Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

Writerly Wednesday: It’s All About Style!

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 16•09

I just finished Terry Pratchett’s Making Money the other day. Which is rather apropos for today’s topic, because in the book, Pratchett’s reformed shyster Moist Von Lipwig feels that everything has to be done with a certain amount of panache.

The next book I’ve just picked up is Heat Wave the novelization tie-in for the TV show Castle. Most novel tie-ins give themselves away by slapping a photo from the show on the book’s cover (Even the Sookie Stackhouse series and Legend of the Seeker books are getting repackaged this way). But not so Heat Wave. The novel isn’t giving itself away. Instead it looks like something James Patterson or Sue Grafton might have written. There are even blurbs by well known NYT Bestselling crime authors (who have cameos in the show).

However, the prose is a bit, purplish. Shading to lavender at the very least. I hope that’s intentional, because it seems out of place to me in a hardboiled detective novel.

So let’s talk about style. Style is basically the way a writer says things on paper. Papa Hemmingway is known for his sparse style, which he attributes to his years of working for newspapers. The aforementioned Terry Pratchett has an imminently quotable style. As a writer, he finds ways to turn old clichés on their ear that make writing seem fresh and new. If you enjoy Stephanie Meyer, you should get used her over-use of her favorite adjectives.

Style is something that develops over time. It mutates and changes the more a writer reads and writes. When I was a teen, I did my best to ape Anne Rice (I got better). Occasionally, I can tell when I am reading too much of one author (*cough*cough*Prachett*cough*cough*) when my writing starts to seem too clever for its own good.

What makes style good? The best style is invisible. It takes a backseat to the plot. But the moment your style calls attention to itself, it can throw a reader out of a story.

I mentioned Anne Rice earlier. When I was a teen, I really enjoyed Interview with a vampire and its sequels. Rice has a very baroque sense of style. The world of the elegant and aristocratic vampires was well suited to her flamboyant and formal writing style. It also added a sense of wonder to her descriptions of the garden district in New Orleans. The texture of her words added something to the descriptions of the crumbling, dilapidated old mansions.

But stop me if you’ve heard this one. . . . two vampires walk into a bar.

Suddenly the setting isn’t gothic. It isn’t old world or aristocratic. It’s a blue collar, working class kind of place. I’d call it a dive, a roadhouse, or a joint. Guys wear old Levi’s or at the very least “jeans.” But in Rice’s style, they wore “faded denim trousers.’ Drug dealers spoke like carnival barkers, with curliques and flourishes spilling out of their mouths.

I didn’t have my seat belt fastened, and I was thrown violently out of the story.

Getting back to Heat Wave. I have certain expectations for a crime novel. If the setting is gritty, then the prose should be sparse. There shouldn’t be any florid descriptive narrative. Yet the character “excused herself and crossed the room, gliding in and out of ponds of light beaming down from the upper windows, casting an aura on her.”

Auras on my grim and gritty detectives throw me out of the book too. In a very literary way, the style should match the setting.

So how can you improve your style? I think about my setting a lot. Many of my characters are southerners with a low-to middle class background and my setting is rural. This is my natural voice, so even when the characters aren’t speaking, the narrative follows southern cadences and sentence structures. If I’m using a perspective that isn’t southern, I try to find someone with experiences from that area, income or culture to give the dialects an authentic feel.

It’s one way to avoid breaking the literary fourth wall.

Don’t forget about the Yard Dog Press/Bride of Tranquility Holiday Promotion!

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15 Comments

  1. OMG THIS.

    I remember reading one of Anne Rice’s newer vampire novels, I forget which one now. The one where Quinn was the narrator. Her prose was perfect for 200+ year old vampires but just didn’t sit right with a 20 year old modern day kid. I don’t care if he grew up in rural Louisiana, it just didn’t fit. It took me six chapters to get used to it and it still bugged me intermittently by the end. ::shudders::

    I don’t know if there’s any way to really develop your style deliberately, but maybe that’s why the language can be so jarring to read sometimes. The author had an idea that simply didn’t go with their writing style.

    • Tracy says:

      I really do think it all depends. If it’s handled seamlessly, a writer can get away with quite a bit. But a modern day 20 year old speaking in baroque style would be a tough sell. (unless he was a theater major who had amnesia and that’s the only way he remembered how to speak.)

      I’m writing a story right now with a southerner that lives in New York City. When I hit the editing stage, I’m going to have someone go through it with an eye for dialog to make sure that my NYC characters don’t sound like they’re from Toad Suck Arkansas.

      • It was a really tough sell, with no theater major amnesia to try to explain it. 🙂

        And accents around the city can change, too, depending on the neighborhood and the ethnicity. So find someone that lives where the character does to be sure it flows more naturally.

        • Tracy says:

          Oh dear.

          I think I’ve got a lot to think about once I get the first draft done.

          • I only say that because I’m from New York, so I know. 😀

            I grew up in the northeast corner of Queens, next to Nassau county. There’s the “Long Guy-land” accent that occurs in some areas of Nassau that I heard when I attended Queens College, but not everyone in Nassau speaks that way. Naturally. And Queens has a lot of different neighborhoods in it, some with a kind of accent to it or not. Remember “The Nanny?” Fran Drescher really is from Flushing, Queens, and some ppl there really do speak with that accent. Others, it’s not so obvious. And Flushing is actually large enough for three different ethnicities: there’s the Orthodox Jewish section, the Asian (Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean) section and Middle Eastern (I think a lot of Pakistani, but I don’t know for sure). That’s not to mention other neighborhoods that shifted from Italian to Hispanic or other nationalities. And that’s just Queens. I don’t even pretend to know how the flow of neighborhoods are in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island or Manhattan are. There’s always idiosyncracies in how people speak. That stereotypical Brooklyn Guido accent shows up in New Jersey, too, after all. ^^;

          • Tracy says:

            So far, because my main character is a reporter, I’ve avoided the issue of accents. She’s from the south in a job where a lot of people move around a lot, so not everyone she meets is a NYC native.

            On the other end of the spectrum, accent can get in the way. What I will sometimes do is write that someone had a southern accent and then write the dialog without inflection. But hints of the dialect always should peek through. Even where I’m from phrases like ‘shut yo’ mouth,’ are pretty antiquated. saying things like ‘I reckon’ are not.

            I like how Janet Evanovich handles dialog in her Stephanie Plum series. The way the characters speak feels like Trenton New Jersey (or at least what feels like Trenton New Jersey to someone who has only seen it on TV).

          • Unless it’s a defining characteristic of a person, like the reporter getting a description of someone as “You’ll hear the Brooklyn when he talks” or something like that, I don’t imagine it would make much difference, then. It’s still English. Tho I’ve joked that it’s Queens English and not the Queen’s English. 😉

            I think the biggest thing for a non-native would be to call Manhattan “the City” and anything north of the Bronx “upstate.” I don’t there are any special phrases people use. Insults, maybe, but not particular phrases like “I reckon” is for the south. 😀

  2. *chuckles* Course, it helps that an author doesn’t beat you to death with their favorite philosophy either. As does Terry Goodkind. Awesome books, but objectivism isnt the be all and end all. 🙂

  3. If you enjoy Stephanie Meyer, you should get used to her over-use of her favorite adjectives.

    Oh, SNAP.

    In thinking about style, two people stand out for me. One is Diane Duane, whose prose is astoundingly lyrical without ever becoming purple (at least, not to me). The other is singer/songwriter Christine Lavin, who somehow manages to work the rhythms of everyday speech into something resembling rhyme and meter and make it all come out sounding perfectly natural.

  4. jongibbs says:

    I got put off fan fiction of any kind when I met the author of a fan-fic book which I’d really not enjoyed (fyi that was an understatement) and he proudly informed our writing group that he’d written it in two and a half weeks.

    I honestly think he expected us to be impressed 🙁

    I do like Castle, though, and Terry Pratchett too 🙂

    • Tracy says:

      Fan fiction is a mixed bag. I imagine it’s quite a bit like reading a slush pile. Most of it isn’t great, but if you look hard enough, you can find a few gems.

      The problem with reading that much fanfiction and then writing, is that I have have wondered in the past if it could bleed into my own work. Which is why I’ve tried to make more of an effort to read from the industry instead.

      Especially small press, because they could use my dollars.