This year I entered three contests for unpublished writers hosted by different chapters of the Romance Writers of America. My novels are not romance, but each contest allowed for other genres, and the young adult entries did not have show romance elements. I had varying success. Won first place in one, finaled in another (winners not yet announced), and did not final in the third. All for the same story.
Any contest coordinator will tell you that the scores are based on the subjective opinions of the judges, and I readily accept that. I was eager, though, to see what the judges in that third contest had to say. It turned out they all said pretty much the same thing (which I won’t go into here, because my intent is not to dispute their opinions). But it all came down to a particular “rule” in writing that they said I needed to work on.
Their comments got me thinking about all these “rules” that we latch onto in the hopes of becoming better writers and getting published. I recall at a writers conference a couple years ago I sat in a cabin with a group of hopeful writers under the mentorship of a well known, multi-published, award-winning author. We talked about the “rules,” and I commented on a feeling had been rolling about in my mind.
“I think we latch onto these rules because we think, ‘if I just do this right, or that, then I’ll get published.’ But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about understanding the reasons for the rules and using them as guidelines for better writing.”
Our mentor nodded, smiling.
Writing great fiction is about so much more than adhering to a set of rules. The rules (or guidelines, if you like) are important, but they won’t sell our books. Most readers don’t know a thing about Deep POV or Goal/Motivation/Conflict. They probably aren’t concerned about showing narration versus telling narration. And they might not recognize a weak or passive verb if it limped off the page and shook their hands. These “rules” we hold to so desperately do not promise great fiction.
But they are important.
Because even if a reader doesn’t understand all the nuances of point of view, she may feel jerked around and unsettled if the author does a lot of head-hopping. And a character without a goal is likely to be one we’re not too concerned about, and so won’t follow through his humdrum existence for two or three hundred pages. And most readers will smile, get a catch in their breath, or reread just for the pure pleasure of it, when they come across a sentence that is exquisitely worded.
So, over the next several weeks, I’d like to dissect some of these rules, examine why they exist, why they’re important, and, despite all that, how often they’re broken in published books that readers still love. And how breaking the rule can work.
Funny, after talking about knowing and breaking the rules, I’m going to give away a book about… rules! This month’s book is Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle, part of Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series. I’ll also include a little Starbucks gift package… because it’s Christmas. Leave a comment, and your name will be entered into a drawing at the end of the month.
Have a blessed Christmas, y’all!