Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Saturday, January 28, 2006

CRAFT: Subversive Writing

No, not subversive in the political sense. Subversive in the sense that I don’t believe in rules and I don’t think you should, either. When editors say they want to see something different, I believe this is what they mean. They want something that fits their marketing strategies and lines, for example, if they publish contemporary romance or suspense then they want a story that fits that genre, but when you stop to think about it, that’s a pretty darn loose framework. In fact, you can do anything you want as long as the ending is satisfying to the reader and satisfies the expectations of the marketing framework, that is, boy gets girl by the end of a contemporary romance.

As Thomas Edison said, “Rules? There ain’t no rules around here, we’re trying to accomplish something!”

That’s what I’m talking about. Subversive.
This does not mean the following:

  • That you can forget about the rules of grammar. If you are an artist, you must be an expert with your medium. If you are a writer, your medium is writing and you absolutely must master the framework of writing, which is grammar. To not do so would be like an artist saying they don’t need to know how to draw a recognizable shape. Even an abstract artist needs to master the basic skill of drawing, and just like an artist, you must master your basic skill of writing, which includes grammar.
  • That you don’t have to make sense to anyone but yourself. Baloney. The point of writing is to communicate. If you don’t want to communicate your ideas or story with others, than don’t write it. Or, if you write it, keep it to yourself. You can’t communicate if no one can understand what the heck you’re talking about, so make sense.
  • Styling instead of writing your story. The perfect example of this is e.e. cummings. That’s the poet that went with all lower case and threw out many of the rules of grammar. That’s fine and it may have worked for the first poem or two, if that style was relevant to what was trying to be communicated in the poem. But after that, it became just another snobby, intellectual game.
    Do not chose style over content if you are trying to write something you want to sell as a novel, unless that style somehow supports what you want to accomplish. This sort of thing can be made to work, but you have to use your judgment. In fact, one of my favorite short stories was written in the form of a research paper complete with footnotes, and it was incredibly effective. Another author wrote their novel in the form of e-mails, which worked for that story. But in both cases, the story came first and the style supported that story. For goodness sake, don’t think of some “new” style and then squash a story into it, just to be different.

Surprisingly, that’s about it. You see? That’s really a short list.

Once you know how to write (that is, understand grammar and frame a story with a beginning, middle and end) you can use whatever techniques you feel are best suited to the story you are telling. I encourage you to try different things. When you look at the writers who have “made a mark” in one way or another, you often find they agree with Thomas Edison.

Nora Roberts completely ignores the rules about “staying in one character’s point of view, and avoiding head-hopping”. So do a lot of other writers. While I'm not fond of people shifting point of view to other characters when they are telling the story in first person (e.g. I was shopping last Friday and ran into a hit man...) I've seen this done effectively. The key is knowing when to do this.

P.G. Wodehouse made up words right and left, such as gazelling down the stairs. (That word really is brilliant and gives you a precise picture of someone gracefully jumping down the stairs.)

Michael McClelland completely ignored the advice about point of view and I don’t know how many other rules in Oyster Blues when he digressed for three fantastic pages about what happened when a chicken carcass was thrown overboard into the ocean. It worked. It was fabulous!

Those are just three examples, but they really do give you an idea of what I mean by subversive writing. It’s having the skill to support your story through the use of writing techniques that may not conform to every writing “rule of the road”. Slightly different techniques can enhance and make your novel different, and that’s just one of the things, and perhaps a very minor thing, that editors mean when they say they’re looking for that fabled: something different.

Of course, they also mean a different slant on the genre, a different theme, different characters, or many, many other things, but keep in mind that the rules out there may or may not help you. Learn them, certainly be aware of them, and if you are uncomfortable as a writer, you may follow the rules to keep from straying into the brambles or over an unseen cliff, but be aware that as you grow as a writer, you only have to remember one thing: do what is best and most effective for your story. That’s it.

Rules? What rules?

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