a pane of glass

I emailed back and forth a few times with Laura Stanfill (when we were preparing for my guest post on her blog) and she mentioned that my writing in Stevie One is "clean and accurate."

My response in email was:

I liked your comment about Stevie One being "clean and accurate." That's really what I aim for. One of my beta readers made a similar comment about the mystery story book, and I was very pleased.

I try to have as little "style" as possible, since I think of my writing as a window. I want people to see through the words to the story being told, and if they're concentrating too much on the words and the style, that's like when your eyes refocus from the events outside the window to the smudges on the glass.

I don't think all writing needs to be this way, by the way. There are certainly writers who I read at least partly for the sheer wonder of their sentences (Henry James and Thomas Pynchon come to mind – I said somewhere that every sentence of Pynchon's is better than any sentence of mine), but I think my strengths are elsewhere (probably connected to the fact, as I've talked about on my blog, I've learned more about storytelling from movies than I've ever learned from books).

I think I'm (very slowly) getting better at this. When I go back and look at A Sane Woman, I still like it a lot, but there are a few things about it that I would simplify if I was writing it today. ASW was written over a long period of time (especially for such a short book 🙂 ) and the final section changed POV to first person. This was for two reasons.

One reason was that the detective had arrived to solve the mystery, so the narration shifted to her "Watson," but the other reason was that at that point, over a decade since I'd written the first chapters, I couldn't really write in the same voice anymore. I'd learned a few things in the intervening years (for one thing, I'd written a different novel during that time). I could have imitated my younger voice, but it would have been like doing an impersonation. The two are not that different, one is a progression from the other, but they are not the same.

Then I was talking about this with Astoria (who did the cover art for A Sane Woman) and she said that for artists your style starts with your body – your hand, your arm, how you hold the brush – and this has a big effect on how your style develops.

Of course, you can imitate someone else's style (see F for Fake 🙂 ), but that's all it will be, an imitation.

The same is true of musicians. It's obviously true of singers (no two people are born with the same voice), but it's true of all musicians. I remember reading an interview with Elton John and he talked about the days when he'd worked as a session musician. He'd realized very quickly that he was limited as a piano player because he has small hands and (I believe this is how he put it) "stubby fingers." He had to develop his skills and his style within those limitations.

I think writing is not that different. Not everybody starts with the same equipment, and you don't get an infinite number of choices about what kind of writer you're going to be, what style you're going to have. I read a comment recently (I forget where) about a recent comic novel that told the story of a young writer who tries, for commercial reasons, to be a different type of writer than he is. I can see the potential for humor in that situation.

Fortunately, there are a lot of different ways to write well. As I think of movies, some great directors move the camera a lot, some almost never do. Some use a lot of close-ups, some might have only one or two close-ups in a picture. Some prefer to work on location, some prefer to work on sets. Some love CGI, and some avoid it whenever they can. Some directors also act in their pictures, some edit their own pictures, some write their own scores, some even shoot their own pictures. Some would have no idea how to do any of those things.

Everybody starts with limitations, like Sir Elton's stubby fingers, but that can help focus and direct the direction you can go in. Limitations (and there are always limitations) can be a great impetus to creativity, as genre limitations are (I talked about that here).

More of Stevie One should be coming by mid-week. I'll post something here when it's ready.

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