On Breaking Rules

Since Mr. Pond and I have been dialoguing, I've seen at least three articles on industry pro blogs challenging some common truisms:

1. One of Jessica Faust's clients, Erin Kellison (book due out this month), shares her experience of sticking to her own vision for the story, not letting even contest judges convince her to change what she believed was the right direction for her book. My favorite line, referencing the tension between her ideas and the suggestions given her: "I think this tug-of-war can be illuminating, but it can also be deadly to a manuscript."

2. Mystery author Clare Langley-Hawthorne talks about a book that broke a lot of major rules and still somehow managed to keep her gripped in the story.

3. Rachelle Gardner tells her readers that while she watches trends, she doesn't put a lot of stock in them. After all, as we know from Professors McGonagall and Firenze, not to mention the average weather report, predicting the future is an imprecise branch of magic. :)

Also, I read a book this week that broke some of the style rules that have been tormenting me, yet managed to get published just last year. It might have helped that its author or publisher somehow got Stephenie Meyer's endorsement on the front cover, but it still made me feel better.

In his last post, Mr Pond says: "As artists and as storytellers, we are called to break the structures of the surrounding world—even of our own industry—to challenge those truisms that everyone in our generation just accepts without thinking." I have mixed feelings about this. In my opinion, some truisms and structures really need challenging and shattering, and others need building up and strengthening. The trick, for me at least, is in knowing which is which.

However we may differ on the subject, Mr. Pond and I agree that rulebreaking is part of the artistic experience. If for no other reason, this is true because the rules don't always agree amongst themselves, and we writers have to do our best and hope to find agents and editors whose preferences are reasonably aligned with our own.

To add to the conundrum: In art as in life, the rules are layered. Even if we disagree on certain principles, most of us agree that there may be contradiction between the laws of a nation and the greater laws of right and wrong on which the earth and humanity are founded. In art, the laws may not have a moral basis (no one's life, liberty or pursuit of happiness is endangered by sentences that start with conjunctions and end with prepositions) but they are still layered. The publishing industry has rules, and storytelling itself has rules.

Setting aside the literary elite's attempted break with the traditional laws of art, which is another issue, the industry's rules may be—not necessarily arbitrary, but formed of inconsistent things like taste and trend. There's nothing wrong with that; the industry has to sell books to exist, and who knows better what will sell than those who make their living selling? Not usually the new author, whose emotional investment, self-interest, ignorance of the market and sheer closeness to the work can all affect his perceptions.

But art has rules, too, and I'm pretty sure that practically every publishing professional would say that the rules of telling a good story are vastly more important than whether you sometimes use one-sentence paragraphs or whether your book contains vampires. Stephenie Meyer broke rules of plotting, pacing, length and style, but whatever you think about Twilight, a book that sells that many copies is feeding a central human hunger (and probably a spiritual one.) She succeeded at the great end goal of storytelling.

Her success doesn't mean I can get away with breaking all the same rules; it just means that I can read her books and hope that whatever fed me is something that I can grow in myself and my own work, for the sake of feeding others. And if I succeed at that, I might get away with not being of the Hemingway school of sentence structure.

As to what storytelling's key rules are, I'm not sure anyone has explained better than George MacDonald in his short essay The Fantastic Imagination. And I'll quote him, because I am wholly with him in this sentiment: "If any strain of my 'broken music' make a child's eyes flash, or his mother's grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain."

Coming up Wednesday, in response to another part of Mr. Pond's last post: one of my favorite rules to break, and the whys and hows thereof.

Previous conversation:
Mr. Pond: Core Magic, Art's Caprice
Me: Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most
Mr. Pond: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
Me: How Not to Write


  1. Scintillating post, Jenna. Coming up Wednesday, my response, too. :)

  2. Super. I will be looking forward to that!


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