Monday, January 21, 2008

Coloring Outside the Lines

Missy here. Little Miss Rule Follower. I’ve always been that way, I think. Well, except that one time…

When I was in first grade, I loved my teacher, Mrs. Beach. But one day, she told us it was time to do math. And I didn’t want to do math. So my temper got the best of me, and I stuck my tongue out at her. Oh, the horrors! I remember feeling sick at my stomach as soon as I realized she’d seen me. My first act of rebellion, and I got caught. She wasn’t supposed to see me!

Well, she sat my rear out in the hallway as punishment. I was totally mortified! Especially when my friend, Gwen, who was in the second grade, walked down the hall and spotted me. Now, as I think back to this momentous occasion, I wonder if that’s the day I became a rule follower.

So as a rule follower, when I began writing, I wrote stories that followed the “rules,” the unspoken guidelines I’d learned by osmosis while reading for years and years. And I think that’s a great way to pick it up. Learn to write by reading tons. Once I got in a critique group and started learning to revise, those manuscripts began to final in and win contests (finaled in 11 contests, winning 6 of them). And let me say that I’m talking about category-length manuscripts here, written with reader expectations in mind. It’s what I read. What I loved. What was familiar.

And one of those manuscripts is the first one that sold. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I think for a first-time author, it’s probably the safest way to try to make a sale.

But what about my other manuscript-- my first to (gasp!) break the rules? (I do have to say here that I didn’t set out to break them. I just wrote it the way it came to me, the way God gave it to me, and had fun.) It’s a longer book. Not category length, but 80k words. And because I love to read and write in first person, it’s in first person. But hey, since I was coloring outside the lines, why not do it up good. So I put it in two different first person POV’s. Then I added in a 3rd POV in email format.

So, how would you guess that manuscript did in contests compared to the others? Actually, it did pretty well. It won the Maggie and was my first and only manuscript to final in the Golden Heart. So I think judges liked the fact that it was different. Yet, it’s never sold. And I’ve never been able to pick up an agent for it. It’s just too different to sell, I guess. At least right now with the way the market trends are going. (To be fair, there are other problems with it for the inspirational market.)

I have two friends who, when they decided they wanted to sell books, set out to read and take apart new releases to analyze them. They analyzed the books put out by the publisher/line they wanted to sell to, and figured out what the publisher was looking for.

They followed the rules. And do you know, they both sold to their targeted publishers and have been very successful.

What about you? Do you ever color outside the lines? Or maybe you break the rules every time you write a book? LOL Would you ever consider taking apart a book to see what the publisher is looking for? Or would that kill your creativity?

I’m not saying there’s any right way or wrong way. And I'm not discounting writing the book of your heart. I’m just wondering what you all think about it. Also, do you ever “play with” your contest entries to make them fit a particular contest better?



  1. I didn't have too much success following the "rules." I had better success breaking them. So that's what I"m doing. I think we all need to do what feels natural to us. What evokes the best response from readers. (In my case critique partners.)

  2. What's interesting is that I have cut and tightened a particular entry this weekend to make it fit a contest entry's guidelines and I discovered it was a better msc that way.

    Very scary.

    Okay, I'm an anal rule follower and I like rules followed in the books I read. I like my expectations met.

    Which is what publishers want--to meet reader expectation.

    But don't we all think about those rule breaker books. About writing one of those books that takes off with a life of its own.

    Those are the books that I am sure agents and publishers get very nervous about and yet they go on to eventually win a Pulitzer or Nobel.

  3. Oh, my goodness, I never follow the rules! I know I'm supposed to write a category romance as my first book to sell. But I can't read those books (they're too short, they annoy me--I'm SORRY! I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I've yet to read one I like) and so how could I possibly write one?

    I had no idea when I started my first book about a missionary that missionary stories don't sell well. But I found out fast at my first ACFW conference. Then I started a medieval series, having no idea that medievals don't sell well in the Christian market. I break rules right and left. But was it really because I didn't know the rules? Now that I know the rules, I find that I still can't follow them. Darn. Too bad for me.

  4. And I'm one of those who told Lindi she'd found her voice when she wrote a rule-breaker. :) Thanks for stopping by, Lindi!

    Tina, I'm like you. I love to read and write the rule followers, but I have dreams of writing one that will go sky high. Another thing to think about is that one of the Rule-following books can also take on a life of its own. I'll keep praying for one of those stories that touches readers that much. :)

    LOL, Melanie! Sometimes it's nice just to not know the rules and to have some fun. And you know what, someone will love your out of the box books and will take a chance on them. Just keep trying to find that perfect editor or agent (and entering those contests)!


  5. Melanie, behave yourself and follow the rules!

    Okay, now, when I wrote Petticoat Ranch, when it was all done...keep in mind this was about my fifteenth manuscript and I was still unpublished, I finished and it was winning contests and I was trying to figure out how to sell it, and it just didn't fit anywhere.
    Lots of historical inspy's but more prairie while Petticoat Ranch was more western.
    There was just NO comedy in historicals I could find.
    So it didn't fit.
    Then I read Lori Copeland's Peacemaker, book #1 of her Men of the Saddle Series and it was just there...a comedic romantic western inspy.
    After that I'd pitch my books as in:
    I think this book would appeal to readers who like Lori Copeland's Men of the Saddle Series.

    Never did I say, "I write just like Lori, no, no.

    Anyway, I had just gotten my cover for Petticoat Ranch and I went to a writer's thing and Lori Copeland was there, I'd never met her. I had the cover printed out on a sheet of paper and was carrying it around at this writer's event and I went up to her and said, "I've been using your name to try and get myself published for the last two years."
    Then I whipped out the book cover and said, "And it worked! Thank you!"

    So if you can't write by the rules, find someone else who's been successful in your genre and use their book as a marketing tool.

    But seriously...follow the rules.
    My first sale was and HP.

  6. Gosh, Missy, I am a rule follower, too, first and foremost, so I totally relate. You DO have to follow the rules in submitting to editors, agents or contests.

    But sometimes, when it comes to your heart and after praying it through, you might have to break a few rules. A Passion Most Pure was raked over the coals by various contest judges because it broke a number of cardinal rules. Multiple POVs? Taboo, according to a number of well-meaning judges, but I prayed about it and stayed the course. Another faux pas? Not having a heroine and hero encounter before chapter 3. Whoops!

    So the biggest rule to follow is, in my humble opinion, God's rule -- pray without ceasing!! Especially about your writing! :)

  7. Isn't it true, though, that anytime the public gets wind of a book that's completely "different" everybody wants to read it? I'm thinking of Legend of the Firefish by Polivka, The Restorer by Sharon Hinck, and now Julie Lessman's A Passion Most Pure. Correct me if I'm wrong (it's quite possible I am wrong) but I believe those books all sold very well (Julie's is hot, hot, hot). Readers are always ready for something new, something rule-breaking, ground-breaking, exciting. Oh, I believe in following the rules of good writing. I try my best to learn all the rules I can, the ones that make for a smoother, better read. But I just can't write what everybody else is writing, and follow a formula. I guess it's the rebel in me.

  8. Great topic, Missy. There seems to be a fine line between writing something "different" enough to catch an editor's eye and something that fits neatly enough into their perceived marketable mold. Too much like everything else and they won't buy it. Same if it's too different.

    Personally, after years of struggling with this issue, I'm about ready to cave to "formula" writing just to break in.

  9. Melanie, you little rebel, you! Thanks for the plug, sweetie! :)


  10. Great points, ladies. Try to find your niche and market it like crazy. Pray like crazy, too! And stay encouraged by others who've done well when coloring outside the lines.

    Lots of great ideas here today!


  11. Myra, I think you're right. They may love the different writing, but they can't market it. I also had an agent who wrote so many glowing things about my proposal that I thought she was going to offer representation. But at the end of the letter, she said she was sorry, she didn't think she could find a home for it.

    I think one thing to try might be to find the boundries, then write the most different, most exciting, most larger-than-life characters we can--and then try to set them in a story that fits in those boundries. Does that make any sense? LOL

    You know, we just need to write the stories God give us and wait for His timing. Maybe we're dissecting this too much. :)

    Yes, I'm a control freak, so that's entirely possible.


  12. MYRA SAID: Personally, after years of struggling with this issue, I'm about ready to cave to "formula" writing just to break in.

    Myra, I'd go for it. I actually had a short (if that's possible, written by me!) contemporary started and ready to go because I was getting so frustrated with the historical market. It wasn't exactly what I hoped to write, but the contemporary market was strong, so I wasn't about to quibble.

    I kinda felt like St. Paul when he said "I will be all things to all people for the sake of Christ." Only my take was, "I will be all things to all publishers for the sake of publication. :) Good thing I didn't have to use it -- can't imagine how many R's that would have garnered!!

  13. Missy said: find the boundries, then write the most different, most exciting, most larger-than-life characters we can--and then try to set them in a story that fits in those boundries.

    This advice is right on the money, Missy. It's easier to be a success with something out of the box when you've already proven yourself with formula stuff.

  14. Like Belinda, I just do what comes naturally. Sometimes it might be breaking the rules, and sometimes following them to a "T". Most of the time I don't think about the rules...until somebody points them (broken rules, ect.) out...then, oh my aching head!

  15. Thanks for the read, im not a writer and didn't know there were rules. but i do enjoy reading what you write

  16. I guess I'm a quiet rebel or noisy rule-follower. I'm going to write within the guidelines and within what I see being published today. But I'll find a way to twist it just a bit, somehow.

    Why swim up stream when you can swim downstream with company, just using a slightly different stroke?

    Yet I admire everyone who truly writes unique and different fiction, and gets it published.

  17. I didn't know the rules of fiction when I started my wip. Still have just a hint of them. I've yet to have been to a conference and only recently joined ACFW.

    I have a story in me that has to be told. That's it. Honestly, sometimes I go back and read what I've written and I don't recognize the words. It doesn't seem they came from me. But there they are, and there they belong.

    I am an avid reader, though, and while at first I thought my book was too dark to attract a publisher, I'm starting to have hope — once I learn the rules, that is.

    BTW, I'm reading a classic that broke all the rules. I'm rereading Wilky Collins' "The Moonstone" after reading his "The Lady in White" for the first time. In both books, Collins, a contemporary of Dickens, uses multiple POV, letting each person tell his or her part of the story in chronological order, one picking up where the other left off, returning to someone when his or her storyline picks back up.

    "The Moonstone" was written in 1868, made Collins, along with Poe, the father of the modern detective story and is still required reading in many schools.

    And unlike many "classics," "The Moonstone" was wildly popular when it was published, with everyone from aristocracy to the household help devouring it.

    Sometimes it pays to break the rules.

  18. Jenny, I'm glad you stopped by! We love having non-writers here. :)

    Patricia, I loved what you said!(quote: Why swim up stream when you can swim downstream with company, just using a slightly different stroke?) So insightful!

    Melanie, if you have a story in you dying to be told, then that's what you need to tell. One thing I know editors can see is a story that has heart. I've noticed while judging in contests when something feels flat. And I can tell when someone loves their story and is excited about it. So go for that story while it's buring! And don't think about rules.

    One last thought on the subject, then I'm going to quit for the night. :) I think it might not be a bad idea to write that story the way it comes to us. Then if it doesn't sell in that format, we can consider revising it to better fit the market. That way the heart is in it from the beginning. Don't let your internal editor be in the rough draft process!

    Okay, I'm tired. My daughter, post-surgery, wore me slap out today. (Yes, Ruthy, that's a nice southernism for you.) :)


  19. Missy,
    I've been doing as many interviews as I can on my fiction blog lately, and without exception I think writers are really seeking God as to what they are writing. It is amazing and encouraging to "hear" so many people tell me that what they are writing is bathed in prayer.

    The market has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, and I'm so excited to see it grow and change! There are so many more books to enjoy - so many styles to choose from! Yet when you ask the author about their find them seeking God and praying for direction! That's what it's all about...His rules!

    He sure is writing some great stories isn't He? ;-)


  20. I'm not "up on the rules" but am trying to keep my eyes open and learn what they are. I've been called a "little miss goody two shoes" so maybe that means I stay within lines. The first piece I wrote, the words flowed onto the computer screen. Soft spoken instructions came into my head as the words were typed down so I backspaced and corrected those spots. An author friend of mine said I should start a book of devotionals and suggested I get into some places that can guide me to learn. Thanks for all your tips and discussions.

  21. Kim, I just visited your blog. It's great!

    Pam, I hope you'll go for writing that devotional book! We'd love to help any way we can, even if by our crazy conversations! :)

  22. LOL, Missy! You? Break rules? Oooo, I'm gonna tell Mama : )

    Great point about learning the rules though. There was a great quote I once read (can't remember who said it, sorry!)

    *Learn the rules well enough so you can break them properly*

    Funny thought, but so true! The human mind expects a certain continuity in a novel. If we learn the proper path, all the landslides, erosion and flash floods we heap in are the fun part : )

    Good, good concept, Missy!

  23. I'm more of an inventor than a follower. But I think the rules are a great way of protecting us. I think it's important to know the rules (still learning them) and when to bend them (just like life.) I think we need to follow the SPIRIT of the rule rather than the legal jargon. So sometimes that means the rule has to fit your manuscript and not the other way around:-)

  24. Missy, now that I've read your post, maybe I could write a book. I'm the kind of person to sit down and just write a book without reading all the "how to" books. I'm a learn-by-doing type of person. I'd rather write a bunch of manuscripts and have judges explain to me what needs to be different. That's how my brain works. I just have to commit and dive into it.


  25. Mimi,

    There's definitely a lot to be said for jumping in and just writing. Do that over and over, and it's a great way to learn. Especially, like you said, with feedback from contests and such.

    So go for it! :)


  26. I don't know any rules, but it is very interesting to learn. I have always thought of ideas to write a book. Maybe one day I will. Thanks I will continue to read all your tips and discussions.
    TK vcw1476 at gmail dot com

  27. What's funny is I didn't know I was breaking any rules. I've always been creative and decided to turn that creativity toward writing. I had three MS's I'd been working on but decided to start fresh when I decided to actually try and publish something. I write as a Christian so everything I write potrays that. I got my work professionally edited before submitting and also put together a professional query. (that meaning I didn't make it up myself.) I was amazed to find out after getting a Christian publisher fifteen minutes after I queried them that Fantasy was supposedly so hard to sell in the Christian market. I've found nothing to be further from the truth. You just have to submit to publishers who want your type of story. I had tons more lined up if the one that took me on had decided not to. I think it's less about breaking the rules and more about doing a little research. But that's just my opinion. :)

  28. Sue, that's a great point. Sometimes we let the "rules" keep us from writing a story that God has called us to write. We need to take risks and to write what we enjoy.

    Congrats on your story!