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March, 2011 | Keli Gwyn - Part 2
Keli Gwyn
When to Follow Generally Accepted Guidelines

Writing rules exist for a reason.

In many cases, following what I prefer to refer to as generally accepted guidelines strengthens our stories. The guidelines are generally accepted because they work. They’ve been proven over time by a multitude of authors.

When we first begin writing and are learning the craft, we’re wise to heed the advice of those who’ve traveled this path before us. Doing so can help us produce stories that will move us closer to the goal of publication.

Here are two specific instances when following the guidelines can serve us.

When we enter contests. I’ve served as a contest judge several times. We judges are taught to look for certain things, such as a strong beginning, minimal backstory, and likable characters. We also gauge how close an entry is to being marketable.

One thing that indicates an entry isn’t ready for publication is a seeming disregard for the guidelines. An abundance of adverbs, the overuse of dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked,” and the use of weak verbs can indicate that a writer could use work on these story elements and lead a judge to deduct points. Conversely, showing a respect for the guidelines by adhering to them tells a judge the entrant knows them and chooses to make good use of them, which will be reflected in the scores and can help lead to a final.

When we’re querying. Like contest judges, agents and editors want to see that a writer has a good grasp of the guidelines. Unlike judges, who must read the entire entry, a publishing professional is looking for reason to pass on a story. Thus, we don’t want to give them cause by ignoring the guidelines generally accepted in publishing circles. It’s to our advantage to follow them so the agent or editor keeps reading our submission as long as possible.

Since following the guidelines can help lead to contest finals and contracts, doing so is a good practice. While it’s wise to follow the generally accepted guidelines in most cases, though, there are times when it can be to our advantage not to do so. I’ll touch on those in my next post.

* * *

When you enter a contest, do you attempt to  follow generally accepted writing guidelines?

Do you think following the guidelines can help you impress an agent or editor?

Can you think of other times when following the guidelines serves you?

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Keli Gwyn
Relief for the Writing Rules Obsessed

When it comes to fiction writing, rules abound.

Rigid, the Rules Obsessed Raccoon

Some of us can recite them in our sleep.

Avoid adverbs.

Use exclamation points sparingly.

The only acceptable dialogue tags are said and asked.

Rigid adherence to rules is one of Twelve Troublemakers that plague me as a writer. I’m exploring one a week. This is the seventh in the series.

A rules fixation can stifle the joy of creation.

Think back to the days when you crafted your first story. Many of us experienced the thrill of discovery as we plopped words on the page. Because we knew little about the writing craft, we were free to create the stories of our hearts.

Over time, we learned the various elements every good story needs. As a result of our ongoing study, we became aware of a long list of writing rules that rivaled the I.R.S. code.

While knowing the rules can serve us, rigid adherence to them can squelch our creativity and squeeze the life out of our stories. It’s important to keep the rules in perspective.

Redefine the Rules.

Rules, according to Merriam-Webster, are “a prescribed guide for conduct or action.” They’re set, fixed, and apply in all situations.

Think of a sports team or grammar. If a baseball player swings at a pitch and misses, it’s a strike. A sentence begins with a capital. Those are the rules.

In creative writing, however, we have leeway. A paragraph can contain a single word. An occasional fragment is perfectly acceptable. The grammar police won’t knock on our doors if we begin a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition.

Grammar isn’t the only area covered by rules. There are many craft-related rules, too, such as those at the beginning of this post. However, I’m sure we could find plenty of examples where published authors used an adverb, exclamation points, or dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked.” Clearly, writerly rules aren’t as rigid as one might think.

Here’s a thought that can bring a rules obsessed writer relief. Instead of referring to the guiding principles as rules, . . .

Use the Term Generally Accepted Guidelines.

A guideline, says the online dictionary in my Word program, is “a general rule, principle, or piece of advice.” Even though “rule” is used in the definition, the modifier “general” in front of it introduces the element of choice, which is inherent in the word “advice” as well.

I realize this is a matter of semantics, but we’re writers. We’re all about making wise word choices that most clearly convey meaning, right? So, why use the word “rules” with its rigidity when the word “guidelines” is available and more accurate?

See how that subtle change offers relief?

While the guidelines are in place for a reason, knowing our manuscript won’t be rejected if a character “squeaks” a line of dialogue or addresses another character in a “sickeningly sweet tone” can relieve the minds of the rules obsessed. (The examples quoted are from the manuscript my agent sold, proving  that there’s hope for even those as hung up on rules as I tend to be. :-))

In my next post, I’ll talk about the reasons for the guidelines and how to best use them.

Your Thoughts . . . and a Drawing

Have you been overwhelmed by the sheer number of “rules” at times?

Do you find the use of the term “guidelines” more fitting than “rules?”

Are there certain guidelines you disagree with or have questions about?

One person who leaves a comment and answers one of these questions will win the raccoon pictured above. If you don’t have a use for this cute little Folkmanis finger puppet, you could always share it with a child or grandchild. Plus, I’ll add a surprise for you.

I’ll hold the drawing Sunday, March 27th and include the winner’s name in the post published the next day, when I’ll introduce the next of the Twelve Troublemakers.

Lil’ Stinker, the self-defeating skunk from last Monday’s post goes to Erin.

Odds of winning vary based on number of entrants.
I’ll ship to U.S. and Canadian addresses only.
Offer void where prohibited.
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Keli Gwyn
The Publishing World is Alive and Well

More books are being published these days than ever before.

Writers are writing them. Agents are selling them. Editors are buying them.

I subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, which is where agents and editors announce the deals they’ve closed. Each weekday at noon Eastern time, a new edition of Publishers Lunch shows up in my inbox. For $20 a month, I get the latest industry news and the opportunity to see who’s buying what from whom. (If you’re curious what a deal listing looks like, you can see my Publishers Marketplace announcement.)

Not surprisingly, romance is alive and well. Children’s books and YA are doing great, too. As an inspirational writer, I’m excited to see how many CBA books are being purchased these days. The ABA is thriving, too.

The Deals section in the March 17 issue of Publishers Lunch had this lead in, “The deals are coming in as if the London Book Fair was still in mid-March instead of mid-April….”

One of the many great features Publishers Marketplace offers is called Top Dealmakers. A subscriber can design just the list she wants to see. One can choose the Dealmaker type (editors, imprints, agents, or agencies) and the Dealmaker category (fiction, non-fiction, children’s, and so on). The resulting list can be viewed by Last 6 months, Last 12 months, Six-figure deals, and Overall, with the #1 spot on any list belonging to the Top Dealmaker.

While I struggled during my semester in stats class, I find this data fascinating as well as encouraging. The placements change whenever a deal is announced, so I never know what surprises await me.

I created a list at the end of the day March 17th at midnight PST. (Yes, I was up late preparing a post after spending the day on tax prep. I’m a bit of a night owl at times.)

Because I write for the CBA market, I’ve chosen to list only those agents who sell primarily to CBA houses. The other spots belong to agents selling primarily to the ABA market. CBA and ABA announcements aren’t separated on PM.

The list I created goes down to the 145th place, but I’m listing only those CBA agent in the top 30 spots. In those instances when there’s a tie in the number of deals announced, PM places the Dealmaker with the most recent deal higher on the list.

Publishers Marketplace Top Dealmakers by Agent for Last 12 Months

(list created 3/18/11 @ 12:01 am PST)

#2 Chip MacGregor with 46 deals
#3 Steve Laube with 41 deals
#4 Natasha Kern with 39 deals

#7 Rachelle Gardner with 34 deals
#8 Tamela Hancock Murray with 34 deals
#11 Terry Burns with 30 deals
#13 Sandra Bishop with 28 deals
#20 Mary Sue Seymour with 24 deals
#26 Janet Kobobel Grant with 22 deals
#28 Greg Johnson with 22 deals

I didn’t do well in that stats class, my excuse being I’m happier dealing with words than numbers, but I couldn’t resist gathering some information from the facts presented.

320 of the 893 deals listed by the top 30 agents were announced by those listed above.

1/2 of the top 10 agents who reported deals on PM last year sell primarily to the CBA.

1/3 of the top 30 agents who reported deals on PM last year sell primarily to the CBA.

Do you see why I’m a fan of PM? It’s one place I can go to learn heaps about what’s happening in the publishing world. Although not everyone can justify the expense, what’s nice about PM is that you can subscribe on a month by month basis. In fact, there’s no discount for those who opt for an annual subscription.

PM also serves as a huge source of encouragement. Not long after I began writing my historicals, I heard that no one was buying them. Once I had my PM subscription, I watched the deal announcements to see for myself what was selling. I noticed that historicals showed up regularly. There might not have been as many as in the past, but agents were selling them and publishers were buying them, so I didn’t let the purveyors of gloom and doom discourage me.

* * *

What do you think? Is there reason to feel hopeful about the state of publishing today?

What do you do when you hear “everyone” saying that one genre or other is dead?

Where do you go to find accurate information about what books are selling?


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Keli Gwyn
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