I think the first time I heard the term “ghost rules” was when my friend Rebecca used it in a writing for children class in grad school. At the time, I was working on a middle-grade science fiction book (which I need to finish one of these days, but I’ve already got enough on the to-do list without adding that; eventually, though), and I was winging it. I won’t go into too many details, but it involves a used bookstore, a map, a hyperspace gateway to another world, and a missing scientist.
It’s really hard to write the first draft of something while you’re also workshopping it a piece at a time. I don’t recommend it, to be honest. Too many inputs from too many people can fuck something up when you don’t even know what it is yourself. The best advice anyone can give you is “just finish the damn thing.” But anyway.
One of the best things Rebecca asked me about when giving feedback on one of those early sections was what my story’s ghost rules are. What exactly are ghost rules, you ask? They’re the rules that are rules but aren’t necessarily written in the rules. If you’re working on a piece of fiction that falls outside the realm of the strictly realistic, they’re the laws that govern how the fantastical elements of your world operate.
Take Star Trek, for example. In this fictional universe set centuries in the future, starships can travel faster than the speed of light but cannot travel infinitely fast; rather, they are limited by Warp 10, the speed limit of the galaxy, which, if reached, would mean a ship occupies every single point in the universe simultaneously. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampires follow most of the conventions of the supernatural creatures of the night, with the added twist that when a vampire is created, the soul of the body’s former occupant is replaced by a demon, so it’s sort of a case of spiritual vacancy/demon squatting. In certain cases, a body’s former soul inhabitant can be returned to it, which is how you get characters like Angel.
Oh, spoiler alert on that last sentence, but hey, the show came and went over a decade ago, so you can’t expect all spoilers to remain unspoiled. (Also, Rosebud is a sled. And Han shot first. ANYWAY.)
When you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, you need to have a clear vision of the laws (natural, supernatural, or otherwise) that govern the world you’re creating. Whether that’s the nature of the spells in Harry Potter or the fact that the planet Bajor has a 25-hour day and Federation starships have inertial dampeners to keep everyone inside from splatting into bulkheads at warp speed, your readers will expect the world you create to make some kind of sense. You’re world building, in other words.
This is why I’m glad to have friends like Rebecca who are smarter than me.
Check out Chuck Jones’s Road Runner rules (tip of the hat to Jason Zook for introducing me to these) for a really clear example of this, and if you watched these shows when you were a kid, think back about how consistently they were applied in every cartoon. It’s really pretty amazing.
Naturally, this got me thinking: Do I have a set of ghost rules for my own writing career? Are there certain things that characterize my work and my writing? What about topics that I wouldn’t ever tackle in fiction? What about subjects that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole in this newsletter? Jason has a set of questions here that might be helpful to you if you’re building a content-based business, especially one that’s knowledge-based. For a fiction writer, though, I think I need something a little bit between Chuck’s and Jason’s rules.
I don’t have the answer to that yet, but I’m working on it. Meanwhile, what are your road runner rules? Hit reply and share them with me.
(And can you believe I got through an entire post where I mention the Road Runner and don’t write “meep meep“? Oh, wait.)