What exactly is style? Basically it has to do with the way a writer puts his words together. It isn’t just what he says, it’s how he says it. Author Gary Provost in his little gem of a book, “Make Every Word Count,” talks about excerpts from two books he looked at regarding the human brain. He randomly opened one and read this sentence:
“But does the greater spontaneity and speed of assimilatory coordination between schemata fully explain the internalization of behavior, or does representation begin at the present level, thus indicating the transition from sensori-motor intelligence to genuine thought?”
He opened the second book and pointed a finger. This is what he read:
“If a frog’s eyes are rotated 180 degrees, it will move it’s tongue in the wrong direction for food and will literally starve to death as a result of the inability to compensate for the distortion.”
Provost asks, “Which book do you think I read? Which book would you have read?”
He points out that the second book uses visual images to convey what that author understands into a language the reader can understand. We can transfer that same analysis into fiction and show the effect it has on style.
Certain writers come to mind immediately when considering style. Ernest Hemingway is one of the standard bearers. A passage read out of context is recognizable as his work. So is the case with two of my favorites, James A Michener and James Lee Burke. Reading those authors it is not uncommon for a writer to suck in his breath and think, Why couldn’t I have said that? Writing teachers frequently refer to Tom Wolfe and his shout-out style. Others with distinctive styles are Raymond Chandler and the watershed detective writer, Mickey Spillane and his hard-boiled crime protagonist, Mike Hammer. In 1947, newly married Spillane is said to have needed money to buy a house. He wrote “I, The Jury” in nineteen days and sent it to E. P.Dalton. It became an international best seller with six and a half million copies selling in the U.S. alone. Spillane set the stage for that genre forever after, his style being the prototype for future detective crime writers.
Previously we discussed adjectives and adverbs. When a writer packs his work with them they become clutter, unneeded excess. Hemingway’s style is distinctive because of how tightly he writes. He pares sentences down to the core. Eliminate every single adjective and adverb in the novel you are working on and you are still not going to be Hemingway. But if you avoid flamboyancy and tighten your writing, your own style will begin to surface.
There are two steps to writing tightly. The first is to weed out the fluff. After you’ve plucked out the adjectives and adverbs, look for the unnecessary words and sentences. This includes redundancy and side roads you might have taken that sounded good at the time but actually only bog down the story. Wordiness also includes those long passages of exposition. Get rid of them. Exposition passages ‘tell’ the story and you already know that your mission is to show, not tell. Write in the active voice, that is to say, make your sentences active, not passive.
Earlier, we discussed some examples. Here are a few more. Your character says, “I know a woman who is mean.” What if your character says, “I know a woman who beats her dog with a board until he howls.” In the first sentence we heard what the character said. We may have conjured a vague mental picture of some sort of mean woman. In the second we again heard the character but we also saw the woman beating her dog, we heard the animal’s howls of pain and our emotions were immediately engaged. While more words were utilized in the second example they were words that deliver. They had an impact on us as well as providing information. You could write, “The wind was blowing strong.” But instead of that you might say, “The force of the wind ripped the door from its hinges with a metallic screech.”
The second step to eliminate wordiness is to avoid or delete pretentious words. Don’t use a hundred dollar word when a moderately-priced one would be better. Quoting author Gary Provost again, look at this paragraph from what he calls his “short lived novel, ‘The Rabbit Knows.'”
“So he stood torpidly on the pebbled border of the lifeless highway with his arm outstretched across the corroded asphalt and his thumb sought some sort of concession to his distress, and once again he found himself making nugatory conjectures.”
Zzzzz. The sentence is bad enough, but torpidly? Puh-leeze. And do you know what “nugatory conjectures” are? I’d be happy to tell you, but I’d have to go to my dictionary first. One look at that paragraph and both agents and readers would surely say, Nope, don’t think so. Plunk. File 13.
When a writer uses uncommon, pretentious words that make for strained pretentious paragraphs because he thinks it will make him sound educated and sophisticated, he achieves an unwanted result. His writing suffers for it. He won’t grow into a writer with the kind of personal style that draws readers to his work.
Another caveat is to be specific. If you’re writing about your character, instead of saying His hands, say His long-fingered hands. Not his Eyes, but His heavy-lidded eyes. He doesn’t go to a bar, he goes to the ginmill down on Third Street. Don’t have him see just any house, but rather a specific house-a bungalow or a mansion or a chalet. Instead of referring to his wit, talk about his ascetic wit or his dry humor. Specifics have the impact on your reader of helping her to get inside the character’s skin, experience the scene, feel the story.
A writer’s style develops as he involves himself in the discipline. He becomes a writer, a better writer, a great writer, by this triangle: writing, reading and studying the techniques of the craft of writing. These are the components and ignoring any one of them will impact progress. The most difficult task a writer will face is to write. The easiest is to stare at the computer, go make a sandwich, phone a friend or any other avoidance behavior at which he is proficient. To become a writer you must write. You need to do it every day. When you finish one project you must start another. Stepping away from writing “for a break” is a dangerous decision. A day becomes a week which becomes a month and beyond.
That is not to say than an author who has just finished the final edit of his novel, an impressive undertaking by anyone’s yardstick, must immediately start another. A break or a vacation could certainly be warranted. Sometimes we do have to rest and recharge before we are ready to take on our next major task. But a reenergizing period should not be of any substantial length.
Gymnasts and runners who have stepped away for a break report how quickly they lose their momentum. In more ways than one. Almost all will mention focus, of course, but they also speak of muscle. The muscles called upon for their particular sport start breaking down from disuse. Equally important, the person loses muscle memory, critical to athletes. When they return to their workouts and training, they do not return in the same condition. It takes work to get back to the point at which they stopped. The same can be applied to writers. Step away too long and you will lose focus, momentum and creative muscle memory.
The second component of developing as a writer is to read. Some writers say they cannot read while they are involved with their own work. I hope that is not the case for you. Reading is part of the triangle and if you set aside a time each day to read you will find that the activity keeps you in a literary frame of mind. Sometimes, as you read, new ideas will occur to you for your own story. I like to keep a pen and paper beside me when I read. I never know what is going to suddenly pop up and thump me. Try not to convince yourself that you don’t have the time. If you examine your daily routine you will find several ways to gather in reading time. One is to give up an hour or so of watching television. TV does not stimulate the literary juices; it is passive entertainment. If you argued that reading is passive entertainment, too, you’d be wrong. Not in the case of a writer. When a writer reads he gains more than just being entertained; he learns. You don’t even have to concentrate on how the author handles his ‘style,’ you absorb details and technique while you are actually focused on the story itself. Nor do you have to read the same genre you write. If your novels are crime thrillers but you enjoy sci-fi, read it. If you write romance but love to curl up with a good who-done-it, by all means read that. Read novels in your own genre, too. You want to know how other authors approach your favored category. Reading has another interesting benefit. It rests your mind while it entertains you.
The third part of the literary triangle, learning the craft of writing, is self-explanatory. It’s why you are reading this booklet on tips and techniques. Don’t neglect continuing to learn the craft.
It’s important as you develop as a writer that you do not get over-analytical and thus mechanical. Let your writing flow from you. You can and will make needed adjustments during rewriting. For now, put your backside into the chair, turn on the computer and write.
Style, specifically in the viewpoint of agents and editors, includes grammar. And that includes spelling, punctuation, sentence structure and more. Even if you intend to hire an editor to ‘fix all that’ you, as a professional writer, ought to know how to spell and use basic punctuation. And you certainly need to know how to put a sentence together so it says what you want it to say. “Strunk & White’s Elements of Style“ should be one of your good friends, as said in early chapters. This little ninety-page book is packed with easy to locate rules.
Author William Zinsser said, “Writing is an act of ego and we might as well admit it.” I agree. Believe in yourself, be confident, attend to the three parts of your triangle, and your signature, your style, will emerge.
Karleene Morrow is the author of the historical fiction novel, Destinies, set in 18th century Russia. Available from Amazon.com and other online stores. Karleene shares her Pacific Northwest beach home with her Pomeranian show dogs. She is at work on her next novel set in 18th century Virginia. Visit her at http://www.karleenemorrow.com