Nobody wants their writing to be described as “conventional” or “formulaic,” and in an effort to avoid such damning judgements, many young writers throw themselves past creative writing guides, the rules of writing, and all the catalogues of conventional wisdom, instead opting to carve their own path. But before you follow suit and bend all the rules to write experimental fiction, there are a few things you need to know.
3 Secrets for Writing Great Experimental Fiction
Taking risks is an important part of being a writer, and desiring to cultivate a unique voice and a fresh way of expressing oneself is a drive that should be applauded. There’s certainly no shortage of celebrated writers who ignored their period’s conventional means of communication and cut off on their own: James Joyce, Eimear McBride, David Markson, Christine Brook-Rose, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Wilson Harris, Ann Quin . . . the list goes on.
Except that these novelists didn’t ignore the conventional “rules” of writing—no, they studied them carefully, evaluated each best practice, and departed from these established methods for a clearly defined reason.
This is the difference between a fresh-out-of-college twenty-something’s verb-less, comma-less novel about sentient balloons who can’t blink and who speak only in quotations from the apocrypha, and works like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, or McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing: knowledge, awareness, a sense of informed restraint.
So what’s the secret? Follow these three essentials to experiment well.
1. Know the “best practices” of writing.
It might seem that the best practices of writing espoused by writing websites, bloggers, and editors are in place for those amateur writers who have a story they want to tell but who have no real idea how they’re going to tell that story. Such people are not full of ideas on how best to communicate complex and abstract plots, but you are! You’ve got a complicated plot touching on big themes, and wouldn’t it be great if you wrote the whole story in the lower case or if you ignored grammar rules? After all, it worked for Cormac McCarthy.
But the best practices are there for reasons other than helping new writers get stuck in. The tenets you’ll hear repeated again and again—show, don’t tell; write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs; avoid cliché; favour clarity above all else; etc.—are there because they are the standard of good modern writing in fiction.
This wasn’t always the case; older novels have much more “tell” than “show” (think of the works of Dickens or Dostoyevsky), but just as fashion changes, so too do writing trends. For your writing, even your experimental fiction, to be considered “good,” the least it has to do is take these best practices into account.
2. Always know what you’re doing.
Of course, that’s not to say you have to write like this. The important thing is to know why you’re flouting a rule or best practice—by all means, write only in the lower case if you have a good reason to do so; write in the second person if need be; absolutely craft a dialogue-free novel if to do so is to double down on the book’s dominant themes—just always be ready to justify every outlandish decision you make.
Let’s look at David Foster Wallace’s mammoth text Infinite Jest as an example. It’s over a thousand pages long, was originally subtitled A Failed Entertainment, and regularly sends the reader to the back of the book to check the 388 endnotes scattered throughout the prose.
Each of these stylistic choices—the sheer length, the breaking up of narrative flow, the endnotes, the maximalist descriptions, the unusual narrative structure (it’s almost a rebellion against a traditional 3-act structure), the absent ending—all hammer home and help foreground the book’s themes, making for a work of incredible thematic and formal purity.
Nothing is thrown in here for the sake of it—Wallace wasn’t trying to be kooky or edgy when he added a scene where a father laments his son’s inability to speak even as the boy addresses him, but was instead referencing back to the book’s thematic preoccupations and literary intentions.
3. Remember: rules are not “rules.”
I’m not trying to dissuade experimentation in fiction—far from it. I simply want to encourage young writers to think about why “show, don’t tell” simply won’t do for a particular scene, story, or novel, or how exactly the removal of speech marks will improve a text’s dialogue.
The adage rings true—rules are there to be broken, even this one. That’s right—I can argue that experimentation needs to be justified until the cows come home, but that didn’t stop George Saunders from writing The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, a brilliant novella where all the characters are amalgamations of mechanical and organic shapes, simply because a friend bet him he couldn’t.
Happily for me (and George), these anthropomorphized masses of non-person become poignant in light of the story’s themes of dehumanization and national security, so my argument stands. So there.
How Will You Experiment?
At the end of the day, experimentation is one of the best ways to improve as a writer. Experimentation will make you more inventive, more courageous, and less likely to be pushed around by grammar and form. So think of some mad ideas and get going.
Have you ever written experimental fiction? What rules do you flout? Let us know in the comments.
Today, we're breaking all the rules—or at least one. Pick one of the rules we mentioned above: show don't tell, write with nouns and verbs, avoid cliche. Or, choose a different writing rule to disobey.
Then, take fifteen minutes to write a scene of experimental fiction that flouts the rule you chose as much as possible. How flagrantly can you break it?
When you're done, share your story in the comments. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Bonus: Tell us why you chose the rule you did. What purpose did subverting that rule play in your story? Would the piece have worked differently if you had obeyed the rule?