Thursday, 10 November 2011

Are There Really Rules For Writing?

Yesterday it was announced that Cat's Ahoy by Peter Bently, illustrated by Jim Field, had won this year's Roald Dahl prize for a funny book written for under 6's. Good for them - it sounds wonderful fun.

But the reason I'm writing about it is that it's written in rhyme, and picture book writers are warned to never write in rhyme. So what's going on - how does a book that breaks the rules not only gets published but also wins prizes?

The reason new picture books writers are told not to write in rhyme is a practical one. Picture books are expensive to produce and publishers aim to recoup the costs by selling them abroad. A text in prose is easier to translate than one in rhyme so foreign publishers tend to avoid rhyming texts. Therefore, a rhyming text will be less likely to recoup costs than a prose text - in other words, it becomes a riskier proposition for the publisher.

I think every Rule about writing is more of a guideline, but because the Rules are based on practical considerations you are usually better off complying with them than not. Take book length. We can all point to texts that are longer or shorter than the Rules say they should be - JK Rowling being a case in point. But while there are exceptions to every rule, the new writer should be aware of the reasons behind the rules (such as paper costs, reader expectations etc) and know they will be part of of the decision to publish (or not).

To take one of my personal rules, I actively discourage students from writing flashback. This is simply because it is rarely well done and is often either confusing or boring - or both. I have no problems with flashback well done, but I don't see it often so it's simpler to say there's a rule and if students choose to break it, make sure they're doing it for good reasons and doing it well.

Will breaking the rules make you unpublishable? No, so long as your work is still readable. But given that most of the rules are common sense aimed at improving readability - too many characters called very similar names is obviously likely to confuse the reader, or double spaced work is easier to read - it seems advisable follow them when you can.


Shauna said...

Some people just like breaking rules I guess!
I try to keep in mind advice given to me some years ago, which is along the lines that you mention. If you're going to break a rule, then know exactly why you're breaking it, and that it is a good reason. After that make sure you keep all the other rules, and of course - write a great book!

Sarah Duncan said...

Write a great book is, of course, the ultimate rule! As Cap'n Jack says, they're more guidelines...