Six Things I Learnt From Writing Experimental Literature

If you’re first question is something along the lines of “What the heck is experimental literature?” then you’re on the same level I was six months ago. That question was quickly expanded with “and how the heck am I going to pass this class?”

For context, this was my second subject in a Master of Letters. Not only was the thought of this abstract style of writing ridiculously intimidating, but if I didn’t get it right (or at least good enough), then I would be failing the class. I was well outside my comfort zone, and even on completion of the subject, I don’t think I’ll be heading back to the world of experimental literature anytime soon.

But in my short time in that experimental head-space, there were plenty of lessons on writing that were transferable back to genre fiction. Back to my happy place. It might never be published, but the learning that is possible is absolutely beneficial.

But experimental literature: I was terrified. In my head, this was the interpretive dance of writing*. But as it turns out, it isn’t as scary or confusing at it sounds. The Write Practice website breaks it down pretty simply; it comes down to innovation and uniqueness, along with deliberate breaking of rules and conventions. Things like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Ulysses push into experimental fiction, though there are many stranger examples out there that break the rules.

However breaking the rules isn’t as simple as ‘do whatever’. Its about breaking them for a specific purpose and to achieve or draw out an effect. Therefore, there is an innate requirement to know the rules well enough to take on the challenge of writing around them. Which is point one.

1. Know the ‘why’ of rules before you break them.

Time must go forward. Don’t have too many POV characters. thgir ot tfel daer tsum sdroW (sorry, that made my eyes bleed too). All ‘rules’ of writing. These rules exist for good reason though; timelines generally make a promise, then ratchet tension towards a payoff, too many POV charachters leads to confusion, and the left to right structure of text give us a common understanding of how a book is meant to be read (at least in English). Break these rules, and unless you counter these issues, your writing will be weaker for it.

By knowing the reason for the rules though, we can compensate with other elements or use it to advantage. For example, I wanted to go backwards in time for my story, so I had one forwards thread, ran another backwards from the climax, then had the conclusions coincide. It may not have been perfect, but it showed me a way to achieve abstract linear progression – which is absolutely transferable to genre fiction.

The same goes for POV characters and presentation . Knowing the confusion of too many POV characters and the rejection of a standard presentation conventions give you the ability to control or counter the effect.

For genre, I probably won’t be doing any of these specific things – but it showed me ways to maintain tight control over my work, which I can hopefully exploit to great effect.

2. Planning is important, even if you’re not a planner.

I know. Writing in your own process and to your own way is important. But understand I naturally sit right up the pantser end of the spectrum and usually I don’t know the words until its already on the page.

But innovation doesn’t come from doing what we have always done. Write the way you’ve always written, and you will probably get what you’ve always gotten. In experimental literature, that is exactly what you don’t want.

For me, it became vital because I needed to change voice, tone, theme, and direction of time in each component – but I also needed them to be recognisably the same character. It was about exploring the vastly different aspects of a grieving, traumatised narrator. What they showed the outside world, and what they felt internally. I also had to write about a similar character with similar experiences, and keep the two distinct.

I don’t think I could have done that on the fly.

I needed to plan, even if just writing key relationships or words that would identify events and people. I needed to keep a thread of continuity while writing wildly different voices and styles.

What I also learned from this though is that planning is definitely not my style. It was exhausting and time consuming. It was also necessary, and taught me that at times, a touch of planning may be difficult, but can have a dramatic and positive effect on my writing.

In short, if your natural writing style isn’t getting you where you need, don’t be afraid to try something different.

3. Experimental Literature is unlikely to be your Big Break.

Counterpoint? Mentioned earlier, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas. These are unique novels that arguably have not been replicated in style and structure before or since. Not everyone would call them entirely experimental, but they are exceptions the rules of good storytelling, and are yet fascinating reads that have enjoyed enduring success.

They are also very difficult for many people to read. I enjoyed them, but they made my brain wrinkle and left me in a wandering haze after finishing them.

Experimental literature rarely leads directly to sales or deals. Searching for them, and finding very little by comparison to other genres, made this abundantly clear. But I don’t think that’s it’s purpose. Plenty of famous writers have written dabbled in the art, including names such as Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf (though called ‘modernist’ at the time . . and she did a little more than ‘dabble’).

I think this is where is became apparent that I wasn’t writing this piece to develop into something I could submit. It was purely about improving my understanding of craft, and in doing so informing and improving me next piece. And the one after that. And all the ones after that.

4. It doesn’t have to be complicated

This goes back to the interpretive dance thing. I thought it had to be this deep, complex, intertwining, multiple interpretation thing that needed metaphors and imagery all through it.

As a result I wrote nothing for twelve weeks, and spiralled into convincing myself I couldn’t do this. I was moments away from pulling out of the subject and giving up.

Instead, I told myself to get back to the start, and go with the basics to at least get something down. I reduced the scope to two simple factors- make each piece an epistle and go as deep into stream of consciousness as possible, it all fell into place. It didn’t stay that way, but it evolved from simplicity. The result might be rich and complex (I hope?), but the process doesn’t have to be. The same goes for writing genre fiction too. Sometimes a beautiful, multi-faceted, and heart-wrenching story can come from the simplest of premises. Not mine, which all seem to end in tragedy, but you know, someone else’s might.

5. Experimental isn’t just about avoiding accepted devices – it’s about using them differently

I don’t care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do

Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13

This line, from the movie Apollo 13, is one of my favourites. It also really nails the key lesson experimental literature taught me.

It’s not always about doing something strange, wonderful and weird. It’s about pushing the boundaries of how different devices can be used, how different effects can be achieved in different ways.

I’s about stepping out of the how you have been told you should write, and learning what you can write.

A great example is one of my favourites, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas– this is a story without a plot and without a protagonist, yet it manages to engage on a personal and emotional level. It essentially does it by pushing how much setting and narration can evoke that response from the reader, using these elements beyond what they would normally be limited to. The result is nothing short of amazing (and I probably reference it waaaay too much as it’s my favourite short story EVER).

6. Experiment!

This is pretty self-explanatory, but to it took an embarrassingly long time for me to realise it.

Experimental literature is an experiment! It’s there to try different ways of doing things! It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to work. It’s like the Edison quote – he never failed to invent a lightbulb, he just discovered thousands of ways it didn’t work. The same goes for experimental literature. You cannot fail as long as you try something new. You just learn what works, and what doesn’t. Learning what doesn’t work saves you making the same mistake in ignorance when it really counts.

This, I think, is the most important lesson I learnt from writing experimental literature, even if it was only for a few months.

You cannot fail in experimenting. You can only gain experience and knowledge. And the more of that you gain, the better you will be at your own genre. Even if I failed the subject, no words are wasted.

You won’t get rich, you probably won’t get a publisher or an agent out of it. But you will get better, and that, I think, is a benefit for which it is worth giving experimental literature a go.

And if you want to know – yes I passed. *Woot*


*Anyone who has seen one of those dancing pot plants from the 90’s now knows all my dance moves, and extrapolating from that can probably gauge with a reasonably high degree of accuracy my ability to both understand and enact interpretive dance.

EDIT: If you want to read the piece, its here – but heads up. . .its experimental. And therefore weird. And also has some darker themes and swearing