How to Succeed in Writing VIII: Elements of Style


One of the questions a writer answers throughout his writing career is: How am I going to write?  What is going to be my style?  Most writers will not discover “their style” until they are well into the process, but that doesn’t stop them from talking about the process of writing.  When I was a new writer, I spoke about the process all the time.  I told people about my artistic mindset, my artistic setting, and everything but my work, because I didn’t have a lot of work to speak of at the time.  Talking about the process was fun though, because it made me feel like a writer.  It gave me a complicated characterization that my friends couldn’t understand at times.  I was purposefully moody and sullen, but that was all a part of “my process”.  There did come a point, however, when this mystique I created was counterproductive.  I wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to write in other words.  Every time I wrote, I received more evidence of the fact that I probably wasn’t as good as I purported.

A lot of new, and longtime, writers write, speak, and hypothesize about the process of writing.  They speak about having post-it notes all around them to capture the ideas of the moment, or a moment, before they forget them.  They talk about the tools they use to create, the mood they need for proper creation, the setting, the mindset, and everything that they’ve defined as the characteristics of being a writer, but are they writing?

One thing I’ve found in the course of my writing is that a true writer doesn’t need post-it notes, recording devices, or anything more than a well-honed brain to record that which is memorable, or noteworthy, material.  If it is, in fact, noteworthy material, it will stick.  It will gestate in your brain, until you have a completed idea of that which you have experienced.  Post it notes and recording devices are for people that enjoy the process.  “Why do you have that recording device on when we speak?”  True writers only need a honed brain that continually processes information for years to retain, process, and germinate all that great material we experience in the course of our days.

james-joyceAre you Kerouac or Joyce?  One style of writing that new writers, and complicated artiste writers, laud is the Jack Kerouac and James Joyce style of writing called stream-of-consciousness (SC) writing.  SC writing is a style of writing that plays out exactly as it sounds: An author sits down and composes 300-700 pages of prose in a matter of months.  The SC author does little to no editing and revising, because in the strictest definition of SC writing there is no such thing as mistakes in a contextual or conceptual sense.  Contextual mistakes, according to those that pursue this form of writing, and the painter Pablo Picasso, are subconscious leads.  What could be seen as an errant stroke by some was something to build on for Picasso…and Joyce, and Kerouac when it came to writing.  They saw mistakes as the subconscious guiding them down a path they hadn’t consciously considered before.  Both of these writers were forced to fight off editors and publishers in the belief that their works should remain as is.

kerouac“I write to entertain myself,” those that adhere to the Joyce/Kerouac style would tell you.  “If anyone else is entertained, that’s gravy.”  The reason we started writing in the first place was to see if we could take all of our influences and combine them with our inner voices, to achieve stories that would entertain us.  Too much editing and revising takes the spontaneity right out of an artistic creation, and trying to make my pieces relatable to all is impossible, so why would I spend too much time trying to correct conceptual and contextual mistakes?

Have you ever attempted to read James Joyce’s Ulysses?  How about Finnegan’s Wake?  Most normal humans, of adequate intelligence, need a guide to help them understand all of the references and allusions Joyce makes in these works.  All of Joyce’s jokes and provocations were “in-house” references that he understood, and that you can understand too…with a reference guide that’s almost as lengthy, but they’re not enjoyable books as a standalone.  No one will know what the heck you’re talking about, in other words, when you write in Joyce’s SC manner.   You will know, as Joyce and those that lived in Ireland at the time knew, but your reader won’t know.  You will get frustrated with them.  “Can’t you see that A led to B, and C was the result?”  Oh ok, they say, now I get it.  As frustrated as you were with them, it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t get it.  It was yours, and you need to edit and revise more.

Most new writers should be advised to follow the editing and revising school of thought for just this reason.  This line of thought suggests that a story matures in the editing process.  It suggests that the framework of a story can be borne in the stream-of-consciousness (SC) stage, but that the marrow of a story is created when we go back and live through the story again and again, until we reach a readability stage.  This theory also suggests that editing and revising stories gives the author greater objectivity than he can achieve in the creation process.  Objectivity gives the author the chance to attempt to read the story in the manner a reader may read their story.  It gives the author some distance from the relatively narrow position one is in while creating the piece, and they can correct some of the errors of flow and characterization that may not be apparent in the creative process.

We “editing and revising” writers find it hard to believe that Kerouac and Joyce were able to develop their story, their characters, their pace, and their setting on the fly in the manner they suggest.  It just doesn’t seem feasible—no matter how brilliant they may be—that they could make all of the connections, and all of the asides mesh well into a story on the fly, but if you believe the Kerouac myth—that Kerouac created—he wrote his classic On the Road in a drug-frenzied three weeks on a scroll of paper.  How much of this myth is true should be left up to historians to debate.  What cannot be debated, however, is the fact that Kerouac and Joyce submitted relatively raw pieces of work that achieved historical status.  What also cannot be debated is that—if everything they’ve said about their process is true—they should be held out as the exception to the rule that editing and revising are the keys to achieving a complete and readable story.

Most of us are not a “Man of Golden Words”, to borrow a phrase from lyricist Andrew Wood.  Most of us write stupid things, bad scenes, flat characters, sloppy sentences, too much setting, unnecessary asides, and our flow isn’t quite right the first time through.  We also write “great scenes” that appear foolish in revision.   Most of us need advice, a second reader, and a vocal read-through.  Most of us are not spontaneous, artistic geniuses, and our work could use a lot of sprucing and pruning.  If you are an artistic genius—and I’m not one of those that claims that no one is, out of spite for not being one—God love you.  I wish I was one that could create spontaneously without having to work so hard at it.

Editing and revising are definitely not the fun part of artistic creation.  They are, for the most part, tedious activities that require training and discipline, and training and discipline are not the artistic principles that complicated, non-writing writers want to endure when they think about, talk about, and write about the process of their creations. The Joyce/Kerouac process appeals to them, because it makes them feel more like an artistic genius.  Writing should be about writing, they are likely to say.  It should be about spontaneous creation, and when they can’t spontaneously create, they tell people they have writer’s block.  Writer’s block is a fundamental element of the complicated, non-writer’s writing life, and they all have their processes to help them out of it.  True writers, in this writers’ humble opinion, never experience writer’s block.  They may have moments in which they are more inspired than others, but to be unable to think of anything to write just seems impossible to those of us that have written so much that we’re now disciplined enough—after hours of exhaustive training—to always write something.

Fruit and Flowers: On that note, for those of us that don’t constantly receive divine inspiration for artistic creations, there is a cure: “Paint fruit and flowers!”  Flipping through various collections of art, I was surprised to find so many benign and boring creations by artistic geniuses.  Flip through any Van Gogh collection, Picasso collection, or Matisse collection and you’ll find them—relatively boring and seemingly benign paintings of the sky, shrubs, trees, fruit, and flowers.  I was shocked at how many of these paintings there were in the anthologies of these artists.  Why would such talented artists waste their time painting such seemingly benign and boring paintings?  Answer: They were keeping their artistic muscles taut and honed.  They were learning color and contrast, and prominence and shadowing.  They were finessing their God-given talent.  They were becoming artists, in other words, and they were getting better, and when divine inspiration eventually struck they would be ready for it.  Some of the complicated, non-writing writers have this Hollywood image of writers that tells them they need to be inspired to write.  These writers know that their best material will occur when the Danube River is just outside their hotel’s window sill at a time when the first storks make their appearance in Petrovaradin.  These writers know they can’t be too happy, or too sad, and that they need the finest Columbian coffee scents in their nose to receive divine inspiration.  A drafty writing room with Gatorade and Diet Sunkist is just not conducive to inspired writing.  They’ll tell you that they have writer’s block, when you ask them what they’re writing.  “Well,” I want to scream at them.  “What are you doing about it?!  Try writing Fruit and Flower stories!”

“That’s easy for you to say,” will be the theme of the “complicated” writer’s reply, “But I can’t write when I’m not inspired.”  If I were to see something they wrote that was at the artistic genius level, I would have no ammunition in these conversations, but they’re usually just boobs like me that want to purport some sort of artistic genius persona.  They’re usually not writing anything at all.  They’re usually just lazy, complicated, non-writing writers.  “Write something stupid,” I want to say.  “There are fruit and flowers everywhere.  You don’t need to write Crime and Punishment every time out, but if you continue to write your Crime and Punishment may fall out from between the cracks.”

Therein lays the key to great writing, in my humble opinion, that in your discipline and exhaustive training, something may eventually fall out.  Others (most) will never have a Ulysses, a World According to Garp, or a Crime and Punishment fall out, and they may be so frustrated that they don’t want to continue.  Maybe they shouldn’t.   Maybe, they’re not cut out for all this, and they should consider quitting.

This may seem antithetical to everything I’ve written over the course of these eight blogs, but the question is a vital component to writing fiction. Do you enjoy writing, expression, and artistic creation, or do you want to be famous?  Have you created a number of good works, but none of them are of the highest quality?  How do you handle that?  Do you feel like an utter failure, or are you aching for more?  If you’re a complicated artiste that hasn’t achieved the fame you believe you should’ve at this point, you may want to give up.  Maybe you just weren’t meant to be a writer in the first place.  It’s a very important crossroads for you.  If you have the temerity to push ahead, there are a number of things that you can do to keep ‘it’ all shiny and honed until you receive divine inspiration.

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