Thursday, December 11, 2008


Murphy's comment is worth highlighting, and I'm going to copy just a bit, but go and read it-- it's the first comment in my just previous post.

Before I ever commit to testing these boundaries though, I’m given to wonder: How accepting is a reader likely to be, when a mainstream fiction writer breaks from traditional form? I mean, personally I feel that any art form - be it (paintings, movies or books) that invites an individual to explore themselves - their meaning and overall place in the creation of their own history, is to be admired – but like Kaufman’s well would it be received? Sure, you will have an audience but, is it the right audience? Who are you actually writing for? More importantly, what is the voice that you want the world to hear? If it’s your voice, as the narrator, is what you have to impart to the reader, more important than the words your characters may have to speak for themselves? ...In the end would the truth of your fiction be better received this way? - It is certainly something to think about.

So let's say that you want to use popular fiction tropes and stories-- you love the thriller plot, or you read a lot of mysteries, or you can't write without a romance-- but you also want to innovate-- you want an unhappy ending, or you want the murderer to be someone you didn't introduce earlier, or....

First, if you are considering innovating with your current story, how? What convention are you spinning away from, and why?

Then do you think there's a way to make this acceptable? To reach readers, you have to get by editors (who can be more wedded to convention than readers are!). So... what works, to innovate without rejection?

Alicia (who actually did get all the grading done, only to find that several of the grades had turned into negatives... gotta love technology)


Ian said...

I've always felt that I would rather write what I WANT to write rather than feel like I'm cheating myself in favor of writing what I think people want to read. Perhaps that's not the best business practice, but let's face it - if I had a head for business, why on earth would I be doing this? I'd be off securing my government bailout and golden parachute!

I like the philosophy of "if you build it, they will come." So if I choose to write a book featuring *ahem* a sword-swinging milkman battling aliens who are sentient farts, then write it I will (and, in fact, did. I've also written such monstrosities as a sports story spoof featuring the fast-paced world of professional forklift racing and a western full of elves and dwarves. My world, I make the rules.

No writer should fear to tread where others won't. Somebody will want to read it, no matter how unconventional it is. You may never make a mint doing it, but then who would have thought a silly little tale about an unlikely boy in a wizarding school with a ridiculous name would be much of a success?

Maree Anderson said...

I've never managed to write 'straight' -- always seems to come out twisted! And if I do try to conform -- write to a specific market -- then it's a)vanilla and b)tedious to write.

I remember my first writer's group meeting, surrounded by romance writers going on about which editor was wanting this and which market you should write for... Horrors! I had no idea writing was meant to be so targeted. Best advice I was ever given at that meeting was to "write the book of your heart". So that's what I do. Every time. And hopefully one day, it'll turn be the one everyone wants to read - hey, I'm not entirely stupid about marketing and increasing my chances, LOL!

Currently I've been playing with a reversal of the male/female hero/heroine dynamic. The ms has done well in a couple of comps (when all the judges have been in accord - rare!) but generally I get the 'love it' vs 'hate it' reactions. No middle ground at all. Always interesting to see what pushes people's buttons.

Anyway, here's a well-earned 'time-out' for Alicia, for finishing all her grading. Hopefully it'll garner a wee chuckle or two? Check out with their "Ghost of Christmas Future Perfect Passive" cartoon. LOL!


Anonymous said...

This is arguably not the best place for this question, but this is the perfect website for it.."breaking the rules" because it sounds better:

My gut tells me this sentence is grammatically incorrect:

He threw salt first over his right shoulder, then his left.

possible issues--"then" as a connecting adverb, do you need to say "then OVER his left" for parallel structure, etc. Technically, it should probably be "He threw salt over his right shoulder. Then, he threw salt over his left shoulder." But that's not stylistically pleasing.

Is such a sentence a "red flag" of poor grammar??

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

I do think it's true that there is somebody out there who will want to read whatever wacky or unconventional story premise you choose to write. That doesn't mean, however, there is somebody out there who will want to PUBLISH it. Different writers have different needs and different amounts of time they can afford to devote to this career, so each has got to decide for him or herself where to strike the balance between commercialism and "art", for lack of a better phrase.

Anonymous said...

I think that innovation will become both more challenging and more desirable in the current market. Picking up books that will sell well has been the modus operandi of the publishing industry for the past several years, even though originally publishers were more willing to pick up a work because the editor and publisher believed it could be an important contribution to the literary community, not because it would fly off the shelves. Right now, the major publishers are suffering and I think the "just do what sells" attitude may become less significant as the big publishers flounder and smaller publishers, who have always been more likely to stick out their necks for a book, gain their footing.
It's always a risk to differ from what you're audience expects, but the important thing is to know your audience, even if that means you want to create one. If you are writing in an established genre, the important thing is to keep in mind what the audience for that genre might be receptive to. Authors have challenged the built-in tropes successfully in the past. The key is to know if your audience will be receptive to it, and sometimes the only way to do that is to try it out first. That's what critique groups are for.

Edittorrent said...

"He threw salt first over his right shoulder, then his left.">>

You're right to wonder if, since "then" replaces "first," what follows "then" should be in the same form as what follows "first"-- so--

"He threw salt first over his right shoulder, then over his left."

But most readers wouldn't notice, and many editors wouldn't either-- I think I'd probably only notice if the rhythm seemed wrong (as it does)-- that is, it would "feel" wrong, and only after that intuitive recognition would I go back and figure out what was wrong.

So how red a flag it would be for ME would probably depend on how intuitive I was when I was reading it. :) That is, if I were feeling particularly dull-witted, like after a whole lot of grading :), I wouldn't pick up on it.

But trust me, no one gets rejected for that! The music and rhythm of your sentences matter more, and the sense and logic, of course. What is more of a problem that I see in rejected submissions are sentences that are too long and complicated and end up not making sense. For example, when you start with a dependent clause or some introductory phrase, you might lose track of what the actual subject is, and end up having a subjectless sentence, like:

With so many people in the US lose their retirement savings.

Well, that's not as long and complicated as some of the sentences I have seen and garbled at. When I see sentence after sentence like that, I have to think, "I've got to fix everyone of those," and often they aren't easy five-second fixes. And I have to decide whether this story is worth that level of work, knowing 1) the author will very likely object to so much fixing, and 2) I will probably not fix every sentence that needs it, and some will slip through and bother me later. I might be willing if the story is fabulous and the author seems to be the reasonable sort (but what writer is "reasonable" when prose is at stake?). But if the story is less than momentous and the author less than lovely, I'd probably pass.

But anyway, the occasional sentence that has a problem, especially a high-level problem, isn't going to cause a rejection. For one thing, I think when an editor is evaluating, she's not reading closely as she will be later when she's line-editing. So she might not even notice a problem that isn't obvious or isn't repeated (like the missing subject sentence). When the sentence meaning is clear (as it is in your example), the "evaluating" editor will probably just pass right over it until it's time to line edit.


Edittorrent said...

"every one"-- sorry! Two words, not one.

Riley Murphy said...

To innovate without rejection? Is it possible to separate the story - or message, from the vessels that are carrying it to the reader? In that, your message might be so worthwhile, earth shattering or interesting (I know I’ve written a whole slew of stories just like that..LOL) that you can carry the reader away in the scope of it - without the reader minding that you may have deviated from convention and cast a sinister lead character - or a morally questionable heroine? You know, when the ‘now’ in the story is more important than what the character’s have lived through just to get there (usually, the present has no real substance without the past - right?). So why not switch it up? I guess when I think of breaking from convention and innovating - I wonder if it is possible to garner the sympathy, understanding and support that an author desires from the reader – without all the usual justifications, that said author, has been conditioned to introduce, to make the reader feel comfortable?

Which brings me right back to the (the previous post) and the notion of ‘violating the expected’. Isn’t this idea contrary with putting the reader/viewer at ease? Yes, thank God, - and I was trying to wrack my brains to come up with an example that brought a clear meaning to this phrase and concept -at least for me. What I came up with - was UGH, another movie - but it fits, so I’m using it. True Romance...which is nothing like what it sounds – (at least, this is what I had to tell my husband to get him to watch it), -and once he did? He was glad that he had - Why? It violated his expectations in a positive girl flick here - this had blood, violence -gore - graphic sex - and yes even romance (although it certainly wasn’t what one would call a typical courtship) ....but, it was close enough to be deemed romantic...well, if you overlook the fact that the lead character is a thief - I guess that was okay, because he only stole a suitcase of cocaine from a drug dealer - so that doesn’t count, right? And the female lead is the dealer’s prostitute – do we care about this, once she is rescued by the regular guy turned somewhat of hero when he bests the dealer? No, but, shouldn’t we? - I mean, prostitution is prostitution and stealing is stealing, right? Maybe it is the old ‘lesser of two evils’ kind of a subconscious acceptance? A suitcase filled with cocaine is bad, even illegal - so whether it is the hero/heroine - or dealer who has possession of it, it doesn’t change the fundamental fact that wrong is wrong...I shouldn’t want either party to triumph in the quest of obtaining the drugs - but, I did. And yes, once I had the time to break the experience down and really look inside the story (that managed to carry me away) I saw nothing remarkable in the characters that were presented - just a man and a woman who had done nothing particularly special with their lives - nor, had they redeemed themselves by enhancing the lives of the others around them - In point of fact, -they had made poor choices all along - which propelled them to where I came in to watch - and yet, I found myself wanting them to succeed in the predicament that they had stumble upon and into - (which further still, by their careless participation - wrecked havoc on some of their loved ones) -Yet, stubbornly I remained supportive of them. Why?
Possibly it was the surprise of it all, as the scenes unfolded. Shocked by the unexpected and caught off guard like I was, I was less inclined to question the motives of the writer and more apt to pay attention to the characters journey instead - if, for nothing else, than the uniqueness of the experience. Was this story ‘comfortable to watch? No. Was the storyline a new one? No, so what set this experience apart from others similar ones, that I have had? Quite simply, the story was presented with no excuses. I mean you never knew why she was prostitute or why the hero decided to save her and take on the drug dealer and then steal the drugs. It just happened. Indeed there was no sense of urgency, until after the hero initiated the first confrontation - so, here again, the unexpected - a seemingly good guy - puts his life on the line to save a bad girl? I guess it was real and messy and raw...and what’s not to relate to those things? They are all the poignant facets that make up one’s life...and this is where I would start if I wanted to innovate in the current story I am writing...making the experience more – well, nitty-gritty and human. Yet strangely, just thinking about messing up the tight little world that I have worked so hard to control, build and protect? Leaves me feeling violated...
Wow, inspiration and an epiphany - all in the span of two days?! Goodbye writer’s block - hello grindstone :).

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Alicia, for such a quick and detailed response to my question!

I adore this blog.


em said...

I have been lurking for awhile and I am hooked! I'm going to have to go see Synecdoche after reading the blogs and comments.

Anonymous said...

An interesting topic and one I was considering for my latest project. My last one, alas, probably was too innovative and different for the genre it was in, and it didn't interest any agents. I came to realize that a book needs to be different, but not so different that no one wants to take a risk.

My current one is an urban fantasy. To be different while not being too different:

* I don't have any vampires or werewolves

* I have a male main character

* The story is omniscient viewpoint(required by the story, by the way), not first person

* It has a thriller basis, not a private detective basis

The first three have been done before, but aren't that common. The last one is the one I'm taking the real risk on. While there are some UFs that have veered away from the private detective format, none have quite ventured into thriller territory (or at least the territory I'm venturing into--it's a treasure hunt). However, given that I'm hearing stories about people are getting tired of the vamp stories, I'm hoping that mine really will look fresh without scaring people off.