Understand your rules!

With the completion of Johnson Farm I’m on to edits for the second book of the series Going Home the Hard Way. I’m also engaged in several nonfiction projects including projects of my own and some where I’m providing editorial support. As you might expect this leads to some meta thinking about writing.

Rules part 1: other people’s rules…

Every project has rules and if you’re going to succeed you need to understand them. Some rule sets are fairly obvious, like publishers rules for what they will accept and general rules for the kind of story you want to tell.

Sometimes these sets are fairly simple and clear. Your magazine publisher wants a particular format and word count. Your book publisher hates it when you send them a manuscript that’s printed on maroon construction paper and uses the six point wingding font. Your mystery novel needs to include some sort of mystery.

Sometimes the rules make less sense, but if you want to be published you still need to follow them. Your magazine publisher may insist on APA style, except for that one little detail that looks more like MLA. Or, your book printer may demand images be in CMYK instead of RGB format. You might not understand them, but there are reasons for the rules and knowing and keeping them helps you get published.  If you do a little asking and digging you might even find out why the rules exist and that will help you grow as a writer.

Rules part 2: you and your stories rules…

There is a second kind of rules for any given writing project; the rules that you create based on how you choose to write, and what you choose to write about.

Some of these rules are based on biology and other realities of life. For example I avoid writing anything late at night because the things I write late at night make no sense (even to me…). If you drive a cab for a living you probably shouldn’t write while trying to do your day job…

Other rules are created when you make choices about what you write. If your hero is riding with William the Conqueror in 1066, I’m sorry he did not just call Will up on his smart phone and he definitely didn’t find the Saxons by Googling them. If you’re choosing to write a midgrade novel it shouldn’t read like the letters column of a porno mag.

This gets more complicated as you progress through the story and into sequels. If your character has aged several years between books you’d better communicate that up front. If your character is allergic to shell fish in book one, sorry he or she should not be commenting on how good the shrimp cocktail tastes in book two.

Sequels and new situations can invoke new rules as well. In Johnson Farm my hero is on a farm. In Hard Way he is back home in San Diego. In Hard Way he also has his dad’s girl friend to contend with. Both of these changes affect what John can and can’t get away with. He’s back in school now so if I want him running around the mall at 10:00 AM on a Tuesday I’d better explain why he’s there and he may have some school complications as well.

Summing it all up…

No matter what you write, long form or short; fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, one of the things you have to do is learn the rules for what you’re doing. Sometimes this comes from looking up or reading, other times it comes from deciding or doing. Either way if you want to succeed as a writer you have to learn the rules. You have to learn how and when to keep them and how and when to break them (and what happens when you do…)

That’s it for this one dear reader. See you next post.

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