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?