Sunday, February 22, 2015

When the rules don't apply.

Reading can be a subversive exercise. Sometimes it encourages you to break the rules.

I just finished a book that I received in my book bag at last fall's World Fantasy Convention:  Lifelode by Jo Walton. I'd never read anything by Walton before this, so I didn't really know what to expect. But the book's description appealed to me -- it's set in what appears at first glance to be a fantasy world. Applekirk is more or less a castle, and those who live there more or less practice magic, which is called yeya in the world of this book. There are some peculiarities in this world: the farther East you go, the more yeya there is and the more time speeds up; the farther West, the more time slows down, and yeya becomes a rumor, or maybe even a fairy tale. But the oddest thing at first glance is that the book is written in present tense. And it works -- or at least, it worked for me, because one of the main characters views time in a non-linear fashion. Often when she looks at someone, she sees a sort of ghost or shade of their past or future self, so that everything happens at once, all the time.

Now, writing in present tense is not a usual choice for authors. Sure, Suzanne Collins uses it in her Hunger Games books, but by and large, the default is past tense. And the intarwebz are full of reasons why you should stick with past tense (although I would argue that a competent writer -- like, say, Walton, for instance -- would easily avoid the pitfalls listed in this Writer's Digest article).

It turns out that Walton stretched another boundary, too. While at first glance, Lifelode is fantasy, Walton says in the Q&A at the end of the book that it's definitely sci-fi. The novel's world is actually a pocket universe -- a fold in space-time -- which explains why time passes faster, the farther east you go. I don't know that you need to know that to enjoy the book; you can certainly read it as fantasy set in an odd magical world.

This tweaking of expectations is also evident in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, which was my Rursday Read this week. This book is very definitely sci-fi -- spaceships, aliens, and artificial intelligences abound. Leckie's protagonist, Breq, was once part of the AI that operated a spaceship, which may be mind-bending enough. But the people of the society that created the ship have the capability of becoming either gender -- so their language has no gender. Leckie could have taken the easy way out and denoted this by having Breq use "it" as his/her default pronoun. But instead, it's "she". It's a little disorienting, and a constant reminder that the reader's not in Kansas anymore.

Both of these authors are multiple award winners. Leckie's book won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke awards last year. Walton's past work has also won the Hugo and the Nebula.

I'm bringing this up because I saw a bit of advice on Facebook this week about how you shouldn't use big words in your fiction writing. Supposedly, it's because throwing a bunch of unfamiliar words at your reader will throw them out of the story. Now, usually I'm on board with this advice; after all, I spent a lot of years writing radio copy. For that, you use short words and simple sentences because when you're writing for the ear, clarity is key. But fiction is a different beast, and sometimes complexity is better. One of my favorite authors is Stephen R. Donaldson, whose Thomas Covenant books are rife with unfamiliar words. Donaldson has said he used the difficult vocabulary in part to make it clear that the Land is not our world. And Donaldson's work has won numerous awards, too.

So we have three authors who have won a boatload of awards for breaking the rules. It's probably no accident that these three authors write speculative fiction, where rule-bending of all sorts is allowed, and even encouraged. But I think the takeaway is that each of these authors had a good reason for doing what they did. Donaldson used unusual words to set the Land apart from our world. Leckie's Breq calls everyone "she" to underscore his/her alien origins. And Walton uses present tense to reinforce the idea that time moves oddly in her world.

So if you're tempted to bend or break a writing rule, have at it. But don't just do it to do it. Know what the rule is there for, and figure out why it doesn't apply in the case of your story. After all, that's how the award-winning authors do it.

Speaking of awards: Congrats to Birdman on winning the Oscar for Best Picture tonight! (Did I call it, or did I call it?)

These moments of rule-breaking blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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