Friend and fellow writer Byddi Lee posed a very interesting question earlier this week regarding the use of a particular word in her mainstream novel:
I wrote "a cacophony of beauty products..."
(In the story) I have used the word "cacophony" to describe a haphazard collection of different kinds of bottles and containers sitting on a countertop... Some of you quite rightly pointed out that "cacophony" only pertains to sound - so my question - can a writer transfer the meaning of a word to another medium? I.e. If the bottles were music it would be a cacophony...
I've often wondered about this very subject. I'll use a word or phrase in what I think is a very inventive, literary, meant-to-make readers think way, only to have critiquers give the effort a thumbs-down.
To make matters worse, as a critiquer/reader, I find myself doing the same to others' work.
To make matters much worse, I'll read a book that's filled with words and phrases that are used in highly non-traditional ways, and love the effect!
What gives? Can writers legitimately use words in ways that are not technically correct? Why does it work for some writers, but not others?
Can I? The Short Answer
The short answer is that writers can do whatever they want. They can and should be creative and push the boundaries of how to tell stories.
Should I? The Longer Answer
The problem arises when we only push those boundaries occasionally in what is otherwise a traditionally-told story.
Think of writing as dancing. We authors introduce a rhythm and readers start dancing. We set a pace of one-two-three, one-two-three and everything is going along nicely when we suddenly and without warning throw in fancy step. Our readers trip. Are they happy we made them trip? No. They're annoyed and rightfully so. We made them feel clumsy and stupid when a little warning could have avoided the situation.
Sure, we could get defensive and say, "I was just trying to be original and express myself."
In turn, they could say, "Look, if you're going to throw in complex moves without telling me, you can dance by yourself."
The same is true when we write. Throwing in odd usages might make us feel good, but it doesn't reflect respect for our readers.
I'm currently reading Blindness by Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago (featured in the above photo), who just died.
He does all kinds of crazy things:
• no quote marks
• run-on sentences with only commas to distinguish between who's saying what
• omniscient, opinionated lines of wisdom dropped into action
Half an hour later, after he had managed, rather awkwardly, to shave, with some assistance from his wife, the telephone rang. It was the director again, but this time his voice sounded different, We have a boy here who has also suddenly gone blind, he sees everything white, his mother tells me he visited your surgery today, Am I correct in thinking that this child has a divergent squint in the left eye, Yes, Then there's no doubt, it's him, I'm starting to get worried, the situation is becoming really serious,...
Although his writing style is not exactly as Byddi described — Kathryn White (Emily Green & Me) and Markus Zusak (The Book Thief) are better examples of authors who use words in unusual ways — the idea is that Mr. Saramago breaks all kinds of rules. Why can he get away with it, but I can't?
One hint is that by the fourth sentence of the book, I knew the rhythm of this story was going to be different that any other I'd experienced so far. Consider the following excerpt (I inserted the italics to show where I knew I was not in Kansas anymore):
The amber light came on. Two of the cars accelerated before the red light appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up. The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing less like a zebra, however, that is what it is called.
The Rules of Rule-breaking
Mr. Saramago and the other authors who succeed at breaking the rules do so because they follow certain rules.
If you'd like to succeed at breaking the rules, too, ask yourself the following questions.
1. What rules do I break?
2. Why am I breaking them?
3. Do I break the rules almost immediately in order to warn readers this is what they can expect throughout the book?
4. Am I consistent in the rules I break and the manner in which I do so in order to create a clear, if complex rhythm, I then maintain?
If you don't answer yes to all of those, you're probably not going to succeed. Your readers will get annoyed and suspect they don't really have a plan, but instead are just throwing in flourishes whenever, which might make you feel good, but implies you're thinking more about yourself than your reader.
This was a hard, hard lesson for me to learn. Hopefully those coming up the pipe will learn to ditch their egos earlier than I did and instead think hard about what emotional response they want to receive from readers rather than sinking into I-want-dom, as in Want I want is to... Because what we want doesn't mean anything if we fail to get the desired response.
An excellent question, Byddi! And by all means, if anyone else has pearls of wisdom to impart, please do so.