Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Rules

By Julie Kibler

photo credit Dori Young
My recent first round of edits while under contract has shown me that sometimes the best route from point A to point B is breaking a rule.

You know … “The Rules.” The ones that say how we’re supposed to write. (There are also plenty of "rules" for pregnancy, right?)

This has come as a bit of a shock. We’ve had these rules drilled into us for so long, fully believing they are critical to whether we find an agent, get a book contract, wow the world.

Of course, they always say it’s okay to break the rules at times, but if you are going to break a rule, you better break it well. What does that mean, exactly? How will we know? Oh, you’ll know. You’ll know. Right.

I tried really hard to avoid backstory while writing Calling Me Home. Backstory, according to millions of articles and blog posts about querying your first novel, is anathema. Suicide, really. If your first few chapters, especially, contain backstory, you might as well quit now.

Then, as I was completing my revisions for my editor, I worried and worried and worried over this one point in my story that just wasn’t coming together, and I realized I needed a flashback. (Thanks to the suggestion of someone in a really great online group I belong to ... not mentioning any names … BOOK PREGNANT!)

My kneejerk reaction was, “NO! NO BACKSTORY!” I had totally discounted flashback in the attempt to follow the rules. I inserted what ended up feeling like a really nice section that rounded out a relationship I’d been trying to flesh out in the moment, when what these characters needed was history. We’ll see what my editor thinks. 

On another note, I was shocked to find my editor calling for more of this, more of that, with very little cutting of something else. WHAT? I thought. If I do THAT, my manuscript breaks the 100K word barrier! Oh, nooooo! Run away! Run away! I was being so legalistic, I thought I must lose a word for every word I added in order to stay below that holiest of all word counts.

Guess what? I turned in an edited manuscript that weighed in around 103K words, even while I had pinched it so hard, you could hear the words screaming as I knocked them off the page. And the world hasn’t fallen apart yet. Again, I’ll let you know what my editor thinks later. And, ultimately, that story is stronger, deeper, longer, and brighter, I hope.

This has been a good reminder to me that writing rules are almost always about the spirit of the law, and not the letter of the law. Remember that—when you’re finishing your masterpiece, when you’re querying your first-choice agent, when you’re getting ready to go on submission for the first time. (When you're pregnant and gaining 32 pounds instead of 30.) In the words of someone else, I can't remember who ...

It’s about the story, stupid.

(p.s. It is now a month after I wrote this. My editor loved the revisions and nary a word was mentioned about word count!)


  1. Julie, I love knowing that breaking rules is more the rule than the exception. I wonder if those rules have evolved because of the onslaught of queries received by agents, and the focus on making sure an author has a clear cut and well written story before getting a little "fancier" if that makes sense. Ok, back to my backstory!!! :-)

  2. I am so guilty of trying to adhere to the rules. (In my world, you won't be surprised to learn, I'm very "letter of the law" conscious) Julie, I loved your missing backstory on first read, but I'm sure you've worked in the flashback marvelously. :) I recently took a leap and broke the "Don't open with dialogue" rule, because it just feels so right now. We'll see how it's received when it's out in the world! Now I'm feeling gutsy and looking for more rules to break. Thanks for a great post!

  3. Great post, Julie, and I'm glad the world didn't end when you went over 100K. I don't think that will be possible for mine! I can't wait to read the final version of Calling Me Home. Joan, I wonder if I'd recognize your book now...

  4. Backstory is sometimes the heart of the story. And it sounds like it is in the case of CALLING ME HOME (which I can't wait to read).

    My novel has a now and then structure. The backstory integral to the book. It makes the current situation tick. And I think that's the difference. If the reader needs the information to understand, it's important. But the information in the backstory has to be more than just information--it also has to have a beating heart of its own.

  5. Great post, Julie. It is all about the writing. It sounds like your book will be impossible to put down! I'm looking forward to it.

  6. Great post Julie! I think Amy hit on something when she wondered if the rules evolved because of the onslaught of queries received by agents. I broke a rule right from the beginning by sending out queries that intentionally left out word count (170K). In the end it worked and I got an agent, who insisted I cut it down to 120K. But when I was doing my revisions I never worried I might be adding too many words. I added over 7K and my editor never blinked. Just call me a rebel. LOL Can't WAIT to read Calling Me Home!!!

  7. I'll go ahead and break the rule about clichés: Rules were made to be broken. Sentences that start with Never or Always make me nervous, especially when it comes to writing. I am so looking forward to reading Calling Me Home--especially the backstory!

  8. Thanks, ladies. And yes, I definitely think "the rules" are used to filter submissions to a degree. It's just kind of amusing how stressed we can get over breaking them. :)

  9. I'm cracking up, because my word count also shot up after revisions--to think I had sweated blood to get down to 97K--and my editor never said a word. Shhh.

  10. I won't tell if you won't, Barbara. :)