You don’t need to work with up and coming writers for long before you come across this phenomenon – the author who believes every rule they are told.
Thus you end up hearing comments like ‘Won’t self-publishing ruin your career?’ or ‘You should never start a story with dialogue’ or ‘You have to have an agent to get a major publisher to look at your work’ or ‘You have to write every single day’.
It can go on and on and on because the list of rules is seemingly inexhaustible ‘You need to publish short stories first to get a novel published.’ ‘If you’re writing fantasy, you have to write a trilogy.’ ‘The hero/heroine need to meet by page *, kiss by page **, have sex by page ***.’
Sometimes, the rules contradict each other. ‘If you write fantasy you need to have a prologue.’ ‘Never have a prologue.’
These authors will hold up people like JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Neil Gaiman as the pinnacle of success that following these rules will allow them to attain without realising that the reason they all became successful is because they BROKE the rules.
Gaiman’s not once written a trilogy. Kids books were supposed to be short before Rowling came along. No one reads first person was the cry until Meyer.
So why do up and coming authors cling to these rules? I’ve got a few theories…
A) Rules bring comfort
We might like to think that we’re all into freedom – freedom of self, freedom of thought, freedom of expression. But we feel free because we’ve accepted the rules. They surround us. They make us feel safe and so we are confident enough to dream of being free.
B) Rules mean you don’t have to think
Rules make things easy. If I follow this step, then this, then this, then things will keep happening. You don’t need to look where you’re going. You don’t need to consider the difficult questions, number one being – what the hell does this rule mean? Is this the right thing for me to be doing?
C) Rules mean you have something to blame when things don’t go your way
‘They changed the rules,’ they cry. ‘The rules are so confusing. Everyone has a different rule. How am I supposed to get this right if I don’t know what the rules are?’ So its the rules, or the rule-makers fault, and not your fault for simply not being good enough.
I can understand people wanting to cling to the rules. Publishing is in such a state of flux at the moment and that’s scary. As a rule (hah!), we humans don’t really like change. We don’t like the insecurity that comes from not knowing what’s going to happen next. We really, really like rules.
But being a slave to the rules means you’re missing the big picture. It’s been centuries since writers had the power. Back in the day, the work of the brothers and monks that created the books was celebrated. If you wanted a particularly book, you went to the monk and they created it for you and they had the power to say yay or nay. But then came mass production, and with that came publishers, and suddenly they were the ones with the power. People wanted books, they went to the publishers and so the publishers got to choose what they saw, not the writer. The pendulum is starting to swing again. Consumers can again access the work of writers directly from the source.
This has opened up possibilities that haven’t even begun to be realised yet.
And even if things had stayed the same, I return to my earlier point – most authors make it by BREAKING the rules. John Grisham and Matthew Reilly both started off self-publishing. EL James wrote fan fiction.
I myself broke the rules. I didn’t get an agent. I found a way around the ‘no unsolicited submissions’ rule by sending in an unsolicited query. And I’ve got three fabulous books on the shelf as the result.
In my workshops, I start by telling people – if there’s one thing I want you to remember from this workshop, it’s this: there’s no one right way, there’s only the way that’s right for this story.
Be true to the story. Be true to yourself. Invest in yourself and your career by learning all you can about the industry. Then believe, and if you have to break the rules for the sake of the book – DO IT!