Style

Jan. 3rd, 2005 09:34 am
lullenny: (eats)
[personal profile] lullenny
Another long entry, one that invites me to think about how the goals of voice and style in fanfic might differ from other genres. Stern warns us rightly Finding your own style means not falling under the spell of another style, but writers of fanfic are complimented when they write in the style of the source text. A fic author will find things like "the language is very much in keeping with the original," or "the voice is just like the books" or "a great feel for Tolkien's style -- Rowling's style -- O'Brian's style -- C.S. Lewis's style" in her e-mail, and she will consider them huge compliments. I wonder how -- or if -- this dynamic affects fanfic writers.

*

The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.



Style

Style is how you tell your story. People often talk about the style and subject of a work of art as if they were separable. But if you think about it, the real subject of Van Gogh's landscapes is how he painted the landscapes and the subject of Cezanne's still lifes is how he painted the peaches. So, too, in literature -- the subject of Hemingway's stories is not fishing, but how he wrote about fishing, and the subject of Faulkner's novels is not the South, but how he wrote about the South. How, in the case of writers, means what perceptions, what emotions, what insights, what frames of reference, what worlds they see and create through their words. So advice on style would be literally advice on everything that has to do with writing.

However, when we talk about "writing style" we generally mean decisions about brush strokes rather than subject matter and structure. Style in this sense has more to do with individual words, sentences, and paragraphs than with entire chapters and books.

So let's start with some specifics. The smallest unit of style is the words you choose. The possibilities range from sticking as close as possible to everyday speech:
Farjool was a mean, nasty low-life. If he couldn't beat you he'd cheat you.
to a deliberately esoteric vocabulary:
Frajool was in incorrigibly maleficent cur; if he couldn't conquer he'd cozen.
You can deploy specialized vocabularies. If you have your characters climbing about monadnocks or dissecting liverworts or securing halyards, the words both establish the subject and lend authority to the writing. Some writers will avoid words like azure or cerulean, which seem old-fashioned. Others will avoid phrases like maximize potential or intertextual overdetermination, which seem soul-destroying. Your word choice is similar to a color choice for a painter. You take your words from a particular frame of reference -- the street, the farm, the corporation, the academy. Some writers deliberately limit themselves to the diction of an ordinary person, others give themselves a richer vocabulary, and still others scour the Oxford English Dictionary for words like farfalla or horrisonant to dazzle or delight their readers.

What should you do? You should be comfortable with you vocabulary. If you feel constrained by your lack of knowledge of vocabulary, or you can't remember the word you want, use your dictionaries, thesauruses, and synonym finders. These books act as extensions of your mind. At the same time, don't underestimate yourself. Your strongest, most direct language is probably already part of you. Trusting the words you know is often better than importing a vocabulary not your own.

Phrases and sentences also create style. Some sentences are boring and awkward. They are not taut. They meander:
They look as if they are about to end but then go on to add another prepositional phrase to a sentence that seems done by this time but it turns out that it isn't and the writer has another point he would like to make and still say one more thing before finally letting go.
When editors say they have to read only one or two pages of a 600-page novel to know they don't want to read any more, that seems cruel and irresponsible to the beginning writer. But editors can see from a small sample whether or not a writer has control of his words and sentences. Adverbs litter the constructions, words repeat themselves as if they forgot their earlier appearance, coordinating conjunctions proliferate, phrases wander about looking for something to dangle off. These things tell editors not to go on.

Opening sentences not only need to be grammatically correct and graceful, they also need to attract readers by their syntactical authority. Some writers start by using a direct expository sentence that commands attention and establishes a world. E. L. Doctorow begins Ragtime:
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue Hill in New Rochelle, New York.
It's as straightforward and economical as Philip Roth's opening for Goodbye, Columbus:
The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.
Others start by using a phrase that is deliberately a bit askew in order to suggest that the fictional world will be unusual. Mark Helprin begins the opening story of his Ellis Island collection:
In Munich are many men who look like weasels.
The deliberate awkwardness signals strangeness.

In Play It As It Lays Joan Didion's abruptness is instantly unsettling:
What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
Some writers attract attention by long, ingeniously fabricated sentences that wind their way around far longer than expected, dropping in all sorts of peripheral information, and when they seem as if they have completely lost track of themselves, they wrap themselves up and leave readers right in the plam of the smiling writer. Faulkner's Sartoris begins:
As usual, old man Falls had brought John Sartoris into the room with him, had walked the three miles in from the county Poor Farm, fetching, like an odor, like the clean dusty smell of his faded overalls, the spirit of the dead man into that room where the dead man's son sat and where the two of them, pauper and banker, would sit for a half an hour in the company of him who had passed beyond death and then returned.
Other writers establish authority by opening with deliberately mysterious dialogue or a string of intriguing phrases. As Nobokov does:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
You are making a world out of sentences. Those sentences can be long or short, colloquial or literary, dense with description and imagery or spare and direct. Hemingway does not just write short sentences. And Faulkner does not just write long sentences. It's how often they write each, as well as the range of vocabulary they choose, that creates their different styles. Your sentences create the rhythm of your fictional world.

Paragraphs should be mentioned here because writers often fail to realize that the visual appearance of their pages is part of their writing. Very short paragraphs create a lively appearing fast-moving page. Very long paragraphs with large blocks of description and retrospection suggest a ruminative style. Varying the lengths of paragraphs creates a visual rhythm that can correspond to what is happening in the story.

You need to be comfortable with your style. Beginning writers often reach for a style they think is dignified and literary. They use ponderous words, complicated constructions, and images that sound as if they wanted to be in leather-bound books. This is not the writer's voice but a kind of literary collage of secondhand voices out of childhood reading, popular novels, old poems, and a notion that literature is something intoned by people in purple velvet robes lolling around a gigantic fireplace in an old mansion. There are writers, too, who want to appear witty and arch, or earthy and tough, when that's not who they are.

Finding your own style is a process of recognizing what is secondhand, what is someone else's style, and listening at the same time for your natural style. Though one thinks of style as something that is inevitably written, it is also oral, the spoken language with all it's spontaneity and naturalness and surprise. Spoken language is what you listen for with your inner ear. The rhythms of the sentences, the lively syntax, the choice of words -- all speak directly and persuasively to the reader. Look at the way Anton Chekhov or Willa Cather or Isaac Bashevis Singer or Flannery O'Connor begins a story. "They are so literary," you say. That's right, but listen to their openings and you will hear them as spoken voices.

Finding your own style means not falling under the spell of another style. This is a real problem. Writers like Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Salinger, and Pynchon, writers with powerful distinctive styles, are seductive to their admirers. Ann Beattie's casual minimalism, Tom Robbins's free-floating commentary-fiction, or Jay McInerney's street-flash have similar attractions. Writers think, This is great, I love this, I want to write this way. But the results is that instead of being admired, the fiction is seen as derivative, secondhand. You might have to treat some of your favorite authors as you do those loveable but overbearing friends who will take over your life if you let them.

You can learn from these writers, however. See how their styles work. What rhythms of language are involved? How do long sentences keep their poise? What tension keeps a lyric voice from collapsing? How are complicated digressions kept lively? The mor deeply you understand the style, the more you can learn -- not to imitate it, but to see how to find your own style.

Comparison will be inevitable if influence is genuine, but it need not be invidious comparison. Writers can be acknowledged as in a tradition. Eudora Welty and numerous other writers point to the King James version of the Bible as the most important influence on their style. Raymond Carver acknowledged his debt to Ernest Hemingway.

Style is revealing, as handwriting is said to be. Henry James reveals his ruminative character in sentences that endlessly qualify themselves, modifying each preceding thought which is not quite right. Sherwood Anderson's belief in expressing the secretes of the human heart results in sentences that have the simplicity and directness of a child's voice.

Style can also reveal problems writers don't know they have. If a writer isn't sure what to say about a character or scene, the reader can often feel the vagueness or reticence in the text. Dialogue might get squeamish or coy or artificially breezy. Discomfort with a subject is sometimes shown by stilted word choices, by the use of terms like "enamored of" instead of "love," by elaborate passive constructions and roundabout language:
The sounds and smells of car traffic with the honking horns and exhaust fumes from the trucks and buses were always an irritant to Beth, who, after an arduous day's work, was filled with fatigue.
Instead of directness:
Cars honked at trucks. Trucks honked back. Bus fumes stung her eyes. Beth felt miserable. It had been another long damn day and now this.
Style reveals prejudices. For example, readers might notice that whenever the writer describes a woman, it's in terms of her figure. Or minority characters might always be described in terms of their ethnic or racial characteristics instead of as individuals. Don't be defensive if something like that is pointed out in your own writing. Look to see if your language does reveal some unconscious prejudices. As far as the printed page is concerned, your style is who you are. (You are what you write?)

The more noticeable the style, the more the writer says, "Look at me!" The narrator, instead of staying out of view, edges out on stage and becomes a character. These writer / narrators sometimes take over in order to assault the conventions of fiction, reveal the inadequacy of language, expose the collapse of empirical reality, analyze the paradoxes in what they just said, comment upon their commentary, and prove that the writer doesn't exist and probably neither does the reader.

See Cliché, Diction, Imagery, Motif, Narrator, Point of View, Revision, Texture, Voice.

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