Posts tagged style

Writing What Hurts – Part the Fifth – Stylistic Writing

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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.

Writing What Hurts – Part the Second: Teachers

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Back in high school I had some unique individuals as teachers.  One, for instance, was Mr. Montz.  I may be botching the spelling of his name, it doesn’t matter.  Mr. Montz was famed throughout the school, both for being the best and the strangest history professor in the school’s own history.  Mr. Montz began with each new class by listing Montz’s Laws on the blackboard.  I don’t remember all of them, but there are a few that stuck with me.  A Student is one who studies.  An instructor presents information.  A Teacher is one who teaches.

And Mr. Montz was a teacher.  Some of his students were allowed not to attend class at all.  He made the deal first day that if you came to class on the day of exams and maintained an “A” average you did not have to come to class.  Everyone came anyway.  He was also very adamant to suggest welding schools near you if you were not doing well. He did this in an non-insulting manner in which you knew your best interest was at heart. You never knew whether he would be talking about the American Revolution, or reading to the class from the Just-So stories by Rudyard Kipling.  He had the perfect voice for it – and I’ll never forget hearing him read about the Great, gray, green, greasy Limpopo River.  I’ll also never forget that I learned in his class – that it was what education should be about.  Not a list of deadlines, some memorized facts that sift in and out of the brain and disappear.  Lessons – some about history, others about life.  He was a great teacher.

I was probably blessed when it came to teachers.  My creative writing teacher, Nell Wiseman, still teaches (I think) and has won acclaim for her work in Illinois education.  I wrote a great number of poems in her class – that is what I remember best.  We had to complete a poetry notebook that was turned in to an Illinois women’s literary society (don’t recall which one).  First prize was something like $10 – more money then than it is now.  I wrote what I thought was a very creative poetry notebook, and one of my poems – the Ballad of Daniel Dunn (notice the alliteration?) won second prize.  What I remember best is that my poem about a bear caught in a forest fire due to a careless smoker won first prize.

Except I never got that prize.  I had sold the poem (and an entire second poetry notebook) to a friend.  He won first prize, and he didn’t’ even share the money.  That was the down side.  The up side is that at that moment in time, I knew I could write.  I was certain of it.  I had competed against all of the kids in my school who thought they might be interested in creative writing, and I’d taken first and second place.  Of course, I had a lot to learn about what it meant to be able to write…that knowledge came years later…but it was the start.

I also had a teacher named Mrs. Plath.  She was a very strict disciplinarian, but she truly seemed to love books.  In her class I discovered Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (I had to go to the desk and ask her after reading most of the book if she was aware of all that happened in that book because I was afraid I’d get in trouble for writing about it).  I also wrote a long poem called The Torture Chamber (lost to history) as an extra credit assignment, and a short story titled “The Thing at the Top of the Stairs.”  That story, years later, was rewritten and actually published in 365 Scary Stories.  Even at that age I was writing the sort of thing that would draw my creative attention later in life – and fairly well, I think.  Still…I didn’t take it as seriously as I needed to.  Later in this book I’ll talk about turning points, and how I think my career would be different if I’d applied myself even a little bit sooner than I did, but that is digression.

My early life was filled with teachers.  My grandfather, an absolutely amazing man, taught me a lot about life – about being honest – about working with my hands.  He took me fishing and taught me to polish stones to make jewelry.  He taught me to make a Vinegar Sling and the wonders of foods like “brains and eggs” and homemade yogurt by the mason jar.  He escaped a nursing home once, stole his own car from his house (a bronze VW bug) and drove it eighty miles to my house for a visit.  He was a great man, and he blessed me with a plethora of images, ideas, and stories that continue to color and populate the worlds and stories I create.

You never know when you will encounter a teacher.  You never know what the lessons will be, or when you’ll put those lessons to use.    I was fortunate enough to have a wide range of influences at a very early age, and to be gifted with the sort of memory that not only recorded them all in detail, but that can sift them and rearrange them and put them to good use.  The best of your stories come from your life; the things that have mattered to you, brought you to tears, scared the crap out of you and brought you to your knees with pain.  All the rest is trappings and fluff…the important words flow when you are writing with emotion.

Most of  what I’ve written that I believe matters in more than a superficial way came to me when I was writing what hurts.  That’s what this book is about, at its core.  Writing what hurts, what blinds, what uplifts and what captivates.  Writing in that zone where the world fades, and you disappear into the words.  Writing things that, when others read them, make you hold your breath and cringe in the fear that they’ll hate them, or not understand them, or laugh…

I suppose a book about writing needs to be broken into sections of some sort.  Characters.  Plots.  The tools of the trade.  I’ll get to all of that.  First I want to establish the ground floor of this house of cards.  I call it that because, in the face of someone else’s methods, dreams, and career, all that I write might blow away like it was caught in a stiff wind.  Writing is a solitary occupation, and no two writers occupy the same little world, in the end.  You take what you can use, discard the rest, and focus on the work.  Let’s get to it.

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