Friday, November 30, 2007

An Example in Style

By Josi S. Kilpack

People talk about it all the time: I love their style! The style of their writing was so unique. The style of the writing left me a little cold.

So what is style? What does it mean and how do I find it?

Style is one of those things that is rather vague and transitory, it's very difficult to define and sometimes hard to pick off with absoluteness. J.K. Rowling has a style, as does Tom Clancy and Amy Tan, it's not what they write--it's how they tell the story. If J.K. Rowling every writes an action packed spy novel, you can bet it will sound very different from Tom Clancy. Even within genres with similar story lines, the stories will sound different, enough that a reader might love Danielle Steele and hate Catherine Coulter even though they both write romance. It's the style that brings the author behind the words to life. They way they use the words and share interpretation and sensory information is what makes their story stand out.

In addition to the fact that every author has a style, most authors struggle to find it. They want to sound like Mary Higgins Clark, but kind of like wearing you're big brother's pants, it doesn't fit and therefore it's uncomfortable and unflattering. They are sure that if they sounded like Ken Follett they would get published. Wrong. You will get published when you find out what you sound like, and when you find the place that you are most comfortable. That's not to say you won't have room for improvement. One of my style points is to avoid description, and I've had to work on that because description is an important elements of writing fiction. But because I know my base, I can move out from that part and incorporate new elements that make my voice stronger, richer, better understood.

I'm sure this is still clear as mud--it's taken me years to understand style and yet two weeks ago when a teacher in whose class I was presenting asked me to talk about style I froze. It is a very difficult thing to "teach". However, there are some great books that can help you discover your style: The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron and The Elements of Style by William Strunk, jr. and E.B. White, are two of my favorite resources when I find my own style slipping through my fingers as I'm seduced by the idea that if I sounded a bit more elegant, or intense, or dramatic--more like THAT author--the writing would be better overall. But my style is mine, and when I try to ignore that I sound mechanical and well, not myself.

To illustrate this, I've included a report my daughter wrote for her health class. She had me read through it for editing purposes and I was just tickled by the style behind her words. It sounds just like her and somehow she made Lung Cancer an entertaining topic. I could read every report in her class without names and know this one was hers because of the style she has when she writes. And that is our challenge, to find out how we best sound like us:

Lung Cancer

#2 Kilpack

Your lungs, like all of your other organs and body parts, help you stay healthy and alive. Your lungs are located in the chest area. Your lungs are a big organ, so it takes up most of the room in the chest area One thing that I thought was interesting was that your lungs aren’t the same size, crazy! The left lung is a little bit smaller than your right. So there’s room for the heart. You probably already know that the lungs help you breathe, inhale air, exhale air, and talk. So their a BIG deal. But if your lungs stopped working, BOOM! Your gone for good. So of course you want to keep your lungs healthy. But how can you damage them?

One of the ways is smoking. Everyone knows that smoking and taking drugs are bad, even if people do those things, they still know it. Drugs are very scary things. They don’t only ruin your lungs, but also your skin, teeth, fingers and toes, fingernails, toenails, and of course the way people think of you. Some reasons why people take drugs are because they think it makes them cooler (only makes them less cool ), to relieve stress, they get offered and addicted, etc. What can it do to your lungs? A lot.

It causes lung cancer. You may think it’s just another of those cancers. But every cancer is dangerous. Lung cancer is one of the most deadly cancers. Lung cancer kills more than colon, prostate, lymph and breast cancer combined! That’s a lot of deaths!

Most cases of lung cancer could’ve been prevented by NOT SMOKING! 90% of cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking. Every cigarette increases your risk of getting lung cancer. Lung cancer also may cause fatigue, loss of appetite and weight loss.

Because lung cancer doesn’t cause signs or symptoms in it’s earliest stages, its often advanced by the time it's diagnosed, but when there is a symptom, the most common way of knowing is a cough.

Also be alert for:

Smokers cough that worsens

Coughing up blood

Chest pain

Shortness of breath

Hoarseness that lasts for more than two weeks


Anna said...

Sometimes I wonder if maybe I need more description in my novel. I know there is the whole "show, don't tell" thing. But obviously description is needed to a point in books. I'm not a majorly descriptive person, but I have enjoyed books where the author is rather descriptive.

But then, I think like you said, this is my style. I'm sure I'm still finding it and defining it, but I can see a trend in my writing of how I sound.

Some authors have a lot more dialogue and less description and some vice versa. And I've enjoyed both ways. So yeah, I guess having your style is what makes you, you.

Oh, and by the way, I recently read To Have or to Hold. Loved it. I stayed up until 2:00 one night cause I couldn't put it down.

Rachelle Christensen said...

This is something I haven't thought a lot about. I'm going to have to investigate to see what my style is, I'm hoping that it's not just "unpublishable" :)