The Rules of Writing a Book: Genius at Work vs. Working Writer

There was an interesting discussion in the comments on one of the workshop entries a little while ago about the rules of writing a book. It’s very common that, whenever us agents mention something that doesn’t work well in writing at a conference or on our blogs or on forums, there are always a few devil’s advocates who say, “Well, what about VERY UNIQUE BOOK by Famous Writer? That broke the rules!”

rules of writing a book
You can only innovate and break the rules of writing a book once you’ve internalized every single nuance of them and have adhered to them successfully.

The Rules of Writing a Book: Famous Author vs. Unknown Writer

Of course it did. But as I said in the comments thread, Famous Writer gets to do what they want because a) they’re well known, b) they have a history of book sales, c) their publisher felt good taking a risk on them. If you look at the publishing history of most genre-busting or groundbreaking authors, you’ll notice that their first few releases follow the rules of writing a book, in terms of craft and genre and structure. Unless, of course, they were already famous when they started writing novels, and the publishers took a risk on them regardless, because of the commercial value of their name.

Not a lot of first-time, unknown authors will get to publish their completely off-the-wall, genius masterwork that’s breaking writing rules the first time out of the gate. I’m definitely NOT saying that everyone should stop being creative or dreaming big. I am, however, saying that you should learn novel craft, genre, form, structure and what the “standards” are inside and out before you start to innovate. And you should prove to publishers that you can do well with a more conventional novel that follows the rules in terms of all these nitty gritty things (but feel free to be innovative in terms of plot points, story, language and characters, of course), before you try to recast the mold.

Everyone Has to Follow the Rules At First

There are, of course, some writers who only have one brilliant novel in them, like Harper Lee. “Wait a minute, ” you might say to yourself, “I’m one of those genius artists and my genre-busting, completely-unlike-anything-you’ve-ever-seen novel is going to take the world by storm and win me a Nobel Prize!” I will most likely counter with the thought that, if you sit around musing about what a genius you are, you’ve probably got a few delusions about your stories and your writing. Geniuses don’t spend their energies trying to convince everyone of their genius. They just do what they do and then the rest of the world is left scrambling to catch up.

Most writers follow a very predictable path through the publishing industry. They publish a few novels that fit in to the marketplace and adhere to the work of their peers. They’re not breaking writing rules at this early stage. Then, if they’ve got enough of a track record and if their publisher will give them the leeway, they can experiment and innovate. There’s nothing wrong with this. And, if you work hard and get a great track record, you very well could hit it big and write the exact kinds of books you want to write. (Not that there’s anything wrong with writing conventional books for your entire career, of course.)

For Example

Take a client of one of my colleagues at the agency. She has made her bread and butter for a long time by writing tie-in novels (like mass market paperbacks that use the characters from a popular TV series or movie), which some might say are the ultimate in adhering to the rules of writing a book for today’s fiction marketplace. A lot of people who write tie-ins or novels for specific publishers even get guidelines for, if not what to write, but how to write it. Talk about books by the book.

This client, though, also writes her own fiction, with her own ideas. After years of writing tie-ins, she’s finally started selling her YA work to various publishers. On her most recent sale, she hit it big: she is going to be a publisher’s lead title with a trilogy that garnered a lot of interest and a high advance. This was already announced on Publisher’s Marketplace, so I’m not spilling any agency secrets, but wow! Can you believe that? After all her hard work and playing by the rules, she’s finally writing the books that she wants to write.

You Have to Know the Rules of Writing a Book Before You Can Break Them

It’s the same thing with M.T. Anderson, who wrote a lot of books before he got to write OCTAVIAN NOTHING. It would’ve been very difficult, I’d imagine, to convince a publisher to take a risk on something like that from a complete unknown. And I’m firmly convinced that you can only start breaking writing rules once you’ve internalized every single nuance of them and have adhered to them successfully.

When a first-time novelist “colors outside the lines” in terms of novel craft or structure, I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re a mad genius and that they’ve totally revolutionized the novel form. I assume that they don’t exactly know the rules of writing a book. You’ve got to learn the scales and the instrument before you can start to ad-lib and play jazz. That doesn’t mean that you can’t express yourself and make beautiful music, but this kind of OCTAVIAN NOTHING virtuosity only comes after putting in a lot of time and a lot of traditional work.

Would you rather be an unsung genius who’s breaking the rules of writing a book left and right or a working writer who is building their career toward their shot to produce whatever they want? That kind of thing is a hard-earned privilege and not really something beginners should be obsessing with.

I love coaching beginning writers. When you invest in my book editing services, I’ll help you learn the rules of the craft.

30 Replies to “The Rules of Writing a Book: Genius at Work vs. Working Writer”

  1. Had to use the “color outside the lines” analogy, didn’t you? I still can’t use a crayon to save my life – thank God for computers. Other than reminding me of my sub-5-year-old coloring level, this was a great post.

  2. I’m sure that geniuses don’t have signs on their office doors stating “Genius at Work”. There are many rules to learn, I’m not looking to break them just yet. Too many writers cling to success stories, and are frustrated when they haven’t gotten what they think is their due. Your examples are the norm. Like Lynn, I’m a “Working Writer”(if only I had an office door for the sign).

  3. I’m the one who brought up OCTAVIAN NOTHING in the other discussion–but not because I think all the readers of this blog are misunderstood geniuses who ought to be praised for writing outside the box. I said then (and I’ll say again now) that the writer we were critiquing SHOULD follow the rules you described.

    I should am trying–often to the point of tears–to follow the rules we discuss in places like this blog. At this point, following the rules is a lot harder for me than not following them. I take that as a sign that I haven’t mastered them yet.

    However, I think it’s worth mentioning and discussing the really wonderful rule-breaking books out there when we talk about the rules–and that’s why I brought up OCTAVIAN NOTHING. MT Anderson uses an elevated voice and a reflective character because it’s the only way to tell his particular story–and because he’s a master of the craft who can tell an unusual story well. Looking at an example of that makes me think about where the cracks in the rules are, where they break down, and why–and that, in my opinion, is a part of learning the rules inside and out.

    I guess my point is that I brought up OCTAVIAN to incite discussion, not rebellion.

    Now I’m going to go cut some adverbs out of my manuscript.

  4. Pablo Picasso is a good example of this principle. If you see some of his early work, it bears a striking resemblance to the post-Impressionistic paintings of van Gogh and Cezanne. He clearly knew all the conventions of the painters of his day – and could execute them masterfully – before he started bending the rules. He didn’t create an entirely new genre of art straight out of the gate; he did his time first, paid his dues – if I may be so bold as to use a stringe of cliches:)

  5. Great post, Mary!

    We all need to walk before we can run. Thank you for being a consistent place to turn to for seeds of inspiration (like the story of your colleague’s client), as well as the basic nuts and bolts. You are a gift to us!

  6. A lot of times I look at geniuses and drool. Well, more like froth at the mouth, wishing and hoping one day I’ll be there. Becoming a “Genius” will probably take a lifetime for me, but I keep going working as a writer, just as Lynn said above.

  7. Krista- that’s exactly the example I was thinking of while reading this. When you see painting by revolutionaries you don’t realise how many years they studied and how well they had mastered the classic rules before taking the world by storm! Same definitely goes for writing.

  8. This is a conversation I’ve had with fellow critique members who do not want any feedback that may change how they think about their book. Even when well known editors and agents point out the err of their ways, they refuse. Wow! I want an agent who wants my body—of work. And I want a body—-of work. I always liken it to the film industry. Many actors do nonsense type movies that they know will make money and then later take the money and do the movies of their heart. Robert Redford did this back when he was younger, I think Ben Stiller does a little of this, and I know there are more. You have to pay your dues. To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book, but I want more than one book. Many more.

  9. Bongo — Quit scaring away my readers!

    Melissa — It wasn’t a dig at you, believe me, or anything personal, but OCTAVIAN NOTHING is a great example, and does need to be talked about.

  10. Shelley. . . I’ve participated in critique groups where there were participants that were also really annoyed by the offering of constructive feedback. What’s the point of participating if you already think of yourself as a genius with a WIP that needs no improvement? Maybe they participate to impart wisdom rather than get critical input. I want to be a working writer that (someday) masters the ‘rules.” (I’ve been pouring over Mary’s December 2009 Revision-O-Rama posts — so amazing!)

  11. Mary’s point is right on the money. The world loves a genius but rarely an unknown genius. Joyce died in poverty, barely selling any copies of his greatest works; Proust had to self-publish his first novel; and Van Gogh (okay not a writer) spent his life mooching off his brother and wondering why critics ignored him.

  12. Whew, I have a hard enough time considering myself a writer at all, let alone a genius writer!

    As for the rules…since I haven’t learned them all yet, I don’t think I’m ready to break them. 😉

  13. Love this post…too funny. Congrats to your client, Mary.

    I’m changing the “Pretend Writer” sign on my office door to “Working Writer.”

  14. Joseph Miller says:


    Thanks for the great post. As a relatively new children’s book writer I started out with a “rule-breaking” book told in retrospective voice (I read The Series of Unfortunate Events right before beginning my first novel). But as I became more and more familiar with the market, I realized my approach was the wrong one for a first time novel. As you said, it is much better to establish yourself as a writer who understands the rules and then experiment with voice, characters, plot, etc. once you have a handle on the basics. Now my novel is much less rule-breaking and written from a child’s perspective… and according to my critique group and the other writers I’ve shown it to the story is much improved. In addition, I’m a more confident writer because now I know what I’m doing and not just making it up as I go along.

    Best Wishes,

  15. KinDallas says:

    I had a prof in my English department (oh, so many years ago), that graded with blue Monte Blanc pen. We lived in terror of his lectures on the use of semi-colons. But there’s some comfort in following the rules, too. I loved the painting example, because it’s true of all emerging artists. I studied classical violin as a kid. Before we could play “The Firebird,” we had to learn scales. Same thing with writing.

    Experimental is exciting, but a good, solid, traditional novel is how you cut your teeth.

  16. How about a Work-in-Progress Writer? Because that’s what I feel like most days.

    “They just do what they do and then the rest of the world is left scrambling to catch up.” I love that… makes me think of a whole string of Salieri’s chasing after Mozart…

  17. Great post. I have been learning a lot from reading this blog. I don’t feel like a genius at work, I feel like I’m muddling through most of the time. I am learning to be a good writer at work.

  18. It doesn’t matter how genius a book is if no one can follow it or even wants to.

    I do wonder sometimes, if readers read what they read because that’s whats front and center on the shelves and displays and review rags. Ursula LeGuin has a fascinating essay about it. She claims the market is our censorship.

    BTW Mary, the weather in Dallas is gorgeous right now. Hope it hold for this weekend’s conference.

  19. Working writer by day, creative genius by night. Totally working writer. Please? Can I be a working writer?? Great post. Thanks.

  20. Susan — The idea of self-censorship is a really interesting one. If you start really peeling back the layers, it turns out writers aren’t being censored internally as much as they are censoring themselves based on what they think they can get away with, content-wise, or the kinds of books they choose to write when they start examining the marketplace, etc. The SLJ did a great article about it last year. This article is more about content and how edgy to go with certain stuff, but it’s still a really interesting article about how market perception impacts how the writer writes and what they write:


    Also, can’t wait for the weather! It can’t sour overnight, right?

  21. I love the music analogy! =D

    Writing is a constant learning process. I have published author friends who are still “learning” so I don’t think the learning ever stops.

  22. Hi Mary, Your post reminds me of that quote about learning the rules properly before breaking them. It’s common sense. Of course, there seems to be exceptions in everything. But I’d rather take my chances as an unsung genius 🙂 Great post, Mary!

  23. I read about some research showing there really isn’t any such thing as genius anyway. It’s all about the hours you put in plus a smidge of talent/natural ability. Of course, some people have bigger ‘smidges’ than others and more time!

  24. I finished The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman last night and somewhere around page 50 I thought, “yep, there’s no way I could get away with this stuff.”

    3rd person om, and ::gasp:: adverbs! Dear God not ADVERBS– yep Neil had them.

    You know why? Because he is genius. He can put “Author” on his taxes and his passport. He’s spent 20 years writing and 20 years of paying his dues. Yep. He’s allowed to use three adverbs in one sentence… until I hit his level of success, I’m going to use the find and search feature on MS Word and delete them.

    Great post.

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