Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Style

The plot of a novel is the story, how it is told is the style. Some books are plot-heavy, meaning that the focus is on an elaborate, usually fast-driving series of events. Others are style-heavy. Style comes in many varieties, some cleverly poetic in their prose, others place the weight of the story on the nuance of the characters, still others are setting-heavy. Combinations of various plot types and style types can keep each book—even by the same author—unique. There are also formulas to certain series. Developed by one author, the tradition is carried on by new writers who must follow a lengthy style guide. I once attempted to submit to one of these publications, namely Wizards of the Coast. I never heard back and today see that as a bullet dodged. The idea of being confined to a single specific style designed by another is a horror to me.

Plot and style types I feel should follow the form of the book being written. A simple plot is bolstered and made engaging by a lively and elaborate prose style that employs a vibrant setting to create an experience that lets the reader taste the air and hear the wind. A complex plot however, would drown in a similar style. The average James Bond story, written in the beautiful manner of Suzanna Clark, would result in a tome of immense size and leave readers struggling to lift the important points. Plots with numerous characters, scene changes and actions I feel are best served with a simpler style that allow the reader to concentrate on events rather than the eloquence of the writing. In particularly tricky plots, even characterization can be simplified and revealed more through events than through lengthy reflection, the kind you find in your average Stephen King novel.

I have written novels in numerous styles, and while I enjoy the fun of creating artwork in sentences, I’ve always found this best done in conjunction with simple plots. Most successful novels of this type cover scant ground in terms of story. Few events occur and a plot can be as simple as a man coming to grips with his impending death, yet the in-depth character study, palpable settings and writing style make the story just as griping as any action adventure. Still this kind of work is not usually found in fantasy. Stories in the realms of dragons, vampires, ghosts and knights rarely confine themselves to the minute and the diminutive. Imagine the Lord of the Rings written in the style of Stephen King, John Updike, James Joyce, or better yet, Shakespeare or Milton. Those who scorn the trilogy for its lengthy prose might then perceive the brevity of Tolkien. For this reason I have always advocated a lighter style for the traditional fantasy adventure as they are rarely of the ilk associated with sipping a glass of wine. Fantasy is like a drag-queen, grand and sweeping and adverse to the small, understated, or reflective.

The Riyria Revelations was born out of my trying something new. Coming off a novel of deep prose, Riyria was a great leap to a story of simplicity. I had a huge story to tell, one of complex themes, numerous characters and dozens of twists where things are not always what they seem. This idea would be unmanageable in a thick style. I’m already asking a great deal of the reader—to keep track of everything that happens over the course of six separate novels as if they were one long book. To make the trip as comfortable as possible for my readers I attempted a style I had never tried before—invisibility.

I thought I was a genius for inventing this concept only to learn later that I had discovered the light bulb in 2004. The idea is to make the story pop off the page and make the writing disappear. Neither awkward prose nor eloquent phrases should distract the reader from immersion in the action and the world unfolding before them. I have needed on many occasions to rewrite passages that were too pretty; too sophisticated for fear the reader would notice them and pause to reflect. The result I have discovered, much to my delight, is a book that reads like a movie in the reader’s mind. A number of people have posted reviews mentioning this very thing.

When Crown was first sent to the publisher and handed over to the editors the one comment I heard was that they had a very difficult time working on the book. Immediately I guessed it was my bad grammar, (and I have reason to be concerned.) Yet I learned it was not due to a proliferation of mistakes but rather the addictiveness of the story that prevented the editors from concentrating on the words—words that kept “disappearing.” Those working on the text found themselves repeatedly caught up in the story. While this did not help the book, I did take it as a mark of success. So did the publisher who signed the second book even before the first hit the stores.

This then is the “light-hand” approach that some of you have read about on my website. While I now know that I am not the first to employ it, it remains something of a rarity in the fantasy realm. While there are precious few writers penning speculative fiction in the style of Joyce or Marlow (although I have read some—most as yet unpublished,) few are willing to thin their styles beyond the traditional boundaries of the genre. For me this is a great disappointment, for while I enjoy a beautifully written novel—I love a great story.

2 comments:

  1. I can see how the editors would have had trouble editing rather than just reading. That's in part why I chose to just read before doing an editing read. I still find myself getting caught up in Nyphron Rising, though! LOL

    ReplyDelete
  2. You think that's bad. I wrote it and I can still get caught up in it too. I would love to shelves the whole series one day, wait a while and then come back and read it fresh as if it was someone else's work.

    ReplyDelete