Six impossible things

Experimenting early

Over the past few months I’ve had a number of writing questions that superficially are all very different, but that, if you back off a bit and look at them, boil down to “Ms. Wrede, why do people keep telling me that I can’t/shouldn’t use XYZ non-standard technique in my first novel?” The specific techniques they’re asking about are all different, ranging from the mildly uncommon (present tense, second person viewpoint) through the unusual (using no pronouns, presenting all dialog in screenplay format, writing the entire novel in verse) to the downright unreadable (“aesthetic” punctuation; deliberate non-standard spelling, syntax, and/or grammar; typographical weirdness like using asterisks for ellipses or @ signs instead of quotation marks).

I’m not talking here about people who want to play a little with a different viewpoint or nonlinear structure because it’s a way to learn or because the story demands it. I’m talking about people who “just want my story to be different/creative/original” and think that coming up with a gimmick is the way to do this. A few want to do it because “I like that kind of thing, but nobody ever does it.” A very, very few claim that their story demands to be told that way, or else can’t articulate a reason why at all. Regardless of their reasons, all of these writers appear to believe that they need someone else’s permission (mine) to write what they want to…or at least, that if I (or some Writing Authority Figure) says that XYZ is a perfectly valid technique, they will have no trouble getting a six-figure deal from a major New York publisher (or at least, they’ll be able to get their best friend to shut up about how unreadable their manuscript is).

The thing is, writing doesn’t work that way.

First off, no writer needs anybody’s permission to experiment. Experimenting is how you learn and stretch. It is perhaps not the best plan to begin by experimenting with uncommon and unusual techniques before one has achieved some competence with the sort of thing that is in more general use, but if that’s where your passion leads you, there’s no reason not to try it…

Except that, second, one has to keep in mind that experiments can and do fail. Sometimes, they fail quite spectacularly. If one defines “failure” as “this manuscript is unpublishable and/or unreadable even by the author,” they fail on a fairly regular basis, in my experience.

Most people do not see evidence of this because, third, the publishing industry is not in the business of putting out “cool” or “creative” work that almost nobody is likely to want to read, much less buy. The publishing industry is in the business of selling books that make money.

Every ten years or so, a first-time author comes along with a manuscript that incorporates some experimental technique that some editor thinks really works (or thinks is cutting edge, like the one where every other chapter was a YouTube video), and that book gets published.

Most of those published experimental books sink without a trace. A very, very few make a bit of a splash, but you cannot count on that happening. You can, in fact, very nearly count on it not happening. This is not because the publishing industry is cold, heartless, and utterly unwilling to support truly creative, original work. It’s because most readers do not want to slog through work in which every sentence is written backwards, or the format abruptly switches to screenplay style whenever there’s dialog, or that contains neither punctuation marks nor paragraphing. Which means that those books are unlikely to make money (see above, about why the publishing industry is in business).

Of all the writers I have known in the past thirty-five-plus years, only a very few have had any of their more unusual experiments published (and several of them now regret having done so). Most of those were not extreme experiments and would still work for the majority of average readers. In some cases, the work was published by a small press that specializes in “experimental literary fiction.”

Of these few writers who’ve published their experiments, none of them have achieved the same sales figures as with their other fiction. Most of them expected this. They didn’t write those stories to achieve great commercial success and recognition; they wrote them to stretch their limits, to play around with their writing, to see how much they could get away with. To learn about writing. The publication part was secondary.

And that is the final answer for all these would-be writers: If you really want to write a story that experiments with any of the fundamental aspects of fiction, go ahead and try…but do it because you want to stretch and learn. Don’t expect it to get published, much less widely read and acclaimed. (If it does get published, great; go, you. Just don’t go in expecting that to happen.) Heck, don’t even expect to end up with a readable story at the end of the process. The win is in learning and improving your craft. The rest of it is gravy.

  1. Yes. This. Do whatever you want but realize that publishing is a business.

  2. In writing a story, the author is asking the reader to enter a crafted world and accept what is presented there as real. Anything that unbalances this willing suspension of disbelief damages the writer/reader contract–and one of the most common reasons this fails is writing that draws attention to itself. Good writing evokes an experience and does so by being invisible; the moment you notice the writing (because of poor grammar, misspellings, or the author being artificially “artsy”), you are pulled out of the story, and the spell is broken.

    Some writers have done this deliberately to good effect, but it is not something most readers much appreciate and rapidly becomes tiresome.

  3. In the army, the avant-garde were sent ahead of the column to encounter the enemy first and thus noisily alert the rest of the as they were being slaughtered.

    Do you know how long it took for Finnegan’s Wake to earn back its advance?

    From Malvina Reynolds:
    Some folks think all you have to do is jump around
    To get a new sound.
    Other believe that, if you want to avoid singing sweetly,
    You have to know all the rules in order to violate them completely.

  4. I think of nonstandard techniques as falling mostly under the Tolkien (or other Big Name Author) rules.

    1. You can get away with that if you are Tolkien.

    2. You are not Tolkien.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen the use of substitute characters for quotation marks just often enough to think of it as a standard or near-standard technique to indicate translated foreign languages, alien languages, or telepathy. OK, so @ is a bad choice as a substitute quote mark, being too @loud@, typographically but I’ve used something like ~This is Roknari from the Chalion books~ once or twice.

    On the gripping hand, replacing all the quote marks with something else would almost certainly be… bad.

    • @ is also a bad choice for ” because a typesetter may well think “aha, this writer has set up a UK keyboard layout rather than US” and correct it back.

      (“Why can’t you write books people can understand?” — Mrs Joyce)

    • Double slashes was so much the standard //to indicate telepathy// back in the days of classic Star Trek zines that I confess I’m confused when anybody uses something else.

      @ signs would make me think the author was transliterating something communicated by pig-snout wrinkles, however. Which, come to think of it, might be pretty cool, but tricky to pull off.

  5. This article reminded me on how good of a photorealistic painter Picasso was before he did his experimenting. Maybe knowing the rules well helps one break the rules very well.

    • That, and the “Tolkien” rule I mentioned above. “1. you can get away with creating that sort of art if you are Picasso…”

      Or to put it another way, Picasso was a “Deadly Genius” with the combination of brilliance and conventional skills that allowed him to go where other artists couldn’t follow.

  6. The thing is, anything that’s put into a story should be there for a reason. When something non-standard is happening in the story, as with telepathy like LizV mentioned, the author needs to signal the reader in some way. Using non-standard formatting for those situations usually works all right as long as it’s not overblown. The more non-standard the situation and, erm, creative the solution, the more likely the reader is going to miss the point and be thrown so far out of the story they don’t want to come back. uayor

  7. “1. You can get away with that if you are Tolkien.

    “2. You are not Tolkien.”

    Oh, how true.

    That said, it is less disastrous to try to copy Tolkien than to copy many other best-sellers, because his prose is simple, flexible, and intelligible. He can switch (as Dorothy L. Sayers said of Dante) from “the south suburbs near the Elephant” to “the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces” without breaking a sweat.

    But remember that Tolkien started writing in the tag-end of World War I, when he was in and out of hospital with (perhaps partly psychosomatic) trench fever, and could write, or at least plot, while lying still.

    Who was it first said that every writer has inside him one million words of crap, and has to get it out of his system and onto paper before he can write anything readable/salable? Tolkien had decades to get through his million words.

    A good place to put your million words of crap is into somebody’s fanzine (or, these days, website). One learns by doing.

    Talking of websites: the persistent faithful who’ve been bugging me to put _The Interior Life_ online have finally convinced me: it’s going on my webpage and will not cost anybody a cent. I’ll let those interested know when it’s up.

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