In this series, I discuss the so-called rules of writing--and how great authors manage to break them.
The Book ALL'S WELL by Mona Awad (Simon & Schuster)
This was the last (and best!) book I read in 2022. It's one of my favourite books ever, partly because it's so spectacularly weird. The novel follows Miranda Fitch, a theatre prof whose chronic pain is miraculously cured after an encounter with three strangers in a bar. It comes at a cost, of course, and Miranda's life slowly unravels, along with the production of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well she's trying to stage.
ALL'S WELL might be described as darkly-comedic literary horror. It's funny, it's speculative, it's gloriously strange. Basically, I don't know what to call it or where it belongs in a book store. And therein lies the rule-breaking!
Why you might want to follow the rules
A lot of people like genre-blending novels (including me). Other people might pick up something like ALL'S WELL and scratch their heads. That's because many readers like to know what they're getting into when they start a book. You can tell a rom-com is a rom-com by the fun illustrations on the cover. And while there's heaps of originality within the rom-com (and every) genre, some things are a given. You know there will be a kiss by the end.
By contrast, ALL'S WELL keeps you guessing about almost everything. Will the story turn out happily, like its namesake play, or in soul-crushing despair? Will Miranda lose her shit and murder everyone? I truly did not know until the last page. Personally, I think this is a great thing. But it's worth remembering that most agents and editors want books they can compare to successful titles in the same vein, so it might get tricky if your manuscript is hard to categorize.
Why it works to break the rules in this case
One reason this book succeeds is that it makes a great literary page-turner, which I like to think of as a brew of character-driven plot, rich internality, and a hook pulled from genre fiction. (Side bar: I took a great course on literary page-turners with Thea Lim at Flying Books; I highly recommend.)
In part, ALL'S WELL is actually a retelling of Macbeth. The horror elements (witch-type figures, a magical golden remedy, one character's descent into madness) are straight from genre fiction. But it's Miranda who drives the plot with her obsessions and insecurities. Awad uses first-person narration, drilling deep into Miranda's (mis)beliefs and fantasies. We get to venture down the rabbit hole that is her consciousness, and it makes for marvelous fun.
Which leads us to another quality of literary page-turners: they're entertaining. You start reading, and you don't want to stop--which again proves you can write anything you want so long as you write it well.