Can you learn ‘good style’?

I read a lot of books. Some stand out more than others. There are differences in how we handle story, structure, exposition and how we use our words. Some of us prefer the more literary writing, others the more commercial and I think what we all want is to become totally immersed in story.

I recently finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird again and once again fell inside the characterisation and the story — the beguiling narrator, Scout. And the wonderful Atticus Finch. Before that I was treated to the literary finesse of Sharon Zink with her wonderful debut and of course a great collection of stories that I reviewed here yesterday. While I am not a fan of some word-heavy literary novels (I confess some Man Booker winners) I do lean toward the more literary, enjoying depth of characterisation. But you still need a story and so it’s finding the right combination that works and does both these things.

I am clearly influenced by certain themes and American civil rights is one of those that seems to recur in my work — I loved finding Lydia to narrate my novel, I was so drawn to her as a character. I don’t think of it as me creating her, but rather her finding me. Imagine if she could live up there with the Atticus Finches! Look, a girl has to dream, don’t she?

More recently I have also read more commercial fiction, some by writers I know, some I don’t and I do find myself stuttering on the use of clichés or wordy sentences, on too much telling and even head-hops — in published texts? Come on. But maybe being a writer has made me a snob — and are the readers of these genres even aware? Maybe it’s the price you pay for being an editor as well as a writer. But then I also find myself thinking now if I was editing that —or– now if I was writing that and I can think of a sharper more fluid alternative. I tell you, sometimes I hate it when I find myself doing that! Maybe it goes with the job! Maybe I am being too pedantic — I mean who am I but a lowly writer trying to get recognition for my work.

But I did get to pondering about this section of the reports I write called Style. How people actually create their narratives — wordy? Sparse? Fluid? Clunky? Cliché-ridden? Too much telling? And how far is some of this intuitive and perhaps a reflection of the genre they like, how much comes from knowing no better and so how much can be taught?

I think you can teach what works better, you can show how changing this from telling to showing, sharpening phrases, removing clichés for example really strengthens it and I like to think once you’ve learned it — you can’t unlearn it — but then again, like a foetus developing in a uterus, sometimes we have to go through the amphibious stages before we create the fully formed human baby. So some of us do have some lazy and poor writing in the early drafts — so then it becomes about being able to see that as you edit. Some of us just won’t use the clichés at all, even in early drafts. The more experienced we become, the more polished our first drafts.

So I think some aspects of style can be taught (and it depends how you define style — I am talking about how I do that in my work) —  but we all start off from different places and some people are more natural writers than others. But we must also remember the influence of the stuff we read. Good fiction, well written narratives without the burdens I have talked of, clever structures, interesting beguiling narrators, then we must surely pick up on those styles? I hope so! The more discerning writer should be able to identify weaknesses. Yes we all have our own styles, but for the new writer, the influences of good fiction (okay not so easy to define is it?) but let’s say the books we lose ourself in, the characters we love (oh Atticus Finch), are where we could learn what works well.

Be discerning as a reader, think as a writer, and I hope you don’t get snagged on the clichés and just lose yourself in the story. It’s the fictive state and I love it. In fact I spend a lot of my time there!

Have a good one.

Get lost in a fictional landscape...

Get lost in a fictional landscape…


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Filed under being a successful writer, Blogging, Learning to be a writer, Living the dream, Mainstream Fiction, Novel writing, Passion for writing, Publishing, Reading, Writing

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