What is style? What is that voice thing that editors keep going on about? How do you develop style and voice in 3 easy steps?
Lorrainne posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Randy, please describe how you see style and voice and how that is cultivated. Sight examples for clarification.
Randy sez: Drat! I was hoping for a question with an easy answer. You’ve asked one of the questions I find most difficult in teaching fiction writing.
I’d define style to be the set of patterns you use in your writing: word choice patterns, grammatical patterns, sentence structure patterns, paragraph structure patterns, narrative structure patterns.
I’d define voice to be the “attitude” you bring to your writing. This can be separated into the voice of each of your characters plus the voice you bring in as author.
Some examples of style patterns:
Word choice patterns. Do you use long words or short words? Do you use foul language or fair language? Latin-based words or Anglo-Saxon words? Active verbs or passive verbs? Spicy nouns or tofu nouns? Lots of adjectives or adverbs or hardly any?
Grammatical patterns. Do you violate those annoying rules of grammar that Mrs. Thiesing taught you in ninth grade English, or do you follow them? Do your verbs and nouns agree? Do you split infinitives?
Sentence structure patterns. Do you use long sentences or short? Clip the subject of the sentence? Do you pile on the clauses?
Paragraph structure patterns. Do you use long paragraphs or short? In dialogue, do you make a new paragraph every time you have a new speaker or do you sometimes lump two or more people together?
Narrative structure patterns. What is the mix of action, dialogue, interior monologue, interior emotion, description, and narrative summary in your writing?
Some examples of “attitude” in your writing:
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Religious or not? Confrontational or conformist? Conservative or liberal? A rule-keeper or an anarchist? Altruistic or selfish? Judgmental or slow to leap to judgment? Angry? Depressed? Chaotic? Whimsical? Neurotic?
I could go on and on, but I think you get it.
Now the problem is how to develop your style and voice.
To develop your style, you need to learn what your options are. You do that by reading. Ten million words should be enough, if you read a mix of categories. That corresponds to about 100 novels. When you’ve read that many, you ought to have a good sense for what can be done with the language.
To develop your voice, I recommend writing a million words. That works out to about 10 novels, although you don’t have to write that many different books. It might be ten complete versions of one book. Your voice is you on paper. You don’t need to practice being you, but you may need to unlearn some of the things you were taught in school. That’s why you need to write a lot — because it’s only in doing it every day for years and years that you strip away all the handcuffs that Mrs. Thiesing put on you in school.
Do you have to read 100 million words to develop your own style? No. You might learn it quicker. You might never learn it. I’m guessing that 100 million words is an average. Your mileage is guaranteed to vary.
Do you have to write 10 million words to develop your own voice? Same answer.
What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? How many books did you have to read to develop your style? How many did you have to write to develop your own voice? Leave a comment and let me know, because I’m just guessing based on my own sordid experience as a reader and a writer. I’d love to get some data from writers who aren’t me.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: Agent Steve Laube blogged today with the headline: Every Writer Must Read This. I read it, and found that it’s a summary of a recent Harris Poll on the reading habits of Americans. There are some useful trends to note here. The most popular category is mystery/suspense, as measured by the percentage of readers who read this category. I suspect that the most popular category is still romance, as measured by the number of books actually bought, because romance readers tend to buy tons of romances. Steve is a guy I always pay attention to, so check out what he has to say.