Oct 10 2009

The “Rules” of Writing

Published by at 11:56 am under Getting Published,Writing Articles

Hello!  Here are some tips about how to apply writing advice in a logical and productive manner.  (Trust, but verify!)

1.  Any “rule” of writing can be broken. Writing advice can be very helpful, but almost every writing tip ever given has been broken by at least one published work.  In particular, authors with a history of success get more leeway to publish whatever they want because their editors trust them and can give them the benefit of the doubt.

2.  However, it may not help you that another author could publish a book that did something otherwise hard-to-publish. For example, I’d generally recommend against using a character name in a title– most character names aren’t very interesting to prospective readers.  However, some authors (including JK Rowling) have gotten such books published anyway.  The main question is whether you can pull it off.  If you’re an unknown author with no audience that’s submitting to a publishing house that rejects 99.9% of unsolicited manuscripts, you’re facing a brutal decision-making process.  The publisher’s assistant sends only ~5 manuscripts out of every 1000 to her boss for consideration.  She is looking for any reason to eliminate your manuscript.  A bad title may be sufficient.  🙁

3.  The publisher’s assistant does not have a rulebook in front of her listing which sorts of manuscripts have to be rejected. “Oh, this manuscript has a character name in the title, so I have to reject it.”  Obviously not.  So think less about the advice (don’t use a character’s name!) and more about the goal (write a gripping title).  For example, an unsolicited manuscript named Tom Smith is probably dead on arrival.  But Barbara Bloodbath would probably warrant further attention.  Even though it uses a character name, it sounds really interesting.

When I offer advice, I don’t want the reader to think that “trying X cannot work,” but rather that “if you want to try X, make sure that it does work by avoiding problems Y and Z.”  For example, Barbara Bloodbath tells us enough about the character and plot to interest prospective readers. Tom Smith does not. There are very few stylistic choices that cannot work under any circumstances.

4.  Think critically before acting on any writing advice. For example, there may be logical reasons advice may not apply to your situation.  Perhaps you’re in a genre where editors will accept a particular type of writing?  Perhaps the market is changing or has changed to accept the type of writing in question?  Perhaps the advice is missing the point.  For example, “a lot of editors complain about manuscripts that have too many adverbs, so you should not use adverbs!”  Unless the logic behind the advice strikes you as sound–could you imagine an editor really tossing your manuscript because it had adverbs?– I would recommend disregarding it or at least investigating further.

5. If you want to try something unconventional– something that does not get published often–I would recommend caution.  For example, I can’t think of too many published adult novels with talking animals or 5+ main characters.  I would extrapolate that one is a gross mismatch for an adult audience and the other would probably suffer from massive character-development problems.  (Ahem– developing 5+ characters in a single novel is hard).  If you’re dead-set on doing something unconventional, I would recommend thinking long and hard about what it adds to the story.  If your rationale is something like “it would be neat to try this” or “I couldn’t tell this story any other way,” I would highly recommend going back to the drawing board.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “The “Rules” of Writing”

  1. Marissaon 10 Oct 2009 at 12:04 pm

    In my opinion, ‘it would be neat’ is totally not an excuse, but ‘I couldn’t tell the story any other way’? If it requires 5+ characters to be able to tell the story, I see that as a perfectly reasonable excuse to have 5+ character. Maybe that’s just me, though.

  2. B. Macon 10 Oct 2009 at 12:35 pm

    I’d like to preface this by saying that there may well be good reason to disregard my advice. Perhaps I’ve missed many comparable books that have been published and sold fairly well despite having many main characters. If it turns out that authors X and Y and Z have succeeded in this genre with a similar concept, I think that editors would be receptive. “This could work.”

    Also, I’d like to emphasize that the most important thing is to finish a manuscript as soon as possible. If it’ll be faster for you to complete a manuscript with 5+ characters, do that. The worst case scenario is that you have to reevaluate after getting a lot of rejections from publishers, which will probably be easier than reevaluating now.



    “I can’t tell the story in any other way” strikes me as an inadequate rationale. First, it makes the author seem unconfident in his skills. More importantly, “I can’t tell the story in any other way” focuses on the author’s concerns rather than the reader appeal. Publishers always care more about readers because that’s where the money is. Justifying your creative vision by elaborating how a large cast will enhance the reading experience will prove much more persuasive, I feel. Here are some possible rationales that come to mind.

    • Diversity of cast? (If you have only 1-2 main characters, it’d be hard to represent as many groups).
    • Maybe suspense? If you have only 1-2 main characters, killing one is pretty much off the table. Having many characters might help keep readers on their toes.
    • Readers have demonstrated an interest in this concept– similar books have sold well recently. (Provide at least three comparable examples– if there aren’t at least a few examples out of the hundreds of thousands of books that have been published in the last decade, publishers will be nervous).

    I think that publishers would be much, much less receptive to an argument along the lines of “this is the only way I can tell my story.” Thinking cruelly in a 99% rejection-rate world, I could imagine editors and PAs saying any of the following…

    “If the story can only be told in a way that I’m not comfortable with, I’m not interested in the story.”

    “This manuscript isn’t ready yet. I can wait until this author figures out how to make the story work or another author tries a similar story more successfully.”

    “If I tried defending this manuscript to the committee, my boss would ask me why there are so many characters. I can’t think of a good answer.”

    Hopefully this hasn’t been unduly depressing. I’ve heard repeatedly from the publishing professionals I’ve been in contact with that there is no hope of getting my superhero writing guidebook published without industry experience or publications. AGENT: “Cool concept. However, at this point in your career, you’re not yet the right person to write it. Talk to me in a few years!” I know she meant well, but reading that was like getting kicked in the teeth.

  3. Marissaon 10 Oct 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Alright, now I see why ‘I can’t tell …’ doesn’t work. What I meant was reasonable was more along the lines of… ‘The story will not work any other way.’ Removing the ‘I can’t tell it’ part.

  4. Beccaon 10 Oct 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Sorry about the agent, B. Mac, but with all your wisdom (see this article!) I’m sure you can understand her point of view. I think the superhero writing guidebook will definitely make it. In the huge world of writing books, I have yet to see one about superheroes at all. I think it’s an excellent idea. Keep at it!

  5. XosMelon 12 Jun 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Mac your guidebook sounds a lot like Understanding Comics, but not just the general concepts. I suggest reading it sometime. Even if you learn nothing, very entertaining.

  6. Amber D.on 02 Feb 2014 at 12:09 am

    you said it was hard to have a successful story with more than 5 main characters. where you just talking about point of view characters or could non point of view characters count as main too? and if they can then at how involved can a side charter be in the story before being considered a main character?

  7. B. McKenzieon 02 Feb 2014 at 1:52 am

    Let’s say more than 5 *major* protagonists.”How involved can a side character be in the story before being considered a [major] character?” Some crude benchmarks: If you were writing a 1-page summary of the story and could not possibly avoid spending multiple sentences on the character, he’s probably a major character, even if he’s not a POV character. Alternately, anyone who’s present on more than 20% of pages is probably a major character, even if he’s not a POV character.

    Some general thoughts regarding superheroes & cast sizes…
    –If a superhero story has a team of superheroes, generally every member of the main team is a major character. If you need more than 5 superheroes on the main team, the first 5 probably weren’t the right ones. (I’d recommend checking out whether they have the personalities and conflicting goals to interact with each other in interesting ways before just adding in more characters).
    –Personally, I regard it as a red flag if the author introduces a ton of characters with superpowers. I’d be worried if there were more than 5 and would probably insta-reject at 10+ unless it were somehow extraordinarily well-executed (e.g. Wild Cards). It feels like every one of these submissions I’ve ever encountered is just a list of characters rather than an actual story with a (at least somewhat) coherent central plot. Again, if an author needs more than 10 superpowered characters, I would think REALLY hard about why. Is it because the first 10 are unable to drive the central plot and have interesting scenes together? If so, fixing them should be the first priority. Is it because the author thinks that having more than 10 superpowered characters will make for better fight scenes? If so, try writing a fight scene with many combatants and then rewrite that fight scene with only a few combatants — in most cases, the fights with fewer combatants are easier to follow and more interesting.

  8. Proxie#0on 04 Feb 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Just making sure that this is in reference to main characters B. Mac. As you may remember, in my alternate accounts story (WinsloWMudD), there exists a “colony” of supers. Not all are amazing or have great control, but they have segregated themselves out of fear of causing damage across the world, as the way they obtain and sustain their abilities* causes differeing levels of radiation “sickness” to spread throughout the land and populace. Out of the many inhabitants, there is a core group of characters, but in the end, there are many potential “supers.”

    *This is the same story where a person using an ability causes the person to emmit on the scale of the ability used.
    I.E. Moving a semi-truck would kill someone almost instantly, and cause some pretty bad things to happen to those around them

  9. CozaTriteon 30 Sep 2014 at 7:46 am

    Just wondering if it’s reasonable to have the rule “each scene must have at least 1,000 words so it doesn’t read too fast”. It’s a personal rule of mine when I write to try and make sure the scenes/plot don’t move too quickly and I can get the right amount of detail.

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