Saturday, September 28, 2013

The “Rules” When Writing (by Jackie Bouchard)

(When I first joined Chick Lit Central a year ago, one of the first books I reviewed was Jackie Bouchard’s What the Dog Ate. It was a wonderful book – funny, heartbreaking, inspiring. And because Jackie has a new book out – Rescue Me, Maybe -- now it’s on sale! {more on both books below.} To celebrate, Jackie dropped by to share her thoughts about writing by the rules. As Jackie is a former accountant, it’s not surprising she’d find rules appealing!)

I’m a big-time rule follower (BTRF). It’s the inner goody-two-shoes in me. I can’t help it.

So, when the Twitter #ChickLitChat topic the other night was writing rules, I had to join. (BTW, joining the chats is easy and fun. Every Thursday at 5:00 PT/8:00 ET search hashtag #ChickLitChat.) Before the chat, I Googled “rules for writing” and found Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules. The first two (1. Never open a book with weather and 2. Avoid prologues.) took me back to my first writers’ conference, where the instructors happily handed out rules. And I, as a newbie and BTRF, clutched my pen and scribbled them down.

The first session I attended was about the importance of opening lines. We shared our first lines and the editor-instructor helped us get on track. In addition to warning us not to begin with the weather (“It was a dark and stormy night” anyone?), he said never start with a dream or someone waking up.

Oops. There I sat with pages from What the Dog Ate, still very much first-draft-y, which started with a woman awakening to the sound of her dog throwing up. That session ended up being very helpful and I left with a much better opening. (“The vet handed Maggie Baxter a plastic specimen bag containing a pair of size-tiny lavender thong panties extracted from her dog; but they were not hers.”)

I’d happily followed his rule, and was feeling good about my manuscript.

Next, I attended a session led by an agent where we read our first paragraphs. I read my new opening, and she liked it. (She gave me her card after. I’m thinking, “Being a BTRF pays off!”) One aspiring author read his prologue, causing the agent to warn us against them. She explained that many agents/editors see them as a red flag that the author can’t more skillfully weave necessary background info into the story. The poor guy seemed crushed that she rained on his prologue parade. I was so happy that I was prologue-free.

Next up, a session about holding your readers’ interest led by the author of Rambo. He said, with great authority, “Do NOT include telephone conversations” because they’re boring and you need to be in the action. I have no idea what he said after that, because I was thinking, “But my main character lives far from her family. She talks on the phone to her mom, her grandma, her sister. Those conversations help reveal her character and move the plot forward. How will I get rid of them?!”

The good feelings from earlier were gone. All my lovely neuroses bubbled to the surface. “I don’t even belong here. I’m not a real writer!” I tuned back in when he handed out his next rule: “Rarely use your characters’ first names.”

I wrote that down, too. Then – even though I’m a BTRF – I drew a question mark next to it. What? No first names? “Wait a minute... This guy wrote Rambo! He’s not talking to ME. I’m okay! I still belong!”

That’s when I realized: every “rule” needs to be taken with a healthy dose of salt grains. First, consider the source – a rule according to whom? (If it’s according to an agent you want to work with, you might want to pay attention.) Second, for every “rule” out there, I’m sure many examples exist of famous books that violated it.

It boils down to doing what best serves the story. If that means breaking a “rule” once in a while, go for it. One rule from Elmore Leonard that I do love though is this one: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” If we can all master that one, we’ve got it made.

I could have saved myself a lot of angst at that conference if I’d known at the time what W. Somerset Maugham said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

What do you think? Are there rules you love to follow? Love to break?

(Thanks so much, Jackie. Going to edit my WIP right now, which starts with a prologue that features a woman waking up from a bad dream to discover it’s raining out.)

About Jackie
Jackie Bouchard writes Fido-friendly fiction. She used to be trapped in the hamster wheel of corporate America, but she was lucky enough to escape and now fully understands the term "struggling writer." Jackie loves: reading, writing, and, yes, even 'rithmetic (seriously, algebra rocks); professional cycling; margaritas; blogging (she never thought she'd say that, but she does); dogs in general, and her crazy rescue pup specifically; and her hubby. (Not in that order.) Jackie dislikes: rude people and writing about herself in the third person. After living in Southern California, then Bermuda, then Canada, then the East coast, Jackie and her husband settled in San Diego. American Jackie, her Canadian hubby, and her Mexican rescue mutt form their own happy little United Nations. Jackie's novels include What The Dog Ate and Rescue Me, Maybe.

Here’s a blurb about What the Dog Ate, on sale now for 99 cents!

The vet handed Maggie Baxter a plastic specimen bag containing a pair of size-tiny lavender thong panties extracted from her dog; but they were not hers. Or rather, they were hers now since she'd just paid $734 to have Dr. Carter surgically remove them from Kona's gut.

This is how Maggie Baxter, a practical, rule-following accountant, discovers that her husband of seventeen years is cheating on her. All her meticulous life plans are crushed. When he leaves her for the other woman, Maggie and her the-world-is-my-smorgasbord chocolate Lab, Kona, are left to put their lives back together. As Maggie begins to develop a Plan B for her life, she decides to be more like Kona. No, she's not going to sniff crotches and eat everything that isn't nailed down; rather she'll try to approach life with more ball-chasing abandon. Finding herself in situations where she begins to go through her usual over-analysis of the pros and cons, she stops and instead asks herself: What would Kona do? With Kona as her guru, Maggie begins her quest for tail-wagging joy. What the Dog Ate is a funny, tender story of mending a broken heart and finding love and a new life right under your nose, with woman's best friend at your side.

Buy What The Dog Ate here!
Barnes & Noble

Rescue Me, Maybe
If you lost both your spouse and your dog to cancer within weeks of each other, but you were sadder about the dog, would you tell anyone? Maybe your closest friends. Unfortunately, Jane Bailey's closest friends are on the other side of the country. That's where Jane plans to go now that she's free to leave Philadelphia, the too cold, beachless, street taco-deficient city her husband dragged her to six years ago. But with no job prospects in her hometown of San Diego, Jane is roped into helping out temporarily at her uncle's southwestern small-town B&B. En route to her new role as innkeeper and breakfast chef, she finds a stray at a rest stop. With her heart in pieces from the loss of her dog, she's determined not to let this mutt worm its way into her affections. She's also determined to have next-to-no interaction with the B&B's irritating guests, and the even more annoying handyman who lives next door. Can Jane keep her sanity--and her secret that she's not really a grieving widow--while trying to achieve her dream of getting back to the place she thinks is home?

Buy Rescue Me Maybe here!
Barnes & Noble

Connect with Jackie at:
Her site
Her blog


  1. Thanks for having me on the blog, Jami! You crack me up with your added comment about your WIP opening!

  2. Loved this, Jami and Jackie! There are a few rules that writers should follow (don't bore the reader!) but sometimes you don't recognize when you are breaking them!!