Rebel With a Cause: Rule-Breaking


Another workshop I attended at RWA was called Breaking Rules to Break In or Break Out.


Hop around the blogosphere (including this very blog) or flip through the writing craft books at your local bookstore and you'll be hit with what?  A whole lot of rules.

Don't use adverbs, don't open with weather, make sure your hero and heroine meet on page one (romance), don't kill off a beloved character because readers will hate you, etc.  All the advice is often overwhelming and at times, contradictory (as we demonstrated on Monday with the debate of whether are not to list your genre at the top or bottom of a query letter.)

But we're all so focused on getting published that we want to follow every rule to make sure we give no one a reason to reject us.  However, what that can result in is perfectly correct, lifeless prose.

The editor on the panel said that she often judges contests where the person hits all the right points on the scoresheet/checklist and gets a high score, but the story has no life, no magic.  Writing is not paint-by-numbers and when it becomes that, readers can tell.

However, having said that, when you break the rules, you need to do so consciously (hence the blog title).  Know the rules before you break them and know WHY you are breaking them.  If you ignore all the rules willy-nilly and send in something that's full of passive verbs, long chunks of flowery descriptions, and replaces every s with a z like the LOL cats, you'll probably get rejected.  Rules are there for a reason.  But when done right, rule-breaking can be spectacular and make your book stand out.

I remember when I first picked up Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles, I was like--oh wait, alternating first person POVs? This is going to drive me crazy. (I think I was still scarred from that technique in New Moon.)  But it worked so well and turned out to be a terrific book--not to mention it just won the RITA award at RWAs for best young adult romance of 2010.

So don't be afraid to do something that's considered rebellious.  My little acts of rebellion so far: I've been told that writing about rockstars is a no-no, especially if you're writing a Harlequin, because rockstars have those notorious lifestyles and a stigma attached.  But I love rock music and think rockstars are swoon-worthy, so I wrote it anyway. Now, Harlequin hasn't given me an answer on my full yet, but Wanderlust has won first place in two contest so far, so hopefully the risk was worth it.

Then, in this latest manuscript, I took a bigger risk.  I wrote a dual-timeline story.  Each chapter alternates from present to ten years ago, basically two story arcs that eventually merge.  Admittedly, I tried NOT to take this risk because it made me nervous.  But you know, some stories just demand to be written a certain way and this one refused to give in.  So I did it.  Now, I'm not the first to do this, but I can only think of two other recent novels that have done this Megan Hart's Deeper and Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas. So I'm praying I didn't shoot myself in the foot trying this.  We'll just have to see.

So, what rules have you broken?  Which books have you read that broke the rules in a totally effective way?  Which rule do you hear all the time that you would like to overturn?


**Today's Theme Song**
"Rebel Yell" - Billy Idol
(player in sidebar, take a listen)