Breaking Rules to Break In or Break Out

by Allison Brennan

On Saturday, I presented a workshop with J.T. and Bantam editor Shauna
Summers called “Breaking Rules to Break in or Break Out.” I’ve given
this workshop many times and it changes each and every presentation.

Three years ago, the Orange County RWA chapter were the guinea pigs for
this workshop. I had been frustrated by the so-called “rules” imposed on
writers that I felt stifled creativity and weakened an author’s voice.
So I polled published authors I knew and asked for their first sales
stories, specifically what “rule” they broke that they felt helped them
sell. Some authors blended genres in a way that others told them
wouldn’t sell, some authors set their story in an “unpopular” time era,
others pushed the envelop with story or characters.

The workshop has evolved, largely because I hate giving the same
presentation twice. I’ve given it at RWA, at the New Jersey RWA
conference, and on-line via email loop. The primary purpose is to teach
writers that we all have rules we adhere to, because they are OUR rules.
For example, because I write romantic suspense, my personal rules is
that 1) the hero and heroine must survive in the end and 2) they must be
closer at the end of the book, so the reader can believe that they have
a HEA in their future. I also ensure that the bad guy gets what’s coming
to him, because justice-for me-must be served.

But other rules I’ve been told by some critique partners or contest
judges or even reading the advice of other published authors, agents,
and editors, doesn’t work for ME. For example, I like writing in
multiple viewpoints–sometimes more than four, six, eight, ten. The most
I’ve used is thirteen. My only rule is that transitions must be clear.
My editor helps keep me on the straight and narrow there. But some
people will tell you never write in more than (insert arbitrary number
here, usually 3 or 4) POVs.

Following rules that don’t fit you or your voice conforms your writing
to match everyone elses. What’s the fun in that? Why will an editor buy
your book if it sounds like the hundred other submissions she just read?
It’s the stories that practically sing with character and voice that
draw an editor, agent, reader in . . . Not whether you followed all the

Rules are important, but breaking rules is fun. But more important than
being fun and creative, is that rules-or the lack thereof-is crucial in
developing voice and style and making you stand out from all the other
writers writing in your genre.

I always learn something at every conference I go to. Otherwise, I would
probably stop going. But seriously, no matter how many times I go, I
pick up something I can apply to my own writing life.

What did I learn, or was reminded about, in my own workshop? Editors
generally buy on voice and character. Don’t break rules just for the
sake of breaking rules, break rules with a purpose. Too many cooks (or
critique partners or contest judges or well-meaning friends!) will
destroy your story. As Stephen King says, write with the door closed and
edit with the window open. Meaning, write for yourself first, but don’t
let everyone in during editing–only those you completely trust.

You will never please everyone. There will always be people who hate
your book. I’d rather have people who love my book or hate my book than
people who are lukewarm about my book. (Of course, I really want more
people to love it than hate it!) So write for yourself, edit smartly,
ignore the rules that don’t work for you or the story, and in the end,
your story will be stronger for it and you’ll be happier.

But the one reminder that I needed now more than ever came from Nora
Roberts in her “chat.” No excuses. Put your ass in the chair and write.
Stop whining, stop complaining, stop blaming. No one said it would be
easy, and you have to want it. You have to be hungry for it, have
passion for it, be willing to make sacrifices for it. What is IT? For
many at RWA it was simply “being published.” But for the published, what
is it? I had to think about that. For me, it’s writing a better book
than my last, to stay focused, to simply be a stronger, better writer.
And sometimes that’s hard to believe possible. We all doubt. But that’s
the excuse. My goal is now to DO. No more excuses. Put my ass in the
chair and write.

I’m traveling home today and hope to check in periodically between
flights. I hope you’ll chat about something you’ve learned at a
conference that you’ve applied to your writing life and to what result?


17 thoughts on “Breaking Rules to Break In or Break Out

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    "I’d rather have people who love my book or hate my book than
    people who are lukewarm about my book."

    I absolutely agree. The worst review I ever had said one of my books was a "pleasant" read. Argh!

    Great advice.

  2. Murderati

    JT here: I’m going to talk about RWA and what I learned on Friday, but suffice it to say this was an extremely eye-opening convention for me. And I can’t wait for next year in New York! Thanks for having me on the panel – that was a lot of fun!

  3. toni mcgee causey

    One of the rules I was told (a long while back) was that you have to be careful when creating a strong woman character, because female readers wouldn’t relate to her and men would be intimidated and would think she’s a bitch.

    My general response to that was F*ck that sh*t.

    Real men aren’t scared of strong female characters, and there are plenty of women readers out there who can relate to a strong character (or who can enjoy her strength without thinking she’s less of a woman).

  4. Allison brennan

    I’m hitting the road, just want to apologize for any typos as this was the first long thing I’ve written on my iPad without my wireless keyboard! Safe travels for everyone leaving RWA today, may you arrive home without incident and a burn to write.

  5. Cornelia Read

    Allison, thank you for writing down the Nora Roberts advice–exactly what I needed to hear this morning! Safe travels to you, and thank you for this wonderful post!!

  6. TerriMolina

    Great Post Allison. I wish I could have been there. Hopefully your presentation was recorded so I can listen to it when the CD’s come in (our chapter orders them every year).
    I think I break a lot of rules…mainly the one about having the hero and heroine meet in the first chapter…hmm…could be one of the many reasons I’m not selling. :-0
    And, love her or hate her, Nora gives great advice.
    Hope you had a good trip home. See ya in NY next year! (I’m bringing my daughter and two of her friends so, should be interesting)

  7. Mike Dennis

    "He was impressed by the sheer size of the handsome chandelier hanging over the center of the room, even though he had no way of knowing that it was made of Spanish crystal from another century."

    I read that sentence to a critique group and they all about shit their pants.

    "You can’t say that! It’s against the rules! You’re changing point of view!" And worse yet, it was "author intrusion". Excuse me while I reach for my heart pills.

    Somerset Maugham had, IMHO, the final solution for all this BS. "There are only three rules of wrtiting. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

  8. becky hutchison

    What a great blog, Allison! And thanks so much for the Nora Roberts advice. It appears she approaches writing almost like a business and not just a creative outlet, which is probably why she’s so prolific.

    Also, that whiny, passive female character? Pure bunk! When I read romance, I try to stay clear of a book with a simpering female lead. I prefer an independent, strong and intelligent female to carry me through the story.

    One question: Do you think beginning writers need to know the "rules" of their chosen genre before they can break the rules?

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great post, Allison. For me IT is writing myself into a situation where I can write full-time. It seems everything I’m doing is done in an effort to break free. Of course I want to write a better book, every time I write. But the day job weighs me down so much that it keeps me from realizing the absolute FUN of being a published author.

  10. B.E. Sanderson

    I’ve never been to a conference, but I wish I could’ve been there for your workshop. Thanks for sharing some it here this morning. I think paying too much attention to other people’s rules is what made my second book so flat. It wasn’t me (until I rewrote it and did what worked for me).

    And thanks for the pep talk. I needed it. When it comes to excuses, I can use them all, but they’re just a crutch. I need to get off my buns and get to work. Speaking of which, I have edits to type in. ;o)

  11. Jinky

    I think it’s important to look at the "rules" of writing much like a lawyer would. You have to know what they are, but even more important is knowing what they’re not, when they’re applicable, and how to break them without getting caught.

    I’ve never been to a conference, but I will share something I learned from Project Runway, season 3. During the middle of the season, Michael Knight killed the competition. I thought for sure he was going to win. But when it came time to showcase his collection at Bryant Park, he churned out a befuddled mess. Without a challenge to build off of, he lost his focus. That was the first time it hit me that perhaps it wasn’t an author’s job to abide by the rules and challenges set by others, but instead to establish those rules and challenges for themselves. My work took a definite turn upward when I started writing with that in mind.

    Toni: I love your response to the idea of strong women being intimidating. One of the most infuriating comments I’ve ever received on a story was by someone who didn’t like that the heroine didn’t "need" the hero emotionally. It ticked me off because "need" isn’t about romance, it’s about co-dependency, and there’s nothing empowering about two co-dependent people needing each other all the time.

  12. Jane Darwin

    I used to love writing. But gave up when some people would tell me that my works don’t seem to fit in standards they’re familiar with. I don’t know what they really meant about this but it must have been their disapproving looks which told me that I should quit on writing. There are times though when I fantasize about a book that I should have written.

    Jane Darwin
    <a href="">Latest Health News</a>

  13. nike air force one

    I've never been to a conference, but I wish I could've been there for your workshop. Thanks for sharing some it here this morning. I think paying too much attention to other people's rules is what made my second book so flat. It wasn't me (until I rewrote it and did what worked for me).

    And thanks for the pep talk. I needed it. When it comes to excuses, I can use them all, but they're just a crutch. I need to get off my buns and get to work. Speaking of which, I have edits to type in. ;o)


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