Thursday, February 4, 2010

Breaking the Rules



I am not a rule breaker by nature. I’m the classic, compliant first born—a people pleaser who needs approval and doesn’t rock boats. Imagine my surprise then when I discovered that as a writer I’m breaking all kinds of rules. Here are just a few that I’ve broken.

1. Never open with a character waking up at the beginning of a day.

Breaking the Rule: My opening to The Long Way Home (Book 1) of my Home trilogy.

Dori Marshall was wide awake, but she refused to open her eyes. It was an old trick that she had played as a child: the day couldn’t start until she looked it in the face. But even with her eyes closed, she knew her quiet, ordinary life was under attack. The very air against her skin seemed charged with a presence. Damn Max! He always changed everything.


2. Never have a character describe herself/himself by looking in a mirror.

Breaking the Rule: Dori looks in a mirror as she’s getting ready to go downstairs and face Max, who has caught her by surprise earlier.

She stared at the face in the mirror. She knew she wasn’t plain exactly, just ordinary. She ran her fingers through her bangs to give them the tousled look that her hairdresser recommended. Maybe she should listen to Lou Anne’s advice about highlights. Her hair was just so—just so brown, not golden brown, not caramel, not mahogany—just brown. Her skin was good, but it wasn’t peaches and cream or tanned and lovely. It was just fair skin that flushed too easily for her liking and required a triple digit sunscreen to keep from burning. Her nose was just a nose, and while her lips were pleasantly curved, they lacked the pouting fullness of a cover girl’s.

“Cute” was the adjective she had heard applied to herself most often, but “cute” was not an adjective that seemed appropriate for a thirty-four-year-old mother of a teenage daughter. Dori knew her eyes were her best feature, not blue or green, but a changing mixture of the two, surrounded by lashes so thick some people thought they were fake. “The only thing fake, lady,” she told the woman in the mirror, “is your smile.” With another sigh, she started out, only to return, snarling words her mother never taught her under her breath, as she grabbed a pair of red sandals from the closet and shoved them onto her feet.


3. Never give your character names that start with the same initial.

Breaking the Rule: Three M’s and Two S’s

In the first draft of TLWH, my hero was Max. His best friends were Micah and Mowgli. I even turned the common initial into a joke and had them call their first band Mmm. Pathetic, I know. I did say “first draft.”

And Dori’s best friends were Scott and Saja. No jokes for them, just the feeling that they had told me their names.

4. Keep your focus on the two main characters. Don’t distract your reader with too many characters.

Breaking the Rule:Twenty-Five and Counting

Max and Dori have a daughter. Dori has a mother, a father, a brother (who has two children), two best friends, an agent, and a sort of ex-boyfriend. Max has an aunt, a father, a stepmother, two half-brothers, five band members (and the wife and son of one of them), one friend/manager who’s dead but still very much a part of the story, a new manager, and a former girlfriend. That's twenty five secondary characters who contribute to the story plus assorted townspeople.

5. Don’t write books one and two in a trilogy until you’ve sold book 1.

This is a new rule for me, one I discovered this week when I read Jessica Faust’s blog post from last Friday, and to be fair, it was really expert opinion and advice, not a rule. It just felt like a another rule to me since rules were much in my mind.

Breaking the Rule: 170,000 Words Later

I have about a third of both books 2 and 3 written. I had never heard that I shouldn’t write them yet when I started on them, but I have enough finished on both now to be fairly certain where the stories of Dori’s best friends, Brynne and Saja, are going. I even have titles: Home Is a Four-Letter Word and Who Says You Can’t Go Home?





A Rule Breaker's Declaration (Sort of):

I compromised with the rule on characters names. Micah became Eli, but I could not change Mowgli’s name. He refused to cooperate under any other name. Scott became Brynne because several people though Scott sounded too completely a male name, but I’m not happy with the choice. I’ll probably change the character’s name again if I can find something that fits the character better.

As for the other rules, I think I’ll remain a rule breaker for now. I like my opening, and I’ve received good feedback from friendly readers and from contest judges. I’m happy with the mirror scene, and it elicited some very positive feedback from a couple of contest judges. If an agent or editor says these scenes have to go, that will be soon enough to conform to the rules.

Books 2 and 3 introduce far fewer characters than book 1. I do most of my world building for the town of Gentry, Georgia, the primary setting for all three books, in book 1. I need those characters to give context to the lives of the hero and heroine and to make Gentry seem real. Again, if an agent or editor suggests I have too many characters, I will reconsider at that point.

As for the trilogy, since I can finish both remaining books in about the same time I can write another book, this time I’m staying with the trilogy. If I write a second series of books, I’ll keep in mind Jessica Faust’s advice.

As a reader, are you aware of rules and of writers who break them? Are you bothered by rule breakers? As a writer, do you follow rules—or are you determinedly typing to the beat of your muse with no thought of other peoples’ rules?

20 comments:

Maggie Robinson w/a Margaret Rowe said...

Rules are made to be broken. :) My agent told me if she had signed me earlier, she would have advided me not to continue w/ the Courtesan Court trilogy until we sold the first one. Well, guess what? The fact that I had three books done proved to be a selling point (and the second book became the first, if that makes any sense at all, LOL). There used to be some rule that heroes couldn't be artists, too, and I've completely broken that. In fact, I've done some really risky rule-breaking that I know I'm going to catch some crap for. Off to go toughen my hide!

Janga, do what's right for you and your voice will shine through. (oops. Accidental poetry for the poet!)

Janga said...

Thanks, Maggie. It makes me feel better to know that your having a finished trilogy was a selling point. I'm not sure I could refrain from finishing my Home books. I think of them as one, long story anyway.

Your encouragement was a great way to start my day.

Marnee said...

I agree with Maggie; rules are meant to be broken. I think that you need to be true to your story and to yourself as an artist. If you think something needs to be a certain way for your story, you should follow your instincts.

MsHellion said...

Actually your examples for rule breaking changed my mind about that rule. Though to be fair, even though it starts out with her "waking up"--she's already awake and already thinking of how Max is ruining her life...so that sorta jump starts action (to me), which is the point of any beginning.

And normally, not a big fan of the mirror description (though how else is anyone to know what they look like?)--but you did it so prettily, I was just enjoying the read and not the fact that "she shouldn't be doing that." Definitely a keep too.

And I love the Mmm band and all the names with the same letter. What about people in real life who have more than one friend named Stacey or Jessica...that can be a fun quirk in a story. It's more important that we can tell the difference between the characters so we put the right M-name with the people. Although I think my character is very clear from my sister's and my father mixes up our names all the time.

I don't think it's anything to worry about. *LOL*

Keep writing. You're brilliant!!

MsHellion said...

And I too agree with Maggie and Marn: Follow your instincts. You're a beautiful writer.

Janga said...

Hi, Marnee! Thanks for dropping by. Most of the time, I think you're right about following one's instinct about the story. But when my instincts are challenged by expert opinion, doubt mounts a snak attack. :)

Janga said...

Hellie, it's too bad you aren't an NYC editor. I'd feel much more confident of a sale if you were. Your comments always inspire me to keep getting words on paper.

MsHellion said...

Janga, if I were a NYC editor, I'd have to live in NYC...which for me would be hell on earth.

Otherwise I think it would be a very cool job.

MsHellion said...

And definitely keep getting words on paper. I agree with Marn and instincts. Look how well that worked out for JK Rowling. (My favorite example, I know.)

We all know you're going to make it one day and we'll all get to read your fabulous books. Keep writing.

irisheyes said...

Janga, I read through all your rules and how you broke them and it didn't diminish at all my yearning to read the rest of the story.

I agree with Marnee and think that you need to write what feel right for you and it'll just flow.

Another observation that I have that you can take as you'd like is that I don't think you should tread the normal path of most writers. The biggest thing that grabs me about what you write is your voice. Now, maybe that's just me but you are one of those writers who could write about paint drying on the wall and I would read it. Your voice speaks to me - the way you string your words together. So keep stringing!!!

irisheyes said...

I also wanted to address the duel names theory. I remember reading that too, but decided to disregard it due to personal experience.

My nieces and nephew have 3 uncles with the same name. One is a priest, one is my younger brother and the other my husband. You couldn't find 3 more different personalities if you tried.

There have been many hilarious conversations and mistaken assumptions that have occurred when one or the other uncles have been mixed up.

I think it is a challenge - if you give each character their distinct personlity the reader will absolutely not confuse them and you also avoid dumbing down your story to play to the lowest common denominator (?).

More opinions than I've shared in quite a while... sorry about that :)

quantum said...

If breaking rules harms no-one (especially me!), then I would treat them as guidelines or 'words of wisdom' from people who have become 'street wise' in the writing world.

I don't think the creative spirit can be caged or should be constrained in any way. I guess that apart from a few fundamental rules of grammar spelling and style, great authors create their own rules and smash them when the right occasion arises.

Janga, I'm not really a rule follower, or a list maker for that matter, but your blog has given me a glimpse of your own writing talent.

I am impressed. *smile*

SonomaLass said...

Ah, but you forgot the most important rule of all: rules are made to be broken. In a good cause, of course, when warranted. I think every author has those judgments to make.

SonomaLass said...
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Janga said...

Hellion, I'm committed to putting the words on paper, and your confidence in my ability to do so makes it easier. And Rowling is a great inspiration for any writer. Thanks again, my friend.

Janga said...
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Janga said...

Irish, I value all your opinions. And I laughed at the three uncles who share a name. I have the same problem with my sister and a friend of nearly thirty years who share the same name. If I fail to specify which one I'm talking about, I create much confusion. :)

And thank you for the kind words about my voice. I find that I'm trusting my own voice more these days and spending less time bemoaning that I'll never sound like authors X, Y, and Z.

Janga said...

Q, I guess that scientists almost by definition have to be both knowledgeable of the rules and willing to break them--or at least to believe rules can be questioned. It was Ezra Pound, I believe, who advised writers to first know the rules and then break them. Thanks for reminding me again of the connections between seemingly disparate things.

Janga said...

SonomaLass, thinking of rule breaking as its own rule gives a new slant to the whole issue. Thanks for the comment.

JulieJustJulie said...

Am I bothered by rule breaker writers? No, as long as the writer gives me a well crafted story.
What some people call breaking the rules, I call Creativity!