#amwriting: know your style: hypocrisy in the industry

a writer's styleIn writing, style is far more than simply choosing to wear high-heeled shoes with jeans. Style is a multilayered representation of your voice and your knowledge of the craft of writing.

An author’s style affects the overall readability of his/her finished product. Good readability is achieved by:

  1. Understanding: Keeping to generally accepted grammatical practices. Purchasing and using a style guide when questions arise regarding a creative writing project
  2. Rebellion: if the author chooses to break the accepted rules, he/she does so in a consistent manner.
  3. Wordcraft: The way the author phrases things, and the words he/she chooses, combined with his/her knowledge of the language and accepted usage. Invented word combinations, such as wordcraft (word+craft) and the context in which they are placed.

Simply having a unique style does not make your work fun to read.

Ulysses cover 3Let’s take a look at James Joyce, the man I think of as the king of great one-liners. If you look up great lines quoted from modern classic literature, you will find excerpts from his novel Ulysses represented more often than many other authors.

Yet, while the average reader has heard and often used quotes from Joyce’s work, most people have not read it. They may have picked it up, but then put it down, wondering what all the critics loved so much about it.

The mind of the literary critic is as inscrutable as that of an ex-spouse: hard to understand but easy to run afoul of. I personally learned to love Joyce’s work when I was in a class, taking it apart sentence-by-sentence. Prior to that, I couldn’t understand it, despite the fact it was written in modern, 20th century English.

What makes Joyce’s work difficult for the average reader is his style: he was Irish and had the Irishman’s innate love of words and how they could be twisted, and often wrote using what we call stream-of-consciousness. In doing so, Joyce regularly, but consistently, broke the rules of grammar.

Consistency and context are absolutely critical when an author chooses to write outside the accepted rules of grammatical style. If you just don’t feel like enclosing your dialogue within dialogue tags, it is your choice. Simply tell your editor that is your decision, and she/he will make sure you have consistently omitted them throughout the manuscript.

Queen of the Night alexander cheeYou may, however, have written a book that is difficult for the average person to read, as Alexander Chee has in his brilliant novel The Queen of the Night. While his writing is sheer beauty, this particular style choice is a mystery to me. It makes the book difficult to get into, because you’re reading along, and suddenly you realize you’re reading dialogue, and you have to stop, go back, and reread it.

It is incomprehensible to me why an editor for a large publisher would accept a manuscript that is as annoying as that one flaw makes this otherwise amazing book. It is also proof that large publishers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in this case) are just as guilty as indies when it comes to making strange decisions that can negatively affect sales. They may have done this to elevate it to a “status” read,  a must-buy literary name-dropper for those who wish to appear fashionably cultured. If so, it’s a disservice to a work that is brilliant despite a flaw that would be fatal if it were to appear in an Indie author’s work.

Chee’s editor did one thing correct, however: the lack of closed quotes is consistent throughout the book, and so one can sort of get into the narrative—at least until the dialogue starts up again. This blemish is why I will only recommend the audiobook to readers who are easily discouraged.

Your style choices are critical. They convey your ideas to the reader, and if you make poor choices, you may lose a reader.

James Joyce and Alexander Chee made style choices in their writing that an Indie could never get away with. The world holds Indies to a higher standard, so the choice to omit something as vital as quotation marks would result in instant finger-pointing and mockery of the Indie publishing industry as a whole.

What you choose to write and how you write it is like a fingerprint. It will change and mature as you grow in your craft, but will always be recognizably yours. As you are developing your style, remember: we want to challenge our readers, but not so much that they put our work down out of frustration. Most of us who are Indies can’t rely on our names to sell our books.


Filed under Publishing, writing

9 responses to “#amwriting: know your style: hypocrisy in the industry

  1. I actually just finished my review of Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night. I will be posting it tomorrow. I completely agree. I had a hard time with his lack of quotation marks and his lack of indication of a time jump. I found myself getting confused often, and therefore having to go back and re-read. This made a LONG book even longer. I think he is an amazing storyteller. The book has so much potential. Other than the writing mechanics that needed addressing, the book should have either have been shortened, or made into 2 or more books.

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  2. Excellent stuff on style. And it seems to be true – unless your book gets a big promo push from a major house, you’d better use a more familiar style. that said, do you know any good books on the subject? I know of only one: The Sound on the Page by Ben Yagoda. Would like to find another.

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    • @Scott–you may chastise me for this, but Steven Pinkerton’s book,The Sense of Style, raises many points I am in complete agreement with. Some things he discusses are not really useful for small indies, but he does something with this book that is critical: he explores the boundaries of traditional, rigidly-adhered-to rules of style, and challenges some cherished traditions. Even though I don’t care to be that rebellious in my own work, I like the ideas he explores and the way he discusses them.


  3. I always think of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, not necesarily because of the style, but because the actual structure of that book was so unconventional. It’d be interesting to see an indie ebook-only author try to simulate something so radically formatted because ebook authors seem to be encouraged to make the formatting as tame and simple as possible for easy conversion to other platforms (i.e. Danielewski’s use of footnotes are everywhere through the book). Whatever an author can get away with, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    • @Dominika–It is crucial for indies to format their books so they are readable on all platforms, this is true. Otherwise, why are we doing this? Traditional publishers of print books can be be more lenient in this regard because of volume. However, formatting for ebooks and POD is a different ballgame–and I have seen some horrific examples of formatting disasters from the big-boys. The first ebook edition of George R.R.Martin’s ‘A Feast of Crows’ had some hilariously awful formatting failures.

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  4. I’m a little confused relative to the mechanics of writing and style. I write different things/genres in different styles, but the mechanics of grammar and punctuation are the same. Unless, of course, there is dialect in dialogue.

    People who have read Red Clay and Roses (historic fiction) and also read Naked Alliances (crime romp) are acutely aware that the style is different. Not a bad thing. In most cases, readers loved both, but in a couple of cases the readers of the former missed the narrative prose they were familiar with in the earlier work. I intentionally wrote them differently because readers of commercial fiction in the crime genre have different expectations. The crime romp has fast pace with more action than reflection that wouldn’t have been acceptable in literary fiction. And while people have claimed I had a powerful voice in Red Clay and Roses, I don’t thing the same could be said for Naked Alliances because so much of that character of the writing style is missing.

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    • @SK–I do know what you mean. I also write in several genres, and my voice changes accordingly. This may be true of all authors!

      I have written a lot of literary fiction this year, along with medieval fantasy, plus I have been winding up my Tower of Bones series, which is epic fantasy set in an RPG game-based world. I don’t have trouble switching gears, as long as I am not editing for a client. I can barely write at all when that is happening, lol!

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