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Creative Rule Breaking

I started my writing career fairly late in life and with little formal training. Eager to make up for lost time and do all I could do hone my skills, I enrolled in advance writing courses, attended workshops, and listened to podcasts hosted by best-selling authors. I devoured novels in my genre, joined a critique group, and studied books and online articles about plot and setting, theme and pacing, character development and dialogue. I made two interesting discoveries. First, each resource adhered to a fairly standard set of guidelines about what an aspiring novelist should and shouldn’t do. Secondly, while teaching uniformity, each stressed the importance of finding my “voice”—the unique quality that would make my writing distinctive.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard the mantras. Show, don’t tell. Use strong verbs and avoid adverbs. Use the simplest word possible. Never use semi-colons. Avoid attributes and just use “said” even with questions. Don’t bore the reader with expository or too much interior monologue. Prologues and flashbacks are bad. Start the book and each chapter with a “hook.” Structure your plot like a three act play. Keep dialogue to a line or two—never over three without a break. Don’t overwrite or be too “prosy” as it will pull the reader out of the story.

Then come the mechanical rules. Keep your paragraphs short, margins wide, and don’t single space. If you don’t leave plenty of white space on the page, readers will think the book is “too hard.” Keep chapters under 2500 words as modern readers have short attention spans. Keep long sentences to a minimum because complexity could drive your reading level index too high. Word count must never exceed 100,000—and 70,000 to 90,000 is preferrable.

I could go on—the list of rules is endless—but I’m sure you get the idea. Early on, I did my best to listen to the experts even when it forced me to censor my more poetic tendencies. They were professionals, after all, who understood what it took to make a manuscript marketable in an extremely competitive industry. Then one day I bought the latest novel of an award-winning author who critiqued an earlier manuscript of mine and who chided me for using a semi-colon, and there—on the first page, no less—I spotted the dreaded semi-colon. To be fair, I know that an established author with a huge reader base is given much more latitude than one trying to get a first novel published, but still …

I read or reread some really great books—novels like Gilead and All the Light We Cannot See and was thrilled to see Robinson and Doerr didn’t get the memo about avoiding beautifully written prose and lyrical phrasing. Where would a Man Called Ove or Where the Crawdads Sing be without the exquisite character development imbedded in page after page of interior monologue? What would have been lost if The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Book Thief had adhered to a more traditional style or plot structure?

I’m certainly not saying you should ignore the advice of experts—not if your goal is to appeal to the widest audience possible and maximize your chances of landing a publishing contract, I am suggesting that once you've learned all you can, you may have to become a creative rule breaker. Especially if you have a "uniquely you” story burning within. Don’t let the rules inhibit your passion for literary language, poetic word pictures, or outside-the-box plot structure. Don’t be afraid to take chances—it’s how literary gems are formed.

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