Monday, November 8, 2010

Style Stuck

Here's an entry that's as much for me as anybody else.

If you've been writing a while, you probably have a style you like to write in. Whether that be an emulation of romance novels (“Her eyes burned with passion”) or you exclusively write nonfiction (“The American Civil War was a time when...”), you'll find that you've settled into a style that's comfortable for you. Even if you try to break away from it, it's going to creep back into your work, like how your slouch creeps in while you're trying to stand up straight for a prolonged period of time.

...Which is really difficult for some people.

I noticed that I was style stuck when, of all things, I was watching Cinemassacre's video detailing his trip to Sleepy Hollow, NY. He begins by reading a passage from the actual Sleepy Hollow book, which was one of the most beautifully written things I've recently heard. The particular passage reads,

“Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of the land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail of tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility.”

I already know that some of my readers will be all too happy to tell me about all kinds of books with beautiful writing, and if they do so, I encourage them to hunt for it in Google Books and mention some page numbers.

Now, this isn't something that I can just analyze and explain why it's pretty. It's like describing a painting; the most I can do is list some subjective reasons I had for liking it. In lieu of a detailed explanation, here are some things that jump out at me.

Washington Irving was going to great lengths to describe what he thought of as an idyllic place, and so he uses language that reflects the relaxation he (probably) felt when he was there. He uses somewhat uncommon words for things, like saying a brook “glides” through the valley, and that it “murmurs.” If I had been trying to write something like that, my subtlety would have been much more hammer-like.

A river flows through the valley. The soft sound of rushing water is all you can hear over the woodpeckers.”

It doesn't sound relaxing at all! Of course this is a tongue-in-cheek example of my own writing, because I'm sure I could write something relaxing if I really tried, but Washington Irving makes the whole paragraph feel effortless, as if he wrote it in one dip of his pen with a single, flowing movement of his hand. He didn't even have to think about why he loves Sleepy Hollow.

"I had you fooled. I really hated it there. I'm just that good."

How can I use this to improve my writing? I'll stick with my usual advice and say, it helps writers (especially me) to read as many books as possible, by as wide a variety of authors as possible, as much as possible. I haven't read anything in a while, which might explain this whole “no blog” situation I've been stuck in. As always, it also helps if you like what you're writing about. It's even better if you love it.