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No rules, just write!

Ignore the rules?

When I started writing, three years—oh my God, three years—ago, I didn’t know anything. I had a story I wanted to tell, and I enjoyed sitting at the computer every day banging it out.

Ignorance is bliss.

I’ve learned a lot since then. Some of it’s been really useful stuff. POV, setting, hooks, active language, effective dialogue, pacing, conflict. Critique partners, agents, editors, and contest judges have provided excellent feedback on what does and doesn’t work.

They have also—for better or worse—passed along the “rules” of romance writing. Some good, others not so much, though all generally well-meaning. And every one of these is broken—and done well—in many of the bestselling books out there.

  • The hero and heroine should meet in the first few pages.
  • Once the H/H are together, they need to stay together as much as possible for the rest of the book.
  • Keep the timespan of the story short for better pacing.
  • No prologues.
  • No head hopping in the same scene.
  • Write mainly from the heroine’s point of view.
  • Don’t let the H/H have sex too soon.

I’ve had editors and agents say things like, “The Caribbean? Oh, well, readers prefer books that are set in the U.S.” Or, “Military suspense is good as long as it’s not too involved in military day-to-day stuff.”

I need that thing Dumbledore has—a pensieve—where he can pull memories out of his head so he doesn’t have to deal with them. Something insidious happens as you learn “the rules”.

Like the child whose purple trees and orange grass slowly begin to conform as she progresses through school until she can’t conjure fantastical art anymore, a writer is in danger of losing the creative spark if she lets all those notions of what will and won’t work bog her down before she’s even started.

There’s no doubt that craft is imperative. My early manuscripts pretty much suck from lack of good craft, but the story was exactly what I wanted it to be by the time I was done.

I don’t want to self-edit before I even start typing! I already have enough unconscious filters at play already.

So, I’m not entirely sure how to get back to writing the book for myself first and everyone else second. For now, I’m trying to ask myself, “If I wrote this the way I really wanted to—as if no one else would read it—what would happen?”

Any suggestions for how to toss the “rules” and just write?

Photo credit: DO NOT ENTER SIGN © Aaron Kohr |

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  1. Reply

    Gwen, I’ve been at this for 7 years, 4 of them very aggressively. I started “free” then bound myself with the “rules” and learned from the pubbed authors in my targeted line that the “rules” are guidelines and they can be broken. Part of it is learning a process and reading a lot in one’s own genre and even outside the genre. I started rebelliously writing my books with deliberate “rule breaking” stuff because I had to break the rules to move the story forward. I don’t break POV but I want to in love scenes, it would be so easy!! As it is, I am also in a bit of a paralyzed phase because I am in a “wait for answers” mode. It’s tough. I gave myself permission to break my own rule of “write every day except for the high days like Christmas” and play hooky. I’ve been shopping, decorating, reading, fritzing around, ignoring my office, ignoring my current WIP and just escaping it all. I think that I’m almost ready to step back into the WIP, but I just needed a real break. I also wanted to see something for all the work and $$ I’ve spent. That’s why I’m redecorating. I even wrote a blog about my frustration on Monday and it turned out the pubbed writers were in the same funk. I’ve determined that January is just a weird month for all of us and it’s okay to surrender to the inertia and find a way to be cheerful again.

    I’m writing about that tomorrow. Today? I shop for brightly colored accents for the living room, pillows for the media room, and decor for the dining room.

    Great way to creatively avoid what I must do!

    Hope you get your groove back soon!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Christine. I took a few days off too. Just thinking instead of writing, and taking a deep breath. I’ve been reading a lot, and trying to recapture that sense of nothing-to-do boredom I had before I started writing. 😉

      Some rules make sense to me, but in our quest to write something publishable, it can get crazy sometimes. We listen to too many other voices and stop trusting our own.

      Enjoy the redecorating, and I hope you get your groove back soon too!

      • Reply

        Yes, the key is to trust yourself. I think that confidence builds once one is with a great editor and agent and can just relax and write, but even pubbed authors struggle with the demons. The contests are especially tough. If you final, it’s great. But some of the judges are so mean it’s awful to the moral. I’d rather be rejected! Any rate, the WIP will benefit from my mini-break. I’m sure of it. I know where I’m going with the writing–and my future business to-do items. Meanwhile, hello TJ Maxx and Hobby Lobby 🙂

        Take care and wishing good things for you!


  2. tolo


    Interesting. While I think I may hate romance novels (lol, guess I should read one!!), I have noticed that when the authors marry off one of my heroes/heroines, the novels are not nearly as interesting. Lucky for me, I read thrillers and mystery. They often kill off the spouse before long and the next novels are usually great!!!

    • Reply

      Oh boy, Tony. Yeah, the happy ever after is kind of the point! But the next book isn’t usually about the same main character. Personally, as much as I like Flynn and Baldacci (for example) I get miffed when the main character and the love interest don’t at least get a happy for now.

      I liked Clive Cussler books because Dirk Pitt always got the girl, even if he’d moved on by the next book… 😉

  3. Reply

    Sometimes I think our strengths — curiosity, imagination– work against us. Without deadlines, usually someone else’s, we are free.

    Problem. Our curiosity and imagination fill that freedom with this impulse then that interest. Time passes. Something is accomplished but, not what we thought we intended.

    It is scary. When we are free to do what we want to do, that is exactly what we do. Even our discipline won’t override the freedom to do what we want to do. Like I said, scary.

    That the “heart has its reasons” applies to more than romance.”
    Go have some fun. 🙂

  4. Reply

    Hear, hear, Gwen! Excellent points! I have gotten so frustrated hearing about all the “rules” and then seeing the best sellers breaking them all the time. And the response is that “they can do it because they are best sellers.” If readers are so hung up on these rules, they would stop buying the best sellers who break them. I think the rules are more important to fellow writers then to money-paying readers. They are plunking down their hard-earned cash for a good story and don’t really give a hoot about things like POV as long as switching it around doesn’t take them out of the story.

    Writing is such a creative and individual art. If everyone adhered to the exact same set of rules, there would be no great new stories, just one told over and over again with different character names. So I say let’s kick those dang rules to the curb and write lots of stories with purple trees and orange grass. 🙂

  5. Reply

    Hi Gwen. I think you may have hit upon the reason my second wip is writing so much more slowly than my first! My inner-editor is juggling all the rules and strategies that somewhere my characters and story become trapped underneath them.

    Recently I’ve begun participating in word sprints through FB and Twitter. This has helped free my story from the inner-editor. Another trick I use is allowing myself a minimum of 200 words per day. This allows me a lot of brainstorming and playing around with “What ifs.” I usually end up with double or triple that word count, which is great for me during my dayjob’s high season.

    Great, timely post. 🙂

    • Reply

      Hey, Jolyse. It definitely helps to write too fast for the inner editor to take over. That’s the main reason I do NaNo. Good job on the word count, and good luck with the writing!

  6. Reply

    The biggest fault I ever done was to listen to others telling me how to write. My experience tells me that the best thing to do to get into your own way of writing is to write write write! Experiment a lot! Write as yiu want, as you feel, without any oppinions about it. A writer has to find his/her own voice just as a child has to learn to talk – trial and error! I recommend you to read Tristine Rainers book THE NEW DIARY. There are some great techniques, and I espacially recommend Free-intuitive writing. What ever yiu do – write ever day!

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