Wednesday, 12 April 2017

11 Things I Learned in Malta about Writing - 6 Rules are Made to be Broken

On a 2014 holiday in Malta I saw many things that could help me with my writing. I will be sharing one each week. Here is point 6 I learned:

Rules are made to be broken


In Malta they drive on the left and have similar rules to Britain – in theory. In reality the roads are narrow and the drivers are crazy. Coming back from an excursion I sat behind the coach driver, and it was hair-raising. Even when not negotiating narrow roads and tight bends, we seemed to spend most of the time on the wrong side of the road. I don’t know how we didn’t hit something.

Some rules about writing have to be kept, like spelling and grammar, but rules on the structure of a novel are much less rigid. You need a lot of skill to break them and still be a success, but they will bend a long way. Don’t be afraid to find unconventional solutions to plot points. If it means your traditional three act format turns into four acts, it needn’t be a problem.

My desk

My desk

There must be hundreds of books about writing, and they all have their own list of rules you must obey to write a good novel. If you read them all you wouldn’t have time to do any writing! And if you tried to obey all the rules you would be so restricted, you wouldn’t be able to write anyway.

There are two sides to writing – the art and the craft. The art is the creative part, when you take your inspiration and get the ideas down. At that stage the rules can be ignored. You don’t have to know the correct terms for things, or even the correct spelling. Use place holders, like [square brackets] to mark where you need to check or do research later. Don’t interrupt your train of thought, just be creative.

Author Brandon Sanderson said, ‘In working with students, I’ve come to believe that relying too much on tools, schema, or archetypes when writing can easily lead to wooden stories. However, not understanding your process – and the tools you’re using – can leave you in a very difficult position when something isn’t working and you can’t explain why. Writer’s block as a whole seems to have some roots in this conflict.’ (Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology)

Once you have captured your creative ideas, then comes the craft. Then you need to be aware of the rules. You need to use correct terms and correct spelling. You need to look for plot holes and inconsistencies. You need to think about the structure of your novel.

There are authors who have written successful novels which broke some serious rules: Georges Perec, one of the originators of oulipo wrote an entire novel, translated into English by Gilbert Adair as The Void, without using the letter E, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude has no plot (I didn’t like it). It’s much safer to stick to some rules, but don’t think there is a formula for a successful novel. If there was, we would all be using it!

The important thing is to know why you are breaking rules, so you can make your case to an agent, a publisher, or the reading public. 

Ann Marie Thomas is the author of three medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at

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