You break it, You buy it.

JT Ellison

Revisions can be hell.

I’m currently working on a revision of book 5, THE IMMORTALS. When I started, it looked like it was going to be simple. I needed to add a subplot. No big. Move a few chapters around, dump the story in the appropriate spots, read through and voila! Revision done.

Yeah. Not so fast, there, Sparky.

After staring at the computer for three days trying to decide just exactly how I wanted to do this, I realized it wasn’t going to be the snap I first thought. If I wanted to do it right, I needed to do things a little differently.

I write in a very linear fashion. There are a few times when I’ll jot notes toward the end of the manuscript of what the next chapter is about, or throw down some words to describe my climax. But for the most part, I start at the beginning and write sequentially, allowing the story to unfold as I go instead of jumping around from scene to scene.

I had a great opportunity a few months back—I was the media escort for Diana Gabaldon when she came to Nashville. Now that’s not a job I’d ever want again, because I was a stress monkey the whole day, worrying about getting her to the right place on time (you’d think since I live here I wouldn’t be so damn worried, but I was.) One of her talks, she mentioned how she builds a book. I’d heard this before, but I paid special attention this time, to see if it was something I could do.

Diana writes scenes. Separate, living, breathing entities. When she has enough of them, she starts stitching the book together. Sometimes she’ll find that the season is wrong, or the time of day, and rewrite it to match, but for the most part, the way she puts it together sounded absolutely seamless.

Now, I’m a realist. Of course it isn’t seamless. Proper chapter and scene arrangement is vital to the story – you can’t have things out of order, your readers will get confused.

So when I realized I needed to do this subplot, I decided to try it her way.

Surprisingly, it’s sort of working.

But here’s where I got stuck. The subplot revolves around a situation that happed six years earlier. You know what’s coming next. Yep, I have to write in the dreaded of all forms – the flashback.

Stop your groaning.

I’ve never written in flashback before, not extensively like I’m doing now. It’s not the easiest endeavor. Which is fine, I’m always up for a challenge. But I don’t know what the standards are. As the story unfolds, I’m seeing two things: one, it could be a book of its own, and two, I might be better served if I have a second POV. But you’re not allowed a second point of view when you’re flashing back in someone’s head, are you?

I spent a day fretting about this, then finally called New York.

My brilliant editor scoffed slightly and said, “Write it and see if it works. If it doesn’t, you’ve cost yourself nothing.” Which of course is the right answer.

It’s not the easy answer, though. No one wants to spend time exploring when they’re on deadline. I immediately mentally resisted, listing out all the reasons why I shouldn’t try – time being one of the biggest ones. I’m not much for throwing work away—when I write it, it goes in. The idea of writing scenes basically on spec to see if they might work is an anathema to me.

But in the course of all this angst, I suddenly realized what I was really asking. I wasn’t worried so much about the dual POVs in the flashback. I was asking if I could break the rules.

And since when do I ever worry about the rules?????

Happily, when I went to my office, this was the first thing I saw. It’s on my door.


“There are no rules except those you create, page by page.” ~ Stuart Woods


You can imagine the chagrin I felt. Permission? This is writing, damn it. We’re writers. We are the all-powerful creators of universes. We do what we want, when we want. We defy gravity, boundaries, planes of existence. We bring the dead to life. Yes, there are rules, but it’s our job, our mission, to break them. That’s what we do. All successful writers thumb their nose at the rules. Even Stephen King says, “Know the rules so you know when to break them.”

Ah. There’s the rub. We’re allowed to break the rules, but we have to know them first. Okay. Consider this your hall pass.

Here’s the rallying cry. Go forth, and break all the rules. Write something today that’s been eating at you, something that you’re worried about. Something your mind says won’t work. Maybe it won’t. But until you get it on paper, who knows???

When’s the last time YOU broke the rules?

Wine of the Week: 2007 Primaterra Primitivo

PS: Happy Friday the 13th!! Unlike Halloween, good things usually happen in the Ellison household on these days. I hope something good happens for you too!

26 thoughts on “You break it, You buy it.

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Great subject, and one that is fresh every time a writer sits down to do revisions.

    I broke the rules with the opening to SECOND SHOT without realising that’s what I’d done until it was too late to chicken out. I can still remember being on Lee Child’s panel at Left Coast Crime in Bristol before 2S came out, and announcing that my next book opened with the main character lying in a frozen forest, having just been shot twice. There was an audible intake of breath at that point, and a little trickle of fear ran down my spine. ‘Oh b*llocks – what have I done …?’

    It was only when people began talking about what a brave move it was that I realised the old corruption of Kipling’s ‘If’. "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs … you’re clearly too stupid to realise the danger you’re in!"

    And if you think flashbacks are hard, try flashforwards – they’re a real doozy!

  2. Dana King

    Most of my rule breaking is in my grammar. I was never properly taught grammar–a "holistic" approach to composition was in vogue when i was in school–and I’m a little sensitive about it. My first efforts were in first person, in large part because I could excuse the occasional grammar error by attributing it to the narrator’s ignorance. I’ve worked on my grammar since, but still sometimes make it a point to write ungrammatically, as I think the type of stories I tell flow better that way.

    I once broke down the fourth wall in a piece of flash fiction and was a little worried about it. The piece was accepted by the first place I sent it. I’m getting a little less risk averse as I go.

  3. Alafair Burke

    I switched between third and first person in my third novel, Close Case, even though the shift isn’t "supposed to" be done. My only rule these days is to do whatever works.

    Hope the rest of your revisions go smoothly!

  4. Emily

    Thank you for this. My work in progress switches POV, but my main character is first person and everyone else is in third. I was worried about it, but now I realize how silly I’m being. Loved the post!

  5. JT Ellison

    Z, your flashforwards are masterful. I’ve reread your books a couple of times just to see how you do that – it’s always so seamless. Don’t think I’m quite ready for that.

    Dana, I have to tell you – it took me years to unlearn what my English teachers drummed into me. No one speaks grammatically. And dialogue written grammatically comes across as stilted and jolts you out of the story. King’s book covers the essentials of the writer’s toolbox, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. But for you, you’re making your own rules, and that sounds like it’s perfect.

    Alafair, the POV shifts are even harder to pull off, and you do it wonderfully.

    Emily, more power to you! I’m always reluctant to switch POVs mid-stream, though my short stories are often in first. I’ll explore that later, when I’ve figured out this whole dual POV flashback crap. ; )

  6. Melanie

    Thank you for this post. It seems I write EXACTLY the same way as you and I can never figure out how other people write scenes and make it all work later. That just seems to wrong to me.

    Good luck breaking the rules. Something tells me it will work.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    I’ve so admired your work ethic and ability to think through a book. So reading this post today gives me more of an inkling of some of your struggles. Thank you; it’s heartening <g>.

    But you always succeed so brilliantly. And your conclusion about breaking the rules — or in other words: writing what you need to write in service of the story — is spot on.

    Congratulations on the break through!

  8. toni mcgee causey

    I’m grabbing onto that hall pass and am gonna soar with it, JT. Thanks for this post. It’s heartening to see someone else express the kind of struggle I’m having with the current WIP–makes me feel not alone and encouraged that this, too, is just part of the process. I needed this today, thank you!

  9. JD Rhoades

    The Keller books have frequent flashback scenes, because that’s a symptom of the kind fo severe PTSD Keller suffers from. You really couldn’t write that character without them.

    BREAKING COVER switches from third to first person in the middle section, which is actually one extended flashback. It seemed to work without slowing the story down, but only because there was a lot going on in that section,

    And I agree, the flash forward in SECOND SHOT was brilliant.It grabbed the reader right away with one of those WTF? openings that keeps the reader interested because they want to find out how things got so bad.

    I’m interested in the Gabaldon method because that;s actually how I’ve started writing this new one. I decided to go ahead and write the scenes that I wanted to get to rather than slogging though. We’ll see how it works.

  10. JT Ellison

    Louise, I’m the same way, I’ve never done more than a tiny bit at a time. This was scary, but it’s working.

    Melanie, what’s funny is I generally base the whole book around a single scene that I get in my head prior to writing. So essentially, I am scene based, though I’ll write up to the scene instead of writing it down.

    Oh, Pari, if only you could be a fly on the wall here. There’s plenty of angst and frustration to go around. But the more I struggle with something, the better it ends up being. I just hope that’s the case for this.

    Toni, if we didn’t fight with our words, they wouldn’t matter as much. I think it’s a sign that something is going right, not wrong. At least that’s what I keep telling myself…

    Dusty, that’s right, you do do that. I’ll have to go back and look it over. I’m feeling much more confident about all this today than I was yesterday when I wrote this blog. Probably because I’ve done 4K in the secondary POV and it’s flowing like a river. So maybe it will all be okay.

  11. Chuck

    Dear JT:

    What are these rules you speak of?

    My entire life has been one big rule-bust-athon. No, I don’t speak in someone’s backswing. And when driving, I always wave when someone lets me in. But that’s about it. Bending the rules, or "being unique", as I prefer to term it, gets you noticed. Makes you memorable.

    I was reading a book by Carsten Stroud, and was so engrossed in it, I didn’t even realize he had just written a two page sentence. It was fragmentary, busted up with semi-colons. But you know what? It worked. It was during an anguishing, inner-dialog piece with the protag, and it was done so well I never noticed it. Later, I realized how much time old Carsten probably spent crafting that one little section, and how damned well it worked.

    So there. I am glad you are breaking the "rules". It’s inside you–you know it. If not, go back a few months and read your own blog about female protags. Still one of my faves.

    Have a great weekend!

  12. Allison Brennan

    You mean there are rules :/

    Actually I have an entire workshop on this subject–in fact, JT, you’re giving it with me and Toni and an editor friend of mine (not my editor) at RWA if they accept the workshop. Now you have a story to share!

    1) I write prologues. I love prologues. Apparently, you’re not "supposed" to do that.
    2) I have had flashbacks in all of my books. Hmm, let me think . . . yes, all of them. You liked THE HUNT, right? That has more flashbacks than any of my books.
    3) In ORIGINAL SIN, my hero has memories that aren’t his. I share the memories almost like flashbacks (just a different kind of transition.)
    4) Two POVs? Well, yeah . . . it’s a flashback, not a memory. BIG difference. It’s its own scene–in essence it’s own story–so you can have multiple POVs in one scene. If it was a dream or memory, you probably wouldn’t want to do this (of course, if done well you can do anything!). But flashbacks aren’t memories. They’re snapshots of the past.

    So write on.

  13. Chris Hamilton

    I’ll talk about breaking rules after I get published and I can say "I broke X rule and it worked." Until then I’m just a rulebreaker like all the others.

    As for writing flashbacks, I learned how to write flashbacks by watching season one of Lost.


  14. Allison Brennan

    Chris, season one of LOST was the BEST and they handled flashbacks perfectly. I lost interest in season three, but people tell me season four is good . . . i just don’t know if I can get through season three. HEROES almost lost me, but I’ve been enjoying season three and four.

  15. BCB

    Rules. Most of the rules I break on a regular basis are the ones related to Socially Acceptable Polite Behaviour. It’s either because I’m not easily intimidated and don’t respect authority for its own sake, or because I lack even the most basic survival instinct. Maybe both.

    I wrote a scene that deliberately broke all the POV head-hopping rules. Spent a good deal of time on it, trying to achieve the effect I was after. Then gave it to a friend to read — someone who is a self-proclaimed POV purist. She said she loved it. I figured she was just being polite so I asked, "The head-hopping didn’t bother you?" She said, "There wasn’t any head-hopping, I would have noticed. I hate that." What a great feeling. If you do it well, you leave people wanting to change the rules for you.

    I love hearing about the different processes other writers use. We all go about it in such unique ways, and yet we all seem to end up with a "similar" finished product. "Similar" in that they’re all complete stories. I find that fascinating and very much appreciate all those who share how they make it work.

  16. JT Ellison

    Chuck, you, a rule breaker? NAW… never see it. That passage sounds intriguing – though I admit, I hate the semi-colon.

    Allison, if ever there was a writer who GOT IT, it’s you. You’ve always made your own rules, and that’ why your work is so excellent. And yea for RWA – I will remember this one in particular.

    Chris, LOST, excellent example. Allison, definitely plow though to Season 4. The last 1/2 of season 3 and all of 4 are absolutely awesome. Well worth it.

    Now, I admit, I like me some prologue. Prologues are fun, if done right. I remember a book I read that had a prologue that was actually a scene from later in the book, which was BAD IDEA #1. BAD IDEA #2 The author had changed the character’s name, and no one remembered to go back and change it in the prologue. i kept waiting for Tim to show up, and it was Mark, all along. REALLY AWFUL!

    BCB, POV is not my forte – I always make sure to scene break if I’m changing heads. I’m impressed!!!

  17. BCB

    LOL! Don’t be too impressed. I’m sure the next 26 people who read it will say, "Um, yeah. No. I see what you’re trying to do there and it doesn’t work. You need to fix that." But for that one moment, it felt really good to have gotten away with it. 😉

  18. JT Ellison

    Alex, honey, you summed up my feelings perfectly. Fuck it. I like the weather too.

    And BCB, you’d be amazed. I read a lot of really excellent books – Daniel Silva comes to mind – that play with the standards of POV. Silve is a master, definitely read him if you haven’t…

    Night all. Thanks for playing today!


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