I grew up on 80s British comedy. (Which possibly explains everything you ever need to know about my writing style.) Yes, Minister taught me about politics. Blackadder taught me about history. Are You Being Served? taught me about… well, lots of things. And Red Dwarf taught me about science fiction.
In fact, Red Dwarf taught me a lot of lessons, and one of the ones I come back to time and time again is from the most feminist episode I’ve ever seen in any TV show ever: ‘Parallel Universe’.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of watching Red Dwarf, the two main characters are Arnold Rimmer, a socially awkward, sexually repressed hologram, and Dave Lister, a slobbish, easygoing lad’s lad whose skills include drinking lager and eating vindaloo spicy enough to melt through plastic. In ‘Parallel Universe’, they’re accidentally transported to a parallel dimension where everything is the same… except that women are the dominant gender. There, they meet their female equivalents who, obviously, try to get them into bed.
Hi-jinks ensue as the boys come to terms with being objectified and, in Lister’s words dealing with women who “think of men in the exact same way [we] think of women…. it’s disgusting.” But my favourite part of the episode is the conversation that takes place about female-Lister’s attempt to seduce male-Lister:
Lister: She tried to impress me by drinking six pints of lager and belching the whole of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Rimmer: That’s your party piece, isn’t it?
Lister: Yeah, but when I do it, it’s really stylish, man.
That line often runs through my head when I find myself doing or saying something that I just know I would find annoying if someone else did it, and it’s a regular part of my internal dialogue when I’m teaching or talking about writing. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve made a statement about a writing convention or guideline, and received a version of that answer.
“First novels, especially contemporary fiction ones, tend to be closer to the 80K word mark. You may have trouble selling one that comes in at 140K words.”
“Yeah, but when I write 140K words, it’s really stylish, man.”
“Prologues were really popular back in the ’80s, but publishers don’t tend to like them these days. Maybe consider whether your prologue serves a story purpose.”
“Yeah, but when I include a prologue, it’s really stylish, man.”
“It was Stephen King who said that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. I think that’s a bit extreme, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t have any adverbs in your book, but maybe consider whether you need to qualify every single dialogue tag with one.”
“Yeah, but when I use adverbs, they’re really stylish, man.”
Regardless of how much I may disagree with them, there are three reasons I never argue with that answer.
1. Because maybe they’re right.
There’s an exception to every rule. Every rule. And, hey, maybe they’re the exception. I don’t know. Who am I to judge? I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they know what their own story needs.
2. Because I do it, too.
Yes, I know that no one’s buying vampire fiction anymore…. but when I write it, it’s really stylish, man. It would be more than a little hypocritical to call someone else out for something that I do as well. (Although, obviously, when I call people out, it’s really stylish, man.)
3. Because creativity.
Creativity means being inventive; imaginative; pushing the boundaries; transcending traditional ideas. To create something new and different and exciting, you have to be willing to go outside the bounds of “normal”. When you feel hedged in by rules and conventions, you stifle your creativity and censor your imagination. That’s true whether you’re forcing yourself to comply with genre expectations, publishing guidelines, or grammar rules. The best time to throw all of those out the window (or, at least, the ones that are holding you back). When you’re writing your first draft, let creativity be your guideline.
If you want to write 140K words from the perspective of a tree, go for it. Write a prologue. Hell, write a prologue for your prologue. Fill your prose with adverbs. Write all your dialogue in italics without dialogue tags. Have your characters speak in emoji. Use profanity in exposition. Describe every square inch of an ordinary dining table. Do whatever it takes to get your story out of your head and on to the page. Do it without doubt or censorship.
When your draft is finished, that’s when you look at what you have wrought with a critical eye and work out whether your rule-breaking truly is as stylish as it seemed at the time. Rules and guidelines and conventions are important — they really are — but not when they get in the way of your creativity. So, go. Let your imagination run free. Because, when you do it, it’s really stylish, man.
What have you done in your writing that’s traditionally frowned upon, but is really stylish when you do it?