Friday, October 15, 2021

Style Counsel

 by Abir

Has your writing style evolved over the years? If so, tell us how, and what the drivers of those changes were.

I’m going to tell you a secret. I find it hard to read, A Rising Man, my first published novel. I only started writing it 2014, and it was published a mere five years ago, but I find myself cringing at so many passages: so many clunky turns of phrase; so many over-florid metaphors; so many over-detailed descriptions. 


I find it difficult to read the second novel, A Necessary Evil, too, though it’s a bit easier than the first book. The third book, Smoke and Ashes, I can read pretty much the whole way through without getting upset (don’t get me wrong, I don’t make a habit of reading my own books – I’ve got better things to do, but sometimes you end up having to go through the previous books in a series to make sure you’re keeping your facts consistent. I once sent my character, Sam Wyndham to a Buddhist monastery at the end of a book, only to forget and for that to become a Hindu ashram in the next book – that was fun getting out of.)


Back to the matter of writing style. I’d say that the greatest evolution in my writing occurred between the first and second drafts of my first book. I remember receiving the edits on the first draft and it was covered in red ink. At first it was rather soul destroying, but then, I set to work, absorbing the comments, distilling the advice, learning the craft of writing.


I learned about pace and the beats of a novel – the need to maintain tension and how to keep the reader turning the page. I learned how to say more with less – how one vivid line of imagery was better than a dull but factually accurate paragraph of description. I learned the need for tight plotting and to bear in mind that crime fiction readers are amongst the most sophisticated of readerships – they expect a high level of intricacy in the plotting and they can’t be taken for granted. I learned about dialogue and about the humour, especially dark humour, can help transform your characters and your novel.


I’d say that my journey to writing what I believe is a competent novel took those first three books. Smoke and Ashes is probably the book I’ve written that I think achieves its potential. But life, and writing, is about growth and improvement. That book fulfilled its potential, because the objectives I set when I wrote it were limited. I wanted to write a thriller, from one point of view, weaving real history with fiction – and that was fine. But with the next book, Death in the East, I set my sights higher. I wanted to write a more complex novel – one with two timelines, two geographically different settings and a story that was an allegory for what was happening in the world at the time and place I was writing (post Brexit vote Britain). That was a much more complex novel. I think it’s a better novel than the first three, but I don’t think I achieved the all of what I’d set out to do. There are parts of it I’m not happy with – and I suppose from a writer’s perspective, that’s probably a good thing. It means there’s room for me to improve.


My fifth novel, The Shadows of Men, comes out next month and once again I’ve tried to push myself to do things I have done before. Once again it’s allegorical – this time holding up a mirror to the rise of Hindu nationalism in modern day India, but for the first time, I’m writing from more than one perspective. This is the first book where we hear directly from my co-lead, Suren Banerjee, as well as from my detective Sam Wyndham. Writing in a different voice was a learning experience for me. Indeed much of the re-write for the second draft involved tweaking Suren’s voice – differentiating it from Sam’s, making it clearer and more distinctive. I’m happier with this novel than I am with Death in the East, but again there’s room for improvement and room to grow.


I’m currently writing a standalone novel – the first time I’ve written anything outside of the Wyndham and Banerjee series – and it feels like going back to the drawing board again. I’m learning so much, re-learning some stuff, and understanding the complexities of writing something quite different from what I’ve produced to date. In a way its humbling to realise how much I still have to learn, but importantly it’s challenging, and that challenge to improve, to grow is, I think, what keeps our writing fresh. The last thing I want is for writing to become easy, for me to write a novel which is no more challenging than the last one. Because if I’m not pushing myself in my writing, I’m not doing my readers the service of giving them the best book I’m capable of. And they would realise that.


So yeah, my writing style has evolved, and it continues to evolve – driven by advice from fantastic editors, feedback from readers, my own reading of the works of writers far better than me, and my general growth as a writer. I hope there will never come a point where my writing stagnates, where there is nothing new or more challenging in a novel compared to the last one. Fortunately I’m still so close to the bottom of the mountain that that's not likely to happen any time soon.


Terry said...

I admire your dedication to growing as a writer. And I see it reflected in your books. Smoke and Ashes was the one I read most recently and I think you're right, that you stepped it up. Can't wait for the new one.

James W. Ziskin said...

Abir, you’re surely tougher on yourself than your readers are. I love your books. Keep ‘em coming. Great, honest, humble post.


Susan C Shea said...

I agree with Jim - you're harder on your own first books than I am, by a mile!

Abir said...

Cheers Terry, that's really kind of you to say!
Abir x

Abir said...

Thanks James! Your words mean a lot to me (both the advice and the ones in your books!)

Abir said...

Thanks Susan! But your books are better than mine - by several miles!
Abir x