A while back I decided it was time to once again get into great literature. I thought my storytelling could benefit from some time with classic novels. One of the first books I picked up was James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book centered on the man Leopold Bloom and his misadventures during a single 24-hour period in Dublin. Did I learn anything upon arriving at the last page of this nearly 300,000 word tome? Actually, I leaned a lot and I can’t wait to start applying it to my work!
Disclaimer: This post is not recommended for those lacking the ability to detect sarcasm or individuals in possession of advanced English degrees.
1. Interesting characters? Who needs ‘em?
Of course we all know that good stories don’t always involve good people. Some of the most fascinating books and documentaries out there have horrible, unloveable people as their subjects. But did you know the characters of your story don’t even need to be interesting? Joyce proves this point by providing the reader with decrepit visions of humanity who do nothing more than live painfully boring lives that are painfully boring to read about. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to spend page after page reading about a character cooking a pork kidney?
2. Think you need concrete language to tell a good story? Think again.
Before I read Ulysses I thought things like descriptions of place and a solid usage of descriptive nouns were important to telling a coherent story. Nope. Joyce shows us that an endless, unpunctuated sentence about half remembered to-do lists can propel a story along just as well as any red-headed boy on a dusty road by a clear river could.
3. Style over substance.
I had long believed that style serves the story, at least when we are talking about anything but poetry. I thought that the way I write should reflect the narrative, change with the emotion of the moment, and remain clear so as not to obscure the story. Thanks to Joyce, I now see the error of my ways. Style should always come first, narrative just has to wait its turn. What is writing, if not a platform to show off how well-read you are and how many literary styles you can affect?
4. Include the details, all of them.
As Dwight Schrute of The Office recently said while reporting on his coworkers’ activities, “Most of it’s irrelevant but a good informer doesn’t judge what’s worth passing on.” If Joyce were still alive I’m sure he would have patted Mr. Schrute on the back and told him he couldn’t agree more (although Joyce might have then needed to dodge a surprise nunchuk attack). Really, if you’re going to write about someone’s day, include all the details. Stomach cramps? Yep. The exact details of an outfit worn by a character never again mentioned? Of course. Every instance of defecation and urination? How could one think of doing otherwise?
5. Get to know and loath your audience.
Let’s get one thing straight. All that advice you’ve heard about connecting with an audience, speaking to people on a level they understand, and striving for clarity of language, all that is utter tripe. The Guardian quoted Joyce as saying of Ulysses “I put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant…” If one of the interpretations of your book isn’t a giant middle finger to the public, then you must be doing something wrong.
6. Don’t worry about things like continuity, section headings, or readability.
Look most people have nothing better to do than decipher your prose or figure out where your narrative changes directions. Plus they can always read chapter summaries on Wikipedia or reread what you wrote a couple of times. Don’t worry about it.
7. Include needless words.
Did you enjoy Strunk and White’s Elements of Style? If you did, you must be a rotliveredsonofaguntripesoddenbackfatofagoutycow. Cram your sentences with words that sound cool, not words that are useful. Bonus points for using archaic, foreign, or made up words.
8. Punctuation is for suckers.
you know whats cool run on sentences without a scrap of punctuation remember that mean old grammar teacher you had back in elementary school well this is your chance to get back at her this is your chance to show the world that you live on the edge and are one dangerous dude punctuation was created to help people communicate better with each other good thing you hate your audience or else you might actually have to use it
9. Remember it’s all about you.
When you tell a story it should always be about you. Some people worry about including their own bias when recounting other’s stories; don’t. You wrote the darn thing so you might as well tell people how awesome you are. If you want to delve into your knowledge of obscure Irish mythology, go for it. Want to fill page after page with thinly veiled references to your own sexual proclivities? Why not? It’s your book after all. Think of yourself as Chuck Norris. Chuck Norris doesn’t insert his bias into others’ stories, all stories are Chuck Norris’s story.
10. Think people won’t read your work, no worries, you’re famous!
Relax, you’re a world-famous author who is well-respected by his peers and has legions of devoted fans. Professors are going to force kids to read your work for years after you’re dead. Sure they may end up hating reading afterwards but you still got eyes on the page. Oh, you’re not a ridiculously famous Modernist author? Well then maybe this advice isn’t for you.