Hello, readers —
Yesterday, I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript, the frightening entity that is presented as a book written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so different are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout. Such meandering manuscripts are common enough that professional readers — e.g., agents, editors, contest judges — tend to become profoundly suspicious of any manuscript that changes style or voice abruptly. With the super-quick readings that manuscripts generally get in the pre-acquisition stage (and always get in the first round of contest judging), the Frankenstein manuscript and the manuscript genuinely setting out to do interesting things with perspective are easily confused.
There are many fine examples of good books where writers have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. If you are even vaguely interested in experiments in narrative voice, you should rush out and read Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE.
Atwood tells the story of a murder, alternating between a tight first-person POV, straightforward third-person narrative, contemporary poems about the case, letters from the parties involved, newspaper clippings and even direct quotes from the murderess’ confession. It is an enjoyable read, but for writers, it is also a rich resource on how to mix battling narrative styles and structures well; as one might expect from a stylist as gifted as she; Atwood constructs her patchwork narrative so skillfully that the reader never has to wonder for more than an instant why (or how) the perspective has just changed.
I admire Margaret Atwood tremendously as novelist, poet, and essayist; I have spent years crossing my fingers as she hovered around the short list for the Nobel Prize. However, I suspect that even she would have had terribly difficult time marketing ALIAS GRACE if it were her first novel, at least in the current market, due to its Frankenstein structure.
Ditto for the inimitable Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also a must-read for any writer considering playing funny tricks with narrative voice. Vargas Llosa is something of a structural prankster, folding, spindling, and mutilating the ordinary rules of storytelling in order to keep the reader off-balance. I admire his dash; when he was running for president of Peru (yes, really), he published an erotic novel, IN PRAISE OF THE STEPMOTHER, about… well, you can probably guess. (He lost, incidentally.) He, too, has been on the short list for the Nobel Prize for an awfully long time.
The moral here is this: once you’ve gained international acclaim as a prose stylist, you have a lot more leeway to mess with the conventional rules of writing. (Heck, Alice Walker made up entirely new punctuation rules for THE COLOR PURPLE, and that won the Pulitzer Prize.) But in your first book, in the current market, you probably cannot get away with breaking more than one or two of the rules — and even those need to be IMMISTAKEABLY marked, so agents, editors, and contest judges know that you broke them for a reason, rather than out of ignorance. (Trust me, no one on the Pulitzer committee thought that Alice Walker did not know how to use a semicolon properly.)
“Wait a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you exclaiming. “I take some liberties with narrative style, but it becomes clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. Do you mean to say that if it is not clear in the first 50 pages, or whatever short excerpt the agent, editor, or contest has asked to see, my innovative experiment in English prose might just get thrown into the reject pile because it will be mistaken for bad writing?”
In a word, yes.
Before you fret and fume too much about how the intense pre-screening of the current agency system prevents genuinely bold experiments in writing from reaching the desks of publishers at the major houses, think about the Frankenstein manuscript from the point of view of the agent, editor, or judge who finds it on her desk one busy morning.
When I receive a Frankenstein manuscript as a freelance editing project, I have the option of sitting down with the author, having a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and helping guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process entails gathering together all of the battling styles, making the author come up with a justification for using each, and having the justifications duke it out until one (or, rarely, two) is declared the winner by the author. It takes time, but it’s generally worth the effort.
However, when a first reader at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript — and yes, some manuscripts are so internally scattered that the problem becomes apparent in even just the first chapter or first 50 pages — she is unlikely to have the time to figure out which voice and/or style is going to end up dominating the book. Even if she absolutely loves one of the styles or voices, her hectic schedule does not allow time for equivocation. She must that she select one of two options, and quickly: either she commits to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or she can simply reject the work and move on to the next submission, in the hope of finding a writer whose book will not need as much tender loving care.
With literally hundreds of new submissions coming in each week, which option do you think she’ll select more often?
When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. The judge knows that there’s no question of being able to work with the author to smooth out the presentation; in the vast majority of literary contests, the judge won’t even know who the author is. Plop! There it goes, into the no-prize-this-year file. Better luck — and first readers — next year.
If you are attempting to play with unconventional notions of structure or style, make sure that it is pellucidly clear in the manuscript exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave it to the reader to guess, because, as I’ve shown above, professional readers just don’t have the time to figure it out.
And consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there. Experimenting with several styles within a short number of pages is decidedly risky — and perversely, the less daringly experimental you are, the riskier it is, because tentative attempts look to professional eyes like unfinished work.
To borrow E.F. Benson’s wonderful example, let’s say you were planning to paint a picture of a house down the street. The house has a crooked chimney. The novice painter would paint it exactly as is, unskillfully, and viewers of the finished painting would wonder forever after if the chimney had really looked like that, or if the novice just couldn’t paint straight lines. An intermediate painter would paint the chimney as straight, to rule out that conclusion. But an expert painter would add 10 degrees to the angle of the chimney, so there would be no doubt in the observer’s mind that he had painted it that way intentionally.
The more deliciously complex and groundbreaking your chosen style is, the more clearly you should announce it. Unless, of course, you want to wait until you’re on the short list for the Nobel Prize before you start getting wacky.
Tomorrow, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini