This is a guest post by Ezekel Alan
The older I get, the less inclined I am to finish books that I have started. This is because many of them seem to be the same as others I have read before. Same general plot, same build up, same unerring predictability. Also, too many of them are written with the same “the air was still and ominous” conventional prose.
There are thousands of books out there, all competing for the reader’s attention. Most of their writers, however, continue to employ the traditional MFA prescribed styles of writing. This is no longer a winning formula, not in such a crowded marketplace with thousands of self-published titles hitting the market monthly.
The two major challenges a new writer will face are (a) writing a high quality and compelling story that people will want to read, and (b) getting that story in front of the reader. Today, we will focus only on the first challenge. And my major advice to the new writer is to disregard the normal ‘creative’ writing techniques, and all the normal writing drills, and try to come up with an approach and a style that readers will find refreshingly different and inventive.
Unconventional style and story
I continue to read a lot, but in the past few years the stories I’ve found most delightful were those that were most unconventional. Take for instance books such as Room and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Both were told from a very unique point of view: one from the perspective of a 5-year-old child completely unaware of the devastatingly tragic situation he and his mom are in, and the other from the viewpoint of a child with Asperger syndrome. Even though these writers may not be masterful in their techniques, it took real ingenuity to pull off this feat, and both books got the word-of-mouth promotion of people saying, “Have you read that interesting book…”
Similarly, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America is one of the most original and inventive books I’ve ever read. The novel appears to be an abstract work without a storyline, and three-quarters of the way in I was still unsure of what the heck was going on. But it turned out brilliantly. Brautigan is regarded as one of America’s most creative and original writers. If you are a new writer, put this book on your to-read list!
The same can be said for writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, who is in the habit of telling me a completely different story from what he promised at the start of his books. Read Slaughterhouse Five to see what I mean. (By the way, the official long title of the book is Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This should give a sense of what to expect.)
Other thoroughly unconventional titles include two novel/plays Waiting for Godot, and The Piano Lesson. The latter, which won a Pulitzer Prize, has a leechlike character that gets under your skin and stays there.
Unconventional similes and metaphors
If you can blend an unconventional story or perspective with outside-the-box prose, then I think you have something. Take this prose as an example:
“He tried to outrun them, but, in the end, he was easier to catch than Genital Herpes.” Rare is the writer who would put these two ideas together. But it works! It catches the reader completely off-guard, and gets them to think, “I haven’t heard that one before!”
In my own writing I avoid normal descriptive details for everyday things. Personally I find reading about the colors of leaves tedious. I will write, “She walked the way women walk when they are Japanese.” This way I don’t spend too much time on certain details, and, at the same time, I invite the reader to use their own imagination to think of how a Japanese woman would walk.
Books such as Angela’s Ashes, The Kite Runner, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are captivating only partly because of the exceptional storytelling abilities of the authors. Another factor is that these stories transport readers to another place and introduce them to lives they could not have imagined. Readers see new cultures, learn about superstitions, and discover alien objects and languages. This is fresh, different.
How do you come up with a story and style of this sort?
There is a famous Spanish painter, Salvador Dalí, whose work is not only visually arresting, but even psychotic. I read that Dalí would often do strange things to stimulate his creativity, including setting a very loud alarm to startle himself awake at odd hours of the morning, letting himself fall down the stairs to give his brain a jolt, and so on. I don’t recommend this. I would, though, recommend stepping outside of the norm, reading authors and styles you don’t normally read, listening different genres of music, traveling to places you wouldn’t normally go, and trying to see other perspectives and other ways of articulating ideas. Also, look at what you have written. Ask yourself: Is everyone else trying to write in this manner? What is so unusual about what I have written?
Will readers remember this?
I personally aim to write unforgettable stories. When I released my novel, Disposable People, one of the first comments a reader posted on Amazon was, “This was like looking into a madman’s mind.” I knew I had achieved my objective.
About this post’s author:
Ezekel Alan is a Jamaican who currently works as an international consultant in Asia. He lives with his wife and kids and has a good reliable dog and a satisfyingly abundant supply of sweet juicy mangoes. Inspired by true events, Disposable People is Ezekel’s debut novel. He blogs at http://www.ezekelalan.com