Thursday, October 14, 2021

Talkin’ ’bout My Evolution

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

I know my writing style has evolved over the years. To quantify how much is hard to say, but I feel I have progressed, nay, improved, as a writer. That’s not to say I’m a fine writer or even a serviceable one. It only means I’m better today than I was yesterday. And certainly an improvement over what I was when my first book was published.

Let’s discuss how I think my writing has improved first, then which factors drove those improvements.

1. Characterization. I believe my characters—especially Ellie Stone—have become more nuanced with each book (seven to date) in the series. This is a natural progression, of course. The more I’ve come to know my heroine, the more distinctive and fleshed out she’s become. Ellie was raw in Styx & Stone, the first book of the series. The tragedies that had befallen her came to a head in that first installment, providing me with an opening to develop her story in a different direction going forward in time. Now her demons could live in her head, instead of in her reality. Those tragedies allowed me to maroon Ellie in a world where all decisions she made were her own, without concern for people who might make demands of her and judge her morality.

I also found myself building on the foundation of characterization that I’d laid down in Styx & Stone. At times that foundation hamstrung me. I couldn’t change what I’d already put to paper, so Ellie was not going to be an Amazon who brawled her way out of scrapes. And she wasn’t going to be transformed into a “nice girl” who conformed to society’s expectations. No, I’d made her bed, and—for better or worse—Ellie was going to have sleep in it.

So I worked hard on her professional growth, and I paid particular attention to her empathy, all the while trying to hone her devastating wit and superior intelligence. In Turn to Stone, she puts both on full display as witnessed in her dealings with insistent men and a grieving child who’s just lost her father.

2. Pacing. I have been guilty of taking my sweet time in telling my stories. I often say that writing a novel is an exercise in putting off the ending for as long as the reader will tolerate—and enjoy—the delay. But for my next book, Bombay Monsoon (December 2022), I was forced to confront my wordy inclinations and cut, cut, cut. I learned, for example, that while part of Ellie Stone’s charm is her idiosyncratic narration, the same would not work for a new hero in what I hoped would be categorized as a “thriller.”

3. Research. I’ve gotten better at challenging myself on every detail. Every word. Is that the exact term I want? Does it mean what I think it does? Is there a better word? A richer word? I’ve long urged writers to “know what you don’t know.” Too often, we  fall victim to hubris and believe we know what we, in fact, do not know. It runs the gamut from grammar to historical dates to science to anachronisms. And I’ve been guilty of these sins, too. Yet, I strive every day to stop myself and take that one extra step. Check the facts. I even leave notes for my editors in my manuscripts now, just to let them know I’ve verified the reference in question. Saves time and effort later on.

4. Sensitivity. I hope I’ve grown as a human being since I wrote my first book. I try to police myself and temper those words and descriptions that might offend others. I want to punch up instead of down, even if my past punching down was meant in jest and without malice. It wasn’t right. I know words can hurt. My books are set in the past, which means this is something I must bear in mind perhaps more often than if I wrote books set in today’s world.

5. Wordsmithing. I love language. I love words and grammar and etymology. I want to use the best words and make my prose sparkle. Of course, this is a dangerous desire. One toe over the line turns a beautiful sentence into an object of ridicule. Still, I care about every word, each clause, and all the sentences. I fail to perfect them, to be sure, but I’m always trying. There’s no such thing as a perfect book or story, after all. But if you’re not aiming for that—well—you’re settling, aren’t you? And, for me, a perfect novel or story needs a perfect story and perfect storytelling.

Now for part two. 

What has driven these changes in my writing? I’ll list them without comment. I’ve learned them and used them all. I recommend them to any writer, no matter how established and revered. 

1. Humility

2. Honesty/introspection

3. Experience/Maturity

4. Revision

5. Tears

6. Smiles

7. Reading

8. Ambition

9. Hard work

10. Professionalism


Brenda Chapman said...

Well said, Jim.

Terry said...

Late, doesn't mean this post isn't great. Terrific post, Jim.