Rules of Writing
- By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 12 2009
I have a new rule on my blog and that’s that you can’t ask me any more about the rules. I don’t want to be asked questions like whether or not the hero’s story can be the opening scene in a romance or how many pages of action an action-adventure needs to have. I don’t want to be asked at what page a body needs to be discovered in a mystery or how many pints of blood is too much.
The only rule of writing you need to know is to throw out all of the dang rules. I can’t answer any of the above questions because it depends on your work. Typically, yes, a cozy mystery should have a body within the first three chapters. But, if your first three chapters feel like a mystery and are engaging, then throw that body into the fifth chapter. It’s not about the number of pages or exact rules, it’s about the flow of the story. Do the hero and heroine have to have sex by page 20 in an erotic romance? Not necessarily, it depends on your story.
So the rule is, write what works for you and your book. If someone is telling you the murder should happen earlier don’t look at their advice as a genre rule, look at it as it pertains to your book. What they are probably saying is that the opening pages drag and they want something to happen. They are mystery readers and want the mystery. When writers ask me for rules I get the feeling they’re asking because they are looking for the magical in to publishing, that knowing the rules will make it all easier. It won’t, it will only make your job more complicated because it will hinder your ability to just write the story.
Once again, you provide wonderful and helpful advice. I’ve noticed people asking questions as though writing were a standard mathematical equation. People have been bashing Twilight quite a bit lately and I believe one of the reasons that it was an fantastic story was that Ms. Meyer didn’t know all the rules. She wrote a story that she loved and many of us love it, too. Having access to answers about publishing is a blessing if used in moderation and a curse if it overwhelms the beauty of just simply telling the story you love.
I love your attitude! While rules are great and necessary in a lot of things, there is something to just writing a great story that keeps people hooked. Thanks for the advice 🙂
“The only rule of writing you need to know is to throw out all of the dang rules.” SO true!
“Hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.” (Thanks for that gem, “Pirates of the Caribbean”)
I look at it this way: there will always be something in any given novel that someone doesn’t like. They will wish you cut something, added something, did it earlier, did it later, did it more, did it less…
This post was right on the money. As the writer, you have to be true to your story.
Thanks for reminding us, Jessica 😀
Jessica, Tell me again when the hero should save the heroine – should that be on page 42 or 63? Once you tell me the answer to that, I’m golden.;-)
How many sentences should be in a paragraph? Kidding…my students always ask this (college level). I am starting to see many parallels between being a literary agent and being an English teacher. 🙂
I actually get the feeling that when people go looking for rules, they’re looking for things they shouldn’t do. Not, “Oh, if I have a body in the first three chapters I’ll magically get pubbed,” but “Oh, I don’t have a body in the first three chapters, that might be hurting me.”
Does a definition question fall into this category? My question is when does an amateur sleuth mystery become a cozy? I want to write something with an amateur sleuth but without a craft hook.
In writing, the rules are general guidelines. What may work for one story won’t work for another.
Thanks for the great blog entry!
I recently taught a writing workshop to a bunch of fourth graders—these are people who are being told there needs to be x number of sentences in a paragraph and that sort of thing.
The first thing I told the kids was to forget the rules for awhile and just see how the story unfolds. The kids had a blast.
I think it’s time I follow my own advice. Thanks for the inspiration!
Love this post. Yes, sometimes it does appear that we aspiring writers focus way too much on the “rules” when we should just be writing the damn story lol.
Thanks for a great post.
I’m glad to hear you say that. I have been on another blog where they are critiquing beginning chapters, and really getting hung up on the rules. I was going crazy try to make sure my work followed them, only to realize I wasn’t doing my MSS any favors.
PS I love Pirates of the Carribean; guess I should have listened to Captain Jack better.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it here; I even said it on my blog recently and I said it on DorothyL and was taken to task for it, which ended my days on DL.
The only rule of writing is:
Don’t be boring.
FWIW, I wrote and submitted–and got rejected–for twenty years, until I decided to quit writing “by the rules” that “everyone” told me I had to follow. As soon as I broke every frickin’ one, EXCEPT to write the story as I saw it, I (read: Jessica) got my first NY contract.
Please get smarter faster than I did!
(Eeuw…my word verification is loogie)
It’s very easy to become trapped by the rules. I’m a big fan of learning them, then forgetting them so I can write the damn story. Thank you!
So…does this mean we can throw out the rules regarding grammar and punctuation, too?
Good advice again, Jessica. You really are a gift to writers with your posts on writing 🙂
I like to think of writing rules as a vacation itinerary. They give me the courage to begin the journey only to find out what fun it is to veer in another direction later on.
Informative post as always, Jessica. Thanks.
——Confucius says; man who sits on tack gets point!—-
Carol: Throwing out punctuation works for Cormac McCarthy. It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between someone who knows the rules and throws them out anyway and someone who just doesn’t know what they’re doing. So I would say…go for it, if it works!
I’ve broken oodles of rules (sold my very first book (an ebook) with 3 chapters and no synopsis, for example). Interestingly, I had a mystery author friend say you should introduce the murderer before chapter 3, which is a rule I’ve tried to “follow” many times–because its fun to try to do it without being obvious. The best part of rules, sometimes, is the challenge to adhere to them while still being original, or (in a mystery), while still pulling the wool over a reader’s eyes.
But readers are captivated by a good story. And Jessica’s point is hugely important–that a reader advising about rules may be instinctively pointing out something else is wrong!
Just write the dang story and let the narrative fall where it may.
I find mad-libs to be a perfect place to write creatively with very stringent rules.
You do have to know your parts of speech, though.
This post made me grin from ear to ear. 😀
Great post! It’s so easy for us writers to obsess about the “rules of writing” because they’re more or less clear-cut. We can quantify them. This genre has these elements, this type of story ends this way, and on and on it goes.
We forget that once we know the basics, then we have to learn to let them go. I’m a perfectionist, so I need reminding of that all the time! So, thanks for the reminder 🙂
Great advice, Jessica. Thanks!
It’s nice to think there are no rules, but that’s not quite true. Rules of grammar and punctuation, as already mentioned, are just some that should be followed in most instances. But asking agents for the rules is silly. Take a class. Buy a book or two on writing. when you know what the rules are, you can break them.
The important thing is writing an understandable, engaging story, whether you follow the rules or not.
The advantage I seem to have over most is not knowing any rules. Of course that seems to help me regarding the writing thingy. But sorta screws me up on the getting published part. Oh well… at least I’m enoying the writing part.
I love your take on it, and not only because it’s been mine for ages 😀
It’s really hard to actually WRITE something when you’re spending so much time messing around, worrying about a rule. Get it written. Maybe mess around with it after. But get it written first, get it out.
I don’t think I could have written what I have with someone telling me that I should follow a set formula or that I should make my book into a mystery because mystery sells. So glad that no one asked me to add vampires or sorcerers! I venture to say … that just wouldn’t be me. A story has to come from your heart, it can’t be forced. Oh dear, what am I going to write about next?
That’s all well and good, but it’s a catch 22. You can say there are no rules – and I can understand your being sick of answering rule questions – but the fact is there are generic conventions, not to mention submission rules, and if they can’t be articulated, those of us trying to figure it out have that much farther to go.
I understand but I still think people need to ask.
So WONDERFUL to hear someone insist on writers not fretting so much abt the “rules” of writing and concentrate on writing the best dang story possible!!
What happened to: “You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them?” I’m sure lots of editors out there won’t be very happy with this advice…
I, for one, need good punctuation and grammar and proper spelling to read a story–otherwise I’m too distracted trying to edit while I read. LOL
Still, I do think it’s freeing to let yourself go while you write.
I think good spelling, punctuation and grammar goes without saying.
I was going to think it depends which rules you mean, but I remember reading a brilliant book (no idea of the name or author now) when I was in college – deliberately weird spelling and grammar, written from the point of view of a nuclear holocaust survivor. So yeah, it all depends on the book you’re writing, but if you’re breaking rules, maybe you need to know it and know why.
I very much agree with Sheila.
The key to throwing out the rules, is knowing you are throwing out the rules. It’s about making a conscious choice. You can’t throw out the rules if you don’t know there are rules in the first place.
Was it Toni Morrison who wrote her books in lower case without standard puntuaction? I tried so hard to get into her books but just couldn’t get past the lack of punctuation. It was like reading one long, endless e-mail and I gave up before I finished one chapter.
Guess it’s the editor in me!
Thanks so much for this post. It gets very discouraging when everyone is constantly telling you what to write, when, and how. I think that this defeats the purpose of writing…After all, when you write, it's something you feel passionate about, and it's something you need to work out for yourself. I've always said that I'll write what I write because I love what I do; if someone else loves it, too, then that's fantastic; but if not, I at least know that I stuck with my passion. And I believe that if someone sits down to write a great book, and puts a lot of love and knowledge of the craft into it, they can't really go wrong.