Stretching Writing Skills with Syntax & Storyline

The publishing industry changes by the day.  First, there is the continued merger of small presses into medium-sized publishers. Next comes the big houses consuming those medium-sized presses into their folds—or driving them out of business. And finally (well, probably not final), the big publishing names cannibalizing each other. 

This folding of one into another is not the last word in industry change. What is exciting, to me as a writer AND reader, are the dramatic fluctuations in syntax, prose, and story lines. These shifts are occurring in today’s market with delicious frequency.

Two recent books, published in 2022—one speculative fiction by Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, The Sea of Tranquility and, the other, a revisionist Western by English-born Paddy Crewe, My Name is Yip—are examples of changes. Some readers may consider them cutting-edge changes while others may see regression.

The Sea of Tranquility explores how time flows, the structure of historical timelines, and how time effects individual lives. Beginning in 1912, the tale moves chapter by chapter, back and forth over the centuries, finally ending in 2203. Or maybe another year. I lost track. Along the way, St. John Mandel examines reality and how memory is stored and perceived. Her chapters vary in length between pages of prose and a single phrase. Tying the novel together is Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, his sister Zoey, a mysterious violin player, and a repeated line from a fictional book by a fictional character, Olive Llewelleyn. “We knew it was coming. It’s true of so much, isn’t it?”

The novel flirts with Colonial Britain, early settlement along Canada’s Vancouver coast, moon Colony One, Colony Two, the 2018 and 2020 pandemics, and the airship terminal in Oklahoma City. Woven among the pages are questions of morality, memory, and ethics.

Paddy Crewe’s tale, My Name is Yip, told first person by his hero Yip, born mute into Georgia’s frontier of 1815. The reader is treated to unusual prose and unexpected phrases: “Men with beards ambered with drops of liquor;” or “passed the farm & through the sap-sweet clouds of dust from the sawyer mill.” Crewe writes of “a breed of silence what tells of tragedy,” and of “a sound so empty of sound.”  He uses compound words never found in a dictionary but nonetheless delight the reader: ocean wavetips, fingerturns on a set of reins, or wallow in creekmuck. Each compound word offering a smidgen of something old and a different rhythm.

Words are capitalized without regard to anything other than Crewe apparently determined them important to the storyline and therefore writes them in upper case to draw attention. “…when all your own Hopes & Hurts & Fears & Joys & Longings is reflected back at you from another…”

Numerals are not written out but are noted in their Arabic form. Examples include “2 young men, 3 women & 4 little girls… .” “And” is designated by the ampersand. Quotation marks are absent. Characters are referred to by full names.

As I move into the beta reader stage of my new novel, The Blue Bottle Tree, I am excited by these disparities in writing. Best of all, the changes beg the question, whose rules are right?

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