« The Best Gift You'll Get This Year is Not a Grumpy Lithuanian | Main | A Christmas Wish »

December 21, 2005

There Are No Rules

There Are No Rules

by Susan, Giving You the Gift of Writing Freedom This Holiday Season

I taught a month-long online workshop in November to 65 students.  The topic was “Making Mysteries Memorable,” so I focused on choosing your protagonist, casting your secondary characters, dialogue, setting, plotting and pacing.  We covered a lot of turf, but most of the questions I got had nothing to do with any of those things, not really. 

They had to do with the arbitrary “rules of mystery writing” that abound.  As in:

“When should the body be found?”

“How many suspects must I have?”

“Can I combine an historical mystery with something vaguely paranormal and still get published?”

“How long should my manuscript be?”

“What kind of quirky job must my protagonist have in order to carve a niche in the traditional mystery market?”

To every one of those questions, I replied:  THERE ARE NO RULES.

Look, the Big Guy might’ve scribbled His Ten Commandments on stone tablets.  Our government constantly writes and rewrites laws pertaining to every aspect of our lives so that the only recourse seems to be to sue to get what we want, making the “land of the free” more like the “land of the litigated.” 

But—and listen closely—there is no one person in the publishing business who has laid down any rules for how a novel must be written (save for format and presentation, though I’m not talking about that here). If you're under contract, you probably have a word count you need to try to fall within, but I've exceeded mine and my editor didn't slap a penalty on me. And, yes, if you write a series, you must stay faithful to your characters; but no one said you had to keep writing the same story over and over again (which some readers might find comforting but, as an author, would put me to sleep at the keyboard). Cookie cutter books = Snoresville. Did I mention that flexing your literary muscles is a good thing? Oh, yeah, and that THERE ARE NO RULES. 

Did you get that? 

No one is God or governor of your novel but you.

Sure, Elmore Leonard has his rules, and many are good ones.  They come from his experience as a writer and a reader.  And good for him. 

I’ve heard other writers speak, laying down their rules, acting like they’re gospel, telling aspiring authors everything from a particular word count to acceptable number of suspects to what kind of first sentence you must have and precisely when the body should be found.

When you try to analyze books and why some hit and some don't, nothing makes sense sometimes. No one knows the magic formula to creating a best-seller (the James Patterson Book Machine notwithstanding). Many authors whom I've heard speak about "how to" aren’t exactly at the top of the NYT list, so what qualifies them to preach? Talking about experience is one thing. Telling authors "this is the way to do it or else" is another.   I wonder if they realize how narrow-minded their rules are, how limiting.  How utterly uncreative.  If everyone followed these writing commandments, we’d all be composing identical novels.  How boring would that be?

My point:   writing is creative.  It’s telling stories, using your imagination, going boldly where no writer has gone before.  You don’t want to be like everyone else.  Think of books that really hit it big in recent years, or at least captured a good deal of attention from readers (and critics):





All the freaking HARRY POTTER books

What makes them stand out?

They’re stories that can't be pigeonholed.  They’re unique.  They express a fresh point of view on subjects that maybe have been done endlessly.  They don’t limit their audience.

And, best of all, they don’t follow rules.

Here’s another place where rules don’t count:  how long it takes you to get published, if you really love to write and can never imagine not writing.

I was just visiting an author’s web site where advice is given very clearly on the subject.  Pretty much, if you can’t cut the mustard within a handful of years, you’re advised to drop out of the game.

If someone—anyone—feeding you arbitrary guidelines (THEIR guidelines) is enough to convince you to quit then, by God, quit.  Because you’re not tough enough to make it.  This business will eat you up and spit you out if you let it.  It’s competitive, it’s rough, it’s unpredictable.  If you can’t hack it—and if that’s all you want, getting published, as opposed to needing to write because it’s in your blood—cut yourself a break and do it as a hobby.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

If you’re in this for real, the same way I was (and, like I’ve said before, many times, it took a decade for me to break in…and I’m doing just fine now, thank you very much), you will do it for AS LONG AS IT TAKES. 

Did you get that?

If you must write, you will not quit.

My words of wisdom for aspiring authors:

Stop listening to other people tell you what to do.  Write the book you need to write.  Use whatever the hell it takes to lay down your story.  Nobody can do it for you.  No one can instruct you on what’s best for your novel.  Listen to your heart and your gut.  Nothing else counts.

Get it?  Got it? 


Oh, and my best wishes for a Happy Chanukah, a very Merry Christmas, a Killer Kwanzaa, or whatever you celebrate.

Cheers, Susan


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference There Are No Rules:


Greetings of the season to you, inspiring teacher! As one of the sixty-five students, I can confirm that we received an early gift this year through Susan's excellent instruction.

You gave it, and I think we all got it. You taught us that the first reward in writing comes from a job well done, and that getting the publishing world to recognize it is a gravy worth pursuing.

But, another real benefit from the class was the recognition that there is a true satisfaction in being among a community of writers, whether or not you're published. Authors are tremendously generous people, as this blog attests. A number of us from the class continue to keep in touch through a Yahoo support group to encourage each other and share information.

Susan, that's the kind of gift that keeps on giving and we have you (and the workshop sponsor, Su Kopil of Earthly Charms) to thank for it.

Best wishes for the holiday season!

P.S. Have you finished the new book?


Wow, I'm exhausted just reading this. :)

Happy holidays!

Seasons Greetings from another of those 65 students that asked those questions. And thanks for the gift of this blog.


You go, girl! Susan's right. And may I just add that when I was trying to get published, I talked to an agent, a very well-known agent, who, coincidentally, had published a book about the rules of getting published, telling me I had to read it and then get back to him because CLEARLY I had no idea of The Rules.
Okay. I hung up. Sent my query letter to a different agent and received an acceptance from Penguin within six months for a two-book contract.
Never did read his book.

Thank you - thank you for that great holiday gift from another one of your loyal 65 students! I feel the burden lifting off my shoulders and the freedom to let my quirky story spill from my head and onto the paper! Thanks for spelling it out for everyone once and for all - make your own rules - make your own path!

I like the concept. There is only one rule: there are no rules.


Yeah, to my fabulous, incredibly talented workshop students (Annette, Paula, Debora...hugs to you!)! I had the best time being your teacher for a month, and you each inspired me more than you'll ever know. Best of luck on succeeding in this crazy world of publishing...you know I'm rooting for you and that I want to hear all the details of your progress! Like I said, it is a tough bidness, and support means everything. Keep up the good work, guys. :-)

P.S. Paula, the book is coming along, and I will make my January 31 deadline. Really.

Hi Susan, it's another one of your loyal students from the workshop. Excellent post! I couldn't agree more.


Hi, Kristine! I feel like we're having a family reunion here. Yay!

There is one rule of writing (which Susan hinted at) that must never, under any circumstances, be broken:

Don't be boring.

As for Leonard's rules, while I agree with most of them in spirit, I can certainly see why they wouldn't work for everyone.

Shameless plug: By the way, if anyone has ever wondered how writing is like sex, check out my latest blog entry.

Yeah, Rob, but here's the deal with the "don't be boring" rule: one reader's "I fell asleep reading it" is another reader's "I stayed up all night reading it!" so we're back to No Rules.
Go, Susan, Go!

Rob, lemme guess. Men finish writing much faster and then roll over and go to sleep? Oh, and who cares how long it takes a woman to write?

Susan, I love this entry.

After being in screenwriting for seven years and having my agent just want me to do what [insert latest script sale author] had done, and do it exactly, I was sick of the rules. So very many rules. I began to think I really didn't know how to write. Then a friend sent me a quote from Somerset Maugham which said:

There are only three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

I made a little print out, cut it out and attached it to the top of my computer where I could see it all of the time. Every time I started to worry about what I "ought" to do, I'd see the rule and I'd think, "It doesn't matter as long as my story works." And then I'd write it my way.

It was the first time in years that I had pure joy in writing again. I wouldn't have cared it if sold or not, to be quite honest, because nothing could replace that ride. I got lucky -- it sold a series -- but figuring out how to listen to my own instinct and do what I wanted was actually the best gift of all.

Wishing everyone a happy whatever-you-celebrate!

Debora--If I were an agent, the first word I'd look for in a query letter is "quirky!" I want to be surprised and delighted, and "quirky" speaks to me!

Toni, here's my theory about movies: All the script doctors follow the same rules now, so the audience knows within 5 minutes of sitting down how every story's going to end. There are no more surprises in the movies anymore (well, not many, and--ho hum--they're mostly special effects) so we've stopped going. What do you think?

Of course, none of that really matters if you're using the wrong kind of binder clips or rubber bands on your submission.

(Sorry, couldn't resist, but those seem to be the primary questions asked in conference workshops I've been to, like there's a belief out there that if you find the magical font, binder clip/paper clip/rubber band, and envelope combination, you'll be published. Forget about the actual book stuff.)

Sarah, I sort of figured you weren't a rule follower. ;-) (One reason I like you!)

RobC, you got it exactly!

Lisa, looking forward to that drink on you, girl!

Rob, read your blog today, and it made me all, um, fidgety. Ha ha.

Harley, I will, I will!

Josh, stop cracking me up! I'm tryin' to work here.

Toni, and I love your story. It's just the thing that other writers need to hear. Some get so fixated on "what are the rules, because I won't get published if I break them." But that's what makes writing fun! Having no boundaries. Wish everyone realized that.

Nancy, saw "King Kong" last night, which was all about special effects. I think the special FX guys had too good a time, as some of the scenes dragged on and on (I mean, how many minutes do I want to watch Kong fight dinosaurs? A few would do, not 20). I liked it, but it could've been much better shorter.

Shanna, okay, now you're in the same boat as Josh! Makin' me laugh when I should be writing my book! (Though the two shouldn't be mutually exclusive, should they?)

I feel like I just made my Christmas list for Santa. Did I cover everyone?

Seriously, when does the body have to be found? And if I make my main character an accountant, will that be quirky enough to sell?

Susan, am I going to have to bribe you again? Meet your next deadline and I'll read your next book? Although, if I remember correctly, you were a couple days late, but I read your book anyway. Hmm.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! (I won't be around next week. Out of town visiting my parents.)




Love this post, Susan. I think the reason that so many writers go around talking about 'rules' is that, while there are no universal truths of writing (except that if you end a story with 'and it was all a dream', I am going to want to slap you), individual writers do come up with rules that work for them. And since it's always hard to think that other people's brains work differently from your's, they come to think of their particular approach as the one true path. And we newbies, desperate as we are, lap it up like thirsty puppies.
Not that I would ever fall for that kind of thing; I'm much too smart for that. Now, off to find the magic binder clips of acceptance.

'Yours' dammit, 'yours'. (Hey, if there are no rules, does that go for grammar too?)

Oh, no, Daisy, don't buy any of those magic binder clips of acceptance! Um, 'cuz I kinda bought you a box of them for Christmas. Am shipping them along with a $2,000 gift certif at Manolo Blahnik. (Ah, I know, both are just the stuff of dreams, but ya gotta believe in something, right?)

You made a good point, girl. I think it's fine when writers teach using their own experiences. Heck, how else can you do it? When I conduct a workshop, I share my knowledge of the process, as well as what I know friends do, and I put it just like that: "this is what works for me or them," not "you must do this or your book will not meet the nonexistent guidelines that I made up so I could act like I know what I'm doing." As Rob said in his blog yesterday, so much of what we do is intuition (and, I would say, "magic"), and no one knows the secrets or we'd all be making seven figures and talking to Katie Couric before breakfast. Writers need to trust themselves and their story. I would venture to guess a few unpubbed manuscripts were rewritten to formula after hearing a "rules" speech that was really BS.

Daisy, I'm sorry to say, there are definitely rules for grammar...er, mostly...because then I think, "Toni Morrison's BELOVED." So, you know, when the grammar isn't quite spot-on, let's call it "literary license." Sounds good to me.

Okay, here's a rule. Do not have a character whose mind we are in all of a sudden learn something and not let us in on it. Or know something relevant all along and not tell us, even though it would have been obvious to the narrator that it was relevant. I, the reader, should not be the last to know things that I should have known as they happened or otherwise became relevant--unless the character is supposed to be a numbskull. "Oh, I forgot that Mr. Smith was my father!" Right.

Example 1: John Smith [whose mind we have been in for the past 225 pages] opened up the Pelican Brief and started reading.... [End of Section, no further mention of what was in it]

Example 2: Another book I read, told in first person, where at the end we learn that the narrator/protagonist is the sister of some other major character--which the narrator knew but neglected to tell us, even though it was a major plot point that went far towards explaining the murder, the narrator's behavior, etc. Argh!

Time for Dr. X.

And thine suggestion shall hence be called: Josh's Rule. I am chiseling it now onto a stone tablet for posterity.

Example 1 works for me. I've seen that kind of thing used a million times.

To one and all who need a laugh,try my favorite movie, MURDER BY DEATH. Some of the things mentioned here reminds me of it. MAY YOUR HOLIDAY BE SAFE AND FULL OF CHEER! (hopefully not the whole bottle)SusanCo

Hey, Mark, what kind of bribe??? I am all for anything that will inspire me to write faster. Have a great time at your folks' house for Christmas!

Oh Susan, you shouldn't have. But that's okay, because I got you something too.
(Hint: http://www.forbes.com/2005/12/16/cx_sb_1219featslide2.html?thisSpeed=90000 )

Oh, Daisy! You're too sweet. And I was just thinking I needed a pair of black boots with higher heels (to go with the longer, wider-legged boot-cut jeans I got at Cache yesterday). These are perfect! Such a steal at $14,000, too! Thank yooou!

Nancy, I completely agree -- the script doctors and rules from some of the big script gurus have shoved everyone into rigid channels and everyone is too afraid to be original, unless they are original the way someone else was who recently had a big hit.

One of the scariest things is that many of the executives are MBAs and they take screenwriting courses (like Mckee's) so that they know how to give notes to the writer. Which they do, in droves. So everything starts sounding like everything else, and has all of the spice of homogenized milk. (Or they stick CGI in it and assume it's going to be the big draw.)

Rules for writers, this is a great idea! What a huge time saver from a reader standpoint, just imagine how many more books you could read a year if they were all written under the exact same guidelines.

You wouldn't have to actually read the whole book anymore, just follow the rules for readers:

Find out the names of the characters, these should be conveniently listed on the first page by the author, with a one line bio, so we can fit them together quickly in our heads. Flow-charting the mandatory four characters would be a real bonus.

Read chapter two for the body discovery portion of the book, which can happen one of three ways, so you should check this out.

Skip over to chapter 5 and skim for vital clues, and there should be two provided.

Jump ahead to chapter eleven to find the plot twist, which, according to the rules, has only one format, so you may skip this chapter if pressed for time. You might as well, you already know how fast the scene is going to whip you around the curve, without plunging you off the cliff, no surprises in this chapter.

Last, read the final chapter to wrap it up, and you are ready to discuss this wonderful piece of literature at any social setting you’re attending in the next week.

If you’re under serious time constraints, just study the flow chart to get the characters straight. The rest of the story is just like all the others on the market, so you should be able to bluff your way through the evening if asked about the novel.

Another big plus about instilling rigid rules on novels, is that huge TBR pile growing in the corner will diminish in no time flat.

I always thought the point of writing fiction was using your creativity to make a world that could never be contained within any boundary, shows what I know.

Sarah, not sure about you, but I’m wondering how many other unpublished authors bought this agent’s book of rules, followed them, and are trying to figure out why they are still unpublished? I’m glad you didn’t follow don't rules either!

Don't even get me started on Hollywood.


I've read examples of the first all the time. The next section starts with the main character working quickly on infomation learned, which is presented within 5 or 10 pages as we trap the villain. I have no problem with that whatsoever.

Now if we didn't get back to the information for 100 pages, I'd have a problem with it.

Of course I'm with you on the second example. If you have to hide the identity of the relative, then you have a weak plot to begin with.


Wow, I just discovered this blog and am I glad I did. Great, great stuff. I'll be coming back frequently

Well, hey, John, thanks so much for the kind words...we're glad to have you here!

Another of your faithful 65 here, Susan. Great blog post. I must admit I've been re-reading Maass's book over the holiday (and getting some good reminders from it), but I still agree with you that following THE RULES won't guarantee anything. Thanks for reinforcing what you taught us in the workshop.

Hi, Mary Louisa! You're exactly right about the rules not guaranteeing anything, so you might as well follow your instincts for your story and write what you love. Can't wait to see where all my faboo workshop students end up, because I foresee lots of success in the years ahead!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

The Breast Cancer Site