Waiting for "The Call"

“Honey, it’s always crap. Every book I write is crap. It’s my job to fix the crap afterwards,” according to Nora Roberts. Well, I've got it half right. Still working on the "fixing it" part. "Trust your characters to be complex enough and to have enough emotional baggage. Force them to make hard choices." Advice from Michelle Styles that might help!

A cheat post- Rules or instinct? August 23, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 8:50 pm
Tags: , ,

Sounds a bit like those “Plotter or Pantser” discussions, doesn’t it.

The wonderful Aideen Taylor wrote a blog post on Intuition, among other things, on Seven Sassy Sisters. I got a bit carried away with my reply, and as I have been a bad blooger and haven’t posted for a while, I’m cheating. This post is the reply. Sorry if you’ve read it before!

There’s a tricky balance in writing between instinct and “following the rules”.

Following our writing instinct without regard for the rules can lead to a writing disaster. I have several hot messes of stories to prove that! But following the rules without regard for individual instinct leads to dull, lifeless stories, devoid of voice. I have several other stories where I focused so hard on getting the framework right the charactacters are cardboard cut outs stiffly going through the motions.

Intuition and instinct aren’t completely interchangeable. Instinct is what is completely internal to the individual. Instinct bypasses thought, it comes from an earlier more emotional part of the brain. Studies on intuition show it’s something quite different.

The studies I’ve read were based on nurses and doctors. We work a lot on intuition, then we try to find the science to back it up. Like House with his brilliant intuitive leaps in diagnosis, or the nurse who “knows” that particular patient is going to tank and need extra intervention, even though right now they seem totally fine. Reseach has shown that what feels to be pure instinct, gut feeling, is actually a very high level of learning and experience. It looks and feels like magic when it happens, but it’s not magic. More like alchemy- a deep knowing of the “rules” mixed with close observation and a touch of instinct, transformed into something that works brilliantly.

I think that’s what we need in our writing, what Aideen is referring to when she talks about intuition. An internalisation of the rules of romance so they feel part of us, part of who we are as a writer, mixed with enough courage, knowledge of our characters, and faith in ourselves to know when to break or bend the rules.

The rules say the story must be focused on the two central characters. The rules say there need to be external forces that push the characters together (and a strong dose of attraction doing the same), and internal psychological and emotional forces keeping them apart. The rules say everything the characters try to do to fix the story problem should make things get progressively worse until the Black Moment. The rules say the Happy Ever After can’t be brought about by external forces, it must come from change within the characters. Some of these rules I think can be broken. It has to be what is right for the characters, and what is right for this individual story. The writer has to use their intuition.

The one I’ve read so many times in “how to write” books, is the progressive worsening until the black moment, the worst possible outcome. My last story, and the story I’m working on now, both break that one, and I’ve read plenty of published stories that do too. In both, there’s a place about three quarters of the way into the story, where all looks fine. The characters are together, and it looks like it might work out. Except the reader and at least one of the characters know that’s not the case. Their time together might be time-limited and the deadline is approaching. There might be a big untold secret that’s going to blow everything apart once it comes to light. There might be a ticking time-bomb of relationship issues within one character that the reader knows is going to go off. I like this set-up, because the fact it was almost working out makes the pain of the black moment ever sharper. That to me is an example of breaking the rules the right way, of the writer knowing what is best for her story.

The other rules? If the story isn’t focused on the relationship, it may still be a darned good story, but it’s not category romance, it’s single title or some other genre. If the resolution doesn’t come about through action and change on the part of both the characters, if it’s external things that bring the character together, or only one character changes, that’s a rule I hate to see broken, no matter what the genre. For me, a story is only satisfying when they earn their HEA. But we’ve all read published stories that break the rules. That’s where author voice comes in. Some writers can pull off the most ludicrous scenarios, break all the rules, have totally unconvincing HEAs, and we still read them and go back for more.

It takes a subtle combination of rules and voice to write a good romance. “Intuition” , I think, is really the writer’s confidence to follow her voice even if it means breaking the rules.

But yes, she needs to know the rules in the first place to break them successfully.


10 Responses to “A cheat post- Rules or instinct?”

  1. Minka's Tail Says:

    I’m a lurker, only posted once last year, I think. I’m a recent rejectee from the fast track, and I’m a little annoyed. In fact, I sent another one off, using my nomdeplume (sp). I want to see if I get the exact same e-mail back from them.

    Harlequin has a lot of rules, and they are not always open about them–which is fine, it’s a business after all. They don’t have to reveal their market research to a bunch of wannabe writers. But I wonder how many books with “weak character development” and “too much external conflict” are really rejected because the prince was Polish and only Greek, Middle Eastern or Italians are in. Or because the woman was 38 and has to be under 32 in that series. But they don’t tell you that, even in the guidelines (some lines are better than others.)

    I think what you refer to as instinct is what I would call “writing something you like and think is good, even if it differs from every other book in the series.”

    Anyway, good luck. I enjoy your blog.

  2. Jane Holland Says:

    The big issue is not whether this theory is right – because it is – but how a writer gets to the point where they have so totally absorbed the rules that they can break them and the story still works. And how they can be sure they are at that point and not merely deluding themselves, thinking a rule-break has worked when it hasn’t.

    One problem is that we learn so much from each published book – far more so than with the unpublished ones – that it’s almost impossible for an unpublished writer to have genuinely reached that point and be able to say with any confidence, ‘I know enough now to break the rules and get away with it.’

    And yet, the Catch-22 is, if you can’t at least reach for that confidence while still unpublished, you’re unlikely to ever write well enough to get an editor’s attention.

    So breaking the rules is about chutzpah. It’s about developing a certain audacity as a writer, even before you’ve ‘earned’ it.

    Good luck with that. Jx

  3. waitingforthecall Says:

    Hi Minka’s Tail, no “only” about lurking- I remember when you commented last time!

    So sorry you had an R, it hurts like hell, doesn’t it?

    I’m madly trying to finish a sub for the fast Track (dead line midnight tonight), but I’m almost certain that if I sub what I have I’ll get an R. My synopsis is good, but the I seem to have to write my way into the story and edit out loads later, and I just don’t have time for the process. My first chapter is seriously clunky!

    Breaking in as a new writer is tricky, for a lot of reasons, I think. There are rules, but new voices that can both play within the rules and occasionally break them in ways that work seems to be what the editors are looking for. They are very open that to get accepted, new writers have to be better than the existing writers.

    They are using more Eastern European heroes, and there’s a range of heroine ages, though it seems some lines are more open to that than others. Your comment about “Write what you think is good, even if it differs from every other book in the series” is interesting. I tthink that’s exactly what they are looking for! But it’s got to be different enough to catch tgherir eye, but still conform to the reader expectations for the line to fit in. Tricky!

    Good luck with your writing! Really, all we can do is keep reading, keep writing, and learn from each story we write. Fingers crossed we’ll get there one day!

  4. waitingforthecall Says:

    Well said, Jane!

    I think critique partners are a good reemedy for self-delusion, to catch it before the editors do the job for us with a rejection!

  5. Susan Wilson Says:

    I am another that frets over the rules of what works and what doesn’t work. I also cringe when I hear that they are looking for something “fresh” my experience is fresh = rejection. Best of luck with your fast track submission and Minka’s tail sorry to hear about your R, it will be interesting to hear if you get something different using your other name, come back and tell us!

  6. Jinky Says:

    Random tidbit: there was actually a study back in 2005-2006 in either Psychology Today or Science Daily about how writers have larger frontal lobes (and increased planning, critical thinking, reasoning, and communication skills), not because they read a lot or write a lot, but because they think about writing a lot. And thinking about writing, at least for the brain, is as effective practice for writing as writing, itself. So by even having this conversation about the “rules” of writing and how and when to break them, we’re all teaching ourselves to look for rules to break and ways to break them.

    Cool, right?

    Anyway, this afternoon, I bought a changing table and tried to put it together myself. Turns out I missed a few steps, because I had four wooden dowels when I was done that I now realize I should’ve put somewhere along the top rail. This isn’t a big deal, though, because the dowels aren’t securing anything structural. Even though I deviated from the instructions, it still looks like, and will function as, a changing table.

    The same couldn’t be said if I’d put the legs on backwards or used the wrong kind of screw. If I’d done those things, the changing table would be uneven, unsafe, and therefore not a changing table.

    So…..the way I see it, the “rules” of writing—even writing category romance—are a lot like building that changing table. The instructions are intended to be helpful, but they’re not set in stone. How you build a story isn’t important, as long as the outcome is what’s it’s supposed to be. It’s not so much intuition as it is a deeper understanding of what purpose the rules serve, and how to achieve the same result in a different way.

    Like taking a different route to the grocery store, for example.

  7. waitingforthecall Says:

    Hi Susan! I think whether “fresh” leads to a request for more or a rejection is what’s meant by those dreaded words “It’s all in the execution”.
    The editors say “They’ll know it when they see it.” It’s about voice really, something intangible and innate to us. The good news is that we can develop voice through practice, while slavishly following the rules tends to stifle it. So any R’s for being the wrong sort of fresh can hopefully be stepping stones to the right sort!

  8. waitingforthecall Says:

    Hi Jinky! Yes, I remember reading about that. And a football team that mentally practiced the moves instead of spending more time out on the field training, and did a lot better.
    Your changing table analogy is a good one. The base needs to be solid, and that’s where following the rules counts the most. What we put on top can be more freeform, the rules are less important there.

  9. Lindsey Hughes Says:

    The more I read (4-5+ MBs + a week) the more I realise how often the ‘big names’ break the rules on everything from backstory to crowds of secondary characters etc. I hope one day to delight in breaking a few rules myself but in the meantime will have to content myself with toeing the line.

  10. waitingforthecall Says:

    Same here. Lindsay! I think part of the discipline of learning craft is writing within the “rules”. Once we can do that well, we are skilled enough to break them successfully.

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