Most Important: Ignore The Rules

by Beth Bernobich

When a new writer joins a workshop, they often run smack into a wall of ruls. No head-hopping! Kill all adverbs! Third person only!

Usually, the ones spouting those rules are semi-new writers, the ones who have absorbed these absolutes through critiques, but who have not yet figured out which rules are really necessary. Their intentions are good. The problem is, they don’t necessarily understand the reasons behind those rules. Worse, they sometimes mistake stylistic choices (omniscient POV) with genuine errors (sloppy POV shifts).

In truth, the only genuine rule is: “Whatever works.”

Otherwise? Rules are nothing but obstacles. They trip you up, stifle your voice, and tie your inspiration into moldy wet knots. When someone says, You must, ask them, Why?

Pay Attention To The Rules

This is not a contradiction. What the phrase really means is that it’s useful to know the so-called rules because they often turn out to be useful guidelines. But! Use those guidelines wisely. Learn the reasons behind them. (Too much head-hopping might confuse the reader. Strong, specific verbs make for stronger prose. Choose the POV that works best for your particular story, not the one that comes easiest.)

Discard the rules whenever it makes your story stronger, but know why you are making that choice.

Write What You Know

If you were born in a particular city, grew up in a particular culture, lived through the history of a particular time and place, you know that complex tapestry of taste and scent, images and emotions, and all the other myriad details that transform your story from the superficial to the real.

Know What You Write

At the same time, you should not restrict yourself to the confines of your gender, race, or past. (Or any other identification.) If you decide to write outside your so-called boundaries, however, research is your friend. Use primary sources, not secondary accounts. Don’t depend on one set of opinions. Look for contradictory perspectives. If you can, talk with people who lived through those events. Extrapolate from your own experiences to fill in emotional details. And did I mention research?

If you choose to write about a world outside your own, do so with respect.

Write What Bothers You

Be suspicious of that first idea, the one that comes slipping into your imagination as though it were coated in olive oil. Sure, that might end up being the right approach to a story. Then again, maybe it’s easy because it’s superficial, because it slides over the rough patches.

Look for the story that chases you through your dreams, and itches at your subconscious. Those are the stories that will live longest with your readers, too.

Write What Makes You Happy

Or rather, write the kind of story that speaks to your heart. If you love intricate mysteries, write them. If you love slow-paced character studies, write them. If YA stories are your deepest, truest love, then dive right in. Whatever calls to you, write that. Never, ever, let anyone tell you what kind of story you ought to care about.

Be Arrogant

Your stories are important. Your stories—yes, yours—will lift someone’s heart, make them laugh, make them think, and comfort them when they grieve. Your stories will transport them into worlds and lives they never imagined before. You are the only one who can tell those stories properly. So write, and be damned the ones who tell you otherwise.

Be Humble

Understand that writing is not a short journey. There is no end to the learning, to improving your craft. Complacency kills the writer more often than editors, critics, or indifferent readers. Forget your ego. It’s a trap. All you should care about is making your story as strong and true as you can.

Remember To Breathe

Writing can be a lonely, frustrating process. And when it’s not lonely, it’s often filled with criticism. If things get rough—and they can—talk to your writer friends. Pet your cat. (Or dog. Or parrot.) Search for the balance point inside your soul.

Breathe. 

And remember the joy of telling stories.

Beth Bernobich is a writer, reader, mother, and geek. Her short stories have appeared in such publications as Asimov’s, Tor.com, Interzone, Strange Horizons, and Postscripts. Her first novel, Passion Play, appeared from Tor Book in October 2010. It won the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Epic Fantasy, and was long-listed for Tiptree Award and the British Fantasy Award. Her first YA novel, Fox and Phoenix, is forthcoming from Viking in October 2011. You can learn more about her from her website, http://www.beth-bernobich.com.