Breaking the Rules

Just yesterday, an Internet friend asked me to read his short story and offer him a little editorial advice. Sometimes I get nervous when friends ask me to read their writing, but I’d shared enough of a conversation with him to expect he’d know his way around words. I was right. Even though it was a first draft, the observational story (non-fiction, but with the textures of a great fiction piece) had plenty of bite and surprising depth.

One of the things that struck me about his story was the manner in which he introduced dialogue for the various characters. He didn’t separate it from the rest of the first-person narrative with expected paragraphs and punctuation. Writing rules would tell you this was a mistake, something to fix in the second draft. But after reading through the story multiple times, I was convinced it needed to stay exactly as written and told him so. To write the dialogue using a more traditional format would have weakened the story, stripped it of both intimacy and menace.

Now I’m fully aware that the short story often plays by different rules than a typical novel, but the rationale behind what makes a “broken rule” work in his story and what makes them work in novels is very much the same.

Anyone who reads (and/or writes) science fiction or fantasy knows the importance of consistent and believable “laws” for their created worlds. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than a character who suddenly discovers a new ability that goes against the rules of the imagined universe. Suspension of disbelief evaporates the moment Sir. Junket of Swarthy swings his sword in the Arthurian tale and laser beams fly out of it to kill the minotaur. (Unless, of course, the story has been developed in such a way that all three elements play nice with each other. Then it would be just fine.)

The same is true for the writing craft in general. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for example. I’ll admit it took me a few pages to get used to McCarthy’s creative use of non-punctuation and sentence fragments. But the more I read, the more it made perfect sense for the story. The novel broke a ton of rules, but it did so with such consistency and believability and purpose, many thousands of readers (and those fine Pulitzer folks) didn’t mind one bit.

I’ve heard lots of writers complain about the “constricting nature of writing rules,” but more often than not, when I run into those broken rules in practice (head-hopping, sentence fragments, odd punctuation, etc.), they betray poor plotting or lazy writing rather than purpose. The best writing advice – to “just write” – is still and always the best approach to take when starting a new work. Don’t worry too much about the rules while writing the first draft. But once you start working on revisions, it’s critically important to carefully evaluate if what’s on the page draws the reader into the story or pulls them out of it. Can you really justify the head-hopping? Are the sentence fragments distracting or do they fit the rhythm and voice of the narrative?

Broken rules that truly serve the story are invisible to the reader.

One final note: If the novel you’re shopping has broken tons of writing rules, you might have a harder time selling it to an agent or publisher. Publishers are hesitant to take a chance on something that falls outside of familiar boundaries – especially if they have lots proposals for good books that fall within them.

But don’t stress too much about this. If what you’ve written is brilliant, you won’t go unnoticed.

Contest reminder: Look for this blog’s first writing contest to be announced on Friday. I’m not going to say any more about it until then. But between now and then, tell all your friends about noveldoctor.com. The greater the number of visitors to the blog this week, the bigger (and cooler) the contest prize.

10 Stages of Grief: The Editor’s Note Edition

So let’s say you’ve made it through the first hoops and now your Amazing and Brilliant First Novel is sitting on the desk of a Real Life Editor at a Real Live Publishing House.

Your contract has been framed and placed on the fireplace mantle between your dusty wedding photo and dustier 5th Grade Spelling Bee Champion trophy. You’ve spent the first part of your advance on the clothes you just have to have for that inevitable booksigning at the Barnes & Noble in Lincoln, Nebraska. And you’ve ordered business cards that list your occupation as “Author” to replace the ones that said “Writer.”

Then you get the email. The one from the Super Sweet Editor you met over the phone that one time you sort of remember but not really because it was all a blur since you were still drunk with the news you’d been signed to a three-book deal. The email reads something like this:

Dear New Best Writer Friend,

Hey, I really enjoyed your novel, The Heart of the Matter of Things. So many good ideas and some nice sentences, too. Now the real work begins. I’ve attached my editorial notes for the novel. Don’t be frightened, it’s only 27 pages long. That’s pretty good, actually. Sometimes my notes are longer than the book itself. So, yay for you! Anyway, read my notes, do exactly what I tell you to do, even when I preface my comments with phrases like ‘it might be better if…’ or ‘here’s a suggestion…’. K? Great! It’s gonna be so much fun working with you. I see bestseller written all over this novel!! (When it’s done, I mean.) Oh, and I love the title. But it will have to change. We’re thinking something like ‘Under the Blue, Blue, Blue Sky’ or maybe ‘Monkeys of Heaven.’ TTFN.

-Your Super Sweet Editor

This is it. The moment of truth. The attachment is staring at you from the tail-end of the Super Sweet Editor’s email. Wait, don’t open it yet. First, take a look at the 10 Stages of Grief that typically accompany the editor’s note.

Read. Learn. Prepare.

The 10 Stages of Grief

1. Fear – You don’t want to open the attachment. You don’t want to open the attachment. You don’t want to open the attachment…

Symptoms: Sweaty palms, pacing, much prayer.

2. WTF?* – Upon opening the attachment, you discover that someone has accidentally broken a pen because there’s red ink all over your masterpiece. Surely these notes were meant for someone else, like a writer who doesn’t have a contract for a Three Book Deal.

Symptoms: Swearing, more swearing, a sudden desire to print out the editor notes so you can run them through your shredder and use them to line your hamster cage.

3. No, Really, WTF?? – You are now 100 percent certain that the publisher assigned a clinically insane person to edit your novel because no one in their right mind would suggest the changes this loony is suggesting. Kill the subplot about the lingerie salesman who lives with his mother?? WTF???!!

Symptoms: Still more swearing (including the creation of new compound words that would make Christian Bale and Susan Boyle blush); kicking things until they break; looking up the address of the editor and searching Google for a florist that delivers dead flowers and rotting fish.

4. Avoidance – You walk away from the computer for an hour, then a day, then five.

Symptoms: Yell “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” when friends ask if your book is in the bookstores yet (which they’ve been asking since the moment you started writing it).

5. Denial – You compose an angry letter to your editor explaining just how wrong she is with everything she suggests. Your novel is perfect as is. After all, you’ve been writing it for six years. Your finger hovers over the “send” button.

Symptoms: Constant head-shaking; finger cramp from hovering over the “send” button.

6. Dream Abandonment – You decide you’re not a writer after all. You don’t send the angry email because “what’s the point? I don’t know what I’m doing.” You call Dr. Hoofersnarkington and ask if you can have your old job back as dental assistant.

Symptoms: Start speaking in absolutes, especially sentences that begin “I’ll never” and end “write again.”

7. Contemplation – You begin to think that maybe, just maybe, some of those editorial notes have some value. Yes, in fact, you were planning on making some of those very changes yourself, now that you think of it. And a few of the other ideas – the ones you hadn’t thought of yet – well, they’re not so terribly off the mark. You can always save the subplot about the lingerie salesman for your next novel. Hey, maybe it could be the main plot of that novel!

Symptoms: Ability to read the editorial note without swearing, kicking things, or shedding more than six or seven tears.

8. Negotiation – You trash your original angry note and compose another one describing how thankful you are for the great suggestions but also challenging some of the notes (politely, but firmly to re-establish the fact that this is your book first and foremost). You send this one right away without regret.

Symptoms: Ability to laugh a non-maniacal laugh when friends ask “so how’s that book coming?”

9. Acceptance – You and your editor agree on changes that need to be made, and you begin making them. As you do, you realize your editor probably isn’t clinically insane after all.

Symptoms: Removing that box of new business cards from the trash; fixing things that you broke earlier when you kicked them; making repeated visits to local bookstore to find out who your shelf neighbors will be.

10. Chocolate – You’ve sent off the last revisions. So you eat chocolate.

Symptoms: Chocolate fingerprints on your spouse; a happy spouse.

*If you’re abbreviationally squeamish, feel free to read “WTF” as “Where’s The Fun?”