On Style

Raymond Chandler wrote:

“The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.”

Whoa.

I came across that quote this week and have been brooding over it ever since, as I (you’re going to get sick of hearing this) struggle with my third novel.

I thought it was worth posting about, so that you all can explain it to me.

In fact, what I really wanted to do was just post that quote and type “Discuss” below it and let you all go to town, but that’s probably some kind of cheating, so I’ll try to turn my inchoate brooding into a coherent post.

I’m sure you all read as much as I do and probably discard at least as many books after the first few chapters as I do.   I will sometimes skim a badly written book for story, but far too many books these days are written far too quickly, and don’t even approach a level of basic good writing, let alone a distinct style.    I know we’re all trying to make a living here, and it takes a lot more time to write a book with style, and it’s a lot harder, but I have no patience with writers who don’t go that extra mile (or continent).   So I’m stuck – if I won’t READ a book without style, then I can’t really write one without it, either.

So these are some of the things I’m wondering.

(And for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to confine my examples mainly to the mystery/suspense genre, because yeah, Joyce has a distinct and groundbreaking style, but I never even seriously tried to get through FINNEGAN’S WAKE)

1.   First of all, when you think of writers who have a distinctive, landmark STYLE – who of your favorite writers, especially those who influence you, would that Chandler quote apply to?

2.   And what’s the difference between a distinctive, landmark style and just plain great writing?   

3.   And what’s the difference between a distinctive landmark style and a specific writing device or gimmick that you use to tell a certain story?

I’ll take a stab at my own questions, to get the ball rolling.   

(1)  I’m not a hardboiled writer so, though I appreciate Chandler and Hammett and Spillane and I understand how that quote applies to them, I’m not interested in writing that way. 

But I do know that I’ve been influenced by the Gothic, sensual, and I would say uniquely feminine styles of Mary Shelley, Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, the Brontes.   

Ray Bradbury is a stylist who just does it for me – again, emphasis on the sensual and fantastical.

Anne Rice – ditto.   I think the lush eroticism of her prose and the fantastical nature of her subject matter takes her (at her best) beyond simply great writing to great style.

(2).  Now, this is something I’m also wondering: are stylists different from just plain brilliant writers?

Stephen King is a brilliant writer.   No one can hook me into a story and keep me riveted and engaged the way he can.   But I’m not sure in his case I’d call it style… I think he’s a phenomenal, addictively wonderful storyteller.   And he’s written some stylishly interesting books, like CARRIE – but I think the style of that book was more a device to tell that particular story than a groundbreaking style that defined him as a author.

Ayn Rand is another addictively brilliant storyteller, for me – but I don’t think she created a new style with her books.

Larry McMurtry, whose stupefyingly wonderful LONESOME DOVE I am now reading for the first time (thanks, G.! ) – is another phenomenal storyteller – but I don’t think he’s creating a new style.

And I don’t think the stylists I’ve mentioned are any more brilliant than the storytellers – I’m just trying to distinguish style from general writing brilliance.  In fact, most of the authors who have most influenced me in my particular genre – like King and Ira Levin and F. Paul Wilson – are more what I would define as brilliant storytellers.    But actually, now that I think about it, maybe Levin’s subtle irony and satire make him more of a stylist.

(3)  Now, to my third question – style vs. a storytelling device.   I’m also reading THE BOOK THIEF, by Markus Zusak – there’s a very interesting device there in that the book is narrated by Death.  Very stylish, because of the unique POV Death has.   But it’s a device for this particular story… we’ll have to wait and see if it turns out to be Zusak’s patented style.

The great Barbara Kingsolver I think is a stylist but her POISONWOOD BIBLE is more a great example of a literary device: a single story told by six sisters (if I’m remembering correctly, not good with math) all in very unique first person voice.

Another example of a literary device would be the one in Christie’s THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD…  (you know!).   I’m thinking that’s not style, it’s a storytelling device that makes that a standout book (though Christie hit that standout mark pretty regularly).

And while we’re on the subject of style, I’m also on a Ken Bruen tear – my new literary crush.   Oh, all right, I also have a crush on Ken.   But enthralled as I am, I’m certainly not the first one to call him a unique stylist, as well as just a brilliant writer, and I think it’s because his Jack Taylor character and his stories so completely reflect Ken, who is even more poetic than the average insanely poetic Irish – poet.  Amelia Barr said about writing – "I press my soul upon the white paper."  Ken does that with such devastating honesty that it becomes its own style.   

And that – we all have the capability of doing.   If we take the time and trouble to get our unique souls onto the page, it becomes style.

So… examples, anyone?   And who do you think are our new stylists?   

– Alex   (Obviously desperately seeking procrastination suggestions…)

22 thoughts on “On Style

  1. Jason Summers

    Okay, so some of my examples are gonna be in Spanish, and I’m not sure that the translations live up to the originals, since I haven’t read all the translations, but… for style, I really like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Manuel Puig and Isabel Allende, Puig especially. Kiss of the Spiderwoman is what most US folks would know of his, I think. His novels include huge sections of only dialogue, often with four or five participants in a conversation, and you can always tell who is talking by what they talk about and how they say it. GGM does amazing things with Magical Realism, especially the defamiliarization of everyday things. Ice, magnetism and lens are ordinary items, but Marquez transforms them into elements of wonder and the basis for mad experiments in One Hundred Years of Solitude. He also gets to the heart of a moment, allowing us to see the tragedy of the characters inside, but also the comedy apparent to the characters outside … an incompetent thief killed by a panicked old woman who closes her eyes fires an ancient pistol at random, and the bullet goes through her wooden door front door to hit the poor incompetent. Then his poor family has to come to town to visit his grave.(From the story “La siesta del martes”). The clear duality of comedy and tragedy echoes through much of his work – check out No One Writes to the Colonel or Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

    In a similar vein, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller write a space opera series – the Liaden Universe – and their stories carry a style, too. Sometimes they focus on bigger-than-life characters from the beginning, and sometimes on the little guys beaten about by life, but … the dignity and gravitas that they give these people ties to their morality, not their economic status. The bad guys are smart but morally bankrupt. They’re scarier for it. The style is definitely there.

    Then there’s Harlan Ellison. “Jeffty is Five” still hooks me, twenty years after I read it for the first time. His stuff is twisted, intense and fascinating – kind of like Ray Bradbury on crack and without any moral inhibitions.

    Best of luck procrastinating.

    Reply
  2. pari noskin taichert

    Q. 1 Oh, that’s funny. Jason, I had Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende on my list of distinctive styles. I’d also include Terry Pratchett in his Disc World series, and my favorite author Alice Hoffman.

    Hoffman has influenced my writing tremendously, though I couldn’t be compared to her roughest drafts on the best of days.

    All of these writers’ voices are so unique you could never mistake them for someone else.

    2. style vs just plain great writing (jpgw)

    Orson Scott Card is a phenomenal storyteller, but lacks the lyricism (for wont of a better word) that I link in my mind with style.

    Lois McMaster Bujold is, too. Her Miles series is marvelous–every book a great read. Her characters, like Card’s are vivid. She’s a great writer,but . . .

    3. Hell if I know.

    This Chandler quote is like validation to me. I spent a lot of time on style with the Sasha series. When people ask me to compare my work to someone else’s, I can’t. Not honestly. But I know I can always improve as a writer.

    Frankly, in developing a new series, this issue is one of the ones that stymies me.

    Thanks for getting the little gray cells sparking this morn.

    Reply
  3. Tasha Alexander

    OK, I’m really not awake enough to be fully coherent, so forgive me.

    But, yes, Ken Bruen is amazing.

    And if you’re looking for a writer with style that will blow you away: David Mitchell. Talk about literary lust! The man could write a shopping list and it would be gorgeous.

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  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jason, thanks – with THAT list I won’t have to do any actual writing for months! 😉

    Magical realism is such a great genre – so many different styles are possible within in.

    Ooh, Terry Pratchett. Now there’s someone I need to be reading much more of. And that wouldn’t even be procrastinating, in this case…

    And I don’t know David Mitchell but if Tasha says read him, then I’m off to the bookstore.

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  5. Louiseure

    Hi Alex,

    I like your distinction between stylists and storytellers.

    In my mind, I’ve always called them word-slingers and storytellers, and I’d include Cormac McCarthy, James Lee Burke and Barbara Kingsolver in the former category. (In Kingsolver’s POISONWOOD BIBLE, I think it was three sisters and the mother whose POV’s were represented. And one of the girls, a frail and lame character, walked dragging her right foot, to the mental mantra of “Left … behind … left … behind.” I’ve never forgotten that.)

    For pure “storytelling” skills, you can’t beat Michael Crichton, Michael Connelly and Stephen King. Stories so compelling that you don’t even notice the writing.

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  6. Bryon Quertermous

    I agree with Guyot, it’s the voice that puts a writers mark on th story. It reminds me of a story where Robert B. Parker was being interviewed and someone asked him why he thought people read his books and he said, “Because they like the way the words sound.”

    Of course its easy for me to be all Voice centric and stuff because that’s actually the part that comes easiest to me. It’s the storytelling part I have to work hard at.

    Reply
  7. billie

    Commenting on location from Weymouth after a night spent fighting dream wars that involved helium balloons being attached to my legs, the power being cut, and seem intimately connected to the work I’m doing here… so all I can add is great post, and what a wonderful, thought-provoking quote.

    My brain is swirling with authors but not much is coming through to the keyboard in response! 🙂

    Personally, agents and editors have remarked that my writing “flies in the face of convention” and is like “nothing else out there.” Which I take as a great compliment and they mean it that way. BUT. Thus far I have no sale and it is directly related to the above, I fear.

    Right now as I type an enormous longleaf pine that rises about as high as the sky outside my window is being taken down, branch by branch, section by section. Somehow that seems a potent metaphor, but I’m too caught up in the work to sort it out.

    I’m going to come back to this quote on Tuesday and see what I make of it then!

    billie

    Reply
  8. Elaine Flinn

    After being up most of the night with @#$% computer problems (thank God for Remote Assitance!) – I’m late to the party this morning – and the brain isn’t functioning well. So all I can add to Alex’s incredibly fascinating post – is that I agree with Guyot – ‘it’s voice’ and the first writer that came to my addled mind – is James Lee Burke.

    But then – ‘voice’ – I think – has much to do with not just a writers manner of tone, but of the demands of the many sub-genre’s. The crime writer must sound different than a ‘humorous mystery’writer…thrillers and suspense require an even different tone and rhythm.

    Don’t yell at me if you disagree – I need more coffee, okay?

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  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, great, now I’ve got another variable to factor in.

    Because I’m not so sure I buy that voice is the same as style.

    I know I have voice. Every one of the ‘Rati that I’ve read has voice, in spades (just finishing up FORCING AMARYLLIS, Louise – oh MY GOD…!).

    But I think style as Chandler is talking about it is something beyond voice. Something more – stylized, as it were…

    And all the storytellers we’ve been talking about, whose prose you don’t even notice because it’s so effortless – they all have voice, but again, they’re not stylists in the same way others are stylists.

    Reply
  10. mary

    Weird. I’m on the same plane as Pari and Jason, as your post made me think of Garcia-Marquez, Borges, Alice Hoffman. Jason mentions the wonder in magical realism. That element certainly brings out a lovely style from these writers.

    “I press my soul upon the white paper.” Oh, I love that. I think you’re right, that this is it, the difference between a stylist and someone who writes well. Stylists, like Bruen and Woodrell and McCarthy, press themselves into the pages so their beautiful souls kinda sing through in their own ways. Those who only write well – maybe they pressed down but nothing happened. 🙂 With these examples, the authors use distinct language patterns and settings that are a big part of their own personal makeup. That, and their ability to express emotion are what set them apart, for me, from someone who writes well but doesn’t seem to have anything of himself invested in his work.

    Thanks, Alex – this is a good topic to ponder.

    Reply
  11. JT Ellison

    I read posts like this and instinctively understand that I am a poseur.

    Let me second Tasha’s recommendation. I’m reading CLOUD ATLAS and David Mitchell has captured me, heart and soul. Pre-copernican and otherwise ; )

    Reply
  12. Keith

    I keep almost posting, and then not doing it because my comment doesn’t seem right. I finally think this: It’s the sum total of all the elements of fiction: Voice, plot, character, setting, mood, technique, theme, everything. They’re all choices, and they add up to what makes your writing not someone else’s.

    The more they have in common with other people’s choices, the less your style is yours, and the more it’s “in the style of.”

    Reply
  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Mary! Yeah, that quote really does it for me, too. All the technique stuff is really just there to get us in shape to do the soul-pressing.

    Keith, that post was worth waiting for – you summed it up completely, for me.

    Reply
  14. Karen Olson

    There are only a couple of books that come to mind when I think perfect voice (style) and perfect storytelling: The Great Gatsby is one. This, to me, is the perfect novel, beautiful writing, great story, romance, murder, it has it all. The second is Alice Hoffman’s Turtle Moon. While I’ve loved all of her work, this one stands out for me as the best one, it just worked completely for me in every way. I also just read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, which is an amazing combination of mesmerizing language, fascinating characters, great plot.

    As for storytelling alone, I may stand alone on this one, but I love the Harry Potter books. The language is fairly pedestrian, but they ARE written for kids, and she’s created an incredible world that I find I can’t get enough of.

    And I agree with Louise about Connelly and King, but there are so many crime writers out there now (Louise herself included) who have the best of style and storytelling combined and each has his or her own voice that keeps me coming back for more.

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  15. Robin Burcell

    I just picked up THE HOBBIT a couple nights ago, something I hadn’t read since high school. I went to give the well-worn, dog-eared paperback to my youngest daughter (11) to read, thinking she’d like it. And I thought, I should just crack this open, take a look, see if I remember it correctly. And what I remembered was that when I sat down to read the series in high school, I remember thinking that I wished I’d discovered the book much much sooner.

    So I glanced at the first few lines, and decided to read it aloud to my daughters instead, because I was once more intrigued with Tolkien’s voice and style. How had I forgotten? (His books were very instrumental in my desire to write one day.)

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  16. Donna

    If it’s not too late to jump in, I will most definitely agree with you on Bruen as an author with a really distinctive (and, to my mind, wondrous style); and I’ll add Daniel Woodrell (the man’s a genius),Australian Peter Temple (I’ve just read THE BROKEN SHORE), and Eddie Muller. His style in both his fiction (THE DISTANCE and SHADOW BOXER)and his non fiction on film noir just immediately set me down in the world of femme fatales and doomed anti-heroes. Oh, and then there’s the UK’s Charlie Williams whose ‘hero’ Royston Blake has one of the most distinctive (and funniest) voices in crime fiction.Donna

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  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Karen, GATSBY is one of my favorite books and nothing can beat it for lushness of style.

    Tolkien and Rowling, for their different but weirdly crossover audiences, for sure! Those two prove that setting alone can hugely contribute to a ground-breaking style.

    Donna, thanks for all those great suggestions for new reads – I don’t know those authors but they sound fabulous!

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  18. John

    Style is what enables you to tell who wrote a book without looking at the cover. And if you like that style you will buy the next book.

    Reply
  19. Carol Baier

    My favorite debut voice belongs to Cornelia Read. From this first paragraph, last line —

    Like maybe it was one long sly Dada-surrealist wink from the universe, a warning I should have been hip enough to catch

    — I was in reader heaven, and stayed there for the rest of A Field of Darkness.

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  20. JLW

    I may be all wet here, but when I think of the word “style” applied to writing, I think of it in the technical sense of punctuation, usage, and convention, i.e., à la Strunk and White or the Chicago Manual thereof. I rather suspect that this is how Chandler understood the term as well.

    Every writer will have his own, willy-nilly. The best writers hone theirs into surgical instruments.

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  21. Tom, T.O.

    I’m kind of with JLW and Strunk’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE on this. I keep remembering people saying that Faulkner broke all kinds of rules of punctuation, sentences that went on for pages. I’d simply say, “You have to know the rules to break them for effect.”A few writers came to mind if we’re talking of some other style, and maybe ELEMENTS is here too: Richard Barre, especially ECHO BAY, as well as his Wil Hardesty series; Rudolfo Anaya BLESS ME, ULTIMA and the Sonny Baca mysteries; David Morrell, Preston & Child, James Rollins–but maybe, indeed, they are “just” great storytellers.Just keep writing, all of you, okay?!

    Reply

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