Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Taken when we were all still smiling while watching the U.S. play Belgium

Classic Florida weather - sun on one side of the road, deluge on the other


There are so many breathless "how to" words out there that qualify for shelving under "Old Wives' Tales" that I'll never get to them all. But hopefully with this final installment of "Rule-Breaking 101" you'll begin to get the message, which is: when it comes to "how to write," question everything except "professional presentation" (grammar, spelling & general layout) and in romance, a happy ending; in mystery, solving the crime. 

For Questionable Rules # 1-3, please see Rule-Breaking 101, Parts 1 & 2.

4. Backstory kills a book. Forgetaboutit!

I don't deny writing ten pages of backstory at the beginning of your book will likely have readers tossing it at the wall - or consigning it to "Archives," unread. But over the years I have judged countless contest entries where intimidated authors were so afraid of backstory that they failed to make even basic identifications of the main characters, leaving readers scratching their heads - not only about who each person was, but about what was happening in the opening pages. Uh - why are those two men fighting a duel? Why is she sitting in a car in front of someone's house in the middle of the night?  

It is absolutely essential that an author give out enough information in those first few pages so that readers can understand what they're reading. Readers never see your synopsis. Nor are they psychics who can look inside your head and figure out the plot and motivations you did not tell them about. No, of course, you don't lay everything out up front, but it is absolutely essential that you give your readers enough information that they understand what is happening in those all-important opening pages. Otherwise, you've lost them. 

If you're terrified of "backstory, call it "identifcation of characters and motives." But don't forget to include essential information at the beginning of your manuscript.

5. Never use the verbs "was" and "were."

Nonsense! Of course you can use "was" and "were." Yet you would not believe the incredibly awkward sentences I've read when judging or editing because it was obvious the author was trying to adhere to this incredibly stupid "rule." All the best authors use "was" and "were," particularly when describing a new character. 

Yes, "was" and "were" can be passive. If you, as author, are standing on the sidelines telling your story instead of actively getting inside your main characters' heads and letting us see the story through their eyes, then you're probably peppering your story with umpteen repetitions of  "was" and "were" and committing the mistake that first gave rise to this nonsensical rule. So don't use more of these essential tenses of the verb "to be" than you have to. But for Heaven's sake, don't believe you have to eliminate them from your vocabulary.  (I actually know authors who had contest judges go through their work and circle every was and were as if use of those verbs was some ultimate sin!) I did a quick check of the first chapter of my current Work-in-Progress and found "was" 46 times and "were" 6 times. And I defy anyone to call this "bad writing."

6.  You must follow an exact story arc - as laid out in someone's "how to" book or workshop.

My answer to this one is, "Why?" The only possible reason I can see for Rule # 5 is:  If that story arc—that chart of the ebb and flow, the up's and down's, of a story—helps you frame your book, then that's great. Otherwise, it's a ball and chain. Never believe there is only one way to write a story. There are as many approaches as there are authors. Just be aware that a story must indeed have an ebb and flow. For example, great happiness has more impact if it comes after great sorrow. Or vice versa. Tragedy hits twice as hard when it follows a moment when everything seems to be perfect. The one thing that remains constant near the end of most romances is "the black moment" - the point where everything looks bleak, from romance to business to whatever. Readers should feel certain there is no way out. Yet that, too, is just a case of contrast, making the final resolution all the sweeter. 

So, yes, stories must ebb and flow, must have their quiet moments as well as action, but the where and when of it should be "author's choice." Do not let anyone dictate an exact "arc" you must follow, willy nilly. It's your story. Feel the flow. Go for it!

7.  The more Dialogue, the better.

What people are thinking is not always what they are saying. And only good "old-fashioned" Narration will show readers the truth. Dialogue can be cute, clever, and colorful. It also moves a story along. But it cannot tell a reader what your characters look like. It cannot tell us how they feel, deep down inside. It cannot describe the depths of sorrow, the hectic action of a chase, the horror of a murder. Page after page of dialogue is relatively easy to write, but it can never plumb the depths of emotion most readers are looking for. Think of Dialogue as the frosting, while Narration encompasses the whole cake.

8.  The Hero and Heroine must meet in the first chapter.

This is a rule from Category romance, and not a bad one to follow if you're writing a novel of less than 60,000 words. Otherwise, it's another of those "rules" that mean nothing. During the years I was trying to conform, I often advised authors that if their hero and heroine didn't meet early in the book, they could insert scenes of their separate activities, so that both have been introduced to readers, if not to each other. This still seems a sensible compromise, but authors must also have enough confidence to feel they can deviate from this approach, if their book warrants it. 

That is exactly what happens in my latest, The Mists of Moorhead Manor. The h/h do not meet for the first time until near the end of Chapter 5. I can envision the story no other way. And just as I stubbornly refused to make the heroine of The Sometime Bride older than fourteen at the beginning of that book, I can only hope romance readers will not be offended by the long wait for Mr. Right to appear in my latest Regency Gothic. 


My point for the "Rules" above is the same as for the other "rules" mentioned over previous weeks. Do not hesitate to use the rules that work for you, but never fail to question the rules that don't. Authors should not be slaves to anyone else's ideas. We should never be intimidated by "rules," that are ephemeral at best. Like the ubiquitous "they," these rules hover around us, original source unknown, leaving us with no one person we can blame for trying to dictate to authors how they should write. 

Keep in mind that the least talented among us can set down a "rule," no matter how didactic or absurd it might be. We authors, however, are the creative ones. Therefore, we must march to our own drummer, speak to our own muse, fashion our own tunes. (If you'll pardon my clich├ęs, used because they are phrases we all readily understand.) We must write what resonates with us, thumbing our noses at the fearful Nellies who demand rules, rules, and more rules, because they seem to need the confinement of structure and are afraid to soar.

Now don't take my words as advice to go all James Joyce. His work might have been a literary phenomenon, but it was @#$% hard to read, and should not be taken as an inspiration to authors who would like to make money from their writing.  So keep your head, strive for color and emotion, while placing clarity near the top of your "must" list. 

That caution given, don't be afraid to write from your soul, and make your readers like it! 

~ * ~

Thanks for stopping by.


For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.





  1. THANK YOU!!! I get so frustrated by "rules" that inhibit freedom of creativity. If we all followed the "rules" to the letter, every story would eventually be a cookie cutout of the next. You've given me permission to let my creativity lead the way. Great post series!

  2. Love your blogs, Grace. Can almost hear you talking :-) Great insights, big smiles--as always!