Quick Style Question, Y’all

How quickly can an author’s style influence, shift, or otherwise change yours?

I have a couple of book reviews in the pipeline, including one for Neil Postman’s Technopoly.  Since I am tracking my 2015 reading with GoodReads, I gave it a quick rating there, which exposed me to everyone else’s thoughts on it.

Intriguingly, even the people who hated or disagreed with its premise and/or arguments noted that they were impressed with the writing itself.  Some declared that the reason for their 2-star (rather than 1-star) rating; others were disgusted that his prose style was so compelling, as they believed that obscured the weakness of his arguments.

All of which is to say, Neil Postman’s got style.  And I wonder how to get it.

Or, well, that’s not quite it.  I’ve heard and read enough to know that style is an elusive sort of beast, slippery like a ferret.  And despite concerted effort, changing or shifting one’s writing style can be like moving a glacier: undeniable, inexorable, powerful…but slow.

So I wonder: how slow?  The other day, I came across this post about copying out the work of excellent writers in order to sharpen one’s skills.  It’s a method that promises improvement, but most certainly requires an investment of effort, a healthy measure of intention and attention, a careful ear and eye, and above all, time.

I’m not hoping for an overnight change to my own writing, but I want to put myself in mind of the fact that I am – and my writing is – what I read.  What I set before my eyes determines what issues from my mind and out through my mouth or keyboard or pen.

Perhaps I will start with Elements of Eloquence, or with a reread of Strunk and White.

No matter what, it is time to begin.

Authors: Pursue Problems; Avoid Didacticism

As Thalia has noted, she and I have worked with Athanatos Christian Ministries for some years in guiding the semi-finalists of their annual novel contest in polishing their submissions.

When it comes to editing any sort of writing project, my kneejerk inclination, which I may or may not follow, is to read it through and take a red pen to any and all mechanical errors and questionable phrasing. This can get fussy, and honestly it’s all but meaningless with regard to the unfolding of the plot – unless there are some particularly egregious misspellings!

But spelling, grammar, and comma usage are a free-and-easy fix compared to more fundamental aspects of a story. Clearing away the haze of poor mechanics reveals the soundness (or deficiency!) of its underlying elements. So writers, bear in mind a couple of basic principles:

Problems are Plot. This took me a very long while to get my head around – first because I wrote self-insertion stories wherein I could ~magically~ do anything and everything (including fly a magic carpet to Venezuela, own a house full of gemstones the size of my fist, and have my grade-school crush fall in love with me: plain ol’ wish fulfillment, nothing more), and later because I crafted characters who I hated to subject to troublesome things. It seemed unkind, creating someone just to afflict him with grief, or her with financial disaster, or both of them with romantic disappointment that could easily be avoided with a little bit of communication.

But characters exist for story, and stories are fueled by problems. This is the essential Rule of Drama.  Maybe they’re internal problems, which eventually manifest in a strange or sudden action from the protagonist.  Maybe they’re mechanical problems: the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, the plane is falling from the sky, the parachute was replaced by a live alligator. Maybe they’re failures of communication or understanding. Maybe they’re the tension between what is right and what is easy. Maybe there are triplets, not twins.  Maybe a man came through the door with a gun in his hand.

Don’t just show me a nondescript fellow carrying on his orderly life in a mediocre fashion.  Don’t just give me a flat sequence of happenstances, don’t spend the whole book describing the landscape or characters, don’t bore me with 12 chapters of exposition.  Start somewhere, add problems, work to solve the problems, add more problems in the meantime, and end up somewhere else – or as someone else.

This is also an important point.  The Catcher in the Rye presents us with a character and adds problems, or something like, but none of them are resolved.  The Holden Caulfield at the end is just like the Holden Caulfield at the beginning, except he’s a little bit older.  Which might be the idea: here, look at this teenager; behold how lame he is; don’t you just want to not be like him in any way?

It’s a long-winded, time-consuming way to teach a single lesson.  But it does follow my other main rule for writers:

Don’t Be Didactic.  What does that mean?  Well, in an earlier post I noted that “didactic” comes from the Greek word for “teaching,” and thus isn’t bad per se.  Teaching is good: but how to do it?  Show your work.  Don’t tell the reader “Well, that business was just evil” or “James suddenly behaved properly, fancy that” or “Communism doesn’t work.”  You have just told the reader about the start of the maze, then dropped him off at the end of the maze, and revealed none of the twists and turns within it.  You have held up a solved puzzle, an assembled model, a fully-folded piece of origami, and kept its inner workings to yourself.  Will it hold together?  How should we know?  Can we take your word for it, since you didn’t take us through the process?

Emily pointed out that some examples or excerpts would be helpful, and indeed, I stand convicted of doing the thing while telling storytellers not to do it.  The difficulty is that I don’t want to quote sections of Athanatos entries I’ve read, since that’s not in keeping with contest rules or a spirit of charity.

So let me take a step back and note that, as I understand Athanatos, their mission is to find and encourage Christian authors.  However, they want stories, first and foremost: well-crafted, well-told, beautiful stories, which will draw in and grip whoever reads them.  They need not be explicitly Christian, if that makes sense; in fact, a latent approach might be preferable.  Though we’ve gotten a fair few novels featuring one or more of the following tropes, it’s not always most effective to feature an altar call, full Bible verses, a conversion prayer, the appearance of angels, a discussion of various points of doctrine, or a bright shining light with a heavenly voice.  There might be occasions where one or another of these, or something like them, can be deployed to good effect; for the most part, such elements only speak to readers already on the inside of the circle.

Stories are journeys, not destinations, so let your characters and your readers travel.  Stick your travelers between a frying pan and a fire.  When difficult questions arise, don’t just answer them, straight off; let them unfurl into tension between characters who want different things, who believe different things – just like real life.  Let there be consequences to choices made, and let those consequences illuminate the nature of the choices instead of baldly stating your estimation of it.  Not that every single choice the characters make must be labored over in a welter of philosophizing – in that case, they might not do anything – but maintain personalities that are real enough to conflict with each other, in such a way that resolution of that conflict means something.

The best books have the power to change their readers.  Fashioning something with that power requires some heavy lifting and a good deal of internal wrestling (and revision, and revision, and revision).  But the end product shines like the sword Zhaligkeer:  “You have then the strength of four blades, not just one.  There is a tension in the twisting of the braid that is never undone.  This tension is what makes the sword leap to the hand and sing in the air.  No common blade forged of a rod and flattened can stand against it.”

Authors: Write with Deliberation.

For several years, Terpsichore and I have been coaching semi-finalists in Athanatos Christian Ministries’s novel competition. We spend 3 months or so working with authors on revisions, polishing and working on the art of story  telling. We work one on one with each author to provide specific criticism and advice. At the end of the revision period, authors re-submit their revised work and some hard working chap wins and has their book published by Athanatos. Pretty sweet, eh?
Well, every year I write a wrap up email with advice for how to keep working to be the best author possible, and every year the general advice is the same. Terpsichore has also found some patterns, so we thought we’d share the more universal advice. Here’s mine. Pursue your writing with deliberation and purpose. How?
Read books about writing. Style guides like Strunk and White go a long way, but a book like John R. Erickson’s Story Craft make a big difference to seeing how to apply the ideas. I’ve also heard that Stephen King’s On Writing is insightful.
Write every day. Pout. This stinks. Finding time, being disciplined, focusing on something! For pete’s sake, we’re not medieval monks! But, there is good news here.
You don’t have to write for hours, or entire chapters. Set manageable goals for yourself. Got 15 minutes? Write for 15 minutes. Can you reliably write 250 words before dinner? Do that.
Also, you don’t have to write NEW words every day. Nor must you sit down and write the very next 250 words in your current project. Re-write yesterday’s words. Plan a different plot that’s been niggling you. Write about how you’re going go berserk if your upstairs neighbor slams the door and wakes the baby one. more. time. Just remember to file everything carefully, and never, never delete anything. You never know when you’ll need those loose words.
(oh, and, this isn’t a salvific matter. you ain’t going to hell if you miss a day or 9, so just pick it back up.)
Be a picky reader, in order to train discernment. Pay close attention to what you’re reading, and if it’s not very good, stop reading it. Is the plot flimsy, or only carried along by sensational occurrences? Are the characters boring or implausible? Is the prose itself varied, interesting, and stylish? If the answer is no, the book is not worth your time. You must give yourself the very best examples so that your “ear”, and “eye” for what is valuable and good is trained to judge between good and bad. When you can trust your well trained instincts, you will find the whole process easier.
And read Egotist’s Club! We’ll turn you towards those good books and share our thoughts on writing.