Wednesday, July 20, 2011

“On Style” or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Tell the Freakin’ Story”

John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (Okay, actually, he was like the fifth person to be credited for that sentiment, but he’s the famousest fellow to utter the line, so like it or not, it seems the quote’s now his.) And seeing as how Lennon and I have so much in common (what? I’m a skinny white dude who owns a guitar), I’d like to not-so-humbly offer up a writerly corollary:

Your writing style is what you’re left with when you stop trying to write with style.

Crap. Hold up a sec. That came perilously close to Writing Advice. Writing Advice, in my opinion, is something I’m neither qualified nor inclined to dispense – except, on occasion, to myself. (That sounds weird, I know, but I find I’m constantly relearning stuff I thought I’d long ago internalized; you’d be surprised how much it helps to remind yourself of what few writing truths you know.)(Why the hell do I keep saying “you” when I mean “I”? For that matter, why am I posting this online if it’s only for personal reference? This post seems, at best, ill-conceived.)

But as a bit of self-instruction, it’s a useful one – particularly since I tend to write in multiple genres: crime, fantasy, horror, the odd bit of science fiction. See, whenever I sit down to write a story, I tend to think along the lines of what I’d like to see it shelved beside. “The World Behind” began as a coming-of-age story in the vein of King’s “The Body.” “A Simple Kindness” was a love-letter to Hard Case Crime. And I’ve always thought of “Seven Days of Rain” as my attempt to rewrite “The Tell-Tale Heart” as told by Michael McDowell. But that kind of thinking can sometimes lead to pastiche. So the trick, for me, is to leave all thought of style aside while I’m writing, and just try to tell the story. That doesn’t preclude making conscious decisions about prose; some stories demand short, terse sentences, while others support a more languid, descriptive style. But long or short, terse or florid, they’ve still got to sound like my sentences – not Ardai’s or McDowell’s or King’s.

The funny thing is, the only sure-fire way I know to write sentences that sound like me is to not think too hard about how they’ll read. Because the more I ruminate, the more my brain is liable to come back with some scrambled version of one of the billions of other people’s sentences I’ve got rattling around my head.

(An aside: do you people think about prose in terms of how it sounds? I can’t help but. To me, reading prose ain’t too far off from reading sheet music, except for the fact that I’m borderline illiterate when it comes to reading sheet music. Seriously, ask my 4th grade band teacher. Pretty sure I hold the dubious distinction of being the worst saxophone player in the history of Central Square Elementary.)