Establish Your Code: Navigating the Rules of Writing

Pirate (Johnny Depp) looking at other pirate with parrot on his shoulderIn Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the pirate code is brought up often. It’s a code of conduct for pirates on the high seas to abide by, set down by the pirate brethren. But not long into the story, we realize the code doesn’t mean much to swashbuckling pirates. As Captain Barbosa explains, “The code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules.” And while the code’s informality becomes the running joke throughout the film, it implies that most rules, no matter what they’re governing, are not “one size fits all.”

There are books upon blogs upon interviews of writing rules to absorb nowadays. The rules of grammar, of story structure, of technique, of discipline. Many of them overlap and reiterate the same points, but the question remains: when is it okay to break one (or all) of them?

We writers, like those pirates, need to establish our code: the circumstances in which we’ll veer from the precedent and try something new, and the times we’ll follow the rules without question.

It’s a gamble to stray from the tried and true because your heart or gut is telling you it feels right—when the muse is guiding you to write an entire short story of run-on sentences or to eliminate a vital plot point from the hero’s journey. But writers have made similar choices. To follow their right way and not the right way. Some of them have failed miserably, but some have succeeded far beyond their expectations (Many writers since Hemingway and Faulkner have successfully employed run-on sentences, for instance).

The most reiterated rule I came across when I told people I was writing a book was: don’t start working on a second project until the first one is one hundred percent complete.

It’s a great rule, to be sure. How many people do you know that start gardening one day and the next the flowers have wilted and the herbs have shriveled up because they’ve moved on to knitting? And then their living room is strung with unused yarn while they learn to decorate cakes in the kitchen? And then the dishes lie dirty in the sink while they learn to roller blade? You know that person I’m speaking of—you might even be that person!

I can sometimes be that person. So when I was told not to jump ship, I didn’t. Even though a year into writing my book, I got one of those ideas that demands to be known. That idea that stops you in your tracks and has you grasping for a pen or your smartphone, so you don’t forget a detail. The one you can’t wait to tell someone about. The one you’re itching to work on at any given lull in the day.

But then there was that rule: Don’t. Jump. Ship.

So I continued with my first project for another year. But all the while the other project called to me. And all the while I wanted so badly to work on it. And so instead of having a half-completed story, I ended up completing a story with half a heart behind it.

It took me another two months and a writer’s conference to finally, consciously, decide to jump ship. At first, it felt like I had wasted two years of work. Like I had given up or failed somehow. But as I dove into the new project, I began to employ all the rules and techniques I had learned in the past two years of writing. And the words were pouring out of me.

I did not fail, I grew.

Sometimes breaking the rules yields the greatest learning experiences.

So while you’re skimming this blog, or reading an interview with your favorite author, or referencing Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” remember that your inner compass doesn’t have to point north for your writing to become a treasure.

Read the rules. Accept the rules. But make your own code.

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