134 - Writing Rules and When to Break Them

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In this post and podcast episode, we'll be diving into the idea of writing rules and when you can break them. I was honestly surprised with where I landed on this. Keep reading and see if you agree!

We've all heard that phrase: "Learn the rules; then you can break them." Or something like it. But how do you know what the rules are? And when can you actually break them?

This post contains affiliate links, which means I may earn a commission if you purchase something by clicking through.

WHY THERE AREN'T REALLY WRITING RULES

We live in a time period where things are much more open. Language is changing and has been affected by social media and texting. (Don't feel too upset by this because language is always changing. People were mad at Shakespeare in his day. It's not a new problem!)

There are also different schools of rules. Personally, I adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style for my punctuation and grammar. While others might use the MLA or AP or something else. These don't all agree! (It's a good idea to find out which of these your particular niche uses so you can also adhere to the common guide in your niche!)

RULES & EXPECTATIONS

The rules we will be talking about today are really more of expectations that your readers have for your particular genre, niche, or medium.

When you write a query to an editor and you have two spaces after a period, they may not read your manuscript. PERIOD. They are too busy to read everything and this choice gives them an easy out to toss your manuscript.

When you buck the expectations and the rules, you are sending a message. Usually that message is- I'm ignorant OR I don't care. Neither is a good thing.

Writer in another group talked about just not understanding why people care about punctuation and spelling. "It's about story," she argued. But readers won't read your story if there are tons of errors. It tells people that you are careless and that you haven't taken the time or effort to do the bare minimum.

Same with covers. Constantly in writer's groups, people are saying things like "What do you think of my cover?" And when the responses are, "Hire a designer," they say "No." Cover matter. Period.

They sell books. They set expectations. They keep people from buying books.

LESSONS I LEARNED ABOUT RULES

I personally was surprised (as a rebel) to find freedom in following the genre rules. I started writing clean fiction under a pen name in December. I'm a writer by instinct first, so I wrote, then realized that I had messed up some big conventions and expectations. Namely that one of my short stories didn't have a Happily Ever After ending. THEY MUST in this genre.

Typically these books also switch back and forth between the perspectives of the two characters falling in love. I normally like a close third narration sticking to ONE character. This was hard for me.

Both were actually hard--I like resolution, but not necessarily happy endings. I also like my choice for sticking to one character.

FREEDOM WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK

But I found that when I started writing within what seemed like strict confines, I wrote better. I wrote faster. In fact, I've published two full novels in 2018, with the third coming out in June. In addition to two short stories in December. I wrote almost 30k words this past week. I believe MUCH of this had to do with the freedom and framework I found in sticking to the conventions.

REFRAMING THE RULES

If you are struggling with rules (like me), see if you can reframe. This is a way of sort of tricking your mind by giving something another name and a different association.

Call the rules expectations. Call them a framework or best practices. Do what it takes to help wrap your brain around finding and sticking to the rules that you need to for your niche, genre, or medium.

Just know that for most of these things, you need to fit into expectations if you want to ever SELL things and connect with an audience.

WHEN YOU CAN BREAK THE RULES AND BUCK EXPECTATIONS

It's important to note that rules can be broken. New things can emerge. Now we are talking about disruption. Disruptive innovation is when something changes in the market that makes a huge impact. Brand new markets for different kinds of customers.

Netflix is an example. They first disrupted the video stores and shut them DOWN. Then they doubled down on streaming and within a few years, TV will be totally different. (My opinion.)

As content creators, writing an unexpected blog post or type of book is more a micro-disruption. You might choose to do something outside the rules and find great success because of the contrast. But generally speaking, if you want an audience and/or money, you should know the expectations and do your best to meet them.

The three times you can break the rules are when you are:

  1. Famous
  2. Genius
  3. Lucky

Those are typically the only ways that breaking the rules will mean success. You're famous and already have an audience of raving fans, you can do whatever you want.

You're a genius and you happen to stumble upon disruptive innovation that WORKS and changes the game.

Or...you're lucky. You happen to break a rule at the right time or get in front of the right audience or have some crazy stroke of luck. Often there is hard work behind luck. But sometimes there is just...luck. It just happened to work, even though it shouldn't have.

DO NOT BASE WHAT YOU DO ON THESE OUTLIERS.

You can't look at what someone famous does and say, "Well, breaking the rules worked for THEM." If you see someone breaking the rules successfully, chances are they are famous, a genius, or lucky. You'll do best to stick to best practices, not base your decisions on the outliers and minority finding success breaking the rules.

BREAKING THE RULES CAN BE SELFISH

When it comes down to it, if you are breaking the rules because you feel like you need to for your art, you are being selfish. You are putting yourself ahead of your readers.

You might say that you're writing for art, not for money. That's fine. But following the rules is NOT just about money.

Expectations and rules are a gift to your readers. In some ways breaking the rules isn't just about art, it's about YOU. You are thinking of YOURSELF first when you break the rules. Readers have expectations and they may be best served when you follow the expectations of your niche or genre, whether that's clean romance or the kind of blog you write or even within podcasts.

GO OUT AND CREATE CONTENT YOU LOVE THAT SERVES YOUR PEOPLE WELL.

I'd love to hear in the comments if you agree/disagree with this idea of freedom within the rules or my strong statement that breaking the rules can be selfish! {ducks head waiting for tomatoes to be thrown}

LINKS I MENTIONED IN THE EPISODE-

Emma St. Clair - my pen name for clean romance

Two free short stories by Emma St. Clair - referenced as not fully adhering to conventions

Two spaces after a period

Bad reviews given to famous works

Disruptive Innovation

The Writing Life - being open to cover changes by Robert Kugler

Tim Storm & Storm Writing School

KDP Rocket - a tool I use for keywords (I'm an affiliate and happy user!!)

Go On Write - great affordable covers (I use his branding package)

German Creative on Fiverr - affordable cover designs

Write to Market - book by Chris Fox

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