Review of a special genre this week. I’ve declared a holiday for myself on specific reviews, because I’m engrossed in a two-book series that is very difficult to read. I’ll leave it to my regular readers to guess which one it is when the review finally comes out next month.
Genre Review: The “To Hell with Conventions” Book
(“Monkeys on Typewriters,” sounded like a catchy title, but then I thought my writer clients might be upset.)
When you buy a lottery ticket, you probably have a million-to-one chance of winning. But consider those million chances as opposed to all the other trillions of chances you have of not winning, if you didn’t buy a ticket at all. All the monkeys typing on all the typewriters in an imaginary universe can’t write you a win if you don’t buy a ticket. So buying your first ticket improves your odds of winning immensely. Buying your second or seventy-third ticket only increases your odds by one millionth.
Likewise, the first time a two-year-old screams “No!” it is a momentous occasion. Especially for the two-year-old, because it marks a huge developmental jump towards individuality. And for his poor parents, because it augurs a change in their lives as well. The seventy-third “No!” is just another terrible twos tantrum, and means almost nothing. Unless you’re in a nice restaurant.
Remember these points when we speak of artists who break the rules. Let us leave the monkeys on typewriters and move to a more concrete image.
Originality Or …?
When you design and build a wonderful log home in the wilderness, you create a unique living experience that is specifically designed to your wants and needs and disregards the rules of the conventional houses that most people want.
When you go to sell your home, you discover how specific your design was. The client who is thinking of buying your unique home has to decide whether that unique lifestyle is the one he envisions. He also has to make up his mind whether you were truly creative when you broke all those normal housing conventions, or whether you just made a lot of mistakes because of inexperience or lack of due diligence.
So he is counting on you to have considered the water table so the well doesn’t go dry every fall, and checked out the topography so that it is possible to drive into the property, even in winter.
And if a few of these items look to be poorly thought out, then the buyer can be forgiven for suspecting that you weren’t really creative at all; you just don’t give a damn about the rules. And then all the wonderful assets of your home become suspect as well.
Back to the Monkeys with their Futile Typing
If you are trying to be very creative in art by breaking all the rules at once, you are creating the baby’s first “no.” The first one is very impressive. Thereafter, every rule you break is of no more use than the seventy-third lottery ticket. It just says, “Look at me, breaking all the rules. Whee!” And we don’t care.
If, on the other hand, you break only a few of the rules of your medium and you break them consistently, and you are scrupulous about keeping the other rules, then the observer trusts that you really mean what you say. That you have put your effort where your ideas are. If those ideas click with the customers and they, too, feel constrained by the same rules that you broke, then the isolation and the challenge and the constant upkeep of that country home become positives, and you’ve got a customer.
A Tip from the Master of Mayhem
When Salvador Dali paints a clock, it is a clock. It is realistic in colour and shading. It has a face and hands and numbers in a circle. But it hangs like a dishrag. And we look at that and our imaginations go on fire. We trust that Dali is communicating something to us, because he has only broken one rule. He has invested time and talent and years of training into creating this work, so it must mean a lot to him. So it also must mean a lot to him to communicate his message to us. And we love it and we do our darndest to figure out what that message is.
So if you are a fan of Slaughterhouse 5 and One Hundred Years of Solitude and you think you’re up to writing the next Ulysses, be very careful. Above all, make sure you have a very experienced editor onside.
Don’t Break All Your Eggs in one Basket
Smashing a few conventions can be wonderful. But if at the same time your syntax is lousy and your manuscript is full of spelling errors, then nobody will be able to tell whether you intended to break those conventions, or if you just didn’t know any better. Worse yet, that you don’t care.
The Fractured Timeline
I am always suspicious of people who write novels that are purposefully fragmented, jumping back and forth in point of view, setting, and time. Complicated sentence structure, obscure references, that sort of thing. I wonder if they aren’t disguising the fact that they really don’t have much to say. All they have created is a very complicated treasure hunt with a box of cotton candy at the end.
Do You Like Puzzles?
To be fair, some people like these stories. As long as the journey is considered most of the fun and the end is a decent reward, that’s fine. As long as readers think they have a fair chance to solve the puzzle.
And are warned ahead of time. Otherwise you’re going to have a lot of 1-star reviews for a work that may deserve more. As a way of earning income, that ranks right up there with the seventy-third lottery ticket.