Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A matter of style

A Matter of Style

Once someone asked me a question about writing that flummoxed me: "When do you put in the style?"

Short answer: I dunno. Longer one: Style isn't a spice that you sprinkle in somewhere in the course of a recipe. It's a normal outgrowth of your writing and your personality.

Oh, it can be conscious. As you write more, you become more aware of the words you use and how you put them together in sentences. If you have a reasonably good ear, you hear their rhythms. And then you begin to work on your style.

Because style is essentially word choice (diction) and syntax (sentence structure). You can choose plain, fancy, or esoteric words; you can put them together to create long or short sentences, simple or complex sentences, crystal-clear or subtly misleading sentences. Your call.

Style gives your writing voice and life. It's what makes your writing sound like you, or like your first-person character if you've created a narrator like Jim Dallas. And it's the words that light the fireworks in your reader's head, illuminating and sparkling the meaning you're putting on the page.

Read some varied writers and notice style. P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster is a blithering-idiot-savant of style, making diction choices from Edwardian public-school slang ("everything is oojah-cum-spiff"); he mangled half-remembered quotations ("Jeeves, many a morning rumpty-tumpty-tum te tum, only to so on and so forth, if you see what I mean.); and he created sentences that are glorious in their surprise and humor ("He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.").

Contrast that with a schoolfellow of Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler, who began The Big Sleep like this: "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark-blue shirt, tie, and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it."

Master the language. Know that you don't always have to pile up adjectives to describe a scene. Write with strong nouns and verbs, the more precise the better. Vary the placement of modifiers just to see the effect - instead of "a pretty, tall blonde smiled at me," try "a blonde tall and pretty smiled at me." Decide what you like and keep it. Junk the rest.

Do a lot of reading. When you hit a sentence that fizzes and buzzes in your head, stop a minute and ask yourself how the writer did that. When you start noticing the word choices, the way sentences are built, and the music of the language, you've begun to discover just how to put in the style.

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