Damn The Writing Rules—What Do Readers Like?

My alpha reviews have come in for Death Out of Time. They’re extremely helpful. The cat appears to be alive, although it needs serious attention. I’m mulling over the review comments and letting them sink in before I make any changes to the manuscript.

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A local cat, probably from a nearby farm. It looks extremely healthy. My manuscript needs some work to look this good.

I’ll bet every writer who has gone through alpha and beta reads has had a similar gut reaction to one I had. We’ve written a scene that we enjoy. But, according to the expert advice, and one or more test readers—

That scene doesn’t  “move the story forward.”

That scene doesn’t “provide information needed by a main character.”

In other words, “That scene has no purpose.”

Some reviewers point out these issues while others enjoy the scene simply for the added insight into the characters’ lives.

My Fellow Writers, let me make this clear from the get go—I know every agent, editor, and writing expert will tell me my alpha reviewers who raised these issues understand the rules. The professionals will tell me today’s market (or at least today’s agents and publishers) demands tight writing with no extraneous bits that aren’t required to advance the plot or provide vital information. Every scene must move the story forward. If I seek a traditional deal for the manuscript, this scene at best might be sent to the cutting room floor. At worst, it could be the last straw that turns an agent’s “maybe” into “no way.”

But then I think of the “real world readers” (non-writers) who have seen the draft.

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

Image Credit: Microsoft Clip Art

They enjoyed the scene.

Does that make those “non-writers” wrong? Absolutely not.

Does that make the experts wrong? No.

Does it add to the list of “pros” for going independent when I believe the book is ready? You bet.

And it makes me curious how much a non-writer’s perception of a book runs counter to that of an agent or editor. I was already pondering this question when I read a new English mystery with a fiction editor as the protagonist (A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders). One of the story lines is about how to handle her most successful author — who has submitted, instead of her normal genre, an awful piece of “chick lit.” Everyone at the publishing house hates the story. They can’t understand why she turned in such a piece of drivel in a genre she clearly “didn’t get.”

Then the manuscript is shown to several “real world readers” of the “chick lit” genre.

Guess What

They get it.

Immediately.

The author has written a brilliant comic novel. Which is exactly what she was going for. Only her editor and everyone else at her publishing house were clueless as to what she had written.

I’m not saying my alpha readers didn’t get the story. I’m not disagreeing with their comments. But I am wondering if writers, agents, editors, and publishers all sometimes forget that we write for 1) ourselves and 2) readers. And most readers are not writers. Intuitively, most of them know if a book is poorly written. And they’ll toss it aside and tell their family and friends not to bother with that one.

They also know when a story works for them. And they’ll share that enjoyment with family and friends and recommend the book.

Most importantly, they know what they like to see in a book. For some readers, that’s plenty of description, painting a vivid image of the places and people in the story. Others enjoy scenes that offer a break from the action and show the character in a more typical setting. Of course, everyone has different tastes. While one reader loves descriptive details, another glosses over them. While some like an easier pace or chances to catch their breath, others want a non-stop ride at top speed to the end. No single writing style or story can appeal to every reader.

But I wonder if maybe—just maybe— writers, agents, editors, and publishers are missing the boat when we focus on the lowest common denominators (otherwise known as today’s rules). Are we leaving out something those readers might enjoy even more? And might have them reading more books, not fewer?

I know writers will have strong views about this post, but I’d also love to hear what non-writers think.

73 thoughts on “Damn The Writing Rules—What Do Readers Like?

  1. Hi JM! Glad to see you’re still writing away. You had me questioning whether I write for myself first or my (potential) readers, and then I realised I actually write for my characters. What would they do next? How would they react to this and that? What would put them in a real pickle at this point? I think so long as I’m telling their story, their conflict, I don’t need to worry so much about the rules. I had some good feedback from a couple of agents recently and it made me believe they really know what they’re talking about!! But other advice I’ve been given has been confusing and detrimental to my story, so I’ve sworn to keep my own clear vision. Great post and good to see your still blogging!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gemma, so good to hear from you! I hope your writing is going well—and getting positive feedback from agents is a wonderful thing!

      My characters would probably like me to revise my post after reading your comment. They’d like me to be writing for them, too. 🙂 Of course, the characters from my first manuscript know all too well that telling their stories the way they’d like may not be a recipe for commercial success. Someday, we’ll get that one right, though.

      Learning when to trust our own instincts and visions isn’t easy. There is bad advice out there—some of it from well-meaning people—and we can be too unsure of ourselves to realize we should ignore it. And sometimes it’s hard to admit or even realize when something we’ve written simply isn’t working for anyone else. But over time, we should get better at knowing when we’re right and should move forward even if some people suggest otherwise. I’m hoping I’ve reached that point and can apply it to this manuscript!

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  2. Fantastic questions you raise here, and boy, do I know what you mean. It is so difficult to not read like a writer anymore, and sometimes I’m resentful of this fact — of not being able to enjoy a book simply as a reader. This post makes me think of the women in my Sunday book club. Apart from one infrequent member, none of these women are writers. They are all middle aged mothers, college educated, and they all love to read fiction. When we discuss a book, we talk about character development and important plot points, we discuss character motivations and how they react to antagonistic situations, but we never discuss these things in “writer’s” terms (although I’m often labeling these things in writer’s terms in my mind). We’re just analyzing the book from all the different angles, and what we liked or didn’t like about it.

    Back in 2008, our group read and discussed Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. This was three years after the book had been published, the final book in the series was about to be released, and the hype was reaching fever pitch. It was also before I’d begun writing fiction. You probably know this series has been a worldwide phenomenon, a runaway success in terms of sales and number of readers. Yet the series has been scorned by the writing community as amateurish drivel. Unfortunately, I can see the “poor writing” now when I reread a chapter or a scene, and it does kind of impede my reading experience. But when I think back to reading the book for the first time, I was completely absorbed into the story. Every book club member had absolutely loved it too, and we were giddy over the fact that we, like millions around the world, had been sucked into the vortex. We couldn’t wait to read the rest of the series and see the movies together. We bought t-shirts and plastic vampire teeth and other and silly merchandise. We were bona fide Twi-hards. But not once did “the writing” ever come up. None of us even considered it. So when I step back and look at the number of fans around the globe, it leads me to one conclusion: Stephenie Meyer tells a damn good story. And readers loved it.

    You’re really fortunate to have had readers who were not writers take a look at your story. I’m hoping I’ll be able to enlist the help of some of my book club members if I ever get to the point of finishing manuscript. In the end, you have to go with your gut. You know what kind of story you want to tell, and that’s how you approach your revisions. I think you’re wise to let the comments settle before you tackle a rewrite. It’s a lot to think about, but with enough time, you’ll know what feedback to incorporate and what to toss out the window. Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!

    Oh, and I’m curious — which scene was viewed as having no purpose? Are you able to share?

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    • Ah, Gwen, your “Twilight” experience is another great example of where I was going with this post! I believe the most important skill in writing fiction is the ability to tell a good story. That’s what readers want to read! I have stuck with some not-so-well written books because the story hooked me from beginning to end. Now, of course, I want to write my books well, too. But I’m also ornery enough at times to want to keep things that agents might tell me to dump. Such as the scene I mentioned here—it’s the one with the faculty party. Now, depending on what I do with Will Schmidt, the scene would be revised. But I really want to keep it. 🙂

      I honestly think that having a “non-writer” or two read a manuscript is every bit as valuable as having those whip-sharp writers. Maybe the non-writers offer comments in “regular English” like the members of your book club. But their insights into what they liked and what lost their interest can show us what a general audience might think. And if our goal is publication for an external audience, then that input is priceless.

      I also find that one of the drawbacks of writing is the impact it has on my reading for pleasure. I miss those days when I could read a story for pure enjoyment. That’s still why I usually want to read, but I keep picking up on things like shifting POV or overuse of adverbs…. Sigh. I know I’ve read a good, well-written book when none of those issues cross my mind while I’m reading!

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  3. Ah, yes, the rules. We spend so much time making sure we follow them in our writing that it makes me wonder what our stories are losing out on as a result. And yet as I read best-sellers, I see these rules don’t always apply. I’m plowing through a 700-page novel right now, and I could see it being half the length and still be a good story. So much extra description that doesn’t move the story forward. But it really doesn’t lessen the story either, so it seems the rules can be broken and still result in a good read.

    So yes, I feel your frustration. Maybe some day we’ll reach the point as writers where we have more liberty to snub our noses at those rules.

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    • I know my manuscripts still need work. 🙂 I just wish I didn’t feel like the only way to be traditionally published is to make them into something that isn’t what I (or my characters) want to write. I’m thinking again that indie might be the best route for me…. It seems that when those bestsellers break the rules, 95 percent have been written by established successful writers. It’s the rare newcomer who finds a press that lets him/her break the rules and then goes on to top the lists.

      I don’t think I could write a 700-page novel if I tried. 😉 My “no purpose” scenes are, as you might then expect, rather few in number. But even that would probably be too many for most agents. Ah well, I need to finish them before I have such major decisions to make!

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      • I think small presses are more willing to take on books that blur the lines a bit and don’t always follow the rules (think my recent FB update 😉 ), so that’s an in-between route to consider.

        And yes, 700-pages seems daunting. I wouldn’t want to write that many words, and I don’t particularly like reading such long ones either. I’m clearing this book for my youngest who wants to read it though–make sure it’s suitable for him. It’s good; it’s just long.

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        • When it comes to publishing, I haven’t really settled on how to go—typical Libra and introvert. 😉 A good small press is definitely a good option. They’ve had some bestsellers that surprised a lot of agents and presses who passed on the manuscripts. 🙂

          And I love that you vet your son’s reading material. I wish all parents would be so involved in what they’re children are doing, listening to, and reading!

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          • Thank you, but I’m not sure my son would agree with you. 😉

            I give him a lot of leeway when it comes to his reading, because I love that he reads so much, but this one was iffy. Is a horror book involving children. Not exactly my favorite topic to read either, but so far it’s not gratuitous in anything so I think it’ll be okay.

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  4. Your questions remind me of this rule (roughly paraphrased here): first, know the rules (and the reasons for them) so you can break them brilliantly.

    I recently read a novel that surprised me in just this way. “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf. It’s a lovely, slow paced, lots of description about (seemingly) mundane life in a small town outside of Denver. When I started to read it, I thought, oh this will be boring, I probably won’t finish it. I laid it down and searched for something else to read but that quiet story with its richly described characters refused to let me go. In the end, I had to finish it and now I want to read his other works.

    So stay true to your vision, JM. Your writing is lovely as well.

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    • I don’t know if I can break the rules brilliantly, but I don’t think I’m breaking them badly. 😉 Some folks might disagree, but one man’s masterpiece is another’s trash, right?

      I love those novels that take me by surprise—that make me enjoy them even though I didn’t think I would. And I don’t mind if a novel “breaks the rules.” Especially if I could find some good “commercial examples” that were written by newcomers. 🙂 As Carol notes below, as long as what we do with the story fits the audience’s expectations, then we should be good to go.

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  5. If you read reviews on Goodreads you find that often one reader likes exactly what another doesn’t like. You find that they’re looking for very different things in a book. It follows that one-size-fits-all rules are wrong. And this is one argument for self-publishing. You do have to know your audience likes, and I think that reading other things in your genre/niche that are selling well is a good way to do that.

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    • Yep, no one book can be everything to everyone. And that’s good because I bet the selections would be boring after a while if they were. Sometimes I think about trying the traditional route when a manuscript is ready, but this is just one of the reasons I’m leaning toward indie. I won’t rule anything out at this point. But if I do query and get any requests for the manuscript, we’ll see how they fare. It wouldn’t take too many passes to send me the indie route….

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  6. It’s amazing how many of these “rules” are violated in traditionally published books. Books that earn rave reviews and sell many copies, too. I think the problem is that you have editors and agents who play it safe and attach themselves to those principles as if they were unbreakable–“By golly, if you ever hope to make it, you better follow them to a T.”

    I worried a lot about those rules over the first few years of my writing (you can see this on my blog). I’ve finally come to accept that I can only write how I write and no longer worry about that stuff. After enough reading and learning, I think we’re instinctively smart enough to know what needs to be done to attract the readers we want.

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    • I go back and forth with traditional vs. indie publishing—providing I ever get a manuscript to that stage. But so many of the rules (and the low financial return for doing most of the work, and the quick turnarounds demanded for more manuscripts) usually make me think the indie route has some real advantages for someone like me….

      Right now, I’m trying to get the first version of the next story down, but it’s slow going with the new house and some back issues. I think this one will be tighter all around and be a “better fit” with the rules. But it’s also a very different type of story (mystery vs. time travel). When I do get back to the time travel manuscript, I’ve got some decisions to make. Maybe my answers will bring it more in line with the rules. But if not, and I still believe it’s good, then the heck with them. I’ve already got an idea that some people will enjoy the story. 😉

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  7. A good story is most important. The rules are there to help us, but I see them bent all the time, which is good. It’s only bad when we don’t realize we’re bending the rules and soon we have a pile of rubble because we’ve done it too much.

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    • Too much bending is definitely bad, too. 😉 I’d like to think I haven’t done too much, just a little. A good story trumps all. And since some readers specifically said that liked the “no purpose” scene, I’m planning to keep it in for now. I’m more tempted to go with the non-writers (and writers who did like it) on this one.

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  8. First rule of writing a novel: there are no rules. The best authors in the world bleed their stories onto the pages because they want the story to be told. I agree with Carrie here, stories are losing out because we’re getting too focused on the rules and most of the best-sellers I have read completely disobey all the rules. A friend of mine who is in the publishing industry told me there are two kinds of novels 1. Those that tell a good story 2. Those that are beautifully written. Finding both 1 & 2 in the same book is very rare (Booker Prize stuff). The best way to write (for me) is to just get it on the page and enjoy the actual art of writing 🙂

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    • It would really be nice if more of those rule-breaking bestsellers came from new writers. 😉 There are definitely some, but they don’t seem to be enough to trigger some changes in most literary agencies and publishing houses. I’m more concerned with telling a good story, although I want it to be well-written. Doesn’t need to be beautifully written. “Just” entertaining and well-written. That’s a tall order in itself. 🙂

      I have to say, I’m really leaning toward the indie route these days, although I won’t rule out querying a few agents for the new mystery if it’s ever finished. Trying to work my way through various setbacks and roadblocks and back to writing more regularly!

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  9. JM, I’ve read great books that didn’t, at least in my opinion, follow the rules. There have been not so great books that have become best-sellers and been made into movies that most definitely didn’t follow those rules!

    I remember in a writing class receiving a comment similar to that “it doesn’t move the story forward” thing. Maybe I don’t always want it to or it wasn’t intended to do that. I’ve had more than one writing pro or teacher tell me if you hear the same thing over and over about a scene, you may want to rethink it. If it’s one or two comments and your gut tells you it should stay, then leave it!

    I’ve read books I LOVE and a passage may just get me more in tune with a character — I’ll love or hate them more or less — and it may not move the story forward, but it moves me. Isn’t that why we write in the first place?

    Great post.

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    • Rules are meant to be broken, right? 😉 And with some readers specifically saying they enjoyed the scene for the added insight into the characters’ lives, for now, I will go with my gut and keep it. Certainly it needs some revision (this was a rough draft!), but I’m not ready to send it off to the chopping block.

      You are so right about writing because something moves us. Even if my stories only move me, then I’ve had the enjoyment of bringing that about. Of course, I’d like others to enjoy them, too, but if what I write wouldn’t move me, then what would be the point? Unlike some writers, I’m not expecting to turn this into a full-time career. (Given the difficulty in making a living as a writer of fiction, that’s probably a good thing!)

      I hope you’re enjoying your summer, Brigitte!

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  10. I sometimes wonder just how many masterpieces have been consigned to the bin because they were originally rejected by people without enough vision. When everyone is rigidly following the same rules, diversity seems to diminish.

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    • I wonder this, too. How many writers just didn’t get the manuscript to the right agent or editor? And then gave up writing all together when they could have written any number of books that an audience would have loved? I absolutely agree that rigid rules lead to diminished diversity—that may be one reason why I have a hard time finding modern books that I really enjoy!

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      • Yes, I have trouble finding modern books I enjoy. My pet peeve at the moment is the tendency for “show, don’t tell” to be taken too far, or not done well. I swear I could crush a grape 😉 each time I read that a character has swept the crockery from the table, or punched a wall. (I would rather the character said that he/ she is a little bit peeved.) Real people don’t behave like that, or if they do they end up in anger management classes.

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  11. I love, love, LOVE ❤ this post, JM!

    As writers wading into the pool of salability and "What's Hot," we often get caught up in what we're told to write, because that's what will sell. But we can equally get lost that way, losing our individual voices or interests. I once had an opening descriptive piece about the principal setting for my novel that I dropped because it didn't follow the rule of affecting the protag or pushing the story forward: it was just setting description. But, lo and behold, an alpha reader (whose opinion I value and trust) said, "I really liked the description of the village. Why did you take it out?" 🙂 I've also been reading a lot, and the writer in me is noticing tons of the verb "to be" on every page. But, you know what? It's fast, it's simple, and it's true to the main character's voice. I don't notice it unless my inner editor is in high gear; I'm more interested in the story.

    A healthy kitty is a good example of a healthy story. I loved all the bits about Meghan’s personal life, and Kat’s dig work, in addition to their “main” plots. They felt more like real people, that way. But, I like my characters to have some breathing room, too, and it depends a lot on the type of story you’re telling in any given section. It’s not all about chasing down prey; sometimes, we have to take time to lounge in the sun a bit. 🙂

    I’m not anyone to take publishing advice from, but I’d say to go with your gut. I’m sure your alphas and betas have great insight and comments, because you’ve trusted them with that responsibility for a reason. But it’s your story, and you need to tell it the way that feels best for you. Will parts of the story change through comments from your alphas and betas, and your disseminated edits? No doubt. But it ultimately has to be the story you are happy with.

    I am so psyched so many of my writer friends are making their dreams happen! ❤

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  12. Thanks, Mayumi!

    One thing that drives me crazy when reading so many 21st-century novels is that I can see the rules in the writing. I see dialogue tags limited to “said” and “asked” when the occasional “whispered” or “shouted” would convey so much more meaning. I see too many mentions of characters’ various “quirks” or “habits” peppered through the story. I see “conflict” for the sake of conflict because “we can never have too much conflict.” Etc., etc., etc. At times, I feel like I’m reading the fictional equivalent of an instruction manual! But like you, when someone supposedly uses too many “be/is/are” constructions, I don’t care. I don’t see it. I’m more likely to be tripped up by someone choosing an awkward “action verb” to convey his/her meaning.

    And I’m glad to hear that you’ve also had readers enjoy some “extra bits” that don’t quite fit those straight-jacketed rules. It gives me hope that we’re not hopelessly clueless writer wannabes who will never “get” what it takes to write a good story in today’s world. So I’ll write the stories as I think best—which WILL include incorporating excellent suggestions from alpha and beta readers!

    We’ll see what happens when I decide I have a story that’s ready for the wider world. Will I query? Will I go indie? Will I approach a small press? I don’t know. But I do know it wouldn’t take many agent rejections for me to go another route. My tolerance for rejection isn’t very high. 🙂

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  13. Some great thoughts. First of all, the “rules” are the rules for a reason. They’re what usually works. Typically, you don’t want to deviate from them.

    HOWEVER, and this is a big however, you’ve gotta write the book that’s in you. There are times to break the rules, and I can’t tell you when those times are, and I don’t think anybody can. You just have to walk that unfamiliar country by yourself. I think you have good instincts, and between you and your “real world readers,” there’s probably a lot of good insight. Listen to the critics, but let your heart be the final arbiter.

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    • I have no trouble with most of the rules. They make good sense and for good writing. But there are some (like every scene must move the story forward) that strike me as stifling to creativity and story telling. And all we have to do is look back at what was considered “good writing” throughout time to see how the definitions (and rules) change. I’m hoping that having a mix of writers and non-writers look over my stories will give me the best of both worlds—the critical eye of the writer, but just as importantly, the wants and expectations of the reader. We’ll see what results….

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  14. This is such an important post and an important lesson for us all. I am, admittedly, one of those who has become swept up by the “rules” of fiction writing. I never worried about the do’s and don’ts until I started getting so many rejections on Spark. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why. Years later and years wiser, I see where I went wrong with it — but it has nothing to do with rules, as a matter of fact. It has everything to do with why I wrote the story.

    This goes along with what you say about needing to write a story that you want to write. I fear that in this day and age of TMI (too much information) we have forgotten the real reasons we’re writers. We’re too caught up in “How to write a book”, assuming that if we follow the rules, we’ll sell.

    I think something we have to keep in mind is what the author’s intention is for the book. If Author wants to go the traditional route, then there are certain rules Author has to follow. However, if Author is open to small publishers or even Indie, then the rules are worlds different.

    As a writer, my reading experiences have become shrouded. I don’t like it. I enjoy fewer and fewer books because I can’t stop reading with a writer’s eye. And now, after having read your post, I’m wondering how accurate my writer’s eye is! Too often I’m looking for the purpose of the book, when really what I should (and want to) be doing is simply enjoying the read.

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    • One of the worst things about becoming a writer is how that’s impacted my ability to simply enjoy a book. Too often I’m thinking about the details of the writing rather than reading as a reader. Yes, it’s important for us to see what good writers do and how they approach the craft. But sometimes I just want to read the damn book! 😉 But rarely can I do that anymore.

      Also, as I noted to Mayumi, there are too many times when I can see the rules in the story. If I really wanted to, I could mark up any number of books where the structure would be identical. I’ve been reading a number of mysteries, and it’s amazing how similar they are to one another. Now, obviously, readers’ expectation play a big role there. But so does adherence to the rules—which is needed to get an agent and a publishing deal with any of the mid-sized and big presses. Small presses are more encouraging to me in their willingness to take on potentially “risky” subject matter or writers who break out of the usual molds.

      In my case, we’ll see what happens when I have polished late drafts of my manuscripts that I’m happy with. What will the beta comments from writers and non-writers be like then? I think that will play a huge role in determining whether I want to even attempt to query. Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll contact small presses. Or maybe I’ll go independent. I have a way to go before I’m there. Maybe the rules will change before then. They have before! 😉

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  15. JM, isn’t it so interesting that you can get such varying opinions on that one scene? I’m looking forward to seeing the evolution of your story, how you parse through the feedback and determine where you make changes and where you maintain what you’ve written. I’m fascinated by this part of the process because it’s always where I get stuck (as you know).

    Hope your new story writing is going well!!! Happy 4th! 🙂

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    • I’m a bit stuck at this part, too. 😉 That’s one reason I’m letting all the comments simmer in my subconscious for a while. Plus, I’m trying to get that first draft done of the current WIP. That one’s slowly coming along…. It’s so important for every writer to remember that every test reader will have at least one comment that is diametrically opposed to another test reader. It’s not always easy to decide which way to go, and that’s where our own gut feelings have to come into play. And I hope mine are reaching the point where they can be trusted! 🙂

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  16. Sometimes I think I was a better writer before I knew the rules. 🙂 Following the rules can drain the life out of a novel. Then the frustrating thing is reading a novel that doesn’t follow any rules at all and it’s great. The rules shouldn’t matter so much. Go with your gut during any revisions and write the novel that you and your characters want to write.

    You might like “How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide” by Catherine Ryan Hyde and Anne R. Allen. The thing that struck me with that book is basically how impossible it is for first-time authors to get traditionally published these days. They advocate small presses or self-publishing. So now I’m querying to small presses and a lot of them say they’re looking for books that don’t follow the rules. It’s enough to make anyone insane.

    You know I’m cheering you on through it all! I’m sure I’ll love your novels because I love time travel and science and I’d love to learn more about archaeology. Have fun with it and happy 4th!

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    • I don’t know if I was necessarily a better writer, but I know I was a more carefree and happier writer before I started learning those rules. 🙂 They’ve made it much harder for me to finish not only a first draft but also to do the needed revisions. And so, big surprise, I’m still nowhere close to being ready to publish. 😦

      Thanks for the tip on the Hyde and Allen book—it sounds like something I definitely need to read. 🙂 And I’m happy to be seeing a number of blog buddies finding success with small presses (and indie publishing). That’s an encouraging sign for me not only as a writer but also as a reader—we’re not limited to the formulaic series that dominate the “bestseller” lists.

      I hope you’ll soon be another “BB” to find that perfect fit of a publisher (be it big, middle, small or you!)—I’ll be looking forward to reading your work! 🙂

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  17. You raise some excellent points here, JM. I’ve just been mulling this same thing over recently. As you may know, I led a writer’s critique group back in Florida. I was a part of it for 7 years, and just as it was winding down for me to move, I was looking forward to getting away from that group. Reason? Their critiques started to weigh me down. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do with the story, or as one of your commenters said, what my characters wanted to do with their own story. I had one person in the group who was a strictly-by-the-rules writer. Nothing could waver unless in dialogue, and even then rules could only be stretched minimally. She critiqued me for using “then” instead of “and then.” She told me that in 3rd person pov, I couldn’t use the main pov character’s mother’s name in narrative, I had to use “Mom.” Yikes! Is the reader going to say, “oh well, she’s not using ‘and then’ and used the mother’s name in narrative. I’m not going to finish reading this piece of doo-doo?” I also realized that this critiquers own writing seemed mechanical, with little or no emotion, because of such a huge concern for the “rules.”

    Anyway, I find it very difficult to know what rules I need to follow for the story to flow, and what rules will cut into my story and make it something it’s not. You know? I’m hoping that a break from critiquers will help me to decipher better in the future. The only problem is, how do we get editors, publishers and agents to come to this same conclusion … for the readers. Thanks for the good topic.

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    • I know some people have found wonderful writing groups and have become better writers for the experience. But most people I know have had similar experiences to yours—at best, the advice isn’t useful and at worst, it can be downright wrong. And that’s the last thing we need, especially when we’re first starting out on the writing journey. I really don’t know if it would be better to find a group that has already-published authors or one composed of people at a similar level of experience. As with everything in life, there are probably good and bad examples of both approaches.

      I wonder if agents, editors, and publishers would ever get to a point where the focus was more on readers’ wants and perceptions than on the “current rules.” As some folks commented above, there’s a tendency for them to stick with the “old ways,” even though some blockbusters have thrown out the usual molds. Maybe if we see a real audience shift (and purchasing dollars) to small-press and independent books that take chances and/or break the rules, then the old guard might follow. Right now, I do feel that if I ever have a book that I believe is ready to publish, then I’ll be seeking out a small press or going indie….

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      • Hi JM. I think I left the wrong impression. I was in the writer’s critique group for 7 years, and it was the best thing I ever did for my writing. At the time when I joined, I had no idea about even the basic rules, like not over using certain words and showing not telling. Because the group had advanced to beginning writers, it was a good mix. Over time, however, once I got all the most important points down to help smooth out my writing, it seemed like their critiques were more about changing my voice to their voice. I think at this point, only one critique partner who knows my style of writing might suffice, plus beta readers and an editor. I think for beginner to intermediate writers, the right critique group (good blend of personalities) is a really good thing, because I may have tried to publish my bad work in the beginning if not for the critiques. So many people think they’re writers these days, and just upload junk to the internet for sale. It’s why the field is so saturated and it’s difficult to get discovered. Anyway, just wanted to clear up what I meant. I think there comes a time when we outgrow certain things in life, critique groups included. Now, only if editors and publishers could open up their minds, if even just a little.

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  18. Publishers/experts in the industry are faced with produce or die…so they desperately hold to formulas and things that have worked ( and made profit) – recent winners. Safe.
    Each time period has trends or rules (Thomas Hardy’s long descriptive passages?)
    Yet, is it possible that once the trend is solidly established that there’s a quiet undercurrent whispering “what’s new? what’s next? What is just ahead of the curve?”
    Do you want to tell a story well, or just fit others’ expectations and rigid focus?
    Listen to your experts – and the ones who just read. Somewhere in the middle? Above all follow your gut.
    Basically, a good story will trump everything (or most…bad grammar, punctuation, confusing passages…and well, you know what drives you crazy when you read and you put the book down)
    You can do this.
    (and small presses – I like them and the risks they take/authors they discover. Locals talking and word of mouth about a good read goes a long way…)

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    • If I’m going to become a good writer, I’ll figure out which advice to take, which to ignore, and when to stick with my gut instincts. I don’t know if I’m there yet or not, but I hope to find out sooner rather than later! I always wonder how many of the great writers of the past would fare today. Obviously they would be familiar with the “modern rules,” but would their stories interest today’s audiences? Would Melville have to turn Moby Dick into an adventure story? What would Hester Prynne have to do today to earn The Scarlet Letter? Would the modern-day versions be considered classics in a hundred years?

      I want to keep my voice—and those of my characters—in my books. There may be ways to do that and still find an agent and a mid-sized press. If not, we’re in an age where small presses and an individual author can still get out there and get attention. And I’d be perfectly happy to go one of those routes!

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  19. Mathair and I like to call it the dance. Each publishing house, literary agent/agency and editor has criteria and wants the writer to dance to meet THEIR needs. Mathair and I performed per their guidelines for quite some time when we first came on to the literary scene. It was exhausting and constrained our art. We wanted to write books that were organic and true to the character rather than follow guidelines set down by a third party that knew nothing about the journey of the character. We wanted to write books that people enjoyed reading. Being the savvy business minded author she is, Mathair knew that in order to sell books and eventually mainstream, we needed to find a happy medium of the two worlds. We needed to find a way to stay true to our characters but make them sellable. We like to think we’ve found our niche in the literary world but it’s a world that constantly evolving so we’re learning everyday. It’s definitely a challenge but one that any writer should be willing to step up and take.

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    • Writers like you who have found a way to stay true to yourselves, your characters, and your stories while bringing them to the public are an inspiration for me. I see the hard work you put into the process, and I see you reach your goals. And I hope I’ll be able to do the same with my stories. 🙂

      I’m curious as to what percentage of independent authors, when faced with a solicitation from an agent or press, decide to go traditional. I think I might feel as if they were jumping on the bandwagon after I already did all the hard work! But I an also see where it might be nice to have that “larger entity” behind me and helping with the non-writing aspects of the work.

      The ever-changing nature of the modern publishing stage is staggering to behold. I’m purposely holding off on any in-depth study of indie publishing because things may change so much before I have a manuscript ready to go. My hat’s off to you for keeping up with it all!

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  20. I have a few things to say about this, but have decided to do my own post about it, hope you don’t mind! I will of course credit you as the inspiration for the most, and will encourage readers to come on over to read yours 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will be by soon to comment on your post! I’m happy you found this one to be an inspiration for one of your own. It’s been a bit of a relief to see that I’m not the only one frustrated by the focus on rules rather than readers! 🙂

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  21. Pingback: Most People Read Fiction Not So Much For Plot As For Company | Vanessa-Jane Chapman

  22. You make a valid point about writers vs. non-writers. If the plot, dialogue, characters, etc. work for the readers, they’ll know it and will spread how much they enjoyed the novel to others.

    I like Stephen King’s writing rules, myself. In my judgment as a professional blogger, writer and editor, he’s got some of the best writing rules ever in the book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”. Worth reading if you haven’t seen it already.

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    • I love King’s On Writing, even if his section on querying needs serious updating. 😉 I think every new writer should read his book and Anne LaMott’s Bird By Bird. They’re wonderful introductions to the adventure that is writing.

      I suspect the successful rule-breakers owe a huge debt to readers who recognized the quality of their stories and recommended them to friends and family. I firmly believe word of mouth is still the best marketing out there. Do you remember the old shampoo commercial where “I told two friends, and they told two friends….”? It doesn’t take long for those friends to add up to bestseller status. Providing, of course, the author has written a good, engaging book. 😉

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  23. It seems like a really tough balance to reach/game to play. I guess if you want to go traditional, you follow the rules. If you don’t care about the rules and/or going traditional, you go indie. I guess it’s up to the writer. Or, for probably most people, you try to follow the rules and go traditional, but when that fails, you go indie! 🙂

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  24. Lord! This is what I have always said: the “experts” (gotta have em) do not necessarily like what the average book-buying Joe will like.
    I decided that independent is the way I am going from now on, anyway (Yeah, that could change). I love being able to finish a book, correct it to the best of my ability, send it or parts of it to some people I trust to be honest, then correct, and send it off to Kindle. The Kindle part only takes 1 day! So much more my style. Money? No, not as much, I am sure. Unless, you take into account that the book on Kindle would, probably, never have been published. In that case, my cry for immortality as a writer justifies putting something out there good enough for whoever buys it and reads it.
    Lol – I doubt that’s the usual writer’s take on the matter.
    Scott

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    • I love the fact that the independent route is now both accessible and “acceptable” for today’s writers. Gone are the days when only vanity presses would touch some works. Traditional publishing is no guarantee that a book is necessarily “good,” and independent publishing doesn’t mean a book is “bad” or shouldn’t have been printed. Having options is a good thing—even if deciding on the right one might mean significant research and effort on our part.

      And traditional publication these days requires so much marketing work by an author with very limited financial returns. I can understand why so many new writers are turning their backs on the old ways! Why not keep more of the money if we’re doing most of the leg work ourselves?!

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      • I think it should go without saying that a lot of the money to be made may not be possible in the DIY online publishing like Kindle. However, it must also be stated that it is a way to be printed and published and to be seen by others. I, for one, have enjoyed just knowing that my works are out there. I don’t really feel the need to be accepted by the writing business. If I do something good, it will, eventually, find its way into the people’s hands. If it is not so good, then I have not spent time and money that do better in my own hands. I am not out to make a fortune; I am truly out to find an audience. Why should online not be that place?

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  25. I’ve been to a number of writers workshops and heard the best advice given: ‘No-one knows anything’. He went on to say publishers, agents, lecturers of creative writing do not know what works and doesn’t. They are looking for ‘that’ little something and its a matter of timing, right timing. Should have ’50 Shades of Grey’ taken off? I don’t personally believe so, but then who knows anything?
    Keep persisting and go with your gut instinct, JM.

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    • You’d think that agents and editors would be good at consistently identifying what has a good chance of finding a large audience. And yet, no agent or publishing house has a client list containing only number one bestsellers. 😉 They take on some books that bomb. And others, that weren’t supposed to do anything much, sell a million or more copies. So I think the person who said “no one knows anything” was right on the money!

      We’ll just have to see if my gut instinct proves to be correct or not. 🙂

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