In order to hone your writing skills, you should fine-tune your inner voice (precursor to your own writing style). In On Writing, Stephen King mentions that one’s writing style is usually not inborn, but acquired. One continuously works on his style and builds up his unique.
For this, many great writers suggest reading a lot. When you read other writers, you will naturally build a knack to write like them. This is the first step of development. Some months ago, I read novels by Robert Louie Stevenson. His writing so influenced me that I decided that my writing should be like his. Later, when I read Charles Dickens, I began writing long, complex sentences typical of his Victorian era.
You will naturally develop your style, which you may or may not deem as your own. But most probably it may not be your own style (as exactly in my example above). In such case, write more and more in that style; experiment a lot with it; blend it with other writers’ styles; and finally you will get your desired, most comfortable, original style (Remember: There is nothing new under the sun!)
What Really is This Style Thing?
Though everyone speaks about writing styles, it is difficult to define it perfectly. It is an attribute of one’s writing that spans over many different facets of his writing, both linguistic and intellectual. Its scope is very broad, incorporating everything—it is related to the length and complexity of sentences one uses, the patterns of grammar, sentence structure, etc., as well as how sensual one’s narrations are.
For instance, some writers avoid the Oxford Comma, and it’s their style. Stephen King targets the readers’ senses exceptionally well, and that’s his style. Jeffrey Archer has a very flowing continuity in his writing; it is his style. Ernest Hemingway was known for beginning his sentences with ‘and’, and that’s his style. Dean Koontz has many dog characters in his works, and that’s his style. The point is that the style is determined more by the uniqueness of a writer than any generally accepted standards. When you realize your own traits, it will collectively form your style.
Know Your Audience
In my previous post, “The main reason your writing fails,” I mentioned that you couldn’t satisfy everyone. You cannot write for all people, but for a select few.
The first mistake of a budding writer is trying to target people from every age group and race. Wasting time trying to make your plot and characters more and more garish, incorporating all technologies and locations known to man, you will eventually create a very unrealistic, unsuccessful story. So, other than expanding your scope, work on a simpler, comprehensible one, targeting a minimal audience. To understand this better, consider experts. You will find that the highest-paid professionals are experts in a particular, highly specialized field. They are not Jacks-Of-All-Trades.
When I write this, what comes to my mind is a famous quote from Sherlock Holmes himself, from his first novel, A Study in Scarlet. He mentions, “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.” He remarks about the Solar system, about which he had no knowledge. He is a great expert in detecting crime, but he knows nothing outside that and never wants to. It’s your proof. Concentrate on what you can do best, and leave every other thing to corresponding experts.
Jacks-of-all-trades are found to fail in real life. Acute knowledge in one realm pays more than blunt knowledge in a dozen.
So, on your first novel, concentrate on a simple character and a simple plot. Never try to tread unfamiliar waters. For instance, if you are from a remote location in Iraq and you are writing the story in English of an Iraqi girl suffering in the US attacks on Iraq, then it will be well-received by other Iraqis as well as good natured people from English-speaking countries. The reason why this happens is that the scope of the novel is very limited. Tiny.
On the other hand, imagine a woman who is an expert in karate and kung-fu, works in the top intelligence agency in the world, and courts fifteen people. Thrust in half a dozen other characters from various age groups and races. This sort of work makes you look more an amateur than a professional. New authors make this mistake to look professional, without realizing that professionalism is synonymous with subtlety and they are attempting quite the opposite, grandiosity.
The scope is widespread when we have to describe too many characters, too many scenes, and too many different locations. In such a case, pulling the story off successful is an extremely difficult job, and a newcomer is most likely to fail. All aspects of small things work better than small aspects of all things.
Importance of Research
When you write for the first time, the audience tends to be too finicky. Critics will tell you off for tiniest things. It is part of social psychology: People don’t like newcomers in any field. Look, for instance, at the novel by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, which tasted enormous success. So many books and articles followed describing tiniest aspects in which Brown erred.
But, by doing meticulous research you can pull off extremely well. Sidney Sheldon writes about various places, various cities across the world, various foodstuffs, and various ways of chasing the protagonist. In all cases, his research is flawless. He once mentioned that he never wrote about anything he didn’t taste or eat. On one occasion, he asked his driver, where a good location to dump a body would be. That was part of his research, and in his interview, he reminisced the look on the face of that driver.
Sheldon is a man of meticulous research, and his stories are successful because of this.
As another example, check out The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. It is an epitome to in-depth research. Its scope is very limited: About an assassin (codenamed Jackal) that does a meticulous preparation to eliminate the French president and how an intelligence officer tracks him down (I will not spoil its suspenseful ending for you). The major facet of this story is its in-depth research. Each point, from the location where a disguise could be achieved to the weight of the bullet of a particular gun was researched with extreme care. Forsyth is known for his research.
Another major example of the success of research is Tom Clancy’s famous Jack Ryan thriller, The Hunt for Red October. It is a story based in a submarine, and Clancy had never set foot on one.
These examples tell you one thing clearly: Research is extremely important for fiction. In his first guest post in this blog, Some Thoughts on Revising a Novel, my friend and published writer, Edward Patterson mentioned about his research for one of his novels. He read a cookbook and spent many hours cooking a Tuscan dish; he worked for about a month on that for preparing two paragraphs in his novel. This sort of dedication is rarely seen among newcomers. It is such dedication that makes successful writers.
Writing What You Know
Stephen King mainly wrote stories based in
Many writers are very diffident to go outside their realms and write bold stories based in a different country with the flavor of a different tradition. But if you do in depth research, such stories can be made immensely successful.
Internet for Your Research
Researching for novels was not that easy at the time when Fred Forsyth wrote his Jackal story, Tom Clancy wrote his works, or Ian Fleming imagined such advanced technologies as described in his James Bond series. Look at French writer, Jules Vern, one of the most famous Science Fiction writers of nineteenth century and a master of imagination. Years before such things happened, he imagined airplanes and traveling to the center of the earth. He thus pioneered the SF genre when no one else dared even touch it. That’s imagination at work. In case of fantasy and SF, imagination works the best (and research doesn’t matter much); the best example is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which is one of my most favorite books.
But now you have one of the greatest means for doing research, an invention that stands shoulder to shoulder with that of dynamo, electricity, or radio waves—Internet. Use it to your maximum to do research. From sites like Wikipedia, you can get answer to virtually all questions. Use Yahoo Answers, Wiki Answers, etc., and ask questions on anything you can’t find; knowledgeable users will promptly answer them for you. Use social networking tools like Facebook to mingle with people from different countries and get to know their ways and customs.
Today, research doesn’t demand you go out of your living room. Sit, read, and social-network, and you can get complete research done for a full novel. The era of running around interviewing doctors, librarians, professors, soldiers, police officers, etc., is long gone.
Writing Requires Diligence
In my last post on creative writing (character and plot development), I had mentioned the importance of diligence. Writing is a very tiring job, and most of the time you may feel uninspired. The reason may be a negative comment you received on an old story or the failure of your most beloved, most thoroughly researched, and most looked-forward-to story. There is only one answer to this. Sidney Sheldon himself gives it: “Don't listen to people who try to discourage you. No one can stop you but yourself.”
Some people may call writing a highly inspiring job, but it is a fact that it can be extremely demanding. The image that comes into my mind is one from a Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot. In this, the protagonist is a novelist and he is described sitting for hours in the night tapping away relentlessly on his typewriter (his passion to writing is clear from this). He is too interested in writing to stop it. King mentioned in one article that people love to discuss about their work, and it is true in his very case. He loves to talk about his work, and you will find at least a short story writer in every King novel.
But, writing may not be as appealing to all people as it may be to King. For me, it is an extremely tiring job, because of my passion to perfect my writing. When I find flaws in my fiction, I get worried. In case of non-fiction, this is not a major issue. Fiction research tires you mainly because you have no idea where you are going with it. In case of non-fiction, you have a clear idea of what you are writing, but in fiction, you get to know the plot as you write it.
Before you take up writing as a profession, you should be willing to show discipline, hard work, and courage (a lot of courage). Writing is an extreme mental exertion and can tire you more than any other job, intellectual or physical. So, if you are fit enough and have a driving passion, tighten your belt and jump hard and strong into this highly rewarding field.
How to Shut Your Critics’ Mouths
I remember an article from Isaac Asimov, a famous SF writer. Some reviewers criticized Asimov’s way of writing as full of stilted dialogs, clumsy style, and non-existent characterization. Asimov mentioned this review in his short story collection, Gold. To counter his bad critics and shut their mouth, Asimov wrote a full-length article describing his writing style. His point was that what people described as his flaw was actually intentional, and he described the various reasons for that. His way of mounting the tension was antagonistic dialogs between his characters.
Asimov was a highly successful fiction writer, one of the most famous Science Fiction writers of our time.
My tip to you, writers, is this (from Asimov’s technique to shut his critics): Always be prepared to explain your actions. When someone with authority asks you why you did something, you should be able to explain it clearly. Do anything you want, create any sort of characters, any kind of viewpoints or situation, and include any sort of dialogs, but your explanation should be strong enough to shut the critics’ mouths.
Million people can discourage you, but only one man can work positively for you, and that is YOU!
Tail Piece: Dear readers, this article is rather long and took too much time to prepare. If any grammatical flaws encroached, please let me know (let me remind you, I can be a very bad editor). Also, don’t forget to voice your comments.
Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008