The Element of Style
Dear Readers and Authors,
There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while two motor boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.
Recognize this quote? It’s from what some consider the greatest American novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. No, this is not a pop quiz for high school seniors. I’m quoting Fitzgerald because I want to talk about an element of the novel that isn’t discussed on romance boards quite as frequently as plot, characters, or sex scenes: style.
When I read the passage above, I want to swoon. The music from Gatsby’s house runs not only through the summer nights but through the words themselves, and I can almost feel the cool starlight on my flushed skin, can almost imagine myself moth-like, wearing something as velvety as wings, only half listening to the low hush of whispers that surrounds me, the murmured laughter like the clinking of champagne glasses.
I’m not half the writer Fitzgerald is, so I can’t quite capture what his words do to me, can’t put to paper the joy I get from startling images like “blue gardens” and metaphors like “cataracts of foam” and “his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug.” When I read this book, not just the images and the ideas embedded in the words, but the sounds of the individual words themselves, the sound effects of words grouped together and the rhythms of the sentences wrap me up, enfold me, intoxicate me.
For me, there are few pleasures better than sinking deep into a book written by a master stylist, a writer who clearly loves words and can string them together like the jewels they are. Immersion in the words of such a writer is a sensory and sensuous experience. That sensation of being carried away by a sublime book can be as romantic as anything, so I have to ask this question: why don’t more romance authors employ the gorgeousness of the written word to that effect? Why not dazzle readers with language, or at least, attempt to? Why not write more lyrical and poetic prose?
It’s hardly fair, I know, to compare other books to what may be the greatest American novel. And yet, I can’t help but do it. Having had a taste of beautiful writing, I crave more. There are voices in the romance genre that I love, authors who are wordsmiths of the first order. But there aren’t enough of them to satisfy my cravings for rich language.
It’s not that I can’t enjoy books written in what I think of as plain and serviceable prose. I can and I have, and I’ve recommended them here. It’s just that generally those aren’t the books I anticipate most keenly and enjoy best. They can be a lot of fun, but only rarely does one of them blow me out of the water. And I long to be blown away.
Lately I have not been reading much literary fiction, partly because I review for this blog, and partly because some of it seems to me to revel, in terms of content at least, in drabness and pessimism. I can love an intricate plot full of twists and turns, as well, and that’s not the strength of many literary writers. One thing I do miss about literary fiction, though, is the way words are put together, the crafting of language, the style.
I’ve long felt that genre writers and non-genre writers could learn from each other. I could talk at length about the things that authors of contemporary literary fiction could learn from genre writers, and ask why they aren’t more interested in doing so, but if I did that at this forum, I’d just be preaching to the vestry members. So let me ask instead why there aren’t many genre authors whose sound effects, imagery, and metaphors engage my senses the way the words of many non-genre authors do.
Is it that literary and genre writers have sneered at one another so much that there’s too much defensiveness on both sides for many members of each group to admit that something could be learned from the other group? Is it that it’s harder to produce gorgeous writing on a tight deadline? Is it that, as one of my friends has suggested, the romance genre is young? Or is it, as another friend suggests, that perhaps such books are being written but not published? Do other romance readers dislike poetic writing?
Beauty, I realize, is in the eye of the beholder, to some degree at least. But (finicky, spoiled reader that I am) I ask (and know this question may upset a lot of people, and feel bad about that), how many genre writers actually try for *beauty* when they write? How many genre writers actually attempt greatness in the arena of style?
Not that I mean to imply that none do. The romance genre has some wonderful stylists. Here are some examples of lovely writing in the romance genre:
She vanished into the twilight, a slight figure soon devoured by shadows and the restless flicker of the torches the stable boys were embedding in precise intervals along the drive. Kit looked back at Malbroke's mansion, at the warm golden windows and colored drapery, the ornate plastered ceiling of the ballroom visible behind glass like distant icing on a wedding cake.
— Shana Abe, The Smoke Thief
He awaited them in the drawing room, dressed with old fashioned formality: knee breeches and an unadorned tailcoat of black silk. That appeared to exhaust his fund of conventional behavior. He barely looked at them, except for a swift, potent glance when Folie opened the door. There was something faintly startled in it, as if he had forgotten they were coming. Without delay for small talk or an announcement from a servant, he merely made a taut bow and indicated the dining room doors.
— Laura Kinsale, My Sweet Folly
The roses and the lilac, violets and lemon verbena shed their fragrance more intensely after dark, the sweet air of the English country night seeming to glimmer with benign spirits. Mary could feel her parents’ presence; it seemed to her that Arthur Grandin had added the warm light of his memory. There were a few more restless shades abroad as well: she shook her head at the one who stuck a sugary yellow tongue at her. When she was sure that Jessica was looking the other way, she stuck her own tongue back at the little imp–who giggled silently and flickered off toward the forest.
— Pam Rosenthal, The Slightest Provocation
I hardly ever dream anymore, I don’t know why. Tonight I did, though, and it woke me up. I was walking through a tall thicket of brake fern, the clear green fronds as high as my shoulders. I came to a gate leading into a meadow full of flowers. A man began to walk beside me, and his boots were golden bronze from the yellow pollen of buttercups. I don’t know who he was, though in the dream I think I knew.
— Patricia Gaffney, To Love and to Cherish
But she could still feel the sea inside her stomach, and color and movement and noise came at her in waves: men swarming to unload the ship, the early morning sun ricocheting hard between smooth sea and blue sky, gulls wheeling in arcs of silver and white. No clouds floated above to cut the glare or soften the heat. Sylvie took her first deep breath of truly English air. It was hot and clotted with dock odors, and made matters inside her stomach worse instead of better.
— Julie Anne Long, Ways to be Wicked
Miss Van Evan sat in a chair directly in front of the writing table, the sunlight brightly spotlighting her skirts, skirts the deep, saturated purple of sloe plums. This color was the predominant note in the girl’s presence: folds of dark, dark purple in a halo of sunlight.
— Judy Cuevas (Judith Ivory), Bliss
Above her the roof of Euston Station yawned in two barnlike peaks, its smutted glass filtering in a watery species of sunshine more appropriate to dusk than noon.
— Emma Holly, Beyond Innocence
My aim in this letter isn’t to knock the genre, or its hard-working authors. It’s simply that though the element of style isn’t everything to me, it can add hugely to my enjoyment, and there are few things I thirst for more than a beautifully written romance.
My questions to you who are reading this are the ones I asked above, and these: Does style make a difference to you? How much does it affect your reading experience? Who are your favorite stylists in the romance genre? Whose writing are you drawn to simply because you like the way they put together their words?
After watching Jane plead with authors to digitize their books, I’ve decided to present my own plea to authors, and it’s this: Attempt the poetic. Reach for those stars, and like one of Fitzgerald’s moths, I will be drawn to your luminous words. Write lyrical romances, books that seduce me with their melodies. I crave them. I long for them. I read them until they fall apart and buy more copies. I tell all my friends about them. I cherish them dearly; I see them as precious, precious gifts. Write one for me, for yourself, for lovers of words everywhere.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
William Gibson – Neuromancer
I read this one line and knew this book was gonna be a wild ride.
I love style, a flight of words on the wings of emotion. Thank you for reminding us. I don’t think romance is entirely separate from literature. The heart of so many wonderful classics is romance. Love and loss, hearts broken and redeemed. These are the themes authors have penned for the stages of Greece, Rome of course Shakespeare’s London.
Scowling and trudging off to go over that manuscript again…
I actually think Nora Roberts’ writing is underappreciatied for its style. I think she has some beautiful turns of phrase and some vivid, fascinating descriptions, especially of emotions, but also of setting. LaVryle Spenser also did this for me. I adore her word-by-word writing, even if some of her implied political/social commentary left me cold. I’d read her anyway. Laura Kinsale, of course.
I think it might be time and deadlines. I think it might be that unless it’s absolutely stunning writing, I skip over descriptions and scene setting. I can’t be bothered, and that’s not why I read romances.
I don’t think I’m an especially lyrical writer (but thanks, Sarah). One of the reasons I love Gaffney’s work is her wonderful use of language. But I love Robert Parker’s spare, direct style, too. Not Romance, I know, but I’m just popping out favorites here.
Mostly I think style depends entirely on how the writer herself is wired creatively. And to some extent after that on the demands of the particular story.
If we use the garden theme, books are like rooms in a garden. Some are lush, even sumptuously arranged, others are spare and tidy. But planted and tended well, both will please the eye on any given day.
Btw, the Gatsby quote was gorgeous.
I want that lyrical, masterful style from any book I read, lit or genre. In romance I get my wish from the likes of Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale, Megan Chance, Connie Brockway, Patricia Gaffney, and a few others, particularly Ivory. I feel as if I’m getting the great style of a literary writer and the fantastic story telling of a great genre writer. For me these writers are the gold standard in romance. I’ve read a lot of great stories but seldom do I have the almost indescribable joy of reading a great story written by a great writer. A person whose command of language evokes awe and delight in me.
Not all imagery is going to have the same effect on every reader. When I see “his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains” I imagine a bright yellow car moving like a rabbit, i.e. quickly but also rising jerkily into the air and coming down again, the way vehicles sometimes do in cartoons. Very odd. And re ‘the torches the stable boys were embedding in precise intervals’, how do you embed a torch in an interval? The phrase ‘the roof of Euston Station yawned in two barnlike peaks’ seems to me to involve mixed metaphors. ‘Yawned’ creates the image of the roof of a mouth, but then we’re told that it has ‘two barnlike peaks’, so now I’m imagining a very strange, deformed mouth in which the palate is split into an ‘M’ shape rather than its usual curve. Is that the impression the author was trying to create? It could have been, but did the author want me to be sitting here thinking about monsters?
I wonder if my problem with some kinds of style is that I end up so busy admiring or thinking about the language that I lose track of the plot and the emotions that the characters are feeling. This is particularly likely to happen if I have different word associations from the ones intended by the author. As you say, authors may ‘dazzle readers with language’, but I don’t want to be dazzled. I want to be emotionally engaged by the story, not entranced by the brilliance of particular word choices. That’s not to say that authors shouldn’t think about their style but my preference would be for subtlety, so that most of the word choices function on a subconscious level (though they may become apparent during a re-read), building up the atmosphere of the novel without dazzling or distracting me to the point where I forget about the characters and the plot.
P.S. I’m also curious as to whether the form ‘stuck her tongue at X’, as in ‘stuck a sugary yellow tongue at her’ is common usage in the US. I’ve only ever heard or read the phrase when it includes ‘out’ i.e. ‘stuck her tongue out at X’.
I can read lyrical prose out of context and think “That’s lovely,” but if I encounter it in a book, I’m likely to skip over it, particularly if it pertains to setting. Tell me we’re in a parlor and nothing else, and I’ll dress the set myself. Not only does a full-page description bring the story to a screeching halt, but it can interfere with my imagination, so I don’t miss it when it’s lacking.
Speaking as a newbie writer, when word count appears to be the only thing standing between your story and publication, chunks of description are the first thing to be sacrificed. There simply isn’t room to wax as poetic as one might like. When you’re allowed only 90,000 to 100,000 words, they often have more impact when focused on character and plot. It’s a matter of prioritizing, not necessarily inability to compose a pretty paragraph.
Tell me we’re in a parlor and nothing else, and I’ll dress the set myself. Not only does a full-page description bring the story to a screeching halt, but it can interfere with my imagination, so I don’t miss it when it’s lacking.
Speaking as a newbie writer, when word count appears to be the only thing standing between your story and publication, chunks of description are the first thing to be sacrificed.
But you can make the language work harder so that you get it to do two jobs at once. For example Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation begins with the words ‘Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation’. In those 5 words we’ve got the name of the heroine and the location and we’ve also been given a clue about one of the main themes of the novel. Later on Crusie manages to make the description of the wallpaper spark a conversation which reveals the character/motivation of the heroine and 2 other important characters, and then further examination of the wallpaper brings us back to the imagery of temptation.
Sorry, my italics went funny. The second paragraph is also part of the quote.
I have been thinking the same thing lately and I was flabbergasted when I started reading. I love genre, and I love the lit style and I’ve been wondering how to marry the two. Where is the happy medium, that sort of thing.
If you liked those (and they are some of my favorites too) you’d love Lying in Bed by MJ Rose. And Eden Bradley’s The Dark Garden coming out with Bantam.
I love the fact that The Smoke Thief and The Slightest Provocation are on the Rita list too. Shows that it can be done and readers (writers as readers) like it. (With all the kerfluffle, some great books made it this year!)
Laurea, I read the same way, some word associations hit me wrong. It’s a gamble.
Sorry for the name misspelling!
Sorry for the name misspelling!
Eva, I’m quite pleased with ‘Laurea’, it makes me sound like a heroine, along the lines of Dulcinea, Melibea and Galatea ;-)
True wordsmiths for me are those who can invoke imagery with very few words. Nail characterization of character in one sentence or two. Excellent examples and as one reader noted: Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale, Megan Chance, Connie Brockway, Patricia Gaffney and I might add Shana Abe are just a sampling of romance writers whose prose engages the readers senses. I guess I’m in love with words as well. However there has to be the right balance for this kind of writing. I’m not a fan of too many simili’s and metaphors.
When the writing style doesn’t appeal to me, I’m tempted to skim. But then I feel like I might be missing something important. I often end up either not finishing the book, or reading every word but not enjoying it very much. Some styles can cause me to tune out. That’s one of the reasons I love beautiful writing; it keeps me engaged in every part of the book.
But you can make the language work harder so that you get it to do two jobs at once. [/quote]
This is something I think isn’t talked about enough, how forward motion doesn’t have to stop to give the description of a parlor or a character’s clothing or the landscape. The author simply needs to use the description to show another element of story, whether characterization, emotion, whatever.
One of the best workshops I’ve ever attended was one Laura Kinsale gave at RWA Chicago in probably 1992 or 1993 where she compared a laundry list description of a room from a romance novel (the chair was against the wall, the door to the right of the fireplace, etc.) with a description from The French Lieutenant’s Woman where Fowles pointed out the soot on a room’s ceiling left by an oil lamp. That singluar tidbit evoked mood and the condition of the characters. It wasn’t thrown in just to give the reader an idea of what the room looked like which is what too many authors do.
The best details are those that do double or even triple duty, and are only given because they add more than a visual marker to the scene. And as much as I love language, and love re-reading passages because of the beauty of the words, not all readers do. That’s why the words used do need to be chosen carefully, avoiding the cliched and working for the unique.
[quote comment=”25335″] I don’t think romance is entirely separate from literature. The heart of so many wonderful classics is romance. Love and loss, hearts broken and redeemed. These are the themes authors have penned for the stages of Greece, Rome of course Shakespeare’s London.
Oh yes, I agree that romance and literature don’t exist in completely separate domains. I did not mean to imply that they did. But I do think that on this issue of style, well, one has only to pick up a book from each section of the bookstore (the romance section and the literature or general fiction section, I mean) completely at random, to see a substantial difference. And I wonder why that is.
I don’t know if it’s a lack of education, or difference in taste, but lyrical and poetic language wouldn’t appeal to me. After reading The Great Gatsby, I was left wondering why it was such a revered book.
I’d more often be blown away by a story, rather than by the actual writing. When I do love the actual writing, it’s not because it’s lyrical – more the reverse – I love phrases and desciptions that are exact and precise, rather than poetic.
I’ve never read Robert Parker, but I think spare styles can be very powerful. I was thinking about this as I read Anne Stuart’s Ice Blue (review coming Thursday). I don’t usually think of Stuart as a lyrical writer, but her style has become tighter over time, and now it’s so spare that when she pulls out something even a little poetic, it really packs a punch. She can use that style to create some very stark emotions, in her characters and in me.
I’m sure that’s true to a large degree, and I can believe that on an individual level, many authors are working very hard and writing the best prose they are capable of producing. But looking at the genre as a whole and on average, it’s not a strong in this regard as the books you find in the literature / general fiction section of the bookstore. And that makes me wonder if perhaps the crafting of language isn’t valued as highly in this genre at some point along the process — by some readers, by some writers, or by some editors?
Yes, I agree with this. A police shootout scene will probably not read well if written with a lot of beautiful metaphors. I think one of the characteristics of a great style is that it evokes the right emotions me as a reader, making me feel what the author wants me to feel.
I agree that word choice is important and one reason I hate the brand name usage because it smacks of laziness and doesn’t really tell me anything about a character.
But I get confused between lyricism and flowery language. When I first read your article, Janine, my knee jerk reaction was when I read the Great Gatsby so many years ago, I couldn’t really make my way through it because of its wordiness.
I view Sharon Shinn as a more spare writer, a deceptively simple writer whose words and phrases combine to bring about strong visual images withouth the abundent adjectives and analogies.
Yet, most of the writers you excerpted are authors I have loved. I wonder the style of the writing resonates with me without recognizing that it does.
I also tend to gravitate toward dialogue. I.e., witty dialogue can capture me much easier than descriptive lyricism.
For example Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation begins with the words ‘Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation’. In those 5 words we’ve got the name of the heroine and the location and we’ve also been given a clue about one of the main themes of the novel.
That’s revealing but far from lyrical. I flipped through the pages hoping to land on the wallpaper reference (no luck), but I did notice lots and lots of dialogue on every single page and almost no lengthy descriptive paragraphs. “Spark a conversation” is the key here. I’m almost certain the wallpaper itself is not responsible for revealing anyone’s character or motivation.
On a side note, Crusie’s book in question was published in 2000 and is about 80 pages longer than publishers are looking for in 2007. It would not be the same book if she’d been forced to cut 20,000 words from it.
The author simply needs to use the description to show another element of story, whether characterization, emotion, whatever.
That’s ideal, if there’s a logical and obvious association between the description and the “whatever.” Using 30 words to tell me the heroine’s skirt is purple without instilling some meaning to its purpleness, no matter how poetic the phrasing, still seems a waste of words to me. Show me the way she’s got a death grip on the quill and is ripping through the paper while committing her fury to paper, or is daydreaming while staring at rainbow-tinted dust motes in a shaft of sunlight through the stained glass window. That tells me a lot in a few words. Not lyrical, though.
I just get the image of the car revving up and shooting out onto the road very quickly, then driving very fast.
I think it means that the torches are spaced apart very precisely and evenly.
:) I loved the use of “yawned.” I picture the space between the two barnlike peaks as yawning or gaping.
For me the two go hand in hand. I absolutely agree that the word choices have to suit the characters’ moods and the events of the story, but I don’t consider word choices brilliant unless they also engage me in the story. For me a great style does this. Some styles are so plain and boring that I can’t connect with the characters and can’t care about the events of the story.
I agree that subtlety is important, but perhaps we define it differently? I don’t get distracted from the characters or plot in the Fitzgerald quote, for example. On the contrary, he puts me right there, makes me feel the narrator’s fascination with Gatsby and the seductive atmosphere of his house. Yes, I’m dazzled, but what dazzles me is how involved that language makes me with the characters and the plot. How sucked in to the story I am. So rather than seeing these things as independent, or competing with one another, I actually see them as going hand in hand.
Yes, in the US both usages are common. You can say “Stuck her tongue at X” as well as “Stuck her tongue out at X.” Good catch on your part; since TSP is set in England, that particular line would probably pull a British reader out of the story.
I recently read Hemmingway’s To Have and Have Not. (The book is nothing like the old Bogie and Bacall movie- let’s get that straight right off the bat.) The book stunk- but damn, Hemmingway had style. The cadence of his dialogue totally turns me on.
Yep, I wish more romance writers would break out of the mold and develop a signature sound … true you risk falling on your face but it sure would alleviate some of the “sameness” I’ve been sensing lately.
I think there are at least two (and I’m sure more) types of readers. Those who read for the story, that adrenaline rush from the conflict, and those who love words. As a reader I enjoy the rush sometimes, but being gobsmacked over word choices is the rush I savor more. When the two are combined it’s a squee moment.
Alison, you’re right, it’s not talked about how words need to pull triple duty, but I think during the process of learning it’s a lesson that gets figured out. Or hopefully gets figured out. *g*
[quote comment=”25337″]I actually think Nora Roberts’ writing is underappreciatied for its style. I think she has some beautiful turns of phrase and some vivid, fascinating descriptions, especially of emotions, but also of setting. [/quote]
Summer, that vicious green bitch, flexed her sweaty muscles and flattened Innocence, Mississippi.
Sigh. I so love that from CARNAL INNOCENCE. And the opening (I think) to WITHOUT A TRACE. About the whiskey having the bite of an angry woman. Love Nora.
I’m not advocating full pages of description. But I agree with what others have said, that descriptions can work double-time. If, for example, I read a scene in which a woman wakes up and thinks of her bed as a warm burrow in the ground, it can make me feel that she’s afraid to leave it and face the world. I connect with that much more than if the author comes out and tells me “She didn’t want to leave her bed and face the world.” The one way, I’m making an inference, and I’m involved in the character’s mindset. The other way, I’m being told rather than shown, and then I feel shut out of the story rather than drawn into it.
Great point. I feel your pain. I think when romances were a bit longer (400 pages rather than 300), they often felt more substantial and involving to me. Not just because of langauage, but because there was more room for character development in those books, too.
I want to make it clear that long paragraphs of description aren’t the only thing that satisfies this craving in me. Some authors can do it in less space than that.
Must confess, I have a love of the lyrical stuff myself. I don’t think it’s in vogue right now–in fact, have known editors that actively discourage it–but snatches of it are to be found with many authors.
Holly, for example, though very popular and VERY hot, has a love of the language that’s tangible. I’ve found passages in some of her work which, if read aloud, just linger on the tongue and melt there.
And I don’t think it has to drag on and on to be effective. You know it’s good when it catches you and carries you along.
To get a bit off topic here, I didn’t appreciate The Great Gatsby much when I was assigned to read it in high school. It wasn’t until I reread it when I was 30 or so that I fell in love with it. I think it’s a book that’s wasted on high school students.
I don’t see why lyrical writing can’t also be exact and precise. My favorite kind of writing is all these things, so I don’t see them as being in conflict with one another. Maybe as with Laura Vivanco, this may be a case where we define these terms differently.
I don’t see why lyrical writing can’t also be exact and precise. My favorite kind of writing is all these things, so I don’t see them as being in conflict with one another. [/quote]
The two short Nora examples I posted up thread? That’s how I see both of those. Lyrical AND exact and precise. Evocative without being purple/flowery/overwrought.
Eva Gale makes a good point. All readers are not the same. In romance I prefer a fairly straight-forward plot where the conflict is mostly internal. I want complex characters, written with an evocative use of language by the author. It’s all about the emotional resonance for me. I prefer a writer who can keep it all about the romance. My favorite writers are able to give their stories nuance and subltle shading through the use of language that other writers don’t. I want the romance to be about the people, not the action. Other readers are quite the opposite. I do love stories with a lot of action but I don’t want that in a romance. There’s no right or wrong. Only preferences.
Susan Sontag wrote a pretty kickass piece on style VS substance. check it out here.
It can tell that the POV character is brand-conscious. And I think it can be better than completely non-descriptive language. I would rather read that a character is eating Cheerios than just that the character is eating. But I agree with you that some writers use it as a crutch, and also, it can date a book. Particularly when a certain brand appears in more than one book and I haven’t heard of it, I start thinking “That must be really trendy now,” and it pulls me out of the story.
I think there is a big difference between lyricism and language that is too flowery or purple. But what you say here, and what Zeek says about how it’s a risk for writers of falling flat on their faces, brings up an important point. There have been some pretty silly metaphors used in romances in the past (i.e. manroot) and I wonder if that hasn’t led to a distrust of all use of metaphor among some romance readers.
You know, I almost used a quote from Sharon Shinn as well, since she is a writer whose writing style I adore. I decided not to, only because she’s writing in the fantasy / SF genre, and I wanted to spotlight what I think is good writing in the romance genre.
Sharon Shinn does sometimes use metaphors as well. For example here’s a section from the end of Angelica:
“His arms went around her first, bulky and uncertain; it was like being taken in the massive embrace of an oak, unused to clasping humans. Next his wings enfolded her, more cautiously settling down on her with the weight and color of sunlight. She kissed him — or he kissed her — there was, in the whole world nothing but mouth and cheek and feather and arm. He held her so tightly that there was not even air to breathe, but she did not need air. She had Gaaron, and that was enough.”
But it’s true that Shinn’s writing is deceptively simple and doesn’t rely on a lot of adjectives or analogies. I still think of her as being an very lyrical writer, though, because of her sentence rhythms. For example, I absolutley love the flow and cadence of “there was, in the whole world nothing but mouth and cheek and feather and arm.” It just sings to me.
So, we have been talking a lot about imagery and metaphor, and not so much about rhythm and other sound effects, but I think sound effects are also a big part of lyricism, and rhythm is one of the areas where Shinn really shines.
I think that has to be true for some readers.
Great dialogue is also a big part of good style. I didn’t choose to write about it for this opinion piece (it was already long enough as it was) but I do love great dialogue too.
One of the reasons I chose that particular quote was because I love the alliteration in “spotlighting her skirts, skirts the deep, saturated purple of sloe plums.” I love the presence of so many S and P sounds; again, it sounds downright musical in my head.
Out of context it may appear that this description doesn’t develop character but actually these are the thoughts of a woman who specializes in pricing art collections. The thought that “This color was the predominant note in the girl’s presence: folds of dark, dark purple in a halo of sunlight” shows that she is someone who is very aware of color and light, that those skills which she uses for her work are part of her perceptions.
Ah, this is the kind of thing I was hoping to find out by writing this piece. Why are some editors actively discouraging it? Is there a perception that readers won’t purchase lyrical books?
I’m sure that’s true but it seems to me that most of the books in the romance genre are catering to the readers who read mainly for story, and the number of books who can engage readers on both the level of story and the level of language are much fewer. If there were an equal number of both kinds of books, I would be satisfied, but I think there are much, much more of the former than the latter.
That’s revealing but far from lyrical. I flipped through the pages hoping to land on the wallpaper reference (no luck), but […] I’m almost certain the wallpaper itself is not responsible for revealing anyone’s character or motivation.
Kerry, I didn’t mean to imply that Crusie was being lyrical. I was only giving that line as an example of how words could perform more than one function. And I was giving the wallpaper example because you’d said ‘Tell me we’re in a parlor and nothing else, and I’ll dress the set myself’ and in this particular case it’s important to know about the wallpaper i.e. it’s not just wallpaper, it’s also related to the theme of the book and it makes the characters think about particular issues.
Using 30 words to tell me the heroine’s skirt is purple without instilling some meaning to its purpleness, no matter how poetic the phrasing, still seems a waste of words to me.
I’d agree in general, but if you’re referring specifically to the quotation from Bliss it may well be that we don’t know the significance of the colour because we haven’t got the context. Purple could be a colour indicating half mourning, or it might be that the contrast of dark and light hints at contrasts in her personality e.g. she’s like a sloe plum (i.e. rich in flavour/passion) but striving to be seen as pure, bright and morally good (that ‘halo of sunlight’ is what’s making me wonder if there’s a moral aspect to the contrast). Taken out of context, it’s true that the description doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot, but perhaps it hints at aspects of the heroine’s personality which will be revealed later? (I don’t know because I haven’t read the novel.)
Janine, re I think it means that the torches are spaced apart very precisely and evenly, that’s what I assumed it meant, but I’d tend to say that the torches were spaced ‘at intervals’ rather than ‘in intervals’. Maybe it’s American usage again?
Good catch on your part; since TSP is set in England, that particular line would probably pull a British reader out of the story.
I am a British reader. I frequently get pulled out of historical romances written by American authors. It’s tricky, because I know the authors are writing in American English, so theoretically I could treat the experience as though I were reading in a foreign language. I wouldn’t expect British characters in a French novel set in England to speak in English, so why do I expect British characters in an American novel to speak in British English? I suppose it’s because for much of the time I forget that it is American English, and the reminders startle me. Also, I’m never quite sure if an individual author is (a) trying to make the language sound authentically British English (and failing) or (b) not trying to sound British English (and succeeding).
Eva said I think there are at least two (and I’m sure more) types of readers. Those who read for the story, that adrenaline rush from the conflict, and those who love words. I do love words, but in general when I’m reading prose I don’t want the language to remind me of poetry (and I notice that the particular examples given have been described as ‘lyrical’ and ‘poetic’). Obviously it does depend on the type of poetry but I read a short poem differently from the way I’d read a novel. I expect characterisation and plot in a novel, and I want there to be layers of theme and imagery, but I don’t expect so much concentrated imagery. I’m not averse to the occasional metaphor, in fact I rather liked the one Alison gave, from a Nora Roberts novel and I liked the Ivory, Gaffney and Kinsale excerpts because they read easily (for me), but a passage as dense in imagery as the Fitzgerald is too much for me, in a novel.
One of the reasons I chose that particular quote was because I love the alliteration in “spotlighting her skirts, skirts the deep, saturated purple of sloe plums." I love the presence of so many S and P sounds; again, it sounds downright musical in my head.
That’s interesting. I don’t hear anything in my head as I read, nor do I see any visuals, and I’m sure that that must affect my reading preferences.
I think it might be, but I also wonder if I may have mistyped this quote or the other one. I can’t locate them (I wrote this letter a couple of weeks ago, and I didn’t save the page numbers) so I can’t check.
It probably depends on the author.
Two things, about the divide between literature and genre, and the added length required to have style.
First the latter. I think that’s silly, really. One has only to look at a good short story to see that great style doesn’t have to take up all that much room. It simply involves choosing the right words.
Now I do think that the time requirements of publishers might really hurt an author’s ability to polish their style. I agree with Ms Roberts that style is hardwired to some extent. But words don’t always pour out just right, and it can take time to get them that way.
As to the literature/genre divide, Janine and I were speaking of this before. While we disagree, I think, on whether or not great writers are born with it, we both agree that everyone can learn to improve it. Many writers learn this in school and university, where they tend to be shunted away from genres by prejudiced teachers (IMO).
Much better are the genre workshops offered by the best in the field. The Clarion Writers workshop offered by sf writers has graduated some marvelous writers into that genre. Perhaps it would be a good thing to start something similar in romance? A short term school once a year dedicated to improving the styles of the romance writers who attend. I think that would only be a good thing, as long as they keep in mind that homogenization isn’t the key, but letting everyone better their own styles while keeping them their own.
No, actually I agree. there are writers in the genre where I have not finished their books because -in written form- they love to hear themseleves speak.
It goes with what Alison, you and Keishon were saying, that good word choices pull double duty, they’re evocative, move the plot and aid in characterization.
I agree, but I see that those of us who love the more lyrical writing all have the same favorites!
And what Zeek says is so true about cadence in writing. It’s the reason I love Hemmingway. I haven’t found another writer that replicates his rythms.
Let’s see, so many issues here, so many reactions.
I agree completely with those who are saying that lyrical and poetic is NOT the same thing as flowery, ornate, lengthy, or overblown. The example that always comes to mind for me is Ezra Pound’s poem, “In a Station of the Metro”:
In 14 words, plus 6 in the title, Pound’s piece is profoundly lyrical and poetic to me, even though it’s spare and not even a complete sentence. I may be misunderstanding here, but I always thought that lyrical was simply related to song, to rhythm, to the cadence of language, not its ornate quality or the extent of its descriptive range. And some of our greatest poets have been mighty spare, even plain, in their use of language. What about William Carlos Williams’s famous “This is Just to Say”:
I also agree, though, that language resonates with people differently and that not everyone appreciates the same style of prose. I, for example, love Laura Kinsale’s books, but would not at all classify her prose as lean or simple or spare or direct by any measure. I understand why some people find her not to their taste, even though I think she’s one of the best of the best in the genre (and able to compete ably beyond, as well).
OTOH, when I read Janine’s piece, it resonated with my own fear that the Romance genre, as a whole, has too little appreciation for the sheer power of language and style and voice (and I think they are all of a piece, all interdependent) — that the genre is a little too businesslike in its approach to language and to storytelling as something beyond laying out the laundry list of details in a room. I don’t think *all* books are in this mode, but I feel that shortening word counts and rapid-fire publication schedules are — even indirectly — discouraging any real value being placed on language and voice and style. And I think that’s a terrible shame, because even for you skippers of the descriptive prose, I have no doubt that there are exceptions. I also think that some people feel that a spare style *isn’t* a style, when, in fact, it might be a highly evolved style for a particular writer. As others have said, words have uses that aren’t always descriptive, but can be informative, evocative, provocative, whatever. I think it’s the hardest thing to create a big punch with a minimum of words, and that it takes a real master of language to do that.
IMO every writer has a natural style. Not ever writer will give a virtuoso performance in the genre, but style is something I believe one possesses and then has the opportunity to cultivate and refine. But that, of course, requires time and some kind of writing environment that nurtures the writer in their development. When I read really great debut books, followed by increasingly weak follow-ups, I tend to blame the hectic publication schedule for the downward cycle. An unpubbed writer has theoretically all the time in the world to work on a MS, but once an author is in that cycle, I really think it’s a real achievement for authors to actually strengthen their craft in EVERY book and cultivate a distinctive and masterful style. And it may not even be the most inherently talented writers, if those writers aren’t the ones who can thrive on a rushed writing and editing schedule.
One of the interesting things this discussion highlights is that we all read differently. I read slowly because I like to listen to the sounds, as well as the meanings of the words. Some words thrill me with their sounds. I don’t want prose to rhyme like classical poetry, so I don’t think they are the same, but I hear the sounds whether it’s prose or poetry, and it’s not something I can turn off. If words sound like they’ve been put together without creating a pleasant sound, chances are I will want to tune them out. I can still enjoy story and characters in some such cases, but it requires an effort to sublimate my sensitivity to sounds.
Btw, as some have stated already, I loved the use of “yawned” and “smutted” here as well. It’s a perfect example of a well turned phrase creating the right picture and atmoshpere. It’s not long and flowery- it just works.
Certain Author’s use of words gobsmack me too at times Eva!
when I read Janine’s piece, it resonated with my own fear that the Romance genre, as a whole, has too little appreciation for the sheer power of language and style and voice (and I think they are all of a piece, all interdependent) — that the genre is a little too businesslike in its approach to language and to storytelling
Over at AAR there’s a thread all about which passages people routinely skip. Some people clearly take a very, very, businesslike approach to their reading. And it doesn’t seem like this is an issue of writing style for them: one person’s saying that she ‘skim[s] the secondary romances. I think they’re superfluous…most of the time’, others routinely skip all the sex scenes.
Could readers with reading behaviours like these be a factor in declining word counts and could it be that this also affects attitudes towards writing style in general? Maybe editors know that some readers skip a lot and they assume that it means that many readers are interested in getting the story and won’t be savouring the story in its entirety?
I guess my answer was more of a tangent so let share my opinion on style of writing: it doesn’t really matter to me. Like Jane said above, I don’t really care for the abundance of adjectives and analogies. I don’t read for style, I read for story and character. I do appreciate authors who are concise and get to the point and not dawdle around with flowerly or descriptive states that seem to go on forever. I don’t much care for metaphors. Like Jane, I love witty dialogue. It’s just that some authors have the talent to write a very good story without a lot of style and some can write with it and still engage me so it’s a subjective matter indeed. Since authors hang out here let me say that style is not all that important for this reader. I’ve enjoyed writing that was written badly but it was entertaining stuff regardless. Sarah Monette would be a writer I say who writes all over the place, she probably had run on sentences left and right, poor comma usage, etc. But I loved it. Just give me a good story, that’s all I ask for honestly. It’s a added bonus if there is anything else added to it. Thanks. Long ass post again, sorry. I started to write this on my blog but I’m too lazy and I have other things to do today.
Oh, thank you, thank you for saying that. I do think great storytellers are born and that authors can improve on their writiing. Hey, either you got the talent or you don’t. It’s that cut and dry for me. There are books out there that can have all the style and be well written and still be boring as hell so, it’s the talent of the author for me and a lot of what you said Jan is probably true with deadlines and such and using right word choice. Now, that’s key.
For me, the problem is that for every reader who routinely skips what isn’t interesting to them, another reads every word in a book. But let’s face it: as long as profit in genre Romance is seen as related to quantity and not quality, publishers and editors will point to those readers who skip to justify their decisionmaking. Not, of course, bothering to pay attention to *what* different people skip, since I doubt all skippers skip the same stuff. I skip descriptions of torture, for example, not because they interfere with the story, but because they are too difficult for me to read. Maybe some readers skip prose that is meant to be descriptive but isn’t particularly *good* technically. My objection to all this is that I don’t get the sense that books are being judged on their own merits — no Westerns, no epics, directions from an Avon editor to start with The Virgin, etc. — that editors and publishers are making decisions that they see as responding to reader desires (which may or may not be the case) in the narrowest and cheapest way possible.
Great point, Jan.
I agree with this; I think it’s probably a factor.
I’m not nearly as familiar with the sf genre as you are, Jan. Can you tell me who some of the authors who have graduated from The Clarion Writers Workshop are?
A bookseller once told me that there are alot of readers who are “surface” readers which is why romances sell so prolificly. The readers consume quite a few books but are less involved/attached/etc because they read simply for the surface.
Maybe taking it one step further is this idea of the shorthand writing. Robin has argued in the past that there are so many shorthand stereotypes that are used to invoke emotional memories in the romance reader. No need to describe an alpha male because we know what he is and how he reacts. (although in Dark Moon Defender, Sharon Shinn pegs the description of one type of an alpha male in about 2 paragraphs)
Janine is a slow reader. I am much faster because I think I am paying less attention to the actual words that are used (if that is possible) to the sense of the scene. I don’t have to lose myself in the book to enjoy it. It doesn’t have to make me think.
Those lyrical passages do invoke a certain time element – as a reader stops to savor the passages and so forth. Maybe we just aren’t trained for that.
I don’t know if I am making any sense here. I think I need to go get lunch.
Oh I skip too- like “the Lesser” parts of JR Ward’s books or the parts of some of Brockmann’s earlier SEAL books where she jumps back and forth in time- and stories for that matter! To me, the entire scenes seem superflurous, not the words itself.
I also skim when flowery pruple prose is used for sex. I like it more straight forward- “Just the facts Ma’am.”
Really it all comes down to preferences I suppose.
Still if an author is talented enough- if they got the “juice”- then I’ll overlook the parts that annoy me for the sheer joy of the wordsmithing.
Or the sheer joy of watching the wordsmithing, I should say.
For me this depends on the author’s writing style. There are authors I love and devour each and every word because like Janine I love a lyrical style, but much of what I read doesn’t qualify as “lyrical” and I’m probably surface reading. But that doesn’t necessarily take away from the enjoyment of the book. I do think it’s what keeps a good or very good book from being a “keeper”, at least for me.
I’m not a big fan of the lyrical. It’s boring to me and I’ll likely skip over it if it’s long and drawn out. I like simple razor sharp prose. Quick and to the point. Tell me about the house in as few as words as you can and I’m happy. I’m not a big poetry reader either. I can appreciate the words and where they come from, but it’s whole mood is lost on me. I had a boyfriend that loved to write and recite poetry to me. I’d just smile and nod then wait for the good stuff like sex.
I’ve been trying to say this too, though I’m not sure I’ve communicated it well. It seems that some people are confusing style with excessive wordiness. I think tightness is usually part of good writing, and my definition of good style certainly does not require paragraphs of description.
I see that too, though Keishon has these same favorites too and she says below that style doesn’t make a difference to her. Which makes me wonder if we are defining style differently, or if she likes these authors for different reasons than we do.
In romance, there’s a a fine line between beautifully descriptive and purple. Finding that border can be touch and go, but when we do, it’s fabulous.
Thank you! I’m not sure where that perception comes from. Maybe from bad attempts at the lyrical and poetic? Take Hemingway, for example, who was mentioned above. As a writer he is universally known for pioneering a simpler, more spare and lean style of writing. And yet he’s quite poetic. I just don’t see tightness and lyricism as mutually exclusive. If anything it’s the opposite; a poem is about capturing a lot in very few words.
I agree with this; it makes sense that not everyone will have the same taste in prose.
Amen to that. All writers have styles. Style is always a component of writing. Some styles seem to me to have been carefully crafted and some do not. Give me a Judith Ivory or a Shana Abe over a writer I pull out of the romance section of the bookstore at random, then open their books and pull out a random page. I’ll lay you 10 to 1 odds that there will be a big difference.
As far as the market timetable goes, has Kinsale defanged her dragon by waiting to sell a few books at once rather than put herself back on the treadmill that can in some authors stifle creativity?
And that brings us back to the different readers have different tastes theme… I’ve only read one novella by Monette (“A Gift of Wings”) but I quite liked some of her turns of phrase. I would have said that she is a better than average stylist. :)
I think it has to do with the fact that certain words have different connotations within different contexts. “Lyrical” and “poetic” can mean either spare or effusive prose style to me, but maybe the lit – Romance divide has pushed those words toward a certain connotation of wordiness, of excess, of literature in a way that seems opposed to the characteristics of Romance as some people perceive them.
I definitely think we’re all habituated to some degree as readers, Jane (JMC is sort of talking about this on Readers Gab this week). And as we all know, it’s easier to keep to our habits, especially when we think they’re serving us well. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; I only wish books for those of us who are very interested in style and voice in our reading should also be represented in the genre along with books for those who are less interested in language. Although I also believe, inside my own little self, that the overwhelming majority of readers are sensitive and responsive to style (because there are so many different styles and voices), even if they don’t recognize it as such.
I feel the same way. Also love “watery species of sunshine.”
And I would agree. I’m outta here for good now, I promise.
I agree with this; I think it’s probably a factor.
There’s also prejudice within genre to ‘literary stuff’ like style.
I’m not nearly as familiar with the sf genre as you are, Jan. Can you tell me who some of the authors who have graduated from The Clarion Writers Workshop are?[/quote]
Marjorie M. Liu is one.
True, but why are so many the same right now in the romance genre? Right now I’m reading general fiction/lit because I’m bored with so much of what’s out there on the romance shelves.
Like some have mentioned already- I suspect it’s because of what gets chosen to be published, or perhaps editing practices- everything is coming out of a cookie cutter right now.
I’m longing for a writer with her/his own style. Someone to let in a breath of fresh air.
Of course, with the business being the way it is- the style we’ll be copied until it becomes stifling as well. sigh.
Still, I long to see it!
I suppose that this could be the reasoning that editors use, but I don’t think it’s possible to know exactly what readers skip. I followed your link and looked at that conversation and my personal experience matches that of Dick who said that if he skips a lot early on, it’s a sign of poor writing, and if a book is really good, he reads it in its entirety.
For all the people here who have complained that they don’t like description, I have yet to see one book in the romance genre that is written in dialogue only, with no description. If readers really disliked description so very much, and editors were tuned in to their likes and dislikes, I would think we’d see some books like this.
The other day, I was traveling around the Internet and checking out excerpts of new authors in Romance. I was struck by the SAMENESS of the excerpted prose, despite protestations on various author’s sites that their upcoming book is exciting or fresh or new or whatever. No, no, no, I was thinking. But IMO we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve confused (and I mean that literally — as in ‘fused together’) the formula of Romance as love story + happy ending with *formulaic prose* such that so much written sounds the same.
There could be many reasons for this, but my sense is that a lot of it comes down to a reality that aspiring Romance authors have to train their own individual styles to formulaic genre prose in order to be published, and I suspect that the editorial process builds on this. And not every writer has a “WOW” style such that they can make any prose come alive. That’s why, IMO, we tend to point to the same authors over and over and over as prose masters. Not that there aren’t more masters writing or capable of writing outstanding books in the genre — but that too many new authors are not being cultivated as wordsmiths, but as labor to support factory publishing practices.
Because description is necessary. Two people holding a conversation can make a book a work of art- if it’s done right- but that’s all it is, something to be admired and perhaps experience once. Not a story to sink your teeth into and get lost in.
Don’t get me wrong I understand what people are saying who say they perfer the snappy dialogue over long descriptive scenery- I tend toward that as well. ::raising hand:: I am one of those who can’t get into Laura Kinsale. Tried her and realized she’s not my preference of style. No biggie.
But I do realize description is necessary. Just as I suppose “the lessers” are in JR Ward’s book are- they’re it’s conflict and just as desc. is necessary so is conflict.
eh hem. That is:
But I do realize description is necessary. Just as I suppose “the lessers" are in JR Ward’s books- they ARE it’s conflict and, just as desc. is necessary, so is conflict.
I tend to believe this as true, particularly in the historical setting. When I read the excerpt at Sybil’s site from Anna Campbell’s book, the Claiming of the Courtesan, I thought to myself that here is someone who sees the old form of language as an enhancement.
One of the reasons I liked Elizabeth Vaughan’s book was her use of language. The cadence of Firelanders was much different than Lara’s exposing and highlighting a fundamental difference in the cultures. (doing triple duty, I suppose).
Which brings me to the point, Janine that you were making:
Cadence and rhythms and movements work wonderfully for me as a reader, more so than analogies and adjectives (sometimes I wish we could get rid of the adverb. I just read an erotic romance that used the word Deeply about 10 times in relation to a sex scene – gah). This is the type of writing I see from someone like Nora Roberts whose writing is more spare and bit staccato but fits perfectly for the tone of the book.
You’re making sense to me, Jane. I think we all come to books with a certain set of expectations. But I also think those expectations are defined by the kind of books that we are used to reading.
I don’t skip them but I’m tempted to skip them. But this has more to do with characterization than with style. The lesser sections of Ward’s books are written in more or less the same style as the other sections of her books. The difference there is that the lessers are not as well-developed as the other characters.
Do you feel that there is more of a danger of that in romance than in other genres? And if so, why?
A couple of points. First a conspiracy theory with no proof whatsoever! *laughs* Books these days are shorter and less descriptive, and may be read more quickly. Hence more would sell, wouldn’t they? They’re doing it on purpose! *grin*
OK, the Clarion workshop. It’s been going on forever, so I went and looked up a list. Evidently they hold them around the world now, and they’re supported by donation. There’s a small list of instructors and graduates over at wikipedia here: Clarion Workshop. Octavia Butler and Lucius Shepard are two of the graduates, just fantastic writers. I think Janine that you would like both if you’ve not tried them (I think you’ve read Butler right?).
I do like a spare romance style sometimes too. JAK writes that way and I love reading it. She tells me just what I need to know. But I also love the other end of the scale. I read The Dream Thief yesterday and was completely blown away. There’s room for all of them on my bookshelf.
I wrote this opinion piece before the RITA discussions, but what you say dovetails with something Candy said on the SB RITA discussion. I do sometimes feel, as I said in this letter, that just as some literary writers sneer at genre writing, some genre writers sneer back at literary writing. I think there’s some defensiveness there which is understandable to me. I’m very sympathetic to the alienation our romance community feels based on how this genre is viewed by outsiders. But I also can’t help but feel that that defensiveness ultimately hurts the writing that is produced on both sides of the genre / non-genre divide.
I don’t think there should be hard and fast rules, but I often do feel that writers overuse adverbs. Some of them seem silly to me, like when a writer uses “smilingly” instead of “smiling.”
Yes, I’ve tried and enjoyed Octavia Butler. I’ll have to look up Lucius Shepard.
I wrote this opinion piece before the RITA discussions, but what you say dovetails with something Candy said on the SB RITA discussion. I do sometimes feel, as I said in this letter, that just as some literary writers sneer at genre writing, some genre writers sneer back at literary writing. I think there’s some defensiveness there which is understandable to me. I’m very sympathetic to the alienation our romance community feels based on how this genre is viewed by outsiders. But I also can’t help but feel that that defensiveness ultimately hurts the writing that is produced on both sides of the genre / non-genre divide.[/quote]
I think someone (was it Robin?) mentioned the sameness of the excerpts she sees online. I have felt the same way.
Sara Howe posted an interesting hypothesis that maybe a writer’s work is the average of the five authors she/he reads most of. In which case, the advice that writers should read within genre to keep up would likely perpetuate this sameness, no?
[quote comment=”25416″] I was struck by the SAMENESS of the excerpted prose, despite protestations on various author’s sites that their upcoming book is exciting or fresh or new or whatever. [/quote]
Part of this, too, can be attributed to critique groups critiquing the life out of new authors’ manuscripts. My agent even mentioned RWA’s contribution to this problem in this Publisher’s Weekly article where she says, “The group has tended to homogenize a lot of writers,” says agent Karen Solem of Spencerhill Associates. “A lot of times the group dynamic takes a lot of freshness and individual voice and creativity out of the projects.”
[quote comment=”25432″]Part of this, too, can be attributed to critique groups critiquing the life out of new authors’ manuscripts. My agent even mentioned RWA’s contribution to this problem in this Publisher’s Weekly article where she says, “The group has tended to homogenize a lot of writers,” says agent Karen Solem of Spencerhill Associates. “A lot of times the group dynamic takes a lot of freshness and individual voice and creativity out of the projects.”[/quote]
That’s the danger with any situation where the writer is being critiqued. Others often suggest changing things that are merely elements of one style for another that’s more preferred by that person, when what they should be concentrating on are the basics, like consistency and development of characters and such. There are things can be learned and improved upon, and things that should be left untouched, and it’s often very hard to tell them apart. Good teachers / critiquers can, but a lot of people cannot, and new writers need to stick to their guns about things they feel are right in their work.
Adverbs were frowned upon, but recently I’ve been reading more stories littered with them. I always tell newer writers to slash them and pick a stronger verb. Some are appropriate though.
But I also can't help but feel that that defensiveness ultimately hurts the writing that is produced on both sides of the genre / non-genre divide.
Whoa. Sorry. I have no idea how I did that.
I will do my best to stay out of matters of opinion. Though I will say I think that past discussions on what is good and what is enjoyable are relevant to this topic. The yawning excerpt didn’t ring my bell but it was still had style.
I admit to surface reading but at heart I am a lover of words. Words are beautiful, a medium the same as watercolor or violin. Better even, words can paint a picture and compose a song. Language isn’t necessary in story so it can get left by the wayside.
I’m reminded of something Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing. I’m totally paraphrasing here because it’s been a while, “words become sentences and flow into paragraphs and paragraphs quicken and breathe”. Now, those last three words are direct quotes because even after years I remember them. Beautiful those words.
*sigh* quicken and breathe Oh, the images, the sounds the catch in my breath that this phrase evokes even after all these years. A nice example of how a sentence can be relevant to the discussion/story and still have style.
There are so many distinctions to make when talking about language. Style can be wordy or sparse or based on description or dialogue. When I read something beautiful, something with style, I can hear it in my mind. I can hear a voice, a rhythmn and a cadence that I don’t hear when I am reading plain narrative. An example was Janine talking about alliteration. I don’t read alliteration. I hear it. To me, there is a difference. Another example is the sentence: Take a long freedom. I always liked this sentence, it reads well. Say it out loud. It doesn’t sound nearly as nice.
I’d also like to say that I don’t mean authorial voice when I refer to hearing prose. To me they are seperate things.
I could say a ton more about rythmn and cadence, I’m very interested in the idea of rhythmn in composition, no matter the medium used. Art is art and rhythmn can make something good sound/look/feel amazing. Quicken and breathe, style stirs it to life.
I’m totally paraphrasing here because it’s been a while, “words become sentences and flow into paragraphs and paragraphs quicken and breathe”. Now, those last three words are direct quotes because even after years I remember them. Beautiful those words.
Yes, and slightly reminiscent of Genesis 2: 6-7:
there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Not surprising really, as Stephen King’s describing the literary act of creation. And I love the King James Version. It sounds powerful and, appropriately enough, majestic.
When Jane brought up the use of adverbs earlier I thought of On Writing! King definitely discourages it too …
I wish I’d seen this discussion sooner! I feel fiercely that great stylists are born, not made, but can be killed by the homogenizing pressures that sometimes plague commercial fition. It does drive me crazy that so many people think good wordcraft = boring. I’ve been teaching voice the past few years to try to address the pressures to homogenize (which nobody really wants–not editors, not readers, not critics–now that’s boring!). Not to turn everyone into a lyrical sort of writer (though I do like them) but to help each writer find her own distinctive style.
Great style, as others have said, does not mean a book full of baroque boring stuff. Words are simply the bricks we use to build a story. Using words well–in fast, snappy ways as Crusie does, or in the more meditative lyricism of Kinsale and Abe, or the crisp sense of place we get in Tami Hoag–is how all great books are written.
I could say a ton more about rythmn and cadence, I’m very interested in the idea of rhythmn in composition, no matter the medium used. Art is art and rhythmn can make something good sound/look/feel amazing. Quicken and breathe, style stirs it to life.
Lovely. Thank you.
It’s never too late to join in.
Can you elaborate more on how this happens?
Can you tell us a little bit on how you teach voice? (Especially since you also suggest that great stylists are born, rather than made).
Interesting hypothesis… But are writers advised to read only within the genre? Or to keep up with the genre and read outside of it as well?
That’s really too bad.
I wonder if the critique process for commercial fiction is very different than the critique process for literary fiction?
[quote comment=”25437″]Whoa. Sorry. I have no idea how I did that.[/quote]
I think you selected the text, then clicked the “code” button.
Beautifully said, Skyerae.
there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Not surprising really, as Stephen King’s describing the literary act of creation. And I love the King James Version. It sounds powerful and, appropriately enough, majestic.[/quote]
The Bible is a wonderful example of the lyrical.
Lyrical language in and of itself doesn’t do much for me when I’m reading. I want the writing to engage me in the scene and the action, sometimes that can be done by describing the surroundings in full and flowery language. But if it doesn’t advance the plot or explain some point then it’s just a distraction and it irritates me.
Now when someone looks around the room, which is sumptiously oppulent, and contrasts it to their attire, which is plain and plebian, it explains why they feel so out of place. Or the reverse, a girl or guy in evening dress who is in a shack or hovel, or perhaps a no-tell Motel, then descriptive writing of the surroundings and attire is valuable in setting the scene and the mood. Likewise when the heroine suddenly notices the man who was so well blended into the background, so appropriately dressed that he disappeared into it, and why that is importatant to the story. Then I can appreciate it and enjoy it. Otherwise it’s just verbiage and I can get by without it.
Over on Baens Bar, Toni’s Table conference I believe, we’ve been discussing cliche’s and how they can be used and mis-used. For me it’s very much the same thing with descriptive writing. When it’s used well and appropriately it adds to the reading experience, when it’s just thrown in to fill space or to show off it distracts from and spoils the story for me.
I don’t get into it much but I believe there’s some discussion of this in Baen’s Universe Facts conference where they’ve been holding some informal writers workshops. I’d pay more attention but I don’t consider myself a writer, and I spend more time in other conferences. Still from what I did get in passing looked very interesting and quite informative.
That was when I thought of On Writing too and what he said about structure. He says a lot of interesting stuff in that book. I have to admit to liking a lot of his work. He’s got a humble style and a dry sense of humour that is just so dry, and humourous. Nobody else does Tyrana-Sorbet-Wrecks.
I love both, they’re powerful and lyrical in their own way. Even though one was much more wordy and descriptive they’re the same. In terms of style, how it flows more beautifully then a grocery list.
Some of it is word choice and some of it is rhythmn. To me description is not the same as lyrical language. I think a lot of people equate style with description because descriptive words tend to be prettier sounding than others. There is great style in dialogue and narrative. The original post was about why writers, maybe romance or genre writers in particular, don’t use style as a tool in most of their writing. I’ll add maybe it’s because using style without description is something very difficult to do? How do you find the balance between word choice and rhythmn in dialogue and narrative without sacrificing the story. I’m not really a writer and am in the camp that believes great literary stylists are usually born and rarely made. Style is something that may have to be learned seperate from story and today a lot is sacrificed for the sake of getting the story out there as quickly and cleanly as possible. Well, maybe not always cleanly. I guess I figure style is something a little different from strait storytelling and is rarely picked up anymore. Like iambic pentameter.
On a sidenote a favorite song (Jambi) from a favorite band (TOOL) has an intro sung in iambic pentameter. It’s beautiful and I couldn’t figure out exactly why at first. Was it the lyrics themselves, the sound of his voice (I have a crush on his voice), the odd time signature in the music (13/4) or a combination. I really think the rhythmn had a major effect, it just felt different. Better.
I love both, they’re powerful and lyrical in their own way.
Oh dear, maybe I wasn’t clear. When I said that I prefer the King James Version I wasnt’ saying I prefer the Bible quotation to the Stephen King quotation. They’re different in some ways, similar in others and I like both. What I was meaning was that where style and language are concerned I prefer the King James Version of the Bible to other versions of the Bible.
I don’t think that’s what I was trying to say. Everyone who writes uses style of some kind. I was asking why the more lyrical style of writing is so much more difficult to find in this genre, why there are so many more books written in a kind of nuts-and-bolts voice. I have enjoyed books written in a wide variety of styles, but I love those lyrical romances and I would love to read more of them.
See, I knew I shouldn’t have posted in the evening after a nine hour day with 34 children under the age of ten. I forget to clarify myself.
Laura, when I posted that I thought it might sound exactly the way you thought it did. I should have looked closer at it and tried to fix it. Of course reading my quote in your post made me realize I could have added “too “or “because” after “I loved both”. Oops.
Janine, I meant exactly what you meant but just didn’t clarify it. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply you felt that way about the genre and it’s style. I just wanted to reply to one of your original questions as to why fewer authors write with that particular lyricism. Now that I look back it wasn’t even a question in your post but somewhere in the comments that I was refering to anyway.
Oh well, I guess I need to buff up my proof reading skills.
Just an interesting note, there is going to be a new workshop in the Baen Universe Facts conference with Mike Resnick and Walt Boyes. I’d love to see some of the romance writers show up to broaden the field.
I’m traveling (teaching a voice class this weekend, as it happens) so I’m popping in from a hotel. The homogenizing pressures are not an organized conspiracy, of course, just a lot of elements bearing down on aspiring (and sometimes already published) writers to iron out the quirks that make their voices unique. Critique groups have already been mentioned. Trying to follow too many edicts from the writing conference circuit. Basically, it’s trying to listen too much to external directives and not enough to internal ones. (And believe me, I am not saying writers don’t need editors–we do, we do, we do.)
While writers do need to understand mechanics and good construction, they also need to honor their own uniqueness and hone it to the highest possible level. That means–shockingly!–that not everyone will like the work. I think of the first time I read Stephanie Plum–not a voice that was going to work in category romance or in any number of other realms, but it’s so breezy and funny and earthy that there’s no denying the appeal.
When I teach voice, my only goal is to cut away all the shoulds and musts and you can’t do thats and let writers play and explore their own passions and rhythms. We all speak differently, hear differently, perceive differently. One is a poet, another a rubbery shark, another a fey little thing with airy robes. Each will appeal to a different sort of reader. Luckily, there are lots and lots of readers. I just want each style to be as strong as possible within its own context.
Thanks so much for explaining. I’m wondering now if maybe the reason this happens more with commercial fiction is because it relies more on the external validation of sales, and therefore these writers feel that they need to pitch their voices to the marketplace?
It sounds like some writers need to have more confidence in their natural voices and protect those voices’ individuality.
LOL! It’s ironic that the motivation for eradicating uniqueness is to be liked by everyone, because there I’ve yet to hear of an author whom every reader likes, and also because several of the authors I’ve quoted above are loved by readers.
Sounds to me a little like the kids who try too hard to fit in at junior high by blending in and following the trends, and are rarely as popular as the kids with the confidence to display their individuality.
I think you’re doing an important service to readers and I hope lots of writers take your class.
Excellent post and wonderful comments.