Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Know The Rules—Then Know When to Break Them: Conference Take-Away #5

Guest Blogger: Laura Bridgwater

Do you remember learning to write? My fifth grade daughter is learning how to write essays in school this year. Students earn points for having an introductory paragraph with a zinger in the topic sentence, three supporting paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph that usually starts with transition words like, “All in all” or “As you can see…”

She has been in tears about having to do these assignments. Frankly, I don’t blame her. Formulaic writing isn’t fun, and I struggled to help her.

Luckily, insight showed up when my daughter’s piano teacher taught her how to improvise on the keyboard. A light switch flipped, and my daughter exclaimed, “I had to learn to play the song the way it was written, but now I can break the rules! That’s what writing is like! I have to learn the rules, and then I can break them!”

All those years of piano lessons were finally paying off in a way I hadn’t expected.

That idea of learning the rules then breaking them showed up again at the 2009 Northern Colorado Writers conference.

Often the advice you hear as a writer is contradictory, like the idea that if you self-publish and your book bombs, then you will effectively kill your chances of getting picked up by a traditional publisher. But then a news story comes along like this one , about the self-publishing success of the writer of Still Alice, a book that is currently a bestseller.

Here’s some more contradictory advice that I gleaned from this year’s conference sessions and from conversations with agents, editors, and other writers.

My favorite line from an agent during the slush pile reading was, “No way is describing a blue sky on a September day a good opening.” Sitting at the conference I thought the agent had a good point.

So imagine my surprise when I picked up the first book in the wildly-popular Twilight vampire series a few days after the conference. Here’s how the book begins:

“My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue.”

Things that make you say, “Hmmmmmm.”

More contradictions abound.

One agent said don’t follow trends. If you have written a vampire book, put it away in your bottom drawer for ten years.

But another agent said that if you have a vampire book with great writing and the book pushes boundaries, then they will look at it.

One agent said always send the first page of your manuscript when you query an agent. Another said follow the querying instructions to the letter and if the instructions don’t ask for a first page, don’t include it.

One agent doesn’t like sound words (Vroom! Boom!) Another said it didn’t bother him so much.

What’s a writer to do?

Just as my daughter learned from her essay assignments and piano lessons that there is a time to follow the rules and a time to improvise, you need to be aware of industry standards in the publishing world. By being informed, you can decide which rules are meant to be broken.

I greatly appreciated all of the writerly advice—contradictory or not—that everyone shared at the conference. The best advice I heard this weekend, though, is advice that I hope to follow:

Write an emotional and original story.
Write what you want to write.
Write your socks off.

Even if what you want to write includes vampires.

Bio: Laura Bridgwater is a freelance writer, radio commentator, and member of Northern Colorado Writers. She can be reached at

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