Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Which Came First?


Terry Shames here talking about writing style—has it changed? And what drove the change? 

 Here’s a good definition of “style”: Style means the mechanical or technical aspects of writing, and may be specific to the requirements of the subject or topic. 

 A couple of years ago, I bought a new desk. In honor of it, I decided to go through all my old, abandoned manuscripts and see if there were any worth keeping. When I started reading, I was shocked at how amateurish the writing was. There were not just editing problems, but problems with style. These were stories that I felt good about when I wrote them. But now they disappointed me. They sounded like thin imitations of other writers’ work. 

 So what happened? Somewhere along the line I began to learn the technical aspects of writing that helped make a story come alive. I learned, and continue to learn, about setting, dialogue, character development, tone, atmosphere, plot development and developing a voice.
I’m going out on a limb and say that I think content drives style. Let’s break it down with a few examples of crime fiction sub-genres: 1) Thrillers demand fast action, a plot that rarely slows down, rapid-fire, often aggressive speech. These are best achieved with quick, punchy sentences and often a wry tone.
2) Cozies are slower, quieter, often with naïve characters who stumble onto criminal activity by accident. Cozies take place in a more cheerful setting, at least initially, and often involve writing humor and a light tone.
3) Noir stories inhabit a darker world, with characters who often have nefarious reasons for their actions, hidden not only from the reader and each other; but from themselves. Their dialogue is often convoluted and secretive. It’s a dark world; so it demands a dark style.
4) Domestic thrillers require subtle differences. They involve women (usually, but sometimes men) who are in jeopardy because the world isn’t what they think it is. For these, you need a style that reflects a sense of dread and danger, while the protagonist soldiers on, thinking she is taking the right steps to keep herself safe. The style is layered, depicting a surface setting in which everything seems fine; but with an undercurrent of puzzling danger.
5) And then there is the traditional—the kind of series I write. What you see is what you get. It involves a crime-solving professional methodically following clues to solve a crime. Dialogue is straightforward. Setting is exactly as it seems. Action is methodical and rarely scary.
I’m in the groove with the traditional series, but a couple of years ago I tried to write a thriller. I found out how hard it is to change your style. I can write action. I can write dialogue. But getting the atmosphere right was hard. Getting the language to reflect the thrill of the chase was tricky. Eventually, I decided to table it. 

 I’m now working on a domestic suspense story, and again, I’m finding it hard to get it right. I’m used to writing about a professional who takes his time, who works in a steady environment; who knows his strengths and weaknesses; who takes the measure of people and knows what has to be done. The domestic story is coming along, but it’s taking a painful amount of learning the subtleties of style.
So, to answer the question—has my style changed? Only with a lot of hard work. I’m constantly having to remind myself of the style that what I’m writing demands. I can’t help wondering if a writer comes to his or her work with a particular style that works best for them. But then I read someone like Catriona McPherson, who segues from cozy to domestic thrillers and makes it look easy. 

I guess to really answer my musing, I’d have to find out if Michael Connolly would feel comfortable tackling a cozy; if Leslie Budewitz would write a noir novel. I do know that many of the authors I admire the most seem to stick with their chosen sub-genres. I don’t know if it’s a matter of their being uninterested in branching out; or if they think it simply wouldn’t work for them. I do remember that I asked one famous author of a series set in England if she ever considered writing anything else and she assured me that she worked hard enough on the series; she couldn’t imagine trying anything else. 

 Style may drive what you write; but the opposite is true: What you write also drives style.


Brenda Chapman said...

A good break down of the different requirements for crime fiction sub-genres. I admire your forays into the thriller and domestic fields. I also tried a thriller and found it wasn't easy for my story-telling style. It's always a challenge to push oneself as you are. Kudos!

Leslie Budewitz said...

Interesting analysis, Terry -- thanks! You ask if I -- as an example of a known cozyist! -- would write anything other than a cozy, and the answer is yes, I would, do, and have done. I made my suspense debut earlier this year with BITTERROOT LAKE (written as Alicia Beckman), and have written short stories that could be considered hard-boiled, traditional (some with an amateur sleuth, some with a professional), and cozy, as well as historicals (traditional and cozy). For the novel, sustaining that tone of darkness and danger was a challenge; I had to notice my cozy instincts and shade them, and developing that style is definitely a work in progress. For the shorts, though, the style came with the story and the length made the shift fairly easy to handle. While the shift is a bit of a challenge, I'm willing to make it, because like many authors, I have many stories to tell, and they don't all strike the same tone.

Terry said...

Leslie, I knew that and had completely forgotten about it. Glad you chimed in. And I appreciate your comment about sustaining the tone of darkness and danger. Indeed, a challenge.

Leslie Budewitz said...

It isn't an easy shift, for sure, but that you are giving it such careful thought improves your chances of success! I'm looking forward to seeing what you do with it. And I'd love to hear from other writers who work in multiple subgenres, too.