Category Archives: Writing Style

Style – Not of taste, but of good quality

Style:

  • a mode of fashion, as in dress, especially good or approved fashion; elegance; smartness.
  • the mode of expressing thought in writing or speaking by selecting and arranging words, considered with respect to clearness, effectiveness, euphony, or the like, that is characteristic of a group, period, person, personality, etc.:
    to write in the style of Faulkner; a familiar style; a pompous, pedantic style.
  • those components or features of a literary composition that have to do with the form of expression rather than the content of the thought expressed.

Taste:

  • the sense of what is fitting, harmonious, or beautiful; the perception and enjoyment of what constitutes excellence in the fine arts, literature, fashion, etc.
  • the sense of what is seemly, polite, tactful, etc., to say or do in a given social situation.

From Dictionary.com

Oxford-Shoes-Loafers.jpg

The Classic Oxford Loafer

There is a current trend to confuse taste and style with quality. The best example I can thing of is fashion; what is currently the style in fashion may not be considered a winner in long term fashion stakes. What I might consider good taste would be very different to what you consider good taste, and yet we could probably agree on what is a classic and quality piece.

shoes-flatform-gucci-clp-rs17-1499

Image of Gucci Shoes 2017 from Harper’s Bizarre website.

Now, when I think of Gucci I think of high fashion. But not everything Gucci makes can be considered a classic style that will meet with everyone’s taste. See the interesting item of footwear above, from the 2017 line. You couldn’t pay me enough to wear these shoes. And yet, when I think of Gucci shoes, I tend to think of classic loafers and the like.

Gucci oxford loafers.jpg

 

Writing is the same. There are fads and fashions in writing, and they change over time. But good quality writing never goes out of style. This is why people still read Charles Dickens, James Barrie, Mary Twain, Mary Shelley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their ilk, years after their books were published and they have passed away. They didn’t take any notice of what was fashionable and wrote using their own voices.

Doc Martens

My favourite shoe manufacturer, Dr. Martens.

The thing about good quality is that it is well made, and so it lasts. It is important – to any writer – to always be trying to improve the quality of your prose. You might be telling the worlds greatest story, but it will do you no good if your writing is disjointed and impenetrable. You can’t build a castle in the air with uncut stone and mud.

If you are worried that your prose isn’t clear and easy-to-read, I suggest hunting down a few online courses in grammar. There is no shame in wanting to be the very best writer that you can be!

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing Style

The Competent Woman Protagonist: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Compenent Women

Table by Javier Zarracina for Vox

I read an article about Competent Sidekicks on Vox, and saw this table. I don’t completely agree with it, as Luke did blow up the Death Star, but Leia certainly gave him access to the Death Star plans and his torpedo-firing spaceship. But I do think this table makes a valid point; why do these competent women not get their share of the credit at the end of the day?

Agent 99

Agent 99

This cliche is as old as television. Look at 99 and Maxwell Smart. Smart was extremely lucky to be teamed up with Agent 99, as she did most of the thinking and the hard work while he got most of the credit. What made him survive was luck – not to be underrated, but it can’t be depended upon. Even in the modern reboot, Agent 99 has all the training and skills. Max and 99 are the extreme example of the trope, with Starlord and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy coming a close second.

This occurs quite a bit in literature too. So,how do I avoid this happening in my Steampunk novel.

Well, for starters, my protagonist is a competent woman. And – at the end of the story – she will be getting her credit and her reward. Yep. I finally figured out the reward that would make her happy … a free pass into Kew Gardens. For life. No restrictions. For a woman academic of the 1870s, that is like winning Olympic Gold.

So much more satisfying that marrying her off into a faux ‘happily ever after’.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Stereotypes, Uncategorized, Writing Style

The Brick-wall Happy Ending: a Steampunk Perspective

mmeteor1_roman fortress in Bulgaria

When I imagine changing places with her I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending – I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters . . .

Dodie Smith; I Capture the Castle

I am currently rereading I Capture the Castle. It is one of those novels that always reveals something new when you read it. This time round, I can see where, on page 324, the author, Dodie Smith, is foreshadowing to the audience exactly how she will be ending her book. In case you’ve never read it (and why not?), it doesn’t have a ‘brick-wall happy ending’. She wanted her audience to think about the characters after the book has finished, and this has contributed to the continuing popularity of the novel.

Why am I bring this up?

I am rather terrible at writing endings.

ben-hur-end-title

I’ve never been a woman able to write a brick-wall happy ending, where they “all lived happily ever after.” Is this because I don’t like ending the story and leaving my characters behind? Is it because real life never has a neat and tidy ending? Is it because an ending is sort of sad and melancholy, and I am avoiding those feelings? It is probably a mixture of these reasons, among others. Endings are complex.

What makes a good ending? Tidying away all the plots and subplots satisfactorily? Vanquishing the villain and leaving the protagonist victorious? A slap-up feast with a roast boar and gallons of ginger-ale? Do you prefer a tragedy; seeing everyone sitting in the ruins of their lives? Or – like me – do you prefer a drawn line in the sand, with the expectation that the characters still have an important part of their lives to go on with?

York

I prefer being able to peep over the wall, rather than slamming up against it. Yet this means that I have to make hard decisions about where to leave things for the characters. I do tend to punish my villains and antagonists, but I am less inclined to ‘reward’ my protagonists with a tidy ending. I prefer to infer they go on to have further adventures.

There is plenty of time to rest after you are dead. Who wants to laze around for the rest of their life? Where is the fun in that? It is fine to take a breather and relax after an adventure, but no one really wants the adventure to end.

In I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith ends the book well before the ‘happily ever after’. It is left up to the reader to decide whether or not the protagonist and the romantic lead end up together. I’ve spent many a happy daydream giving them a range of happy endings, and wondering which one is the correct one (from Dodie Smith’s hints throughout the text).

In my Steampunk work-in-progress, I’ve got two areas in the timeline when I could end the story. Neither will provide me with a neat and tidy ending, but one of them is ‘tidier’ than the other. However, that ending also brings a better resolution to the end of the adventure. At one point, I was tempted to end the story sooner, and that second ending was going to be a whole new book. The problem was … there wasn’t really enough story left to write a whole new book, at least, not without adding in more subplots. I prefer not to add subplots for the sake of adding to the word length. It feels like you are trying to stuff more clothes into drawers that are already full, and just makes everything cramped and crushed and creased.

I think too much of my current story to do that.

But it still leaves me with the problem of how I am going to end my story in a satisfactory manner.

Leave a comment

Filed under Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, Steampunk Writer, The End, The Writing Life, Writing Style

Descriptive Language: from Spartan to Purple Prose

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, from his novel, Paul Clifford

stormy-night

Every writer has heard about the horrible first line for a novel: It was a dark and stormy night. The irony is that this is just an excerpt from the actual sentence, which rambles on for several more lines. As a sentence, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ is just fine. Add in the rest, and you are into the realms of purple prose.

Purple prose is where the language is so florid and baroque that it distracts the reader away from the story. However, no novel can survive without some sort of descriptive language. It is a matter of style and personal taste as to how much ornate phrasing you use as a writer. Modern tastes tend to favour sparse, short, strong sentences; in Bulwer-Lytton’s era, the fashion was for more flamboyant writing.

I see no reason why you can’t use ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ as it gets the job done. In Bulwer-Lytton’s case, he was trying to get too much done in just one sentence and let it amble onward without a real point. He might be notorious for bad writing in these modern times, but he was (and still is) a well known author who could create a memorable turn of phrase. He coined such memorable catchphrases as ‘the great unwashed’, ‘pursuit of the almighty dollar’, and ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. He deserves a better reputation than as the Father of Purple Prose, since he has contributed much to the English Language.

Let’s look at what is right and wrong with his original sentence. As I’ve previously noted, it is trying to do too much. It is trying to set the scene and provide information about the time and setting. A better method might have been to break the sentence down into smaller structures.

It was a dark and stormy night. A torrential rain was falling in London. A violent and gusty wind rattled along the housetops. It fiercely agitated the scanty flames of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

As you can see, in this first rewrite I am attempting to retain the language of the original sentence.By breaking the sentence into four separate sentences, I get a much better idea of what Bulwer-Lytton was saying, because I don’t get ‘lost’ in the middle of the sentence. Clarity is improved (slightly). But there are certain ideas that are ‘repeated’ and this snippet of text could be given a more modern flow with a slight rewrite.

A violent rainstorm rattled the rooftops of London. The gusty night wind shook windows, and threatened to douse the scanty flames of lamps.

Of course, this is still descriptive writing even though I’ve taken out ‘struggled against the darkness’ as I already know its dark because it is nighttime. I dropped ‘fiercely agitated’ because I used ‘threatened’ instead. This also conforms to the modern fashion of discarding adverbs. I kept adjectives like ‘gusty’ and ‘scanty’, because they are doing a stalwart job of describing the wind and the flames of the lamps. I don’t know if this is better than the original sentence, but it is certainly more concise while retaining the descriptive flavour.

The other end of the scale would be something like this.

Nighttime London was rattled by a violent storm.

or

A violent storm threatened nighttime London.

These are both crisp sentences. They get the job done, but they don’t create an atmosphere or enrich details of the setting. I personally prefer a bit more descriptive language than this, but in certain genres these wouldn’t be out of place. Nonfiction and factual historical recounts often use language like this, when it is important to stick to the facts. This is description cut down to the bones.

As a tweenager, I was in love with purple prose. I read a lot of Victorian-era fiction, and was a fan of Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby series. Mitchell loved to minutely describe both the horse characters and the scenery in her books. (I’ve read every Silver Brumby book, and yet I still see Thowra as a grey and not a palomino. My Seventies paperback book-covers always displayed silver-white horses.) As I’ve mention, there are fashions in writing styles, and at the moment overly descriptive writing is  considered ‘bad’.

When the descriptive writing draws you into the setting, can it still be considered purple prose?

snoopy

4 Comments

Filed under Descriptive Language, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, Writing Style

Style: with help from a visual definition

style

Every so often, I get asked to define my writing style. Style is subjective. What one person loathes as purple prose in a text, another might adore as poetic and lyrical. How long is a piece of string?

However, this image above – by the talented illustrator Miyuli – gives a masterful summation of style, by showing how style effects the representation of the same subject.

With writing, how you say something is just as important as what you are saying. My style adapts to the genre I am writing in, so my style changes from text to text. I have a much dryer style when I am writing nonfiction to when I am writing fiction. The language in my blog is much more colloquial’ compared to the language I might use in writing a travelogue for a client. So, asking me what my style is, is like asking me what I had for breakfast. It changes, to suit my mood and the project.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Writing Style

Narrators and Point of View

the-remains-of-the-say

This blog is an assessment of the main character and narrator, Stevens, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.  This book could be classified as a romance, as one of the central plots revolves around the unsuccessful relationship of Stevens to the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.  Kazuo Ishiguro dictates this tale from the point of view of Stevens, an anal retentive who need to do the ‘proper’ thing, rather than the right thing, in emotional situations.  He is the naïve, internal narrator, an emotional outsider by choice; he is unreliable because of his single point of view and limited experience.  He alienates both the reader and his love interest, Miss Kenton.

There is a good definition of Narrative Point of View at http://www.brocku.ca/english/courses/2F55/pt_of_view.html : “The ‘meaning’ of a story is determined by a number of factors. One of the main factors is the matter of who is telling the story, and how. There are many ‘positions’ or ‘perspectives’ or ‘points of view’ from which a story can be told. By ‘point of view’ we generally mean two somewhat different things:

1) the relation of the narrator to the action of the story — whether the narrator is, for instance, a character in the story, or a voice outside of the story;

2) the relation of the narrator to the issues and the characters that the story involves — whether the narrator is sympathetic, whether she agrees supports of opposes a particular cultural practice or doctrine, that sort of question.”

Using this definition as a starting point, we can examine the careful construction of Stevens’ narrative point of view.  The narration in Remains of the Day becomes part of the characterisation of Stevens.

Distance: Stevens, as the first person narrator, was very close to the story he was telling.  It might have sounded like he wanted to be emotionally distant, but he wasn’t the omniscient voice that he hoped to be.  I thought this was a magnificent piece of characterisation, making a cold person so likable.  Steven’s vocabulary was very British and Proper, as suited his position as a butler of an upper-crust establishment.  His culture provided the emotional distancing from his personal events…but the author has still managed to keep Stevens’ involvement in events immediate and personal.

Interest: Of course, as Stevens is telling his own story, his interest wasn’t impartial, just reserved.  The reserve was part of his characterisation.  There were times when his reserve was obviously just a veneer, such as when his father died.

Sympathy:  As Stevens was telling his own history, he was very sympathetic to his own decisions and actions.  He was more judgemental of the other characters, as they are all seen through his own eyes and from his own POV.

Voice: The voice for this novel was vitally important, as it played a major role in the storytelling.  It was the reserved ‘voice’ of a very proper and correct Englishman.  It was a prim, emotionally repressed voice, loyal to his employer and aware of the dignity of his profession above anything else.  It was his role as butler that affected his attitude to all the other characters in the novel.

Orientation: The main theme of the novel was Steven’s pride in his career as a butler, to the point he became a mannequin and stopped being a human being.

Sense of Audience: The author was implying that Stevens’ audience was himself.  He was trying to justify his actions, and convince himself that he had always done the right thing, and kept his dignity even if he was unhappy.  He wasn’t addressing the reader or an audience as such.

 

The narrative point of view is a vital element in the construction of a novel, giving the text its style and contributing to the perception of the characters’ personalities. Stevens’ narration, in Remains of the Day, creates conflict by asking himself rhetorical questions and answering them himself, and this highlights how an interior narrator can still incorporate a responses and counter-arguments, without contradicting the character’s personality construct.  By the end of the story, Stevens’ persona has gone from confident and phlegmatic to regretful, nostalgic and melancholic, and the narrative point of view has paralleled this character change.  This way, Kazuo Ishiguro leads both the reader and the novel though to its pensive conclusion.

 

It can’t be a romance…there is no happy ending got Stevens and Miss Kenton.

Leave a comment

Filed under Review, Uncategorized, Unreliable Narrator, writing, Writing Style

I’m Small But Mighty: Height and Characterization

I am a short woman. Being short doesn’t stop a woman from being a protagonist nor does it stop her from playing a romantic lead. However, not the same can be said for male characters. You might be intelligent, strong, handsome, but if you are four foot – 1.2m here in Australia – you are unlikely to be the hero. You will be the comic relief, nine times out of ten.
The only protagonist I can think of whose short height wasn’t too much of issue was Stile from Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series. It was recognised, but it didn’t stop him from being the protagonist and winning status and the love of the girl. I’m not counting hobbits  or dwarves in this category, because they are:

  • not human, and generally stick to romance with their own species;
  • both males and females are of equivalent height;
  • even when they are protagonists, they tend to be part of a group.

However, I will make special mention of Emperor Porridge (Emperor Ludens Nimrod Kendrick Cord Longstaff XLI), from Doctor Who, a human being, and defender of humanity and the imperator of known space. His lack of height was a pertinent point in the plot of the episode he was in (Nightmare in Silver), and yet Clara seriously considered his marriage proposal without any humorous asides. Let’s face it, he was attractive, and not because he was emperor … he had a sense of humour and was a sensitive, lonely soul.

emperor_porridge

Emperor Porridge from Doctor Who

This still doesn’t overcome the pervasive idea that a hero needs to be tall. You never hear anyone being told they are going to meet a ‘short, dark stranger’. Tall people get taken more seriously. I know for a fact that people tend to think my anger is ‘cute’ rather than ‘scary’, though I am just as angry as my taller female friends.

Being considered ‘short’ affects your overall viewpoint.

small-fat-and-mighty

Art by Kate Beaton from Hark, a vagrant  

3 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Doctor Who, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style