This week’s shredding was an absolute mess. Three chapters with no transitions, no actual scenes. It was written in a stream of consciousness memoir style. The narrator blipped in and out of awareness in glimpses of memories. Pieces that had only a loose chronological organization. Then it moved to another character and recounted his backstory in the exact same fashion. It was less like a novel and more like two people sitting at the kitchen table talking about a book they had read.
It was a mess, a beautiful, open, honest, raw and bleeding, mess. I loved it.
As I got to the end of the partial, I realized the overall structure of the book was a Joy Luck Club set in a small town diner owned and operated by recovering addicts. Each chapter of the book was dedicated to one of the people working in the diner, telling their story and how they came to the work at the diner. It was a collection of addiction stories, each poignant and painful.
The hazy structure of the narration served the story. In the opening chapter, we learn the story of the owner and how/why she came to open the diner. We also know that she was high through most of the narration. For this reason, the sudden flashes of consciousness make sense. Most of the day was blocked out. Her experience lacked transitions because only a significant moment would push through the drugs and make a permanent memory. If the author had given us clear transitions, we would have lost the sensation of being high with the character.
As an editor, this MS drove me insane. I wanted to make it fit into neat little packages: defined scenes with clear goals, story arcs, clean transitions, no backstory dumps, all the things the writing guides preach about. But the reader in me fell deep into the story. This MS is an example of why writers shouldn’t always follow canon. There are times to be rebellious.
Innovation is the basis of art
All the arts are perpetually evolving. Artists are constantly pushing the boundaries. Chaucer dared to write in English. Mozart dared to write operas about people, rather than gods. Brunelleschi’s demonstration of perspective revolutionized Renaissance art. Innovation is the life of the arts. In the current climate, innovation in the visual arts this tends to be rewarded, where the publishing industry remains staunchly conservative. Add this to the current decline in traditional publishing and most houses are reluctant to take chances on novels that stray from the formula. Literary fiction, in particular, is plagued by its reputation for low sales. It seems to be something from another age, as American cultural icons are more Kardashian than Truman Capote.
Perhaps we need to resurrect the romanticism of the starving artist, and writers should take more chances. Straying from the formula and worrying less about what will sell. Writers should listen to their own stories and do what the story demands.
Had the author chosen to turn her story into a narrative fiction and followed the rules, the book would have lost its impact. It would have become like every other book on the shelf, and its beauty would have been lost.
How do I know if I can break the rules?
The short answer is you don’t. With any experiment, your only option is to try it and then analyze the results for yourself, but there are a few guidelines.
- Be intentional. If you are going to break a rule, make sure you leave no doubt about whether it was an accident. In this MS, the narration lacked any transitions. This worked because the MC was stoned. Breaking the rule added to the experience, it made sense logically. If the writer had only left out transitions in a few places but left them in others, it would have looked like a mistake. She could double-down on this if she made clear transitions when the MC was sober.
- If you are writing genre fiction, e.g. romance novels for a specific line. Breaking certain rules will guarantee your novel will never get published or might mean you have to rethink your category.
- Know why the current convention doesn’t work for your story and why breaking the rule is a better choice. Pulp Fiction is famous for telling a story out of order. This was an innovative method when the movie was released, but it is the reason the movie works so well.
Be selective about what rules you break.
Conventions exist in writing because they work on some level. Readers rely on these conventions to make sense of a story. In the same way people tend to like music they are familiar with, people also like story structures that meet certain expectations. Give your readers enough that is familiar that they feel comfortable, and then stretch them gently. Breaking every rule without cause will turn your MS into an undecipherable mess, but introducing some innovation will drive the evolution of literature and propel your MS into something memorable.