Over the last two years I’ve become a student in the school of publishing. I started out not knowing what a query was, much less how to format a manuscript or create a pitch. But over time, and through all my teachers (writers on AgentQuery Connect and Twitter – I’m talking to you), I’ve learned how to navigate the crazy world that is publishing.
Do I know it all? No.
Will I continue to learn and make mistakes every day? Yes.
Yet there are some hard and fast rules I’ve learned about publishing I try to adhere to:
1) Read and follow submission guidelines.
2) Your query should be written in third person, present tense.
3) Never use adverbs
4) Do not start your first chapter with a dream, eating breakfast, waking up, or riding in a car.
And I’ll stop right there. Why? Because I’ve learned rules 2-4 can be broken. Yes, I said broken. But only if done the right way.
Allow me to elaborate with examples:
#2 – Your query should be written in third person, present tense
While this is almost always the best route to go, one well-known YA author broke this rule and still signed with an agent.
How? Because she did it right.
Do you know who I’m talking about? Should I leave you in suspense???
No, I’ll be nice. The author is Miranda Kenneally and she broke many query rules when she wrote her letter for CATCHING JORDAN. She wrote it from the perspective of her lead character. I would venture to guess many “experts” would say not to do this. But for Miranda it worked in so many ways.
Here it is:
My name is Jordan Woods, I’m seventeen, and last year, I blew it in the final seconds of the Tennessee state championship football game. This year, I can’t let that happen or I’ll never get a scholarship to play ball in college. I have a lot to prove, what, with an NFL star for a father – a father who doesn’t think I should be playing football. Why wouldn’t a famous quarterback want his kid to follow in the family footsteps?
I’m a girl.
But I’ve been playing quarterback since I was seven, so everyone’s gotten used to me by now. I’m a normal teenage girl. Well, as normal as I can be. I mean, obviously I think Justin Timberlake is a mega hunk, but I’m also over six feet tall and can launch a football fifty yards.
Other ways I’m not normal? A girl who hangs with an entire football team must hook up all the time, right?
I’ve never had a boyfriend and most people think I’m gay. Hell, I’ve never even kissed a guy. But that might be about to change because the hottest guy, Ty Green, just moved here from Texas. Just the sight of him makes me want to simultaneously fly and barf. It turns out that he’s also a quarterback, and he’s a hell of a lot better than me. Last year, Ty led his team to win the Texas state championship.
And I’m scared. What if Coach gives my position away? What if Ty isn’t interested in me? The worst fear of all? What if Ty distracts me from my dreams of playing ball in college?
And why is my best friend, our star wide receiver, acting so strangely all of a sudden?
So why does this break all the rules and still work? Because this query is full of voice. Miranda tells Jordan’s story in a few sentences and makes you want to read more. I’m not surprised her agent, Sara Megibow, requested after receiving this query. It is brilliant.
Should a beginning writer take this risk? That’s for the individual to decide. But Miranda was brave. She sent this query out as a test. She didn’t send it to fifty agents, but just a few, and the response was overwhelming. Again, she DID IT RIGHT.
#3 – Never use adverbs
I see people railing about this subject all over social media. And while the advice is somewhat true, I think it’s difficult to avoid adverbs. Yes, why say, “he walked quickly” when you can say, “he raced” or “he ran.” But there are times in writing where it’s almost impossible to describe a movement or action without using an adverb.
Now, if you use adverbs at the end of dialogue tags, we are talking another thing. Recently, I tried to read the fourth book in a very popular YA series. I stopped reading after 80 pages. Why? Almost every dialogue tag had an adverb attached. You can only read, “he said angrily” so many times before it gets annoying. Plus, it pulls you out of the story.
So yes, adverbs can be an issue, but the rule can be broken if they are used sparingly and in the correct places.
#4 – Overdone beginnings
After doing numerous agent interviews in my First Five Frenzy series one thing is clear: you should NOT begin your story with a canned opening. No waking up. No looking in a mirror. No eating breakfast or riding in a car.
But again, this rule can be broken if done in a convincing way.
Another example: The Hunger Games
The story begins with Katniss waking up and describing her family and surroundings. A big no-no, right? But for Suzanne Collins it works. Her prose drives the story forward. In those few paragraphs she eases the reader into her world. It’s a lesson all writers could learn from.
The thing to remember as a writer is this: rules can be broken. You have to know what’s going to work for your own plot and characters. Don’t be afraid to stretch and reach outside the norm to create a beautiful story that will grab readers and never let them go.
And one last thing about rule #1: That one should never, ever be broken.
What writing rules do you think are okay to break? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.