Breaking the Novel-Writing Rules

We all know the rules that come with writing a book - word count, descriptions, etc. - but what happens when you break those rules?

Everyone’s heard of the different rules that come with writing – word count is important, language is important, description is a must, etc. According to the Writer’s Digest website, 80,000 to 89,999 words is generally safe; and anything under that can be tricky. Anything over 110,000 words is too long. Of course, this does lead you to question those authors who write huge compendiums of work that surely break the 110,000 word barrier and are still amazing.

Then there comes the unwritten language rule – i.e. your language must be descriptive, interesting, and definitely not boring; which causes quite a stir when your main character is a down-to-earth Londoner rather than someone who is very “posh.” Or when, like me, your main character just so happens to swear like a sailor. Apparently it just isn’t done, and woe betide you if you do it!

Description is also fun, especially when people say you don’t have enough of it (or on the flip side, too much!). All in all there are some rather daft rules floating about, most of which are either unwritten or change depending on who you’re talking to.

Why break the rules?

Rules were made to be broken, and that applies to the writing world too. Take, for example, the poets who refuse to write four-line stanzas with rhythm and rhyme. Or, as another example, the writers whose chapters are two pages long instead of ten. It’s fun to play around with the rules and give your readers something else to think about, instead of yet another formulaic book that is all technically “correct,” but bores you senseless.

The other reason to break the rules is originality. All too often we see books that have been written following a strict pattern that fit with the publisher’s demands, but are as boring as sin. Snapping the mould in two is a great way to get people talking about your work and makes sure that nobody ever gets bored. After all, variety is the spice of life!

And, finally, breaking rules is the most liberating thing in the world. Honestly, it is. Sure you’ll take a lot of stick for it, but knowing that you were true to yourself and the book is far more important than critics. After all, everyone’s a critic and there will always be someone who doesn’t like your work. That’s just the way it goes.

How do you break the rules?

This is the best part – the part where you screw up the rule book and throw it out of the proverbial window. It’s a very liberating feeling when that happens, but also a scary one. Here are my tips for breaking the rules:

1. Listen to your novel

Sounds weird but hear me out. When I’m writing a book, I wait for it to talk to me. Sometimes it’s a line, or an idea, or sometimes it’s a full-blown plot. My debut novel came to me at 2am one night, and when I woke up at 7am I started writing. It’s now published and I’m writing a second!

2. Trust your inner voice

They say “go with your gut” and it’s true. I can always tell when something isn’t working because I come to a halt. I stop being able to write, and I have to rethink my plot or my strategy. Usually I take a break and then realise why it hasn’t worked.

3. Write for yourself

Don’t worry about being published, or who’s criticising you. One of the worst things you can do is write for other people because everyone’s different. One person will like your style and ten others won’t. Write for yourself, and write like nobody’s going to read it.

4. Envisage your characters

This one’s a hard one, but if you can picture your characters in your head, you’re doing well. For my first novel I wrote descriptions of my main characters and worked from those. Or, if you are having trouble with that, base your character’s looks on a friend or family member. Seriously, it works!

5. Trust yourself to do a good job

This is the most important one – self-doubt is a killer. Trust yourself, and trust the writing.

Mother of one, mental health carer and author. Nicola loves books of all kinds, and does her best to bring worlds to life.

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