Writing a story is a lot like putting together pieces of a puzzle. The words become the individual pieces that are connected to form sentences. Although there are many different types of words and ways to assemble your story, there is only one real way to make each piece fit to match your final image of what you want your story to say. Building the puzzle of a story requires knowing what language is and how it works to create meanings.
Language gives us the ability to communicate with one another. It translates ideas, thoughts and images and can either be written or spoken. Words comprise our written language and are the tools writers use to construct fiction. Language gives the image of the story we have in our heads that fresh twist or spark. Using language we can write anything and everything. Using language is like putting together that jigsaw puzzle. It sounds simple, but if you ask most writers they will tell you it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Getting the words to conform to the central idea in your head is tricky, if not down right impossible. How do you write about love or define what the senses see when you go to a baseball game? The answer lies in the ability to use and control language. Using language is simple; we do it everyday. However, controlling language to create a story or image that a reader will remember for a long time takes a little bit of extra knowledge of what goes on behind the writing process.
The way a writer uses language to create something meaningful depends on two factors. In everything written, authors must examine who their audience is and what the main goal of the written piece will be. Even in creative writing, the writer must be aware of who the audience is when composing his work. This article discusses some of the ways writers use language to create profound experimental prose. It offers tips on how you can make your prose better by examining the word choices you make. It will show you some writing techniques to help you bend language to match the picture of what you want to get across and then to make the word pieces fit together cohesively. This article also uses examples and writer interviews to give you insight into what editors and writers see in their own works as well as their contemporaries.
Experimental Writing– A Definition
When I say “experimental fiction,” what images do you get in your head?
The avant-garde publishing house Fiction Collective Two, a main publisher of experimental fiction, defines experimental writing as using
… mass-market forms and subjects [that work] against the mass market in order to bridge the gap between the avant-garde and more popular writing. Black Ice Books are innovative versions of genre writing,’ but at the same time subversive of the particular genre involved, and in general attitude subversive of the pop culture that has spawned it . (Foley 41-42)
Yet, for this article we need an expanded definition of what constitutes an experimental piece of writing, in order to be called experimental; because the above definition is a little too narrow to include all the different types of experimental prose. So I took a poll and came up with the following random working definitions:
- t’s weirder than science fiction, or it is the desire “to write a book that has never been written before”
- Fiction that is unique and pushes the fiction envelope
- Fiction that uses unconventional means to express a theme
- Writers who use fiction to trailblaze new forms of fiction by playing with words and with form
- Uses literary terms and devices in innovative ways
- Fiction that strays from the norms of society
Overall the above opinions fit the driving forces behind an author’s need to experiment with fiction. However experimental fiction and the art of playing with words does have a dark side. One of my respondents pointed out that
“experimental fiction is the marketing (or alternately ego-supporting)
tool of really pretentious artists who think they’re experimenting or
pushing the boundaries of what society allows. In short, they’re hack
writers who have to turn out stuff that will sell based solely on shock value.
Not necessarily the healthiest thing for anyone, I sure… don’t get a kick
out of it. (Interview taken over the internet 12 November 1996)
Yet, if this darker side seems like a stigma, then why do writers feel the need to experiment? Through the experimentation, with words and what society calls “normal fiction,” writers gain new techniques of seeing the world and how English is formed and reformed. Experimental fiction attempts to push the “fiction envelope” and literary norms by creating new ways in which we write and express ourselves, without becoming rebellious.
This is where our task gets trickier. Now that we know what experimental fiction means, the next step is to start choosing the right words to fit what we want our stories to say, because like a baby we must first learn to crawl before walking. In experimental writing this means that we must first learn the basics behind what constitutes a perfect word before we can start playing around with them. For, experimental fiction, no matter how extreme it attempts to be, “still has to be understood, even when written in an experimental form” (Brucato Interview 31 Oct 1996).
The Basics — Selecting Words
I define experimental fiction as works that utilize unconventional writing methods to express conventional themes. In creative writing, one of a writer’s goals is to entertain his audience. Creative writing utilizes language that appeals to our imagination and in an experimental setting, words become much more important as tools for getting meaning across to the reader. As a reader, context and connotations become more important than factual information. Words are then pieced together to shape the story and must be carefully selected.
Language, is the means by which we writers create fiction. And in experimental fiction writing, writers use language in unconventional ways like this sample of prose by Jan Emily Ramjerdi, taken from issues 11-12 of Black Ice Review, “thin knots under robes of dark red 8 knots of drk rd slk glos glos 8&8” (22). But before we can attempt to write something that is as extreme as this passage, we first need to have a good grasp of how words work and how we can manipulate them to fit our needs. However, we must keep in mind that experimental writing “still has to be understood, even when written in an experimental form” (Brucato Interview on 31 Oct 1996). This section along with the next will help you out in selecting the right words for your prose as well as showing you some techniques to warp words using standard literary devices. The Creative Writers’ Handbook lists five criteria on selecting words. For each of these five criteria, we’ll discuss them in detail below.
Accuracy means using the best fitting word. The more perfect a word is, the less chance your audience will have for misunderstanding. In English we have many words with similar meanings. For example, instead of describing the color of the sun as being a big ball of flaming yellow, a writer can change the word yellow to citron, saffron, or lemon. The best one depends not only on the context surrounding the word but in what the audience might understand best. If your audience is children, yellow might be the best description for the sun’s color. On the other hand, if you write for a college art professor saffron or citron might replace the generic word of yellow to suggest different hues of yellow that the sun appears.
Precision defines the distinction and exactness of the words you select. While accuracy describes the best overall word to use, precision describes the best word to use in meaning and context. For example, Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park sets up a scene where a velociraptor dies from eating a poisoned egg. The scene’s tone heightens by Crichton’s use of the word screams to define the sounds the animal makes when it dies. Therefore the passage reads, “screams of the dying raptor filled the room,” and the word screams gives the velociraptor’s voice an distinct, animal-like quality. But, if he were to replace screams with yells or wails the passage changes and might instead read the “wails of the dying raptor filled the room.” This new version then, brings to mind a more human, baby-like creature rather than a wild, vicious dinosaur. The precise use of the word scream sets it off from any of the other choices.
Concreteness refers to the types of words you use to help your audience evoke images in their senses. Concrete words “appeal to one or more of the five senses” (Lee Interview 7 Dec 1996) (ie. chair, cat). Abstract words “are undefinable by the senses” (Lee Interview 7 Dec 1996) (ie. love, reality). Writing concretely also deals with the specifity of a word. Concrete words like girl or cat may seem abstract to the audience and might need clarifying– either by name or more descriptors — to make a better mental picture. When writing, a general rule of thumb is to make your writing concrete. It is easier for your audience to see the object rather than to be told about it.
I tend to write abstractly. This sentence “Those words are forever etched in my mind” is abstract because it provides my readers with no clear mental picture. It leaves them asking, who is speaking and what words did he say or hear? Writing abstractly is great if you want to keep the reader at a distance from the action of the plot or if you want to make your writing seem mysterious. However, rewriting the sentence to include a more concrete description of who or what those words were might read like this, “When the man told me that he loved me, those words were forever etched in my mind.” Here, the rewritten sentence clarifies and shows what is being said by the speaker of this sentence.
Appropriateness applies to selecting words that fit the context of what you write about and who you write for. If you are writing for an audience of auto mechanics you would use words that they can relate to. You wouldn’t write to them as if they were college professors. Likewise, if the subject you were dealing with was auto repair you would choose words that were appropriate to the subject. For example, Craig Lesley’s novel, The Sky Fisherman, uses appropriate language for his characters’ lives and hobbies. Much of the language deals with fishing resulting in the novel being filled with jargon.
A plastic folder held his fishing license and steelhead tag from
the year he drowned. Eleven punches in the tag showed he’d landed
some big fish that spring. Underneath the steelhead tag was a small
black and white photo of two men comparing catches of fish. (114)
Here Lesley uses fishing terminology like “landed” and “steelhead tag” because they are appropriate not only to the scene, but to the kinds of words the characters would use to describe a fishing trip.
Idiomatism is the process of using euphemisms to convey a particular meaning. Many genre writings contain euphemisms or slang to bring the reader closer to characters, or to help define the setting or tone of the novel. They are natural words that we would use within the situations that we describe in our work (Jason and Lefcowitz 61).
For example, horror writer Poppy Z. Brite, uses an idiom to define what type of person her character Rosalie is.
By day Rosalie wore black : lace and fishnet, leather and silk, the gaudy mourning clothes of the deather-children. I had to ask her to explain them to me, these deathers. They were children seldom older than eighteen who painted their faces stark white, rimmed their eyes
with kohl, smudged their mouths black or blood-red. (62)
Although it’s hard to identify the idiom in this passage, it’s present. Deather-child is an idiom that describes an underground cult of death-loving teens. If Brite had replaced deather-children with the common word freak to describe this cult, the meaning behind the word deather would have been stripped and the connection to death taken away.
Techniques of Language Usage
All writers use several techniques to make their works sing. Creating word-images, varying the diction or word choice, and playing with words are the three main ways writers bend words to create meaningful experimental prose.
Writing prose using word-images develops from looking at or creating a mental picture of a scene that is translated into words. This technique uses imagery, because it incorporates the use of images into the writing process. Imagery refers to the pictures you use to create a mental movie in your readers’ minds. Imagery occurs in descriptions of characters or places, but they can also be found in the comparisons (metaphors and similes) that you choose to relate to your subjects. One preconceived notion about imagery in fiction is that it must be must be timeless. However, timeless images don’t reflect many cultural traits that attempt to place the novel within the society being described were created. Today most experimental imagery concerns itself with redefining the ways people see the world and the connections to other things it contains. Most imagery within the experimental genre is based around cultural traits that have their important meanings within our own cultural beliefs, idioms and identity.
There are many ways experimental writers create word-images to write their stories. Kevin Tatroe, who publishes most of his short fiction on the internet newsgroup talk.bizarre, describes one way.
Usually, I look at a picture (actual, if possible; imaginary, if not) that conveys the same sense of emotion, the same point of feeling, that I’m working at describing, and see what words come to me. I rarely write these words down. A few days later, I work with an image in my mind of the picture and then write the words that come.
Once I’ve got a series of words I want to use, I begin throwing sentences together. Somewhat haphazardly, actually. Then I rewrite. And I rewrite some more. I rewrite each sentence, in order, until it’s perfect and until there’s no unnecessary words left over. This usually takes a dozen or four iterations. Once I have each sentence where it wants to be, I start having to rewrite sentences based on the overall lay of the words.
I prefer to use simple words with stark, unbending meaning. Rather than use words that are ambiguous, I’d rather leave a word out. This use of “non-words” comes from my graphic design background, where whitespace – the bits of the design that are empty – is as critical and necessary to the meaning (often more so) as the actual content. I design works around the whitespace. The words I leave out are as important as the words that are there. (Tatroe Interview 25 Nov 1996)
Crafting experimental fiction based on this technique produces very symbolic and descriptive fiction. But remember to ground the images in concrete words. Show the image to your audience; don’t just tell them. For example in my short-short Ramblings.1, I use Kevin’s technique of picking an image to describe it while eliminating all other needless words to create a passage that reads, ” life is a mystery and I am drunk in its glory spews forth from the magic pen of motion.” The words in this passage are tightly packed, and filled with fragments. There is no room for extra words. If you look real closely there are two fragments that make sense in this passage. The first is easy to spot, “life is a mystery and I am drunk in its glory.” The second one however is a little trickier to catch. It begins using the last word of the first fragment “glory” and reads “glory spews forth from the magic pen of motion”. Sometimes even leaving out descriptions, words, dialogue and details from the central image of the story can result “in a purer, more focused, more original story” (Kress 12). Playing with image fragments, in ways like these, adds a stop and go motion to your prose that will force your readers to read your piece twice.
Diction is simply defined as selecting the word that best fits what you want to say. It’s your choice of words in your writing. Varying your word choices is a simple and effective way to get your story’s meaning across. Each word in your writing must connect and have some impact on the reader. For example, many beginning writers begin many sentences using “The”. One major effect of this is that it causes prose to sag and limp by removing the reader from directly experiencing the action of the sentence as if they were there. Sentences like, “The cat does this. The hat is dropped” illustrates this problem. Instead of beginning sentences with the same word or using the same word throughout your piece, why not try to vary the beginning of each sentence in your fiction or find synonyms or antonyms to expand the story’s vocabulary? The above examples might instead read, ” A cat does this. John dropped the hat.” The effect of variation adds life to your piece and allows you to utilize a stronger vocabulary in your writing than just repeating the same old words.
Another variant on varying your words is to repeat certain words to influence what themes a reader may pick up in a story. In my story A Thin Line, Between one of my characters wears a big red-velvet, crumpled tophat one size to large. This object plays an important role in one of the story’s themes about looking beneath physical appearances to get at what is real. Therefore, throughout the story I deliberately sprinkle the words “big red-velvet, crumpled tophat” (about fifteen times) to get across my point.
However, one pitfall to avoid is that overdoing the repetition will cause your readers annoyance; and, if done in bad taste, they might reject the story altogether rather than embracing it for its craftiness. The solution in avoiding this is simple carry out your repetition carefully and deliberately. In my story, my readers were annoyed by all the repetition. But placing that phrase in strategic locations, they fell into the trap that I had set up with the words. They missed the point of what was underneath the hat, and just like the other characters within the story, they thought that the hat must have meant something greater than it seemed on the surface.
There are many ways that playing with words or the sentence structure of your prose can be considered experimental. Playing with words is perhaps one of the strongest ways to make your work fall into the category of experimental fiction. A first method suggests creating new words or using archaic spellings of words. Doing this is a healthy part of creativity and is also one of the main ways that most writers define their work as being “experimental”. It is unfortunate that effective writing today is defined as writing that emulates “the words and rhythms of everyday speech” (Jason and Lefcowitz 66). However, using archaic or personal word creations add to the story’s meaning by suggesting new ways of seeing the world or trying to draw connections back to an older or simpler way of living.
For example, Tom Robbins, the master of experimental word-play, creates new words and redefines the standard meanings of words to describe how one of his character’s dreams.
Blacksmiths hammered the Edge Serpent on the anvils of their closed eyelids. Wheelwrights rolled it, tail in mouth, down the cart roads of their slumber.Cooks roasted it in dream pits, seamstresses sewed it to the badger hides that covered them, the court necromancer traced its
contours in the constellation of straw in which he tossed. (17)
There are two types of word-play that Robbins’ uses within this passage. Words like “anvils” and “constellation” illustrate the first method. With these words, Robbins redefines the definitions of these words to create new meanings to fit the context. Words like “Edge Serpent” and “Wheelwrights” illustrate the second way that Robbins uses word-play. For here these new words give the passage an almost mythic perspective.
Another method word-play, suggested by Richard Cohen, is to write your stories using stream-of-consciousness or cubist styles (130). The stream-of-consciousness form was developed this century by writers like Virginia Woolf, who sought to duplicate what the mind says onto the written page. The cubist perspective “is also a form of stream of consciousness : [it uses] repetitions and fragmentations [that] follow [a] pattern of backtracking, pausing, [and the] musings that occur when anyone reads a standard sentence” (Cohen 130). The creator of this form is attributed to Gertrude Stein and one example of the cubist forms might read ” A cat cannot be a bird cat cannot be a bird because a cat eats a bird can’t be what it eats it can’t it’s a cat can’t be what it’s not it can’t be’ ” (Cohen 130). My earlier example of Ramblings.1 also illustrates how the cubist perspective can function as experimental prose.
The writing process is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has its own place, its own fit. Manipulating words in an experimental setting isn’t always easy but can be fun as long as you learn the tricks behind what makes a good piece of experimental prose. Many publishing houses and small presses that print experimental work. However, like any piece of literature, experimental prose’s best strength resides in the writer’s ability to write using words rather than allowing the format of the story to dictate what is experimental.
How to select words to create experimental fiction incorporates eight aspects. When thinking of what words you will use to write, remember to keep the words accurate, precise, concrete, and appropriate. Whether or not you want to use idioms or current trends is up to you. Then during the writing process vary what techniques of literature you use to convey particular meanings in your prose. Creating word-images, varying your selection of words, and inventing new types of words (word-play) all affect how the reader will interpret your work once it’s finished.
Bernays , Anne and Pamela Painter. What If? New York : HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995.
This book is filled with writing exercises to help you with your use of language within your stories but with almost every aspect of the story writing process.
Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer. Boston : Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
This textbook is chock-full of stories written by the best contemporary writers and contains some excellent commentaries on the way writers’ write and use language to create their stories.
Goldberg, Natalie. Wild Mind : Living the Writer’s Life. New York : Bantam, 1990.
An inspirational book that shows you what the writer’s mind is filled with. It also includes exercises for you to try out.
Poets and Writers Magazine. Edited by Darlyn Brewer and published bimonthly by Poets & Writers Magazine. This magazine is published not-for-profit but subscription information can be obtained by writing to Poets & Writers, Inc., 72 Spring St., New York, NY. 10012. This magazine publishes articles that discuss writers and writing houses and events. It lists many good publishing houses for readers to submit their manuscripts as well as keeping an up-to-date calendar of upcoming workshops and classes, across the nation, designed to improve writing skills.
Writer’s Digest. edited by Thomas Clark and published monthly by Jeffery M. Lapin. subscriptions are available by writing Writer’s Digest, Box 2123, Harlan, IA, 51593. Most of these article’s energies center around the writing process itself and tips to make your writing better. The magazine offers tips over a wide variety of writing styles from fiction to script-writing and it lists many places where you can get your writings published once completed.
Brite, Poppy. “The Sixth Sentinel.” Borderlands 3. edited by Thomas F. Monteleone. Atlanta : White Wolf Publishing, 1992. 62.
Brucato, Phil. Phone and e-mail interview. 31 Oct. 1996.
Chrichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. New York : Ballatine Books, 1990. 356-357.
Cohen, Richard. Writer’s Mind, Crafting Fiction. Illinois : NTC Publishing, 1995. 130.
Jason, Philip K. and Allan B. Lefcowitz. Creative Writers’ Handbook. 2nd edition. New Jersey Englewood Cliffs, 1994.
Foley, J.R. “Fiction Collective Two.” Poet’s and Writers Magazine. September/October issue, np : 1996. 35-43.
Kress, Nancy. “Less Is More : Sometimes it’s What You Leave Out.” Writers’ Digest. January issue, Harlem : 1997. 12-14.
Lee, David. Personal Interview. 7 Dec 1996.
Lesly, Craig. The Sky Fisherman. New York : Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995. 114.
Ramjerdi, Jan Emily. “SIM2\RE.LA.VIR: She Watches, Channel �.” Black Ice Review.
nos. 11-12. (1995) : 22.
Robbins, Tom. Jitterbug Perfume. Bantam Books : New York, 1984. 17.
Tatroe, Kevin. E-mail interview on 25 Nov. 1996.