There are two particular experiments in style I’d like to try.
First is the intense POV dominated by thoughts and feelings rather than simple reactions to events. Eversteam is the SWTOR forum writer I most look to for this, and elliotcat’s another good one – really powerful, saturated emotions…
This is a tough question. I’m a very visual person. When I read, I imagine the story playing out like a movie. I do the same when I’m writing. Where are the people in the room? What does my POV character notice? Does he/she miss something? Is it important and if so, how do I introduce it?
I also get broad brushstrokes of a story. The whole thing, all at once, in specific scenes, like a trailer for a movie. The big bits of the jigsaw puzzle, but not all the infilling sky or grass or garden wall. That’s the part I have to sit down and make myself write. I have the ending of Cleaner set and mostly written, as well as a series of intermediate climaxes. But before I post them, I have to get to them.
Bright, you are prolific and you finish things. I’m neither. I wish did even one of those things better. I envy you your character relationships, something I don’t think I do well. My Star Wars legacy characters don’t interact much. While they have backstories, elaborate ones, they aren’t intertwined. I don’t feel comfortable writing flirty or sexy stuff. Even things I know no one will ever read. You have Wynston scenes and stories I would never attempt. I have a hard time writing characters falling in love.
I suspect most people, if they write, write the sort of stories they like to read, be it action-adventure, romance, comedy, sci-fi, or whatever. Furthermore, most beginning writers (ok, probably everybody) starts off writing in a style similar to that of a beloved and/or recently read author. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Visual artists use references. So do writers. Words instead of shading, color, and vanishing points, but the idea is the same.
With that in mind, I think the best things I can suggest are some books and authors I really enjoy reading, and a couple non-traditional sources. In no particular order:
1. J.R.R. Tolkien. Everything. I loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It took two tries for me to get through The Silmarillion, though I appreciated it more later. I picked up an Unfinished Tales in a used book store with no idea what I was getting. Only that it was a Tolkien book I didn’t have. It’s worth examining both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books and movies to see the differences. The medium and how the audience takes in the story dictate some of these changes, others are artistic. These questions get to the heart of your “what to keep, what to get rid of” question.
2. The Big Three: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke. Most people think of Asimov’s Robot or Foundation series, and they’re both good. My personal favorites are The Last Question, Nightfall, and The Gods Themselves. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and The Door into Summer. The latter I remember so much for the cat going through the house in winter, scratching to go out but being displeased that no door went outside to a nice summer day. It was a minor point in the story, but it made the cat real, his owner’s love of him real. Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama.
3. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: Collaborating or alone, these guys made some incredible worlds. Larry Niven: The Integral Trees (as a fellow math geek you’d love how the trees got their name). As pair bent on Earthly destruction, try Footfall or Lucifer’s Hammer.
4. Marion Zimmer Bradley: Most well known for the Darkover series and Mists of Avalon, the first of her books I ever read was Hunters of the Red Moon.
5: Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. This one was really memorable to me. I read it over the course of a couple days (if that) one summer because I saw it on my grandmother’s bookshelf and it looked interesting. She had just died; our family made an emergency cross-country trip and I didn’t bring anything to read. Maybe it was a last gift. I received my box set of the Lord of the Rings at her house one Christmas.
6: John Steinbeck, The Red Pony. So many details make bring the farm and the horse to life. I think it was important that the horse wasn’t anthropomorphized so much as most horse-stories are. He was the pivot point for the main character and his family.
7: Anna Sewell, Black Beauty. I read this story over and over and over as when I was younger. I read it again as an adult, and while the scenes were just as I remembered them, I got an entirely different feeling from the book. Nothing brought home to me how much the horse in the 19th century was just like a car is today than re-reading her book.
8: H.P. Lovecraft. ‘nuff said. Try The Colour out of Space on for size.
9: C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants and The Merchant’s War. S.P. Somtow/Somtow Sucharitkul, Inquestor series, Starship and Haiku, The Shattered Horse. Barb and J.C. Hendee, The Noble Dead Saga. I include these writers together not because of similarity, but because they are less well known than most of the others on the list.
This is by no means exhaustive. I’ve read Dickens and Shakespeare, Murasaki Shikibu and Miyamoto Musashi, Homer and Beowulf. I could keep listing more books, but I wanted to make one generalization. With the exception of Tolkien and Lovecraft, most of these writers employed easy-to-read prose. Not always simple sentences, but sentences that are easy to parse and understand. Pre-1920 novels in general have complicated verbal structures and large vocabularies. News articles (the standard for clear and informative) of the same time period read the same way. Black Beauty is a standout in that it is Victorian in language, yet still easy and approachable for a modern reader. Regardless of style, good stories pick up the reader and take her for a fantastic ride, pointing out important landmarks along the way.
Finally, don’t overlook an important world-creating resource: tabletop RPG books. Hey, don’t quit reading! I know the geeks with the polyhedral dice are somehow more geeky and deserving of derision than the computer game geeks and the comic book geeks, but hear me out. GM/DMing an adventure—with players less interested in slaughtering every monster in the manual in alphabetical order and maximizing XP, that is—is like writing a story with collaborators. There’s still plot and character development, you’re just not in charge of all of it.
One of the essentials for a good GM is to set the stage quickly, immerse the players in your world, and then let them get on with the meat of the adventure. Readers want the same thing. Often, it’s as simple as giving a person or place a ‘tag’, something distinctive that sets them apart and makes them distinctive. The tavern with the half-orc barmaid. A character who speaks in sentence fragments, i.e. Lieutenant Pierce. The character who always eats grilled cheese and Pepsi. Bards used this technique for centuries to help remember days worth of epic poetry. It also helps readers remember your characters and makes the world believable.
Most important, RPG sourcebooks know the average player has the attention span of gnat on meth. They boil down descriptions of places and characters to a handful of sentences, making it easy for GMs to either use as-is or adapt and get the information to the players quickly. Very useful for picking out what’s important in a scene.
Some sources I’d recommend in this vein are (again, no particular order):
1: GURPS Horror. Ignore the stats and system. A fantastic resource for horror, obviously, but there’s a load of information in there on pacing and setting the stage. Both vital for writing as well as scaring the players around the kitchen table. Mood, and mood established through verbal description alone is what makes a horror game memorable. You can mimic fear with dice checks, but it’s much more fun to scare your players for real. [GURPS, by the way, is Generic Universal Role-Playing System. GURPS sourcebooks are fantastic for world-building.]
2: Citybook sourcebooks published by Flying Buffalo. There are at least eight of these. The first volume is subtitled “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker,” which gives you an idea of the kinds of people and places it details. These books are great for thinking about the “rest” of the world outside the great heroes who get stories written about them.
3: Torg sourcebooks. “Torg” originally stood for “The Other Roleplaying Game,” a working title that ended up the actual title of the game. Quite possibly the most bizarre game I’ve ever played, and one of the most fun. Ignore the terrible artwork and confusing rules, head straight to the back of the books for the Character Templates. PCs in Torg die often. Lest a player be sidelined because his character died in the first fifteen minutes, they offer premade characters, the templates. Define a character in two sentences, two or three items on their person, and a tagline. The ultimate in concise characterization. [This particular system is rife with racist/sexist elements. The appeal of the game was allowing wildly different genres to blend: a fantasy paladin, an intelligent dinosaur, and a pulp scientist all in the same group. The game embraced these divergent genres, warts and all. The link above goes to the tvtropes page that describes the essential elements.]
You said you don’t know what to get rid of and what to keep. Hemingway, known for sparse prose, described his style as “the Iceberg Theory”. An iceberg is grand and stately and move smoothly because 90 percent of it is below the surface. Show the reader the most important 10% and they will understand the rest. Steven King, in On Writing, makes similar suggestions. As an example, early in Thief of Lives, the Hendees describe an altercation at the border of two kingdoms. It’s all action. There’s no long political discourse, no explanation of relations between the two regions. Yet at the end of the scene, the reader knows the bordering kingdom is the fantasy equivalent of North Korea. The writer still has to know the 90% he doesn’t show, or the reader won’t pick it up.
I think about it like sumi-e ink painting, where the white (negative) space is as important as the painted area. Japanese gardening employs a similar esthetic. Put everything in the plan (the first draft), then begin removing things (editing). You know you’re done when you can’t remove anything more without ruining the structure (the story). What remains has to stay. It may take a lot of trial and error, patient editors, and practice, but you’ll get it, or what version works for you.
You finish things.
This is pretty awesome advice for any writer. Reblogging it to save it. Thanks for writing it.