Who Are Your Writing Influences?

During my No Whine, Just Champagne writing chat on Gather.com last night, we discussed our styles and who influenced us the most. I’d never really thought about it before, but if anyone influenced me, it would probably be Taylor Caldwell for two vastly different reasons. One, I like books that tell of unknown events or show history in a different light or speak of real life conspiracies, and she did that very well. Two, she had an execrable style (in one book I swear she used the word inexorable on every other page. About drove me nuts.) which taught me to pay attention to what I want to say, don’t duplicate words or effects, and write shorter books.

As fellow Nowhiner, Sia McKye wrote, “I liked some of her story premises, but damn, I swear that woman could spend 15 pages describing the turning of a leaf, or a field. sheesh. You could condense her story by 40% and not lose the story, just the extra stuff.” Amen to that. So, I have tried to tell interesting stories with an historical/conspiratorial slant, and while I do put in a bit of historical background, I do not spend pages describing leaves. Nor have I ever used the word inexorable. Okay, once as a private joke, but that’s all.

Another Nowhiner, one of the best style mimics I ever came across, posted the following piece:

I would have to say that there is nothing in life sweeter than partaking of a nice piece of cheesecake at the Broadway Deli, saying hello to the dames as they walk by, talking with my friends from the track, and reading Damon Runyon, whose style is unique among mortals.

Or Hemingway. I read him in college. He was good.

Elmore Leonard walked into my living room with a large suitcase, a gun and an attitude. “Whats up” I asked him. He didn’t answer or smile, before he shot me through the heart. Now there is some style, I thought just before I died.

Ann Tyler, invited me to her large house in Baltimore, and allowed me to sit in her parlor, while she continued her often interrupted monologue with Silky, the cat who had belonged to her first husband’s daughter’s girl friend Ramona. The third time the phone rang, it was Ramona herself, and the monologue became a dialog, from which I learned a good deal about the complex relationships among those who had inhabited this world.

See what you’re missing? You are welcome to join us any time. The group No Whine, Just Champagne meets every Thursday at 9:00 pm ET for a live chat, though the discussion continues on unlive after the chat is finished.

So, I told you my writing influence; who are yours?

On Writing: Style and Cadence

Ken Coffman, my guest blogger today, is the author of eight books, including a popular technical book called Real World FPGA Design with Verilog. He could easily make money writing additional technical books, but has more fun writing absurd novels like Steel Waters and Glen Wilson’s Bad Medicine, available from fine online bookstores everywhere. Ken writes:

Recently, my friend Lisa said this to me: “You tend to like more baroque-type authors, gravitate towards writers with that style, and write in that style.  Ironically, I really do like Hemingway, in that when I read him way back when, I immediately liked and related to the prose style . . . “

It’s true. We’re diverse, and different things float our metaphorical schooners. See, there I go. I could have simply said boat and your eye would have slid smoothly over the cliché. But, I didn’t want to.

Anyway, back to the point I’m laboring to make.

          Nick looked on at the moon, coming up over the hills.
          “It isn’t fun any more.”
          He was afraid to look at Marjorie. Then he looked at her. She sat there with her back toward him. He looked at her back. “It isn’t fun any more. Not any of it.”
          She didn’t say anything. He went on. “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me. I don’t know, Marge. I don’t know what to say.”
          He looked on at her back.
          “Isn’t love any fun?” Marjorie said.
          “No,” Nick said. Marjorie stood up. Nick sat there, his head in his hands.
                – 
Ernest Hemingway, The End of Something

Of course, I can appreciate Hemingway’s sparse mastery. In feeble imitation, sometimes I report things in a flat tone to emphasize a point or work against the reader’s mental picture. But, generally, my ambitions lie elsewhere. I like prose that is more playful and convoluted.

Tom Robbins, who I like to call my neighbor, writes like this:

          A few months later, everyone of the bride’s relatives, including even distant cousins, decided that life was meaningless without that most talented, most delightful girl, not to mention her pious and generous family, and so the relatives, as well, set off for the hills and Fan Nan Nan. Their departure tore a hole in the fabric of the community; there was an abiding emptiness there.
               -
- Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito

The difference in style could hardly be more obvious. Tom’s zany prose dances.

          Then I looked at Dale, my sergeant, wringing out his shirt in a metal water drum. His back was brown, ridged with vertebrae, his ribs like sticks against his skin, the points of his black hair shiny with sweat. Then his lean Czechoslovakian face smiled at me, with more tenderness and affection in his eyes than I had yet seen in a woman’s.
          He was killed eight days later when a Huey tipped the treetops in an LZ and suddenly dipped sideways into the clearing.
                –  James Lee Burke, Heaven’s Prisoners

Burke has a huge vocabulary and is unafraid to take a risk. He sits on a limb and with careful, deliberate, thoughtful strokes, works his saw.

To my taste, the master of mixing the eloquent with the absurd is Nabokov.

          I thought I had crossed the frontier when a bare-headed Red Army soldier with a Mongol face who was picking whortleberries near the trail challenged me: “And whither,” he asked picking up his cap from a stump, “may you be rolling (kotishsya), little apple (yablochko)? Pokazyvay-ka dokumentiki (Let me see your papers).”
          I groped in my pockets, fished out what I needed, and shot him dead, as he lunged at me; then he fell on his face, as if sunstruck on the parade ground, at the feet of his king. None of the serried tree trunks looked his way, and I fled, still clutching Dagmara’s lovely little revolver. Only half an hour later, when I reached at last another part of the forest in a more or less conventional republic, only then did my calves cease to quake.
              — Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins!

So, how am I doing? You judge.

          “I’m bored,” Nort said.
          “That’s because you’re not doing anything.”
          “And you can’t make me.”
          “Right,” Jake said. “Exactly.”
          “I’m not staying here. I’ll beg on the street.”
          Jake looked up.
          “It used to be that a man would rather die than be a beggar or take charity,” he said.
          “Things are different now.”
          “I can see that. Good luck out there.”
          “What’s wrong with you? You don’t care about me at all.”
          Jake licked the tip of his pencil.
          “When I was in Da Nang, I was stabbed in the gut with a sharp stick by a starving 11-year-old who wanted the three dollars in my wallet.” He lifted his shirt to show a twisted scar. “After I killed him with a brick, I realized either God either didn’t exist or was the biggest asshole of us all. I care about you, but out in the world you’ll die of AIDS or get stabbed in an alley by a cracked-out whore. It doesn’t pay to get emotionally attached to the doomed.”
               — Ken Coffman, Fairhaven 

You plant your butt in your chair and you face the demons that live in that blank screen. You spend hours and hours wringing words, situations, and plots from too-thin air.

Who are your influences? And, what are your ambitions?

Style: The Search for a Voice — NWJC Writing Discussion #44

My writing group on Gather.com — No Whine, Just Champagne – meets every Thursday at 9:00pm ET for a live discussion, and you are all invited. Tonight’s host is Suzanne Francis, author of the Song of the Arkafina series from Mushroom Books, and her topic is Style: The Search for a Voice. Suzanne writes:

Where do you find it? Is it lurking in the keyboard, in the classroom, or in the back of your mind? How do you know when you have a voice to call your own?

Today’s discussion will focus on how we, as authors, find authentic style.

Style begins with competence. (Unless you want to be known as one of those writers for whom ineptitude seems to be a defining trait. I won’t name names…)

One of my friends, a teacher, once told me that competence has four levels.

They are:

1. Unconscious Incompetence–This is where I started. I wrote and wrote, thousands of words a day, and I thought every one of them was pure gold. I was surprised and offended when my critiquers pointed out that there were flaws, inconsistencies, poorly constructed sentences, flabby paragraphs etc. etc. Sadly, many writers these days seem to be published while they are still in this stage.

2. Conscious Incompetence–The great eye opener. You realize that your work is mostly crap. Some people quit here, because they don’t want to do the work of objectively editing their work down into something readable. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually graduate to…

3. Conscious Competence–I like to think that I am here, on a good day. I can see when the pace drags, when I am telling instead of showing. I work hard, examine my prose, recognize the flaws and fix them! I don’t get them all, but when my writing buddy finds something else I fix that too.

4. Unconscious Competence–Sometimes, very rarely, I get to visit this place, but I don’t live here. I’m sure you have had those moments when the words just pour from your fingers. Perfect fully formed sentences spring forth like Athene from the forehead of Zeus. I imagine there might be some writers who are able to keep this up long term, but I am not one of them. 

So once you have achieved level 3, or level 4 if you are very talented, do you have a style?

Nope.

Now you have to do a little detective work–look at your writing and listen to your instincts. Which words sing out from the page? Where do the characters say just what they need to? What settings add heft and bedrock to the action, or transcendent beauty?

That is where your style is hiding. Read those passages again and again. Zero in on what makes them tick; why they are so successful. Then, slowly, carefully, begin to put those discoveries to use in other places. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And eventually you find your style, a distillation of your very best writing, enriching every page.

Let me make one thing clear…

Style isn’t about following rules, despite what I said about competence earlier. We have all read things that were grammatically correct and well-structured, but still left us cold. The warmth in writing comes from our ability to know when to break a convention in order to add impact. It takes time, and the patience to write and read many, many thousands of words. There is no substitute for the hard work involved. But the moment we realize that we have written something that is recognizably ours and ours alone, can be very rewarding.

So–how and when did you discover your own style?  Do you think style should be dictated by genre, ie hard boiled for mystery, flowery for romance?  Are there any authors whose style you particularly admire?  Is your style evolving and if so, in which direction?


The group No Whine, Just Champagne will discuss these questions and more during our Live Discussion on Thursday, December 4th at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there! (A reminder: to participate, you need to be a member of gather, but it’s free. And to see the discussion, you will have to keep refreshing the page. It’s not like IM.)

On Writing: Finding Your Style

Most books on writing I’ve read talk about developing a syle, but recently I came across the remark that “style happens.” If style is simply the way you write, how does it come about? In my case, I don’t try for a specific style, such as gritty or sentimental, flamboyant or minimal, sassy or grim or lyrical. Whatever style I have does not even come when I write, but when I edit. In paring away all the excess, I end up with a matter-of-fact style (or so I’ve been told).

I recently entered a contest to rewrite the first 263 words of The DaVinci Code. Dan Brown has a melodramatic style, one that sublimates good writing for effect. (For example, it is a physical impossibility to freeze and turn one’s head at the same time.) In editing his words, I changed the style, but not the basic meaning of the piece.

Here are Brown’s words:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Carravagio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-three-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

As he anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the long silencer through the bars, directly at the curator. “You should not have run.” His accent was not easy to place. “Now tell me where it is.”

“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the gallery. “I have no idea what you are talking about!”

“You are lying.” The man stared at him, perfectly immobile except for the glint in his ghostly eyes. “You and your brethren possess something that is not yours.”

Here is my edit:

Jaques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the Louvre’s Grand Gallery, lunged for the Carravagio, and tore it from the wall. He collapsed under the weight.

Fifteen feet away, an iron gate dropped with a thud, barricading the entrance of the suite.

Sauniere lay still, struggling to breathe. The sacrifice of the Carravagio gave him a moment’s safety. But he needed to hide.

He inched from beneath the canvas.

“Do not move.”

He froze. That accented voice was unmistakable. How did the albino find him so quickly?

“Where is it?” the albino demanded.

Sauniere turned toward the hulk on the other side of the gate. His gaze shifted from the silenced pistol in the man’s huge hand to the pink eyes with the dark red pupils. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You and your brethren are in possession of something that does not belong to you. I want it.”

Finding a Reason to Write

Okay, here I am. The fourth day of My Novel Writing Month. I take a deep breath, trying to remember why I wanted to write, why I needed to.

Several years ago, when I couldn’t find the books I liked anymore — story and character driven novels that can’t be slotted easily into a genre — I decided to write my own. The one obvious flaw to this reasoning is that if publishers weren’t publishing non-genre novels written in a genre style (as opposed to a “literary” style), then how did I expect them to publish my books? But I did. And they didn’t. When I’d written (and rewritten) four novels, adding another didn’t seem compelling. Four unpublished novels were bad enough, but five seemed . . . pathetic.

Now that two of those novels are about to be published by a small press with looser definitions of genre than the multi-national publishers, I am down to two unpublished books. And all of a sudden, that seems too few. So now I have the need to write, and I have the itch, but I am out of the habit.

That’s what MyNoWriMo is supposed to give me — not the 50,000 words necessary to complete NaNoWriMo, but the habit of writing.

So here I sit, waiting for the words to come, and they do. But not the right ones.

I’m supposed to be getting my hero back to his neighborhood (after finally letting him stop running from the volcano), yet here I am, writing about writing rather than writing. Though I suppose it depends on one’s definition of writing, because technically, I am writing. Or am I blogging? Either way, I am not working on my novel.

So, I got the poor guy away from the volcano, let him drink his fill at an hour-old river, let him indulge in a bit of light-headed musing (after all, it’s been months since I fed the poor guy), and now he’s on his way home.

The shadows are lengthening, and in this strange new apocalyptic world, anything can happen . . .

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