Pirate code disclaimer

“And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”


 In the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the character Barbossa [actor Geoffrey Rush] is talking about the pirate code here. But this line always comes to haunt me when I belatedly realize that I’ve been spouting a lot of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” to my students and clients. And if you’re reading the articles in this section of my website, I’m afraid I subject you to a lot of such pontificating.  

So here is a disclaimer: the so-called rules of writing are a lot like the pirate code—more like what you’d call guidelines. Ultimately, there is no right and no wrong way to write a book. You are free to do anything you want—as long as it works. That’s the rub. If you want to start your book at the end and write it backwards towards the beginning, or jump from one character’s mind to the next with every new sentence, that’s fine—just so long as you’ve got the writing chops to carry it off, without causing your readers’ heads to explode in the process.

It’s much harder than it looks to maintain the “suspension of disbelief” necessary to keep readers in your story world—and that’s the reason for all the so-called rules of writing. Don’t think of them so much as immutable laws, but rather as a legacy handed down by generations of writers before you. They explored and experimented, finding out what usually works—and what often results in spectacular failure. So when you are starting out, don’t ignore the gift your literary forebears left you. Use the gift, at least at first. Then later, as your skills and confidence grow, feel free to ignore the rules: when it achieves a specific literary purpose—and when you’ve got the mojo to make it work.

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