The Elements and Progression of Style

For those of you who may not know, I have a review exchange happening at the NaNo forums. Yes, I buy people’s books, and people buy mine. Sometimes, I swap via e-mail.

It’s in one of the recent e-mail correspondences that I started thinking about Book 1.

I’ll be honest that the review I got wasn’t the best one, however – and a major however – the author who had reviewed it and had chosen to address it via e-mail had actually gone ahead and asked the very questions that had led many of my other readers to buy Books 2 and 3. She had also made a statement that mine is a style of writing is a bit dated, and doesn’t quite mesh with the current style that readers may like.

This started me thinking about stylistics, and I will be the first to admit that Book 1, which has been my baby for the longest time (I wanted to write a story like that since my early teens, but I knew that I wasn’t ready for it until much, much later), is not my best work.

Gasp, shock! you say. But it’s true. A first book is a first book, and while I knew where the plot was going to go somewhere midway through the rewrite (which was…year 1 of the 3 years of prep-work it had taken before I had it ready to go), I was going forward with publication in August of 2009 with the full knowledge that it wasn’t going to be great. I knew that it was choppy, left the plot holes wide open for filling with later books – and could be a turn-off for some readers – and the conventions were lackluster. I knew it going in, but it had set the stage for a story that stretches into the long-term. That is why I released it: plot-wise, there was nothing more I could do without spoiling the rest of the series.

But my reviewer had brought up a great point as far as the style. Readers like certain things, and authors write a certain way. The two may not necessarily mesh, and I’ve been told before that my style can be a little too old-school for them.

Has anyone read Capt. Thomas Mayne Reid? If you’ve ever read The Headless Horseman in school, you probably have. If you’re not familiar with the Captain, he was a writer in the steamboat-era post-Civil War South, whose specialty was writing “young boys’ stories”: adventure, science-and-nature-infused stories of seeking the unknown, going into the great frontier, etc. I grew up reading his stories, and to this day continue to touch back on them after finding them on Kindle. Strongly recommended reading, but his style is likely not what you are used to.  And I would be lying like a dog if I didn’t say that I picked up my writing style from his books; these stories had actually made me love reading. I was maybe 4 when I had started reading them, and he’s likely the only author whom I cannot get sick of re-reading.

Now, this makes for a curious quandary. I’m writing a modern/futuristic story, science fiction blending lines of fantasy and crime drama, but I’m doing that in a framework of style that hadn’t been used since the 1860s. How does that work?

Something had to evolve there.

My editor will vouch for the fact that Book 2 had turned out better than Book 1. Not just because there was now an editor on board, but because I had taken whatever lessons I had learned with the adventure of writing, prepping, and publishing Book 1, and applied them to the second book, and then the third. By the time I had rewritten the third, I had a good idea of what my readers expected out of the story, and by this time, the storyline had progressed enough to where I was able to satisfy both my style and the readers.

Mind that this process had taken – if I have to track back from the point of publication of the third book, which was this July – 5 years. And with it came a good bit of knowledge about the author/reader relationship.

Now, one of the things that I’ve been suggested is the use of a how-to guide for writing. Personally, I can’t. While I don’t deny that those can be great resources, I’m a major supporter of learning by trial and error, especially for a story spanning more than one volume. It’s hard knocks, and I got more than one negative review on that, but it’s still a learning process. I also learned by working out the kinks that were left in the story by Book 1 in Book 2, and then asking myself just how well I can finish the story in two volumes, or three, or even four. My editor, who had put up with my obstinacy on many an occasion, pointed out exactly what effects the changes would have, and I have incorporated her suggestions into the edits that I’m making now in Book 4, as well as future installments of the series. The best style guide of them all, though, is a little black book by Strunk & White.

The mention of that usually sends a friend of mine cringing, and he knows why.

Nonetheless, it’s an excellent little style guide, and one I’ll recommend over any how-to guide. Put it this way: your story is your story. You know it best. You know how it works best. And it’s up to you, the author, to set it up. So if you get a book of how to write a novel, you may benefit from it, or it may do more harm than good. The Elements Of Style by Strunk and White doesn’t teach how to write a novel. It does, however, teach how to write damn near anything with simple, to-the-point rules. This book is yet to be overturned in practice, because all the rules end up applying sooner rather than later. Storylines progress with practice, feedback, and more practice, but certain constraints of writing them do not change.

It’s a lot of food for thought. And thanks to the reviewer for getting me thinking on these things.


4 thoughts on “The Elements and Progression of Style

  1. Strunk & White, “Elements of Style”… it….Thanks! I’ve been meaning to find this long lost reference we used in high school and college literature…Pocket references are better than tomes for assistance in writing from the heart. Thanks again!

    1. Anytime!! My editor had turned me on to that book, and when I read it…well, a lot of my stylistic evolution had been thanks to that book. I was able to quickly identify where I was going to lose the audience, and began writing much more concisely.

      I am also very keen on pocket guides. Short and sweet does the trick for me every time.

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