Breaking the Rules – Writing 101

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Most of us have been there: after handing over the draft we’ve worked so hard on, an editor, critique partner, agent, or even a friend says, “You can’t do that!”

What we think of as the rules of Writing 101 aren’t necessarily set in stone, but a collection of pitfalls to avoid lazy writing, prose that annoys or lulls your readers, and clichés and tropes seen over and over.

But sometimes, we need to break the rules. To do so, I encourage writers in my classes to do three things:

Know the rules you’re breaking.

During a recent class on Breaking the Rules, someone asked, “Hey, where are these rules, anyway?”

Though there is no one place where the rules are written – indeed you can find countless sites offering advice ranging from utilitarian to listacles of a blogger’s pet peeves – however, here are a few of my favorite sites that cover much of the publishing industry’s expectations.

Know the tradeoffs you’ll make when you break the rules.

Using the occasional adverb is not going to lose you many readers, but starting a book with the weather or using a mirror to describe your protagonist’s appearance just might be enough to give a reader the wrong impression. However, if these things are essential to your story, it’s important to stay true to your vision and commit to breaking the rule with intention (more on that in a minute).

Other decisions, writing in epistolary format or from the second person or from present tense, make readers work harder. In some cases, you’ll lose readers who don’t want to make that effort. That’s okay: Very few of us (dare I say none) write books that can please every reader. Write the best book for your readers, and those broken rules will not only make sense to them, but likely not even register.

Break rules with purpose and intention!

Reusing an example from above, if you have to begin your book with the weather, make sure the piece can’t start any other way. Instead of simply reporting the weather, ensure it’s a character in and of its own right. Our lead sentences should hook the reader and so if the weather must do this, surprise the reader, delight them – perhaps make them laugh.

Rule breaking in writing is not unlike the concept of suspension of disbelief. When we commit to the concept, our readers will come along for the ride.


Finally, to read more about the ins and outs of craft, you might check out:

  • Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass
  • Stein on Writing, Sol Stein
  • Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Dave King & Renni Browne

Other writing books that I enjoy that are more about the life of writing than structure:

  • Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott
  • On Writing, Stephen King
  • Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
  • Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer
  • Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson

Happy Writing! And if you want to talk about rules you’ve broken, just leave us a comment below!


How Quick Crits Can Help Keep Writers on Their Game


Every writer is niggled by doubt during their drafting process: Am I on the right track? Have I jumped the tracks altogether? Am I actually writing the story I intended to tell?

A little real-time perspective can help writers focus on what works and let go of what doesn’t. That’s why Lit Chicks is now offering on-the-go editing for writers looking for feedback on their works in progress.

Quick Critiques 

Wondering if the idea in your imagination is translating to the page? Need to know if your approach has what it takes to grab and grip today’s discerning reader? No worries. We got you. For a small fee, we’ll review a manuscript sample (the first 25 pages) and assess it for the following five essential elements:

1) Is there a story line with a central conflict that is strong enough to support a full-length novel? Is it revealed early enough to hook the reader?

2) Is there a well-drawn protagonist the reader can readily recognize? An antagonist?

3) Is there a compelling plot unfolding and escalating from page one?

4) Is the main character(s) complex enough to carry the weight of that plot?

5) Is the story centered on a marketable theme that will resonate with a sizable (or identifiable) audience?

Here’s how it works:

*You send us (up to) the first 25 pages of your manuscript and $50.

*We read and assess your pages according to the guidelines specified above, in five business days or less.

*Your pages are returned to you with specific comments and margin notes, highlighting what’s working and what’s not.

*We’ll answer any questions you may have about our comments and notes, and offer recommendations for other resources to help you resolve any issues we may identify.

Sound good? Okay then. Let’s get started! Email to book your Quick Critique today.

Cooking & Writing: 5 Secret Ingredients for Culinary and Creative Success

Fall arrives this week, and we thought we’d dig up some thoughts from the archive. As we return to the warmth of autumn words from the bright stories of summer, here are some of Camille’s reflections on two of her passions. Turns out they have a lot more in common than you’d think! 

Here are five simple strategies that can increase your chances for success – whether you are working in the kitchen, or at the keyboard:

1. Know when to leave things alone. Like cupcakes and mashed potatoes, words can be overworked and leave a lasting distaste for the recipient. Know when to get up and leave the kitchen instead of destroying something with potential. Know when to walk away from your words, what to throw away, and what to put aside. Artists are often our own worst enemies.52135433 - three bottles of potion and wax, vector set

2. Put your soul into it. It’s not real food if you don’t put your heart into it. I’m not talking about the roasted broccoli or grilled chicken you make on a Tuesday, but the five hour feast you make for your rag-tag gaggle of pals on a long, steamy-window Saturday night. There’s something different about food when it’s not cooked academically. Words are much the same and require the same sort of audience. Writing for oneself is important, but you’ll never feel the same kind of fulfillment as you will when someone says “that meant something to me.” It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post or War and Peace, sharing is a part and parcel of the call and response inherent to being a creative.

3. But, be careful with yourself. Fire is the essence of creation, but it can also cause mortal damage and lasting pain. A sharp knife can be your best friend, but leave you fingerless if you aren’t paying attention. There are very few times in writing — in life — when dropping your still-beating heart on the table will yield the desired results. Be brave, daring, open, but don’t leave anything out there you can’t live without. Learn how to use all of your tools before you go for a big flambé finish.

4. Don’t attempt to be perfect at everything. It isn’t realistic to be an expert at all types of cooking or all types of writing. In my own personal kitchen, I know better than to try to execute things that require high precision methods, like soufflés. I’m also a complete failure at meatloaf — so much so I’ve been banned from trying again. It looks simple, but remains a mystery to me. And that’s okay. I enjoy other people’s meatloaf instead and relish the joy and humor in my own ineptitude. Knowing your limitations keeps you from being frustrated as you leverage strengths and avoid weaknesses. Embrace what you’re good at, especially in your writing. Whether it’s your brilliant pacing, corkscrew plot, or vibrant voice, love it and it will love you back.

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5. Beware of bad advice. My Betty Crocker Cookbook, circa 1972, says the following: “If you care about pleasing a man– bake a pie. But make sure it’s a perfect pie.” That’s bad advice. The man in my house makes the pie because I could care less about it and pleasure in our relationship has nothing to do with baked goods. The writing world is rife with bad advice, too, and even well meaning editors will try to steer your creations into molds that won’t fit your vision of who you are and what you want to say. Stay true to yourself and if something rings untrue, follow your instinct, even if you admire the messenger. Even the best chef makes mistakes, misinterprets directions, over-salts things. Consider the advice you receive carefully, and make sure it resonates with your own vision (this advice included).

*This feature originally appeared at Treehouse Magazine.

Rats, Errata!

As writers, our brains can be our best friends and worst enemies. Our perfectly formed words so often appear mangled only a moment after we hit the submit button. Science assures us this isn’t our fault: our intellects are on autopilot, intercepting our errors before we see them. While this unconscious autocorrect function can be overridden with tricks such as reading aloud, reading backwards, reading in different fonts and formats, even reading in new places (your neighborhood bar or favorite coffee shop), it is almost always easier for other readers to catch your typos.

The same thing is true with worldbuilding and plot. In the same way your copyeditor identifies your finger-flying “teh”s and unintentional homophones, your developmental editor finds the spots where the fully realized world in your mind doesn’t quite make it on to the page. Readers desperately want to be taken somewhere – even if the tale is set just down their own street, but it’s easy to lose pieces of the puzzle as we’re building it. We know our characters intimately, but sometimes we keep too much from the reader and other times we give too much. These problems, again, are a product of our oh-so-helpful brains.

This is why fresh eyes are such an important asset. Every writer needs an editorial collaborator, someone to help us locate the missing puzzle pieces, fill in the holes, and polish our manuscripts to a high shine.– all without losing sight of our original vision.

But how do you find the editor who is right for you?

Writers need different types of editing at different stages. At some point in their drafting process, a writer will most likely benefit from the objective perspective of a content or developmental editor – someone who can analyze your story conceptually and structurally. Later, when the story itself is fully evolved and the manuscript complete, a copy or line editor is needed to comb through the draft to catch any last mistakes.

No matter which type of editor you’re looking for, it is essential that any professional you work with is not only qualified, but also has your best interests in mind. A heart to heart conversation about your work, your expectations, and your goals is a good place to start when looking for an editor. It’s also a good idea to ask for references and a sample chapter edit.

For some additional guidelines, check out these articles: