Breaking the Rules

Last week I finished reading Lisa Gardner’s novel, Catch Me, and it started me thinking about some of the critique sessions I’ve sat in and blogs I’ve written that cover topics like point-of-view and how to format a manuscript.


Because in that book, Lisa uses both first person and third person point of view and interspersed between some chapters there are chapters that are only one-page in length and contain only five or six-line sentences from a character who has never been introduced.

Whoa! Can a writer do that?

Obviously one can, Lisa Gardner did, and I feel she did so quite successfully. Of course, Lisa is a New York Times, multi-published, award-winning author of more than 30 books (Check out her website: ). She’s sold gazillions of books, so she’s in a position to break rules.

Ok, what are the rules?

Somerset Maughan is often quoted as saying “There are three rules for writing well. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

For decades there were rules (or maybe traditions) that most writers followed if they wanted to be published by the New York publishing houses. Up until the mid-nineties, writers submitted their typed manuscripts on letter-size paper. Editors wanted all manuscripts formatted the same: double spaced with 1” margins, 12 point font, and 26 lines on a page. (This allowed the editor to estimate the word count.) A new chapter was always started on a new page. Usually a new chapter started 1/3 of the way down the page.

And then along came electronic submissions, e-books, and e-publishing. Some of the old “rules” have carried over. Most editors (and e-pubs) still want mss submitted in Times New Roman 12 point and double spaced, but not all require that. Some editors or publishing forms now like 1.5 line spacing and different fonts and font sizes. E-publishing allows manuscripts to have several font types and sizes in them.

Chapters now might, and often do, start at the top of the page, and some start only a few spaces below the end of the previous chapter. A chapter might, as in the book I read, be only a few lines in length.

All of these changes free up the writer and allow for more creativity, but I think it sometimes makes knowing what to do (or not do) difficult for the new writer.

My advice: Find find out how a publisher, agent, or e-pub wants a submission presented. Do they want the traditional Times New Roman, 12 point font, double spaced, one inch margins, start chapter at top or near the top of the page, and start new chapter on a new page? Or do they want or allow a variation of that style of formatting?

If a writer’s goal is to be published by a New York Publishing house or any traditional publisher, it’s probably safest to follow the traditional rules. Variations on the traditional can be suggested or presented once a story has been accepted, or after a writer has an established career.

With self-publishing, the writer can be more creative. It will be the buying public who determines if the writer has been successful or not.

Final word: Learn the rules. Study what publishers are publishing, find out what they’re asking for in their guidelines, and then decide if you want to break the rules.

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16 Responses to Breaking the Rules

  1. It seems as if anything goes, as long as it ‘goes’ well. It’s nice to see how publishing has opened up in the past few years. While the competition is still fierce, the good stuff always rises to the top.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I agree, Margo. Some readers get upset with the changes from the “traditional” way books were presented, but if the writer does it well, I find it refreshing.

  2. I haven’t followed the “rules” since the first day I sat down to write a book. Rules get in the way of creativity. Besides, readers don’t give a damn about rules. They just want to read a good story.

    • Maris Soule says:

      True, Rosanne, but back when you started submitting and getting published, I believe you had to follow the formatting rules your publishers required. And, I know, in my case, it took a while before Harlequin allowed both the male and female pov. Things have been getting freer and freer as the years have gone on.

  3. always up on the latest, thank you.

  4. Lucy Kubash says:

    I guess it all depends on what a particular publisher/editor wants in a book. The one I’m working with wants a strict single POV per scene, and a lot of deep POV. (Which seems to be the newest “thing.”) And yet I read many books where POV changes in one scene are okay. I really think after you’ve written a number of books, you’re allowed more freedom to do your own thing. When you’re already a bestseller, they know readers are going to buy the book.

    • Maris Soule says:

      So true, Lucy. If you have those sales numbers, the publisher is more than willing to go with whatever is submitted. At least it seems that way.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    I believe that if you are successful, you can bend the rules. If you are new, or unknown, not so much. People have expectations. I do. I want a chapter to start on a new page. I want it to begin on the same side each time and be the 1/3 of the way down the page. It makes it easier for me to read and understand. If I’m pulled from the story or struggling, then I don’t finish the book, and it doesn’t matter if you are a NY Times best selling author or Suzy Q.

    • Maris Soule says:

      It is interesting, Melissa, how different people react to changes. Some want the reading experience from one book to the next to be the same. Others don’t care and actually look forward to variations. As I said, when a writer strays from the norm, it’s the readers who determine if it works. No sales can quickly switch a writer back to what’s expected.

  6. Good, sensible advice, Maris. Not being famous, I always follow publisher guidelines.

  7. Vicki Batman says:

    I tend to start a chapter on a new page. Maybe it is an “eye” thing. I’m reading some books by one author now and she changes pov constantly. Uses adverbs. Short or long chapters. Doesn’t bother me. Because of the story.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Story trumps everything…and, I think, if the reader can follow the story. Changing pov constantly would bother me, Vicki, unless the writer made it very clear in all instances who was talking or doing the thinking.

  8. Hi Maris,
    It’s wonderful to consider the possibilities for telling a story. I’m glad to see some flexibilty being allowed thses days.