Guest Post – Liz Fichera on Breaking the Rules

Today, Liz Fichera rejoins us with a post about breaking the rules when writing. Liz, as you may recall, wrote Captive Spirit, an American Indian historical novel. Captive Spirit has received a lot of good reviews, including 4 stars from Romantic Times. Liz’s website is and her blog is


I generally hate rules.  But I’m not a law breaker.  Usually.

Today I’m talking about the often conflicting rules of writing advice.  I remember learning lots of writing do’s and don’ts before I made the switch from hobby writer to published author.  And if you’re a writer, I bet you have to.

When I first began my writing career, I was like a sponge—reading, studying, and listening intently to all the writing do’s and don’ts from respected agents, editors, teachers, bestselling authors, and fellow struggling writers, while still trying to find my “voice” and wrestling with what, exactly, I wanted to pound into my laptop each day.  My head spun for a couple of years as I tried to make sense of everything.

The struggle was trying to decipher from all the good and well-intentioned advice and what worked best for me.  From queries to genres to book promotion, I heard everything from:

1)      Never write a query longer than five sentences.

2)      Always write a query that’s at least three paragraphs.

3)      Don’t worry about synopses.

4)      Worry about synopses.

5)      Never combine genres.

6)      It’s okay to combine genres.

7)      Literary fiction is plot based.

8)      Literary fiction is character-based.

9)      Editors aren’t really interested in male protagonists.

10)  Editors are screaming for books that appeal to men and boys.  To young adults. To baby boomers.

11)  Write what you know.

12)   Don’t be afraid to write what you don’t know, as long as you do the research.

Many times, I remember thinking, Calgon, take me away!

The helpful advice was (and is, still) never-ending.  But of all the rules and writing advice that I heard, there were two that always stuck out in my mind, probably because I struggled with accepting them the most.  Part of me wanted to blow these two rules out of the water:

13)  Never write a novel in first person.

14)  Never write a novel in present tense.

“Well, that’s a bummer,” I remember saying to myself when I learned these two gems.

For starters, I like to write in first person—not always, not for every story—but first person is usually my preferred style.  I always feel that my writing “voice” resonates more in first person, although I recognize the drawbacks of only relating one character’s perspective.  So when writing in first person, I have to work doubly hard to tell a story.  But for some of my novels, like CAPTIVE SPIRIT, first person simply worked.

Verb tense was the other sticky wicket rule that I remember hearing several years ago from an agent.  “Novels should always be in past tense. I usually don’t represent novels written in present tense,” she told me.  Humph, I thought.  But I like writing in present tense, particularly with young adult novels and even some literary fiction.   For me, present tense can make a story more exciting, more immediate.  It’s what’s happening in the here and now.  While it certainly doesn’t work for every short story and novel that I write, sometimes, dang it all, present tense just feels right.

Rules are important, there’s no doubt about it.  They provide a starting point and some structure.  But I think the trick is applying what works best for you and your writing style.  Above all else, regardless of the rules, there has to be a compelling story.  If a story hooks and keeps me turning the pages, I don’t care whether it’s written in first person, second person, present tense, future tense, crayon, pink magic marker, English or Pig Latin.  I’ll read it anyway.

What’s the best/worst writing advice you’ve been given?  Are there any rules that you’ve bended or flatly refused to accept?

37 Thoughts to “Guest Post – Liz Fichera on Breaking the Rules”

  1. Tia Nevitt

    I never trusted the “no first person” rule because I read so many first person novels. Anyone who looks askance at a first person novel probably doesn’t read much or is locked into one genre.

    The best writing advice came from a former boss who got it into our head that we should have zero passive voice in our business documents. Now I use passive voice only when I’m trying to obscure the person or thing who is taking the action.

    I can’t think of any “worst” advice. I must have been lucky!

    1. Tia, Passive voice is another one of those rules. It’s one that I find where industry professionals have a hard-core “use or don’t use it” mentality. Thanks for having me on your blog today!

  2. Those ‘rules’ sound so familiar.

    The best advice I ever had was write every day. Every. Single. Day. Writing is like a muscle – the more it’s exercised, the stronger it becomes.

    The worst advice was from my (then) agent who told me that no one would want to read mysteries set in Lancashire. My sixth is due to be published in April.

    Glad you broke the so-called rules, Liz. Captive Spirit is a wonderful read!

    1. Hi Shirley! My agent gave me similar advice. I’ve never forgotten it. Ooooh, I’m so glad you deep-sixed that crappy advice about Lancashire!! PRESUMED DEAD kept me turning the pages for an entire weekend! I HEART Dylan Scott!

  3. Liz, I don’t think of myself as a rule breaker, but I am definitely a rule questioner! My problem with a lot of today’s rules are how they are so absolute, and yet, they’re actually fairly recently enacted. LOL Which means rules are always being amended, and they evolve–they are all meant to provide a compelling ready experience. So if the rules get in the way of that, it seems like the rule changes. 🙂

  4. Oops! How about “reading experience” instead of “ready experience”? LOL

    I know better than to comment before my first cup of coffee — it’s advice I rarely follow though!

    1. Hi Donna! Great point about some rules being absolute. Whenever I hear one of those, my radar goes up. Are there any in particular that you’ve followed/not followed? Feel free to come back after your coffee fix! 🙂

  5. I don’t write what I know. Neither does Annie Proulx or Michael Ondaatje. It is probably the reason I can’t read southern fiction: I know it and don’t like when an author tries to control my experience.

    When reading, I prefer first person narrative over third person. However, I have seen how first person can be overly self-indulgent.

    1. Hi Susanna! Totally agree!! If I always wrote about what I knew, how would I stretch myself as a writer (and a person?) Besides, research (particularly for historicals and world-building) is the funnest part of writing sometimes.

      1. I like “Know what you write” better than “Write what you know.” {Smile, wink}

        Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

        1. Oooh, that’s a good one too. Good message! 🙂

        2. I despise the advice to “write lean.” Sure, you don’t want to be writing bloated purple prose, but I’ve seen “leanness” taken to such extremes that it’s like reading the skeleton of a story. The writer’s style is part of what I want to enjoy when I’m reading a book. If I want bare bones, I can read an outline. Not every writer is going to naturally write lean, and when it’s forced, it just doesn’t work.

          1. Hi Raven,

            I’ve heard that too. It sounds like too much diet advice. Naturally, I ignore it. 😉 But I agree with your point: It’s not everybody’s style to write that way.

    2. For my time travel historical, I’m starting with what I know–southern highways–but since my characters are going back in time, I get to do a lot of fun research. Definitely don’t limit yourself to what you know–write what you want to know!

      1. Oh, I like that! “Write what you want to know!” That should be on a t-shirt. Or at least a bumper sticker or something… 🙂

  6. Nice Post Liz

    I’m obviously waddling through a series of do’s and don’t s with my WIP, I am just hoping I can break the rules and get away with it (rubbing hands in glee).

    1. Hi Joanna, and thanks! Good luck with your WIP and may you break as many rules as humanly possible! Come back and tell us which ones, though. 😉

  7. The thing about the rules of writing? They’re like the Pirate Code–just guidelines.

    My pet peeve from when I was on the contest circuit, and now when I judge, is writers who are convinced that any use of “had” marks passive writing, and that you should never, ever use past perfect tense. The idea behind that rule, as I understand it, is that if you have pages and pages of past perfect, you’re spending too much time in memory/flashback and are losing the immediacy of the story. But I’ve seen too many writers who won’t even use it in a single sentence when it would be clearer and more grammatically correct to do so.

    I break the no-adverb rule regularly, too. In moderation, they’re useful, and sometimes it’s better to use one straightforward adverb than to go to awkward and convoluted lengths to avoid it.

    Oh, and there’s those “no commoner heroes” and “no historicals set outside of England” rules. Not a big fan of those, either.

    1. Hi Susanna! I’m right there with you on adverbs. Adverbs are like salt: Only in moderation. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a little adverb every now and again, especially when you need to get a point across quickly. “No historicals set outside England” should be sh*t-canned immediately.

    2. Tia Nevitt

      I love common heroes. However, I also read a lot of fantasy, and that’s chock-full of common-birth heroes done good.

      In THE SEVENFOLD SPELL, both Talia and Will are common. Of course, I also have the prince and Aurora, but they have their own story. This is mine. 🙂

      1. Fantasy IS good for common heroes…except when they’re “fake commoners” who really turn out to be long-lost heirs. Those can get annoying, though it’s such a classic trope I figure it’ll always be around. And I’m not even going to say I’ll never write one myself, because that’s just daring the muse. I will, however, promise never to write a long-lost heir story where everyone agrees that the reason the heir is so handsome, smart, and heroic is his hidden noble blood, because of course no commoner could EVER have such traits. My Will in The Sergeant’s Lady was partly written in protest to that kind of fake commoner.

        1. Tia Nevitt

          And he is great!

  8. {odd smile}

    Vivian Thompson, my first not-family writing mentor, had the interesting challenge of teaching me how to write when I cannot memorize a list to save my life. Fortunately for me, she quickly decided there were only two rules I absolutely had to remember.

    First an foremost: any time someone tells you positively must do this or absolutely cannot do that when writing… Shakespeare broke that rule, and succeeded marvelously to all accounts. {Pause} Maybe you have to be as good as Shakespeare to be able to pull it off, but then again, maybe not. {Smile}

    Despite this rule, she had one other I HAD to learn: always start with something happening. That something can be a conversation or an action sequence. Yes, some writers – including Shakespeare – start with exposition, but she felt it was harder to keep readers’ attention when you do that. Starting with “something happening” was the easiest way she knew to catch readers’ attention before they put down the story to find something more interesting. So she insisted we do that. She threatened to stand over our desks and watch us write an active beginning if we broke that rule. {Smile}

    She did mention other “rules,” but she wouldn’t fuss if I couldn’t remember them. That was good, since I practically never can remember the rules everyone insists you have to learn thoroughly before daring to break them. {lop-sided smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

    1. Hi Anne, isn’t it funny how people develop these, “you have to do this” and “you have to do that” moments. I tend to agree with her on the “start with something happening” rule/guideline, especially with genre fiction. You don’t often see it, though, it literary fiction. But, please, somebody stop me!! A discussion on literary vs. genre fiction is another topic all together! Again, I’m a great believer in go with what works for you.

      1. Yes Liz, I think these “you have to…” moments can be really strange. Especially when you consider how many rules Shakespeare broke. Because she seems to be right on that one. At least I don’t remember finding a rule that Shakespeare didn’t break at least once. {wink, SMILE}

        Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

        1. I love Shakespeare! Now that’s a guy! The James Dean of his day.

          1. Shakespeare was certainly a rebel, but I think he had a good cause. Some of the writing rules of his own day were positively silly! I heard that the academics of his day insisted that all deaths should happen off-stage. Of course Shakespeare completely ignored that one. {SMILE}

            Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  9. The unsold (as yet) book of my heart is first person, present tense. No one gets it. (Both the hero and the heroine narrate it.)

    I love it anyway.

    But I’m contemplating going to third with it, anyway. Began the brother’s story in third and everyone warmed to it immediately. But my heart still belongs to older brother.

    1. Hi Taryn, I really like books in first person told in alternating viewpoints. From what you say, I’m wondering if the real hero in the story is the brother (as opposed to the current hero)? Curious. Good luck with it!

  10. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any advice that hasn’t already been mentioned. But I did get some career advice once that I am hurrying to meet.

    Build a backlist. That’s the key to expanding your audience and selling more books.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      I’m going for this one too! I put a longer novel on hold while I write a couple of more fairy tale retellings that Carina Press will hopefully want.

  11. Hi Maria, That is great advice! I think too it goes hand in hand with the “keep writing” advice. In other words, never let your fingers go too stale as you wait for your current manuscript to (hopefully) sell.

  12. Great post, Liz. One rule people keep telling me is to stick to writing one genre. I don’t read that way and the idea of writing in one specific genre all the time made me want to run for the hills. I decided I’d try writing where my muse took me. For me, this works, and it helps keep me enthusiastic and my writing fresher.

    1. Hi Shelley, and thanks! Yeah, I so disagree with that “rule.” I broke that one years ago.

  13. Wait, how did my gripe about “lean” writing get posted in the wrong place? It wasn’t supposed to be a reply. 😐

    Tia, help!

    1. Tia Nevitt

      Raven, everything seems to be working properly. To avoid posting as a reply, scroll to the bottom and use the comment from there.

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