‘You are not Stephen King. You are not the exception to the rule.’
I’ve heard many literary agents, authors, and publishers say to aspiring novelists that they are not the exception to any ‘rules’ in publishing. Usually, someone asks on a forum whether it is okay to exceed recommended word counts in a debut novel. Other instances could regard more general writing rules.
For example, your novel may have an abundance of adverbs or misplaced grammar. Feedback from editors may suggest cutting down on such practices, or eliminate them all together. However, there are exceptions in publishing. For example, look at Cormac McCarthy, whose infamous lack of dialogue tags is well known in literary communities.
I am not that author, and part of my writing journey meant accepting that. Once I embraced my voice as a writer, I improved my prose. Yet I believe the advice that ‘you are not the exception’ is misleading, even if it is most accurate.
For one, the advice ‘you are not the exception’ focuses on the writer, as opposed to the writing. Whilst your professional body of work is important, it is unhelpful for new writers to be told that because they haven’t published bestsellers like Stephen King, that they are forever doomed to being ‘the rule,’ as opposed to the exception.
Writers will interpret that wrongly. They’ll believe that following rules is for younger writers, who don’t know better. Why must they ‘follow’ the rules, whilst their favourite authors get to break them?
As the cliche goes, you must know the rules to invert them. Even bestselling and acclaimed novels follow writing rules regarding tense and language choices. Overall, writers should gain some perspective regarding ‘rules’. They aren’t the most disruptive thing to create, and when followed, can help.
Literary agents and editors shouldn’t coddle writers without an excellent reason. It’s a sign of respect to tell writers the truth, and I appreciate all the editors I’ve interacted with that didn’t spare my pride. That helped my writing improve.
There is a more productive way to encourage great writing among newbies. And that is to say ‘your writing must be exceptional, to become the exception.’ That motivates writers to work hard, and to hone their craft, as opposed to personal traits they can’t control. It’s unhelpful for writers to feel strained by their lack of experience. Rather, they should focus on improvement, and not feel afraid to set lofty standards for themselves.
Although remarkable writing is not a guaranteed shortcut to anything, it matters. Every year, readers have millions of books to choose from. Why should they choose yours? What are you offering? You are selling a book, not yourself and your accomplishments. Once I learned that, I dropped my ego and wrote better.
Not all writing rules are created equal. ‘Reduce adverbs’ is far more concrete than ‘follow genre norms with utter strictness.’ It’s thrilling when authors, particularly debut ones, challenge expectations. Alot of publishing advice is fickle, and it seems like it changes every couple of years.
That’s why it can help to use beta readers, or discuss your project with an editor. I also suggest reading current literature that will help educate you in literary and genre expectations.
If you are writing under a set of ‘rules’, it may help to verify them. Sure, you may believe that you can’t write horror without a supernatural element. But that doesn’t make it true. Many writers have false ideas of what is expected of them. You could ask agents, editors, publishers or established writers. Use the many writing resources available to you, especially writing forums.
One instance where I suggest always following rules is when you submit or query your work. Following rules regarding formatting, fonts and genre is easy. It’s a sign of respect to whoever is reading your work, and you are more professional in doing so.
What are your thoughts on ‘exceptions’ in publishing? Comment below, particularly with any personal experience.