Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Breaking the Rules

I just read an interesting article in Writer's Digest on "breaking the rules" of publishing. The author lists ten rules that we all "know" we're supposed to follow, and then explained how successful she was by breaking those rules. Some of the "rules" are not much more than tips that help out certain writing styles, so if you break them successfully, that just means you have a different routine for writing. For example, one "rule" you may have heard is that you should know your characters so well before starting to write the book that they speak to you as you write. As I've commented before, my characters do seem to take on a life of their own, even though I know that's just my subconcious speaking to me. The writer of this article claims that never happens for her, and I've heard other people say the same thing. Nothing at all wrong with that. Of course, in the same paragraph, the writer says she just tries to imagine what her character would do in a particular situation and writes that down. That's not really that different -- in both cases you're essentially letting the character drive the story. Who cares if you "feel" what the character feels or if you just intellectually decide that's what he should do? A lot of her "rules" are actually of this variety. If a rule of this type (suggestion, really) works for you, great! If not, fine, do whatever does work.

Some of her other "rules" are a little more serious. For example, she says you should never follow an agent's guidelines. Related to this, she says you should always send them a completed manuscript, not a query. She then goes on to talk about the "friendly" rejection letter she got from one agent that she sent her entire manuscript to. She says "I never got a rejection letter saying, 'You didn't query us first, so we didn't look at your manuscript.'" Well, duh. Many agents have said they just trash any manuscript that wasn't specifically asked for. Why would they bother to take the time to write you a nice note telling you you're an idiot? Publishers and agents establish their guidelines because that is what they've found help them to work most efficiently. The writer of this article says that by skipping the query and partial manuscript phases, she's bypassed two chances for rejection. Maybe so. But maybe not -- she just may have been rejected out of hand without being reviewed. But even if there is an advantage to you, as the writer, in not following guidelines, you aren't showing respect for the editors who are working 70 hour weeks to get through all the material they have to review. They are people, and they have lives. Why would you intentionally make someone else's life more difficult, even if it is to your advantage to do so? Yes, some editors/agents will buy a piece that break their rules. In the end, they want good stories, and if something really catches their eye, they'll buy it regardless, just because the world is driven by business and not by convenience. But your manuscript had better be much better than anything else the editor has ever read. And if it's so good, won't that come through in a query letter? Editors don't reject things randomly. They need good writing to earn their living. If your writing is good enough to be published, it's good enough to be published without making the editor's job harder.

There is a certain arrogance in the type of behavior this writer advocates that really bothers me. In fact, her entire article shows that same arrogance and condescening tone: "Oh, you poor saps, you've been lied to all your life. Let me grace you with the real story." She's published a YA novel (just one), and I applaud her for that. But I think I can live without following her advice, especially considering the attitude of the source.

No comments: