Monday, May 22, 2006

Trendy Writing

"Bull fucking shit." The imagery you have used is intense. There is movement, sound, smell. Very evocative. I give it 4 and 1/2 stars. Writer Daniel Hatadi*

Are you in fashion, scoring a 4.5*?

I’ve isolated one of the reasons I’ve been stressed out about my book. It all comes down to this, the phrase de jour, the new trend. Not whether or not you’re noir, but are you an original voice?

Now, most of what I see on this is in the crime genre. It could be pervasive, across the board for all I know, but specifically I’ve seen these comments from crime writers. And one of the things I’ve seen referenced by numerous people is the push towards lean, tight writing. I’ve seen some authors comment that a book shouldn’t be over 100,000 words, for example.

People debate whether they like short or long. Some publishers will only publish books a specific length.

In my opinion, that constricts what one can do with their style, making it even more difficult to be a “refreshing new voice” that rises above the din.

I started reading a book by one of the publishers that will only publish books in the 80,000-word range. There was a lot of “telling” writing, as you could guess, because the author simply doesn’t have room, or the ability (who knows, without seeing other work?) to really get the sensory descriptions in. Honestly, it didn’t hold me and I put it down and forgot about it.

I mean, you can’t “show” everything in a story or it would be 10,000 pages long. But sometimes, those nice, descriptive touches really add. And I’m one of those people who loved LOTR The Two Towers in the theatre, and loved it even more when I got the extended version with an extra half hour of footage in it. And I think we all know it wasn’t a short story to begin with.

That’s something that still lingers with me, to this day, when I think about reading my first Rankin book, The Falls. I felt like I was right there. The book just evoked this atmosphere, it was so vivid in my mind. And I was absolutely hooked.

You don’t even need to use an abundance of words to say a lot. From Fleshmarket Close, “Knoxland had been built in the 1960s, apparently from papier mache and balsa wood. Walls so thin you could hear the neighbours cutting their toenails and smell their dinner on the stove.”

Can’t you just picture that? Papier mache, balsa wood. Cheap, flimsy, the plaster crumbling off at the slightest touch, paper-thin walls that give the illusion of privacy when in reality, your neighbour can hear you burp. You can imagine the defeated looks on the faces of the people scampering through those hallways, trying to hold it together, wondering how their lives came to nothing better than this.

There’s a lot to be said for not wasting words. But there’s also something to be said for flow. If you cut the words so tight, sometimes it gives the reader a headache trying to stay on top of it. I definitely get that when I read some work. Not everything, but some. It’s like trying to play music that has no pause in it at all but start to finish is furious. Any of you who, like me, play the piano, the bass guitar, the fiddle, know how hard that is. It’s taxing. And reading something like that becomes exhausting sometimes.

Not that long ago, I was going over a story for a fellow author, and there was one thing I commented on, something I was wondering about at the beginning and still wondering about at the end. Doesn’t matter what or who, but I passed on my comments. The person came back and said they’d added seven words, showed me the change to one paragraph.

And they’d filled the gap and tied up something else I’d commented on, all in seven words. It might take nothing more than one short line, but it can make all the difference to making a story read complete. Less isn’t always more. And this person’s an absolute pro to know that, and to go back to their work and find a way to put it in.

As an editor, I walk the line all the time between addressing questions of technical error, and issues of style. And often, that line is no wider than a thread.

Now, I want to apply everything I’ve learned in the past few months, and make my book as good as it can possibly be in the final edits.

But I also want to make sure this is still my book.

When I was first writing Suspicious Circumstances, I couldn’t read anything at the same time. I would take a few days off – I remember that summer, I took time off to read A Question of Blood - and then I’d go back to writing. I worked pretty hard to keep my head clear so that my own style of writing wasn’t contaminated.

Now, I have more experience and can usually separate out my writing and reading, but I did realize over this past weekend that part of the reason I was worried about my book was because of talk I’ve seen from writers about liking books lean.

I like my weighty tomes. I love 400-page + books by Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Simon Kernick, Mark Billingham… Makes my mouth water, thinking about sinking my teeth into one of their books, knowing I’ve got plenty of great reading ahead of me. In fact, I’m more likely to pick up a longer book than a shorter one, and I know I’m not alone. Oh, I know there are others who prefer small books, but you see, that’s just the whole point. People have different tastes, they like different styles.

I mean, look at music. Even within country music. I like Corb Lund, and he calls his music scruffy country. And by God, it is. Bar music too. It’s Time To Switch To Whiskey. Guy music. Then you’ve got people like Shania Twain, Faith Hill. All flash, all playing to the mainstream, much loved and loathed, megastars.

Then there are those like Big & Rich. In-your-face artists who worked controversy with their first single, Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy and became superstars.

Now, I have a distant cousin, Deric Ruttan, who is a musician and songwriter. He’s co-written songs recorded by people like Dierks Bentley – songs that have been number 1, award-winning hits. And songs recorded by Canadian country superstar Paul Brandt, plus Aaron Pritchett, and American Gary Allan.

Deric was interviewed on radio, asked about songwriting, and one of the things he talked about was that not every artist felt comfortable with expressing things the same way. Which explains why he co-writes these fantastic, fun songs that Dierks records, like Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do and What Was I Thinkin’ -

She snuck out one night an' met me by the front gate,
Her Daddy came out a-wavin' that 12-guage
We tore out the drive, he peppered my tailgate.
What was I thinkin'?

Oh, I knew there'd be hell to pay.
But that crossed my mind a little too late.

'Cause I was thinkin' 'bout a little white tank top,
Sittin' right there in the middle by me.
An' I was thinkin' 'bout a long kiss,
Man, just gotta get goin', where the night might lead.
I know what I was feelin',
But what was I thinkin'?
What was I thinkin'?

- and then records thoughtful story-songs like I Saved Everything himself

In a drawer there's a key with an old wooden box
Sometimes Jesus and me, sit down and unlock another time
When you were mine

Rose petals and a letter,a piece of baby's breath
A single white feather you found the day we met
You said it came from an Angel's wings.

It really helped me to think about this. I was having a great weekend, playing hooky, reading a Simon Kernick book, exchanging emails with some of my favourite people, playing with kittens.

I’d been thinking stupid stuff, like “People who like Cornelia Read aren’t going to like my stuff. They’re going to laugh at it.” I mean, how many times have I seen Stuart MacBride talk about the inevitable comparison to Ian Rankin that Scottish authors face. Some guy moans on amazon, “This isn’t Ian Rankin.” No shit, buddy. That’s why it says, “Stuart MacBride” on the cover.

Right now, walk into bookstores all over and what do you see? Da Vinci Code knock-offs. Harry Potter-esque children’s books.

And I shut my eyes to all of it and go after the books I like, the ones I’m interested in.

Now, why is it so easy for me to be that way as a reader, and yet so easy for me to be afraid that my book will suffer by comparisons?

I mean, my book shouldn’t be just like Cornelia’s. It shouldn’t be just like Ian Rankin’s.

It should be like Sandra Ruttan. I’m either a writer, forging my own path here, or I’m nothing but a cheap imitation that will be here today and gone tomorrow. For all I know, my book could come out and I could be compared at length to existing writers. I haven’t got a clue. What I know is, compared to what I read, this isn’t a replica. I hope there’s shades of influence in terms of effective writing, but not imitation of individual style.

It’s a simple saying, but I guess it’s one I needed to remember. Just be yourself.

End of the day, I’m a person who prefers The Wire over Law & Order. Oh, I like Law & Order. But The Wire has a hell of a lot more story, more characters, more intricacies that play out over 12 hours instead of one.

That’s more how I write. Mega subplots.

I’m going to stop apologizing for that.

Oh, and, by the way, I’m now officially on the editing schedule. There are a lot of moments we authors go through, from sale to print, and seeing my name on the house update at TICO is one of those moments for me. One of those ‘My God, this is for real’ moments.

* Thanks for the approving comment regarding yesterday's post Daniel. Or at least that line. If I’m not mistaken, Daniel and I are making our Crimespree debuts in the same issue this year. He’s an exceptionally talented writer, great guy, and it’s nice to share the experience of magazine publication together.


JamesO said...

I used to avoid reading whilst I was writing, because I was afraid I'd pick up other writers' styles and influences. Now I don't do it because it's difficult to type and turn the pages at the same time.

Seriously, we are all influenced by other writers, and hopefully our writing is continuously evolving for the better. But we are all influenced differently by different things. And the same can be said of our writing voices. With the possible exception of several recent newsworthy plagiarists, we all write in our own unique styles.

Stuart's Rankin comparison is a fine example of lazy categorisation and pigeonholing - his writing is very different to Ian Rankin's. But for all that publishers, critics and readers clamour for 'original voice', they still want something that they can describe in reference to something else that has already been successful.

The key is in striking a balance between being too similar in tone to other authors, and thus labelled derivative, and too dissimilar, thus being inaccessible. But if you worry about it too much, then your writing will suffer. I concentrate on writing the best stories I can using the techniques I've developed over a lifetime of reading, analysing and enjoying the work of other people. Let someone else worry about the originality of my voice.

Karen Olson said...

You're absolutely right, Sandra, you SHOULDN'T write like Cornelia or Ian Rankin or anyone else. You have your own voice, and it will find its way into readers' heads and souls as they absorb YOUR words. There is no right or wrong way to do this, just do it your own way and be true to yourself and your own work.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"lazy categorisation and pigeonholing" - this is how I feel when people always resort to comparisons. I mean, you're dead on. You need to be similar enough and yet not too similar. Panelists said as much last year at Harrogate - what publishers really want is not something completely new but something that bridges what is known to something less known. You're dead on, James.

Karen, thanks, that's what I think a lot of writers need to remember. And I'm glad for it, because I've always resisted the pressure to make a significant stylistic change to the first book, and then I found myself worrying that I was making a mistake, which was silly. I've told the story I wanted to tell, and that's important to me.

Since James is one of only very few people (I think two) who've seen both Terms of Redemption/Echoes and Dust and Suspicious Circumstances, he probably has a pretty good idea of what it is about SC that I was struggling with. Because there are big differences between them.

JT Ellison said...

I have this problem too, thinking I've created a great story and voice, then reading someone like John Connolly and realizing I am such an amateur. But I'll also come across a book here and there and realize that mine's better, so I feel like I've found some happy middle ground. I'm not the worst out there, I'm not the best out there. I'm okay starting out that way.
As far as size, it does matter. I used to comb through drugstore or airport paperbacks, looking for the thickest. Now I realize that sometimes, less is more. There are monsters out there that could have dropped 50,000 words and been better, more streamlined. And there are super short ones that could have easily been expanded.
I do read while I write. Especially when I'm stumped in a scene. Something entirely innocuous in another's book can open me up, like a description of a storm makes me realize I haven't put any atmosphere into the scene. Little things that help with the show, you know?
Great post, and I'm so happy the publisher is nearly done. I can not wait!


anne frasier said...

i love writers with an original voice. that's probably the big hook for me, but i think writers have to be careful that voice doesn't overshadow the story and characters.

how long has tribe's quote been up there? :D

M. G. Tarquini said...

I don't think you could pass for Cornelia Read or Ian Rankin if you tried. I mean, she's blonde and he's male.

Nope, you'll just have to write like yourself.

Trace said...

I read while I'm writing. Actually, I read to escape my own writing!

Steve Allan said...

The best advice I received regarding voice and style was to not worry about it. Artifically creating a voice comes out - artifical. The development of voice comes with time. Just as you have become the individual you are today through experience, your voice will become just as individualized through reading and writing and reading and writing and reading and writing...

Boy Kim said...

"It should be like Sandra Ruttan... or I’m nothing but a cheap imitation..."

Yep damn right. You're not Japanese.

Sandra Ruttan said...

JT, I think as well that because different styles work for different people, we'll always be regarded differently by different people, so worrying about it doesn't help. I call him God and others say they think Ian Rankin is over-rated. They're wrong, of course, but they have the right to be wrong.

And good points about cutting and expanding. That's also true. Size isn't always an indicator of streamlined or the best writing... the story should be as long as it needs to be!

Anne, I rotate the quotes, so I just put it up again last night. I think you're right about voice overshadowing the story - it's a delicate balance.

Mindy, good points. I am, truly, neither blonde nor male.

Trace, lol! At first I couldn't do it. Now, I'm fine.

Steve, those are good points as well. God, my blog feels like an online support group.

And no, I wasn't directing that statement at Ian Rankin.

I'll be quiet now.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Boy Kim, I've officially snorted cereal up my nose. Thanks for starting my day.

JT Ellison said...

I like the blog as support group idea. Problem is, you're giving us all the answers and we're just agreeing with you. I think you're supporting us, not the other way around:)

angie said...

Seems like lots of folks involved in the arts, whether it's writing, plastic arts, music, whatever, struggle with the original voice issue. Sometimes I get a little freaked out when I think that there isn't really any book I can point to to compare my story with (I'm sure there's something out there that I just don't know about). Mostly I'm okay with that, though. And it's so much better to be yourself and not so similar to other writers.

Congrats on the progress with your novel's journey through the publication process! That's gotta feel pretty damn good!

JT Ellison said...

You know, when I was marketing myself, I'd say my books were in the style of -- John Sandford, Karin Slaughter, Lisa Gardner -- all folks I read and worship. At the same time, my voice and story are entirely mine, but I know that people who read these writers will like my work. I'm definitely different, but I fit into a specific type, I guess. Is that bad, do you think?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Now, JT, I'm not providing all the answers! But I could for a modest fee.

Angie, thanks, it is exciting. And I think your approach to comparison is good.

I don't think it's bad to fit a specific type, JT. I mean, I'm more Ian Rankin than Agatha Christie. We all find ourselves somewhere in the spectrum. And that's great - there's room for all of us.

Vincent said...

As both you and JT have said, albeit in different words, the common problem with long books isn't too many pages, it's too little story.

Boy Kim said...

My pleasure as always, my dear lady.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Vincent, very astute observation.

Boy Kim you're awesome.

Andrea at Lochthyme said...

Sandra you just should write like Sandra...that's whose voice we want to hear.

But people do like to label things whether it be authors, movies, clothing or pretty much anything. You always hear people saying it/they reminded them of such and such. It seems to just be human nature to compare things.

It's similar when designing jewelry. You don't want to be doing what everyone else is yet you don't want to be so different that you alienate the's a delicate balancing act.

As for book size...well size doesn't matter to me. :) I just finished a 600 page mystery and it was great even if certain descriptive passages made my skin crawl but that was probably the intent. But at other times I'll read relatively short books of less than 300 pages.

Cindi said...

Found your blog by accident and I LOVE your style. I will definitely look for your book when it comes out.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Andrea, thanks for that, and it's nice to hear that size doesn't matter. In reference to books, people! I tend to agree, now more than ever, I look at the style of writing. But I'm less of an impulse shopper with books now than before, so I know what I'm in the market for, strictly because I live in the country and tend to go to the city with a list.

Cindi, thanks so much. Welcome to Sandrablabber, and I found your blog and magazine site interesting. You're making me feel so guilty about not walking enough...

Daniel Hatadi said...

Your footnote has caused me to blush, and I didn't think this was possible.

Back to the subject of writing, I think we all have our little bugbears to worry about. I worry that maybe my main character's voice is a little too much like me, and that's cheating.

But the flipside is that Pronzini did the same thing with his Nameless PI. And on top of that, everyone has their own views to share with the world, and that's what makes them unique.

Or something.

Back to blushing now.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Daniel, no need to blush. Absolutely the truth, and I count myself lucky to be part of such a great group of writers. There will be a day when we're at some international conference and I can buy you a drink and we can celebrate our Crimespree debut properly!

Amra Pajalic said...

I was listening to a interview by Erica Jong on the Bat Segundo show and she said most writers take at least 10 years to find their voice. I also think that the characters influence your voice. That is when you're writing you sometimes feel like a medium and you're chanelling your character and seeing the world through their eyes and this will then influence the way things are written.

I'm also not reading as much since I've been working on this novel. It's not because I'm scared about being influenced by other people. That's one of the main reasons I read because you pick up so much by osmosis in terms of technique and craft, plus I think of it as feeding my brain and creativity. It's more that my novel and the world I created is so real that there's no space to fit anything else in it. First time that's happened.

And while I agree with one of the other comments that it depends on the story as to its length I have to say I love longer novels, mind you this only applies to tried and tested authors. I love picking up the book and sinking into the world, knowing that I'm guaranteed a good ride and the journey will last a few days.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

You needn't worry, my dear have a very distinct voice of your own. I don't know anyone comparable. :-)

For The Trees said...

Then again, I've never heard your voice. Why don't you call me so I can hear what you sound like?


Hey! Great support group! I feel better already! I'm not any further along on MY novel, but I feel better!

Daniel Hatadi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Daniel Hatadi said...

Convention. DRINK.

Toga, toga, TOGA!!!!!!!!!

Actually, that's probably a bad idea. Don't think the toga will work with my not-so-boyish figure.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks Bonnie - Forrest, you're funny. Stuart's heard my voice. It isn't that excited.

Come to think of it, Daniel's heard it too.

And damn Daniel, I really wanted to see you in a toga. Lying on a couch eating grapes. But I understand. I don't have a boyish figure either.

Anonymous said...

As someone still waiting in the wings, so to speak, I don't know whether a comment from me is appropriate--so may I make it a question? The discussion thus far seems (repeat "seems") to be aimed exclusively at genre material, specifically crime fiction. Do I have that right?

Discussion of voice and length would apply to any fiction, but what about style? Are the bloggers generalizing, or applying the commentary only to "hard-boiled" mystery and crime stories?

Just call me Old Scribe.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Old Scribe,

Yes, I think that most of the comments here are relating to genre writing. And to some degree, generalizing.

But as far as I'm concerned, everyone is welcome to post a comment, I don't care if it's book 10 to the printer or you're still working on book #1.

A lot of what I talk about related to crime fiction because that's the part of the industry I actually know a thing or two about. I'm be clueless to wade in on fantasy, although that's JamesO's specialty. So, I think sometimes, there is cross-over, but not in all things.

Thanks for posting - jump in any time.