Alix E. Harrow on Breaking the Writing RulesNov 20, 2022
As writers, we’re often confronted with lots of mantras and – dare we say – writing dogma. But if you’re at all familiar with The Novelry, you’ll know we tend to reject these out of hand. Tools, not rules is the only mantra we’re interested in. And one celebrated author who loves to throw out the rulebook is Alix E. Harrow.
Alix is a bestselling and award-winning author of speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January was an LA Times bestseller and finalist for the 2020 Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. She followed up a year later with The Once and Future Witches, which was a New York Times bestseller and won the 2021 British Fantasy Award, and was also a finalist for the 2020 Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. Alix’s next book is The Underland, a modern gothic fairy tale which publishes in 2023.
Here, she explores her writing process, and the fun she has playing with perspective and doing everything a writer ‘shouldn’t’ – to great effect!
Writing is playing
Before we begin, let’s be very clear: this is exactly the kind of nonsense that loses you stars on Goodreads and gets you at least one irritable email. If you don’t want those irritable emails – fair! – then you are advised to tell your stories in tight third-person perspective, past tense, and don’t get cute with timelines.
If, however, you are one of those writers who likes to feel that they are getting away with something, who still uses adverbs despite what Stephen King said about the road to hell – I’m sorry, and welcome.
Fiction has its own particular judicial code. It’s harsh, but admirably brief: anything’s legal if you look good doing it.
Perspective – who tells your story and how – is one of my favourite things to play with. I don’t just mean choosing between first and third, or present and past. I mean all the structural sleight-of-hand you can pull: shifting between the past and present, rotating between characters, flashbacks and footnotes, framing devices, books within books, found documents. My next book has – and my editor probably wishes I was joking, but I’m not – an entire (fictional) Wikipedia page in the middle, and I just turned in a short story written mostly in second person.
But fiction has its own particular judicial code. It’s harsh, but admirably brief: anything’s legal if you look good doing it. If you’re going to get weird with perspective, you have to pull it off.
Justify your weirdness
I will tell you a secret: I always want footnotes. In everything. This is simply what happens to the human brain when exposed to graduate-level history courses. And yet, I cannot always have them, because they aren’t justified in the piece.
Your choice of perspective has to align with the story you’re telling. And not only mechanically – like, yes, you can find a clever way to explain why the narrator is telling the story out of order, or why the whole thing is written in future progressive tense – but also tonally and thematically. In an ideal world, your characters, plot, themes, perspective, structure and tone are all members of the same band, reading from the same sheet music.
Think about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It gets to have footnotes and an omniscient narrator because it’s fictional scholarship about the history of magic that dryly mimics the tone of actual Regency-era scholarship, with two main characters who are scholars whose overall arc is to research and reveal the history of magic. See how it all layers together, like an iterative cake?
Your choice of perspective has to align with the story you’re telling. And not only mechanically, but also tonally and thematically. In an ideal world, your characters, plot, themes, perspective, structure and tone are all members of the same band, reading from the same sheet music.
The Fifth Season is allowed to have three rotating narrators in first, second, and third perspectives because N.K. Jemisin was issued a special license that says she can do whatever she wants, but also because (spoiler!!) the main character has three radically altered identities separated by three massive traumas. It’s a book about a fractured woman navigating a fractured empire in a (literally, tectonically) fracturing world, told in fractured shards of perspective.
At the risk of being both prescriptive and mystical: let your story determine how it needs to be told.
Use your weirdness
Which leads you to the really fun part, where you get to see what this perspective choice can do for you.
You’ve already stolen the car, and now you get to see how fast it goes. What you don’t want to do is drive up in a [very fancy and fast car, I don’t know why I chose a metaphor I don’t know anything about] and then just sort of putt around town at the speed limit.
So: what does your perspective device let you do, narratively, that you otherwise couldn’t? How does it alter the story? Can you reveal information earlier or later, or to different characters?
If you realise at any point that you could just as easily tell the story from a different perspective than the one you chose, without making any substantive changes, then you have stolen a fancy car for no reason.
Harrow the Ninth has an unknown narrator describing the main character, Harrow, in second person (‘You no longer knew what it was like not to be afraid,’ etc.). Tonally, it gives the whole thing a dreamlike confusion and eerie out-of-body-ness – which works because Harrow recently gave herself a lobotomy – but it also permits the narrator to tell the reader things that Harrow herself doesn’t know. Which means the reader figures out who the narrator is long before the protagonist, which makes everything even more fantastically sad and funny.
Plain Bad Heroines is a Russian doll of perspectives: it’s a novel about the filming of a movie based on a book about a historical tragedy involving the real-life memoir of Mary MacLane. Because of the spooky, recursive nature of the story – the way the same details repeat, again and again – the reader starts to learn the beats of the story and to anticipate the moments of horror. And really, all good horror is at least seven-eighths anticipation.
Basically if you realise at any point that you could just as easily tell the story from a different perspective than the one you chose, without making any substantive changes, then you have stolen a fancy car for no reason.
Maybe you were wrong
And like, I’m so sorry, but it does happen. Sometimes you carefully choose a perspective that aligns with your story, and you know exactly what you’re doing and why, and then you start writing and it turns out you were wrong about everything.
I planned to write The Once and Future Witches (the book my husband still refers to as ‘the book so nice you wrote it thrice’) in rotating first-person perspective, like Spinning Silver. I slogged through the draft until I got to a point where I wanted so badly to tell the reader something my character didn’t know. I wanted Beatrice to walk out from the shadows of an alley and not notice that the shadows were reaching after her, like clawing hands.
But that’s illegal in first person. It would require a more archaic, omniscient perspective, of the kind that would start sentences with ‘Little did she know…’ It occurred to me that fairy tales are written like that, and that witches and fairy tales were old friends, and then I finally found the perspective and tone and structure for my whole book, and started the whole thing over again.
And I’ve only gotten like, two or three irritable emails about it.
- Members of The Novelry can enjoy a live session with Alix E. Harrow. Sign up to one of our creative writing courses today!
Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow is the award-winning and bestselling author of five speculative fiction novels, and many short stories. A former academic and adjunct, her books include The Ten Thousand Doors of January (finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards) and The Once and Future Witches (Winner of the 2021 Bristish Fantasy Award and Finalist for the 2020 Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards). Her latest book is The Underland which publishes in 2023.