The more we write the more we develop our own style and our own way of doing it. But it stands to reason we are influenced by genre, target audience, writers we admire and so on and it isn’t always easy to sound distinct and individual. I guess we tend to aim for a style close to writers we greatly admire. But at the same time we want it to be us and maybe even one day someone will be wanting to write like us — imagine that?
But I tend to think a lot of our style comes without paying too much attention to what influences it. I never set out to write like, let’s say Stephen King, only to invade a character’s head (which he does well) and create a great story that resonates long after your finish reading it. But we are all the result of experience — so I wonder what influences you? And how much of good and bad habits we pick up form what we read.
I remember when my close friend and business partner talked about this once and she said how reading something bad made her worry it would seep into what she was working on so made sure to read something good too. I do know when I have been reading very literary novels I see some of that voice creeping into my work although I know to curb it if it isn’t right for the book.
It’s impossible I guess not to sound like other writers since there are only so many ways to write but it should never be a goal. Write well is what I say and learn all the time to write better. That way you will find your own style and perhaps it is a composite of lots you’ve encountered but then how can it not be?
I used to read a lot of magaziney stories that all seemed to be very samey — perhaps because they were written for the same audience and they always seemed to have the clichéd twist in the tale at the end. While the stories themselves were okay, I knew personally I needed more out of a story and had to write something that was more than this as well. I have encountered many such pieces in my work as an editor but what I always try to show the writer is that just because these stories can have a predictable ending — doesn’t mean they always have to. And just because some of these stories are ridden with clichés and adverbs (pet peeves) doesn’t mean they always have to. And I know that while I help the writer stay true to their style — I am sure the story is better and more likely to be accepted. Well strike that I know of at least two instances when it was accepted after we worked on it.
Let me tell you an amusing story. A short story of mine was highly commended in the Frome Writing Competition a couple of years ago. It was a more literary story and certainly not a women’s magazine genre. It had a very distinct first person narrative. But part of the prize is they will send the story to Woman’s Weekly for you. I did suggest to the judge that it wasn’t really suitable for that I was sure. But she sent it anyhow and of course I am not for one second dissing that magazine — no way. I would be thrilled if one of my stories was published to such a wide audience. But what I meant was you have to write to genre and study the market you write for if you want to break into magazines and what I knew was this story just wasn’t right for that.
And a few months later along comes a rejection from Woman’s Weekly saying how much they loved the story but ‘hey presto’ it wasn’t right. But what made me smile was the suggestion I really should keep writing though as I had talent and should study the market and read lots of their stories so I could write something that fits.
I never have. It isn’t really me. Nothing wrong with the market and I am friends with a number of writers that write for this market and write well I might add. It just isn’t me.
But it did make me think about what we write and why we write and this idea that I often to say to writers I work with, about slipping outside of your comfort zone once in a while. I didn’t and don’t write the kind of stories for these magazines and so won’t really be doing so, but I do advocate experimenting.
By this I mean trying different genres, different voices, perhaps writing a pacey first person monologue with dialect. Now dialect is another one we often get wrong. Ever read a story where the dialect makes it hard to work out what the person is saying? And then left out of character thoughts like it’s only their voice when they speak and not when they think? Me too. Voice for a character narrator is there the whole time for one thing. But more than that — it’s not so much about the dialect but the rhythm of language.
I have a number of stories that use a northern accent, and one in particular that uses a scouse accent because I lived in Liverpool for ten years and Lee was from Liverpool — so I would say I know it well. But when it comes to giving readings what I needed to do was not try to put on a scouse accent and fail but capture (I hope!) the rhythm, the feel of it, the way the accent works but without overdoing dialect that makes it hard to read. And my Rats in the Attic story that won Sunpenny Press had a Manchester accent. I think there is art to getting this right and I urge you all to play with the rhythm of language and listen to the way people say things.
I will return to this subject again no doubt, because I thought it might be interesting to discuss the idea of me, a while Essex girl (hell did I admit that!) writing in the head and thoughts of an African American from Dallas. This is exactly what I had to do in While No One Was Watching. I did a lot of research into the African American Vernacular (AAV) and one of the things I have asked my editor is if it’s now overdone. That said I worked closely with an editor at one of the big agents who ‘almost’ signed me who looked closely at this — and she was American but not African American or from Texas. Perhaps this was writing outside of my comfort zone but oddly it didn’t feel that way. Lydia Collins my larger than life psychic just seemed to talk to me … want to hear her … let me see …
Oh maybe at the end to finish the week — tease ain’t I (see she’s invading my thoughts already!).
But given I will be doing readings and my characters are American and she is very distinct — more so than the other narrator, I got to worrying about how to read it without trying to fake an American accent. And since I plan to also have a book signing in LA in March this British girl could make a mess of it in front of my American friends. But perhaps I realised it’s not about trying to be American but in trying to capture the essence of the lingo, the rhythm, much the same way I have with the scouse accent. It’s in what words are used and how questions are asked and in the AAV double negatives etc. But I think this is interesting to talk about.
In this month’s Mslexia, I read with interest an article about white writers writing black characters. This was more about was it really the white writer’s story to tell. Here they refer to books like The Help. On an aside this was recommended by the agent mentioned above when I looked at the AAV in my novel — and I loved the book. The only thing about that dialect was it was a generation back from my character so the “I gone get you a fork Missy,” is a little stronger than my character who might say “I gonna get you a fork, Missy.” And in fact I did use the former when my character quoted her parents. See how much hard work I had to make for myself! LOVE it though. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes — The Help. I think so long as you do your research and you’re true to the real characters why shouldn’t a white girl write in the head of and tell the story of a black girl or man for that matter. Same way why shouldn’t a black girl write a white man. Is it that different to playing with writing children’s voices, old people’s voices, animal’s voices, changing gender for a voice. I think it’s about good research and good writing. But what do you think?
And part of that is getting the voice right. For me voice is everything and above all it’s what connects you to your reader and makes them become that person.
So I will leave you with Lydia — the first sneak inside one of my characters in While No One Was Watching.
This comes when the psychic first meets our reluctant doubting reporter … and previously Lydia talks about knowing something would happen before Kennedy was shot …
The reporter, he’s half way towards the door when he stops and turns back. I see the waiter behind the bar look over, like he suddenly thinks the skinny white guy is gonna have a show-down with the big black woman. And he don’t know if he wants to stop it or watch it.
“I’m right ain’t I? She disappeared and no one saw,” I say.
“But I see it now.”
He wants to walk towards me but he don’t, he stands there next to his son who can’t take his eyes off me. “No one saw because they all lookin’ at something else, right?”
For a second I see Momma. I was standin’ the kitchen when the cup fell clean out of my hands and smashed into a million pieces on the kitchen tiles. That’s when I knew. My scream woke baby Jimmy. “I told you somethin’ was gonna happen Momma,” I told her. She never said nothin’. Never shouted, never scolded, she just got that brush and cleaned it up while Jimmy cried in the bedroom and I just stood there and watched.
“It’s happened Momma,” I said.
She might have said nothin’ but I know she knew it too.
It was later we heard it official. Henry was the one who told us. Henry who was a whole month older than me and a whole year dumber. Sweet sixteen but nothin’ sweet about him. He came knockin’ on that front door so hard I thought he was gonna knock it right off its hinges. Henry’s momma was workin’ up at the Stamford’s house when she saw it. They were folks that had a TV.
“The President’s been shot!” Henry said. “Lydia! Kennedy’s been shot.”
I told them somethin’ bad was gonna happen.
“The day the President was shot,” I say and I pick out a couple of quarters and root for more, feeling the stare of that reporter and his son burnin’. But when I look up all I see is the door swingin’ closed. But as it does, I see the boy, he standin’ there with his mouth wide open.
They gonna call. They gonna call ‘cause they got the cur-i-o-sity, see. We all got it now.
©Debz Hobbs-Wyatt Parthian Books 2013
Happy Weekend! 🙂