Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Rules. Rules of writing. Rules of submitting. Punctuation, sentences structure, modifying clauses, past participles, beginning-middle-end, who-what-when-where-why-how, submit only manuscripts of this or that type, don’t exceed X-word-count, use only X-typeface, wait a year to find out if you’ll get published, blah blah blah blah blah...

What writer wants to worry about rules? Writing is supposed to be fun. And it is fun for those who truly enjoy writing – until rules start to overshadow creativity. Then the fun of writing can quickly turn into an arduous chore, with The Little Editor on one’s shoulder trying to take over and bring everything fun to a screeching halt. Rules can be stifling. Rules can pen up a story instead of allowing the pen to scrawl freely. Never start a sentence with a conjunction like ‘and’ or ‘but.’ Never end a sentence with a preposition like ‘about’ or ‘for.’ XYZ Publishing only wants happy endings. ABC Books only wants heroines under thirty. So why do writers need rules anyway?

For consistency, and to make life easier for those making the rules.

But Ralph Waldo Emerson warned, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ Note the qualifier, ‘a foolish consistency.’ That refers to adherence to consistency (dictated by rules) that is counterproductive or simply doesn’t make sense – foolish. The smart writer is going to learn the rules so that they can be ignored for a good reason – not out of ignorance or laziness. This does not mean that every writer has to be a grammar expert or memorize The Chicago Manual of Style, or reformat a manuscript fifty different ways to submit to fifty different publishers.

What this means in regard to writing rules is the writer should have enough basic knowledge of standard writing rules (or be able to look them up) so that when she writes, everything works as expected, and a typical reader will understand what the author is trying to convey. This is a basic covenant, as in driving. You stay on your side of the road, and I’ll stay on mine. When we meet at an intersection, we both stop because there’s a stop sign for each of us. You use a turn signal so I’ll know which way you want to go. That way everything works as expected, and unhappy confusion and accidents can be avoided.

In the case of submissions, yes, it’s always good to know what a publisher (or agent) expects to see. And if you submit something that is totally inappropriate (like sending your poetry to a publisher who flatly states they don’t accept or publish poetry) then you are going to be wasting your time and the recipient’s. So it’s best to find publishers whose ‘rules’ can conceivably encompass what you’ve written. In that case, rules are in place to keep everybody busy doing productive work instead of wasting time shuffling through inappropriate material that can’t be used.

But rules can oftentimes be a big bore, resulting in boring writing. Like, following the rule of telling what-when-where-why-and-how, using a straight timeline to tell your story from A to Z, with no surprises for the reader in between. And sometimes publishers’ submission rules seem really stupid. Like, if you don’t follow a certain format exactly, and use ‘smart quotes’ instead of ‘straight quotes’ then your manuscript will get rejected.

Remember, rules, especially basic writing rules, are provided as a safety net for the beginning writer to use until a certain confidence is achieved. After the writer understands why the rules are in place and what functions they serve, those rules can (and many times should) be ignored to break out of the box and achieve something possibly extraordinary. To test your wings, try writing in a stream-of-consciousness style and let your emotion burst forth. Break out of the norms you are comfortable with, to find yourself charting new writing territory. At that point, you may end up with a nonsensical mess, or you may have a great story on your hands. But you won’t know until you break free of those constricting rules and try.

Submission rules, on the other hand, can also be ignored, and possibly result in a rejection. But sometimes ignoring the rules can actually get your work attention it might not otherwise have received. For example, one of Penumbra Publishing’s most successful series authors sent all the books of the series attached to the query email, rather than following our guidelines at the time, which asked only for the first three chapters of one book at a time. At first we thought it was a joke, but then realized all the attachments were complete and separate books. If we’d seen only the first three chapters of the first book, we might possibly have passed on the submission, but after seeing the author’s complete work, we ended up accepting it for publishing. And, in hindsight, we’re glad we did. The author’s audacity in ignoring our rules resulted in a publishing contract.

For publishers who have a standard policy of ‘no unsolicited manuscripts accepted,’ there are ways to get around that. One is to establish personal contact with an editor from that publisher through a writing conference or book convention. At conferences, authors can make appointments to pitch their work to editors and possibly get an invitation to submit their work for consideration. With an invitation to send the manuscript to a specific editor, the manuscript is ‘requested’ rather than ‘unsolicited’ – and the envelope or email should say ‘requested.’ Of course conferences can be expensive in travel costs and fees, and there’s not always a guarantee that the author will even get an appointment with the desired editor.

Another avenue might be a recommendation from a fellow author who is already published with a publishing company. Of course invitations to submit that result in acceptance contracts will depend greatly on the author’s quality of work. Recommendations from well-known authors can also help garner reader attention for an unknown author’s work. For instance, the same author who submitted an entire series to us also got a famous author to review the first book in the series, which helped boost attention for this author’s work. So contacts, networking, and just plain audacity in cold-contacting ‘famous’ or hard-to-reach folks can oftentimes work to the author’s advantage. The dark side of the scenario is that the author can be branded as a pest and get banned from forums or alienate folks who might otherwise have been willing to help further the author’s agenda. So good manners and respectfulness are requirements when boldly breaking rules.

The trick, then, for writing or for submitting – or anything in life – is to first know the rules, and then decide which of those rules can be broken to achieve a desired effect without causing harm to yourself or others. Take the time to learn why you need rules, then figure out how to ignore them graciously to get what you want!

Patricia Morrison, Penumbra Publishing


Walter Knight said...

And, I agree that a most important rule is to not begin a sentence with the word "And."

How do you like that cover ar? I told the Penumbra artists to spoof "Charlie's Angels" with American soldiers, and that is what they came up with.

Natasha Larry said...

Hey! I start sentences with And all the time. Oh, wait...I probably shouldn't say things like that out loud. Wait...and I start sentences with But. So, HA!

=) Another great post! Thank you for sharing.