Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Exercising “The Rules”

by Dina Sleiman

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. ~ Mark 2:27

Those of us who are fiction writers hear a lot about “the rules.” I recently heard a new one—that similes are unacceptable. Are you kidding me!!! I’m a poet. A well-executed, well-timed simile is like a feast for the senses. Of course, an ill-executed, ill-timed simile can make you want to gag up said feast. Hmm…maybe that’s the point. It’s all about how well you do it.

All of these so-called “rules of fiction writing” are just someone’s attempt to capture that ephemeral entity known “great writing” and put it in a bottle. To give you a concrete guideline. But the rules are a means and not an end unto themselves.

Here are Dina’s “Rules About the Rules.”

1) You can break any writing rule if you do it well.
2) Apply the 10% caveat: feel free to break any rule 10% of the time.
3) Over adherence to any single rule will result in breaking another.

I’ve seen too many friends run in circles by Dina's rule #3. And no wonder when critiquers and judges shoot out comments like sniper bullets. They often give vague advice with no real training on how to apply the advice. The writer thinks they’ve applied the advice and gets in trouble with another judge or critiquer who seems to tell her to change it back.

The real problem is, the writer misunderstood and misapplied “the rule.” Let me give you some examples.

Often writers are told they shouldn’t have backstory for the first 30 or even 50 pages. True and not true. We need to have a feel for who these people are after all. What we can’t have is long, boring backstory dump. But please, do weave in hints and quick targeted details. A mention of lingering tension between the character and her mother in the dialogue. A hint of her history with the hero linked to a sensory detail. Perhaps tell us her occupation in her internal monologue. You can give us backstory…if you do it well.

Here’s another one. A friend of mine was recently (oh no! adverb usage) told she had too much description. So she stripped it all out. What? Description is the basis for setting. And the reader couldn’t picture the scene at all. You need setting. What you don’t need is long, boring description in list-like fashion. But please, do weave setting into the action. Show the character interacting with the setting. Allow it to spark her inner monologue. Let us experience the sensory details along with her. You can give us description…if you do it well.

We all know clichés can never, ever be used in fiction. But, wait! (beware of exclamation points) What if you have one specific person in the story who clings to the safe and familiar never venturing out on their own. Clichés in their dialogue can actually strengthen characterization. I would argue that you can use clichés (say it with me everyone)…if you do it well.

Yes fellow writers, rule #1 is true. You can do anything. You just need to do it well. This reminds me of a corollary in the dance world (being very careful not to word this as a simile. Sheesh people!) Sometimes you’ll see a novice dancer who thinks that because she can kick her leg to head height, that she’s ready to be a professional.

Not true.

What she doesn’t understand is that her foot must be turned out, her hip properly fixed in place, her knee straight, her toes pointed into a lovely arch, her arms situated in the correct position. All at the same time.

And how do professional dancers learn a proper kick? By a judge or critiquer telling them once. No no no, my friends. By doing thousands of hours of exercises to strengthen, hone, and stretch their muscles. By starting with small foot brushes on the floor and slowly working up to big kicks to maintain proper technique.

Yes, it (yikes! not an it) takes training. Years and years of long, hard training. You don’t get to say, “I’ve watched plenty of dance recitals. I can do that.” You have to put in the work to develop the strength, skill, and technique yourself.

The “rules” are not a quick-fix to great writing. Writing, and writing, and writing creates great writing. Studying the craft, attending conferences, taking classes. These are the keys to great writing.

So, my fellow writers, as the next round of critiques comes along to bludgeon you in the head, don’t get discouraged. Get back out on the dance floor and exercise your fiction muscles (gracious me, did I just mix metaphors?!?!), understanding that it will take time, patience, and practice to become great.

For those of you who aren't writers, what really bothers you in a book? What rules do you wish authors would follow? Also, how can you apply this lesson to other areas of your life? And for my fellow writers, what rules do you love? Which ones do you despise? Have you been caught in a circle with rule #3?

Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. Her first novel, Dance of the Dandelion, will release with Whitefire Publishing in 2011. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. I've been at this long enough to finally find my comfort zone with rules. I'm editing--circling, highlighting, listening to the the text, and one more gerund...pulling my hair out trying to see what I'm incapable of seeing.

    That is--I'm too close to the words to see the whole story. Dare I say, 'cant' see the forest for the trees'?

    I've often been assaulted by "broken rules" in a published story but gone on to fall in love with the STORY. That's the number one rule. Write a great story.

    Like Dina. She writes a great story!

  2. PS.
    I'm not saying I've mastered the rules, just that they don't keep me up at night.

  3. Being an author almost ruins you for reading, doesn't it, Deb. But you just have to forget the rules and then you can enjoy the book. I think the same is true when writing. Can you imagine if one of the girls in the picture above who had spent the time and effort to learn now just said, "Heck to technique," and danced wild and free like a child. It would be stunningly beautiful.

  4. I am still learning "the rules." But I must say they are confusing. I just paid an editor a ridiculous amount of money to edit my first 15 pages. She has several published works (one just released this week) and advertises on her site as an editor. What I received wasn't as helpful as I anticipated. Several of her edits I incorporated into my work. Many were useless. To add chaos to confusion, I asked another well-established author to critique it. Some of the things I changed at the advice of the editor this author told me were wrong. (Please insert pulling hair out by roots here)

    I am willing and ready to learn. I just don't know what is wrong and what is "write".

    Thank you for your post. It cleared up a few things for me.

  5. Christine, some of the most beneficial teaching for me has been studying novels I truly love.

    As for critiques and even contests, I've learned to take them as an opinion polls. If only one person points something out, unless it really rings true to me, I ignore it. If everyone is pointing something out, I know I have to make a change. What you can't do is take 100% of everyone's advice. It simply won't work.

    I actually have a free writing course on my website if you'd like to check it out, Christine. I offer a free critique to anyone who reads through the course and does the assignments.

  6. Here's a comment my mom sent via email:

    Dina, I agree with you about a little backstory at the beginning being helpful. I dislike beginning a book feeling like I don't have a clue who these people are and why they are saying and doing certain things and then having to go back and reread when they eventually give information that clarifies.

  7. Hi, my name is Gina and I'm a rule-aholic. I like rules. The taste. The smoothness. The comfortability.

    I wrote by the rules.
    I judged by the rules.
    I critiqued by the rules.

    Then, one day about a year (or so) ago, I realized the novel I enjoyed most reading broke tons of rules. Especially backstory too soon, heavy introspection, freezing the scene so the POV character could think, not having leads meet in the first chapter, etc.

    Lots and lots of rule breakage.

    So I studied what connected me to her stories (okay, most of them because she has a few duds)?

    (1) Emotional connection to the lead characters. (2) Wry humor. (3) Author confidence.

    An Inky said to me recently that she had been told using parenthesis in fiction was author intrusion.

    My question (which I didn't ask her) is "If you didn't know the rule, would you have thought twice about my use of parentheses?"

    Maybe I should have introduced myself as . . . Hi, I'm Gina, and I'm a reformed rule-aholic.

  8. Sorry about the use of the ? back there. 'Twas a slip of the finger and failure to proof-read.

  9. Oh, I forgot to add . . .

    There's a multi-published CBA author who writes by the rules. She edits too. And teaches writing. I've tried reading two of her books (two different series).


    Everything was too formulaic, too perfectly written, too rulish. Is it no surprise she's not one of the higher selling authors?

  10. As far as I'm concerned, rule is a four-letter word. so there. Meh!

  11. Gina, I'm so glad to hear you're recovering. Of course, remember you can't recover unless you at least know the rules first. I think the rule-aholics are those intermediate writers who have learned them but haven't been seasoned past their addiction yet.

    Can you recommend a twelve-step program?

  12. I stopped listening to the rules after about six months of writing, because I realized I couldn't write that way. Good grief, I don't think any sane person can adhere to all of them. I believe, with you others, that if you write well, the rules don't matter nearly as much as they're supposed to.

    Some of the agent and editor blogs out there make it sound like if you look cross-eyed at your ms once over the whole course of writing it, the ms will get a rejection. When I realized the rules were making me so nervous I couldn't write, I stopped listening and reading the majority of writing blogs.

  13. Now that I have that off of my chest, let me say that the advice I give my writing students is: You need to know the rules so you know when to break them.

    I played it safe for my first five books written for the CBA. Well, a little less safe with the fifth one. Then the sixth I broke a few more rules. With the seventh, I just wrote what came to me, what I felt right for the scene and story. It's either the best or worst thing I've written. Backstory at the beginning? A little for clarity. Hero that isn't a christian and is not even all that moral--absolutely. Heroine who has a serious faith crisis almost at the end of the book--why not?

    Because everyone told me I couldn't do that, that's why I never did it before. But whichever one of you said it's all about author confidence is spot-on. I had to develop the confidence in my writing to go there beyond the rules--or what I was told are rules.

    Dare I say that the "you have to follow the rules" people in writing circles are a bit like the pharisees?

  14. Ha, ha, Laurie. I think I was posting the same thing in response to Gina's comment when you wrote your "you have to know the rules to break the rules" one.

    Pharisees, so true.

  15. Naomi, I've been reading Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. If you can handle a little cussing, it's an amazing book about the writing process and how to follow your instincts.

  16. Great post, Dina, and congrats again on your upcoming publication. Comments on this interesting, too!

  17. Thanks, Carrie. Carrie's part of my local ACFW group. We all met together a few times recently to try to make sense of the crazy crits everyone had been getting. That experience was a big inspiration for this article.

  18. A twelve-step program for overcoming rule-aholism? Hmm...

    How about a 8-step program? :-)

    1. We admitted we were powerless over our writing rules legalism--that it controlled how we viewed published and unpublished writing.

    2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

    3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God who is the great Creator, Author, Artist.

    4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of why we've been so legalistic of the writing rules.

    5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our writing rules legalism.

    6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all this legalistic rule-focused defect of character.

    7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

    8. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message togother rule-olics, and to practice these principles in all our writing-related activities.

  19. I wrote twelve books before I'd learned a single "rule" for fiction writing. Then I joined ACFW, got slammed with the "can"s and "cannot"s, and reevaluated everything I'd ever written.

    Wanna know what I discovered?

    My first few books broke all the rules, didn't go very deep, told instead of showing, and were flat and lifeless to me even before I learned the rules.

    My next batch of books were better. They still broke rules, and I'd still washed my hands of them. But they had the potential to be rewritten.

    My final books before I joined ACFW had begun to follow those rules organically. Headhopping was at a minimum, more like deliberate shifts than hopping. I no longer told, I showed. Adverbs were fewer, POVs were deeper, writing was tighter, tags had given way to beats.

    The lesson I learned from all this? Rules are a way for us to try to tell beginners what we've learned through the process. But it's only through the process that you understand where that stupid rule came from to begin with.

    Totally with Dina--it takes practice, not just lessons. Hours and hours of practice. Chapter upon chapter, book upon book. Not necessarily to achieve proficiency, but to achieve mastery. Even prodigies aren't born masters--they're just born with potential to become one.

    Great post, Dina! So happy to have you in the WhiteFire family! =)

  20. Okay, that was just for fun. In reality, I think overcoming our obsession with following rules requires one step.


    If we want to focus on following rules in our writing, that's fine. Not all rule-focused writing is bad. Just as not all rule-breaking writing is good.

    The problem, let's be candid, is when we become so focused on the rules that we "judge" another's writing by our standards of what's quality and not.

    I remember reading a Michael Crichton novel (Prey, to be exact). The first half of the story was set-up. The second half of the story was the story. Overall, the novel read like a screenplay. I wanted more setting, sensory, and character details. I wanted more insight into the POV character.

    I also remember reading a Jane Austen novel (P&P, to be exact). The story needed an editor to cut out a good 100 pages. Or at least 50. Jane was wordy and chased several pointless rabbits.

    Which book did I enjoy reading more? Prey. It was perfect for people who speed read. LOL. However, it wasn't a satisfying read.

    Anyhoo, my point is the problem with following the rules isn't our doing it. It's our condemning judgment of others who break the rules.

    On the flip side, the problem with breaking the rules isn't the doing it. It's the elitist attitude that we are better writers than those who follow the rules.

  21. I think the "rule" I break the most is that my hero and heroine almost never meet in the first few pages. It is probably the single-most negative comment I get from contest judges. And the funny thing to me is, I don't think the H&H meet on the first few pages of most of the books I read. So, I admit to being puzzled by that particular rule.

  22. I think it's important to remember there's a difference between a rule and a guideline. There are some aspects of writing that just shouldn't be broken because they make reading easier -- things like periods at the end of sentences or pronoun/antecedent agreement. If you violate those rules, readers will become confused and give up.

    And then there are guidelines. Guidelines are the large gray area where writing becomes an art, not a science. A well-placed, original simile creates an emotional reaction in the reader, whether it be amusement, poignancy, or whatever. Many similes or cliched similes leave the reader confused or bored. Guidelines tell us not to overuse similes. Or have the hero and heroine of a romance novel meet as soon as possible. Or Christian characters should behave in a manner befitting a Christian.

    The problem is that guidelines are rather nebulous creatures. How many similes is too many? Does a "manner befitting a Christian" include drinking alcohol or dancing or or fill-in-your-own-taboos. And so, we want to quantify these guidelines into rules. If I just knew that the hero and heroine must meet by page 2, I would never have to worry that I delayed that meeting too long.

    But when we try to quantify those guidelines into hard and fast rules, we suck the life, the originality, out of our writing.

    And that's the difference between living under the law versus living under grace.


    P.S. -- and Dina - mega CONGRATS on your sale and hopes for many more!

  23. Gina, I think you need to do a follow up post, "Confessions of a Rule-aholic."

  24. Roseanna, so true about the rules being an attempt to explain what others learned the hard way.

    And I'm thrilled to be part of Whitefire too. I was gone for a while there because I was lost in medieval paradise shopping for costumes and wigs :) This is so fun. I've barely slept in two night.

  25. Suzie, unless your aiming for like Steeple Hill or Barbour, that rule doesn't even count. If you are, you might just have to accept it until you have a couple of published novels under your belt.

  26. Thanks, CJ. I hope for many more too.

    Guidelines is a much better word. Suggestions even. It's not as if there's a rule book or some sort of committee on this stuff. And different editors are looking for different things.

  27. Dina, since next wednesday is my day, I think I will do a follow-up post. Excellent suggestion!

    Guidelines is a much better word.

    But, let's face it, a vast portion of our contest judges that we've had don't know the difference between a guideline and a rule. That's why it's important for writers who are entering contests to realize that their judges aren't all experts. Not all advice is good.

    'Course, that doesn't mean we should ignore advice because we don't like it.

  28. Lemme clarify about the Inky who said she had been told using parenthesis in fiction was author intrusion.

    I didn't discount her comment because I didn't agree.

    I pondered whether or not I should use the parenthesis. If it jolted her, odds are it will jolt some readers. In the end, I chose to keep them because I think parentheses are a viable grammatical tool. Moderation, of course.

    In the end, whether or not they stay in my story depends on the preference of my editor. :-)

  29. One of the things I learned from Angela Hunt (not rules, just suggestions) are that clean and simple always same classier. I think the class was called "The Sophisticated Novelist." So basically, anytime you can leave out parentheses, italics, exclamation point, do. That made sense to me. But she's also the one who told us that any suggestions she gave us could be broken 10% of the time :)

  30. Dina, this is like a breath of fresh air. (As is Bird By Bird!) I am forever running into blogs with loooooong lists of do's and dont's for writers, and the CBA ones are the worst for it.
    I agree with the statement about knowing the rules so you know when to break them. The key really is to write a good story.

  31. Yeah, Niki, I've noticed you hanging out at Novel Matters lately. I like their approach to writing. So are you reading Bird by Bird with them now?

  32. Excellent post, Dina. It fits your creative spirit.

    Like others, I started writing the story and didn't worry about rules. When I first decided to write seriously, I joined the eHarlequin community and learned so much, not only about writing rules, but what was expected and offered in the industry. And one of the most valuable lessons I learned from those authors and editors was that you need to know the rules, but don't let them get in the way of the story. Let the editor decide what is acceptable to that particular publishing house and what should be changed.

    My most frequent rule-breakers are fragmented sentences and flying body parts. I love saying, 'Her eyes flew across the room.' Why? Probably because I once read that the word 'gaze' is over-used. But in trying to find other ways to say it, the story gets lost in the words. So I say forget the rule. When my heroine is in a hurry, her eyes fly!

    Of course, if I ever land an agent or editor and they want me to change it, I'll consider it. But until then...

    Anita Mae.

  33. Great thoughts, Anita. My body parts fly too. I always considered that a ridiculous rule. And actually, I think fragments are totally allowed in fiction these days. I use more in my contemporaries than my old English historicals. I think it fits the cadence of our modern day language.


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