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Writing rules.


This might be a rant. I haven’t had one for a while, so that’s no bad thing. Anyhow, this blog is about what we’re told we can and can’t do as writers and why, actually, it might not be good advice.

Writing is a funny old conundrum. It’s a business, at one end of the spectrum, and a creative endeavour at the other, and sometimes the two struggle to meet.

When I first started to write, I didn’t give much thought to the market for my story. I assumed it was the sort of thing I would like to read, so there must be one. It was later that I discovered there were all sorts of rules and strictures about the book you write.

I took them all terribly seriously at first. I tried to meet them all. I turned myself in knots forcing my story into the convenient boxes the marketing side of writing wanted, and out of the story-driven ways my creative side demanded. It was exhausting and tiring and – wait for it – got me nowhere. At all.

Here, along the way, was the sort of advice I tried to live up to:

A first novel shouldn’t top 120,000 words for Space Opera. My debut topped that – because my editor wanted more. Not a single reader has commented the book is too long.

A novel can’t straddle young adult and adult: it must be clearly one or the other (now crossover is back in vogue, so it's okay again). 

This piece of advice took up three years of my life, between getting an agent (so many refused because of my adult/young adult narrative structure), then seeking a publisher. The book didn’t sell. I brought it out myself, in a version that totally straddles the two markets and it's getting amazing reviews and selling well. Not a single reader has mentioned that there is an adult/young adult combination in it. Not a single person in the market cares. Amazon are happy with where to stock it – on the sci-fi shelf. So are the bookstores who carry it. No one is confused.

There are other rules, of course, but this blog isn’t just about my personal experience. It’s a plea for all the writers who are jumping through hoops, trying to do what the industry asks to the detriment of the story.

Just stop. Write your story. Its time will come. 

When I started Abendau’s Heir, Space Opera was out of vogue. No one wanted a big old space epic. By the time it was picked up, everyone was looking for Space Opera. Inish Carraig was the other way around – when I wrote it everyone wanted dystopian (not that it strictly is, but it has that feel) and, by the time I subbed, no one did. 

But it’s selling. The readers don’t care about the number of books out this year, or whether a story conflicts with another. They just want a darn good story.

Write your story. Write it as it should be. Don’t believe all that you’re told. Because a good story trumps all (Patrick Rothfuss, anyone?) This is not a market where the hoops have to be jumped through to be published anymore. This is a world where you can publish yourself, where myriad small publishers take the stuff that the bigger publishers believe they can’t sell. It’s a world where if an agent tells you to change your story for the market, you can choose not to. 

We’re luckier than we ever be – so why not challenge the norms that have encased us? 

My big old Space Opera can be found here:

And my YA/adult crossover here:


Razib Ahmed said…
Thanks a lot for your tips. What I feel now is that most of us start writing with a sense of joy and optimism. However, as time goes on, we start to become frustrated and leave trying too soon. We lose hope.
Joanne Zebedee said…
I think there are times when you just have to hang tough and seek cake. :)

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