Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 34.
By now you’ll have discerned that I love restrictions. They’re not the whole of creative writing but I think the reason I go in for them so hard is they’re so often neglected when people teach fiction. Like they’re a rather silly, self-indulgent sideshow – something for the poets perhaps, but not for us serious novelists. We’re interested in character, substance and Big Themes. Style is like the chocolate sprinkles on top of the cake – nice, but superficial.
Well, I think style is more than that. And I think style is incredibly fun. And I think when we play with style, we learn what we really want to be writing about. Part of the big project of fiction – in my not especially humble but certainly fallible opinion – is defamiliarization. Taking what we think we know and showing it to us fresh. Shocking us awake. Helping us remember what’s important. Helping us to feel.
Of course that’s not the only thing stories can do. It’s not always why I come to a story nor always why I write them. But it unlocks and enhances so much of creative writing that I really do think this is an area worth our while, worth some serious training.
Hence my getting you to return to this scene again and again, morphing it in new ways. The content really doesn’t matter. It’s about what we talked about right at the start – intersubjectivity and new ways of seeing.
So today we’re going to push your little encounter, your meeting, even further. This will probably sound a bit whimsical or bananas, but I’d ask you please to bear with me. I’m not doing this to be a capering puppeteer getting you to do arbitrary, pointless nonsense, I promise. Not deliberately, anyway. This is probably the most challenging of the translations we’ve done so far, but in many ways I think it’s the most important, because the purpose is to make you exquisitely aware of your word choices at the molecular level.
Today you’re going to take that original scene, and I’d like you to attempt to translate it into a version that doesn’t use any nouns. That includes pronouns and proper nouns.
If you’re panicking now and thinking ‘Tim I have no idea what a noun is’ don’t worry, the literature police aren’t going to come rappelling through your skylight and SWAT you for crimes against grammar. There’s no reason why you should. We’re not snobs here.
Quick recap: a noun is a thing or object or concept, like ‘table’, ‘dog’, ‘wind’, ‘frustration’, ‘love’. A pronoun is ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘them’ ‘it’, ‘his’ – words like that. And a proper noun is usually like a name, ‘Terry’ or ‘France’ or ‘Tesco’ – something that usually starts with a capital letter.
So you’re going to rewrite the scene using none of those. What you’ll end up with won’t sound like normal prose. You can still have verbs: standing, breathing, watching, shone, trembled, sneezes. You can have adjectives: yellow, angry, fierce, shrunken, elderly. You can have adverbs: quickly, hungrily, noisily, cautiously. You just can’t have the things all those words are talking about. You can’t name characters or the objects in their environment – only suggest them.
Don’t expect what comes out to entirely make sense. But see: can you capture a mood, just the same? Can you give us some lush sensory detail? Some impressionistic flashes? This exercise might be easier if you pick a particular viewpoint to experience the scene through.
All I would say is: you can’t win this one. Don’t cling onto making it perfect. Embrace the weirdness, and see how closely you can map the arc of this encounter. So, no nouns – no objects, people, names, concepts – but everything else is in play. Let’s see how you get on.
Are you ready? Your ten minutes starts… now.
And that’s it. How did that turn out for you?
If you get the chance, do look back over this piece. I realise, depending on how the first version of this scene came out, these past few days may have been particularly tricky for you – if that’s the case, you might like to take this moment to congratulate yourself for persisting nonetheless. Wasn’t easy, you still turned up. Well done.
Doing this exercise you’ve probably come out with writing very different to your normal style. Very different to the exercise where you were limited to just one syllable. What does the no-nouns method bring out in your writing? What types of human experience do you feel like it does well? And are there any moments that maybe the one syllable style or one of the other perspectives worked better for?
Because look – you can adopt one of these moves for just a sentence, in your everyday writing. If you want a sudden impressionistic flash, or maybe a more powerful, storytelling mode, what I’m trying to clue you onto is that you’re at liberty to codeswitch into a number of registers, each of which can just punch up your writing and underline the sort of tone you’re going for.
Sometimes you might even want to deliberately write a moment using a style orthogonal to or even diametrically opposed to the tone or emotion of the scene. You can write very dramatic, emotional exchanges in quite flat, pared back language where the stark, bare bonesness makes the drama stick up more. Or you can pull all the lush, lyrical complexity out of pedestrian or simple images, like a rundown bus shelter or a hawthorn bush, and actively slow down time as you plunge into the frozen moment.
These are all moves you can experiment with. You don’t have to know the effect you’re going for in advance. Sometimes you just load one into the hopper and see what happens. I think the willingness to piss about in service of serendipity is one of the most useful attitudes you can bring to your writing. It’s fun, low stress, and sometimes you’ll stumble across something original and interesting that you couldn’t have predicted.
Remember – to create is to bring something into being that didn’t exist before. Originality registers in the mind as a category error. A mistake. These two things don’t go together. Well, they didn’t – until now. That’s what we pay you for, oh writer.
Excellent, excellent, excellent work my dear warrior. Rest that vexed brain of yours, let your subconscious process all codify all this new knowledge in some funky dreams. Gosh, I really feel like we turned a corner today. Very proud of you. I’ll see you tomorrow.