Breaking Writing Rules

As I’ve spent the last year or so discovering the various rules for writing fiction, I can now say which ones I’ll break.

1. Start with a hook

I did try this. Well, not for my first novel, but for the Victorian mystery and its sequel. The hooks sit there, dangling themselves to interest the reader. They’re not brilliant, I don’t think they’re necessary, and if I were the reader I’d want to skip them.

2. Just write — don’t edit as you go

I recently read this advice in a writers’ group, and I’ve seen it before in a number of books. Just let it flow, they say. Turn on your writer brain and turn off your editor brain.

Trouble is, after a few pages of writing, my sensible brain says I’d better go back and take a look and make sure it’s not crap. Or I need to go back and say where the door is located in the room. Or I need to go back and mention her hair is red. I gotta do it now or I’ll forget. Once I do, I can move forward writing again.

It’s said that you can’t write with a (self) critic looking over your shoulder. But I need mine. She’s good at it and I like to keep her close. Plus, when I’m really too tired to write, we can go back a few scenes and do editing instead.

3. Keep your reader in mind

Who is my reader? The Amazon customer who needs $1 more in his cart to get free shipping? The reader of 425 Victorian murder mysteries who wants a fix? I have no delusions that Simon and Schuster will call to say they want to publish my work, and are bringing over those wealthy educated readers who’ll pay $34.95 for the hardback.

Really, there are two problems with keeping the reader in mind. One is that every reader is different. This is why writing groups are so fascinating and so frustrating. Everyone has a different idea of what should be changed, improved, kept. The other is that I am the reader.  If I have to engage in Brown-like and Grisham-like formulaic writing, I’ll stop writing all together. (The one bit of advice I will follow is that you should write the book you want to read.)

4. Use the pattern of rising action, climax, denouement

In my first mystery, the dead body refused to make its appearance until the end of chapter three. I do sort of have a rising action, as people work around trying to figure out whodunnit. And I did manage to contrive a threatening scene to expose the murderer.

But in the sequel, the body falls in somewhere around chapter five, and I keep adding stuff before it. Then after that body, a couple of other things happen, including an attack in a park. And the police are on a different track than our detective, who doesn’t even know she’s the detective yet although I’m over half-way through the book. The murder, rather than being central to the story, seems to be only one of several factors contributing to the overall story. Which causes the problem of. . .

5. Write in one genre

I can say my first novel is literary fiction, but it doesn’t really fit that genre because the prose is not celestial by any means. While it is not impossible to describe the story, there is neither a typical plot nor a traditional character arc for the protagonist. The Victorian mystery should be easier — it’s a mystery. Well, a historical mystery. Except the sequel, as noted above, seems to be more like an historical novel with a mysterious element.

The other problem I have with genre is that I don’t like crime novels. I only read historical mysteries, and my historical era has contracted until it’s just the Victorian. And just England. Should I join the Mystery Writers of America? Facebook groups of crime writers? I tried that and I now receive countless posts promoting crime books I’d never, ever read (I’m really rather squeamish about violence, and I cannot tolerate cruelty). I am not even interested in modern-day cozies anymore (I have read all the Rita Mae Browns, but that was a long time ago). You shouldn’t join groups whose work you don’t want to read. That’s . . . anti-social networking.

6. Plot out mysteries carefully

As I’ve indicated, I tried very hard to do become a plotter. I mapped out the sequel to my Victorian mystery in the assignments for the mystery writing class I took. Yes, it was a fine plot. But as I started writing, I resisted it. Now I have quite the mess to write my way out of, trusting the process instead.

Is it wrong to plot? Not at all. But if I do it, it becomes like an outline for an academic paper. I feel like I have to fill it in. I’m writing fiction to get away from that.

7. Make sure the main character experiences a threatening challenge to which s/he responds by overcoming an embedded weakness

My literary novel features a decidedly more passive MC (main character) than some might like. That is part of her personality, and it is important that the other central character moves more and faster than she does. My MC’s threatening challenge is only mildly apparent until the end, when it overcomes her. The other character’s weakness is only apparent in retrospect, if at all.

But surely in mysteries this should be easier? Nope. My Victorian mysteries feature an inspector who loves books and a female illustrator as the “detectives”. Neither has much of a weakness, and certainly not a fatal flaw like alcoholism or the pain of a spouse’s unsolved death (a seemingly popular motif these days). Readers tell me they like them anyway. And even more importantly, I like them.

8. Don’t use too much dialogue

Last year I realized I had trouble writing dialogue, so I worked on it. Now I write too much. Most of the scenes I write are dialogue-based. I have read that this is wrong, so I tried to change it. But then I happened to start reading Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, which contains many pages of continuous dialogue. If it’s good enough for Hardy, it’s good enough for me. While I will add more descriptions to such scenes, the conversations will remain central.

9. Have good “comps”

This is the idea that your query to agents and publishers must compare your book to others which are known. I have tried this with my literary novel (“kind of like Rachel Cusk”) and my Victorian mystery (“such as Anne Perry”). But lately I have been thinking it is more important to note what I am not doing. I am not, like other authors I could name, simply using the era as a setting in which characters do their thing. That seems to be a trend now. Pick an era (the American West, medieval Germany), do a bit of research so you have the clothes and vehicles right, then write a tale that could take place absolutely anywhere and be exactly the same. I’m a historian. Universal stories are all very well, but historical fiction should not only be embedded in its time, but should give us some insight into the period.

Another issue about “comps” is that although I consider myself “well-read”, I don’t read much contemporary fiction. I do read Cusk, Sarah Perry, Alexander McCall Smith, and Kate Morton. But I don’t read a lot of the super-popular formulaic stuff. So when I see an author’s posting saying “my book is the next x“, most of the time I have no idea what x is. And I can’t go around saying my comps are Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and H. G. Wells because they aren’t.

10. Engage professional services

Assuming you don’t need actual paid help learning to write, or get picked up by one of the “big five” publishing houses, then we’re talking $875 to publish with a bit of help from a hybrid publisher. Plus $600 for a developmental editor. $300 for a book cover designer. And this is after that $50 class in how to write a query and get an agent. Then you need a line editor, a publicity person, a proofreader, beta readers. Not happening, say I.

Combine these with the rest:

  • always write mysteries as a series
  • spend three times as much time editing as you did writing
  • slash and burn pages when your editor tells you to
  • “kill your darlings” (Stephen King) because if they mean that much to you they’re personal and won’t sell
  • be aware of the market
  • write what you know
  • novels are 70,000 words

and we may have good advice, but not necessarily for my work. I could renege on my rebellion tomorrow and do what I’ve learned I should do, but I doubt I will.



2 comments to Breaking Writing Rules

  • JMM

    Don’t listen to anybody. 🙂

    “Kill your darlings” predates Stephen King (it goes back at least to the 1920s and the Algonquin table, but I’ve also read that it’s Victorian, so who knows?)

    If you have connections in any of the publishing houses, that’s how you get something sold. If you don’t, it’s blind luck and carpet-bombing (my poet friend’s term for sending hundreds of manuscripts to everyone you can afford the postage for.) That’s why, IMO, it makes the most sense to write the way you want to.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Aha — I thought it sounded familiar. I’m still willing to do some queries hoping for blind luck, but I’m finding it impossible to carpet bomb now that it’s Submissable form fields instead of just cover letter and chapters. Many have to be done one at a time, and customized, even when they won’t necessarily be read. But it’s not like agents and publishers are monolithic either — what one might like another might not. So yeah, gonna write how I want!