Pub Rants

Rule Breaking Novels

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STATUS: First day back in the office after being away for a week. Let’s just say there is a lot on my desk that needs handling. I did pretty well today but tomorrow will be the real determiner

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LITTLE RED CORVETTE by Prince

I did another panel last week called Bye-Bye Box: Writing And Selling The Rule-Breaking Book. We all had some interesting talking points so I thought I would share some of mine.

1. If you are breaking the rules, it’s all about the writing to make it work. The writing needs to be way above average and spectacular to really catch the eyes of the editors. (An example I gave was Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER but CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR would be another good example. Or better yet, FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC.)

2. The biggest question that editors will have if the novel bends or blends genres is where will it be shelved? This carries a lot of weight.

3. My job as an agent when selling a rule-breaking book is not to focus on the rules being broken but how the uniqueness can be a selling point. (By the way, that’s a mistake writers make in their query letters when pitching an out of the box idea. They highlight the strange, different, or “out there” aspect. That doesn’t work. Your pitch should focus on what makes the story so human despite let’s say an unusual world, or setting, or plot twist or whatever. You have to focus on uniquely capturing your character’s conflict in a way that feels universal despite the rules being broken.)

4. Remember, world building becomes very crucial if you are rule-breaking. It has to be clearly defined and believable—even if you are setting the story in 2007.

5. For the rule-breaking book, are you leading the trend or are you behind it? Makes a big difference.

6. For “taboo” subjects, what’s the purpose for it? Is it simply to shock the reader or is the taboo subject an integral part of the story and the key to its unfolding? Big difference. I see a lot of queries that focus on the shock value and not on what will make the story appealing to readers to read.

7. Rule breaking comes with either great risk or huge reward. There isn’t much in between. Lots of rule-breaking books flop big time. We tend to only remember the huge successes.

But ultimately, it’s only writers who can do it extraordinarily well that end up being able pull it off.

17 Responses

  1. Kimber An said:

    This echoes some excellent advice I was given by a mentor-type Blog Buddy. I have lots of novels already completed in my head, but I’m only now polishing them for submission. She advised me to start with the stories on the bottom rung of complexity, way below my capablities, and build on my skills from there.

    I’ve written several Rule Breakers/Genre Blenders. My skills are not spectacular enough yet to pull them off. That’s okay. They can wait. In the meantime, I keep learning. 😉

  2. kate said:

    agents like to play it safe. writers like to take risks. another reason there’s such a disconnect between artistic people and business people.

  3. Ready to Despair said:

    “By the way, that’s a mistake writers make in their query letters when pitching an out of the box idea.”

    Agent K., “pitching an out of the box idea” would mean “pitching a cliché” or “prêt-à-porter,” ready-to-wear-out-of-the-box. What you mean is “pitching an outside the box idea.”

  4. JDuncan said:

    dangit, sherry beat me to the snot sucking vampire! Ah well, I’m sure Kristen will be reminded of it off and on for many years to come.

    Actually, I don’t think what Kate said is really accurate either. Agents are more than happy to take risks on projects if its something they can be enthusiastic about and stand behind. They can’t rep stuff merely for the sake of being different. Like everything else, it has to be a damn good, well written story. Of course, good timing, some luck, catching an editor on a good day, etc. are involved too, but actually I’d be more inclined to say that writers as a whole probably play it safer than agents do. I have no way to verify that of course. It’s just my opinion.

    Oh, two wrods Kristen: Cartel Blog!


  5. Beth said:

    Jduncan said: I’d be more inclined to say that writers as a whole probably play it safer than agents do.

    That never occurred to me before, but I think you’re right. I keep hearing agents say they’re looking for the writer who stands out from the pack–for whatever reason. Playing it safe = mediocre = blends well with others. Not a good recipe for getting published these days.

  6. bran fan said:

    And when someone does sucessfully break the rules and blend/transcend genres, that person starts a whole new genre. I’m thinking of Tom Clancy with the techo-thriller and Michael Crichton with the science thriller. Being a genre-starter is an extreme ambition. Great, if you can do it, but you may crash and burn. It’s the risk you take.

    The flip side is people who think they are “out there” and “cutting edge” and have written a whole new thing, when they really haven’t. Those people love to blame the agents/editors for being too timid to take a chance on something new, when really, the problem is same-old, same-old, and/or lack of writing ability.

  7. Anonymous said:

    The flip side of that is in YA, I think, where you cannot peruse the bookshelves without tripping over, literally, 15 books about prom. In hardcover. From major publishers. And A-list authors.

    Makes me wonder if being “cutting edge” only applies to your first book and then you can get 25 prom/homecoming/being popular/ books sold. In a row.

    Anyone care to address that? (I’m not being snarky, I do want to know).

  8. Kimber An said:

    I think too often the decision on what to put on the bookstore shelf is based on the sale of new books and on the assumption that the readers are all pretty much the same.

    1) Readers who do not find what they’re looking for in new sales go to used bookstores and the library. This means their voice goes largely unheard.

    2) Teenagers are unique individuals. Most of them are not blond and many couldn’t care less about the Prom.

    3) Teens who can’t find what they’re looking for in YA find it in adult genres, which means their voice in YA goes unheard a second time.

    I learn about new blogs every week which are launched for the purpose of helping readers find what they really want. These are good places to ‘listen’ because these readers WILL buy new if what they want is sold new.

  9. BrennaLyons said:

    Thank goodness, someone finally said it! All readers are not alike. Ever wonder WHY the rise in SF/F/H/P romance, dark romance and erotic romance? Because readers who were also writers got sick of being served up the same old thing and asked, “Where did Dark Shadows go? Where did classic/tragic romance go? Why should women hide that we’ve always enjoyed erotic as much as men do?” So, we wrote it.

    Perceptions of the “industry” don’t always mirror perceptions of the hungry readers. Forget carbon copy books and even book blurbs. The average reader has less expendable income than they did a few years ago. They don’t want to read the same thing again. They want to read something new, and they want a blurb to tell them how it’s new and why they should shell out the money to buy it.

    As for the “rules,” there’s an old saying that there are three unbreakable rules of writing, and no one knows what they are. IMO, they deal with professionalism, submitting and honing your craft. All the rest varies from publisher to publisher and agent to agent. If you can break the “guidelines,” because they aren’t really “rules,” skillfully enough, you’re breaking new ground in a good way, you’re stretching the boundaries of the playing field and not hopping completely out of your lane.

    Thank you for finally saying it!

  10. Gail said:

    I think the trick to writing outside of the box is having had already honed your craft. Don’t try to break the rules in your first book. Make sure you know the rules down pat before you break them – that way you know you’re doing it right and not just writing sloppy.

  11. Schuyler Thorpe said:

    What I write isn’t for “shock value” but to get people to realize that no matter what kind of society we all intend to live in–you can’t escape the changes which are commonplace in today’s world.

    I break the rules because I can’t STAND writing “inside the box”. I need room to maneuver, and have enough flexibility and sound reasoning to FAIL.

    Telling me how to write and when to write it defeats the purpose of writing a book in the first place.

    I’m a writer. Not a DRONE.

  12. Linda said:

    This has made me think. I do have a rule-breaking book–I think it’s ahead of a coming trend (because of changes in other genres), but it also has made it a tough, tough sale. But when I’ve queried, I’ve referenced the “rule” I’m breaking because I thought it was a selling point. That might be what’s turning agents off–they can’t see how it can be done, so they don’t ask for more. I’m thinking about drafting a new query without mentioning the breaking of the rule and see what happens.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Linda–that’s a good idea, I think. Seems like I recently read an agent’s blog where she gave that exact advice.

    Brennalyons–actually, the average reader has more expendable income than s/he did a few years ago. The economy has grown and incomes, on the average, are up.

  14. Alison Kent said:

    5. For the rule-breaking book, are you leading the trend or are you behind it? Makes a big difference.

    Kristin – Could you talk a bit more about this? About what a book or series that’s behind a trend needs to be noticed and salable?