Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Elements of Style

Where does style end and voice begin? It’s a question I’ve been pondering for a while. But though voice is (for me) a rather frustrating, intangible quality of a book, writing style is much easier to identify and analyse. Style is all about which words the author chooses and how they’re laid down on the page, a technical skill that can be learnt, refined and applied for maximum effect

I’ve been watching my own writing style evolve over the last few years. Or rather, I should say styles, because I’ve realised that I don’t have one form of writing for all occasions. When I’m writing this blog or the Blog Break, I pick a particular style that is probably closest to my own speech. It’s not always the shortest and most efficient way to express myself, but I hope it has a conversational character that makes up for that. When I’m writing a story, however, I like to pare my writing down to the barest essentials. That “however” I inserted into the previous sentence would definitely have got the chop!

This commitment to terse, efficient prose is, I think, why I’ve been able to write the very short (six to seven hundred word) stories for Stew Magazine. But even there, I’ve deliberately been evolving my style as I go along. This month’s story The Door Keeper sees me experimenting with more sensory detail to offset all the telling that’s required in such a short tale. There’s even an action sequence in the middle, which was initially quite lucky to escape my red pen. But later, I realised how much the action adds to the visceral experience of the main character, and how it connects the two halves of the story far more effectively than I could have managed otherwise. It’s easy to become so focused on the technical challenge of telling a story in a few hundred words, that you forget to make it any fun for the reader.

Action scenes are an area where I’ve definitely noticed stylistic development, both in my short and longer work. I began experimenting with a rather cartoonish action style in a previous novel, which was (of all things) a dystopian comedy! As you can tell from that description, I’m not sure the tone of that novel entirely gelled, but I was really pleased with the pacing of the action and resolved to take that style into my next book. With that book’s most recent rewrite for 7-9, it feels as though the cartoonish style has found its natural home, and also its natural end. For my next book (which will most likely be 9-12), I’m looking forward to trying something new.

Who knows, I may even break my dependence on a first person narrator in the next book. I’ve been writing pretty much exclusively in first person since 2008 and maybe it’s time for a change. But I’m sure my blog P.O.V. will stay the same - if I do start referring to myself in the third person, you have my permission to give me a slap!


Monday, 10 March 2014

The Heart of the Matter

Well, here I am again. Sorry if that sounds anticlimactic, but after six weeks of not posting, I feel rested and ready to start again.

Actually, I say rested, but I've been keeping pretty busy in other ways. As well as work, family and the Blog Break, I’ve spent the period completely rewriting my Middle Grade novel as a 7-9 book. I wanted to just get on with the rewrite without thinking too much about it, and 45,000 words has become 15,000 with the minimum of pain and anguish. I think it’s a much better book this time around, and for the first time in years I’ve mostly enjoyed the process of writing. Hopefully that’s reflected in the finished work!

Anyway, to get to the point of this blog post, I’ve been musing a lot about “the heart of the story.” This is the emotional core of a novel and something a writer must keep in mind as they rewrite a book, to avoid going off track. In her workbook Novel Metamorphosis, Darcy Pattison asks you to describe the heart of your story using the following question:
Why did you write this story and not a different story? If you had to change everything except one thing – what is that one thing? Write a paragraph that describes the heart of the story FOR YOU:
The heart of the story is a key part of the Novel Inventory, a process of recording what you’ve actually written in your novel, rather than what you think you’ve written. I found the procedural bits of the inventory – describing the plot and emotional arcs of each chapter – to be relatively straightforward. But the heart of the story question really floored me. What was the heart of my story? Why did I write it?

Eventually, painfully, I came up with a couple of sentences that roughly described my two main characters’ emotional arc, and left it at that. I did feel a bit stupid though, and wondered what kind of a writer I was if I couldn’t put my own motivation into words. Luckily, the draft of the Middle Grade novel I was working on that point didn’t involve any critical changes, so my fudged answer didn’t matter.

However, when I came to this most recent rewrite, I agreed with an editor that I would change one of the two main characters from a forty-year-old man to a ten-year-old boy! This blew a hole through the heart of my story, because I had linked it so closely to these characters’ relationship as uncle and niece. I was suddenly adrift without my author’s toolbox, and if I hadn’t set myself such an aggressive writing schedule, I probably would have over-thought the whole book into the ground.

Instead, I just got on with it, and as I did a magical thing happened. The emotional core of the book shifted and grew. It became a story about a girl’s love for her father as well as her friend, while the themes of repression and escape in the original draft came closer to the surface. I found it wonderfully freeing to discard much of what I'd already written, carrying across only those characters and plot points I needed to make the new book work. It was great to feel that anything could be changed in pursuit of the ultimate goal: a story that would satisfy me, the editor and those all-important young readers.

I’m still not sure if I could describe the heart of the story for you in a paragraph, the way that Darcy Pattison wants me to. After all, what if it changes again? Perhaps it’s more helpful to think about this problem by considering the only thing that I can’t change, no matter how many rewrites and age group changes this book goes through. Maybe, the heart of the story is me.