Above all else, writing calls on an author to be an “imagineer.” To repeat the same old, same old, or to structure each new project on the tried and true, means an author’s not being true to himself. He’s holding fast to somebody else’s rules of writing’s right and wrongs. He’s playing in the shallow end of the pool, afraid to take chances, to color outside the lines.
Say you’re baking sugar cookies. You measure the ingredients carefully, mix them well, and time the baking perfectly. The result is round, bland and predictable cookies. Instead, consider taking a muffin pan, turning it upside down and baking the sugar cookie dough over the bottom of the muffin wells. What you end up with are sugar cook cups. Fill them with ice cream, sorbet, pudding, fruit, top them with whipped cream, strawberries, sprinkles, butterscotch sauce or the queen of flavors, chocolate. Now you’ve taken the boring and predictable and morphed it into a glam dessert.
Why not do the same with your writing? Why not experiment with breaking the “rules” all writers are advised to obey if they ever wish to be published? I don’t mean all the rules of course, ala James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, but some.
A case in point: I recently wrote a blog on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in which she does exactly that, breaks some of the rules. In the first 20 pages of the book she introduces 11 major characters. Count ‘em, eleven. And for 10 of them, she piles on backstory. Pages of backstory right at the book’s beginning. Imagine. Haven’t you been told to avoid doing so, that it’s tantamount to an authorial crime?
Best of all, she gets away with it. The book is a literary icon.
The truth is some rules deserve to be broken. The antihero can act heroically, the heroine can have mousey brown hair, the cozy mystery can have—gasp--sex and a guitar player as the protag. For me, being able to make unexpected changes like this is what makes the writing game worthwhile.
That said, some rules remain virtually inviolate especially in the mystery form. Justice prevails. The culprit is caught. The good guys win. In And Then There Were None, all 10 victims are killed because they had committed crimes. So Christie retained a vital rule. She served justice while breaking enough other rules to give her book an interesting edge. I’ve tried to emulate her example. In Designed for Death I had my heroine work in an arty business, made her a grieving widow with sexy, showgirl legs, and tossed in a few wild characters of a type not usually found in cozy mysteries But . . . and we all know nothing matters till we reach the but . . . the good guys do win in the end.
So a lot of innovation can take place within the boundaries of a form. I’m learning to keep what has been proven to work but to put a fresh spin on it. Sometimes you want a round sugar cookie to dunk in your milk. Other times, you transform that raw dough into a little vessel that will hold all manner of surprises. The chance to choose between the two, not to have to follow the well-trodden path, is what makes writing such an exciting journey.
Now I’m off to find the kitchen.
Check out DESIGNED FOR DEATH by Jean Harrington