In any work of writing, even this blog, whether we are conscious of it or not, there is a voice that comes through. It’s what you hear in your head while you’re reading. It’s how it makes you feel–is it whimsical? Informative? Tense? Know-it-all? It’s up to how you interpret what you’re reading on the page. It also has to do with how the author writes it. Combined, those two things create voice.
Much of the information you’ll find on writing of any kind deals with the importance of style: “develop your own,” “imitate the masters,” “read extensively in the genre you’re writing in to get the hang of the genre-accepted style.” It’s all good advice, but something I’ve realised is paramount in my own writing is to adjust the style depending on what kind of story it is. Writing involves seeing things from a character’s perspective: developing a persona and speaking through it. A sort of ventriloquism. Seems intuitive, I know, but in the competitive market the need to “develop a brand” can have authors pigeon-holing themselves into a select genre or into an instantly recognisable writing style that petrifies into tedium. Although, some authors genuinely only have one story they want to tell, therefore rightly limiting themselves to one genre. And having a set, recognisable style is far from being an objectively bad thing. If people really like it, then changing it may have a negative effect; I had a librarian tell me she had liked Alice Hoffman’s early books “but then her style changed.”
On the other hand, no matter how much someone may enjoy your trademark style, if you write too many of the same type of stories with the same type of themes and characters, even the writing style may not save it. I had an experience like that recently with Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay. I love Markus Zusak and the voice that comes through his style. I was pumped for the new book marketed as a story about brothers and fathers and the importance of building bridges. I fell into the rhythm of his prose. But once I got halfway through, I realised, no matter how much I enjoyed the act of reading his sentences, I had ceased to care about the story. The rhythm of his style was so comfortable that it nearly lulled me to sleep. But it wasn’t the style’s fault–it was the story he’d paired it with. Because the story of the brothers and sons and fighting for life and family, the very things that had drawn me to the story in the first place, was one I’d read before. One Zusak had written. It was The Underdog. More specifically, it was The Underdog story with I Am the Messenger style. Now, I don’t think Zusak only has one story to tell; The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger are very different story and character-wise from his other works. But to me Bridge of Clay felt like it was trying to be The Underdog with an adult drama tone (hence, the I Am the Messenger vibes) and a more comprehensive backstory (it is, after all, 452 pages longer) but in the end failed to impact because the meat of the story and the characters themselves were essentially the same as The Underdog.
Aiming for a static, “on-brand” style is especially problematic when beginning to write–where is the room for learning? for growth and development? And if you do read for the purpose of absorbing and learning the style of others, are you then content to write for the rest of your life with someone else’s voice? In the book Thing Feigned or Imagined, writer Fred Stenson related that there was a stage in his own writing career when he was obsessively reading J.P. Donleavy and published a book in the same style as Donleavy. But he didn’t keep writing like Donleavy for the rest of his life. Over a decade or so, Stenson honed his own voice, which is what writers should do. Granted, there may be a distinction drawn between the style changes that happen naturally with practice and those that develop over time as an individual learns and grows. But how big is that distinction really? There is merit in recognising the influence of others on your writing style and accepting that your own may be an amalgam of various voices. But you should also branch out from and reimagine those influences to create something new that is not simply an echo of another. Writing in one particular genre and/or style can all too easily become second-nature to the writer and encourage complacency in the craft.
Another big argument for varying style is considering who’s telling the story: whose POV is it? If it’s first person or third person limited the style will depend on the character we’re following. If there are multiple perspectives alternating, whether in first or third person limited, the style should alter accordingly or else the reader will feel like all the characters are the same person in different hats. If it’s third person omniscient, it’s much harder to determine based on character and more likely to be based on genre, mood, and other related story goals.
I came across two examples recently of authors failing to change their style according to narrative voice. Mentioned above, Bridge of Clay is a first person POV example. When I began Bridge of Clay, I liked the narrative voice of first person from a secondary character’s point of view. The problem came when I realised that this “character” has nearly the same voice as another first person narrator written by Markus Zusak. It was an echo of I Am the Messenger, even down to the anthropomorphic household pets. That’s where suspension of disbelief goes out the window and the author becomes painfully present in the story without intending to be. And, as I already said above, the story was very much like The Underdog. Maybe someone who hadn’t read the Underdog books wouldn’t feel that way, I don’t know. But my point is, even if readers love you for a particular prose style, if you don’t come up with something different to say, you should at least consider finding a different way to say it or else they’ll feel like they’re reading the same story over and over again.
The other example, of a third person omniscient POV this time, is All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater. I am a die-hard Raven Cycle fan, let’s just clear that up right now. I have also read her Wolves of Mercy Falls Trilogy (are there more than three books in it now?) and Lament, so I’m fairly familiar with her style. I think it was used to best effect in the Raven Cycle, serving the story and characters to perfection. While the narrator crept into reader consciousness as a disembodied voice at times, I don’t remember it being half as obtrusive as what met my sight in All the Crooked Saints. Stiefvater’s style may best be described as quirky, with a whimsical quality that coincides nicely with the contemporary fantasy type of stories she tells. All the Crooked Saints is Stiefvater style turned up to eleven. It felt like someone was standing beside me and telling me this rehearsed story. The narration took centre stage and the characters fell flatly in its shadow–I couldn’t see the characters develop, I had to listen to a narrator impart an evaluation of the character in question. Each new character received a paragraph or two of description and/or brief history concluded with the statements, “Here is a thing (character’s name) wanted: (fill in the blank). Here is a thing he/she feared: (fill in the blank).” While I don’t automatically dislike an experimental, consciously prominent narrative voice, I did think this one could have better served a short story wherein there is not enough time to go to extensive lengths showing each character. In that context, this type of listing pattern might be a fun and creative way to vary the summaries necessary to the form. In the longer form of this book (which wasn’t even that long, let’s be honest), the summarising narration seemed to be employed because Stiefvater had too many characters she wanted to develop and couldn’t do justice to them all. On top of that, the narration recycled another distinctive pattern, one that I recognised from The Raven Boys. Tell me that this is not the same narrator if you can:
Niall Lynch was…dragged from his charcoal-gray BMW and beaten to death with a tire-iron. It was a Wednesday. On Thursday, his son Ronan found his body in the driveway. On Friday, their mother stopped speaking and never spoke again.
On Saturday, the Lynch brothers found that their father’s death left them rich and homeless…
On Sunday, Ronan stole his deceased father’s car.
On Monday, the Lynch brothers stopped being friends.The Raven Boys
On the first day, [Felipe Soria] completed the stucco walls for a small structure the size of his stallion’s box stall… On the second day, he’d torn free a section of abandoned railroad and melted it… On the third day, he’d fired one thousand ceramic tiles… On the fourth day, the Virgin had appeared… On the fifth day, he’d made a rich pigment from some sky that had gotten too close to him… On the sixth day, he’d held up a passenger train…
On the seventh day, Felipe Soria had gone missing forever.All the Crooked Saints
Upon reading the excerpt from Saints again, I realise that Stiefvater was going for a Creation story imitation here–numbering days one through seven, the building process, etc. But it’s still mightily reminiscent of The Raven Boys excerpt. In effect, it’s the same voice narrating. Which, again, leads to the unwelcome intrusion of the author into the story where they may not have intended to appear. To be fair to Stiefvater, she revealed in a blog post (I think it was in response to someone on her tumblr? Sorry, I read it long before the book came out and can’t find the link) that the process for writing this novel was extremely difficult for her as she was dealing with extensive health problems throughout, causing a brain fog that made it hard for her to focus. I remember her saying that, having gone over every word in the novel with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that it wasn’t nonsense due to her occasional lack of coherence, she would never read the story again herself as it would make her relive the painful experience of writing it. That may explain some of why this book’s execution feels a tad off to me, but also kudos to her for pushing through and turning out a novel at all during such a horrible time.
The moral of the story is to think about how you write what you write. If you’re writing the same type of stories, think about whether you should be varying the delivery. If you’re writing very different stories, the delivery will probably be different. Also, think about being experimental–I know I’m giving Stiefvater crap for her experimental style in All the Crooked Saints because it just draws so much attention to itself and is distracting, but like I mentioned, that type of narration could slay in a shorter form where there is a genuine reason to be succint to the point of summary. Remember, the style serves the story; the story does not exist to showcase your style. But don’t be afraid to try new things–new genres, new story lengths, new narrative voices. Writing short stories was an eye-opener for me about how versatile my style could be. Where will you look for a fresh perspective? Those new shores may be where you find the styles you want to make your own.