I have been writing my entire life, but only seriously for the past seven years or so. In that time, I’ve developed a few habits that I think have served me well in developing and improving my own writing style and grasp of grammar, spelling and good structure. I’ll try to put some of my suggestions and (where applicable) my reasons why below. Like I said when I critiqued your piece, these aren’t “Ancient Chinese Secrets” – just things I’ve gleaned over a long period of time lumped all into one.
READ, READ, READ, READ, READ!
If you have to borrow books from the library, listen to them on audio discs or tapes, or if you like the organic feeling of holding a newly-bought book in your hands, read as much as you can. Not just in the genres you most love, either. Primarily, I write mystery and non-fiction. When I read, though, I read everything. I like to read non-fiction, mystery, horror, fantasy, science fiction, classic literature, plays, poetry…whatever suits my fancy at the moment. By examining other genres and other types of storytellers, you may be able to glean tips like style elements…and reading a lot always expands your vocabulary!
SET UP A “WRITER’S BOOKSHELF”
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Fifth Edition, Abrams, Donaldson, David, Smith, Lewalski, et. al.
The Gunslinger, The Dark Tower I, Stephen King (for inspirational purposes)
Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, Edition 17, F. A. Davis Co., Editors
Harbrace College Handbook, Eleventh Edition, Whitten, Horner, Webb.
Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, Strunk and White
On Writing, Stephen King
Your Novel Proposal: From Creation to Contract, Camenson & Cook
Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 2004 Edition
Writer’s Market, 2004 Edition
All of these books aren’t required to make a good reference setup for a writer, they’re books that I’ve found useful in the past while writing and rather than keep them in the living room on the bookshelf where I’ll have to get up, search them out and then take them back when I’m done, I’ve got them within arm’s reach. What you need for your writing style and preferred genre may be very different – just use whatever makes you most comfortable.
Find an author you really admire and find out how they do what they do.
For me, that author is Stephen King. I admire his storytelling and imagery, and I think his ideas are original. His stories wrap me up in such a way that I don’t realize that I should be trying to escape. I needed to know how he does it. I wanted to “learn at the feet of the master”, so to speak. And I can hear you now…”But he’s Stephen King…how can you “learn at the feet” of that master?”
Well, I’ve read and/or listened to many of his books. I’ve taken note of the books he mentions in those books. I’ve read a lot of those books, too. I read On Writing hungrily, and believe in a lot of what he has to say about developing a style, work habit, and a good grasp of the mechanics of the English language (his image of “a writer’s toolbox” is quite compelling). It’s taken a lot of time and effort, and I’m still learning, but I can see the payoff in the end.
Be serious about the craft.
For me, writing is not merely a hobby. It’s not a means to an end, either. For me, writing is a lifestyle – one in which I choose to live in an entirely different world a lot of the time. I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of other things in order to be serious about what I do. Expressing myself verbally has always been like breathing to me; it’s something I have no choice but to do. I have not always been able to do it to my standards, or even in a fashion that’s vaguely tolerable to read. After many years on the planet, I am now able to discern my style from the style of the other authors I’ve read, and this has only developed since I’ve become serious about the craft of writing (in the past four years or so). I try my best to keep my “writing life” from impeding on the lives of my family, but I’m not always successful. It’s something that the people who live in my house have had to be extremely accepting of, and we’ve (so far) managed just fine. It’s not always been easy, though.
Develop your own style.
Developing your distinct style is an effort in trial and error, soul searching, and self-exploration. After all, even though the reader is reading your story – just words on a page – they’re also making a decision about you as an author. Your style dictates whether or not that reader will pick up your next book or not. If the premise of the story is great, the execution is good, but the style is not engaging, you at least don’t have a repeat reader, and at worst you’ve lost the readership of others (via word of mouth…things like, “I read that new John Smith book. I just can’t get into his writing” can be a death knell for a competent writer who has a good story but lacks a personable style). Finding your own style can be a painful experience for some or an enlightening experience for others; it’s whatever you choose to make it.
I don’t claim to know how to find your style – it’s just something that “happened” with me. Developing a style that’s all your own is a very personal experience, and one you have to consciously set out to do (at least I did). I read one of my works and thought, I’ve read this before…from a thousand different authors in a thousand different books. I was simply parroting what I’d read before, copying a style I felt most comfortable with. That was when I realized that simply parroting wasn’t good enough for me. My own voice was what was important, and if I could find that somewhere inside myself, I’d be a better writer and better storyteller for it.
Learn good research habits and use them often.
Whether you write fantasy or romance, chick lit or mystery, good research skills are a must for a successful story. You want to have your characters travel in leagues instead of miles? Find out what the miles-to-leagues conversion is, and you’ll have a better understanding of how far they actually have to travel, and how much time it’s going to take.
There is a myriad of resources available online for research. Allexperts.com, Wikipedia, NASA, Society for Creative Anachronism and a thousand others can provide a wealth of information. Just make sure you always verify any information you receive at any of these sources through a second, independent source. Make sure you’ve got the facts straight, and you’ll have a more believable story. This will make the reader’s suspension of disbelief much stronger, and your work a lot easier to relate to.
Become a student of the world.
One of my best sources for inspiration and character development is people watching. Funny things people say to each other, their daily heartbreaks, the way they talk, what makes people happy or sad or what doesn’t affect them at all; all these things can fit somewhere into the development of a character or story line.
How do you do it? Eavesdrop (but try not to be obvious). Sit at the mall and watch people pass by, noting their facial expressions, how close they stand or walk to their companions. Watch your kids, the neighbor’s kids, your grandkids, nieces, nephews…whatever…find out what fascinates them at three, at ten, at sixteen.
Studying life, the way people live, and the world around you will help you to build genuine, emotionally invested characters. If John Doe appears to have no connection to anyone I know in the real world, or if I can’t imagine him as a person in the real world, I’m not going to invest my time or emotions in that character. Being a student of the world will help you to supply your characters with traits people can relate to, allowing them to “get behind” your characters and really care about what happens to them.
There’s probably much more that I’m missing entirely or forgetting about. This should give you plenty to think about, work on, and a good start to developing yourself into the kind of writer we all strive to be. I know how daunting, disappointing, draining, glorious, uplifting and freeing writing can be. My best piece of advice? If writing is what you love, do it. Never let anyone tell you that you aren’t good enough, you don’t have the skill, or you don’t have the imagination to be a writer. Take every criticism as a challenge to develop the area that was found lacking.