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WORDS FOR WRITERS: When Does Style Get in the Way of Story?

WORDS FOR WRITERS: When Does Style Get in the Way of Story?

The one and only creative writing class I took was in third year of my undergrad studies. I was taking play/screenwriting from the Drama department at the same time, but I wanted a rounder view of storytelling to accompany learning how to construct a script. I signed up for a short story writing course – where, let’s be honest, I handed in a lot of thinly-disguised fanfic – and looked forward to finding the deep, intellectual, creative camaraderie that one sees in films about groups of writers.

There were eleven of us, and I remember four other people from the class distinctly. Two, because they were fanficcers like me (and friends to this day), who also like me learned some things from the class but mostly had been taught all the basics of storytelling and grammar from the online fanfic community.

There was an older woman who really should have been in a memoire writing class over a short story class. I always got partnered with her because I seemed to be the only one who bothered to take the time to explain to her that just because “that’s how it happened in real life” doesn’t mean that’s exactly how it should happen on the page, especially when you only have 5 000 words and no space to waste them.

And then there was him.

You know who I mean.

That Guy.

The self-important, ego-centric, hipster (though we didn’t have that word yet) cis straight white guy who idolizes Hemingway and reads Mein Kampf in public as a deliberate act of protest and discusses Hitler’s wordcrafting as if his politics were never the problem, and doesn’t believe that Writing is a skill you have to practice and improve upon. Someone who doesn’t use an editor because “every word out of my pen is perfect the moment I set it down” and who thinks the publishing industry is just a sad money-grab for hack writers getting suckered by greedy agents, but still not-so-secretly desperately wants to be an Oprah Selection, a New York Times best seller, and Nobel Prize winner.

At the end of the semester, we had to write a short story using some set of elements, which we would all then spend the last few classes critiquing for one another. I left That Guy’s for last because I know I would enjoy it least.

When I finally got to it – printed out, typeset in courier new and bound with a brass brat –  looked like this:

Onceuponatimetherewasacircusclownwho jumped all day upand down ona trampolinemadeoutof thehair of a beautifulgray mare whoneverletanyone brusherhairbuttheclownHelloOldGirlthe clownsaidto heronedayas he pushedbacktehdustyredflap of the circustentinwhichthe oldgraymarelikedto spendhertimebetween herperformances

But it looked like that for five goddamn pages.

When it came time to discuss That Guy’s story, everyone looked around the table, not wanting to go first. Someone said something about the metaphor of the clown, someone else said something tentatively about the color of the prose, and then everyone looked at me.

It was awful, their eyes said. You do it.

(I had, at that point, garnered a bit of a reputation for being a bit of a Stone Cold Bitch when people were Trying To Be Clever in class. At that point I was writing, reading, and critiquing for two creative writing courses, as well as somehow writing a play for the theatre department and maintaining a mildly successful fanfiction series on Fanfiction.net, and providing Beta Reads for other folks in the fanfic community, keeping up with homework for three other courses, and working part-time at McD’s and another job postering for the Centre for the Arts. I think this was also the Year of LARP. I had No Time For Shenanigans.)

I hesitated, and then I finally said, “To be frank, I never read the damn thing.”  There were gasps around the table, and the professor murmured something about it being part of the course. I held up the page – more black than white – and said, “It’s unreadable. It might be a great story, but I will never know because he has intentionally made it a frustrating, difficult experience. I got eye strain trying to figure out the sentences and fatigue from the mental work of understanding. I was so caught up in translating the text that I missed what the story is completely.”

There was some bluff and bluster about the story maybe just being too clever for me from That Guy, and the professor smirked and then looked away quickly.

And I said: “Listen, you ever wanna make money on this? You never will. Not if you pull stupid stunts like this. It feels like you’re condescending to your audience, you’re trying to trick them, and it’s too hard to read. Nobody will pay for you to laugh at them.”

“But the story is good!” someone else in the class protested. (I was perhaps being a bit too harsh, and I think they were trying to soften the blow.)

“I never found a story,” I replied. “The text wouldn’t let me into it. I was locked out by the style. I’m sure there’s a story on the other side of this brick wall of words, but I couldn’t get access to it. And if it’s that hard for me, and I am paying for the privilege of being in this class and reading these stories, imagine how much less inclined a paying audience will be to spend the time to understand it.”

The Guy huffed and crossed his arms and slumped and said, “So, I should dumb down my work?”

And I said, “No, you should work on your work. Standardized punctuation and grammar exist for a reason. They exist so the words don’t get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell. Not knowing the rules and not even trying to learn them is not the same as making a deliberate stylistic choice to break them.” (I might have had a chip on my shoulder from earlier in the semester when I had to teach the fool what a bloody hard return was actually for in dialogue.)

That Guy starting pouting and everyone looked to the Professor. He shrugged and said: “She’s not wrong.”

I don’t know what mark he got on the story, but I do know that he was made to rewrite and hand it in again.

So what does this anecdote illustrate? Why did I bring this up?

Because when I think back to that story, when I think back to what happened, I still get angry and frustrated. I feel like a child trying to express the way-to-big-emotions that are filling up my still-so-tiny body and just crying and screaming because that’s my only tool of communication. I hate the story, and I hate that writer, and I hate the fact that he was trying to trick me in some way and it was all just so weakly obvious and condescending.

Now do I really hate his story? No, I never read it so I don’t actually have an opinion of it. Do I really hate That Guy? No, of course not. Do I really think that he was trying to deliberately trick me? No.

But it feels like it.

I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember his story. I don’t even really remember what he looked like. But I remember how he made me feel.

And for readers, how a book makes them feel is so much more a part of the experience of reading than the wordcrafting. People talk about how stories make them feel all the time – in reviews, in blurbs, to friends and neighbors. Writing sells because of how it makes people feel.

But a story can’t make anyone feel anything if they can’t figure out how to read it.

Now, I’m not advocating for ‘lowest possible denominator dumb it down’ writing. I’m advocating for clear, easily understandable communication.

“Style” is word choice, and imagery choice, and how long your sentences are and where you break up paragraphs. It’s about how you write out dialogue and accents, and what parts of the story you choose to tell, and whose POV you tell it from. It’s about how you play with the musicality of the rhythm of the words. Its about which rules you decide to break, and how, and how consistently you do so in order to convey something extra and beyond in the prose. (Breaking a rule should always be a consistently-applied deliberate choice that adds something to the reader’s understanding of the story, rather than taking away).

I’m not saying don’t have style.

I’m saying that the moment style gets in the way of story, then it’s gone too far.

Style should always add, and not detract.

Think of a story like a set of stairs. Style should be the escalator going up, helping readers get to the destination smoothly. It shouldn’t be an escalator going down, so your reader has to huff and puff and fight against it to get to the end of the book.

When figuring out a style for your tale, build an uppy escalator. Not a downy one.

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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: When Does Style Get in the Way of Story?
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I Stole A Time Lord and Ran Away

I Stole A Time Lord and Ran Away

I wrote an article about the #Steampunk #TARDISGown for the #SiliconWebCostumersGuild newsletter “The Virtual Costumer” for this month!

Click here to read the full article.

This is a members-only newsletter until the Patreon readers have got their advanced copies, but as a special treat editor Philip Gust has agreed that the public can get a crack at my pages. I had a lovely time meeting the Gusts at  #ConVolution2017 in San Jose this past October, and I encourage every #cosplayer I know to check out the magazine.

Happy Reading!

JM FreyI Stole A Time Lord and Ran Away
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Words for Writers: The NaNoWriMo “Keep Yourself Accountable” Checklist

Sched

NANOWRIMO The Keep Yourself Accountable Schedule

Click the above link to download the PDF and then print it and post it beside your writing space! Ta Da!

Because there’s nothing more satisfying than checking little checkmark boxes, right?

(The schedule is based on the calculations found in THIS POST by Writerlynn)

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: The NaNoWriMo “Keep Yourself Accountable” Checklist
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Post the First Sentences of Your 10 Last Stories and Search For Patterns

I was tagged in this challenge on Tumblr, and because I’m super curious about this, and I wanted to do this for both my fanfic AND my original fiction. I wonder what patterns there are (if any), and in what way they will emerge.

Fan Fiction:

“What?” Dum Dum asked, prodding his seatmate in the ribs with his meaty elbow for the umpteenth time. “Seriously, Falsy, what?” (The Driver)

Mark nodded without looking up, bent to shovel. “If it’s hard on yer back, you could feed them instead.” (Basil and the Bales)

There was a time, Myrddin mused, that he would have been inclined to reach out to the horizon and murmur a soft spell, just to make the sun linger a few seconds longer on the horizon, just to treasure the rich red hues and the marvelous indigo that spread like an exhaled stain across the tops of the far mountains. (The Once and Future Kingdom)

Carson Beckett poked his head into the primary astrophysics lab hopefully, and sniffed the air. “Oh,” he said softly to himself when he realized it was empty and the enticing scent he was searching for was not there. (Five Times Doctor Rodney McKay Was The Topic of Conversations He Had No Idea Were Going On)

Johnny Sheppard was born when he was ten years old. Or, one hundred and fifty seven years old, depending on how you wanted to count it. (Flight)

I am wrongways up, and it hurts. My swimming pool has leaked all over the cloister again, and the bottles of the library books are akimbo on their shelves. My Time Lord is not within me. I moan, wheeze futile, and then open my external scanners wide, and search for the two Hearts I cradle within my own. (Not The Doctor I Was Expecting)

Kalp is uncertain, but his employer says that the dark blue of his work apron makes the green striation markings around his eyes and mouth attract attention. (Trenti)

On Christmas morning, John unwraps a big box. That’s what it looks like, anyway, and it’s from the Millers, even Madison. John is too excited opening the present to stop and read what the box says, but Rodney sees enough through the flashes of garish paper to make an educated guess at the contents long before John can sit back and take it all in. (Mondayish)

Jack Harkness was reminded of the children’s book he had seen in Gwen’s apartment. “Alexander and The No Good, Terrible, Very Bad Day”. Or something like that. What-fucking-ever. (Respected II)

When Johnny Sheppard was six years old, he begged his father for a toboggan for Christmas. He got an algebra set. (Tobogganing)

Original Fiction
(already-announced projects only, I’m afraid…)

Once upon a time, when we were all Bella Swan, my first crush was a sarcastic know-it-all Immortal named Methos. (“How Fan Fiction Made Me Gay”, The Secret Loves of Geek Girls)

The envelope from Elgar Reed came a few months after Alis’ first birthday. (The Silenced Tale)

The first indication that something was off was the phone call from the Smithsonian Museum. His typewriter, the old race-car red Olympia De Luxe his aunt had given him in the late’ 70s, had been stolen. (The Wondrous Woes of the Writer)

The air above the barn rips apart, wind against wind, power thrust into the multitudes between of the skies and raking through the void. Feet braced apart, bracketing the barn’s peak, a slight woman reaches into the sky and slices again. (The Forgotten Tale)

Once upon a time, oh yes, so very long ago, there was of course a lovely girl who came to learn to sew. (The Dark Lord and the Seamstress)

Creepy bastards like this always go for the eyes. Bevel doesn’t know why. They just do. (The Garrulous Ghost of Gwillfifeshire)

When I catch sight of the cart and its cargo approaching through the thick glass of my study window, I assume the body in the back is a corpse, brought to me for study and then burial. But no one handles a corpse with such care, and driver is directing the horse to travel slowly, avoiding each hole in the dirt road. (The Untold Tale)

In Saskwya thievery was punished with the forceful, bloody removal of a thumb. This was usually done on the spot by the soldier who caught the perpetrator and with whatever sharp implement they happened to have at hand, clean or not. Robin Arianhod still had both of her thumbs. She was thankful, because she couldn’t have picked the lock on the factory door if she had been missing them. (The Skylark’s Song)

When Mary comes to, she is lying face down in the grass beside the road. (The Dark Side of the Glass)

A body collapsing with no muscular control onto plush carpeting makes a kind of muffled thudding, all raw meat and cut strings. (Triptych)


 

So, do you see any patterns? Let’s discuss it in the comments!

JM FreyPost the First Sentences of Your 10 Last Stories and Search For Patterns
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