Thursday, March 14, 2013

It's Hip to be a Square... or is it?

March's lighthouse:
Le Phare de Kermorvan,
Brittany, France.
(Original photo by McPHOTO.)
Are you a round lighthouse, or a square one?*

As I flick through my Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, I can't help but notice the word 'experimental' littered throughout the section on literary magazines.

Okay, now everything I do is experimental, but in the literary sense, if there's one thing I'm not (yet), it's experimental. I'm a traditionalist through and through.

Yes, it's true. I'm a round lighthouse.

In defence of the unoriginal, consider the basic expectations of a reader. The Daily Writing Tips website lists the following:
  • at least one sympathetic character with whom we can identify and root for;
  • a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end;
  • a narrative style that draws us into the fictional dream;
  • language that conforms to standard rules of syntax, meaning, and punctuation;
  • typography that conforms to printed conventions regarding margins, etc.

And what about all those expectations of genre, a word usually preceded by the word 'no' in the section on literary magazines?
  • a romance is expected to contain flowery scenes;
  • a Western is just not a Western without the manly man with the six-shooter;
  • a suspense novel is generally plot driven.
Is there a fine line between meeting the expectations of genre and stereotyping? I think so.

And so, again I ask, are you a round lighthouse, or a square one, or something else altogether? Hexagonal, perhaps?

* For those geometrically sensitive people, are you a cylindrical lighthouse or a cuboid one (or another 3-dimensional shape altogether)?


  1. I'm with you here. Occasionally I like to see a square lighthouse, but mostly I like them round. I'm a big fan of sticking to the 'hero's journey' structure for story-telling.

    1. Yeah, I think originality of form is risky for new players. It would be nice to be that versatile, though.

  2. As a reader, I much prefer a traditionally written novel. I've read a couple lately that would definitely fit the square lighthouse definition-- lack of paragraph separations for quotes, or lack of quotation marks, different POVs in each chapter, a lack of story line, omniscient first person (that was a weird read), etc. They garner a lot of attention and even sometimes awards. Someone likes them. But as a reader, I want a story I can sink into and not a self-conscious read.

    1. Sounds like you've been doing some experimental reading. The omniscient first person sounds intriguing, but I agree, some of these stories can be hard work.

    2. The omniscient type first person was in The Tiger's Wife. The book was less about a story and more about the allegories and myths surrounding death. The main character retells stories of her grandfather's youth in very omniscient details. I found the book disconcerting and boring, honestly, but it received a lot of attention. The other books were also best -sellers: "A Visit From the Goon Squad" (every POV including a Power Point chapter), "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", which was made into a movie with Tom Hanks-- the chapters didn't break for quotes, and most recently "The Round House" which was a very good story, but for some reason didn't use any quotation marks-- it made for weird reading. It was hard to tell when the speaker was talking out loud or we were reading internal thoughts. Again, it was a best-seller.

    3. I saw the Loud and Close movie and read up on the book, including the criticism. I might be tempted to if I was a NYer(the mystery of the 6th borough was completely lost on me).

      POV of a powerpoint. Ha ha. 'Why, oh, why?' springs to mind.

      The Round House sounds good. Thanks for your reviews. I really enjoy hearing other's thoughts on what they're reading.

  3. It seems to me that as a writer I have a choice. I can be hip, cool and ultra-liberal by using fancy words, different technique, prose, POV and all of the things Julie mentioned. I would love to be that guy, but I really struggle adhering to the standard rules of Basic English.

    I have to wonder if this is what I want to be known for? Do I want to be the guy wearing a black turtle neck sweater accepting another award for creating a new way to write? Do I want 90 year old English teachers (Big Joe) to fawn over me and my ability to twist time and words? Do I want my sentences dissected to determine a new method of placing a comma?

    Or do I want to write a kick ass story that bends the reader’s mind with ideas, story and character? Do I want 90 year old English teachers (Big Joe) to dismiss my work for its stunning lack of use of the language, while I nap on my private beach in Fiji and my accountants cash the royalty checks?

    Yes, I will be a square lighthouse. I spent the first 43 years of life trying hard to not impress the English teachers. Why change now?

    1. Did you just counter-ironicize me? (Is that even a word?)

      I'm thinking there must be a fine line between gumph and genius. Maybe it's the turtle-neck sweater.

      Fiji? I thought you were heading to Hawaii. You should be able to hula the night away in either place, I guess.

    2. Rob doing the hula? I rake my face at the image burning in my head.

    3. I don’t have a clue what you said Erica. Did you compliment me or did you insult me? I have no idea because “I’m not a smart man, Jenny.” Name that quote.

      I’m going to Fuji because the tax bill is going up, I have got to find a way to shelter my royalties. And yes I will be doing a hula, why not? I am going to own the whole beach. My beach my rules.

      As far as Big Joe’s eyes burning. He will get over it because he will be doing the hula next to me and Swifty in his blue shirt. Ponder over that image for a while. Ha ha.

    4. Now my eyes are burning, Forrest. Nevertheless, here's hoping Mike's smiling mug is back with us soon.

  4. As a new writer I don't think I'd dare try to be a square lighthouse- it would be a disaster. In non-writerly areas, however, I always seem to be the square lighthouse in a round lighthouse world!

    1. As a new writer, I'm not even sure I'd know where to start. Yes, there would be a ship-wreck or two in my vicinity, also. I'm trusting the non-writerly squareness is a good thing.

  5. Erica,

    Excuse me whilst I take a sip of Ensure to warsh down my old man pills...

    Color my lighthouse a square one trying to fit into a round one. A reader will willingly, sometimes gladly, go along with the author as she breaks the rules, but doing so at the expense of clarity, character, and story is a dangerous exercise.

    Now excuse me whilst I don my tweed turtle neck jacket with tweed elbow patches, the uniform of the ninety-year old English teacher...

    Most of these experiments are mere fads, and will wither away like spring wildflowers in the summer. Those ex[eriments that last do not intrude on clarity, characters, and story, and most likely, build upon them.

    Now excuse me whilst I place the soapbox on the ground and stand...

    The conventions of grammar are simply a means to an end, depending upon the lighthouse in which a writer lives. Yes, I am a stickler for certain rules. I don't like the dangling preposition. Guilty! I believe in syntax. Guilty again. I don't like starting a sentence with "There" or "It." But not because I delight in the beauty of the rules-I delight in the beauty of the well-written sentence. Plus, the choice to do so makes me a better writer.

    Writing (and reading) is an exercise for the brain muscle. One can have terrible form, and not build the muscle at all, or one can have excellent form, clean, crisp, clear, and effective.

    Whew! I think I threw out my back on that rant. Excuse me whilst I take a nap...

    1. The man of many coats has spoken, and as usual, he speaks wisely.

      I think we're approaching the battlefield of story-telling vs writing. Are those round-lighthouse traits of character and story really the saving features of lasting experimental works? If I could think of examples, I might argue (but I can't, so I won't).

      Yes, rules exist for a reason. Why (try to) reinvent what has been proven to work?

      As a reader, I like working my brain muscle... but not too hard. What did that Scarlet Letter guy say? Easy reading is damn hard writing?

      For what it's worth, I think you have a touch of hip squareness about you, Joseph. Some of us take the rules for a stroll by the lake. You seem to throw them in your sidecar and take off through the desert.

  6. I'm probably a round lighthouse. I've never quite understood what 'experimental' means.

    1. There are some wonderful round lighthouses around. I'm not too sure about experimental works either, but using the POV of a powerpoint sounds pretty close.

  7. *language that conforms to standard rules of syntax, meaning, and punctuation;
    *typography that conforms to printed conventions regarding margins, etc.

    Love it! It's sad they have to list this, but with some of the books I see coming out lately... :P

    I'm a round lighthouse. But have you seen my elevator?