Welcome back to The Author’s Alphabet. You can read earlier posts here. Each week, I’ll be posting another letter of the alphabet, selecting a word that starts with that letter, and sharing my view of what that word means to me, as an author. Then, the fun begins — you get to comment, question, poke, prod, and otherwise get involved with the discussion.
E is for Experiment.
Authors develop reputations for writing specific types of books. Nora Roberts! (You know you’re getting a romance.) Stephen King! (Horror.) John Grisham! (Legal thriller.)
Publishing puts a tremendous amount of pressure on authors to keep doing what they’ve been doing. (Traditional publishers often urged more … adventurous authors to commit their explorations under pen-names, arguing that readers would be confused if they saw an author writing different genres.) In a world where no one can say with any certainty why a book sells or how a buyer finds new books to read, “same” guarantees some level of predictability.
But staying the same is soul-killing to authors. We want to experiment. We want to try new things. And if we don’t want to, we should try to, anyway.
Experimentation keeps us fresh. It keeps us asking questions. It keeps us finding new shinies, and sharing those shinies with our readers.
Experimentation can take a lot of forms. Writers might flirt with telling stories at different lengths. The door-stop, epic fantasy writer might try a 5000-word short story. The novella genius might venture into a full 100,000 tale. Matching story with length forces an author to examine the mechanics of plot, along with all new tools for presenting characterization.
Experimentation might be between genres. The same basic plot can be developed to fit a variety of genres. Boy meets girl; boy loves girl; boy gets girl can take on very different shades when the boy is an eldritch spirit intent on consuming the girl’s soul, or when the boy is an international spy intent on bringing girl into his ring of spy masterminds, or when the boy is a billionaire sheikh and the girl is a naive virgin. Authors can stretch their wings by playing with the conventions of different genres, learning reader expectations, discovering new modes of storytelling.
Experimentation can also be in narrative form. First-person narration provides a completely different window into story than third-person point of view. Second-person is different too (and more annoying than it’s worth in virtually every circumstance…) Authors grappling with first person narrators grapple with presenting some information about plot (how does an author demonstrate an antagonist’s motivation, when the only view is from the protagonist?) First-person, though, might allow an author to hide facts — gender, age, social status — at least for part of a story.
Most successful authors need to re-create themselves at least once in their careers. Many authors go through the process every five years or so. Each re-creation is an elaborate experiment, and some are more successful than others.
If you’re a reader, which authors have you read who successfully experiment with form, genre, narrative style, or other elements? If you’re a writer, which experiments most appeal to you?