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!



  1. This is a great post!

    I remember reading an article by Madeleine L'Engle where she decided to challenge herself to rewrite certain scenes in her novels from the points of view of other characters -- sometimes even from the point of view of inanimate objects -- just to expand her understanding of the story and everyone's motivations. I can't wait to hear more about what you learn as you progress as a writer!

  2. Thanks, Jane. That rewriting exercise is really interesting - I've been writing predominantly single-voiced stories, but I wonder if I should experiment with multiple POVs to get an idea of how they work together in a book.