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?