Friday, May 19, 2006

JC: Literary Anarchy

WARNING: The views expressed in this blog are graphic in their portrayal of lawless composition. Reader discretion is advised.

I broke a rule today. I admit it. In fact, I’m proud of it. Given the same circumstances, I’d do it again.

I violated a point of view rule. Switched points of view in the middle of scene. Without a section break.

Does that make me a bad person?

It gets worse. When my editor attempted to correct it, I persuaded her to let it stand. I seduced her to the dark side. Not only am I a transgressor, but I’m tempting innocent editors to transgress with me in this vicious downward cycle of depravity.

Am I wicked?

That’s the danger of rule breaking, isn’t it? You get a taste for it. Violate a point of view today, and tomorrow…what? Deliberately misspelling words? Intentionally crafting run-on sentences?

Oh my, where will it end? We’re talking literary anarchy!

Blame John Milton. He resisted efforts to create order out of spelling chaos. Had he a dictionary, he would have burned it in protest. Milton opposed standardized spelling. He argued for the freedom to vary the spelling of a word for creative emphasis and impact.

Think of the chaos! If we didn’t have standardized spelling, what would happen to the National Spelling Bee?

Blame Dean Koontz. In an early book on writing bestselling fiction (now out of print; the publisher sites declining sales, but I suspect a rogue consortium of editors got to them), Koontz advocated writing sentences that were a page and a half long. He cited a time conundrum, when it takes longer to describe an action than it takes to enact it.

The accepted way to quicken narrative pace is to shorten sentences—a time-honored technique approved by editors. But sometimes short sentences make the narrative choppy. Koontz advocated using commas, semi-colons, and colons to create one long breathless sentence.

It works.

But the technique comes with a price. Publishing houses have reported that incidents of editor apoplexy are on the rise. They point to page and half sentences as a contributing cause.

Another example of literary anarchy is e. e. cummings who slaughtered capitalization rules with abandon. He got away with it because everyone thinks poets are cute and no one takes them seriously.

Breaking literary rules is a serious matter. Don’t try it at home. Leave it to the professionals.
If you break a rule and it works, everyone copies you. If there’s a ground swell of public rule breaking, they’ll change the rule. The split infinitive is the poster-boy for recent changes. Once the favorite target of editors and English teachers, now it’s acceptable to occasionally split those pesky infinitives.

If you break narrative rules and it works, English Lit teachers will read your prose aloud to their classes as a brave example of stylized writing. You’re a genius.

But what if you break the rules and it doesn’t work? Simple. You’re a hack.

Call me a rebel, a throwback to the lawless sixties and tie-dyed shirts and psychedelic posters and protest songs, but a little literary anarchy now and again is a good thing. Sometimes authority must be challenged. Sometimes Strunk and White and Webster’s are wrong. (Gasp!)

Sometimes a writer’s gotta do what a writer’s gotta do.

ADVISORY: No rules were harmed in the writing of this blog.

Jack Cavanaugh is the co-author of Storm.


At 1:09 AM, Blogger ~ Brandilyn Collins said...

to highly endorse braking the rools is an act of treasinous arragance with which i shall not put

At 9:16 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

I can't believe you broke the POV rule, Jack! Mary agreed with Jim. I mean, Jack, come on, I feel really uneasy about this. Mary nodded, angry and confused.

At 9:23 AM, Blogger Angela said...

Ack! Eeek! Uff da! I'm hyperventalating over here at the thought of a POV violation!


Since it's Jack Cavanaugh, I know I can relax. In the hands of such a master, I may not even notice it. :-)


At 3:57 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

Because you're such a great writer, you can probably get away with it, but I've seen it in other books and frankly, it jerks me out of the story.

Of course, that writer didn't do it seamlessly. A new emotion was there before I knew whose it was, thus jarring.

I'd sure like to see how you did it, Jack. (Eyebrow wiggle here.) Who knows, you might start a new old trend. Back to omniscience. LOL

At 12:44 AM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Wahoo! A law breaker!LOL! When I get published, I'll try a walk on the wild side...but for now...I'm chicken!

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack Cavanaugh says --

Love your comments (especially those who got into the spirit of rule breaking, Brandilyn). Now that the shock has worn off, I would add these comments:

When I teach writing I suggest the following course of action when one is contemplating breaking the rules--

1. Know the rules.
2. Master the rules.
3. Only then, break the rules for dramatic effect.

For those who are shocked by the whole idea of breaking the POV rule, allow me to seduce you with this thought -- Just for fun... if you were to break it.... could you make it work?

For me, I had a climax scene in which all of my story's POV characters came together. It was an action scene. The narrative had to be quick. All of their stories climaxed at this point. I couldn't bring myself to limit the narrative to a single POV. And putting in section breaks every three to four sentences would be clumsy. So I asked myself... would it be possible to switch POV without the breaks and without creating confusion?

Hmmmm. Interesting puzzle for a novelist, don't you think?


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