Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 13, 2015

Breaking the Law in Fiction

Heather Webb

Heather Webb SmilingAs a novice writer, especially one in search of an agent, we swallow every writing and industry rule hook, line, and sinker. It’s understandable when we’re dying to get our foot in the door. And sure, most of those standards exist for a reason, but those books that break out, usually SHATTER the laws of fiction.

I’ve stomped all over plenty of rules myself. For example--

MY FIRST NOVEL WAS NOT A TRUNK NOVEL: I’ve heard this about a million times from so many sources: teachers, writers, agents. The advice out there says to write a novel, (or 500,000 words worth of manuscripts), and stash those books in a drawer because those words are sub-par. Your craft is sure to be riddled with newbie mistakes and a total p.o.s. in the plot and structure department. But that may or may not be true. The very first novel I ever wrote was agented and published. In my case, I refused to put that book away until I GOT IT RIGHT. Granted, I rewrote that bad boy about a million times, but it can be done. It HAS been done. Don’t let that rule scare you. Do the work and be tenacious!

I WROTE A HISTORICAL IN FIRST PERSON: Gasp! There’s a lot of shuddering when that happens among the literarti and historical fiction crowd. “Serious fiction”, after all, is written in third person, or so I’ve been told over coffee from a “friend” with an elegant sneer on his face (and plenty of “experts” in literature). Also not true. I could list a dozen wonderful historicals off the top of my head that were written in first person, or a dozen wonderful novels in other categories including GONE GIRL, among many others. This rule is a ridiculous assertion. All POVs have their limitations and issues. If it suits your story, press on!

I SKIPPED TIME PERIODS: My first novel took place during the French Revolution and for my second novel, I fast-forwarded in time an entire century to the Belle Époque era. This is another thing frowned upon, as many historical novelists conquer an era and become the expert of that time. I, on the other hand, relish the challenge and excitement of discovering new eras, people, events. (Or maybe I’m a glutton for punishment and need to STEP AWAY from the research books.) The other issue with jumping ahead is that publishers like to group your books by theme and dates. In any case, I blew the lid off that one.

I TOSSED ASIDE BIOGRAPHICALS, GOING ALL-FICTION: My first two novels are biographical fiction and not because it was a trend or because they were someone’s wife or lover. I just happened to love the two women I wrote about for a million reasons. Now, I find myself in uncharted territory. I’m going all fiction in a historical setting. Am I nervous? Sure. Is it a risk? Definitely. But I refuse to be pigeonholed into a narrow category if it doesn’t jive with my vision. If a publisher doesn’t buy my next book, then what, you ask? The answer is simple. I’m a writer. I write another book because I MUST. My need to write is a sickness and a cure all in one. I’ll carry on, quill in hand.

Are we seeing a theme here?

Publishers need to take a risk themselves—go out on a limb and invest in a book—and beautiful writing will tempt them to do so. Write your books. Make them beautiful. Follow your vision and your instincts. At the end of the day, we’re individuals and what’s so dadgum amazing about books in the first place is how they are all so different, and more importantly, how they bring up questions of human nature which challenge us to change, evolve, and revolt if necessary. So buck the system.


What rules have you broken, for better or worse?

About Heather

Cover 1- hdHeather Webb writes historical novels for Penguin and HarperCollins,which have been translated to three languages and have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan magazine, France magazine, and Reuters News Book Talk. BECOMING JOSEPHINE follows the life and times of Josephine Bonaparte set to the backdrop of the French Revolution, and RODIN’S LOVER released Jan 27th, chronicles the passionate and tragic story of Camille Claudel, sculptor, collaborator, and lover to the famed Auguste Rodin. A FALL OF POPPIES releases in 2016.

Heather is also a freelance editor and contributor to award-winning writing sites WriterUnboxed.com and RomanceUniversity.org. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

Twitter: @msheatherwebb


35 comments on “Breaking the Law in Fiction”

  1. Love your blog and it is so true. I broke some rules as well - I wrote my first book in the first person for eight different characters - and it worked! I wrote my second novel in first person and third person and the third novel in first person for two and the antagonist in third. All NO NOs!!!! I self-published the lot of them and am on my fourth.

    Yes, you are so right - I have to write with passion - sights sounds and smells - the reader has to be standing right behind my left shoulder seeing what I am seeing, smelling what I am smelling and listening in to every word my characters say 🙂

  2. I don't know that I've bucked rules, but I wrote a paranormal romance when everyone said the paranormal market was dead. Not only that, it wasn't even trendy for paranormal--no vampires or werewolves or demons to be found in it. And that book got me an agent and a NYC publishing contract. For a series!

    I hadn't heard that about first person being 'unliterary' and it gave me a tiny jolt of fear when I read that, I must admit. I just started a book using first person with alternating first person POVs. Yikes! But,it fits my story and I'm running with it. And GONE GIRL was the best book I read in 2015.

    Thanks, Heather! I'm going to take courage about my WIP from this post.

    1. Your reply was heartening, Debbie. I'm working on the finishing touches of my paranormal romance and was told by an agent at a "pitch" session that the genre was not selling anymore, to take out all of the paranormal facets and rework it. I haven't because I love it as is. So far, no bites though. I'm probably going to end up self-publishing.

      1. Ohh, that sounds like a fun book. I'm writing about an Italian housekeeper and her grammar is not what's acceptable in normal speech, either—but it's a change and fun to write.

    2. Keep at it, ladies. There ARE books out there that don't conform and there are tons of readers who look for those books. The good news is that with the various publishing opportunities these days, these "different" books can find a way into the world.

    3. Debbie, that's fantastic. I get annoyed when anyone says "oh, that's so dead" because what they really mean is" "if you write well and your concept is original than we'll sell this puppy", otherwise, need not apply.

      As for the first person, I've heard it many, many times, but you know what? It's being blown to smithereens all over the place so keep at and follow your gut on that one. The book I'm working on now is, once again, in first.

  3. Hi Heather! I don't know about what rules I may or may not have broken, though I am writing a historical women's fiction in first person about a famous woman, which is indeed a thrill and challenge rolled together. Like Debbie, I wrote a paranormal that is set in a haunted plantation, no shifters, or weres, or demons to be seen. Loved Becoming Josephine, too!

    1. Thanks, Betty! There's something interesting happening. I just saw agent Sara Crow talking about it on Twitter the other day. She said paranormal and fantasy is a tough sell in some ways, but when it sells, it still sells big! She just sold a series at auction. She and I conversed about how there's a huge audience for it, but New York had their fill of it for awhile. I suspect it will come back with a vengeance soon because there's a large reader base that still really, really wants to read it. Keep at it!

  4. Heather, this is so refreshing! All things have rules, we know that, but if we learn the craft well, we also learn that rules can be broken, changed and even made better in some cases—everything except good grammar—good grammar will always rule! 🙂
    Thanks for a liberating article!

  5. I joined a local RWA chapter when I began writing and they told me they didn't like my hero--but he wasn't the hero. They said the first man on scene was "supposed" to be the hero. I also didn't know that in a romance (unless you're JD Robb), you can't have the same h/h protagonists, so my second Pine Hills Police book picked up with the same two characters three months after the first one ended.

    1. Yes, writing genre romance is tough. There are loads of rules, unfortunately, and they're difficult to break because romance readers really expect certain things to happen by XX page in a novel and publishers ensure it. That being said, there are loads of new presses and lots of options for romance writers these days in terms of "digital first" publishers and other things. Keep writing what you love, make it good, and check into these options. There are a lot out there! You'll find your way.

  6. Right on, Sista! I did the same with my first novel (though it wasn't my first published). Rewrote 8,423 times (or maybe it just seemed like it). I wrote romance with a hero who cheated, and now am jumping genres.

    I'm like you - if I can do it, it's too easy. On to the next challenge! You go, Heather!

    1. Laura, didn't you win a Rita last year? I'm pretty sure I saw you in a sparkly gown at RWA nationals last year. 🙂 No more romance for you? Or are you jumping sub-genres?

  7. Stretching is what it's all about. I admire your jumps and successes with writing and publishing. I've always admired Rainbow Rowell for the same thing - I want to grow up to be like y'all.

    1. Thank you so much, Janet! I work my very hardest, in spite of the suffering along the way, and I'm pleased with how things are going thus far. There's so much left ahead! Rainbow Rowell is incredibly gifted. I adore her writing.

  8. Good for you for writing historical fiction from first person. 😀 The three books I've read by Michelle Moran have all been in first person, too. She's written about ancient Egypt, Rome, and pre-British India. Have you read her work?

    Oh yes, I broke a big-time rule while working on my fantasy WIP: I wrote it without being 100% sure whether it was meant for a YA audience or adults. But I couldn't let that stall me; I just knew that the story needed to be told. I've since figured out who might be the best fit for it audience-wise (YA), and forging ahead despite the uncertainty might have helped me avoid certain all-too-common tropes that keep cropping up in the genre.

    Fantastic article, Heather. I'm definitely going to share this on Twitter when I have a chance! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Sara! And yes, I've read several of Michelle's books. She's a favorite writer of mine, in fact. 🙂 I adored her MADAME TUSSAUD and plan to read REBEL QUEEN shortly. Write on!

  9. Loved, absolutely loved your article, Heather.

    I'm an unpublished writer who's breaking rules. My nine-year-old protagonist has terrible grammar and her story is aimed at adult audiences. 😉 She's has a serious midland rural dialect. With the help of critique partners & teachers, I've dialed the dialect back enough to just give her speech a flavorful non-grammatical hint. She needs to be different from all the middle class kids & adults she's surrounded by, and I've chosen her dialect as one way to do that.

    And yes, I'm rewriting it for the one millionth plus time.

    Some day I hope to return to this blog and announce I've found that mythical agent and publisher who are willing to take a chance on my book.

    1. I hope to see you announce your good news, too, Carlene! Keep the faith. Publishing is a game of the last man standing. Show them your strength and your talent! I'm so glad the article spoke to you.

  10. You're such a kickass bad girl, Heather. Which is perfect. I mean, who wants prim and proper in their historical fiction? Not this guy. Keep breaking the rules and pushing the boundaries, my friend!

    1. Ha ha! Well, I don't know about being a badass as I take it on the chin often, believe me, but I know one truth is more powerful than any others--I have to follow my path, not someone else's. Looking forward to seeing you here shortly, V!

  11. Cheers to breaking some rules and following what your heart - and head - tells you is the right approach for your writing! Thanks for a great post, Heather!!

  12. I stepped outside the "accepted norms" for paranormal romance. Invented a quirky family of vampire-human hybrids, who could very well be your "next-door neighbors." No warring factions, no werewolves, no shape-shifters, no demons, or any other creatures. The slogan for my Blood & Company Series is: "With every bite, a different love story." So far, the reviews are mixed...but at least I wrote the stories I needed to tell.

    1. That's a must--telling stories we need to tell. Keep experimenting and pushing yourself until you hit what really works for you and your readers. You'll get there! 🙂

  13. I think the rules are sometimes like "Keep Out" signs. There are so many rules in science fiction writing, and there's been a lot of buzz about female writers trying to "break down the barriers." Maybe that means we're breaking the rules!

    Thanks for a timely post, Heather.

    1. Yes!!! BREAK THOSE RULES! I think women are shaking up the sci-fi genre quite a bit these days and it needed to happen. I'm wishing you much luck!

  14. I often think that one of the advantages of being new to something is that you're not yet aware of the 'rules' and so you blindly go ahead and break them. It's not until someone says, "you can't do that." that you find out about the barriers that are in place. And of course the reply should always be, "well...why not?"

  15. Hi Heather! Great post. I have a couple of novels that are "in the drawer" -- for now. They are like cantankerous children that I just cannot give up on. Hopefully, they will see the light of day once again. Meanwhile, I am working on the children that are a bit more mature and polished! Thanks for the words of wisdom.

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