Suspend Your Disbelief

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Janet Fitch's Rules for Writers

(CC) Larry D. Moore

(CC) Larry D. Moore

We’re writers! We’re creative souls! We love original thought! But for some reason, we also love lists of rules—especially rules that tell us how to write (and how not to write). Call it one of life’s great paradoxes.

The most widely disseminated list is probably Elmore Leonard’s rather prescriptive catalogue of things to avoid (“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”). Many authors, before and since Leonard, have tried to boil their advice down into neat bullet points, with varying success.

But Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, has posted her own “10 Rules for Writers,” and unlike many other lists, they’re less didactic and more, well, open. An example:

7. Smarten up your protagonist.
Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be the world you’re creating. They don’t have to be super-educated, they just have to be mentally active. Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.

I’m already planning to pass some of these rules on to my students—with the standard disclaimer “You can write anything you can get away with.” How do you feel about Fitch’s list, or writing rules in general? What rules have been helpful to you as you write—and which have you gleefully broken?

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