Tag Archives: Alexander Chee

Voice #amwriting

If you write professionally, you develop habits, ways of expressing yourself that “sound” like you. Voice is how you bend the rules and is your fingerprint. For your voice to be compelling and not jarring, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which ones must be obeyed. Knowledge is key—it enables you to craft your work so it says what you want, in the way you want it said.

Most editors will ignore liberties you take with dialogue but will point out habitual errors in the rest of the narrative.

If you work with an editor, you must be willing to explain why you are choosing to flout a particular rule. If you don’t understand the rule to begin with, you can’t defend your position with authority.

This is why I always suggest you buy a good style guide. I like the simplicity and thoroughness of Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

If an editor asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author. Explain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand. If you have a concrete reason, your editor will most likely understand.

Repetition of a key word for emphasis is one example of breaking a rule with style.

This is why it’s important to educate yourself. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so, and your work will reflect that confidence.

However, if I am your editor, you must be prepared to break that rule consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

No one is perfect, and even authors who also work as editors need and use editors. Certainly, I have benefited from the editors I have worked with. I began this journey knowing nothing about the mechanics of writing, other than that which I had retained from my school days. Writers who were further along in the craft gave me good advice, and I began growing as a writer.

To go back to what I said in the first paragraph, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which of them must be obeyed. The average reader doesn’t take joy in reading James Joyce’s experimental prose. Alexander Chee can be difficult for an average reader to enjoy. This is because both Joyce and Chee take liberties with punctuation that makes reading their work a real challenge. Some readers are up to that, others not so much.

I will admit, I had to take a class to be able to understand James Joyce’s work, and I did have to resort to the audiobook for Alexander Chee’s work. It’s the hypercritical editor coming out in me, making it difficult for me to set that part of my awareness aside. It’s my job to notice those things.

I can hear you now: these are literary authors, and you are writing genre fantasy fiction or sci-fi. Shall I toss out another name or two?

Tad Williams mixes his styles. His Bobby Dollar series is Paranormal Film Noir: dark, choppy, and reminiscent of Sam Spade. In this series, he seems to be somewhat influenced by the style of crime authors, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It is a quick read and is commercial in that it is for casual readers.

Yet his fantasy work set in Osten Ard has lusher prose, multiple storylines, dark themes. It is written for serious fantasy readers. The story starts slow, but his powerful writing has generated millions of fans who are thrilled to know he has set more work in that world.

Beginning slow and working up to an epic ending is highly frowned upon in writing groups, but Tad broke that rule and believe me, it works.

George Saunders writes sci-fi and historical fantasy but is considered literary. He has a unique, literary voice because he takes liberties with the rules.  His work reads like a conversation with him, a little crisp and choppy, but intimate.

If you are writing a genre such as fantasy or sci-fi or mystery, I suggest you do not get experimental with your punctuation unless you don’t mind bad reviews. People who look for quick reads for the adventure and romance don’t want experimental. They want an escape; they want prose that doesn’t interfere with the narrative. Run on sentences, commas inserted every place you breathe, or no commas at all—these are flaws that ruin the experience for the casual reader.

Get a good style guide and stop guessing about where the commas go and how to use that ellipsis.  Don’t know if you should use a semicolon or not?

Get a style guide.

Your writing will go faster, and your beta readers will be able to give you better opinions on what reads well and what needs more work.

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#amwriting: breaking the rules with style

a writer's styleMuch of my blog time revolves around grammar and the mechanics of writing. As authors, it’s important to understand the rules of how the language in which we write works, no matter what that language is. Yet powerful writing often breaks those rules, and we are better for having read it.

So why am I always pressing you to buy and use the Chicago Manual of Style?

Authors must know the rules to break them with style.

Readers expect words to flow in a certain way. If you break a grammatical rule, know what you are breaking and  be consistent about it.

Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Alexander Chee, and George Saunders all have unique voices in their writing. Each of these writers has written highly acclaimed work. Their prose is magnificent. When you have fallen in love with one of these authors’ works, you will recognize their voice.

Ernest Hemingway used the word “and” in place of commas too freely.

Alexander Chee employs run-on sentences and dispenses with quotation marks.

James Joyce wrote hallucinogenic prose and at times dispensed with punctuation completely.

George Saunders writes as if he is speaking to you, and is, at times, choppy in his delivery.

But their voices work. They each break certain rules as set down by Strunk and White, but they produce brilliant prose that stands the test of time. Readers fall into the rhythm of their prose.

I will admit, I had to take a college class to be able to understand James Joyce’s work, and I did have to resort to the audio book for Alexander Chee’s work. It’s the hypercritical editor coming out in me, making it difficult for me to set that part of my awareness aside. It’s my job to notice those things.

I can hear you now: these are literary authors, and you are writing genre fantasy fiction or sci-fi. Shall I toss out a few more names?

Tad Williams mixes his styles. His Bobby Dollar series is Paranormal Film Noir: dark, choppy, and reminiscent of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories. In this series, he seems to be somewhat influenced by the style of crime authors, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It is a quick read and is commercial in that it is for casual readers.

Raymond Chandler was the creator of Philip Marlowe, the original hard-boiled, disillusioned, copper-turned-private-eye. His people take center stage, rather than the violence that characterizes so many detective novels of his era.

In his article, The Chandler Style, Martin Edwards writes:  Devising puzzles was always less important to him than style. He said, ‘I don’t really seem to take the mystery element in the detective story as seriously should,’ and joked about solving plot problems by having a man come to the door with a gun  Style mattered much more: ‘I had learn American just like a foreign language. To learn it I had to study and analyse it. As a result, when I use slang . . . I do it deliberately.’  And as he told one magazine editor whose proof-reader presumed to tidy up the Chandler grammar, ‘When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.’

Chandler understood how grammar worked. He knew what he was doing and did it deliberately. He was able to convey (to those who didn’t appreciate his style) why he broke those rules and was secure enough in his choice to continue writing in his own voice.

But Chandler also had to deal with the sort of sniping we all must deal with in our writing groups. Wikipedia says: The high regard in which Chandler is generally held today is in contrast to the critical sniping that stung the author during his lifetime. In a March 1942 letter to Blanche Knopf, published in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, he wrote, “The thing that rather gets me down is that when I write something that is tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, I get panned for being tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, and then when I try to tone down a bit and develop the mental and emotional side of a situation, I get panned for leaving out what I was panned for putting in the first time.”

Yet, although he writes Bobby Dollar in a Chandler-esque style,  Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn Trilogy is true epic fantasy, with lush, poetic prose, multiple story-lines, and dark themes. It is written for serious fantasy readers who want nothing less than the big novel. The story starts slow, but the powerful writing has generated millions of fans who are thrilled to know he has set more work in that world.

Beginning slow, going off on side quests, writing poetic prose, and gradually working up to an epic ending is highly frowned upon in today’s writing groups, but Tad broke that rule and believe me, it works.

Roger Zelazny wrote one of the most famous fantasy series of all time, the Chronicles of Amber, and was famous for his crisp, minimalistic dialogue, and he was also heavily influenced by the style of wisecracking hard-boiled crime authors like Chandler.

Most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing, and do it deliberately. Craft your work so it says what you want, in the way you want it said.

GRRM Meme 3If your editor asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author. Explain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand, and your editor will most likely understand. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so.

However, if I am your editor, you must be prepared to break that rule consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

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#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.

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#amreading: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Queen of the Night alexander cheeEvery now and then I find myself reading/listening to a mainstream bestseller, and enjoying it. Alexander Chee has written just such a novel, in The Queen of the Night.

This novel has one of the best openings since Patrick Rothfuss’s brilliant opening lines in The Name of the Wind.

Quote from The Queen of the Night: When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.

These lines presage an immersive, sumptuous reading experience.

But first, THE BLURB:

Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.

As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.

The book so far:

From those intiguing opening lines forward it is filled with every kind of emotion, every human tragedy and triumph imaginable. It resounds with the pomp and grandeur of the most thrilling opera–as it should since it details the life of a Parisian opera star of outstanding brilliance–a true diva in the operatic sense.

Rumors abound regarding Lilliet–she is the topic of many conversations, but rumors barely touch on the truth of her life. Even she is not truly sure of who or what she is. Despite having achieved everything and more, she lacks something and is waiting for a “meeting with destiny” which she hopes will transform her life into the paradise she wants it to be.  That moment comes in chapter one, but the transformation….

You will have to read it to see.

This book is not cheap–the Kindle edition is $14.99. I bought it as an Audible download ($17.95) because I am heavily involved in editing right now for a Myrddin author and am also making revisions on my own work under an editor’s guidance. Then I bought the hardcover edition.

I am unable to read for pleasure until I am done with these two tasks. And because of some interesting style choices on the part of the author, such as not enclosing dialogue in quotes, I especially dare not attempt to read this particular book just now.

But I can listen to audio books, and what I am hearing in this book captivates me. When I am once again able to read for pleasure, this book will the first I crack open.

To purchase a book published by the large traditional publishers is a hefty financial commitment. To make your decision a little easier, Longreads posted the first chapter here: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. Please go out to their wonderful site and if you like what you see, consider becoming a member.

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