In my last post I talked about ‘weeds’ in writing – extra adverbs, dangling plot threads and so on. They’re all derided almost universally as pests, and able to overrun your garden of words if left unchecked. That post was the practical advice – the list of things to watch out for to prevent your garden and lawn being turned into an unappealing landscape of thickets.
Does this seem like a common theme? That’s because it is. Adverbs in particular – it’s practically fashionable to hate them.
But what if we stepped outside of that viewpoint for a moment?
Weeds, talking literally for a moment, aren’t always straight-out villains with no purpose other than ruining a perfectly manicured lawn. Some common weeds can be used for medicinal and health purposes – just a few examples in this article if you’re interested – and sometimes they can have a beneficial impact on the soil. They still ruin the garden if left to grow unchecked, but single-mindedly running them over with a mower may be ignoring their possible virtues. You can even make wine from dandelions – God knows how it would taste, but it’s a done thing.
The catch is that any visitors who see a dandelion in the backyard will instantly assume you’re a messy gardener – or at least one who doesn’t fit in with their perspective of the basic rules in maintaining a garden. The same is true for writing. Drop a ‘suddenly’ into a sentence and many professional readers and editors will treat it with derision, as an amateur’s fallback.
The unconventional can sometimes be irrelevant, or even part of a particular book’s charm. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is a favourite of mine. It’s full of dangling plot threads, and a pretty central scene with a murder that ends up being a total and jarring dead end. Chandler later admitted he had no idea who killed that chauffeur, and it’s a scene that modern editors would ravage for its lack of utility.
Despite this and what other flaws may be picked out of the book, The Big Sleep often features in top 100 lists for books written in the 20th century. What it did get right – the tone and atmosphere, the characters, the loose but weighty narrative voice – outweighed the smaller faux pas and the otherwise crippling mishandling of plot elements. That’s a great big weed to have to work around without just ripping the damn thing out altogether. And yet it’s now part of the garden. Not everyone likes it, but it’s there and the garden has plenty of admirers nonetheless.
And as far as the structure of expressing detail is concerned, the long and winding history of writing and literature are filled with examples of where new tricks have been implemented. Have a quick look at this article to see how some household names in classic literature have used punctuation in ways that would still be considered novel, or at least not standard. Whether you like these particular books or not is a moot point if their less conventional methods of handling detail has something to offer in your writing.
The lesson here is that there are always new ways to express things, and sometimes more maligned elements of one’s writing style can be turned into an advantage. If we all blindly follow every small rule that is proliferated without question or variance – kill every instance of ‘suddenly’, shun the passive voice, regulate your characters to fulfil certain roles and requirements – then we face a growing culture of institutionalisation in literature.
Always look for new ways to express things, and don’t shy away from incorporating some dandelions or nettle in your grand scheme if it fits. If you can find ways to use the weeds to your advantage, or to integrate them so well into your writing that they’re part of the package, then by all means experiment and see what you come up with that can bend the unwritten rules a little. It’s the same as any discipline – the rules and guidelines are there for a reason, and moving away from their guidance is a risk. But innovation can’t occur without some risk.
As always, there’s the word of warning: don’t necessarily expect the result to be marketable. Maybe it will be. But it might also get savaged by an editor for playing with fire on adverbs or passive language. Your garden is your own. Never stop dreaming of ways to make it both appealing on a base level to guests, and identifiably unique. How so-called weeds can fit into that scheme and create a unique style of writing is something that will require a dedicated spirit of experimentation. And maybe a glass of dandelion wine to get the creative juices flowing.
Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen