Note From Rob: This article on finding your own style is an excerpt from my book,Guide To Writing & Publishing Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror. And the book is available in Kindle and print formats at:
Or at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/62555
For all other ebook formats.
Style, Voice, And The Basic Principles Of Story Telling
Frustration can be a terrible thing, especially with regard to developing one’s own writing ability, finding a voice, and style that suits us as individuals. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this as science fiction, fantasy, or horror authors, if not on a regular basis, then perhaps at some point near the beginning of our careers. This can also happen later on, when we flex our artistic writing muscles in a new direction. When we try innovative endeavors, attempt to forge a new style, it can get very aggravating if we don’t succeed in the way we wish. To be denied our instant gratification can be a terrible and traumatizing thing, apparently…
What’s also annoying is when we are called upon to critique other people’s work, and something absolutely horrible leaps out at us, a gross violation of basic principles of writing, as it were. I’m not talking minor stuff here, like ending sentences with prepositions, using slang or jargon in narrative, that sort of trifling thing. We all do that, sometimes for the very sake of our style. I’m referring to the BIG MISTAKES, the kind that leap out at one and makes you, as a reader, stop dead in your tracks and marvel at the sheer audacity, or perhaps rather the incomparable ignorance of that particular author.
I’ve had this happen to me often, since I’m a member of several reciprocating critique organizations where we review each other’s work. And when one carefully mentions such a glaring error of basic writing to the appropriate author, sometimes, many times in fact, they scream “but that’s my style!” I guess they feel that allows them carte blanche to commit such ghastly gaffes. It seems, sadly, to be a coverall excuse for any mistakes and/or omissions on their part.
So here’s my question; does it really? Does style make it all okay; cover a multitude of editorial sins and transgressions? Are we allowed to change anything, do anything, in the name of developing our own peculiar writing style? Can we, as authors, negate basic rules, ignore primary writing precepts, twist and turn grammar around in order to find our individual voice? And having then found it; I wonder, would anyone then want to listen to it under such extreme circumstances?
Moreover, why does this seem to be such a commonality among writers these days, seemingly being the rule among newer authors, rather than the rare exception?
Well, first of all, I think this situation is born, to some degree, from desperation and ignorance. Let’s be honest here, our educational system, nationwide, has fallen on very hard times. It’s been this way for years now. On the national news just this last week, it said that 32 percent of Americans tested couldn’t pass an American Citizenship Test!?! Over 40 percent of high school seniors couldn’t locate the United States on a world map! And as a former tech writer, we were told in no uncertain terms that according to tests of the time, the average graduate engineer and doctor read at a 7th grade level, so that’s the level we had to write at for them! Incredible, isn’t it?
So, it is a fact that the average reading ability of college-graduating engineers, doctors, and other professionals is now at or near the seventh grade reading level. Even this level has been falling of late. I’m also a technical writer, so I know this. I’ve been told, unequivocally, that I must write manuals for neurosurgeon brain scanner equipment at the seventh or preferably even the sixth grade level! Really, isn’t that a frightening thought when one considers how much we may be relying upon a particular neurosurgeon to take care of us? I mean, can they even read the instruction manual for their own equipment correctly enough to use it properly on us? Uh-Oh!
So new and apparently often under-educated authors (when it comes to knowing how to write or even read properly), may become impatient, want to leap ahead and despite their lack of basic writing skills, and take a quantum leap from novice to supposed adept, without understanding that they must go through the middle process of first learning to write well. They simply don’t realize that they don’t yet know how to do this, even when editors consistently tell them so. (“But it’s my style,” they wail.)
Certainly, I freely admit that not all authors are in this boat of leaking illiteracy. Many may already have a good background in writing ability when they begin to write fiction, or they then struggle on, correcting themselves constantly along the way, and ultimately achieving their goal of finding an efficacious style and ability through sheer hard work, and often stultifying perseverance. That last has been my route.
Others, however, try to hurry things along a little by taking workshops, doing quick and intense crash courses, such as the Clarion Workshop. These have good success rates, by the way, but beware; the instructor can be brutal (necessarily so, I think), in order to accomplish their goals in the time provided them. Still, other writers join free critiquing groups that reciprocate with each other, as I have done. These also can work very well if given the chance. And they are far cheaper--being free for the most part.
Any or all of these things, in my opinion, are helpful, and among the right things a would-be author should consider doing. Writers taking these routes show they are serious, are trying to learn their craft, are striving to be better at them, are honing their skills, and in doing so, often are truly becoming much better writers. After all, a carpenter must first know how to use the tools of his trade, sharpen his skills, before he can make anything of beauty or of lasting consequence--right? Well, it works the same for authors.
I think the problem for many well-meaning writers is when they totally ignore the critiques or reviews they do receive, whether these come from their own writing peer groups, editors (often in the form of rejections), or otherwise.
Yes, this sort of response on the author’s part does happen and frequently. Ego has a lot to do with this. It’s not easy having someone rip apart a story you think is great. Trust me in this; I know! Painful isn’t the word. So, rather than accept the criticism as valid, the writer derides the source, diminishing it, claiming that the reviewer(s) just didn’t understand what the author was trying to accomplish.
Yeah, right! Maybe those authors should realize that if a professional editor or fellow writer has a hard time comprehending what the author is trying to accomplish with their story, then maybe the average reader would have even a harder time? Hmm, maybe?
So let’s restate the problem; we have many writers whose mechanical skills at their craft may be sadly lacking in many respects. Being new in the field, they may not even realize this problem, since they are the victims of a not-so-hot educational system, which tells them that since they have graduated (college?), they are qualified to write.
Then compound this with problems of ego, which can result in defensive behaviors, their protective shields going up, so to speak, and an intense desire to have a style all their own, to stand out in a growing crowd. And what do you have? No, not a temperamental writer wrapped in cotton wool, at least not in the literal sense, but rather someone who simply has missed the point, doesn’t understand what is required to be a good author. They are just drifting, perhaps blaming others, but never themselves. And neither are they getting published!
What are some major slip-ups in trying to create a personal style? Well, purple prose is high on my list of things to be avoided. I recently reviewed a story where an author referred to someone running on foot at a normal rate of speed, and heading directly into a wall. When the character hit the obstruction, the author said their “bones evaporated.” Another author said that some pond smelled “musty” and “green.” What???? As far as I’m concerned, that tale also read “purple!” How in the hell does something smell “green?” Chartreuse, maybe--that's a joke!
I know we all want an individual style, readily recognizable, but juxtaposing adjectives, verbs, and nouns together at random just isn’t the way to go. Another author I critiqued had the tremendously annoying habit of doing one-line paragraphs. I’m not talking dialogue here, which should be set out that way when necessary, but rather simple narrative.
He wrote like this.
He did this not just once in a while, but all the time.
I’m not kidding.
The author drove me crazy by the end of the story.
No, really again!
I never knew who was talking because of this.
The novel sucked!
See what I mean? Now, I’m not picking on these particular authors, and they shall remain nameless, but when one resorts to these extremes to create one’s own style, then they’ve gone too far in my considered opinion. Major and constant disruptions of grammar and syntax for no valid reason, interruptions in narrative flow just in order to create a personal voice or style, simply are not acceptable. By this, I don’t mean that one can’t get away with it once in a while, or that it might not be valid for some dramatic effect in a particular story or context, but just to do it as a constant “style” won’t work, not for the reader. Once burned by this, they’ll avoid such authors like the plague. Rightly so, in my opinion.
We have grammar and vocabulary rules for a reason, like it or not. It’s so that we can all read each other’s stuff and basically understand it. Such rules form a common framework by which we all abide, so we can comprehend and communicate with each other at a reasonable level.
Failure to at least give some lip service to this framework is to invite failure, real and enduring failure, as an author. Major and constant deviations from the standard rules, whether intentional or committed out of ignorance, won’t work with the editors who have to plow through such purple prose, or obtuse stabs at grammar and literature, and it certainly won’t work well with the reader. Trust me, they have a very short attention span, and the limits of their patience are even shorter! Make the readers work too hard at reading your story and you will lose them. They’ll simply stop reading and move on to something else. Let’s be honest; we’ve all done this at one time or another, haven’t we? Who hasn’t picked up a novel or story only to later put it down again still unfinished, and permanently so?
So my advice, for what it’s worth, is that even if you think you are an accomplished writer, that you still know or learn at least the basics of grammar, style, and vocabulary. Periodically, double-check yourself on these issues. Seek out websites, books, and essays on writing. Read them on occasion. Absorb them. Use them. Apply their principles. See if you are still following, at least basically, their main points.
And don’t strive so hard to create a personal style or voice through the use of purple prose, non-sequitur nonsense statements such as, “I smelled a delicate shade of blue wafting on the heckling breeze,” or by fundamentally flawed stylistic changes in sentence and paragraph structures, just for the heck of it. Editors will spot this in a New York minute! They won’t like it.
Let your style evolve naturally. First just tell the story. Then allow your voice to grow of its own accord, without undue pressure and/or time constraints. It will, you know, and it will be a better voice for having evolved naturally, rather than having been acquired through some artificial overlay of contrived writing methods, and ones which are then usually inferior, as a result.
In other words, have some faith in yourself that you can grow over time as an author. After all, if we aren’t always growing in this way, then we are stagnant, have reached a plateau, haven’t we? And what’s that old saying, “Those who do not move forward must inevitably fall behind?” As authors, we want to avoid this particular trap. We can do this by constantly trying to improve our writing skills.
In the final analysis, writing, any writing, science fiction, fantasy, horror, or otherwise, is a craft, a learned set of skills. Develop these. Refine them. Use the tools freely provided everywhere for this purpose. Then apply this writing ability to tell your stories. Your style will come automatically, and over time.
But remember, if you think the answer as a new author is to just jump in, without having attempted to learn the rudiments of writing, then you are in for a rude surprise. Readers won’t like your work. Also importantly, neither will editors. Don’t believe me? Check out editorial guideline sites for many publishers. Not only do they stress good quality writing, error free as possible, but they even list websites where one can go to learn how to do these things. Some even list the basics of good grammar right there that they want you to use. Now, would editors go to the trouble of having that in their guidelines if it wasn’t a major issue for them, if they didn’t want it done? Ignore them and their advice at your own peril.
Oh, and if you notice any grammar, vocabulary, or other flaws in this article, please just ignore them. After all, it’s perfectly okay for me to write this way, since it’s my particular STYLE! Meanwhile, I’m going to go for a purple swim now, paddle through a field of effervescent stones until they evaporate and I can taste the color blue misting off them in a heady perfume of positive trend! Hey, that’s my style! So that makes it absolutely okay to write this way, right? Wrong!