for not following rules

For writing, at least. Thanks to Larissa for finding this article – it’s a great one.

A Recap of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Keynote Address at COFW’s 2003 Readers and Writers Holiday Conference By Wendy Watson, COFW member

What would Madonna do?

We all know the rules. Contemporary romance sells better than historical. Your contemporary romance should be either suspenseful or funny, and above all, it should be filled with hot, steamy sex. The hero and heroine have to meet in chapter one, and the sparks have to fly immediately. She can’t be married; he can’t play sports. As writers, we study the bestseller lists like oracles reading goat entrails, searching for the rules and passing them on as gospel to one another through e-mail lists and chapter meetings.

We all want to follow the rules. It’s the “Good Girl Syndrome,” and Susan Elizabeth Phillips warns that it can be the death of a writer. First, we will drive ourselves nuts trying to pin down just exactly what the rules are: the market is fickle, editors do not necessarily know what they want before they see it, and our well-intentioned friends and critique partners are not always right. Worse, though, following the rules can paralyze a writer’s creative spark. In her keynote address at the 2003 Central Ohio Fiction Writers Readers and Writers Holiday, Susan Elizabeth Phillips explained that we can all learn a lot from Madonna. Whether you like her music or not, there’s no denying that Madonna has never played by the rules, and her defiant approach to her art has made her a star. She has taken drive, ambition, savvy, and vision and turned them into success.

Yet, while Madonna has taken artistic risks, she is not a loose cannon. She works hard; she is punctual; she is an excellent businesswoman; and, above all, she has developed her craft. Phillips exhorts us, as writers, to focus less on the “rules” and more on our craft. We should learn the techniques and elements of good writing, everything from basic grammar and narrative structure to drawing realistic characters.

From there, our job is simply to tell a good story. Rather than trying to follow the blueprint designed by Nora Roberts or Julie Garwood or even Susan Elizabeth Phillips herself, we should use the tools of our craft to create something uniquely our own. As Phillips notes, “maybe if you follow your voice, you won’t get published, but following someone else’s voice won’t get you there, either. . . . Find your own way; find your own magic. Write the book that no one else can.” And every time you feel that urge to make your work more “marketable,” more “mainstream,” just ask yourself: What would Madonna do

Ah – I love it when a published author echoes my sentiments. Put away your books on how to write and just write. Break rules. Trust your ability to tell the story and have fun.

Steph T.