Tag Archives: writing style

#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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#amwriting: Voice vs lazy writing

Epic Fails signI find it aggravating when I read a book where the characters “begin” to do things.

If you watch them in real life, people don’t “begin” to pick up that knife. They don’t “start” to walk away. They pick up the knife. They walk away.

Using “begin” and “start” to commence a “doing” scene is a lazy writing habit we have to train ourselves out of. We are thinking the tale, and writing it as it falls from our head. Because we get into storytelling mode, the dog begins to bark, and the neighbors start to complain.

A narrative where people begin and start to do things separates the reader from the story.  And when we are in storytelling mode we pepper our manuscript with too many descriptors, and give too much information. All first drafts will have some instances of lazy writing–not because we’re lazy. It’s quicker to write your story down in this fashion and it gets the thoughts out on the paper before they vanish.

But these shortcuts are what we clean up in the second draft.

I let the words flow as they will when I am writing the story down. When an idea has me in its grip I don’t worry too much about phrasing. This is why first drafts are uneven and rough, and why they shouldn’t be shared with too many people. Sharing short snippets in your writing group is one thing, but for the love of Tolstoy, don’t publish that mess!

At the first draft stage, the most important thing is to simply get it out of your head and onto the paper.  Once that is done, it’s time to go through the ms on a paragraph by paragraph basis and tweak the weak sentences, making the story become in reality what it is in your mind’s eye. This is the second draft, where we wrangle the tale into something a reader might want to “test-drive” for us.  It may take more than two drafts to get a manuscript to that point. At least for me it frequently does.

Capote_cold_bloodEvery author, no matter how famous, has a unique way of getting the work out of their heads and on to the paper. Every author then has to go through the second phase of the process, which involves both cutting out whole sections, and tweaking what remains until you can’t see the forest for the trees.  Truman Capote said, ”Editing is as important as the writing. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Capote died at the age of sixty having written one of the most highly acclaimed works of our time,  In Cold Blood.  He’s gone, but his words live on and when you look at his work, you can see he put his philosophy to practice.

I regularly read the works of other authors. But what makes some work a memorable experience? Why are others are okay, but lacking something?

It’s not only a great plot, crucial though it is. Even bad books often have a good idea for a plot.

Also, it’s not just having great characters, although no book is worth reading without them, in my opinion.

Every gripping story has both of those crucial things, but also has a third thing, something that is indefinable and can’t be duplicated: a style that is recognizably that particular author’s voice.

That combination is what hooks and lands me as a reader.

These things are the holy trinity that combine to make a classic tale:

  • gripping plot
  • great characters
  • unique voice

What is “Voice”? Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, says:  The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).

Use your voice to create strong sentences that intrigue and capture the reader.  Passive, telling sentences lose the reader’s interest.

We all feel a flash of anger when certain flaws in our work are pointed out. However, when an editor corrects your lazy writing habits they aren’t trying to change your voice. They’ve seen something good in your work, and they’re pointing out places where you can tighten it up and grow as a writer. Remember, voice is how you use syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, and dialogue.

You have a unique voice. Hopefully, in your writing you also follow the commonly agreed upon rules of the English language (if your work is written in English). We shouldn’t write the way we speak. Our casual conversation is sprinkled with words and phrasing we shouldn’t use in our writing except in the dialogue portion of the manuscript. After all, we want our dialogue to feel comfortable when it is read aloud.

Lazy writers

  • Use too many quantifiers “It was really big.” “It was incredibly awesome.”
  • “Tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bert was mad.”
  • Swamp the reader with minute details: “Mary’s eyebrows drew together, her lips turned down, and her cheeks popped a dimple.”
  • Ruin the taste of their work with an avalanche of prettily written descriptors: “-ly” words
  • Have their characters natter on about nothing just to kill time. It doesn’t show them as human, it shows them as boring.

Johnathan_Livingston_SeagullWhether you write essays, novels, technical pieces, or flash fiction you should write something new every day, even if it is only a short passage. Writing daily develops your skills and over time your prose becomes leaner and your voice becomes well-defined. Richard Bach, author of the amazing novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, said, “Never stop trying. A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

Tighten that prose. Comb the manuscript for telling words and be sparing with descriptors.

And be prepared to see red ink when the manuscript comes back from the editor despite your efforts to craft perfect prose.

That is just a part of this process.

 

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Serial commas

serial commas meme, martha stewartCommas: those little morsels of goodness that few authors understand. In general, serial commas are used to resolve ambiguity. When we have a list in a sentence, not using commas can create some interesting situations.

Comma use is part of what we call ‘style:’

  1. Google says: “Style is the way writing is dressed up (or down) to fit the specific context, purpose, or audience. Word choice, sentence fluency, and the writer’s voice — all contribute to the style of a piece of writing.” 
We use a style to ensure consistency in our phrasing and punctuation, and make it easier for the reader to enjoy the book. The books I use to help me with that are Elements of Style, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation.   In my opinion, as an avid reader, the style that always uses the serial comma is less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the legendary book dedication often attributed to Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

There is ambiguity about the writer’s parentage, because Ayn Rand and God can be read as meaning that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents. That is actually rather hilarious because Ayn Rand is famously atheist in her beliefs. (I’m not qualified to say whether or not God believes in Ayn Rand.)

Lets-eat-GrandmaHowever, a comma before and removes the ambiguity: To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

But lists can also be written in other ways that eliminate the ambiguity without introducing the serial comma, such as using other punctuation, or none, to introduce or delimit them. For example, in the following manner:

To God, Ayn Rand and my parents. Hemingway used and in place of commas in much of his work, and it was quite readable.

A famous example reportedly collected by Nielsen Hayden was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about Merle Haggard:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.  This could be taken to mean that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were Merle Haggard’s ex-wives.

Although Merle Haggard has been married five time, he was never married to either Kris Kristofferson or Robert Duvall,  and a serial comma would resolve that inaccuracy:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

chicago manual of styleI’ve seen people launch into rants  against serial commas, claiming that it’s too many and looks awful.

I’m just going to say that argument  is hogwash.

Who are your writing for, yourself or an unknown reader who may one day buy your book?

If you are writing for your own eyes only, do whatever you like.

But if you expect others to enjoy your work, you need to think about the reader: consider what is going to make your work easy for the reader to understand what you are saying.

Other aspects of commas may escape me at times, but the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is one I adhere to in my own work, and heartily wish other authors would too.

 

 

 

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