An Interesting Thought on “Rules”
- By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jun 20 2008
A lot of comments lately have blasted agents and editors for all of our rules. We stifle authors, we cause nothing but problems, and we’re rude to boot. I debated a discussion on rules because I have a feeling I’m going to get blasted for it, but a client of mine pointed out that what makes my blog work are my honest answers and the honest comments I get from my readers. So here goes . . .
There are seemingly a lot of rules in publishing, but if you’ve ever heard me speak or read enough of my blog posts I think you’ll know that I’ve repeated again and again that those rules are not rules and should not be seen as such, but should be looked upon as guidelines. One of the most frustrating things for me about being blasted for all of our rules is that so many of them are created because authors ask for them, and so many more are not rules I’ve put out but rules authors impose themselves.
I am constantly asked for more clarification, for more rules. Authors want to know a secret to getting in the door. How do you write the perfect query letter, how do you write the perfect synopsis, and how do you write the perfect book? I cannot tell you that. I can give you hints, clues, examples, and critiques. I can do my best to help you along the way, but there are absolutely no rules. You’ve said it yourself, agents impose rules but then sell books that break them. When asked how to write a query letter or a pitch I can give you tips on what I’ve seen that’s worked for me. Does that mean it will work in the same way for another agent? Not necessarily, because it’s all subjective. This is the same for resumes and resume cover letters. You can read a resume book and see hundreds of examples. They might all work for you or they might not. Ultimately, when reading the advice of agents you need to pick and choose what resonates with you.
Reading our blogs should be done in the same manner you read revision letters from critique partners, agents, or your own editor. You need to see what worked and didn’t work for other people and see how it resonates with you. Then you need to make your own decisions. Making smart, professional, and personal decisions are in the end what the only rule should be.
Part of this entire rules thing is that authors often take what we say as an absolute. My comment last year on saying thank you in a query letter is a perfect example. In trying to help one particular reader tighten her thank-you (and granted, I should have used a different tone) I was barraged with criticism and read all over the Internet that if you thank me in a query it is an automatic rejection. What?!? Come on. Do you really think I’m that narrow-minded and obtuse? I will take the blame for the tone I used and I guess I should have explained myself in a kinder, gentler manner, but to have it so blown out of proportion is crazy. I’ve learned as the blog goes on what voice works best for me and my readers and tend not to be snarky anymore (or not much). However, that was certainly not a rule. It was a piece of advice relating to one particular query letter.
So my advice to you . . . take what you read on all agent, editor, and publishing blogs with a grain of salt. We give the best advice we can from our own knowledge base. We have few rules and only guidelines. And while we’d prefer you email a query letter, there are plenty of you who include a page or two of your work, and, you know what, I do read them.
This business is hard enough. Coming up with amazing ideas and writing them with near perfection is not easy, and I know that, I really do know that, so to let these so-called rules get you down is crazy. There are plenty of other things about publishing to get us all down.
The problem is, rules do exist, but they change from agent to agent.
For example, one agent may have the rule ‘Don’t send me poetry’. Regardless of how good the poetry is, it will be rejected because it’s not part of the agent’s repertoire. This is an easy rule to follow, by just looking at the submission guidelines from that agent.
Other rules are more constricting. Word count is a popular one. While 800-page tomes or 150-page snippets continue to be published on occasion, many authors (particularly debut authors) are told to change the length of their work, even before it’s read. And again, every agent is different. One agent might not care about word count, one might be lenient if the work is good, and another might immediately toss out anything not between 80k-120k words.
Other rules are even more obtuse. One agent might despite vampire novels. Historical fiction might be going out of style. Perhaps there’s a serious issue in your YA novel that isn’t ‘allowed’ to be read by young readers. Knowing what ‘rules’ an agent has before sending to them is limited to what they put in their submission guidelines.
And that’s just considering agents. Agents have to sell to publishers, and they often have rules of their own. If a book breaks one of these rules, it’s considered unsellable and rejected.
While you might say you read all queries even if they break a guideline or two, not every agent does. Many are so swamped by queries that they will use any excuse to shoot off a rejection. And they use rules to do it.
So yes, agent advice given on the net is just that: advice. Not rules. However, there are rules out there (along with the less stringent guidelines), and authors must constantly find ways to comply with them.
I think of some of my students in college writing classes, who take the attitude, “Tell me what I need to do to get an A, and I’ll do it.” Some of them get annoyed when I say, “Be creative. Say something original. Explore what you really want to say.” But that’s how you really succeed in writing.
And of course the difference between academic writing and writing for publication is that teachers can give A’s to all the students who follow all the rules. Publishers can’t publish every submission that doesn’t break any rules; there’s not enough space in the bookstores, and not enough buying public.
So those people who want to follow all the rules–and think that following all the rules will guarantee them an agent and getting an agent will guarantee them a lifelong career in writing–are likely to get frustrated by all the rules, and frustrated at the small reward for following them. So it goes.
First, there are no rules. I’m no different than anybody else in thinking: gee, if only I use Courier instead of Times New Roman, this book will get picked up.
But it’s Bullsh**!
There are guidelines, that’s all, and most of them are common sense and business etiquette.
And finally, there’s a Wall Street Journal piece about an author that to my mind, did everything wrong, broke every rule, and now appears to be on the road to bestsellerdom. Certainly if I had had a write-up in WSJ and my publisher printed up 10,000 advanced copies of one of my books I’d be selling better than I am. Only time will tell, I suppose.
I kvetched about it on my blog today.
So, as the saying goes, rules are made to be broken.
Just remember, some people (Ronald Reagan, for instance) get away with breaking rules, while others (Richard Nixon, for instance) do not.
If this post had been up a few days ago, I might have picked Ain’t No Rules or Everybody Wants to Rule the World instead of Ain’t Nuthin But a She Thing for BookEnds when sleep deprivation forced me to compile an Agents Who Blog imaginary soundtrack. *snort*
For whatever it’s worth, I think you’re absolutely right… Guidelines are meant to help when you’re not sure what the best way is. They are always meant to be applied with common sense.
Thanks, Jessica. Your client was right.
All the ‘rules’ are maddening for those of us trying to follow them. I think the most frustrating thing is when they change, as chro said. And there are a lot of ‘rules’ which means there’s lots of opportunity for them to drive us nuts. I hope publishing professionals can be patient with that. All the aspiring authors I know really are doing their best.
I guess I don’t really see those as rules, but more as specializations and preferences. Chalk that up to the subjectivity of the business.
I don’t want to see poetry, because it’s not in my area of expertise. I wouldn’t think you’d want to send it to me then. Personally, I wouldn’t want to buy produce from Toys R Us. True, I’m not given the option. But even if I were, I’d still drive right on by the toy store and head to a grocery store or farmer’s market for my peaches, apples and carrots.
As for word count, subgenres, etc. That, too, is subjective. Some agents are going to be more openminded than others because of their own preferences. At the same time, though, an agent that’s not necessarily looking for vampire fiction at that moment might think you’re breaking new ground when she reads your query letter and will put aside her own “guidelines” because your book just blows her away. So to think of it as that agent’s “rule” and to bypass her altogether, could mean you’re short-changing yourself.
The submissions process is frustrating, I know. But if you don’t think in terms of rules and you cast a wide net (but keep in mind the types of material they do and don’t represent – ie the poetry example), your chances are 100 times better.
People making themselves crazy about the “rules” by which an agent/editor selects a book should remember, I think, that in their own lives — maybe even their professional lives — many many MANY people assert rules for which there are always exceptions and loopholes. People change their minds. People get better at what they do.
Say an agent/editor asks you, “So what sort of things do you write?” You answer historical romance, or SF/F, or literary, or what-have-you. The agent/editor agrees to take you on after reading your stuff. Everybody’s happy.
Three years down the road, with 2-3 titles already out there and doing swimmingly, you submit your latest WIP. And it’s 100% different from however you answered that simple question back when all this started. Maybe you answered urban fantasy, and this new book is a non-fiction report of, I don’t know, a mining disaster in 1846 Kentucky.
How can you possibly justify such a change of direction, of heart?
Because you’re a better writer now. You know what you really want — need — to write.
Agents and editors are creative people too. Not only the markets, but their tastes (as people, not just professionals) are guaranteed to change. Somebody who’s never read an historical romance in their lives is handed one by a friend, and suddenly they realize they can sell that — they WANT to sell that — just as much as the thrillers their Web site says they specialize in.
We need to relax as writers. There are so many many real pressures on us that the last thing we should be making ourselves anxious about is that people act inconsistently and sometimes actually change.
And sometimes “rules” are meant to be broken. I queried several agents just over two weeks ago. Some took email queries, some said not…but I queried them all via email, pasted my first chapter in the body of the email, even though all of them except for one wanted nothing of the sort, but I thought…what, are they not going to read it?
Well, a week later I had two offers of representaion and am now a writer with an agent.
I’m pretty miffed at times about “rules,” and I do try to make a distinction between absolutes and suggestions. Some things are basic and writers–especially beginning writers–should heed them: avoid passive voice and POV shifts, etc. Others just make sense: Times New Roman 12 point double-spaced because it’s easier to read and makes word count estimation work better.
I figure the process with agents and editors is like a courtship. If I were dating a girl who was a vegetarian, I wouldn’t take her to a steak house for dinner. If someone you wish to impress has likes and dislikes, pay attention to them. But don’t tattoo them on your forehead and make them a life rule.
I suspect all the rules we latch onto are like security blankets to our fears. We want a two-plus-two-equals-four path, but it’s a two-plus-two-equals-seven path.
We’re sometimes like a group of girls over-analyzing every last nuance of what their date said, how he acted, etc. Remember The Rules book?
That approach is pretty futile. We try, we fail, we try, we fail, and eventually, we’ll find the right rhythm, the right match. Rules just make us feel more comfortable.
And, to some, I think it’s more comfortable to hang a disappointment on a silly rule than on one’s work.
>>”Tell me what I need to do to get an A, and I’ll do it.”
This would be my child LOL there’s no abstract thinking with him, there’s only yes/no wrong/right. And Spy’s right. This is such a crazy business and there’s so little we can control that we cling to what we think we can control–mastering the rules.
I landed my current agent with a book that was written in a style she normally doesn’t like–go figure. (And I sent it to her before I knew she didn’t like that particular style *g)
IMO You can land an agent and/or sell if you break the rules, but you better know which rules you’re breaking and if it’s worth it.
My 2 pennies
I’ve never seen them as rules so much as how not to shoot yourself in the foot.
Not so much “this will get you a request” so much as “this will get you a rejection.”
There is no magic trick in this business. Write well, be persistent. If you’re going to be daring, break only one rule, not all of them at once. And break it with great style.
Miss Snark said it best, and it’s the only rule I follow.
“Write well. Quit obsessing.”
I agree with everyone. Wonderful comments here.
And Jessica I had a situation like yours a couple of years ago and can really empathize. It was frustrating and the more I tried to explain my true feelings, why I chose to say something or act a certain way, the more defensive I became. And the harder the girl posse came at me. I never did get complete closure, I truly believe nobody “understood” me. However, I stepped away from the group for a year, let the dust settle. Would you believe the posse seek me out now?
The key to breaking a rule is knowing your craft well enough to know that you’re breaking the rule and why.
If we all travel this road to getting published, trying to please everyone, we’ll end up like Julia Roberts in that wedding movie where she changed the way she ate her eggs to please the current boyfriend. In the end she didn’t know how she really liked them.
So, my take on all of this is, know how you like your eggs and be true to yourself, know what you’re doing and why. Don’t sell yourself short. Have a plan. Go after what you want with confidence. Know that rules are guidelines. As Jenny Crusie says after every piece of advice, “There are many roads to Oz.”
Rock on, Jessica. “Can’t everybody just get along?”
🙂 Interesting, isn’t it, how the relationship between a literary agent/publisher and an author is so similar to marriage? The word is compromise, and lots and lots of patience.
This blog is extremely helpful, you guys do a wonderful job.
I love reading this blog – it is one of two or three that I *sneak* into my morning routine. What I love about it is the honesty and the human factor you add to it. Let’s face it, the publishing world is scary, it’s hard to let go of our “baby” and we all want it so bad we look for anything possible to make it happen. Just reading this blog (and the others) makes me remember that your side of the book is like mine – we all want to read good work.
Thank you for this post and for the guidelines you share with us.
Thank you to the rest of the responders who point out that we need to write the best we can and have a little common sense in our submissions.
I know aspiring writers get frustrated, but this is a tough business. I read somewhere that less than 2% of submitted fiction manuscripts ever get published.
There are no golden answers. Work hard, refine your craft and use common sense. The best you can do is *all* you can do.
As to your tone on that original “no thanks” post, Jessica, I read it and your tone was fine. Some people just get way too wrapped around the axle about stuff.
I never thought you were snarky. I thought you were business like. And the agent does do the business part of selling this creative work.
Granted, as an artist and writer, I tend to forget about rules. All Art is beautiful to someone, right? Eye of the beholder and all that?
But there’s a time to remember we have to respect the business end of this too.
I think sometimes we want to please the agent so much we fixate on you’re every word and don’t hear what you are really saying.
Its the see the trees vs. the forest thingy.
The thing I’ve come to realize about the rules of getting published, in the short time I’ve been researching this, is the following:
In writing, you’re told to learn the rules first, then break them. But break them properly. Picasso went to cubism, but only after he could draw a near-perfect image of the human form. Poets study sonnets to write free form. We’re told not to use sentence fragments, yet they’re peppered in throughout almost any (modern) published book.
The same goes for the “rules” of publishing. Learn them. Then you may break them. If you break them wrong, you won’t get published. Break them right and you will.
And if some agent or house gives you rules you don’t like, don’t submit. Maybe it’s a buyer’s market, but if you believe in your work enough, you can chose who to sell it to.
To me, trying to snag a publisher or agent is like applying for a job or a spot a hot school. The competition is so high, that the gatekeepers naturally rely on certain exclusion criteria. If you’re applying for a spot at a law firm and you show up with a neck tattoo, it may not matter that you’re the next coming of Oliver Wendell Holmes, you’re not likely to land the corner office. If you flaunt the conventions, you make it all the harder to get accepted. Or, more to the point, you give people an opportunity to reject you without even reading your material.
What astounds me here is how rarely anyone talks about the “gestalt” of the process. If you’re a prescriptive writer writing a prescriptive, formulaic manuscript, your query needs to reflect that. If you have penned a lyrical work of literary fiction, that needs to show up in your query, too!
Somehow, within the context of the guidelines, you must find a way to embed your self, your own energy, your own creative signature into whatever you do. I did like the Picasso comment, and the suggestions to learn the rules and then break them.
Bottom line, though, has got to be this: Whatever communication you have with a potential agent or editor, needs to reflect enough of you to shine through the run-of-the-mill queries pouring in from everywhere.
What sets your work apart is you. Otherwise, truly, why bother?
I haven’t read all the comments yet, but I will.
However, I had to say something before I dash out the door.
I’m not an agent nor a publisher. I don’t live in these worlds. If I am going to operate in them, I want to know the rules so I can play well with others.
Tell me what you want and I will do my level best to do it. I want you to read my manuscript, really, I do. I want to make a good impression. I want to pretend like I’m a professional you would want to work with.
Give me the guidelines and rules and preferences and what kind of candy you want delivered after you sell my manuscript.
I’ll be happy as a clam to pay attention.
I’ve gotten to the point now that for all the rules/guidelines (which don’t bother me because I just take it as one part of the industry I work in), I’m really beginning to believe that finally getting an agent has an awful lot to do with pot luck. It seems you just have to find the right agent on the right day in the right mood, and then if you’ve broken the rules (which as history has shown us, a lot of people do and still find success) its not going to matter becuase that agent wants your book no matter what. I stick to the guidelines as close as I can, and continue to believe that one day my work will land on the right agent’s desk at exactly the right moment.
Someone above said this:
IMO You can land an agent and/or sell if you break the rules, but you better know which rules you’re breaking and if it’s worth it.
Which is also explained by morgan dempsey in the comment just above me. And I agree completely, but I have one thing to add. Not only do you need to know the “rules” before you break them, but you have to understand why they’re there. People don’t just make up these guidelines because they want to cause people trouble. They’re there for a reason. Once you understand that reason, you can better see whether or not you can and should break some of those guidelines.
Just like a waitress, I appreciate the tips you give me.
Now, I just have to say Thanks!
I love a little snarkiness – and miss Ms. Snark
Very interesting post about the rules of writing, and the commentary makes a nice addition.
Miss Snark would gently slam you upside the head with a gin pail (flaming?) and affectionately walk all over you in her stilettos if she knew you referred to her as “Ms.”
* just sayin’ with a big smile and fond remembrance of the old gal *
The rules are dead! Long live the rules!
Great post – and hopefully fewer people attack you for giving them what they specifically ask for…
Here’s the one that gets me:
Where does your book fit in?
Let me see? Flanders. Right between Evanovich and Grafton. Gooood company.
Mt summer will be spent polishing, then its off looking for a good home.
Jennifer is top on my list.
And by polish, I mean typos!