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There’s one Rule to Fiction Writing: Forget the rules. If it works it works.

a sign that says Please stay on the path
Or don't. Writers write what they want, and originality counts. Be original.

Yep. It’s that simple. As I’ve pointed out in previous writing posts, anything goes—as long as you know what you’re doing and how to pull it off. There’s one Rule to Fiction Writing: Forget the rules. If it works it works. It doesn’t matter if it’s Literary Fiction, Speculative fiction, Romance, Science Fiction, Crime, Fantasy, or any other genre. If you’re able to write a piece of short fiction or something longer like a novel and it works, that’s all that’s required of a fiction writer. I won’t get into what “that’s all that’s required means,” but it obviously includes a good plot, dialogue, setting, and all of the other elements of the craft of writing that make a short story or novel worth reading.

So, I thought I’d list 5 questions I see often to Show How “If it works, it works” works.

Is it better to write in first person or third person?

Well, what are you comfortable with? What are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to provide distance between the narrator and the author? Do you want the reader to feel closer to the narrator? Have more intimacy between the two? \

Writing in the first person means you’re using I, me, my, mine, myself, we, our, ours, ourselves. Second person is rare in fiction, but it uses you, your, yours, yourself. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City begins like this: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” I don’t know about you, but I want to read more. His book was popular, and a great movie (in my opinion), was made based on the book. So while 2nd person is a tough point of view to write in, it worked for McInerney. Third person means you’re using she, her, hers, herself, he, him, his, himself, they, them, themselves, their, theirs.

Personally (and don’t take this personally 😉), I’ve always found writing in the first person “cheating” in a way. I know other writers who feel the same. It’s not true, of course, just a feeling I’ve held since I first started writing. But plenty of novels and short stories use first person. I just did a search for one of those “keep your eyes out on these fantastic new novels coming out,” and more than half of them were written in the first person.

So, which is better? First person or second person or third person? Well, whatever point of view you go with, If it works, it works. The story just must resonate with the reader. It has to pull them in so they want to keep reading. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

scrabble pieces that spell choose your words
We've all heard not to use adjectives or adverbs. But used correctly, they can add something special to your work.

Do I have to get rid of all the adjectives and adverbs in my story/manuscript?

This is always a stickler for a great many writers. Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.” The great E.B.White, in his seminal Elements of Style: “The adjective hasn’t been born yet that can pull a noun out of a tight spot.” Stephen King: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Elmore Leonard, author of Out of Sight: “If an adverb became a character in one of my books, I’d have it shot. Immediately.”

Now, these are all great writers. But they also all used adverbs and adjectives. Their points are hyperbole, but they get the point across. And it’s true. Try including adjectives and adverbs in your writing. They stick out, no question. BUT, occasionally, in certain sentences, they can also pack a punch.

Here’s a sentence from Russell Banks’s short story, “The Child Screams and Looks Back at You”: “Sometimes you dream that you are walking across a meadow beneath a cloudlessblue sky, hand in hand with your favorite child, and soon you notice that the meadow is sloping uphill slightly, and walking becomes somewhat more difficult, although it remains a pleasure, for you are with your favorite child, and he is beautiful and happy and confident that you will let nothing terrible happen to him.”

What do you think? Too distracting? Should you delete them, or do they work? Remember, If it works, it works. And I’d say in this case they work.

Can I alternate Points of View in my Novel or Short Story?

Ever read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad? It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. How about Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone? Lucy Foley’s The Guest List? All three of these novels use alternating points of view and were written by New York Times bestselling authors and literary prize winners. Not that I’m in their category, but my novel, The Losses, is also told from different points of view—six, in fact. (As a side note, I’ve been told the one section told in the first-person point of view is the most compelling one, make of that what you will).

So, if you want to write a novel or story with alternating points of view, go for it. It may be tough for you to pull off, but you can do it. Because . . . If it works, it works.

Do I Have to Write Only What I Know?

Well, this is a tricky one. What do you know? And what do we mean, exactly, when we say you can only write what you know? I take it back. This “rule” isn’t tricky. At all. The answer is no, because if what you write works, then it works. Period.

But writing what you know doesn’t just mean writing only about the experiences, and places, and people and events that you have firsthand knowledge of at the time you start writing. In the past, we walked over to the library (if we didn’t have one already in our homes) and we checked out books to do the research needed to build our little list of the facts we’ll use in our writing. These days we don’t have to walk anywhere—we just type something into google and Voilà! A treasure trove of information pops up on our screens.

Internet research allows us to not only read up on the things we don’t have a background in, it gives us the tools to hear what things sound like, what they smell like, taste like, where things are found around the world, who invented what, what happened when, how things and experiences affect people, and anything else we want to know to provide specificity, accuracy, and truth to our writing.

Maybe your character is a piano player. Maybe you are too. So, you know what it feels like to play the piano. But do you know what it was like to be Sergei Rachmaninoff? Franz Liszt? Stevie Wonder? Probably not. But you can google them to learn more about their lives. You can learn where they were born, and what language(s) they spoke, and where they went to school, if they had any mental, physical or health issues, and so on. If you don’t know something, research it. And then you know it. And then you can write about it. The point is you don’t have to have firsthand experience to write about anything. If you get that information through research and extrapolate from what you learn and put it into your writing and it works, then it works. No one will ever have to know that you aren’t an incredibly gifted blind piano player because you know how it feels to be one. Use research to learn what you don’t know so you do know it, at least enough to write credibly about it.

Typewriter with page that says Investigation
Research can supplement your lack of knowledge so you can "Write what you know."

Do I Have to Have Chapters? If so, How Many Should I have?

Now, this may be a silly question, especially for experienced writers, but I see it all the time, so I don’t want to pick on anyone by brushing the question aside. I’ve been reading all my life and writing for over 30 years, studying writing, getting degrees in writing, participating in writing workshops, readings and events, and have even won a few writing contests. I’ve had short stories and nonfiction and a novel published. And you know what I’ve learned about chapters? Zip. That’s because there is no set rule about either how many pages should be in a chapter or if a writer needs to have chapters in their novels at all.

Chapters, however, do several wonderful things for your work. Chapters, like scenes, break up long blocks of text, allowing readers to catch their breath. Most readers don’t sit down and read three-hundred-page novels in one sitting, and chapters help them pause at certain milestones so they can step away without fearing that Charlie, their hairless Sphynx kitty cat, mistakes their bookmark for a Whisker City teaser toy and smacks it to oblivion).

Chapters can also be used to establish pacing (ever notice how short James Patterson’s chapters are?). They create structure, and we, as human beings, love structure. Even those of us who consider ourselves anarchists do. Well, maybe. I have no objective proof on that one.

BUT, and there’s always a but, you don’t have to have any chapters at all if you don’t want to. The book police aren’t going to come arrest you if you don’t include chapters in your novel. It’s completely your choice. Of course, you’ll have to weigh if the risks of not having chapters outweigh the benefits, but they might.

National Book Award winning author, Colson Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic novel, Zone One, doesn’t have chapters (although it is split into 3 sections). Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel, The Circle, has breaks between paragraphs, but zero chapters. Roddy Doyle’s Booker Prize Winning novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a boy who wants to become a missionary? No chapters.

I found the breaks in The Circle acted like chapters, because they provided a point where you could take a breather. So, there’s a way to get around not having chapters while also providing your readers with the breaks they need to go and live their lives while also enjoying your work. And if having no chapters works for Whitehead, Eggers, and Doyle, it will surely work for you, as long as you do it correctly. Because if it works, it works. And that’s the beauty of literature.

Cully Perlman is a novelist, short story writer, and a substantive editor.

If you'd like to discuss editing your novel, contact him at

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Oct 23, 2023
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Break the rules! I've tried. Sometimes it doesn't work for me, but I hear you.

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