August 10th, 2008

A Birthday

Sidewise Advice On How To Develop Style, Part I

Style is one of the less important selling points for a story. The plot, the characters, the setting need to be good, but editors do not buy stories because they are well-written. Still, I seldom read published work nowadays that isn't at least compotent and workmanlike, so some style needs to be developed.

It's very difficult to give good, straightforward advice on how to develop one's style.

So, I am giving some sideways advice.
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A Birthday

Sidewise Advice On How To Develop Style, Part II

Part I here

The second thing is, once you have the words, you have to arrange them artfully.  In grammatical -- or judiciously ungrammatical -- sentences.

So it helps to know your grammar.

Less than with words, to be sure.  You can't use "amble" without knowing it, but you can write "Jill's ambling brought her to the store within four hours." without knowing a gerund from the passive voice.

Still, besides the obvious advantages in letting you talk about the way your sentences are structured, and letting others economically point out your errors, there are stylistic advantages to knowing the full armatures on which you can arrange your words.  Gerunds, infinitives, clauses (subordinate or superordinate), compound sentences -- it makes it easier to look at a page and think, this sentences are awfully similar, because you can recognize that they are all simple clauses joined with a conjunction.  And considering how you can rephrase them is easier when you are aware of the possibilities.

I have known writers who defended "not simultaneous" structures ("He woke.  Throwing off his blankets, he walked to the kitchen.") on the grounds that you need to vary your sentences.  Knowing your grammar helps avoid this.

And it helps to run across them in their native habitat, in the wild.  Reading widely helps show how all these lovely grammatical tricks can be used.

(More advice to follow -- here.)
A Birthday

Sidewise Advice On How To Develop Style, Part III

Part I here.  Part II here.

Reading widely helps with words.  It helps somewhat with grammar.  What it is needed for, really, is --

No, the warning comes first.

This is a proposed writing exercise.  DO NOT SEND TO EDITORS!   If you send to editors, I will pretend I never heard of you!

But, to develop your style, one thing that really helps is to write pastiches of writers you admire.   It helps a lot if they are great stylists, but the real point is to master the art of making words jump through flaming hoops rather than sit around on the page.  Trying to sound like any writer is aiming for precision in writing.

In some respects, this is not really advice, because many people just fall into it.  Many (most?) young writers tend to fall in love with writers' styles and try to imitate them.  It is not for nothing that Ursula K. LeGuin dubbed Lord Dunsany
"First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy."  It's hard to imagine how many writers have churned out how many reams of Lord Dunsany imitations -- eighth rate imitations of Lord Dunsany -- as no one can write better imitations of his "crystalline, singing prose" than eight rate.

On the other hand, even eighth rate Lord Dunsany imitations teach you a lot about how words fit together to produce style.

And once you get through fits of Lord Dunsay, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, and many other writers (good or bad stylists), you have learned lots of effects you can produce by putting together words in all sorts of grammatical structures.

Lots of writers is an important point.  It's one thing if people can tell that a writer is an important influence on you.  It's another to write only pastiches.  (That warning up there is not kidding.)  And for another matter -- writers are good at various things.  Imitiating many different writers teaches you many different things to do with your box of tools.