Writing What Hurts – Part the Fifth – Stylistic Writing

3.

Style is a word you see tossed about a lot in literary circles.  There have been epic battles fought over stylistic writing vs. plot-driven writing vs. character driven writing.  There are authors who understand words and punctuation and the painting of images in sequences of letters so well that they can twist and turn the language into intricate pretzels of brilliance…and there are an even larger number claiming “style” to hide a lack of proper grammatical understanding, or a simple misunderstanding of the term.

My take on it is as simple as my take on most of the big writing arguments.  In fact, let me qualify this by stating my opinion on most such squabbles up front.  If you are arguing over style, or plot, or who is right about what particular aspect of the craft of writing, you aren’t writing.  If you spend all your time worrying over how other work, or whether you are doing it “right” then you aren’t concentrating hard enough to actually create anything useful.  Creation requires your full attention – don’t waste it on irrelevant nonsense, because, in the end, if you don’t actually create something it’s all so much wasted breath.

Style is what it is.  While I believe you can recognize a style that you like, emulate it, study it, twist it and turn it – it isn’t your style until it develops into something so ingrained in your psyche that it occurs without thought.  It’s like I tell my oldest daughter, who is fond of telling everyone how she likes to be random.  If you are trying to be random, it’s not random.  If you are trying to write with a particular style you may be in a developmental stage, but  it can’t be considered completely your own.  I would go so far as to say that even if you absolutely LOVE the style of another author, unless it molds itself to your mind and becomes something entirely new, you are writing in someone else’s style, and can never be more than a reflection.

I wrote early on in this piece about influences.  You can’t avoid them, and should not try.  On the other hand, you also can’t get caught up in them.  Like drinking, or television, or video games – if you let yourself get too tangled up in one influence or another, you will lose yourself, and if you don’t personally have anything to say, why are you writing?  If you don’t believe your own words, in your own style, will reach out and grab people – or get your message across – or do justice to the voices in your head, what is the point?  It’s not arrogance to believe you are as good as anyone out there, it’s mental survival.  Never strive to be second best, or the next “so-and-so” – strive to make what you are a thing that others envy and want to emulate.  Be the first you.

And with that in mind, a bit about style.  Just like everything in the arts, you have to be careful with that hat that says “stylist” on it.  The publishing world, and subsequently the world of readers and consumers, is very fond of labels.  The thing about literary labels is that they come with their own particularly sticky and difficult to wash off adhesive.  If you write a horror novel, and it does well, you are a horror writer.  You can overcome this over time – particularly if you are a pretty successful author, like Dean Koontz, or Poppy Z. Brite – but it’s not an easy task.

The problem from the publisher’s side of the fence is a simple matter of marketing.  To create a best-selling author, you begin by publishing and marketing that first book – and you build on it.  You try to create a recognizable brand – a product you can quantify, qualify, and pop onto the right shelf.  If the aforementioned horror writer turns in a mainstream novel or a mystery, you have to either build parallel paths (possibly with one genre under a pseudonym to keep from getting it all messy) or start all over in the new genre, building that brand.  I get this – and you should too, if you plan on putting that stylist hat on.

For one thing, if you are going to be a stylistic writer, you had better have the standard styles down pat.  You’d better be able to communicate and articulate, punctuate and prove it.  If you become a rule breaker, you have to be able to prove that you know you broke rules, and didn’t just do it because it sounded “cool.”  You’ll get called on it.  The problem with writing as a stylist is that most of the readers who are interested in that type of writing are a very literate crowd, and they are quick to flush out “poseurs”.

Also, think long and hard about your reasons.  Some authors, Caitlin Kiernan comes to mind, write the way they do because it’s the way they write.  Kathe Koja has a “voice” that has been present since her first novel.  It’s not an affectation, in other words, and I believe that to be effective, style can never be an affectation.  It has to be a naturally occurring voice.

That brings me to the actual point (sometimes I really get there if you stick with me).  The point is, we are all stylists.  Your ‘style’ is how the words come out when you are in your ‘zone.’   The Zone, for me, is that place where I’m working – the words are flowing – and I am not thinking about them at all, just pounding the keys and letting it flow.  That’s the natural state of your work.  It is possible to force that work into other voices, and styles, but a rare occasion when you pull it off without losing something in the translation.

It’s also important to understand what stylistic means.  There are any number of quirks that can distinguish one literary voice from another.  Short sentences, long sentences, punctuation that uses flips and tricks to reach an end, stream-of-consciousness, quirky first person, clipped phrases …you get the idea.  Early in my career, I used WAY too many ellipses.  Sometimes I still do.  I used to think it was part of my “style” and now I know, sadly, that it’s a flaw in my grammar.

One of my pet peeves in writing could, I suppose, be considered nothing more than a stylistic preference.  The use of the word “could” to modify verbs irritates the crap out of me.  If you take a paragraph full of “He could see the campfire from where he stood” like sentences and change them so they read in the immediate, real-time way I think they should, you get “He saw the campfire.”  Over a few pages, this can tighten and trim up a manuscript with incredible swiftness and aplomb.  That’s what I think.  In practice, I see everyone from Stephen King to John Grisham tossing the “could” word at verbs and I have to live with it, or not read their work.  It only bothers me when I notice it one time in a jarring sentence, but from that point on it can irritate me right out of my happy place.

The point of this short aside is just to note that this is a quirk of my own style.  I’m not necessarily right, or wrong about it, but in my own writing you’ll not find me using that sentence structure very often.  It’s the tip of a huge iceberg.  I will be getting further into my own style as we progress, and hopefully examining where elements of it came from – why they stuck with me while others did not – and how this may, or may not relate to your own writing.  Stay tuned.

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