A question of style

I do not write here as I do in my novels. Here I indulge my taste for neologisms, for bad puns, for annoying alliteration and all those other little stylistic tics that would drive you crazy if they were to appear in a novel. I have a different voice here from the one I use to construct my stories.

Style is possibly the most difficult thing to define in writing. It’s not the words you put on the page but the way you get them down. Except… it is the words too. If you’ve ever got anything down on the page then you’ve got a style. Just not necessarily a good one.

Confused?

Well, cheer up. It’s impossible not to develop a style. Style is just a combination of several different factors and the way they interact:

• Word choice

Simple or complex? Blunt or flowery? It’s really as simple (or complex) as that.

• Word order

‘They’re not the same thing’ vs ‘The same thing they are not’. Same words, same meaning – but a different effect. One is flat and straightforward and draws no attention to itself. The other can be – depending on context – playful, arch, or just bloody annoying.

• Sentence/paragraph length

Obviously this should vary, partly to avoid monotony and also to create different effects, but you’ll find that each author has a tendency for short or long sentences. Which leads us on to…

• Punctuation

I’ve a weakness for semi-colons. Love the buggers, I do. Most of my sentences are short, but I spice things up with rambling, poetic(er) sections with clauses and sub-clauses and even brackets. Punctuation is, perhaps, the greatest definer of style, which is why I’m totally nonplussed when I meet authors who say that they’re really bad at it and don’t seem to care. To me, that’s like saying ‘I’m a bit crap but that’s no big deal’.

Style varies according to what effect you’re trying to get across. My voice in this blog is more like my natural conversational voice. This blog is, after all, meant to be fun; often, when I write this, I’m playing. I’m writing with a smile, trying to satisfy myself as much as I’m trying to enlighten or entertain you, the reader. It’s possible that this just makes me an arse, in which case congratulations! You’re saved the bother of actually meeting me.

Style is also about omission as much as it is about what you put in. Missed words, unusual syntax – they shape the feel of the read. Take that ‘Just not necessarily a good one’ from the second paragraph: you all know that was ungrammatical, a sentence fragment. But I chose (without any real thought) to omit the object. This is part of my style. I also have the habit of starting sentences with conjunctions: ‘or,’ ‘but,’ or most especially ‘and’. I’ve got the idea that this creates a sense of immediacy and urgency, and I think by and large it works. But this is something that I used to do a lot more, and still end up cutting a lot of these through successive drafts. I once defended this technique with the cry of ‘Style!’ – and I was right. But stylistic tics like this are best used sparingly. Otherwise they scream out to the reader. They scream ‘amateur.’

The good news is that you don’t have to do anything special to develop a style of your own. You’ve already been fully inculcated by the books you’ve read and are reading. You’re critique group (you have one of those, right?) will tell you without prompting where you’ve crossed the line into arseishness. Style simply comes from writing: from getting the words down on page, regularly and in abundance. You need to make mistakes.

I’m desperately trying to avoid the old saw ‘you need to know the rules in order to break them’. It’s not quite true; you can sidestep the process and trust to instinct, although that’s a high-risk strategy – you may be called out at any moment. You certainly don’t need to read grammar-primers – I’ve read them for you, and I couldn’t make much of them. But it helps. The better you understand convention the easier it is to manipulate.

Certainly don’t fall into the trap of taking only one source for your inspiration. A mentor is a great thing. We all have our literary idols. But – and I can say this on any subject – the only way to round your style is to read as widely as possible and get as many different feedback-sources as you can.

And never trust a man who writes one-sentence paragraphs.

Comma chameleon

“I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.”

Flaubert

 It always astounds me when writers say they’re no good at punctuation. I’ve heard it – well, not exactly a lot, but enough for it to strike me. I mean, I’m no grammarian; I’m barely conscious of dangling modifiers and wouldn’t recognise a past-participle if it slapped me in the face. But punctuation? Surely that’s what writing’s all about.

There are a few things here. First there’s the basic rules. What a comma, what a colon, what an exclamation mark actually does. I’m not concerned with that – everyone who calls themselves a writer knows these things. If not, a good proof-reader, paid for or donating time, can sort you out – and this is precisely what people must do if they’re not confident. Nothing makes you seem more of an amateur than by misusing a comma.

Commas are, by the way, the most delicate, beautiful and abused of all punctuation marks. Semi-colons are more robust; they can take it, the little sluts.

But the heart of writing is in punctuation. Punctuation creates a writer’s style. Punctuation is the art. Words? Pah! Words are mere fripperies, mere ornamentation. Punctuation’s the invisible, the unnoticed; it’s the bits that only draw attention to themselves if misused. These little, almost ethereal, blobs of ink give a writer their voice. They control pace, feel, atmosphere; tell you when to breath and when to hurtle onwards, when to whisper, when to shout. What are there, eight basic punctuation marks? Add in paragraph breaks – another key weapon in the writer’s arsenal – and you have the masters of the writing world.

You’re waiting for examples, aren’t you? Damn. I knew it’d come to this. Do you know how hard it is to come up with a good example at short notice? Well, here’s a paragraph from Night Shift, rewritten and replacing all the different punctuations with full stops. I think you’ll agree its pretty bad.

I tried to keep my companions in view. My eyes were watering badly. It was hard enough to stay on course. I kept seeing strange movements in my peripheral vision. I prayed it was them. The last thing I wanted was to be alone right now. I felt a sharp pain over my left eye. A piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask. I brushed it aside. I screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

But using short snappy sentences has its place in writing. It can create tension. It leaves blunt information. Has a sort of deadening effect. Can be very useful if you want to create that feeling. Often used in pure action setups.

I tried to keep my companions in view, but my eyes were watering badly and it was hard enough to stay on course; I kept seeing strange movements, blurred and disorientated, in my peripheral vision, and I prayed it was them: the last thing I wanted was to be alone right now – and then I felt a sharp pain over my left eye, a piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask: I brushed it aside, then screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

Doesn’t work with commas all the way through. I tried it and it’s just too poor to bother showing. The version above barely scrapes it; this too is pretty bad. A mix of commas, dashes, colons and semi-colons just about keep it going, even though it’s something of a stretch. Why would you want to do this? Well, long, flowing sentences are suited for dream-like sections, where purple-prose can flow and twist and draw out poetic beauty the likes of which I am singularly failing to demonstrate.

The version I went with, by the way, goes like this…

I tried to keep my companions in view but my eyes were watering badly and it was hard enough to stay on course. I kept seeing strange movements, blurred and disorientated, in my peripheral vision, and I prayed it was them; the last thing I wanted was to be alone right now. I felt a sharp pain over my left eye; a piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask. I brushed it aside, then screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

In almost all cases a middle-line is called for. And varying the style is something you’ll do instinctively as you write, as you feel the ebb and flow and the pace of the scene you’re working on. Just – just believe me, punctuation matters. Use it to indicate hesitation, awkward silences, breathlessness, eager enthusiasm, naivety. Panic! Patience.

Here’s another version that’d probably work:

I tried to keep my companions in view but my eyes were watering badly. It was hard enough to stay on course. I kept seeing strange movements, blurred and disorientated, in my peripheral vision; I prayed it was them. The last thing I wanted was to be alone right now.

    A sharp pain over my left eye – a piece of burning scrap had burned right through my mask.

    I brushed it aside: screamed as a red-hot splinter burrowed into my hand.

Write Chandler-like action scenes with your short staccato-ness. Write prose like Pratchett with clauses and sub-clauses and a rolling flow. Grammar is intrinsically linked, of course, but don’t forget – please don’t forget – the role of those humble spots of ink that make or break your work.

Wanna be a writer? Learn the art of punctuation.

Oh, and exclamation marks should only ever be used in conversation, and even then only one per chapter, max. Thank you. No need to shout, we’re right here.

The second rule

The second rule’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you want to be a writer you’ve got to read.

You can study reading. You can read books on how to read books, and (I guess) many writing courses will give you lists of things to watch out for: characterisation, plot, dialogue… all the elements that, when blended together, make Literature. But I’m not too sure about this. More than anything else, reading should be a pleasure. And I think it’s just as useful to absorb these messages subconsciously as it is to learn by dissecting the text. I guess I think there’s room for both. It’s almost certainly been good for my writing to read books on pacing and character. They might not have told me anything I didn’t instinctively know, but it’s a benefit to have knowledge moved from the subconscious to the conscious.

But reading is, and should always remain, a delight. The wonderful thing is that every time to pick up a book you’re going to learn something new, whether you want to or not. Maybe it’s only ‘how not to do it’, but even in books you hate you’re going to learn a little more about the world – or at least one select part of it.

Most instruction courses on writing and literature will point you towards the classics. Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Dickens, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky – the heavy hitters. I can see why they do it (they’re widely available and aren’t too esoteric for the masses – and, of course, they’re good) but this always puts me off. I know, I know, it’s my loss, but – whisper it quietly – I don’t want to read these. I know I should. And one day I will, I promise. But my point to you is that’s not only the greats that can help you. You can learn about writing from a Mills & Boon; after all, they rely on proven plots and have an established structure. And they’re short, so you can read a few quickly, then move on to something else.

Of course you should read the classics. But you should also read – well, everything else. If you’re a genre writer you need to read within your genre, that’s a given. It’s always helpful to know conventions, ‘the rules’, if only so you can play with them, break them good and hard if your story calls for it. It’s also massively helpful to read beyond your bounds. I mean, everybody should read as much as possible anyway because reading makes you a more rounded human being, more open and receptive. And there’s little better than sitting holding your partner whilst you both read. True fact.

So range wildly with your selections. Make your library your first stop every time you leave the house. Surround yourself with words and slowly they’ll fill you up, become part of your glorious shining soul. The presence of books in your life is the greatest gift you can give yourself, your children – even your friends and enemies.

And do your best to include non-fiction in your diet. You can do your readers no bigger favour than to know a lot about the world. This is obviously true for historical fiction, where the slightest anachronism can ruin the flow. It’s equally true for fantasy and science-fiction. Terry Pratchett once said that when you construct a city you need to start by knowing where the water goes in and how the waste goes out. You can’t invent a tribe without some understanding of power-structures at whatever level of development they’ve reached.

And none of this should feel like work. What greater pleasure can there be but to understand the world a little better? And always, always, you’ll be encountering new ways of thinking that might inspire your writing. I’ve talked before about how I’ve been influenced by real-world history. An awareness of popular science – and of possible trends – is also hugely helpful. Even if you dismiss what you’ve read – even if you disagree vehemently and want to give the author a good slap – it can drive you to write a sharp riposte, a counterblast.

It almost goes without saying that memoirs, biographies and travelogues – any narrative non-fiction, really – can also be incredibly useful. These (should) provide real-life examples of notable characters, places and times – or, if nothing else, ways of thinking.

The thing is that once you start writing – or at least after you’ve been doing it for a while – you’ll start to notice more in the books you read. Maybe it’s a case of becoming a little more discerning. You’ll get more out of the shape of the dialogue, the rhythms, the pace. Sentence length, that’s something to watch out for, especially as it influences that nebulous, barely definable thing they call ‘style’. These things will seep into your skin and slowly transform the way you produce your material. And it takes no effort. The wonderful thing – almost miraculous – is that all the things you’ve learnt will come out in your own voice, not as the people you’ve been reading. The brain is a very clever thing – far smarter than I am, at least.

So go! Journey into strange lands and travel through time. Stride across galaxies or into the hearts of lovers. Live vicariously, feel pain and joy and anger and deep, deep passion. Push yourself always onwards, and remember – you’re not wasting time. Never that. You’re merely rehearsing your craft.

The second rule lets you soar.