Writing It Your Way

by Ivory Soap

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“That subject has been done a lot, but never in that way.”

There were two words in that sentence, spoken by my super-experienced agent, that made me want to jump up and down and call all my friends.

“…that way.”

Meaning, MY way. Meaning, I have a distinct way of handling a subject that is recognizable from one piece of work to another. A style.

So, how does a new writer get one?

In my experience, it’s not something that one does on purpose and almost never appears consistently in the early work. It develops over time and experience as the baby fat comes off the writing.

STYLE is what remains after loads of critique and rejection and perseverance. It’s what remains after we learn and accept how people hear us on the page.

There are several stages to developing, or more correctly, excavating a writer’s style.

Stage One: Learning the Rules

This is the stage when we re-learn how to punctuate, speak in active voice, form a three-step plot, and all of those other craft basics. For poetry, it’s about learning to hear the beat, stressed and unstressed syllables, perfect and near rhyme, etc. For novels, it’s about things like dialogue tags, communicating the internal thoughts of the character without standing them in front of mirrors every five seconds, eliminating redundancies and minimizing adverbs.

We all pop in and out of this stage as we develop and explore our medium, but until we are reasonably fluent in this area, it will blind readers and editors to all else.

Stage Two: Learning to see the world through another’s eyes

This is we can write a decent, well-formed story, but it’s nothing new. Yes, our kids are cute, our granddads had great lives, or we can write a fun fish story, but unless there’s a lot more to it than that, it’s not something editors are dying to pluck from the slush. They have a million more just like it.

To get through this stage, we must learn to pop into the heads of the audience and see things from their perspective, not ours. This is when we learn about layers. Writing stories that aren’t just coherent and cute, but work on several levels. This is when we learn the difference between our work and what’s being published.

Just like the previous stage, we fade in and out of this one over time, but at some point, when our critique partner says, “I think you need to start this story earlier. For a kid, the experience starts with packing the car,” we should see what she’s talking about and be able to make it happen.

Stage Three: Making Good Choices

This is the fun part. This is where you are fluent and understand how to write something others want. You can choose YOUR topic and write it for BOTH you and the audience. This is the time when you will settle into a favorite groove.

Some types of poetry will create the effect you like better than others. Some types of prose, perhaps. You approach the world with a distinct attitude and way of communicating and people can see “you” across your work.

Stage Four: External Style Recognition

For each medium in which we work, our style can be described in ten words or less.

  • Deanna’s pb–Sparse, poetic childlike wonder, descriptive imagery.
  • Ashburn pb–Bouncy, sassy, often adorably sicko.
  • Wheeler pb– Seamless brisk rhyme. Punny, sweet stories.

Editors think of YOU when they want something with a certain attitude. “I want a new baby story in Deanna’s style” or “Kelly is so good at such-and-such humor. Her treatment of this subject would be perfect.”

That’s what we’re looking for.

I thought in the beginning that I was a humor writer, since that’s how I am in person. But, after loads of rejection, critique, and practice, I see that my best-received work always has a highly sensory, “beautiful” element to it. My fiction ‘funny’ is caustic and boring without a 98% poetic setting. Huh, who knew? Certainly not me. Not until I’d had about 100 critiques and about double that many submissions.

Let’s hope you’re a faster learner than I am!


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Alice January 16, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Thank you so much for the pointers in writing. Now maybe I can write a letter worthy of reading by family and friends. This will really help in writing my life story for the children without boring them too much. You are so awesome with your posts that I often check to see if it has come to my email. Most of the time it is at night. Best Wishes.

JavaLady January 16, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Thanks!! Very, very good points !!

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