Break One Rule

Coincidental to last week’s post about how your story is in conversation with whatever else is being published, the old question about whether or not you should write for the market or write what you want to write sprung up on a writer’s forum I’m on. Incidentally, the answer to this question is actually ridiculously simple: If writing to the market helps you sell more, then do so; if it does not, then write what you want. If you’re reading extensively in the field, instinctively saying, “Oh, I like what she did, I’m borrowing that,” or “No, no, no, this is how that kind of story should be told,” then you’re doing the sort of market research required to write for the market, whether you’re conscious of it or not. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of “writing for the market” and only producing derivative work that won’t excite an editor. It’s similarly easy to fall into the trap of writing what you want and collecting lots of “This is beautifully done, but not right for us” personal rejection letters. So, it’s fair to ask, how does one deliberately enter this interfictional conversation, write for the market and sell, etc.?

Well, I’m going to start this by saying this very loudly and clearly: I’m still working on it. If I were good at this, I’d be a much better known writer than I am. As it is, I collect more than my fair share of those “This is beautifully done, but not right for us” personal rejection letters. But I can tell you what I notice about the stories that do sell, and do get attention:

They all broke one of cardinal rules of storytelling.

I’m sure you’ve all heard various cardinal rules of storytelling before. Some of the more common ones I encounter include:

  1. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  2. Show, don’t tell.
  3. Establish character, setting, and conflict on the first page.
  4. Have a strong “hook.”
  5. The main character makes three attempts before ultimately succeeding or failing.
  6. Never bore your audience.
  7. Write what you know.
  8. Cut all adverbs.
  9. Don’t base your stories on movies or T.V. shows.
  10. Write with a consistent voice.
  11. Tell only one story.
  12. Stories need action.
  13. Stories are conflict.
  14. Stories revolve around character.
  15. If there’s no change, there’s no story.
  16. Conform to standard rules of grammar.
  17. Don’t break the fourth wall.
  18. Avoid the passive voice / use active verbs.
  19. Tell the part of the story where the stakes are highest.
  20. Don’t kill the dog.

There are more, of course. Anyone who has taken a class in fiction writing has been taught the “right” way to write. And you know what? I can name a very successful examples of violations of anything you can cite as the “right” way to write. Yes, including basic language coherence (Faulkner, anyone?).

In fact, I often joke that I should footnote my stories with whose cardinal rule of storytelling I’m breaking with each one. “Too Close for Comfort” has no action — it takes place entirely at a conference table with two people talking to each other. “Pressure and the Argument Tree” is two unrelated stories occurring simultaneously. “Another Generation’s Problems” was inspired by a trope from a Star Trek episode. “The Wrong Dog” kills the dog. In each case I broke the rule knowingly and for a darned good reason.

As I look at a recent issue of the Big 3, I see a violation of one of these rules in every single story in the magazine. Every one.

But I only rarely see a violation of two of them. (Especially if you interpret #2 to be about key moments in the story, not to say that telling is never allowed, and if you remember that the architect of #8 uses adverbs all the time, and this rule was meant to encourage the quest for stronger verbs rather than the piling on of modifiers.)

Successful stories, in other words, mostly follow the rules of what audiences expect. But only mostly. They also do something surprising, something different, something wrong.

I suspect that the same applies to writing for a specific market. Look at what they’ve published. Take an inventory of what elements seem to appeal to them. And then write a story that uses some of those elements, but also include one that you haven’t seen the magazine do before. Figure out what the magazine’s rules seem to be (not the submission guidelines — those aren’t generally negotiable) and then break one of them.

And let me know how it goes.


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