A question of Style

Writing is a funny thing.  I started a post on inspiration and halfway through I realized, I was writing about style… so, a quick subject change and we’re off.

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They say we are the sum of our experiences, but I hadn’t realized… just how that adage is reflected in my writing.

There are the things that you think of first when you think about how your experiences affect your style: your outlook on life, whether you’re upbeat or forthright, the way you look at the world all  of that effects your writing.  It’s also a matter of taste, your likes and dislikes, but that’s only part of it.

It’s what we learn, and how we’re taught.

An obvious example would be: why I don’t write flowery prose and have what most people call  a ‘sparse’ writing style.  It’s easily explained: take a semester of Technical Writing and see what it does to your flowery prose.  Rule number one: if it doesn’t tell a person what they need to know: get rid of it.

Telling the reader someone is wearing a silk blouse tells them a little about the material and perhaps gives them an impression of the character’s taste. It’s simple, straight forward and doesn’t interrupt the flow.  Tell them that it is a ‘gossamer film of the finest Indian Silk,’ you tell them more about the looks, but its already bordering on too much information for my taste.

If you tell me that it is a ‘gossamer film of the finest Indian silk brocaded with delicate flowers and accented with pearls’ it draws a beautiful picture and I have a very good idea of what it looks like, but I have to ask: does this have anything to do with the murder that just happened?  Does this advance the story in any way whatsoever? If not: cut it.

I like tech writing.  I probably like it a little too much, and I find myself having to add an edit pass dedicated to descriptions.   Let’s face it, my idea of describing a library in my first draft is pretty much:  Library 1: Standard issue: shelves, books, front desk.

If you’re running through it to escape enemy agents with the fate of the free world depending on you, the reader doesn’t need to know the smell of the old bindings or the ambiance of the room.  I don’t think the fate of the free world really cares if the flooring is synthetic or renewable bamboo.

Now, if the carpet is a nice conductive polyester, and it’s winter and the built up static charge is going to effect the alien robot’s neural pathways… yes, it’s probably better to mention that up front.

If not, don’t.

Then again: I probably cut too much.  When a friend was beta-ing something I’d written they commented:  “I know this is important because you bothered to put it in there.” I have to admit, that can be a bit of a giveaway.

But, like I said, the affect of tech writing is obvious.  What I didn’t realize was how much other things effect my writing: like fencing and music.

I was reading the a fight scene in a story, and my first reaction was ‘I don’t like it.’  And then I stopped and forced myself to figure out why I didn’t like it.

It was well written, and I could tell the author had put a lot of work into it.  As I read, I could see the action.  There was great detail given to the battle and the mech armor.  I had a good understanding of how the mech moved, and how the pilot activated the armor’s systems…  but for some reason, the wording and timing just didn’t match the situation.

It was like trying to slam dance to Brahms’ Lullaby.

And I suddenly realized that when I write a fight scene, it’s all about tension, and the rhythm of the fight… and I let my word choice reflect it.  A fight is a clash, fast movements, sudden attacks, retreats – strikes and counter strikes, and I tend to reflect that in the pacing of the sentences as well as the descriptions.

The fight scene I’d just read was flowery and flowing and while I love to have smooth sentences and transitions in my prose: there’s a time and place for it and the fight scene begged to have the rhythm of the prose match the situation.  It needed to be less like a ballet and more like… a fencing bout.

A fencing bout involves a ‘conversation’: a quick exchange of strikes, parries and counter-strikes, followed by a period of feeling each other out : ‘scandanglio’ (how cool a word is that?).  In a  fight, you’re trying to provoke a reaction, an attempt to get your opponent to give something away, and use it against them.

You attack, retreat and never stay in one place too long: it’s all about timing. And timing can actually be a technique in a fight, not the keeping time as much as changing it up, breaking the flow to make it more unpredictable, and I realized that that went for writing the prose of a fight as much as the fight itself.

But that’s only part of it.  I had a fight scene that followed that formula: I kept it short, and let the rhythm of the sentences reflect the rhythm of the fight, but it just wasn’t working for me, and I had no clue why.  I asked a friend about it, and they pointed out my problem:

Technically, the scene was fine.  There was action, motion and everything blended together… but there was no character in the fight.  It was all mechanics.

One of my greatest strengths in writing is character, and the people fighting had as much character as a peanut.   It was all about motion, and for my characters to work in a fight: I had to let them be themselves.  I made the fight more about the people fighting than the actual blows, and suddenly everything fell into place.

The answer, again, goes back to fencing – you try and stack your advantages against your opponent’s weaknesses.  In this case my writing, against the fight scene. My strengths are character, humor and action.  By adding them to the fight scene, I made it mine and I made it work for me.

Nobody’s experiences are exactly the same, and that’s a wonderful thing: it makes us who and what we are and makes us unique: it also makes our styles unique, and that’s a good thing.

May 19, 2013

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