by Mary Marvella Barfield

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Marvella who learned to read. Other children around her learned to read, but Marvella was different from most of the children. Marvella loved to read so much she could never be seen without her nose in a book.

Well, Marvella read novels, lots of them. She read the classics. Some of the books she read weren't classics then, but they are now.

Marvella loved to tell stories, too. She still tells stories. Now she writes them. She enjoyed writing them until she learned that there so many rules.

Here the fairytale veers off and the real world intrudes.

Who makes the rules?

Publishers have rules and they are entitled to decide what they will buy. Some rules are stated in their guidelines and some are known only by the editors who offer the contracts we all covet.

Are there other rules? I hear them all the time. They refer to things writers cannot do in their books. Some are made by other writers. They can knock a writer and the fairytale princess from her tower. They would surely keep a prince from rescuing the princess if the prince doesn't follow those rules.

If you have stories to tell, you can try to learn all the rules or you can tell your stories the way you need to tell them.

What if you are one of the writers whose stories and styles don't fit the rules? Learn who made the rules. It the rules are publisher or genre rules, follow them or you won't sell to those publishers or in that genre.

If the rules are made by other writers, you should do with them what you can. You might consider them suggestions. Some can be helpful and strengthen your writing while others will stifle you.

Keep in mind that not all readers like to read the same books or the same authors. I say this because I am a reader as well as a writer. Write what you like to read. If your goal is about selling, you need to spend more time learning the rules and how you can follow them. Just be sure the rules are made by people who can publish your books.

If you write because you have stories you must tell, write them. Keep looking for the publisher who sells the kind of stories you like to write. Trends come and go. The books you can't sell today might fit a new trend in the future or even break ground for a new trend.

Keep in mind that we write stories for readers and for ourselves.

I am still a reader and I don't read by rules.

How do you feel about the people who judge our stories by rules.


  1. Nightingale // September 22, 2009 at 11:06 AM  

    I agree with you about being careful whose rules you accept and whose you reject. My stories usually cross genres and thereby break the rules. But cross genre is now becoming popular (I hope!)

  2. Judy // September 22, 2009 at 11:39 AM  

    Hi, Mary! Good post! It's interesting to hear people talk about the rules of writing. I've heard many publishers and published authors ask who's making up the rules??? Publishers may have guidelines; that is to be expected and honored. But writers who insist on hero and heroine meeting by a certain timeline often are imposing "rules" that are not rules, after all, but what they might have heard at a conference or as an aside. We writers are always told write the story of your heart! And that remains the only "rule" I follow. Good writing with all its hooks etc is good writing not writing by rules.

  3. Pamela Varnado // September 22, 2009 at 11:39 AM  

    In my first draft I write the story that's inside me, regardless of the rules, then when I go back for edits I'm aware of what's acceptable in the genre. When I first started writing the "rules" were like my bible, every rule had to be followed. Now I see the error of my ways. Rules are there for a reason, but under certain circumstances it's okay to break them.

  4. Mary Ricksen // September 22, 2009 at 11:54 AM  

    I know just what you mean. Not following the rules can get you rejected pretty darn quick...
    I have a friend in NY who is an English professor. She cringes as what some of the rules are and she is not the only one prevented from selling because she follows the traditional rules.
    But you never know, do you!

  5. Mary Ricksen // September 22, 2009 at 11:55 AM  

    I have to admit, I did my best to follow the rules to get published. But in a few years the book is mine again and I have the original!

  6. Mary Marvella // September 22, 2009 at 2:42 PM  

    i love how that works, Linda1

  7. Mary Marvella // September 22, 2009 at 2:45 PM  

    So right, Judy! I had one contest judge who quoted category rules for 8 typed pages as the reason she hated my well written single title romance. It was really a women's fiction but had a satisfactory ending and tons of love. Heroine too old at 40, etc.

  8. Mary Marvella // September 22, 2009 at 2:47 PM  

    Pam, too safe is boring! Your writing is good enough that you don't need to make the "rules" all important.

  9. Mary Marvella // September 22, 2009 at 2:50 PM  

    Mary, some rules you follow because they are just good writing. Some folks think bad grammar is voice. NOT! See, I do believe in some rules. And yes, I'm a traditionalist and proud of it.

  10. Mona Risk // September 22, 2009 at 3:02 PM  

    Unfortunately, or fortunately thetre are rules for everything in the world. Otherwise chaos reigns. We teach your children rules before they can talk even. Don't touch the stove or you'll get burned, until you learn to use it right. Drive on the right side of the road or you'll cause an accident. If you have rules everywhere in life, at work, in sport, at home, at school, why wouldn't you have rules in writing a novel? When you talk would you allow someone to yell at you because she feels like it? Rules don't eliminate creativity. It just helps prevent anarchy and mess.

  11. Mary Marvella // September 22, 2009 at 3:24 PM  

    Real rules are good and necessary, Mona, I agree. Remember the one about wearing white after Labor Day or black shoes with a brown dress? Good rule or bad? kids and adults break rules and get in trouble or cause it. Wearing white shoes after Labor Day not a real rule.

  12. Scarlet Pumpernickel // September 22, 2009 at 7:52 PM  

    I guess my attitude is it depends on who made the rule and how it will impact the outcome of a submission. If following a certain rule will get me closer to selling, then yep, I'm all for it. If the rule is just to prove you can boss folks around and doesn't help move the author toward selling, then nope, don't care for it. I guess it's a matter of power. He who holds the power can make the rules.

  13. Mary Marvella // September 22, 2009 at 8:46 PM  

    Right, Scarlet. editors and agents make the ones I'll follow. For writing contests, genre rules and the ones on the score sheets are important.

  14. Barbara Monajem // September 22, 2009 at 10:35 PM  

    I see the rules more as guidelines, and there are two kinds. Some are craft-related and some are generated by publishers. I think most writers, at least at first, benefit by following or at least experimenting with the guidelines we are exposed to in books and workshops. There are bound to be a few people out there with so much natural genius that they don't need guidelines, but that doesn't apply to most of us! Experimenting with the guidelines shows us what works for us, what stifles us, and so on.

    The problem with publisher-generated guidelines is that they may change by the time your book is written and submitted. It's better to concentrate on writing a really, really good book -- the best you can do -- and then, if a publisher buys it and wants it to conform a little more to the rules, they'll ask for revisions.

  15. Joanne // September 24, 2009 at 3:03 PM  

    Once upon a time there were rules...and there still are. I find that when I first started to write I wasn't aware of the rules, then I became too aware, and now I'm more relaxed when I write. So I guess I came full circle.