Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Exorcising "The Rules"

by Gina Welborn

Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law. ~ Romans 3:30-31

I think Dina thinks I'm a rule-breaker.  I'm not.

I like rules. I believe in obeying rules. I believe that rules give structure, enhance play, and lessen potential harm. Which is why I tend not to like literary fiction because it (more often than popular fiction) breaks writing "rules." Which also proves my theory that since Dina loves literary fiction, she is, therefore, far more of a rule breaker than I am.

At this point, I ought to pause and say that I'm not talking basic writing rules, such as grammar. Hello. I like good grammar. I own three grammar books Woe Is I by Patricia O'Conner, Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and Comma Sutra by a lady whose name I can't remember. Oh, and I have an unabridged Webster's dictionary and  a thesaurus. (Please ignore any typos in this blog post. I may own a dictionary, but that doesn't mean I'm diligent in using it. Although, unlike with my copy of Anna Karenina, I do not own a dictionary and a thesaurus merely for the sake of letting people *think* I've read them. )

I believe and support the 11 Rules of Writing (

However, while I do believe in the value of rules and define myself as a rule follower, I am also a libertarian. defines libertarianism as "a political philosophy which upholds individual liberty, especially freedom of expression and action."

Oh my hairbrush, I'm dulling myself with all my dictionarishness.

The problem with Dina's Rules about the Rules is that they are still too rulish, thus causing writers to focus on trying to follow rules so they don't have to follow other rules. Do you see a circular pattern forming?

1) You can break any writing rule if you do it well.

Who defines what "well" is? Your well may be my blech. For this "rule" to work, we would have to define "well," and set standards for it. If not, this is subject to opinion . . . and mood . . . and friendships. Maybe even bribe money.

2) Apply the 10% caveat: feel free to break any rule 10% of the time.

What happens when I hit that magic 11%? Do readers have an internal sensor that says "Warning: Approaching 10% breakage"?

3) Over adherence to any single rule will result in breaking another.

Hmm. I may need a good 30-minutes to think on this. I may need Dina to give an example of how over-adhering to a single rule results in breaking another.

Several years ago, I read a book oldest son bought. Supernatural by Eoin Colfer. I thoroughly enjoyed the story. However, in the first 10-ish pages, there were 30-something similies. Like a jackhammer. Like a mosquito. Like a monkey on crack. (Okay, not the latter.) Once the author got into the groove of the story, I stopped noticing the similies. Then again, he stopped using so many. Why did he, though?

I figure either the editor didn't notice them. Or the author did it intentionally because the POV character was a boy and because his target readers were boys. Set the scene. Establish the world. Hook the reader.

I asked my son if he had noticed the overuse of similies in the opening chapter. He gave me a blank look. So I pointed them out to him. He admitted he never noticed.

Can anyone say that over-abundance of similies was done "well"? Umm, probably not.

Which brings me to my point.

But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. ~Romans 7:15-17

But when we become so focused on living (writing) according to the rules, then the rules become our standard for well-done-ness. Consequently that affects how we respond to published novel we're reading, to a contest entry we're judging, to a chapter we're critiquing.

I used to be a rule-oholic. No, I am still one because even when I don't dabble in living by the rules, I struggle with the tempatation.

Exorcising (or exercising, as Dina said last week) the rules begins with one step.


If we want to focus on following the "rule" in our writing (and we probably ought to define what these rules are), then that's fine. Not all rule-focused writing is bad. Just as not all rule-breaking writing is good. The problem arises when we become so focused on the "rules" that we judge another's writing by our standard of what's well done and what's blech.

So what's my rule about the rules:  Good rules allow for individual liberty and freedom of expression. Follow them.

Nice Questions of the Day: What are some of the writing "rules" you've been told? Which one(s) do you enjoy most breaking?

Bold Question of the Day: Who is your favorite rule-following author and favorite rule-breaking author?

Gina Welborn worked in news radio writing copy until she took up writing romances. She is a 2009 ACFW Genesis historical romance finalist and a 2007 RWA Golden Heart® inspirational finalist. Her inspirational historical manuscripts have also finaled in the Daphne du Maurier, Duel on the Delta, Dixie, and Maggie contests. This Oklahoma-raised girl now lives in Richmond, Virginia with her youth-pastor husband, their five Okie-Hokie children, and a Sharpador Retriever who doesn’t retrieve much of anything. Her first novella, “Sugarplum Hearts,” part of the HIGHLAND CROSSINGS anthology, will be released by Barbour in January 2012.


  1. One example of rule-breaking in Deb's Writing Rules List is Elizabeth Peters, one of my favorite mystery writers. She flaunts rules and probably knows them all or learned them along the way (She's been writing for a good long time). But I don't give a fig (nor have I ever owned a fig) about the rules she bends because I'm a fool for her story.

    It can be hard to break rules for a new writer because you read those helpful craft books, blogs, and workshops that say, "blah blah blah is the sign of an amateur". Oooh, what could be more frightening? Then you see those same rules broken by a very popular author.

    Well darn. That's just not fair. Nowadays we have to write BETTER than established, famous authors?

    BETTER? maybe closer to the rules but we may never catch them in storytelling skills. So...what Gina is saying is that Story Trumps All.

    I think we writers should stop talking about the rules in public and let the reader enjoy the story. Do you know how many writers don't enjoy reading because all they see are the broken rules? I'm all for ignorance.

  2. had time to think on the way to work. I fear the WAS.

  3. Ha, ha. I had a moment of panic when I saw the title and thought my post from last week had somehow popped up again. Nice twist on it Gina.

    I don't like rules. You're right. The area I've really learned to live by, and have actually become a bit of a Nazi with my crit partners about, is proper plotting and pacing. Of course, I do this at the Donald Maas complex plot level, allowing for a lot of variations, but wanting it done right. I also like the story to move clearly through time, even if it jumps around in chronology. I don't want to be at 5:45 in scene a, and then move back to 5:35 in scene b. And I don't like it when we wander from Friday night to Saturday afternoon with no clear distinction. I want scenes well placed.

    My favorite rule-breaking author, favorite author period, is Lisa Samson.

    Honestly, I don't think I've read any author that follows the rules all the time. Or if I did, I put down the book because it was boring. I really can't think of a single example. I always notice when people break the rules and give them a mental ovation for it.

    I've also been known to count how many adverbs an author uses for page. I'd say average is 3.

  4. The rule I most enjoy breaking? Lately it's been addressing the reader directly.

    My adherence to rules fluctuated as my writing progressed. As a beginner, I didn’t know the rules. I concentrated on story. Writing was fun.

    As I progressed, I studied the rules, began to master them, and was aghast when I encountered published authors who broke them. I now call this my prima donna stage. I wrote a few highly critical reviews (which I’m still kicking myself for) and threw books against the wall. Writing was no longer fun.

    Eventually, I emerged from this stage and began writing (and reading) for story again. I go back to the rules, especially when editing, because I suspect it will be very difficult for an unpublished writer to break in without demonstrating a mastery of them. I still cringe when writers break rules for no apparent purpose. Then I see the wisdom of rules. Often they hurt their own story. But I’ve also learned to appreciate when authors bend rules in a way that makes the story pop. Sometimes that’s pure genius.

  5. Good post Gina,
    While reading your post a movie was playing in my mind from my childhood watching my English teacher suddenly turn into a Nazi every time I miss putting a comma before the "but". I used to get distracted and break my train of thoughts every time I reach the "But".
    We have freedom in Christ but (notice the "but" without a comma :) with moral, ethical and physical boundaries. The same should be in writing.


  6. I'm with you, Barb. I went through my prima donna stage. I didn't write any terrible reviews because of it, but I was pretty quick to talk about so-and-so's poor craft with writer buds. Sigh.

    I'm still in the recovery stage.

    Now though, I'm a bit like Dina. When judging the Genesis this year, the thing I noticed most wasn't individual instances of showing vs. telling and those sorts of things. Instead what stuck out to me was story structure and how the architecture underpinning the tale is so important. I think it was because we could judge the synopses this year, which made a huge difference in being able to see whether the story was going to work or not.

  7. Deb, you make a great point about not talking about the "rules." Before you began writing, did you have any idea what (besides grammar) the writing rules were? I know I didn't.

    However I did (and I think most readers do too) know instinctively when something in the story doesn't work.

    Reminds me of a Lori Wick historical romance that I read about 11 years ago. I think the author has a problem when I'm cheering for the heroine to fall in love with the villain because the hero was a whiney wimp.

    I'm all for breaking rules if they allow you to tell your story the way it needs to be told.

    Case in point: Paul Barnes, Alpha Redemption. He told backstory flashbacks in present tense, while present story was in past tense.

    Took me about 1/2 through the book to not let that bother me, but once I did, I was enthralled.

    But haven't you heard the rule of don't mix present and past tense in the same novel?

  8. Dina, you *really* count how many adverbs an author uses on a page?!

    Let me pause a moment and ROFLOL.

    With that done, lemme say I remember reading an ABA romance by Candance C-lastname. I'm drawing a blank. Anyhoo, I swear she had a love-affair with -ly words.

    You think 3 on an occasional one page is too many?

    Try 3 on EVERY page.

    I like adverb, though.

  9. That should have been "adverbs."

    Oh, Dina, you liked the title? I was trying to come up with a good antonym to exercising but nothing seemed right. Then exorcising popped in my brain. So I tried to mimic the general layout of your post. Took me a few minutes to find a good verse to use.

  10. Oh, Barb!!! You've hit on one of my favorite new broken rule. I kinda like it when the author speaks directly to the reader.

    I love how you said:

    I still cringe when writers break rules for no apparent purpose. Then I see the wisdom of rules. Often they hurt their own story. But I’ve also learned to appreciate when authors bend rules in a way that makes the story pop. Sometimes that’s pure genius.

  11. Howdy, Dani!!! I'm looking forward to meeting you in person this weekend.

    When you said this:
    We have freedom in Christ but (notice the "but" without a comma :) with moral, ethical and physical boundaries. The same should be in writing.

    ...I thought "that's godly wisdom, right there."

    And I'm not just saying this so I can mooch a bit of shut-eye on your sofa.

  12. Lisa, I'm in that recovery stage too.

    The Genesis entrants are going to be blessed to have you and Dina for judges.

  13. Allow me to explain the adverb thing. After I was told "not" to use them, I started counting for a while. I'm not saying 3 per page is too many. I'm saying among well-known, published authors 3 is average.

    I don't count them anymore, even in my own writing, because I know where they do and don't work now. Adverbs are fine if they add to the sentence.

    You have one in the opening line of your medieval by the way ;) And it works.

  14. I like adverbs, and I'm not afraid to use them. The key is that the author should use them deliberately, precisely, and sparingly.

    Oh, and artistically.

  15. Oh, and I just want to say, thanks to you guys, I have this song stuck in my head now:

  16. Deliberately, precisely, sparingly, and artistically.

    Nicely said, CJ!

  17. Dina, about counting adverbs...

    Years ago one of my contest judges circled EVERY -ly word in my entry. She said I needed to get rid of all of them to make my writing stronger.

  18. Oh, I love adverbs! Sometimes you really need one, IMHO. But I'm trying to be obedient and be selective so they pack a punch.

    Funny how the rules change. When I go back and re-read ten-yr old romances, the head-hopping is rampant.

    Thanks, Gina. Fun discussion.

  19. One of my favorite ABA romance authors back in the 1990s was Jude Devereaux. Well, a few years ago, I decided to re-read the books of hers that I loved. Oh my stars.

    Head-hopping galore.
    Telling, telling, more telling.
    Leads not meeting for several chapters.
    Unlikeable heroes (or heroines).
    He said crisply, charmingly, roughly, hatefully, lovingly, fill in appropriate -ly word here.

    Yet despite the rule-breakage, I loved the stories.

    Last summer/fall, I was at the library and noticed a new book of hers. A historical.

    Lots of rule breakage, but this time whatever it was that engaged me in her story was gone. The story was flat, characters cliched, plot predictable. She had the ship's captain's pov for, maybe, a page, and never again. I was sure the cat would have a POV. It, thankfully, didn't.

    So what changed?

  20. Okay, still on adverbs. Here's when you can use them. When they actually change the meaning of the verb, and there's not a verb that can replace the two together.

    Like virtually dead, or nearly dead, is very different than actually dead, for which you can just say dead without the adverb :)

  21. Or mostly dead.

    Oddly, dead has degrees. Pregnancy doesn't. Ever been mostly virtually pregnant or nearly pregnant?

    Excellent guideline, Dina!

  22. Oh, and by the way. That's also an example of how over adherence to one rule will cause you to break another. If you try to write around "nearly dead," you'll basically be left with cliches like on his last legs, close to death's door, or about to kick the bucket.

  23. Good post, Gina! I never paid attention to adverbs until one of the Seeker gals posted a checklist to follow before submitting. It listed adverbs. As a story teller vice grammar type person, I had to look up the word 'adverb'. Sure go ahead and look askance. Heh

    Since then, I've tried to eliminate most 'ly' words from my writing and only use 2 or 3 per chapter. You'll have to ask my awesome crit partners - Gwen, Susie and Deb - to see if I've succeeded.

    I served 20 yrs in the military playing by their rules. Usually, I agreed with them. But I also believe rules are guidelines and can be bent or broken if necessary.

    To relate that to my writing, I'm a story teller first. I try to play by the rules. But if it's a choice between the story or a rule, I'll write the story with as much emotion as I can muster and let the editor decide if it needs to be changed.

    Anita Mae.

  24. You know, Gina. I think the explosion of "rules" occurred with the internet making information so much more accessible than it used to be.

    Problem is that things go viral, and people very new to writing take tips or guidelines promulgated by professionals and turn them into holy edicts not to be violated. All that information circulates and circulates ad nauseum among the relatively small community of would-be writers. And being creative types we obsess because we really want to reach our dream, and think that if we can just hit upon the right quotient of adverbs to action words to specific nouns then we will have a formula for a sure-fire winner.

    Reality is that most readers don't give a hoot about the "rules" and won't realize one way or the other if they've been broken. They care about the story that's being told. The Shack and Twilight have proven that beyond a doubt. Both written by newbies, and disdained by the literati, but loved by readers.

  25. I have to be honest and say I don't understand the rules. It seems as if there are rules for the rules, rules for breaking the rules, rules that rule the breaking of the rules....

    I've had several critiques and a paid-for edit of my first few pages. They all make different changes or different comments. What one changes, another wants changed back. What one says is good, another says goes against the rules. I used to enjoy going through my story and editing to make it stronger. Now I'm so confused about what to change and what not to change that I don't even know my own storyline.

    I've been a teacher for about 20 years. I love learning new ways to present material. I want to learn all that I can about making my writing the best it can be. The problem is I can't seem to find how to do that. There doesn't seem to be a set pattern to follow. For as many people as support one way, just as many support the opposite.

    Frustrated. Looking for guidance.

  26. Christine, my "rules about the rules" were mostly tongue in cheek, which is why Gina felt so free to mock them ;) But, I did intend them to put the whole "rule" issue into perspective.

    Gina, Dani was afraid you wouldn't be staying here after all after reading that post. And we're not sticking you on a couch by the way.

  27. Christine, I'd say that the best way to get a feel for what really works is to read widely. If the writing is a confusing, muddled chore at the moment, then set aside, just for a little while, and use that time to read. Both in your chosen genre and outside it. IF you can get things that are recent either form the library, beg borrow and steal. But read.

    Then when you come back to your story with fresh eyes you'll be able to tell where it is or isn't lacking.

    I'm not discounting expert advice, but I firmly believe that if I had been aware of all the rules before I finished my first novel I never would have finished it. They get downright intimidating.

  28. Christine, you're in good company. We've all been there. I learned one thing at a time with the craft. Never mastered any of it. Eventually you'll know what seems right.

    What do you like to read? And is that the genre you're writing in?

  29. Lisa, I think you're totally right about how the internet has given birth to the rule obsession among writers.

    Dina, I wasn't mocking your rules. :-) I was merely pointing out how a person like me will see loopholes in your rules. And not stay there??!? Does Dani not think he can handle Gina and Dina together?

  30. Christine, Lisa gave you some excellent advice.

    Get a copy of your favorite book in the genre you are writing. Now get some highlighters. Lots of different colors. It's time to mark up the book.

    Pick a color and for an entire scene, highlight, say, dialogue all in blue. Next highlight setting/sensory/chracter details in pink. Next highlight inner thougths or intropsection in yellow.

    What colors you use doesn't matter. Just give yourself a visual distinction.

    Circle all -ly words.

    Put a square around every was/were.

    Put a !!! where hero and heroine first meet.

    Put a * at every POV change.

    The point is to study how your favorite author crafts her storytelling.

    I'm not saying, study and write just like her. No, instead see if you notice something about her writing that helps you realize what it is YOU like about it.

  31. Anita, I like adverbs (especially -ly ones). There is a liveliness they bring to narrative.

    Excellent point about leaving it up to an editor to change.


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