The risks I’d like to address are those that a writer might encounter in creating fiction. There are of course risks involving political or religious or social issues, which vary from place to place, but those aren’t the risks I want to talk about, and part of the reason is that I haven’t encountered those circumstances. I don’t live in a place where censorship is a problem, and I don’t submit my work to publications or publishers or agents where censorship is active. Naturally some publications and publishers aren’t interested in certain topics or certain kinds of writing, but those preferences are usually made clear in their guidelines—pornography or racism or extreme violence for example. The risks that I, and I imagine a lot of other writers, deal with involve breaking the rules. Not social or political rules, but writing rules, or maybe so-called rules, for as those rules sometimes fall to the wayside one might questions the idea of rules. But here, too, that’s not my focus, because I have no desire to rewrite or reclassify rules.
Over the years, as I’ve gotten more and more into writing fiction, I’ve come across situations when I knew I shouldn’t be doing something a certain way, but in order to express what I wanted to express I need to do it the wrong way.
This might come down to something as basic and simple as word choice—what word to use in a specific sentence. Should I go with the word that carries exactly the correct meaning, or should I go with a word I like? Sometimes what a certain word suggests and the way it sounds midst a particular sentence weighs heavily. For example, a rugby ball isn’t an adjective, technically speaking. But how about: He had a rugby ball head (or maybe rugby-ball head). Of course we can say: He had a rugby-ball-shaped head. Or: He had a rugby-ball-like head. Or we can say: He had an elongated ellipsoidal head. Take your pick. Often, it comes down to situation or context. And of course these days nouns are used all the time to describe. Furthermore, dialogue offers most any possibility because people don’t usually speak with a set of rules in mind, and this even includes syntax, word order. Consciously or unconsciously we break the rules in speaking, and even in written narration.
But there are bigger questions aside from wordage (word choice), and they involve consistency. So here we go: Decide on a point of view and stick with it—first person, second person, third person, close third person, omniscient third person, whatever. And then: Decide on how to arrange quotations and stick with that—stand-alone quotes or quotes imbedded in narration. Also: Decide on comma use and keep with that—commas proceeding conjunctions (particularly and) or no commas in front of conjunctions. And then there’s: Decide on a tense and stay with that tense—past tense, present tense, maybe even future tense. By now you’re probably saying: “I’ve read stories and novels that aren’t consistent all the way through with all these things.” Yeah, me too.
What really got me thinking about such things, though, was when I got to a place in a story, or stories, and it seemed natural to put consistency aside. For example, a story beginning in past tense ought to follow through that way, but when a sizable stretch of dialogue occurred it seemed that present tense was suggested, or even assumed, when narration picked up after the dialogue. Thus the story moved from past to present. Oddly, with longer work (a novel, or a chapter of a novel) the tense might switch back to past, and this didn’t necessarily involve memories or flashbacks. Another instance might be when the narrator is telling a story from his/her past, but then slips into the present, or a different past, which is the time the narrator is telling the story from. There seems to be this feel to things, a certain feeling of correctness, that supersedes the authority of rules as they are stated so simply and explicitly.
With commas it was the same deal. Within a short story or a novel, I found myself wanting to insert commas before conjunctions even though I started out not doing that. So why did I want to switch over to more commas? Because a particular sentence called for it. I wanted a small pause. I wanted a different rhythm and emphasis within the sentence. Sound it out: Take a sentence with three ands and put commas in, and then take the commas out. Or put one comma in proceeding the last and. Commas change the reading of a sentence, which is what they are for. So isn’t it odd that we ought to stick with one way of using commas throughout a manuscript? You know, as if there’s only going to be one type of sentence in a story?
Quotes, too, are supposed to be arranged with consistency, or so I’ve been told. But here as well, quotes, as in constructing dialogue, read differently depending on if they stand alone or run as part of a paragraph. Standing alone makes them stand out, which makes them stronger. As part of narration they flow within a paragraph. They move quicker. They create a different effect, a smoother effect. At times I want a certain quote to have a certain effect, while at other times I want a different effect. Should I stay with stand-alone quotes throughout a story for the sake of consistency, when I truly want a certain bit of dialogue to flow midst a paragraph of narration? And, I should note, I don’t want to give up the quotation marks. I don’t want reported speech.
Violating rules, or even bending rules, involves risk, which is the risk of not being understood, which generates the risk of criticism. People (editors, agents, readers) might think: This looks haphazard. This looks chaotic. This looks like you didn’t care and were throwing things around. This looks like you lost track of the story. This looks wrong.
But maybe you’re thinking it isn’t wrong. Maybe there were reasons for breaking the rules. And maybe, just maybe, another reader will come along who doesn’t question the text because he or she feels the effects of the writing, which had everything to do with breaking a rule or two.
By rule-breaking, I don’t mean turning up the volume—yelling-and-screaming kind of writing—for with that the story remains the same. I’m talking about risks that chip away at foundations that are tangled up with consistency and grammar, soft or loud voice withstanding.
In the end, the question remains: Why would anyone want to risk criticism and rejection by doing what he or she isn’t supposed to do? Why not adhere to consistency and rules of grammar? After all, they make for readability and understanding. In most cases you’re not going to lose the reader by employing consistency. That’s why it’s such a staple. But . . . maybe what you want to say cannot be said within the strictures of rules. There have been any number of writers who have fretted and worried about their writing: Were they going to be understood? Flaubert, Proust, Woolf, the list goes on, all worried about what they were doing. Unfortunately, the people who broke the rules and didn’t become famous we don’t know about. But undoubtedly there were many. Failure is more prevalent than success.
So—is it worth it to take risks? In my opinion it depends on the piece. There’s a feeling that each piece of writing throws out, a feeling that’s attached to that piece. Even if it’s in my head there’s a feeling, which might or might not change once it goes onto paper. And that’s also part of the terrain: Fiction is fluid. It often changes as it’s being written. In revision, too, it can change. A risky piece might become a not-risky piece, or vice versa. This is not a paint-by-numbers deal. If it were, it wouldn’t be interesting.
I take risks when I think it’s appropriate, or when I feel it’s appropriate. And that would be my advice to anyone grappling with the dilemma of breaking the rules. I would further add that I’m not only referring to literary fiction. Any genre, any type of fiction entails choices, which might very well have to do with taking risks. But perhaps literary more than the others invites risk, yet who’s to draw lines when cross-pollination is at work—a mystery that crosses into literary, a romance that uses literary forms, a science fiction piece with literary attributes—genre: plot driven; literary: character driven. Any number of novels or stories have attributes of both.
By MICHAEL ONOFREY
MICHAEL ONOFREY was born and raised in Los Angeles. Currently he lives in Japan. Over seventy of his short stories have been published in literary journals and magazines, in print and online, in such places as Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, Snowy Egret, Terrain.org, Weber–The Contemporary West, and The William and Mary Review. Among anthologized work, his stories have appeared in Creativity & Constraint (Wising Up Press, 2014), In New Light(Northern Initiative for Social Action, 2013), Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest (University of New Mexico Press, 2013), and Imagination & Place: An Anthology (Imagination & Place Press, 2009). He can be found online at Directory of Writers, Poets and Writers, and on Facebook.