Fashion in Style

Take a look at these:

From Clarkesworld Guidelines:

Stories must be:

1. Well-written. Language is important. There is no distinction between “style” and “substance” or “story” and “writing.”

From Ideomancer Guidelines:

We want unique pieces from authors willing to explore non-traditional narratives and take chances with tone, structure and execution, balance ideas and character, emotion and ruthlessness.

From Fantasy Magazine Guidelines:

Fantasy is entertainment for the intelligent genre reader — send us stories of the fantastic that make us think, and tell us what it is to be human while amazing us with your mastery of language and story elements.

From Intergalactic Medicine Show Guidelines:

We also look for clear, unaffected writing. Asimov, Niven, Tolkien, Yolen, and Hobb are more likely to be our literary exemplars than James Joyce.

– – –

Style, in writing, is one of those spectra where you have a lot of divisive, strong-willed opinions. (The above are very watered-down versions of the heated arguments I’ve seen).  There’s an argument about style that usually consists of an argument for a “literary style” on one end or “American Plain Style” aka “no style” on the other in writing fiction.

I’m one of those fence sitters who think everyone is being ridiculous to be having this argument.  Style of writing and word choice to me is like music.  You can have baroque or you can have romantic, jazz or classical, rock or opera.  You can even have combinations of any of the above. But movies still need soundtracks. Books still need words, (you can’t have a book without them!) and words shape themselves into sentences, paragraphs, voice…and therefore style.

An author’s writing style to me is never invisible.  I notice the word choice, voice, sentence structure, its appearance on the page like a carefully orchestrated visual art.  A movie soundtrack is never invisible to me, either, though people say it is meant to be and it is true that most people do not notice a soundtrack while watching a movie.  Yet if a piccolo plays, I’ll pick it out. I love, absolutely love the melodies given to french horns.  If a movie decides to go for an all rock recording, I may think twice about buying it, because it will date itself in five years. But Daft Punk‘s soundtrack for Tron: Legacy was glorious.

You can’t write a book without the author having a particular flavor, a particular style of writing.  So why try to write “stylelessly”?  It’s like trying to live without eating!   Even “See Jane run” is a different style than “Look! Jane just sprinted across the field!”

Yes, this is me much amused.

Translators know how unavoidable style is–and how much a pain it can be to transfer to another cultural context.  You have a source text–and then how you translate that text depends entirely on the whims of the client and what style they wish it to be, (as well as other specifications).  Here are some examples from my 2008 portfolio, (note: I’ve improved since then).

– – –

Un monstre, un valet de coeur
Source text:

Vous connaissez le nom d’au moins un des hommes d’armes qui accompagnaient Jeanne d’Arc. Comment? Vous ne voyez vraiment pas car vous n’êtes pas une spécialiste de l’histoire médiévale? Et pourtant, le nom de Barbe-Bleue vous dit bien quelque chose, non?  Eh bien, c’est un compagnon bien réel de la Pucelle qui a inspiré à Charles Perrault cette créature de contes.  Gilles de Rais, valeureux guerrier, combattit les Anglais, assista au sacre de Charles VII, mena encore quelques combats avant de se retirer dans son château de Tiffauges, en Vendée.  Là, il mena grand train, se passionna pour l’alchimie et la magie noire, invoqua le Diable et, surtout, viola et assassina plusieurs centaines d’enfants, surtout de jeunes garçons.  Il fut jugé et exécuté en 1440 à Nantes.  Un autre des conseillers de Jeanne ne vous es pas inconnu : il s’agit d’Etienne de Vignolles, dit << La Hire >>, qui n’est autre que le valet de cœur des cartes à jouer.

From L’histoire de France des paresseuses by Frédéric Bosc (c) 2006, published by Marabout.


-Due Thursday Friday 28, 2008                                   Target language: English

-Keep the playful voice

-Assume that the American audience has an even more limited kowledge of French history than the text implies, (added after initial translation attempts).

Do you know the name of at least one of the men-at-arms who accompanied Joan of Arc?  No? You’re not really a Medieval History specialist, you say?  But you have heard the name Blue Beard, haven’t you?  Well, Charles Perrault, the author of the tale of Blue Beard, was inspired by one of her real-life men-at-arms.  Gilles de Rais the valorous warrior fought the English, attended Charles VII’s coronation, and led several battles before retiring to his chateau de Tiffauges in Vendée.  There he lived a life of debauchery, became passionate for alchemy and black magic, invoked the Devil and, notably, raped and murdered several hundred children–especially young boys.  He was judged and executed in 1440 at Nantes.  Another of Joan’s comrades is also known to you:  Etienne de Vignolles, nicknamed “La Hire” for his violent temper, is none other than the Jack of Hearts in your deck of playing cards.


The question came up in class about my translation above of whether or not the word “chateau” is commonly known enough to the general English populus to warrant an explanation and/or complete reworking of how geography is handled in the passage.

Otherwise, the most noted changes we made were to clarify the words “compagnons”, “conseillers”, to clarify the play on words that is “La Hire”, and correct my word for “sacre”.

– – –

Un extrait des Essais
Source text:

Or je trouve, pour revenir à mon propos, qu’il n’y a rien de barbare et de sauvage en cette nation, à ce qu’on m’en a rapporté, sinon que chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage ; comme de vrai, il semble que nous n’avons autre mire de la vérité et de la raison que l’exemple et idée des opinions et usances du pays où nous sommes. Là est toujours la parfait religion, la parfait police, parfait et accomli usage de toutes choses. Ils sont sauvages, de meme que nous appelons sauvages les fruits que nature, de soi et de son progès ordinaire, a produits : . . .

From Des cannibales from Essais by Montaigne, Pocket Classiques version, pg. 129


-Due Thurs March 6, 2008                                  Target language: Old & Modern English

Version 1: Old, Formal English

Thus, I find, going back to my argument, there’s nothing barbarous or savage-like in this nation, on which subject I’ve heard so much about, in any case, what we call barbarousness is not the word’s correct usage; in reality, it seems to me that we have no other criteria for truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and usages of that country from which we hail.  Here is always the perfect religion, the perfect organization, complete and accomplished usage of all things. These are the savages, with those same men we call savage “fruits of nature”, that a person and his ordinary advances have produced.

Version 2: After Revision.

Thus, returning to my argument, I find that there is nothing barbarous or savage in this nation– which subject I have heard so much about–that, contrary to popular belief, what every man calls barbarous is only that which he is not accustomed to; in truth, it seems to me that we have no other criteria for truth and reason except for the example and idea of the opinions and customs from our own native country. Here we always have the perfect religion, the perfect government, complete and accomplished habits in all things.  Others are savage, in the same way that we call wild the fruit that Nature–by itself and its own natural progress–has produced: . . .

Version 3: Modern, Informal English

In any case, going back to my argument, I’ve discovered that, despite what everyone has been saying, there’s nothing “barbaric” in this nation except for what people find as strange or different; in actuality, it seems to me that we have little on which to base our judgements of “what is truth” except for the concepts, opinions, and customs of our own country. Here, our religion is perfect, our government system is perfect, and our customs are perfect and accomplished.  Over there they are wild, just like fruit grown wild is an ordinary process of nature, . . .


8 responses to “Fashion in Style

  • onelowerlightk

    Interesting. What do you think of Kris Rusch’s argument that voice, when done right, is completely invisible to the writer? I think there’s a lot of truth to that; if writing is overly stylized, it annoys me, but I’ll read certain writers (like Robert Charles Wilson) almost entirely for their voice–and the voice carries from one book to the next, because it comes natural to the writer.

    I dunno. I know my own writing has its own voice and style (you’ve pointed it out to me, lol), but I believe that story trumps all, so that’s where I focus the vast majority of my attention.

    • Laura

      I disagree with her argument largely because I’ve never read an author whose style did not stand out to me. Ever. But language has always been something I’ve cared about and taken an interest in. I do agree that there is such a thing as “purple prose” and “trying too hard”, however. Some people try to adopt a style and they’re miserable at it, but writing in multiple styles is something that also can be learned with practice. Holly Black does it, for one. Another example — When you write to middle grade you have to write a different style than when you write for YA or adult. Holly Black also happens to modulate her style between series, so it’s like picking up something with a whole new flavor. There’s also the core, underlying style that an author has no control over, because it comes from that place deep inside us where stories take shape and words. That is something I believe can’t be changed.

      I think there can be “styles people are used to”, kind of like how we are so used to 19th century-style orchestral music. This style of music has become the trend for most movies, the “norm”, and so, since most of the audience is expecting it, they don’t notice it. But…I always notice it. I get most of my story cues from the music. This doesn’t mean that the soundtrack was “done wrong”, it just means that I noticed it, that I appreciated it, and I will likely buy the soundtrack before I ever buy the movie. Or if I hated the soundtrack I won’t buy the movie.

      I don’t think that when you notice someone’s style that they’ve done something wrong. Or else every author I’ve read has failed. :p That would be very sad for them. It’s just a difference in value. People like Kris Rusch or Orson Scott Card and everyone else on that side of the spectrum prefer to ignore the medium, I can’t help but see it. I also believe that story and language are completely intertwined, and I think you just proved my point by saying you don’t like overly stylized books. The style of the books you read is important to you. If you don’t like a particular style–you don’t like the book. It’s not just about the story.


      • Laura

        To be clear, you don’t have to try to modulate your style or do anything about it. I just think people should be aware it’s unavoidable that everyone has one, and that it’s not as invisible as authors like to believe. hehe.

        However, for those people who don’t believe that style exists, then if their style ever changes drastically in the middle of the book–which has happened to authors on many occasions, (accidents, deaths in the family, illness, “off day”, etc.)–they have no idea it’s happened.

        For example, just the other day I wrote the first 500 words of my short story, then the next day when I was feeling less fuzzy in one way but more ill in another, I wrote in a completely different style for the next thousand words. Once I realized this, I had to go back and make some major adjustments to how I was telling the story so that it would flow well and not feel odd or uneven. Etc, etc. So it’s a good thing to be aware of.

        It’s like the people who study penmanship and can deduce when someone started or stopped writing on one day or another, how harried or rushed they were feeling as they were writing, and so on, just by looking.

        Anyway! I knew posting this would be a problem. I am entirely too verbose on this subject.

  • Joe Vasicek

    No, what I mean is what do you think of Kris’s argument that voice, though very much apparent to readers, should be invisible to the writer if done right? Here’s the link:

    She makes some interesting arguments about how style and voice are two different things; correct me if I’m wrong, but when you mention “style” you seem to be talking about what Kris terms “voice.”

    Also, I’m not sure if wordpress ate my previous comment, which is why I’m posting a new one. If this is a duplicate, feel free to delete it.

    • Laura

      I guess I’m not being clear with my definitions. She and I have two different definitions for “style” but the same definition for Voice. Here, have her quotes –

      Writers need to focus on the elements of storytelling—great characters, great plots, real emotions, cliffhangers, fascinating settings and situations—rather than lovely words. Lovely words might get you admirers, but lovely words won’t get you readers. Readers will put their dollars behind the person who moves them seamlessly from chapter to chapter.


      One final thing on this point: storytellers often write sentences that can’t survive a grammar checker. Storytellers will do all kinds of things in service of the story that will make an English major’s lip curl. One-word paragraphs, comma splices, run-on sentences, you’ll find all of that in a good storyteller’s work. Because those things improve story.

      “Style” to me isn’t just Voice – it’s word choice, tone, voice, Voice, sentence structure, grammar, lack of grammar, paragraph size, placement, aka how you tell the story–including what she says, “one word paragraphs, comma splices, run-on sentences”. I’m not just talking about choosing pretty words and using the thesaurus incredibly too much and too often. I’m talking about how a writer chooses to represent the story on the page. That to me is style.

      Kris Rusch is using the word “style” in a limited way. They’ve been using this word with this definition since the 1970s at least. She’s ignoring the rest of the word’s definition in favor of showing her dislike for a particular style of purple, frilly, empty prose also known with some contempt as “literary fiction”. Orson Scott Card, when he describes “peer/unpublished” writers groups is when writers start writing for other writers, they begin to focus more on the writing itself than the story. In other words, they begin to show off their mad skillz. They forget to write for readers. Their books become all words with no real plot or characters in them.

      I have nothing against this view. I think story should trump all. I think empty books filled with pretty words are a waste of space. (I also think empty books filled with simple words are a waste of space). However!

      What I’m offering is that style is inescapable and can be quite visible to all–including other writers if they choose to see it–because it is actually a broader idea than these people think it is. She thinks that there’s style and then there’s storytelling. But you can’t tell a story without words and how you use those words is style. Her own definition of “storytelling” as I quoted above…is actually style. It’s disguised in her own view because she thinks that “stylists” are somehow ridiculously edgy in an organized, primly grammatical way. She’s forgetting to see that her own books have style, too. Just a different one.

      I know I’m being rather different in my opinions here, so I’m having a hard time explaining against the definitions of what most writers take for granted. I don’t want you to get the impression that I think story isn’t important whenever I mention style.

      I agree wholeheartedly with this –

      First, shut off your critical brain. Storytelling is entertainment, and criticism is the opposite of entertainment.

      Second, find story everywhere. Movies, television, books, short stories, and your favorite raconteur all tell great stories. Find them, enjoy the story itself, and absorb it. Don’t think about it.

      Third, play. Writing is fun. Telling stories is fun. Have fun. If you have fun, your readers will too.

      If you think too hard about making perfect sentences, about what your grammar teacher will think, or about anything that goes under the “edit” rather than the “writing” brain category, the prose won’t work. If it’s too floridly fuzzy and you can’t for the life of you figure out what a paragraph is saying, it’s not working. Storytelling should be clear and understandable. But when you play with a story, you’re also playing with how it comes out of you and spills onto that page.

      I can write fast, sloppy, slow, pretty, ugly, florid, raw or biting. I can write like a German with long, loquacious paragraphs. Or short punches. I can write in different styles. My core Voice stays the same because it’s me, and that core Voice will be something I can never change–nor ever see for myself BECAUSE it is me and I can’t see outside myself. No matter what I or anyone try to do, our Voices are untouchable. We can’t manipulate our own Voices. They are completely invisible to us. Always. No writer can look at his writing and say, “that’s my soul on the page”.

      Voice also is a component of style. The one component we can’t change.

      But something tells me Kris Rusch doesn’t like baroque music. :p Or the book of Isaiah. If those were written today, she might turn up her nose and think the way she writes is better because it’s simpler. But simple and homely or elegant and wild–they’re still styles. Deliberate styles.

      Mrrr. Let me try again. In conclusion! Kris Rusch thinks Voice is the only part of “style” that has any worth. I think she’s turning a blind eye to how writing works. Voice IS invisible to the writer, despite what English teachers say. It always will be. There’s nothing she, I, or anyone can do anything about a writer’s core. But making the decision to write simply, to somehow “cut away the excess so you can only see the invisible Voice” is a style choice. (It’s also impossible to have Voice and nothing else). It was an actual writing decision of how to write that she made. In other words, she chose her own style. She has no power over how she presents her Voice, but she has complete power over what style she chooses to write in.

      Does that make sense? I’m trying a variety of ways to explain.

      • Joe Vasicek

        No, it makes a lot of sense, but I’m not sure I agree that voice is something that a writer can’t see or change. Perhaps in the writing process, we can’t see it, but when we look back on our work with the distance of time, I think we can at least catch glimpses of it. And while many of our word choices are subconscious, I think we can consciously choose to alter our style in a number of ways. Whether or not we should, though…that’s an entirely different matter. But I mostly agree with you.

      • Laura

        I agree about the glimpses of Voice, the seeing subconscious trends and decisions later in time.

        I submit that whether or not we “alter” our style, we choose the way–aka the style–we wish to write. So to me it’s not a moral decision of what is right or wrong, should or shouldn’t. *amused* It’s just the way it is. You can do a style well or you can do it poorly. You can choose to write in the same style and perfect that, or you can choose to try out multiple styles and perfect those. It’s up to the writer.

  • Laura

    People are always telling me I construct my arguments far too abstractly.

    Here are some concrete examples, for whoever has read this far.

    Orson Scott Card’s attempt to find the right style for the opening of his book Ender’s Shadow –

    Brandon Sanderson writes one style in Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians (Middle Grade) and a complete other style for his adult epic fantasies such as Mistborn.

    Elizabeth Moon’s autistic narrator in Speed of Dark.

    All of the above are very deliberate style decisions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s