Monday, May 20, 2019

Sometimes Story Overrides Rules by Annette M. Irby


The story gushed onto the laptop screen. Wait, let’s back up a second. Not the story first. First, the characters. Vibrant. Living. Talking-to-me-already characters. I could see them. I learned their names. I easily found matching photographs online for the ensemble cast. I hadn’t written books with so many characters before. But this book’s hero had a posse. These guys hung out together, rooted for each other. And, rule-breakers that they were, they were on screen from the opening pages of the book. As if they didn’t care that we writers have a slew of rules, one of them being to keep the character count to a minimum as a story opens. Nope. Turns out, they were more concerned with the story, and jumping right in meant finding them in the inciting incident scene with my hero. A heap of peeps. Together and indifferent to my plight.

I didn’t set out to write an ensemble-cast novel, but the story took me for a ride.

NaNo is a time of fast-drafting—where you prepare ahead of time with character sketches and perhaps an outline or a thought or two, and then dive in once November 1 rolls around. Your goal is 50,000 words in 30 days. No small feat during the holidays. On deadline for a contract, that’s what I did—prepped ahead. I can tell you where I was sitting as, in late October, these guys filled my head, showing up and, as adrenaline junkies often do, showing off.

So, should rules dictate how our stories come together, or how they read at completion? Yes and no. I’ve worked in acquisitions, and I’ve published novels. I understand both sides. I’m guessing I’ve rejected a manuscript because the author didn’t follow the rules, but if the story reeled me in and held on to me, some writing rules were negotiable. (I know. Eeeps!) At various writers’ conferences in my life as an author, I’ve heard publishing representatives say repeatedly, “I’m looking for a good story. A new, fresh idea. Strong story is everything.”

Should rules paralyze us? Maybe not, and here’s why:

Rules change. Even spelling preferences change. A few years ago, the preference in the editors’ go-to choice for spelling (Merriam Webster online) for “goodbye” was “good-bye.” Then, without warning, replaced their preference and poof! All of us had a choice to make. Publishing house style guides were rewritten. A rule had changed. What about the pesky comma before "too"? Used to be, we needed to include it. Now, not so much, most of the time. Or what I call "priority commas," where you forego using one or more commas because others already in the sentence aid meaning without an overload of punctuation. Some houses practice this, some do not.

Trends change. A decade or more ago, a genre known as ChickLit thrived. But you won’t find many books in this genre coming out these days. Point-of-view is another area that has changed over the years. Now, editors and readers prefer purist point of view, rather than switching heads within a scene (head-hopping), or seeing things from God’s perspective (omniscient), or, what I call “collective POV” where we experience more than one person’s perspective at any given time. Like: They all felt better when the fire alarm stopped blaring. That may be true, but show us through your POVC (point-of-view character) rather than getting into everyone’s perspective at once.

Various editors and publishers have their own style guides. The Chicago Manual of Style only covers so much. The writers of CMS leave many things to interpretation, indicating that clarity should be the editor's  (and writer's) goal. Because of this, editors and publishers have in-house style guides for what-to-do-when-faced-with most textual situations. You could appease seven in ten editors, and the other three may shake their heads at your grammatical, spelling, or storytelling choices.

Preferences differ. Oh, find me a roomful of folks who can all agree on anything and you may have worked a miracle. Editors have varying opinions. Readers, the same. Some love a genre, some hate it. Some have pet peeves that you’ve never thought of as you write. Poke one of those, and you may receive a negative review. Some readers balk because they read your Christian book and you included talk of . . . gulp, Christ in the narrative.

One of the keys for writers and editors is avoiding confusion. If you can write a story that engages us without disorienting us, you're halfway there. Editors can help you clean up any other manuscript issues. At times, story rules over writing rules.

Done well, story sweeps both writer and reader away, and extra kudos to the storytellers who can transport editors. Though I had a partial outline, I didn’t anticipate all the elements I’d include in my Bainbridge book. I was surprised as I fast-drafted. And then, the story seemed to be working, so, since it was NaNo and since the story line was engaging, I didn’t back down. Sure, I knew the rules. The story, the characters, the plot didn’t care.

Your turn: Have you ever had to overcome a writing rule in order to write a stronger story? How did that go? Would you do it again? Does knowing the rules of story paralyze you? How do you overcome?

When story overrides writing rules. Today at #SeriouslyWrite. @annettemirby #seriouslywrite #amwriting #BainbridgeIslandNovel

That time my ensemble-cast characters didn't care about writing rules. @annettemirby #seriouslywrite #amwriting #BainbridgeIslandNovel


FL on Bainbridge Island
Finding Love on Bainbridge Island, Washington by Annette M. Irby

Book Two in the Washington Island Romance series.

Find book three, the latest release, here.

Kindle Unlimited members can read the Washington Island Romance series for free.

Neither of them is ready for a relationship, but love may not give them an out.

Jenna-Shea Brown considers herself a broken therapist. Years ago, she witnessed something that caused PTSD. She can’t let her boss or her patients know about her battle. Who would want to trust her to help them, when she can’t help herself? She’s finally able to find a fresh start in her family’s beach cabin, but the renovations aren’t complete. Her parents have hired her ex-boyfriend to finalize them, but his negligence led to her being in the wrong place at the wrong time all those years ago.

Liam Barrett is trying to prove he’s nothing like his deadbeat dad. He’s working hard, yet still failing. Adrenaline and adventure offer him a diversion, but maybe he can’t escape his genes. He’d like to make things right with Shea, but he’s unsure if she’ll forgive him. Meanwhile, he’s challenged to forgive his father. He’s also worried about Shea and all these episodes she won’t explain. Now that they’re back in close proximity, he’s falling for her again. But can anything heal the past?


Annette M. Irby*

Annette M. Irby has been writing since her teen years when she sat pounding out stories on a vintage typewriter just for fun. Since then, she’s joined Christian writing groups and launched blogs so she could share the joy of writing. She likes to say she’s addicted to color as flowers and seascapes inspire her. In her off hours, she enjoys gardening, photography, and music. She lives with her husband and family in the Pacific Northwest.

Learn more here on her Seriously Write Page.

Laptop photo credit: Pixabay
Author photo credit: Sarah Irby; Irby Photography