A writer on the fanfiction.net site recently sent me a message asking for advice. They wanted to know how I got such a high readership for my work compared to theirs. They asked me to look at their own work and see if I could explain why people did not flock to it quite as obsessively. In the following conversation, I thought I made some good points on writing style in general, so I’m going to repost the advice here for anyone to read:
While your writing style is solid, the pacing feels off every now and then. It may be the sentence structure, it may be the concept. I think it’s a combination of the pairing and the weight of the details. Details are good. Sometimes you have to trim back though. Give only what the reader needs to get there. A good way of looking at it is the old man example.
A writer can say, “An old man stood by the bridge. He stooped, picked up an apple, then walked down the road.”
A writer can also say, “A doubled-over old man stood by the bridge, his face sagged away behind wrinkles. He knelt down on shaking, unsteady knees and reached out to pick up a shining, waxy red apple. With the apple retrieved, he rose slowly, tucked the fruit into his coat, and walked down the dusty dirt road.”
This is an exaggeration, but you get the idea. One is simple and allows the reader to fill in the blanks. One traps the reader in lock-step narration. Details should be used as needed to convey meaning of only the things that matter. That way when you do use a lot of detail, the reader knows they should pay attention. The simpler the writing, the better. That doesn’t mean we’re dumbing it down. Use big words. Vary your vocabulary. Just say it in the least amount of words possible without losing meaning.
There is a science of words. Greats like Stephen King and John Gardner stress the importance of using as few words as possible to convey meaning. It’s a matter of addition and subtraction.
The writer then replied and asked a few more in-depth questions. The following ensued from me:
I had to take multiple classes to get these ideas down. It’s a hard thing to master and there’s no “right” way to write a story. Read Stephen King’s “On Writing” if you want further examples. John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” is okay, but he sometimes doesn’t follow his own advice. We can break rules, that’s what creative writing is all about. That’s how it develops. I strongly suggest you start reading some successful authors you enjoy and examine what you love about their writing style. Nothing from the enlightenment era. I’m talking modern fiction. Some authors I’ve critically examined are JK Rowling, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, and Ursula K Le Guin. Jane Fletcher would be a good author of lesbian fiction to examine. For literary fiction, I’d look at Tea Obreht. William Faulkner is also good. When you are reading through these books, note where people spend their time with detail. Note where they summarize a sequence of events to move us from one action to the next. Note how they describe physical action and use to it space dialog.
And always keep in mind that you may try one thing and it won’t work. Every writer is different. It just takes a lot of reading and writing to make a polished writer. I highly recommend taking some workshop style writing classes from a university or joining a local writing group. That is one way to nail down the specifics of your writing. They can help you edit out clunky phrases and over-zealous description. Too much description was called the “purple phrase” by ancient writer Horace. You can read his take on it as well, if you like.
Any one person’s “style” is hard to categorize. Right now, categories don’t really exist for us new writers. In ten years, literary critics will slap a name on our style. It was born in the online writing community and shaped by the rampant publications of great sci-fi and fantasy works. Our writing values character-based story-telling, but doesn’t necessarily let the characters drive the plot 100%. Like I said, almost Post Modern. Our writing favors description of action rather than waxing poetic over emotions (as it should be, who wants to read what’s going on in a thought when we can see the action that expresses it? Concrete writing!). None of these are bad. They are all strengths you can play to your favor. You also run the risk of overdoing them.
One of my best writing professors told me creative writing was like flying a plane with a hood over the cockpit. You can’t see where you’re flying. You’re monitoring the instruments every second to make sure you don’t crash. Our minds are constantly going over the controls of writing on a subconscious level, just like those pilots obsessively checking their instrument read-outs to make sure no one crashes.
So, I hope I have rambled enough to your liking. Think this stuff over. You’re not going to improve your writing 100% right away. It took me 4 years to start seeing what my professors were talking about. And you are a good writer, so don’t stop.
It’s not a verbatim copy, but people get the idea. This is what I have to say about writing, for now. I think it’s a pretty good summary to mull over, and it contains some of the best advice I ever received.
Also, I’m thinking of doing a short free-to-read novella. I’d be posting chapters here and on fictionpress. If I start that, it would not be for another couple of weeks. I will try to start posting here regularly, regardless. Leave comments! Tell me what you think. Tell me your favorite piece of advice about writing.