Your description of the stairs is so true. I would be stuck in no-where land if it weren't for all the help and assistance I get from everyone in WARA and RWA as well as a few other places. I've found authors to be amazingly helpful people--always ready with a hand to help.

Nina Sipes said...

Becky,
Never apologize for being on the receiving end of information. Where do you think I found it? Several someones passed it on to me. It took me a while to discover what the point to all the RULES was. Where the RULES came from. Who is in charge of the RULES. Which RULES outrank each other and when. I'm a science kind of girl, so when faced with answers that seem contradictory I'm compelled to find out why. (I should have used the time to write, but felt it too difficult to go forward without knowing.) That, and I kept having to start over or re-edit my work until it was flavorless, dead-on-arrival, and had to be RE-WRITTEN again!! Listening to each rule will do that to work. A writer has to pick the appropriate rules for their work. For example. After a deep discussion with Roxann, I discovered my chances of writing for Harlequin were dismal. My voice and level of writing expertise didn't lend itself to their guidelines as well as their rules. That may change in the future or it may not. After more understanding, I discovered that there are other places for publication. I've some lovely rejection letters to prove it. Ask questions anytime of any of us. Just be prepared to help others. 'tis the code.

Roxann Delaney said...

Nina, it's hard to know when starting out just where the writing fits. Not only does the publisher make a difference, but so do the different lines or divisions within that publishing company. Harlequin probably has the most, and each of them is different. Sometimes it seems to us that they aren't different, but they are.

True story. Back when I was a (young) writer, I read a lot of Silhoutte Desires. My best writing friend and also my critique partner was attempting to sell to Desire. Several editors she'd submitted to liked her work, but it didn't quite "fit." The same happened to her when she submitted to Harlequin Tempation (no longer published). One day, the lightbulb went off, and we both realized what the difference between the two lines was. Desires focused more on internal conflict and are very emotional. Temptations, although just as hot as Desire, aren't nearly as emotional. Of course those weren't the only subtle differences, but they were the ones she needed to realize and know to sell to Desire. (It took us literally several years to figure it out.) She's now sold almost 30 books since that first sale on my birthday in 1999.

Moral? While your story might not work for one publisher, there may be another it will. It might take a little changing, but, depending on why you're writing, it may be worth the trouble to make those changes and sell. Does that make sense?

There are so many avenues opening up almost every day, giving more writers the opportunity to have their books published. At the same time, the market shifts to make way for new types of stories. Steampunk is one of those. :)

Roxann Delaney said...

One more tip that can be embraced or tossed in the garbage...

Complete one manuscript. Even if you know that you didn't start it right or there needs to be some changes, try to keep going. Make notes, if you need them, but don't bog yourself down in making big changes. You need to know for yourself and the encouragement/good feeling it gives that you can write a book.

Think about how many people say they've thought about writing a book. Then there's a percentage of those who actually do sit down and start to write, but never stick with it and finish. Just finishing is a major achievement! So what if it's crap? Many first books are, and most writers never sell their first book. Doing is learning.

That's why RWA has the Pro program. :)

Nina Sipes said...

Elaine,
How kind you are! I can often be clear as mud when I get to explaining things. (I could have said, 'when I explain things.' but it wouldn't have held the same flavor!;)

Nina Sipes said...

Roxann is right--again. FINISH a manuscript before dinking around in it. A person has to learn to wobble before they learn to walk. A person needs to feel the confidence of learning their own strengths before tearing themselves down by listening too much to others. A person needs to get the feel of their own writer's voice before messin' around with it by exposing it to too many other writers who will always want to say the same thing but differently. Example: A new writer sent me some stuff. I sighed over a few POVs and a few other VERY TINY issues. I traumatized the author. My husband read the same material and was enthralled by the story and wanted more. Moral: be kind and careful & readers often don't notice or care a flying flip for things we see.

Finishing a story is the most important thing. Because if you can't do that, all the correct language, colorful words and phrases, elite grammar, and excellent characterization you can muster won't get you anywhere.

Penny Rader said...

Thank you, Nina, for the fabulous post and for everyone who commented. I learn so much by hearing/reading varying opinions. You all are so smart!