The Siren Call of Rules

Once upon a time, I took the opening pages of one of my middle-grade novels to a critique session. A critiquer told me that middle grade stories had to start with the protagonist’s point of view, and mine did not so that was an ISSUE. Do you hear, an ISSUE!

Yes, she was quite fierce about it.

I dutifully wrote down the feedback, while at the same time a less generative part of me really, really, really wanted to roll my eyes one hundred eighty-nine degrees and say, Uhm, dudette, have you read Harry Potter? Harry Potter does not start from Harry Potter’s point of view. Harry isn’t even mentioned until page four and doesn’t drop into the scene until page fifteen. So, booyah, my friend, your rule is busted.

Now, my opening chapter might not have been working (and it wasn’t at the time) but to declare it chapter non grata (Off with its head!) for a rule that was so easily disproved—I mean, I didn’t even have to reach for some esoteric, barely-read, middle-grade novel written in 1859 to land a counter example—simply was not helpful critiquing.

Unfortunately, this writing rule reliance is a real problem in critique giving, leading writers astray—especially earnest ones who are committed to learning and/or who are just starting out and not yet confident in their writing. Rules can tromp nascent voice, rip apart budding skills, and murder the splendor hidden within an early draft.

Seriously, how brilliant was it that Rowling started with the Dursleys? That she slid in an omniscient prologue disguised as a first chapter (likely to shut-up all the “prologues-are-passé” rule police) thus neatly avoiding having to clog Harry’s first chapter with a bunch of disruptive back story. Well done.

So the question is: if they are so problematic, why all the rule love in critiques? Oddly enough because rules are comforting.

Humans crave certainty. Some more than others, of course. Rules give us a sense of certainty. Which is particularly seductive in an endeavor as inherently uncertain as writing a novel. We want to believe in rules. Because, yes, wouldn’t actual rules make writing easier? I mean, if so, I could have just lopped off the first chapter of that novel and, poof, my story would have been improved by five percentage points, raising the book’s overall quality to an 85% RCS (Rule Compliance Score)—a rock solid showing—thereby earning me an immediate agent contract and publishing deal. Done and done.

Ta-da! The siren call of rules explained. They give us hope. Sadly it is faux hope.

Writing rules at most are writing guidelines. Best not to base all your critique logic on them. Instead: read, read, read and build a treasure trove of techniques and examples based on writing in the wild (i.e., published works) so that you can offer viable options to other writers instead of questionable absolutes.


(Of course, you see the double win here, right? Not only will your technique-driven critiques be inherently more useful than rule-driven critiques, YOU will now have a toolbox full of evidence-based techniques that you can apply in your own writing. Wahoo, take two!)

Onward in kindness,

Christine Carron, The Critique MD

Note: The painting at the top of this post is titled Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, John William Waterhouse. The original hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

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6 comments On The Siren Call of Rules

  • Touche! One of my favorite “rules” of writing is “Never start with Dialogue.” If this rule had been in vogue among editors at the time, EB White would’ve been shunned for his brilliant opening to *Charlotte’s Web* — “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

    • Christine Carron, The Critique MD

      Great one, Charlie. 🙂 As you were commenting, I was adding a last little paragraph above in parentheses about how such examples not only upgrades our critique-giving but also give us confidence in our own writing when we are using a less typical technique. We may need to work on that part but not necessarily ax it. 😉

  • Sondra S. Soderborg

    Christine, I really love seeing your brilliant, funny, incisive brain at work. This is great.

  • Love the painting! And your message…
    Funny thing is that in my editing practice, I work hard to not bind any author up in rules, yet have had them turn tables on me by citing a ‘rule’ and asking why I didn’t ‘catch’ it. :o)

    oyes, glad to see someone else’s mind thinks ‘dudette’…
    Great post, as always – thanks for sharing with us!

    • Christine Carron, The Critique MD

      Thanks, Maria. That’s really interesting about feedback you have gotten related to rules. (And, wahoo to dudettes. 🙂 )

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