Writing Styles: My Author Experiments

Style. It’s the unique way an author utilizes language to express thought. Diction, syntax, and even formatting play a role in the creation of a memorable narrative. Take, for example, some of the interesting style choices used by James Joyce or Cormac McCarthy. In Ulysses, Joyce uses a unique stylization for dialogue. Here’s a snippet from the first chapter:

He went out by the open porch and down the gravel path under the trees, hearing the cries of voices and crack of sticks from the playfield. The lions couchant on the pillars as he passed out through the gate: toothless terrors. Still I will help him in his fight. Mulligan will dub me a new name: the bullockbefriending bard.
–Mr Dedalus!
Running after me. No more letters, I hope.
–Just one moment.
–Yes, sir, Stephen said, turning back at the gate.

Notice how he forsakes the standard quotation marks, and not every dialogue line has a direct attribution for a speaker. It’s left up to the reader to first interpret the new punctuation style, and then determine the speaker. Next, let’s take a gander at some dialogue from McCarthy’s The Road:

It’s really cold.
I know.
Where are we?
Where are we?
I dont know.
If we were going to die would you tell me?
I dont know. We’re not going to die.

Notice how the dialogue eschews standard quotation attributions and speaker tags, and for that matter, dialogue punctuation of any kind. Dialogue exchanges occur in the book like this throughout, and some go on for nearly a page.

Now, these are just the two examples of unique stylization that spring to mind. They spring to mind because they have influenced me as a writer, but there are countless other examples out there (I’d love it if you posted more examples you know of). The thing is, as an independent author, or even a traditional author without a reputation behind her or him (I’m assuming this since I have never been a traditionally published author), you’ll still catch a lot of flak from readers. How do I know this? From experience. I’ve always been creative, and with writing, I still try to be creative. Even when it comes to tampering with time-honored expectations as regards style and punctuation. It would seem natural that since I’ve jumped around from genre to genre (a result of the need to allay boredom and embellish my egotistical need to be special), I would also jump from style choice to style choice. Call it a different character with a different voice, as Laurie Halse Anderson explains her changes in formatting choices from book to book (I know this from a tweet she wrote in reply to a question from me on this very issue). Either way, I don’t like being tied down to conventional style all the time. Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets the job done. Other times, I want to experiment. In Anderson’s YA novel Speak, she handles dialogue in a variety of ways. Sometimes the dialogue reads like a play, as in the following example:

Heather: “I am so sorry, Mellie. I can’t believe I said those things to you. It’s PMS, don’t pay any attention to me. You have been so sweet to me. You are the only person I can trust.” She blows her nose loudly and wipes her eyes on her sleeve.

At other points in the book, dialogue switches to the standard fare of comma she said. But using her book Speak as an example, and then comparing it with the follow up to Speak, called Catalyst, we see that more than just the dialogue stylization has changed. There are also changes to the paragraph styling as well. In Speak, the paragraphs all come in concrete blocks with no indentations. Something similar to this is seen in The Road. Yet even though Catalyst occurs in the same world as Speak, and contains some of the same characters, the paragraph styling switches to standard indentations.

And indentation stylization changes from narrative to narrative too–take for example The Hobbit. Every paragraph is indented. Even the starting paragraphs of chapters. Now, granted, I’m citing the formatting of a printed copy on my coffee table of the book from the 1960s. At the time, Tolkien called it “the definitive edition of my book.” Editors have taken that same formatting style and changed it for the ebook and modern print editions. And perhaps contemporary literary style trends have a lot more to do with how we should format our texts than I know. Perhaps it’s necessary, in a commercial sense, to conform to the path of least resistance as regards style choices. Sometimes, an author may take on the revisional task of their own volition, reformatting old, outgrown style choices. Now, using Stephen King as an example, and admitting this might be a stretch to include as part of stylization (although I will do so anyway), The Gunslinger offers a contrast of dialogue styles. The first edition of the book, being one of Stephen King’s earlier works, used a lot of adverbs in its dialogue tagging. Later on, as King grew to loathe adverbs, he actually revised the book and struck from its pages much of the so-called heavy-handed verbiage. This cleaner, sleeker, more terse edition is the one he calls the definitive version; however, many readers will point you toward the original, claiming it immerses you all the more in Roland’s world. He caught some flak for producing a better version of the same text. But in whose eyes should we care if something is better? That might be a big part of the question as regards our style choices. Do we already have a huge, loyal reader base? Do our goals rest in the lucrativeness of our writing careers, the fulfillment of our creative desires to express narratives, or more than likely, some admixture of both? The stakes of our style choices, however rewarding, can have some serious consequences as related to our goals. Perhaps clearly knowing our goals makes style choices easier. For me, my goals have always been to tell stories and have people read them and enjoy them. But, goals evolve and change. As I’ve discovered the revolution in self-publishing, part of my goal now is to find financial success as well as retain my earlier goals. How much of a mixture of these goals do I have, and which parts of the overall goal dictates my style choices? (At this point, you may want to slap me for asking too many questions, and intellectualizing everything too much. After all, just write dammit! Keep it simple, stupid! Success will find you if you just lose yourself in your writing!) Clearly, I ask more questions than I can answer.

Even still, I can’t help but want to ignore conventions and experiment. Even if it does come back to bite me. So, as I approach one million words written, how have I experimented? And how has it come back to bite me?

In my first two books, both part of an epic fantasy saga called Darkin, I stuck to standard dialogue attributions. I did, however, throw in an extra serving of adverbs. And, going into those novels, I had a clear idea of the style I wanted to emulate. Even the vocabulary. You can call this tasteless mimicry, but sometimes mimicry helps you grow as an artist. At least this is true for drawing (this I can say from experience as a life-long drawer). So I set out to emulate Tolkien and provide Shakespeare-esque dialogue sequences. Some readers loved it, and some hated it. Either way, I had fun writing it. The books didn’t sell a lot, and still don’t. Still, I’ve had some amazing praise that will always be with me, motivating me to keep creating in that world. This experimentation wasn’t really experimentation, so much as it was emulation, but then again, there might be no such thing as original experimentation. All of it might be simply a new mix of other things, spun in some (what we believe, anyway) novel way. Degrees of our schema blended into a new concoction. Our own narrative smoothie.

In my third novel, Black Hull, a terse, philosophical, sci-fi thriller, I ratcheted the experimentation up a notch. Instead of slathering on the adverbs, I practically cut them all out. But I took it further. I really wanted to capture a laconic narrative style, hoping it would quicken the pacing and provide the atmosphere of a thriller. So I cut out narration tags altogether. Keep in mind, this was done for any sequence of dialogue when there were only two characters speaking. I would signify the starting speaker, and only the line breaks would allow the reader to remember whose turn it was in the conversation. If there were three speakers, I would occasionally tag a speaker if I thought it was absolutely necessary for clarity. Most of the time, I gave my readers the benefit of the doubt, thinking they would be able to easily figure it out for themselves. But cutting out the speaker tags wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to emulate the block styling I mentioned in the book Speak. So, I didn’t indent. Ever. That means the non-dialogue narration was its own block. And then, the dialogue was its own block. Needless to say, without reprinting some of the scathing reviews I received as regards the style and formatting, I can summarize the lambasting with this: This guy needs an editor! You can’t tell who’s speaking! He doesn’t know how to write dialogue properly!

It’s almost as if those critics think I did this all by accident, due to a lack of knowledge about the standard conventions of style and punctuation and formatting (just a little tongue-in-cheek here). The thing is, I was deeply upset by some of the criticism. Having received mostly positive reviews on my Darkin series, except those who complained about things I could easily accept (boring, slow, archaic language), such energetic ridicule was new to me. And my skin was thin then. In fact, it took going to KBoards to lament and vent my anxieties and frustrations. My third book, my best yet (in my own grand opinion at the time), hadn’t had the intended effect. And beyond that, people were claiming I was an ignoramus as regards the English language. I didn’t even know how to use dialogue properly. Looking back at this now, thinking of the (literally) three-page-long rants about the book, I am more than happy with the style. That it even produced in someone enough rage to write an essay (never published publicly to a website, but privately sent to me through Goodreads) on their misgivings about my narrative chicanery is something I’m actually happy about in retrospection. To this day, I haven’t gone back and appeased that thread of criticism with a revision. I’ve rolled with the punches, for better or worse. And I remember it clearly: I was out in Indianapolis, demoing a card game for Stoneblade Entertainment at Gencon, when I received the essay of flames. I vented here, and many responded–not to chide me for crying over pointless reviews–but to console me. One such reply, a somewhat bigger name than many of the others, simply replied with a picture of a tiny, incredibly fluffy bunny holding out a hug. It read something like this: I holds it for you. (Thank you Mr. Howey.) Little things like this have stuck with me, memories that act as buoys when I’m questioning my own deliberate experimentations with literature.

So you’d think I was done with using avant-garde formatting and stylings. And you’d be right. At least for one novel. My next book, Neighborhood Watch, followed standard narrative protocol: all the punctuation and indentations in the right places. Speaker tags, check. In fact, I might have reacted a little too severely to the feedback of Black Hull, as some complained that I over-tagged in Neighborhood Watch. (We know who’s speaking–you don’t have to beat it over our heads after everything they say!) In either case, Neighborhood Watch, a novel about boys who investigate a serial murderer on their own in a small suburban town, was somewhat standard fare as far as style.

Then, after I hit publish on that book, I had had my fill of standard. I was ready to do something risky again. Something I hadn’t seen done. (And I’m sure it’s been done, but we [I?] naievely assume originality sometimes in our streaks of literary brilliance.) So, when I started the post-apocalyptic story The Rain, I decided to mix things up by using the first-person, present-tense perspective. Okay, so that bit isn’t the least bit experimental. But what was was the dialogue style I chose. Instead of characters speaking to each other, most of the dialogue was doled out in this fashion (all examples are not in the actual book, but emulations of the styles I used):

He tells me to gather up the supplies. I ask him if it’s time to go, and if he even has any idea where we’re going to go, but he just nods and mumbles. So I pick everything up and we start toward the door.

So, rather than writing out what the characters actually say, many times the narration is simply summarized. Then, occasionally, when I wanted a higher level of detail, I would write the dialogue as follows:

Can you see it? he asks, Can you see the white? I look out but only see the darkness. And then I ask, Was it moving fast? Fast as anything I’ve ever seen, he says. Fast as anything I’ve ever seen. And then he squats down and cocks the pistol.

This second style of dialogue, intermixing the dialogue with narration, without punctuation, into stream-of-consciousness thought, was my second mode of getting speaking across to the reader. And then, the final piece to the puzzle, was my extremely sparing use of quotation marks, as in the following:

“He killed your father,” Donald says. “Right in front me. Shot him dead. Bullet choked him to death and I saw every bit of it happen.”

So, in my own effort to highlight extremely poignant moments of dialogue, and produce a startling clarity against the muddy, mingled prose, I turned to conventional dialogue styling. It happens very rarely throughout the book, and only when I have a moment where I want the exact words a character speaks to resonate due to their significance for the plot.

So, did this triadic tiering of dialogue, from summarization to intermixed-and-written-as-narration to standard quotation usage work? For me, the answer is a resounding yes. And for my readers, I can also say yes. But not for all of them. Not all by any means. But the vast majority of the feedback I have received has been positive, even concerning this deviation from the typical. In fact, the criticisms I have received are much the same as they were for Black Hull, only less impassioned (darn). It comes along the lines of this, and I roughly paraphrase: This guy needs an editor with some backbone! Maybe then I’ll read his stuff. I don’t think they realize that I am my own editor, and the choices are deliberate, and from my prior experience, I even know that those choices will alienate some readers. But, in an opposite effect, I’ve had many praise the styling as creating a feeling of immanence, actually being there with my characters, and inside the head of the main character–feeling and seeing every moment and experiencing the story in such a fast-paced way that they can’t put the book down until it’s over. Those are the signs on the road I choose to follow.

So will I use this same narrative styling in another book outside of The Rain’s universe? I don’t know. Probably not. But you can bet that pieces of its foundation will survive in my writing. As have the experimentations I’ve done in the past. And still, with knowing all of this, I still feel a knot in my gut when I read reviews criticizing me for not knowing how to use the English language properly. The thing is, those knots fade much faster. I put them in perspective now that I have some writing history behind me. But in the beginning, before I did, I was hurting. It took a fluffy bunny and the kind words of my loved ones at home to put me back on the keyboard. I felt like I was being punished for taking risks. And you can be punished in more ways than one in this writing thing, both financially and non-financially. One star reviews can be a downer as far as your ego, and as far as your income. But I still want to take risks. Try new things I think will work. And let myself fail. Because even with failing, you always come away with experience. And if you keep writing, one book after the next, you’ll continue to grow, change, develop, and experiment. Hell, you may even release a redux of your earliest novel. You can call it the stylistically evolved version. And your readers might hate you for depreciating the quality of a great novel that should have been left as it was. Who’s to say? One thing I do take from Stephen King, and keep with me, is the following (paraphrased): If about half the people who read your book like it, and half hate it, you’re doing something right. I can take half and half. I can write for that half.

Who knows, maybe I’ll right-align the dialogue in my next book, and left-align the narration. Make that center-align. And I’ll put my quotes around the narration, and not the dialogue. (Okay, now I’m just getting ahead of myself.) Prudence mixed with adventurousness, if such a virtue exists, might be about where I stand now as regards style. Still, the balance can shift to one side of that binary at any given moment. Now that I have a growing base of readers, the last thing I want to do is alienate them with bizarre craft. But, on the other hand, I want to satisfy my desire to experiment. I’ll go forward and continue to hone that balance.

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