Time to wrap up The 25, folks! And we’re going to do it with style.
No, really. The last bit is style.
Writers sometimes speak of style as if it were an ingredient to be added to their story or poem or memoir. Instead, style is the thing itself. E.B. White said it best, writing, “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, ‘Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.’” The key, then, to developing one’s style is to write, as White states, “in a way that comes naturally.”
Sound easy? It’s not. In fact, finding the “way that comes naturally” can take a lifetime, and the way can change with each piece you begin. One key to beginning that journey is to think about style not so much as a matter of addition, but subtraction—casting off feelings of awkwardness and self-consciousness, affectation and pretension. Focus on presenting your piece clearly, in a way that connects with readers. For practice, imagine a single reader sitting across a table from you. Spend a half-hour relating your piece to that reader, as clearly and honestly as possible. Spend another half-hour striving to make the piece more clear, more honest, more affecting. Then spend another half-hour making the piece more clear, more …
I think the point Heffron makes is an insightful one. Style isn’t about imitation or any other kind of flattery to others. Because of that, I can understand why it’s one of the more difficult aspects of writing to make authentic, because it’s one of the age old bits of advice that people tend to find very difficult: Be yourself.
I remember being a child/adolescent/teen/undergrad and having people tell me that. “Just be yourself, Emmie.” As if it came second nature to them, but I suspect it doesn’t really come first nature to anyone, really. There is, of course, a lot of wisdom in those two little words, but if we’re all honest, we know that human beings spend a lot more time trying to blend in than stand out.
With a lot of things in life, I can see why we do it. It can be dangerous to stray from herd, especially when that herd is full of pubescent females who have grown massive retractable claws along with their burgeoning busts. Boys aren’t much better. We might go through a rebellious stage and put strangely colored things on our heads (or in our heads), but people have a massive drive to fit in.
Going against that grain is a painstaking uphill climb, and other famous cliches.
When you can take that advice, something changes in your life. I know we’re talking about writing here, but I’m going to give you a little of my history to illustrate how my style has grown because of those two words. I still have an evolving style (I might even call it a revolving style), but my writing now is much more interesting than it used to be. I spent most of high school just trying not to be noticed. I spent the first year of college realizing that people like what they expect, and get a wee bit upset when you do something that doesn’t jive with that. In my case, it was me beginning to realize that I didn’t believe in Christianity anymore — in my second semester at an expensive, private Christian university, no less. I lost a lot of friends over that. When it comes to religion, for all the prayer and convincing and Bibles and whatever else, there is this little fork in the road. One sign points at “You Believe,” and the other just yells, “BULLSHIT!” Three guesses which fork was me. You can’t force yourself to be something you’re not, so I quit trying. And I took off across an ocean.
In 2004, I moved to Scotland for the summer. I spent two months there by myself. Away from expectations, away from anything I was familiar with, yet I was home the second my toes touched the tarmac at the Prestwick Airport south of Glasgow. I spent those two months flitting throughout the country alone. I met people who are still in my life, namely a UT student named Marshall who is now a barrister in Leeds, and a fabulous Punjabi-Scottish man who makes chai from scratch and speaks Gaelic with equal facility called Jordan, but I just call him my best friend. He was man of honor in my wedding last month. I also met a young man named Pawel, who was the first Polish person I ever met. I heard the sounds of his language and had to learn it.
The next summer I flew to Poland with four other women, and I returned to Scotland, where Jordan introduced me to my soulmate, a beautiful, intelligent, hilarious woman named Julia, who joined him on October 2 as my maid of honor. She was just selected from a pool of hundreds of applicants to join an organization (the only organization) that does systematic research on the G20 Summit. I’m so proud of her I could burst. Six months later, I packed my bags and moved across the Atlantic. I didn’t come back for almost two years. Those people I met are still a part of me, a part of my life. None of them knew much about my life growing up. They met me in places I felt utterly at home and comfortable, and those were my first lessons about being myself.
It was then I began to write Elemental, the book I’m currently trying to finish for NaNoWriMo.
I knew I had something the moment I began it. You know the thrill, gentle viewers. The electric pulse that flits through you as the ragged curtains between worlds ripple back with an unseen wind and reveal a Story to you. I ended up realizing that that story wasn’t the beginning, and I put it aside to write Primeval, which is the first book in the trilogy. Now five years later, Primeval is getting ready for takeoff, and I’m writing the final pages of Elemental at last.
The point of all of this is that your style evolves when you put those two little words into practice. It will sprout out of what you thought was barren dirt and sneak tendrils into your skin. It will begin to take you over until who you are manifests on every page. I’m no Shakespeare, and I’m still a work in progress much like my writing, but there’s a lot more of me on the page than there ever was before.
So to wrap up The 25 (but certainly not my daily posts), style is what happens when you be yourself. Love yourself. The rewards are still untold, though I think I’ve gotten more from life than any woman deserves even now in the three people who form my personal triumvirate of true love. They’re what pushes me forward on this path. Who pushes you?
If I can do it, a girl who grew up with no pot to piss in (literally) and who kept her mouth shut for a decade — so can you.
- True love happens. Image by Jordan Jaquess Imaging.
- Three times for me. Image by Jordan Jaquess Imaging.
EDIT: I apologize for the weird formatting on this post. I tried looking at the HTML for a whole five minutes before I gave up. Not really sure what happened — never had trouble with copy/paste resetting font before. Weird.
It’s going to do a trick!
Sorry. I’m just chock-full of the bad puns lately. You can smack my wrist if you must.
Well, gentle viewers, we are back to The 25 for the penultimate day! Aren’t you excited?! I sure am. Though I’m going to have to start nosing around for little tidbits to chuck my two cents at day after day. Hm.
Think of your writing as a windshield. Ill-suited words can streak and cloud your reader’s view, and just-right language can be as clarifying as a high-powered carwash. Once you have a solid draft, it’s time to consider:
- Could a different word bring even more energy or resonance to a poignant moment through sound, subtleties of meaning, or syllabic rhythm?
- Could the setting be conveyed more vividly? Is the natural world palpable?
- Is the emotional tone consistently resonant? Are there neutral words or passages that could be more charged?
- Does the language powerfully enact the action?
As you polish and prune, each piece of writing will teach you something new about what is possible. Let yourself be surprised.
Ah, language. Such a fickle critter. Sometimes it’s in our corner, flowing off our tongues and out of our fingertips like some kind of magical chi. Other times, it’s a monkey flinging poo at our heads. And that’s all that drips off of us. Poo.
There are times when what’s important is to simply vomit the words onto the page, like this month, where hundreds of thousands of writers feverishly slave at their notebooks (electronic or otherwise) to just get the damn things out of us. Words.
And then comes December. It’ll roll over on you like a sleeping grizzly, flinging a furry arm over your face in its hibernation, then cough bear breath — which I imagine smells something like stale sushi and digested berries — in your face to remind you that what you just vomited on the page is stinking up its den. And you’ll want to clean it up, because you’re not stupid enough to piss off a hibernating grizzly, no matter how sleepy he looks.
This one looks friendly enough.
The best way I know when my language is flinging poo instead of sparkling like magic is when my attention wanders away from the page I’m revising. Come December, I’ll be going back over my first draft with a red
pen text color to mark any points in the manuscript where I see something shiny in another direction, or start pouncing light beams on my wall.
Reading aloud can also show you sticky spots. If your tongue falls out on the floor or ends up in a knot tied around your uvula, some re-wording is probably in order.
The questions posed by The 25 are very good starting points. Some others to ask yourself are:
1. Are your action scenes dragging?
2. Does your exposition drop you like a weighted body at the bottom of the sea?
3. Do your characters make themselves distinct? Pick a random (but meaningful) chunk of dialogue and stick another character’s name in the attribution. Have one of your readers read it. If they shrug at you, look over that character’s dialogue. People have verbal tics. Listen to your characters until you find theirs, then pepper their speech with them. Liberally.
4. Does your story flow from beginning to end or does it cough and mutter in fits and starts?
Language is both the poo-flinging culprit and the glorious wand-waving solution to all of those issues. So when you revise, make sure you keep that grizzly happy. Or at least bring him some honey.
Well, to me it is. I seldom see this side of noon excepting when I sneak up on it from behind, or if I have to be at work at 10. And even then, I repress any morning experiences for the first two hours — by then it’s afternoon, and all is right with the world.
I am not a morning person.
I used to be sort of passive about it. “Yeah, I don’t like mornings, la dee dah…” and then I got a job where I regularly had to be at work by 7:30 and still could never sleep until 3 or later, and it stressed me out to the point that the mere sound of my alarm triggered a stream of expletives and near-panic attacks. Sleep. I value it. It’s one of the reasons I don’t have a “real” job right now.
But lo, it’s 9:41, and I’ve been awake for about an hour and a half. Strange miracle, but here we are, with the opportunity to blog today when I thought I wouldn’t have the time. Once I go to work in 45 minutes, I won’t be home till almost 11.
Gentle viewers! We are almost done with The 25! In fact, we are on…
The perils of subjectivity arise largely from overidentifying with a subject, narrator or character in a narrative, and making it (or him or her) the vehicle for a thematic point in which the author himself is overly invested. The antidote is at least as old as the New Testament, specifically Matthew 5:43–48, where Christ instructs his followers to love their enemies. If what I have to say seems old hat, therefore, I’ll be neither disappointed nor surprised.
If you find yourself overidentifying with a topic or character, try to identify within the sympathetic subject, narrator or even oneself a trait or belief or habit that is repellent or inexcusable or just plain odd. In doing so, you’ll enhance the psychological or moral distance between yourself and the object of familiarity
Another possible strategy is to rewrite the scene or section from the point of view of someone other than the object of sympathy. This forced disconnect can achieve a similar effect.
I find it rather appropriate that this is today’s. In my frantic writing sprint (or spring, as Twitter would have it) last night before bed, I wrote a scene that bothered me immensely. The protagonist from my first book becomes….sort of an anti-hero if not a downright antagonist in the second. Basically, she starts acting like a massive twit. It drives me nuts, and I want to smack her. I found myself last night trying to put words in her mouth, make her more sympathetic in a scene where she is downright cruel. And I knew that as I was trying to do that, it wasn’t true to her behavior. She has a lot of reasons for acting the way she does — some of them more valid than others — but the bottom line is that she’ll get over it eventually, and until she does, I have to let her be a bitch. I find the whole concept exhausting. It’s like putting up with a temper tantrum because you know your child will eventually grow out of them.
It’s one reason I like different POVs in fiction. I love seeing a story told from different angles and getting inside different heads. I also enjoy a good first person POV, but there’s something to be said for different POVs. Sometimes a big story just needs to be told that way.
It all boils down to one little sentence, in my opinion: tell the truth. Listen to your story and your characters, and let them drive your story forward. If you want to give it a shot, find a scene in your story where things fall a little flat and subjective and rewrite it from the viewpoint of an antagonist, or even someone who just doesn’t like your main character very much. See what happens. If you’re NaNoing, just keep plugging along at your word count.
I was going to post a picture of a pretty morning to enhance the objectivity of this post, but then I changed my mind. Google gives mornings some damn good PR. So instead, I give you Garfield.
The last few bits and bobs from The 25 have dealt with creating an experience beyond the words of a story. It’s the difference between standing in line at the DMV and standing in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal Studios — they both get you from Point A to Point B, but the latter immerses you in an experience while you get there. (Granted, going to the DMV can be an experience as well, but not one that makes you want to go back and do it again. I think that’s why in Maryland our registration is good for two years.)
The next in line is this:
20. Evoking Emotion
Hemingway spoke of a story’s “sequence of motion and fact.” James M. Cain discussed “the algebra of storytelling: a + b + c + d = x.” What they meant was a sequence of incidents in a story that, if arranged correctly and dramatized vividly, will create a stimulus that compels the reader to feel the emotion the author is trying to create. Talking about emotions won’t compel a reader to feel them. “He felt sad” won’t make a reader feel sad. Instead, the reader must be made to feel the situations in the story, to experience what the characters experience; as a result, just as a sequence creates emotion in the characters, it will do the same in the reader. This is a case of stimulus-response.
Writers can achieve this effect if they take the sense of sight for granted and emphasize the other senses, thus crafting multidimensional descriptions and scenes. Details of sight alone almost always create a flat effect, so when revising, take a few minutes to make sure that each scene has at least one other sense detail. In this way, the reader becomes immersed in the story, feeling it rather than being told about it.
This is exactly what I was talking about in my post earlier this week — in good writing, the words disappear. The way to get your readers to care about your characters is to layer flesh on their bones and sinews, to fill them with thoughts and feelings that readers connect to. Writing is the ultimate 4-D experience because it allows you to do literally anything. You can take your readers anywhere in the universe, create new worlds, or show them another side of this one. The trick to that, as Morrell says, is to take the sense of sight for granted and focus on the other ones.
Close your eyes for a moment. What do you hear? I hear the whir of cars on the main road outside of my apartment building. I hear an insistent tapping inside one of the living room walls that never seems to go away. I hear the buzz of our air purifier and the click of the button on my husbands jeans in the dryer. All these little noises add texture to the scene, even a mundane scene. The tapping in my wall is most likely not a ghost or a gremlin or some other supernatural critter (if it is, it’s a friendly one saying hello). These are just noises. Silence is extinct in this world, or at the very least on the endangered species list alongside my beloved tigers.
If two of your characters are having an awkward conversation, show that with the little noises of the world around them between dialogue points. Talk about awkward — you can build the tension of an uncomfortable conversation if you use their other senses.
What do you feel with your eyes closed? I feel a light stirring of air from the ceiling fan in the dining room, which my husband always leaves on. Say your characters are fighting, and he storms out of the house. She sits in the quiet, empty room with only the breeze from that fan as a reminder he was ever there.
What do you smell? I smell a whiff of fabric softener, a touch of sugar cookie from my tea, a little cinnamon from our air freshener, and the earthy, sheepy scent of wool from my blanket. Maybe your character catches a tiny whiff of stale sweat, or the scent of perfume so soft it’s almost a memory. Scent is powerful — it can evoke as much in writing as it can in life.
Taste also doesn’t have to be neglected. The chalky, dry mouth that accompanies terror, the herbal, almost tingling taste of horehound lozenges that remind you of grandma — taste can bring your story to life as well.
Anyone can tell you that the sky is blue, but if you lull your readers into your story with the singing of the crickets, the cool grass beneath your back as the horizon darkens into twilight and the thermos of hot cider that warms your insides with a sweet tang — do that and you’ll keep them coming back for more.
Time is what turns kittens into cats.
It’s also something that tends to run out on you and leave you naked and wondering why you ended up in the grocery store with no clothes on. It’s because you didn’t have time to get dressed, silly.
The problem with my work schedule is that my day goes something like this:
10 AM or 5 PM: Start work. If I’m a double, I start at 10. Otherwise I usually work at 5.
12 AM-2:30 AM: Off work. Happy dance!!!! Now what?
3:00 AM: I’m hungry. Dinna time!
3:30 AM: Hang time with spouse.
4:30 AM- 5:30 AM: Bed.
This means I wake up no earlier than noon most days. Today that was 1. Which means on a day when I have to be at work at 4 instead of 5, I have an hour less of that time stuff to: write 2,000 words, eat, shower, PUT ON CLOTHES!, talk to the husband, and get ready to go. That’s not much time stuff.
So here is my two hour sprint of writing/food/clothes. Day 2, I’ma kick yo butt.
Tension results from two factors: resistance and ambiguity. In nearly every piece of narrative writing, fiction or otherwise, someone is trying to achieve something. Tension results from external or internal opposition to achievement of the goal (resistance), or uncertainty as to the narrator or character’s understanding of the situation in which she finds herself (ambiguity), specifically its perils (psychological, emotional, physical).
Tension is essential because it keeps readers reading. Thus, in every scene you write, strive to heighten tension by doing one of two things: Enhancing the forces impeding achievement of the goal, or confusing/complicating the narrator or character’s understanding of the situation.
At the end of every writing session, take time to find and stress those elements within the narrative that serve these purposes. Trim away elements that do not, unless they add necessary color.
This is excellent advice. My biggest problem when I was completing the second draft of book one was that it a: was far too scattered and b: lacked the necessary tension to propel it to the conclusion. I remedied a lot of that with the second draft, but when I pull it out again December 1, that’s what I will be looking for as I read.
I think Corbett says it best when he says that tension is what keeps readers turning pages. You can also describe it as conflict, whether internal or external. I like to think of it as a rope. When a reader picks up your book, your first chapter should hook her (if it doesn’t, you’ve got a whole other problem). When that happens, you tie a rope around your reader’s waist. Now, it’s a long-ass rope. Think hundreds of feet. Your job the second that knot gets tied around your new pet reader is to pull him where you want him to end up (this reader’s gender is ambiguous). You can’t pull your reader anywhere if your rope is slack. And you have a LOT of rope to mess with.
As soon as you get the rope around your reader, your job is to pull it tight. To create tension early so that reader doesn’t wander off to look at that cactus over there or fall in a river. You could strain and reel your reader in over those hundreds of feet of rope, or you could simply start running in the direction you want the reader to go. Take off. Make that rope pull tight before the reader knows she has any slack to wander off. Create tension so your reader can’t help but follow where you lead. Once the tension’s there, you don’t have to pull him at a sprint for four hundred pages, but you want enough tension there at all times to guide him as you lead. Enough that you don’t stop to tie your shoe and she goes off chasing mongooses under a bush. (This reader is very easily distracted; readers often are.) If you do let up the tension for a moment, it should be because you want to stop long enough for your reader to look around and see where you are now before plunging forward.
Your words are your rope. It should be a good, strong rope. You don’t want it frayed or rotten in bits so it breaks when the tension gets applied. It’s a tricky thing to pull a reader through a story; make sure you have the best rope possible.
Here we are for Day 2: Time for me to get back to the drawing board.
Before today's additions...but here's where I am.