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.


  1. Okay, now I'm going to have to hunt that down and read it.

    I think it's also interesting to observe that he starts out writing about a peaceful place--Sleepy Hollow--so the horror that comes later--the Horseman--has even more impact.

    Kind of like the first page of Madam, Will you Talk. "The whole affair began so very quietly." (And there's murder and intrigue and chases and plots.)

  2. I love this blog Will. I think you hit the nail on the head. You must love what you write about. Remember that writing is giving voice to the things we feel with the heart. What lives in our hearts comes out in the written word. It is more revealing than anything. It shows what we read, what we think, what we watch. That is why we are told to think on these things, "Whatever is good, what ever is lovely, what ever is of good repute...
    I think there is no better visionary writer than Stephen King but I wouldn't want to be friends with him. My heart shrinks back. J.K.Rowling tells a good story and you know you would love her because again we see her heart.

    I think Nathanial Hawthorne must have been a lovely man. You know the story right. He had failed at his business for like the third time.
    He came in so sad and told his wife of his failure. She said good, and brought out this money she had been saving, she said we can live on this, now go write your book. And he did.
    Without his failures He might not have ever been great, but his wife had faith in who he was. So I think by that he must have been a good guy.
    Sorry this is such a long comment.
    Excellent Blog. It will keep me thinking.