Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Breaking the Rules

Last week, I explained how at the beginning of a writing career, you spend a great deal of your time learning and following the rules. This week, I am going to explain how and why authors break the rules.

First, allow me to reiterate that you must follow basic rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and jumping-through-the-guideline-hoops. Maybe you've sold a couple of stories. Or perhaps you've come close with a few rejections and you're sure this next story will be the one. Now you're looking for suggestions on what will set your story apart, make the slush reader drop his or her pen and say, "Wow, this story is so awesome I simply must buy it."

The standard answers apply:
- a unique and complex idea
- a vivid setting
- a cast of compelling characters
So your story has these things. Your idea rocks, and your setting is so vivid the reader can taste and smell it, and your characters are worth dying for. But so what? Don't all stories have these qualities? Doesn't every story in the slush pile meet these criteria?


That means your story needs a little more. A shot of uniqueness. Well, that means you need to take story structure and massage it, kick it, spray paint it, and then you might have a truly unique submission.

Countless ways exist to accomplish this task. And I don't want my blog post to be overly long, so I'm going to cite a few examples.

Submit on pink paper?
No, no, no, and if you didn't hear me clearly, "NO!"

Have a killer opening sentence?
Yes! Now you're on the right track.
Spend a week writing opening after opening, until you come up with a whopper.
This notion applies to short stories, novels, and even query letters. The slush readers have limited time so grab them right from the get-go.

- use non-linear timelines
- create a protagonist who is passive and doesn't have a complete arc
- use minimal description
- use minimal punctuation
- tell the story from the POV of a real jerk, or a pet cat

At this point, you're probably rolling your eyes and asking for a puke-bucket, because you've read stories that play in such ways and these stories stunk worse than city streets during a garbage strike.

The rule you must follow while you're breaking the rules?

Only do what makes your story BETTER!

On the rule-breaking front, I must now discuss an area that fills me with dread, but I must address the elephant in the room...

Send simultaneous submissions?
[FYI - A simultaneous submission is one where you send THE SAME story to two or more markets AT THE SAME TIME.]

The teacher in me, the person who feels a certain comfort in following the rules says, "NO!" And for short fiction markets with quick turn-around times, etiquette clearly dictates that you do NOT simultaneously submit, especially if their guidelines state emphatically not to do so.

For novels, you must do the math.

I'm in the middle of my 40's, so I would argue I might only have 30 good years of writing left. (It's a math example, not a social comment, so don't go all seniors-contribute-just-as-well on me, here. That's another story, and I hope I can write for longer, but I want nice round numbers for my example, so work with me. I'm a math teacher, remember?)

- The average agent query takes 3 to 6 months.
- The average novel submission to a publisher takes 1 year (or more) for a response.

If I don't do simultaneous subs, and I want to submit "Novel X" to 6 agents and 2 publishers from the top of my lists, then do the math...

6 agents x 6 months = 3 years
2 publishers x 1 year = 2 years
Now I've spent 5 years of my life trying to sell ONE novel. And if it doesn't sell, how many more years will I wait?

30 years / an-average-5-year-cycle = 6 novels.

Really? Only six novels? That's not much of a career.

I haven't even taken into account the fact that it can take a year or more for a novel to be published once it's accepted for publication.

And what about all of those true-life-anecdotes about people who endured 30 to 50 rejections before they finally sold their novel? Agents aside, at one year per rejection, that's 50 years for ONE novel.

I don't have 50 years.

That's why we break the rules.

To avoid being tarred-and-feathered (or immersed in a flame-war) I won't speak about breaking any more rules. But the next time you consider simply following the rules, remember:

- we don't have that kind of time
- everyone else in the slush pile is following the rules
- you want to stand out

Now go out there and break some rules. But only if you understand WHY you're breaking them AND the choices INCREASE your chance of a sale.

[Please don't use my name as a reference as to why you chose to break the rules. :) ]

Do it now:
Write 200 words that break the rules. I mean really break them. Then take some time to decide whether the rule was worth breaking, in other words, is the story better?

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