Our year-long look at the twelve key pillars of novel construction is winding down. We’ve already taken an in-depth look at the first ten pillars, with the bulk of examination on the four corner pillars: Concept with a Kicker, Conflict with High Stakes, Protagonist with a Goal, and Theme with a Heart.
I stressed that novelists should spend a good amount of time first working on these crucial support pillars of their novel, preferably all at once in a holistic fashion. I find that brainstorming ideas for all four, focusing on how they connect, is the best way. For, each of these four components of a novel heavily depend upon the others.
The eight support pillars will vary in terms of importance based on your genre and premise and plot. So, while one novel may have little in the way of motifs, for example, another will feature them heavily. Some of this is also determined by writing style and personal taste.
Voice and Writing Style
In the last posts, we looked at voice, which tied back into character development. I made the distinction between what some call the “author’s voice” and what I feel truly is voice in a novel—specifically the voice of the POV characters. Just as each character has a specific and unique speaking voice, each should have an internal narrative voice that is consistent with their spoken voice.
This is something many writers ignore or are not considering fully, and it shows in their scenes. Often the narrative of a POV character sounds just like every other POV character’s inner voice, which in essence is really the author’s “voice.” And often that voice is an intrusion. Why? Because when you are showing a scene via a character’s POV, you are in her head, showing her thoughts and feelings and reactions. She needs to think “in character” and not think like you, the author.
So where does writing style fit in? I believe that “voice” is all about characters, whereas writing style is all about how writers present the story in all its components. The choices a writer makes as to scene structure and style; length of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; the sophistication (or not) of vocabulary and word choice and literary devices (such as metaphor, similes, anaphora) comes under the “heading” of writing style.
No doubt you have some favorite authors, and it’s likely one thing that you love about their books is their writing style. A lot of commercial authors, to me, have a very simplistic—almost superficial—writing style. Certain genres, surely, gravitate toward those types of styles. Personally, I find a lot of commercial novels very boring to read. They may have great premises and promise exciting plots. But it’s hard for me to get engaged if the writing is flat and mechanical. I see this a lot in the mystery/suspense genre, for example. Sometimes I feel I could take ten best sellers by ten different authors and not be able to discern who wrote which book. They all sound alike to me.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing—writing styles are a matter of taste. I love creative, unusual, evocative writing. There are a lot of best-selling novels out there I can’t stomach, but clearly someone can. A lot of someones!
So, when considering this pillar of novel construction, knowing you need to have some writing style, what do you need to consider? This eleventh pillar of novel construction is called Writing Style . . . Concise and Specific, so let’s delve into this topic.
What Does It Mean to Be Specific?
First, think about the genre you are writing in. Genre determines a lot. I’ve said on occasion that novels are a commodity—a product you are producing for a consumer—a reader. When you describe your novel on sites that sell your book, you have to provide a description for it, as well as fiction categories and keywords. All this is a way to accurately define your novel so a reader can see what you are marketing to him, and with this information will decide to purchase your product or not.
You may find this a distasteful way to think of your novel, but it’s not far off from how a literary agent or publisher is going to consider your book. For the bottom line in this publishing industry is “Will this novel sell and who will it sell to?”
If you are writing a novel just for your own enjoyment or plan to publish it or print it out off your computer just for friends or family, that’s a different matter. In that case, you may care little about whether your writing style fits a certain genre. You may not care about genre at all. And that, too, is fine. It’s all about why you are writing novels and what you want to do with them.
This may seem a bit off track from our pillar on writing style, but I think it’s important for a writer to first make some very specific determinations:
- Whom are you writing this novel for? Just for yourself or friends? Or do you plan to publish it?
- How important is it to you to sell well (whatever that means to you)?
- Are you interested in branding yourself and your writing style in order to become known for a certain type of style/genre/story?
The answers to these questions are important because if you hope for commercial success, you are going to have to tailor your writing style somewhat to be similar to other authors writing in the same genre. If you write in different genres, as I do, each novel will have a different writing style to a certain extent. My fantasy publisher read my relational drama/mystery Someone to Blame and told me he would never have guessed I had written that book. My writing style was so different, and rightly so. With my mysteries, I write in a tighter, terser style, as would be expected with that genre. I love writing fantasy because I can “let loose” with my words and go deeper with metaphor and creative use of vocabulary. I might have wind snap and snarl and tangle water into knots in my fantasy series, but in my mysteries wind and water aren’t depicted so imaginatively. That’s not to say I dumb down my writing or try to be plain and boring. I still aim for a unique, expressive, and evocative writing style in every novel I write. But my first consideration is genre and audience.
Your Genre Informs Your Writing Style
As I said, readers have expectations. A consumer reads about a product and expects it to deliver as promised. When you put a book up for sale online and describe it as a cozy mystery, readers are going to expect your novel to have a writing style that fits within certain parameters. The best way to determine what the parameters are for a particular genre or subgenre is to study a lot of novels in those genres. This may seem silly to suggest. Obvious, right? Well, a lot of beginning novelists write books that are in a style that does not fit their genre well at all. And this becomes a fatal flaw for their book’s success.
Writing to fit genre is one consideration when constructing this pillar. Being specific entails knowing your intended audience and their expectations when it comes to writing style. Your job as the author is to meet their expectations. I believe there probably is an audience for just about any writing style, and if you are writing literary fiction, sometimes there are few rules and even fewer expectations. I’ve read books (best sellers) that have one paragraph chapters or a paragraph that goes on for pages. Yes, you can write any old way you like, but you first need to keep in mind who you are writing for and what genre you are writing in.
This is just the first consideration. We’ll take a look at some others, and also discuss tone and what it means to be concise in our writing—which is all about mechanics.
What are your thoughts about genre and audience determining writing style? What kinds of novels do you read, and what do you see are similarities in authors’ writing styles for that genre?