Posts Tagged ‘writing style’

woman writingSo I picked up this book at my local library last week. I admit I was attracted by the cover to begin with, but the blurb sounded interesting. Plus I’d heard of the author—she’s fairly well known in her genre. I hoped I might discover an author I hadn’t read before with a sizeable backlist, always an enjoyable experience!

But here’s the thing: the story that had attracted my attention via the blurb was good. The author had an interesting idea and she carried it through. But the writing? Not so much. What I had stumbled into was a standard conundrum—which matters more, the writing or the plot?

Now let me be clear here. This was a book published by a major house so it had obviously been copyedited. There were no grammatical or spelling errors of the type found in self-pubbed books whose authors haven’t bothered to spring for an editor. But the style was sort of, well, pedestrian. The characters never really came to life. The author told me what they were feeling, but I didn’t feel for them myself. The potentially intriguing villain stayed very much at arm’s length—I was told how clever she was, but nothing she did seemed to bear that out.

I kept reading, mainly because I wanted to see how the story played out, but I never really got into the book. And I skipped some sections, which is always a bad sign. I might read another book by this author, just to see if the style here was an anomaly, but it would have to be from the library. I won’t buy her books for myself.

There’s a maxim in the pop fiction game: good writing won’t save a bad story. To some extent I believe this, but I have to say I haven’t come across the good writing/bad story combination all that often. To me, the opposite should also be considered true: bad writing can sink a good story. In fact, I find that an author’s style is more likely to catch my attention than a sensational story, particularly if that story is too complex or convoluted. An elegant, engaging style will keep me going even when I can anticipate the twists and turns of the narrative. The pleasure of spending time with a skillful writer can mitigate the minor irritations of a predictable plot.

But, of course, it’s when plot and style combine to produce something out of the ordinary that real magic happens. My favorite authors—Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, Sherry Thomas, etc.—are the ones who are skillful on both sides of the writing divide. When you find a book like that, you’ve hit the jackpot as a reader. And as writers, we’re all doing our best to create them.

So plot versus style? Why do we have to make a choice? As Guy Clark sings (in a totally different context), “Long as you’re handin’ it out, Lord, I’ll have a little of both.”


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When I was just starting out in fiction writing, I took a short story workshop at a venerable San Antonio writers cooperative. I wrote a story I thought was okay and brought it to class for critiquing. Most of my classmates liked it, and some liked it a lot. One man, though, sat through the discussion with a look of utter disdain. When things finally died down, he gave me his critique. He’d recently taken a workshop with a well-known writer, he said, and she’d told him that using adverbs was the mark of poor writing. He handed me back my MS, and sure enough he’d marked every single word ending in –ly and told me to delete them all. Now some of the words he’d marked were actually adjectives (leisurely, for example), but never mind. I’d heard that advice before. Get rid of all adverbs before you send your MS off to an editor.

Adverbs Bad!

Frankly, that’s crap. It’s also a great example of a half-remembered rule. What the well-known writer had probably told my critiquer was that it’s usually better if you can find a strong verb rather than a weak verb plus adverb. She could also have said it’s better to find a strong noun rather than a weak noun plus adjective. That’s a good principle, but it’s a long way from saying never use adverbs.

Overuse of adverbs is bad, but saying you can never use them, in effect eliminating an entire class of words from your vocabulary, is overkill. I understand why people embrace these ideas, though. It’s a lot easier to say “Never use them” than to try to figure out what constitutes effective and ineffective use. But let’s face it—sometimes that strong verb doesn’t exist. Or sometimes you like the rhythm of the adverb in your voice. Or sometimes you just feel like using “said slowly” rather than “drawled” (and if you think about it, those two aren’t exact synonyms).

In general, I’d suggest caution whenever somebody gives you a hard-and-fast dogmatic writing principle to live by, particularly if it involves style. I once worked for a magazine where the General Editor refused to consider the word dove as a past tense for dive (it was an underwater photography magazine, so this came up a lot). Now I could show her countless entries in usage guides indicating that dove was, in fact, perfectly acceptable. She didn’t care—she knew the difference between right and wrong. She had her principles.

Personally, I’ve always loved what Groucho Marx once said: “I have my principles, and if you don’t like them…I have others.” In this case, the principle should be If it works, do it.

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