Three Things To Do When You Can’t Use Your Favourite Writing Style

As long-time readers of this site probably know, I’ve been dabbling with longer writing projects over the past year or so. Well, after an attempt at writing a sci-fi horror thriller novel failed at about 21,000 words into the story, I tried to work out what had gone wrong. What had turned this fascinating project into the kind of dreary, unrewarding chore that I’d use literally any excuse to avoid writing more of it.

Surprisingly, the main thing turned out to be the writing style. Since I enjoy reading fast-paced novels, I’d tried to write one in this style – only to find that it was lacking atmosphere, had some fairly bland sentences and generally didn’t have the level of personality that I’d hoped.

So, I thought that I’d look at a few things that you can do if you find that you can’t use your favourite writing style.

1) Work out why: This sounds obvious, but it’s worth repeating. If several attempts at writing a novel in a writing style that you really love have failed, then you need to ask yourself why. To get the most out of doing this, you need to have enough experience with reading and thinking about books to be able to take a step back and look at your own failed fiction in the way that a critic would.

Once you’ve worked out what went wrong, then it is a lot easier to work out what to do next. Maybe you just need to practice more? Maybe you need to pay more attention to things like descriptions, characters, settings etc..? Maybe you need to plan your story more or less?

If you are having trouble with using a writing style that you really love, then you can’t really do anything about it until you know why it is a problem. So, read lots of books and look at book reviews too. Get into the mindset of a critic and then take a merciless look at your failed writing, comparing it to the books that you really enjoy and working out what the reviews would say. This might sound harsh or discouraging, but it’ll give you tons of info that will help to improve your next writing project.

2) Find your own style: Usually, if you’re having problems with a writing style, then this is because you want to be another author. You’ve read some really gripping, awe-inspiring fiction by someone else and you think “I want to write something like that!“. And there is nothing wrong with this. It is how writers learn and, often, how we get interested in writing in the first place. It is a totally natural part of being a writer.

However, as any piece of writing advice will tell you, trying to be another author will result in lacklustre second-rate fiction. But, why? Well, it’s all to do with how writers develop. Simply put, the best writers – the ones that inspire you to write – will often try to be a mixture of several other authors. As paradoxical as it sounds, the more writers that influence you, the more original, fresh and alive your writing will be.

It’s a bit like a palette. If you’ve only got one colour of paint then, no matter how good your painting might be, it’ll still seem a bit limited. If you’ve got lots of different paints, then you can mix all sorts of interesting colours and create a much more dramatic-looking painting.

And, this is how you find your own unique writing style. You read a lot and take influence from as many amazing authors as you can. Yes, your style might take a while to develop and it might look a bit different to what you might expect, but it’ll result in better fiction than just trying to be one other author.

3) Know yourself: Another good thing about reading lots of different authors is that you get to know what you do and don’t like in stories. And, if you’re willing to do a bit of introspection, then you might find that it is different to what you think that you like.

For example, I mentioned earlier that I enjoy reading fast-paced novels. And I do. However, the reasons for this are different to the reasons I enjoy writing. When I read fast-paced stories, I love the fact that I can just relax with them, that I can blaze through an entire book in a relatively short time and that they have the kind of ultra-dramatic focused plots that don’t take too much effort to follow. They are just fun to read.

Yet, the books that really inspire me, the ones that feel like more than “just a novel”, often tend to be a bit more slow-paced, descriptive, thoughtful, atmospheric, quirky etc… They are books that do things that only books can do, and aren’t just films on the printed page. Yes, these books take more effort to read and I don’t always feel the enthusiasm for this, but they usually tend to linger in my imagination and make me want to write something that will have the same effect on other people.

So, if you are having problems with your writing style, then it is well worth taking a deeper look at yourself. Chances are, you’re confusing what you enjoy reading with what really inspires you to write and/or what you are best at writing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Finding The Right Writing Style For Your Story – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about writing styles today. This is mostly because of an experience I had whilst starting a short story project (which I probably won’t post here) a couple of days before writing this article. It had taken me a few days to finally think of a story idea that was good enough to devote a lot of time to writing about but, when I started to write the story, something felt wrong.

It was only a couple of paragraphs later that I realised what it was. The fast-paced informal first-person narrative voice I was using just didn’t work. It didn’t create the atmosphere that I’d been hoping for and it didn’t really do the characters or the location justice.

So, with a sigh, I decided to restart the story and then something suddenly clicked. To my surprise, I found myself using a very different writing style (third-person, slow-paced, present tense etc..) to the ones that I usually use. And it worked!

This made me think about writing styles, because the common wisdom is that each writer should have their own distinctive “style”. There is certainly something to be said for this, since a unique style can not only make your readers more interested but it also sets your stories apart from everyone else’s. It is a way of marking out a story as “yours”, of going from being a mere writer to being an author.

There’s a lot to be said for having your own writing style. But, don’t let it trap you.

Some story ideas will only really “work” when written in a particular way. So, if a story idea isn’t working, then there’s a chance that it is because you aren’t using the right writing style for it. But, how do you find the right writing style for your story?

The short answer is to just try a few writing styles until you find the one that works. Sometimes, a style will suddenly just feel right and, when this happens, don’t question it. Just go with it.

The long answer is that you need to be fairly well-read if you want to find the right writing style for your story. You need to have read lots of books that have been written in lots of different styles. Not only will this teach you which types of writing styles work well with which types of stories, but it will also give you a library of writing styles to mix and match from too.

This makes it a lot easier to choose a style that fits with your story, since you can quickly sum up the style that works as something like “Clive Barker meets Poppy Z. Brite meets Ray Bradbury meets Alice Hoffman” or something like that, which will help you to keep using the style in a consistent way too.

Reading a lot also makes it a lot easier to mix several different writing styles into a new writing style. After all, if you notice that a few authors use writing styles that you really like, then you’re probably going to wonder what they all have in common with each other. And, when you’ve worked out what they have in common, you can then use this information to come up with a new writing style that really works for the story you are trying to tell.

So, yes, if your story isn’t working, then try using a different writing style. Either keep trying different styles until you find one that works or, if you read a lot, just ask yourself “If another author was writing this story, what style would they use?“.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Narrative Styles And Emotional Tone – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d look at how the narrative style of your fiction can affect your story’s emotional tone. This is mostly because I’ve seen some really interesting examples of this in some of the novels that I’ve been reading recently.

The most striking example is probably in the novel I’m reading at the time of writing this article. This is an Alice Hoffman novel from 1992 called “Turtle Moon” and, on paper at least, it should be an incredibly bleak and depressing story.

Literally none of the characters seem to have cheerful backstories and virtually nothing good or happy has happened within the first hundred pages or so. Yet, despite this, I’ve kept reading it eagerly and thankfully haven’t been overwhelmed by misery and sadness. But, why?

Simply put, the writing in this novel is beautiful. All of the story’s grimness, sorrow and bleakness is expertly contrasted with a lush, poetic, magical and hyper-vivid writing style that is an absolutely joy to read. Seriously, the sheer beauty of the writing means that the depressing elements of the story are kept at a slightly safe distance from the reader. We still see all of these bleak, gut-wrenching, depressing things happening, but it’s like looking at a beautiful painting rather than at a grim photograph.

On the other hand, Shaun Hutson’s 2009 horror novel “Last Rites” contains a lot of similar themes to “Turtle Moon” (eg: broken relationships, bereavement, delinquent youth etc…) and also contains lots of characters with miserable backstories too. Yet, this horror novel feels about ten times more grim and depressing than “Turtle Moon”. But, why?

Ok, there are reasons like temporal and geographic distance (eg: early 1990s America vs. late 2000s Britain) too. But, the most important reason is the different writing styles that these authors use in the two novels.

Whilst Hoffman is able to give the reader a safe level of emotional distance through beautiful, magical, poetic writing – Hutson takes the opposite approach. Hutson’s writing style is a lot more “matter of fact”. This makes the story seem a lot more realistic, which emphasises the grim and bleak elements of the story a lot more. If reading Hoffman’s narration is like looking at a beautiful painting, reading Hutson’s narration is like looking at stark CCTV footage.

This, incidentally, is why traditional 1980s splatterpunk horror novels are so morbidly fascinating. When writers like Clive Barker or Shaun Hutson were telling horror stories during the 1980s, their narration would become (or, in Barker’s case, remain) very beautiful, vivid, detailed and poetic whenever they described something grisly, grotesque or disgusting. This contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque lends these scenes a unique quality which is both intensely horrific and intensely fascinating at the same time. It’s a really weird emotional tone that is difficult to describe (and has to be read in order to be understood properly).

Of course, writers can use the narrative style to affect the emotional tone of their stories in lots of other interesting ways too. A great example of this is a time travel-themed sci-fi novel from 2013 called “Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor that I read recently. This novel uses informal, punk-like first-person narration which is fairly “matter of fact”, whilst also emphasising the narrator’s irreverent, eccentric and practical personality.

This style is really interesting because it makes the novel’s many comedic moments even funnier by, for example, showing the narrator’s irreverent attitude towards serious things (eg: rules, history etc..) and also showing how different her perspective is to a typical sci-fi thriller protagonist. It also lends the story’s comedic scenes a jaunty and chaotic punk-like atmosphere too.

Yet, at the same time, this “matter of fact” narration also means that when bleak, nasty and depressing things happen to the main character, they’re considerably more intense and depressing. The same “down to earth” narration that makes things like the narrator getting wasted the night before a crucial research mission so hilarious also makes the novel’s grim moments about ten times bleaker, more intense, more “realistic” and/or more shocking too.

So, yes, your choice of narrative style can have a huge effect on the emotional tone of a story. A vivid, poetic, artistic narrative style that can lend beauty to joyous things will also moderate the effect of grimmer or more depressing things. By contrast, a more “matter of fact” style will add intensity to anything from comedy to bleak sorrow.

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Anyway, I hope that this is useful πŸ™‚

How Straightforward Should Your Narration Be?

Ever since I got back into reading regularly a little over a month ago, I’ve noticed something that I hadn’t really thought about before. Namely, the difference between the narration in more modern 21st century novels and in novels from the 20th century. Obviously, this is a major generalisation and there will be many exceptions to this rule, but I have noticed a vague difference between 20th and 21st century narration.

In short, modern narration is often a bit more straightforward. It’s a bit more matter-of-fact. It is designed for quick and efficient readability. And, in a lot of ways, this is a good thing. After all, narration shouldn’t get between the reader and the story. By making the narration reasonably effortless to read, a writer can easily immerse the reader in the story. And, when this works, it works really well.

For example, when I went through a phase of reading Clive Cussler novels a while back, it was striking to see the difference in narration between Cussler’s older thriller novels from the 1970s-90s and the more modern novels that have been co-written by other thriller writers. The differences in sentence length, descriptions and linguistic complexity are fairly noticeable. Yet, the more modern ones tend to grab your attention a bit more strongly and tend to be more effortlessly readable.

Or, to give a more nuanced example, I’m currently reading the third novel (“Dawnbreaker” – from 2009) in Jocelynn Drake’s excellent ‘Dark Days’ series and, after I got used to the narration in the first novel (which is slightly more descriptive than the average thriller novel), reading the subsequent novels has felt as effortless as watching a gripping TV show. The narration is still reasonably descriptive, but it is also written in a fairly direct and matter-of-fact way too (which is helped by the use of a first-person perspective).

To give an even more nuanced example, take a look at Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” (2015). Although the descriptive narration in this novel is meant to evoke 19th century narration, it is still designed to be very readable through things like the careful use of formal language that will be easily understood by modern readers, few to no references to classical mythology and slightly more straightforward sentence structures (that will be familiar to modern readers). And this works really well πŸ™‚

But, I’ve also been reading some slightly older novels too and it always surprises me how slower and more descriptive the narration can be. Even in a thrilling action-horror novel like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” (1984), the narration will often be a little bit slower, more formal and more descriptive. Plus, of course, there are novels like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” (1995) that deliberately use dense, formal, ultra-descriptive narration.

Yet, I’ve found myself reading a mixture of older and newer books. This is because, although more formal and descriptive narration can be slower to read, it does have benefits. In short, it allows for a greater sense of richness and depth, at the cost of speed and ease of reading. It is something that requires a little bit of extra skill and effort to read, but you get more of a sense of accomplishment and a deeper story in return.

It’s kind of like the graphics settings in a computer game. If you set the graphics to “ultra-high”, then the game will look really good, but it will run more slowly. If you set the graphics to “low”, then the game won’t look as detailed, but it’ll be a lot smoother and more intuitive to play. Of course, there’s also a “medium” setting too…

After all, as I mentioned earlier, this is a massive generalisation. It’s also a bit of a simplification too.

Because, even more “readable” modern novels still need to use descriptions. Likewise, even more descriptive older novels still need to tell a compelling story. So, it isn’t a question of one extreme or the other, but more of a question of balance. And, if you’re telling a story, you need to think about this balance.

Whilst more straightforward modern-style narration will make it easier for people to pick up your story and keep reading it (and it means your story can compete better with TV, videogames etc.. for people’s attention), it also means that you have to be a lot more economical with your descriptions. You need to edit ruthlessly and efficiently.

Likewise, you’ll also have very slightly less room for using a unique narrative style too – so, you have to place extra emphasis on making your story unique in other ways (eg: characters, plot, settings etc..).

On the other hand, more complex, descriptive and “slower” narration can put off potential readers, but it means that your story will have a greater sense of richness to it. It means that your readers will be able to better picture the scenes you describe. It also means that your narrative style can be a little bit more unique (and memorable) too. Finally, it means that you can also do even more things (eg: literary techniques etc..) that no other storytelling medium can do.

As I said earlier, this isn’t an “either/or” thing. All stories, modern and old, fall somewhere between these two extremes. But, working out exactly where you want your story to fall is a decision that is well worth thinking about carefully.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Quick Tips For How To Fake “Film Noir”-Style Narration

Since I write these articles quite far in advance, I was busy writing last year’s “film noir” Christmas stories at the time of writing this article. However, although I’ve obviously seen and read a few things in the noir genre, I would hardly call myself an expert on it. Still, one of the most difficult things to get right if you aren’t an expert on the noir genre is the narrative style used in many things in this genre.

So, here are a few quick tips for faking “film noir”-style narration in your stories:

1) Less is more: Simply put, film noir narration doesn’t actually have to be that different from ordinary narration. If you go overboard with clichΓ©d “film noir” narration, then it will come across as obviously fake pretty quickly.

So, just write ordinary narration – with the occasional use of short sentences, pithy metaphors and/or drily amusing observations. The thing to remember about hardboiled narration is that it wasn’t originally meant to be a stylish fashion statement. It was meant to be an engaging style of writing that was quick to read and quick to write – after all, a lot of old stories in the noir genre were published in monthly magazines for a mass audience.

As long as the content of your story (eg: private investigators, crime, gloomy lighting etc..) fits into the noir genre, then you can get away with using ordinary narration that just includes a few cleverly-chosen noir features. But, remember, less is more.

2) Keep it simple (but not too simple): Following on from the “ordinary” thing I mentioned earlier, one of the easiest ways to fake “film noir” narration is just to make your narration sound a little bit like ordinary speech. In other words, there should be the occasional long word or complex sentence when necessary, but the prose shouldn’t just be elaborate for the sake of elaborate.

In other words, keep it simple. But not too simple. Once again, remember that noir stories were originally meant to be popular entertainment for a mass audience. They weren’t meant to be books for children or books for highly-educated literary critics. So, if you go to either extreme, then you’re missing the point.

Basically, just look at one of the noir genre’s modern equivalents – ordinary thriller novels – if you need examples of this happy medium between sophistication and simplicity. An author who provides a good example of this writing style is probably Lee Child. He writes in a fairly hardboiled and “matter of fact” style, without actually writing stories in the noir genre.

3) Small details: One of the easiest ways to give your narration more of a “film noir” quality is to include a few mildly unusual small details. These should be things that are slightly unusual, but could realistically be expected to be seen in everyday life. Generally, things that seem like kitsch or ephemera tend to work best for this.

For example, the second story in my Christmas collection last year includes this descriptive segment: ‘My eyes rested on the ornate marble finish pen that took pride of place on my desk. After I’d filed off the “Ebenezer’s Floor Tiles” e-mail address on the side, it actually looked like I’d paid good money for it.

Don’t ask me why, but this sort of thing tends to create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere. So, focus on mildly unusual everyday details occasionally and this will help to give your story slightly more of a “film noir” quality.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Does Your Fiction Writing Style Change If You Haven’t Practiced For Quite A while? – A Ramble

2017 Artwork Does Your Writing Style Change article sketch

Last Halloween, I got back into writing fiction after spending a while (probably less than a year) where I didn’t really write prose fiction. Before that, I’ve had other times where I didn’t write fiction for 1-2 years.

So, I thought that I’d look at the question of whether your writing style changes if you don’t write fiction for a while.

In short, it both does and doesn’t. When I wrote my Halloween stories, I noticed that they contained a mixture of writing styles rather than just one consistent “style”.

Several of them contained elements from various older versions of my writing styles – for example, this story sounds a lot like something I would have written in 2009-10 and this one sounds like a slightly improved version of something I would have written in 2005-7.

As well as this, some stories also sometimes contained elements from the slightly formal style that I use when I write these daily articles. This was especially interesting, since I found that I could write some stories a lot quicker if I made them sound a bit like a non-fiction article (like I did in this story and this one).

Not only that, my regular non-fiction writing and art/comic making practice also meant that I had all sorts of techniques for dealing with writer’s block/ uninspired moments that I didn’t have when I used to see myself primarily as a fiction writer.

So, some skills can transfer from other creative things that you may have been doing instead of writing fiction. This may or may not affect your writing style.

In the end, whether your writing style will or won’t change if you haven’t written any fiction for a while all comes down to experience and practice. If you’ve been doing other writing-related things in the meantime, then this will probably have some effect on your writing style.

Likewise, if you’ve read anything that uses a writing style that you really like, then parts of that style are probably going to seep into your own writing style when you get back into writing again.

However, if you’re out of practice, then your natural instinct will probably be to “pick up where you left off”. In other words, it’s very likely that you won’t completely lose or forget your old writing style. Because of all of your past experience with writing, you’re probably going to unconsciously end up using a similar style to the styles that you used to use.

Plus, if you haven’t practiced for a while, then your style is probably going to have all of the same flaws that it used to have. In my case, this is an annoying tendency to use rather “functional” narration if I’m writing fast. Likewise, I sometimes tend to over-use certain descriptions and sentence structures. So, you’ll probably end up keeping most of the flaws from your original style if you’re out of practice.

In addition to all of this, you have to take the fact that you haven’t practiced into account too. If you practice a skill regularly, then it soon becomes fast, fluent and intuitive. It becomes something that is almost second nature.

This feeling can go away a bit if you haven’t practiced for a while. As such, don’t expect the very first thing you write after you haven’t written for a while to be as flowing, eloquent or polished as the things you used to write.

Getting back to that level of skill and that distinctive style may take a little bit of practice, although it’ll probably take considerably less time that you would have to spend if you had no prior experience.

Still, this is probably different for everyone. I’ve been talking a lot about my own experiences and trying to find general lessons in them. But, I guess that the only real way to see if your style has changed or not is to try writing something.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Narrative Voice And Perspective – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Second person narrative voice article sketch

As regular readers of this site probably know, I tend to write these articles quite far in advance of when they’re actually posted. So, at the time of writing, I’m working on an interactive fiction gamebook project that may or may not have been posted online sometime around last Halloween.

Anyway, I noticed something very interesting when I was writing this gamebook. My narrative voice was different to how I remembered.

Back when I wrote fiction on a much more regular basis, I was very proud of the fact that I had a distinctive narrative voice. I’m not quite sure when it first emerged, but it was probably sometime in early-mid 2009. I’d gone through a few other narrative voices and I’d finally found the one that was perfect for me.

It was the perfect fit for the fiction that I wrote in 2009-11, since most of these stories were sci-fi/ horror/ detective stories that were narrated from a first-person perspective. In fact, my narrative voice was only at it’s best when I wrote stories in the first person. Whenever I tried to write from a third-person perspective, my narration often just sounded kind of dull and “functional”.

As fans of old-school 1970s-90s gamebooks (eg: “Choose Your Own Adventure“, “Fighting Fantasy” etc.. ) will know, these books are always written in the present tense and from a second-person perspective. In fact, this is the only genre of fiction that has to be narrated in this particular way.

Still, having had relatively little experience with writing from a second-person perspective (apart from this, this and part four of this ), the effects that this had on my narrative voice were extremely surprising.

If my usual first-person narrative voice sounds a bit like a twentysomething punk/goth woman from the future, then my second-person narrative voice in the gamebook that I’m writing sounds more like a cross between various American comedy writers, a rather posh old man, Missy from “Doctor Who” and something from this hilariously melodramatic vintage horror movie trailer.

Seriously, the difference really shocked me.

Even so, I can still just about see a few traces of my first-person narrative voice when I’m writing in the second person but, for the most part, my narrative voice is totally different when I write in the second person.

Interactive stories narrated from a second-person perspective have to do both of these things. Not only is the narrator an omniscient figure who is only partially in control of the world of the story, but he or she also has to talk directly to the reader too. I guess that this means that the narrative voice you use for second-person stories has to be tailored to the kind of story that you’re telling.

So, if you’re telling a horror story, then I guess that your narrative voice will probably sound a bit more nihilistic or “evil”. If you’re telling a fantasy story, then I guess that your narrative voice would probably sound more old and wizened. If you’re telling a detective story, your narrative voice will probably sound more “hardboiled”. I’m sure you get the idea.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but my narrative voice is certainly a lot more flexible when I’m writing in a second-person perspective.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚