Write It Sideways

6 Writers Who Broke the Rules and Got Away with It

Have you ever read a book and noticed the author has broken what we writers often hear of as “the rules”?

My initial reaction is usually indignation: “Why can she get away with that, and I can’t??”

The more I study the craft of writing, the more rules I hear about, and most of these are guidelines based on making a book reader-friendly. As much as I believe it’s good practice to avoid the common pitfalls of beginning writers, there are always exceptions to every rule.

Here are six commonly heard rules for writers, and six authors who’ve gotten away with breaking them. (By ‘gotten away with’, I mean being published, selling tons of copies, and in some cases, winning awards):

Rule: Don’t write in First Person, Present Tense

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife:  Niffenegger’s popular title is told by dual narrators from the first person point of view, in the present tense. We’re often told this is a rookie mistake, but I think it can be done well in the right hands.

Rule: Keep your novel under 100,000 words

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall: Literary agents keep telling us it’s nearly impossible to sell an overly long book, these days. One edition of this novel weighs in at 560 pages, so it’s safe to say it’s far more than 100,000 words long. Mantel won the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, so I suppose they saw past her verbosity.

Rule: Limit the use of adverbs.

John Banville, The Sea: This book, another Booker Prize winner, is beautifully written, but features heavy use of adverbs. In one sentence alone, I found the words tensely, fortuitously, and frustratingly.

Rule: Don’t begin a story with dialogue.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse: “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added. This rule must be a relatively new one, because a lot of older books and classics begin with dialogue.

Rule: Avoid repetitive language.

Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife: In the first paragraph of this book, the words still and stillness are (purposely) used 4 times, and variations of the phrase “the train was late,” are likewise sprinkled many times through the opening pages. Literary agent Nathan Bransford recently posted a great article on repetitive language. Ever since reading it, I can’t help but notice it in my reading and writing.

Rule: Don’t begin a story with “My name is…”

Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones:My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.” I’ve heard of this type of story opening as being on the list of agents’ and editors’ major pet peeves.

How did they get away with it?

There are a number of reasons why these authors managed to achieve success regardless of breaking the rules.

  1. There are exceptions to every rule. Not every rule applies to every book. It takes experience and discernment to know when to follow them, and when to throw them out the window.
  2. Story trumps all. The storytelling in each of these books is good enough to cancel out any rule-breaking annoyances.
  3. The rules change. What was publishable 50, 100, 200 years ago, might not be publishable today.
  4. Selective breaking. Getting away with breaking one or two of these rules isn’t difficult, but too many at once becomes a problem.

Can you think of other books that eschew common writing advice?

Are you more likely to follow rules to the letter (for fear of rejection), or do you feel the urge to rebel now and again?