Posts Tagged how to develop your writing style
On a recent episode of Litopia’s Pop-Up Submissions, we intended to talk about writer confidence, then the show went in another direction. But it’s worth a proper discussion.
Litopia founder Peter Cox, who is also a literary agent, told me confidence is a major issue for his members. ‘Either it never gets a chance to develop, or gets fatally knocked by so much conflicting advice (thank you, internet). But without a sense of self-confidence, I don’t believe a writer can develop their own true voice.’
First, let’s define voice. It’s what makes you unmistakably you. Your style. Your thematic signature. The distinctive hue of your world. As Peter says, this comes from confidence.
Here’s my take.
I remember when I wasn’t secure about my voice and other distinctive whatnots. I regularly rebooted myself, to be like the authors I was reading, or to act on feedback from critique groups or other publishing people.
I seemed to be a jigsaw. A bit of this and that. And changing all the time.
But gradually, I discovered that if a technique or approach didn’t fit me naturally, I couldn’t keep it up. It was a strain, like clothing that was too restrictive. But sometimes a new thing did fit. I kept it, and once I used it, it changed anyway, bent to my own shape.
If you do enough of this…
…eventually you’ll know…
- Your writing style – whether it’s poetic or not, descriptively detailed or not, pacey or not, emotional or not.
- Your thematic signature. There will be certain aspects of life you’ll tend to write about, and certain characters – because those are your curiosities as a member of the human race.
Curiosity. Look closely at this word. It’s highly individual. It’s how your originality works. Originality also comes from confidence – when you know it’s okay to do what you’ve never seen before.
You’ll also know what flavour of book you’re suited to write. If you like the conventions of the crime genre, or the horror genre, or paranormal, medical thrillers or historical romance, or whatever, write them. They are genuinely you. The readers who like those conventions will enjoy your enthusiasm. If you like the nuances and ambiguities of life, and metaphorical resonance, you have a literary bent. Write that. Perhaps you’re a mix of genre and literary; often they’re on a spectrum. Learn who you are and be that.
Muddling and fiddling
This sounds so inefficient and clumsy. Is it really a way to learn?
It’s the only way. Because writing isn’t just a technical skill. It’s an art as well, and the art is, arguably, the trickier aspect. It comes from a complex and unique source – our inner landscape.
This holds for other artforms besides writing. Recently I interviewed a visual artist who said he gets inspiration by meditating, by submerging in an inner world he doesn’t listen to in everyday life. Actors also do this kind of deep exploration. Just last week I met a manager at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She said that much of actor training is about understanding themselves, and to an extent that most of us never consider. What they respond to, how they make others feel.
Whether actors, artists or writers, we all create from this unique source. We find it by discovery, by dismantling what we do and rebuilding, trying on feedback or advice, listening for the change that rings true, that enlarges what we can do. Slowly it becomes an inner courage, to be who we are.
When does this experimenting stop?
It doesn’t. There are always new things to learn as writers, readers and human beings. Also, each book goes through cycles of confidence – at least, mine do. I start in a muddle. After a while, some ideas sing well with it. Some don’t. I can treat feedback constructively, especially negative. I can recognise feedback that doesn’t align with my intentions, so it doesn’t demolish the work, which certainly happened a lot in the blundering days.
So that’s how I’d define confidence. How would you define it?
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
Yesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.
1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.
Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)
So what do established authors do? What’s a reasonable daily wordcount? You might as well ask a bunch of cats to form an orderly queue at the fridge door. Every writer measures a good day’s work by different standards and methods (helpful, huh?) . And if slow sales are panicking you to hurry the next book, here’s what some authors did to fight back, without compromising their standards.
2 We learn from others, but teach ourselves.
No matter how many courses you attend or manuals you ingest, your most effective learning is your own explorations. None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.
How did they do that? By reading with awareness.
Here I’m going to advance a theory. If there’s such a thing as a natural writer, it’s a person who is unusually sensitive to prose. For such people, a book isn’t just a story told on pages, it’s a transformation they’re observing on their own heart and mind. With every phrase, a clutch of neurones parses this question – what did that do? (Honestly, it doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s part of the pleasure. Quick question – how many of us here are slow readers?)
Anyway, our individual style comes from noticing the tricks of others and knitting them into our DNA.
You might say I’m doing myself out of a job here. Indeed, how dare I offer writing books, courses, seminars et al? Well, I can’t do the work for you, but I can help with insights from my own journey, feedback, awareness, methodology and (I hope) a friendly word of encouragement. To be honest, I’m first a writer, then a teacher.
BTW, there are ways to find writing help without paying a second mortgage.
3 We make our own rules but recognise when we’re wrong.
Much of the time, the writing process is an experiment. If we’re novice authors, we’re searching for our style, our voice, our signature. Even when we’re experienced, we still grapple with uncertainty – a stubborn plot, obscure characters. Each book goes through a formative stage with shaky bits, and feedback to do things differently. Sometimes that feedback is dead right; sometimes it’s way off beam. We need to assert our own vision – but also know when to listen.
Sometimes we’re misled by critiquers who didn’t understand what we were doing. Sometimes we need to ignore an editor’s suggestions, but find out where the real problems lie.
But sometimes the only option is to unplug and listen to our instinct.
(Pic by MC Escher)
That’s me paradoxed out. What would you add? And tell me if you’re a slow reader – and if so, what slows you down!