One of the great things about indie publishing is the artistic freedom to explore and expand the perimeters of conventional storytelling devices, without the obstruction of a commercially conscious, traditionally trained editor. Toying with your technique can be very rewarding for both author and reader.
Veering off the beaten path can help break through writer’s block, open new channels of narrative possibilities, and make your work stand out amid a crowded field of similarly themed or plotted books.
The tendency to descend into sloppiness, laziness and incoherence exists, too, including the shameless excusing of typos and grammatical errors, forced or otherwise. It’s a fine line that’s easy to cross but hard to discern, especially if you’re your own editor and publisher, which is why beta readers are often recommended for the literary lone wolf.
Self-indulgence as a storyteller has been covered in this column before. But when it comes to how you to your story, regardless of how autobiographical is may or may not be in content, you may need to keep a set of editorial checks and balances in place before you commit to either a rambling, James Joyce/William Faulkner type stream-of-consciousness piece, or a self-consciously stylized, metafictional trip down psychedelic lane a la Thomas Pynchon or Kurt Vonnegut.
Give Your Voice a Choice – and Vice Versa
The first thing to determine is what kind of story you’re telling, how it’s similar to other successful examples of the genre (if generating actual sales is one of your goals), and more importantly, how it’s different.
Jonathan Lethem wrote a bestselling novel called Motherless Brooklyn from the perspective of a character suffering from Tourette Syndrome. The story is still surprisingly easy to read and follow, despite the narrator’s wandering thoughts, non-sequiturs and amusing asides, because Lethem has a command of his craft that is very precise and deliberate.
I’ve often suggested allowing a character to tell his or her own story, which makes your transcription of it that much simpler, but first you really need to develop that character in your own mind, so it’s like a living, breathing person.
From there, you can decide this character’s unique manner of communicating, if it’s told in the first person, like the protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces, relating the picaresque misadventures of one Ignatius Jacques Reilly, whose idiosyncratic method of speech is like its own character in the novel.
Sustaining a consistent rhythm and tone once you’ve established the style of your story, whether told in first, third or even second person, is very important in making it both credible and palatable to the average reader. You don’t want to challenge their sense of concentration, only their imagination.
My most recent novella, Things I Do When I’m Awake, due out next month from my own imprint, Thrillville Press, is a first person piece conveyed by a schizophrenic. There is no dialogue in the book, to enhance the narrator’s sense of isolation from society, and loneliness. It also helps me as the omniscient author to maintain a very, very particular ambience, since it’s essentially a mood piece.
Conversely, another of my earlier novels, a psycho-noir called Lavender Blonde, is actually conveyed entirely in dialogue!
This stylistic approach is bold (if not stupid) from a commercial standpoint, but I can afford to take that risk, since I’m the only one with a stake in its success. And while I’m keeping my investment costs low, my production values are high, since it’s my brand name on the bottom line.
These days, most mainstream publishers are not willing to take a risk on something that is “out of the box,” basically a cookie cutter clone of whatever is trendy at any given moment (which unfortunately and ironically can completely change by the time your book hits the marketplace, typically a year or two after acceptance in the big or even medium leagues).
But if you have no one to answer to but yourself (and eventually, the paying customer), you are emancipated to tell any story you want, any way you choose.
Good luck. Just be careful that you’re being individualistic, not indecipherable.