Breaking the Writing Rules

Recently I have noticed a profusion of articles and blog posts by people involved in the publishing industry with titles such as ’10 Ways Not to Begin your Novel’. The suggestions of ‘things to avoid’ include having your protagonist waking up from a dream, prologues, going back in time and many others. The reason they give is that these types of openings are overused and are therefore sure to get your book rejected by publishers.

Clipartsalbum_16620 Books

Personally, I think this reasoning is crazy. Just because a particular approach has been used previously doesn’t necessarily mean it has been done in the same way. Similarly, because the opening to a book is of a certain type, it doesn’t follow that the book will have anything else in common with other books that have used the same type of opener. Of course, to justify their reasoning they often cite that it will put readers off. Really? Are readers concerned over whether or not a book has a prologue, or has the current dislike for prologues got more to do with publishing fads?

When I wrote my debut novel I opened it with my protagonist waking up from a dream. I had been reading books for 40 years prior to publishing Slur and I can honestly say that I cannot recall another book that opened in this way. It may be that I have read one years ago and retained it in my subconscious, but it isn’t as though every other book I read begins with a dream. Certainly dreams have been used to effect in novels, but does this mean that we should put a ban on the use of dreams in case they become overused?

This brings me to the bigger picture: if the publishing industry insists that we avoid openings that they consider are overused, then why restrict this ruling just to openers? Why not put a ban on jaded cops? Flawed heroes? Middle class chic lit full of dating and/or career dilemmas? Romance novels where boy meets girl but fate conspires to keep them apart for most of the novel until they finally end up together? Or, before this latest trend gets too clichéd, why not put a ban on the female cop who thinks she tougher than all the guys, but has a vulnerable side known only to the reader?

The important point I’m trying to make in all of this is that what’s more important than the type of scenario you create is how well it’s executed.

Another ‘rule’ that drives me to distraction is that it’s now become unpopular to replace the word ‘said’ with alternatives. Although we were encouraged to come up with more creative alternatives at school many decades ago (in my case anyway), those alternatives have now become anathema in certain quarters. I can understand how the overuse of alternatives can become jarring, but there are instances where certain words are more expressive than the word ‘said’ and they can convey the mood of the person speaking.


The ‘point of view rule’ is another example that came to my attention recently through a book that I read. This is a rule that most writers follow, and I try not to break this one myself because it can become confusing if an author switches point of view mid-scene. However, in ‘Child 44’ by Tom Rob Smith there are many instances in the book where the author switches POV from one paragraph to the next. Yet, this is a bestselling novel, which has received rave reviews in the popular press. I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision on the part of the author to take this approach, but I found that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book and there were only one or two parts of the book where it caused confusion.

While there is a lot of good advice out there, which can improve your writing, sometimes I feel that there is too much. It is impossible to take it all on board especially as so much of the advice is conflicting anyway. Too much emphasis on ‘the writing rules’ can make your writing become stilted, so I think the best thing is just to enjoy your writing. Any howlers can be sifted out at the editing stage anyway and if there is any advice that doesn’t make sense to you, ignore it.

Rant over, for now, but if there are any writing rules that irritate you, please feel free to have a moan in the comments below. 🙂

Signed, Rebellious Indie Author.

P.S. My opening for Slur is staying.

6 thoughts on “Breaking the Writing Rules

  1. Excellent rant Heather, and I totally agree with you though I guess this is the joy of indie publishing, we can actually write what we want, how we want and not have to, necessarily, listen to all the different advice out there, which can be overwhelming. I have come across the same recently – my third book was going to start with a prologue – then I read that people really hated prologues, it was thought that the author was lazy not to have been able to include that information in the story. So I have put it in in a different way, I think a very different way and I daresay some people will hate it just as much but there you go, that’s my decision to make and it works for me. Do what you feel is right is my advice, because if it feels right then it generally is.

    • Thanks for your feedback Georgia. I can’t understand why prologues have now become unfashionable. Personally, I think they’re an effective device. Perhaps the publishing industry is looking for a new approach. This is where it becomes confusing for authors because, on the on hand, publishers don’t like to deviate from the norm e.g. when it comes to pigeon-holing books into set genres but, on the other hand, they don’t seem to like approaches that they consider overused.

      • I think if we all tried to write according to the latest thing we’ve read we would be tying ourselves in knots actually. I don’t believe publishers know what they want until they see it and authors just have to be in the right place, at the right time with the right product, simple as that.

  2. Yes, it’s interesting to note that some Indie authors have success with publishers after they have already achieved a degree of success on their own. Publishers seem to be more interested in their sales record than anything else. 🙂

  3. I don’t remember any books that started with a dream other than Slur come to think of it Heather. Advice can be a good thing, but at the end of the day it is just opinion. Not replacing the word said with alternatives is an interesting rule, but surely it can’t always be applicable as you stated.

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