Many writers wonder whether they can break fiction rules and engage in unconventional writing styles or choices and still get published. I’m of two minds here and would love to explore it further.
For each writing rule, there exists an example of a project that breaks it. Look no further than the beautiful Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri, which is a riff on storytelling itself, operating without a straightforward chronology.
So for the writer who asks, “Can I tell a story with a very loose, riffy chronology?” Or the writer who asks, “Can I write a 1,500-word picture book?” Or, “How about going into adult POV in middle grade?” My answer is, “Sure you can.”
But! And there’s always a but … it has to be done well. In my over a decade in publishing, I’ve realized that unconventional writing choices are made and break the fiction rules all the time, but in these scenarios, execution becomes all-important.
For the most part, fiction rules exist to help writers figure out how to tell stories in a way that invites readers in. Once you learn those rules, guess what? Then you can take a departure and indulge in some unconventional writing, should you desire that approach to storytelling.
However, the rules exist for a reason. Especially in children’s books. Some elements, like word count in picture books, are common-sense considerations. Preschoolers don’t have big attention spans and often can’t read on their own. A 2,000-word picture book might strain the boundaries of what’s palatable to kids this age. Chapter books full of advanced vocabulary might scare off or alienate emerging readers. Middle grade with adult POVs that go in-depth about divorce and other adult issues from an adult perspective might be better off as stories for adult readers who can more easily relate to these issues.
If you do choose to break fiction rules and guidelines in your desired category, be prepared to get some pushback. Make sure you’re making these storytelling choices for a compelling reason, rather than due to not being fully informed about the market. Make sure your unconventional writing is necessary, rather than a darling that might be better off dead.
Writing for the Agent or Publisher
I was talking to a client the other day and he remarked that he feels like he’s “writing for the agent,” rather than for the reader. And there’s truth in this, frustrating as it might be. A debut writer who needs to convince an agent or publisher that their work is worthwhile has a very high bar to clear. It’s harder to be a debut writer than an already-published one because you have to do so much to prove yourself.
And some unconventional writing choices may be off-putting to agents and publishers, who often want to traffic in what they can sell to the biggest possible market. Stories that break established fiction rules might come across as too niche, and this might scare gatekeepers in the traditional publishing framework.
So what? Well, there’s always the option to pursue a smaller (and often more experimental or artistically motivated) publisher, or self-publish. Or forge forward and try to find a traditional home for the story.
It takes courage and determination to break the rules. Here’s to a little rebellion!
Is it a bold choice or a liability? Get a manuscript overview—including analysis of your market potential—when you hire Mary Kole as your freelance editor.