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Everything You Own In a Box To the Left

Dear Betsy,

My question is this: Can a writer change her style?  Is style a fundamental thing, a part of a writer’s nature or is it malleable; subject to change? Can we/should we try to change that which is inherent in our writer’s soul, or am I making all this up?
I keep hearing, over & over, that I’m a good writer but that my writing is too quiet; too literary for the current market. I revise and edit, seeking to pick up the pacing, etc. but my style is my style. Even I can see that I lean towards introspective mood pieces, even with all kinds of action and tension and plot shifts woven in. I consider myself a teachable and flexible person, totally open to change. If I’m missing the point somewhere, I’d really like to know.
Thank you so much for your time, and for your interesting insights on the blog.
Best to you,
Dear Lord, this is a good question. Can a leopard change her spots? Can styled be learned? How do I make more noise? Am I missing the point? I only know that I’ve seen writers vastly improve over time. Does this mean they  have changed their style? Probably not. In my experience, your so called style is as intrinsic to you as the gait of your walk, your handwriting, the kink of your hair. I think there is something essential about style, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve. In fact, you SHOULD improve. When I think about the career of any artist over time, I see their essential style emerge in work after work. Philip ROth’s style has basically stayed constant though his novels became more complex from a structural point of view and then deeper, more emotionally complex and more emblematic too. Writers who experiment with different genres can seem to deploy a different set of stylistic chops. Capote comes to mind and more recently Denis Johnson. And yet… If you are frustrated with your style or simply aren’t getting the response you want from the world, then it behooves you, of course, to take a serious look at how you approach your work, or even as an experiment to try non-fiction if your fiction is fizzling, or to  write some short stories from the point of view of someone very different from yourself, or a poem. Or a letter. Or to start reading and write a paper as if you were in the tenth grade and had to figure out what made it tick. 
Any advice here? 

36 Responses

  1. That is a great question. I don’t know that essential style can be changed but I do think that if you continually challenge your writing, push beyond what your comfortable limits are as far as plot and pacing and character development, you may find a “voice” you didn’t know you had.

    I, for one, really love introspective mood pieces.

  2. I’m a big proponent of writing ‘practice’ (which may be my euphemism for ‘drawer novel,’ but never mind that), too, so I agree with ravingmadscientist.

    And I like the idea of trying new genres or frames (epistolary, poetic, etc.) —maybe the problem isn’t this writer’s style at all, but in the way s/he is choosing to employ it?

    I’ve read many introspective mood pieces, but while many were full of tension, few of them included action or plot shifts.

  3. A few ideas for Name Withheld: Consider advertising and journalism. Except for a very small part of the magazine business, you can’t do “quiet and literary” in either field. Assuming that you won’t be able to actually get any work in those fields without prior experience (though it’s possible), try to meet some people who work in one or the other, see what they can tell you. Also study ads and journalism, then try imitating some of it. As an exercise, this ought to make clear (as would changing genres, as Betsy suggested) that you can put words on paper that are much different from what you’re used to.

    Another possibility: Pay close attention to what’s being published in that “current market” you mentioned, and again try imitating something. Unless you have talent as a mimic (which would be a discovery worth making), you won’t be able to really write like X, Y, or Z, but you may find you can conceive of and execute something like it.

    One more, which may be way out of line but I’ll say it anyway: Life experience is going to affect the way you write. Rachmaninoff wrote his first symphony in a rather vigorous style; it met such a hostile reception that he retreated for a while, then re-emerged with a different voice, the one we know from his later piano concertos. (I’m telling that from memory and may have details wrong.) Similarly, a young singer I knew had a voice that was suited to the blues, but she didn’t really succeed at it until she’d had her heart broken a few times. I’m not advising you to seek painful experiences. But it may be that you can’t yet do (as well as possible) what you’re trying to do, or that you’re already equipped to do something you’re not yet trying.

  4. I golfed for a time (don’t ever start). It is a game where players crave help. I whacked away at the range for hours. Pros coached me, eating up my lunch money. Despite all of the attention, like some ugly signature, my basic swing remained the same. But, as I understood what I was doing and the effect my efforts were having on the flight of the ball, my scores improved. You may not change your style but you can change the result.

  5. Hi, NAME WITHHELD. Is it all right if I call you NAME? I think Betsy’s pretty much got this wrapped up, but she’s a paid, experienced, credentialed professional. She does before lunch every weekday things the rest of us should never try at home.

    NAME, what do you want from your writing? Is this a stupid question on my part? Do you want the fame and fortune, the glory and adoration, the sycophantic assistants and fawning consultants all we writers want from the secret unplumbable depths of our darkest hearts of hearts, even those of us who won’t admit to such lustings even to ourselves? Good, NAME. You’re a true writer.

    Okay: crap-cutting time. Fuck the market, and fuck it first, because, NAME, the market is going to fuck you. In fact, indications are it already is. Fucking you, that is.

    Here’s what you do: you write what you have to write–what you must write–what has to come out of you before you die–and you do it the best way you can. You make it true–true to what you believe–true to who you are. All else will follow.

    “All else”? “All else,” he says? What is this “all else”? Fame? Fortune? Fucked if I know. You want fortune, become an investment banker. You want fame, blow up an investment bank. If you want to write something that is necessary to be read, all other concerns–including but not limited to the concerns of what putatively helpful poobahs of the literary marketplace regarding current trends and demands and styles may be offering you, solicited or not–must be placed in their proper places, none of which is in the forefront.

    NAME, be true to yourself. Anyone can be a phony, and everyone can spot a phony. Be the best writer you can be and the writer that only you can be. There’s nothing to be gained from trimming your sails to try and catch every shift in the passing breeze.

    You know, NAME, it just occurred to me–this issue is a lot like stock market investing. You have to look at your writing like an investment and decide what your long-term goals are, and stick to those. Anyone who knows the stock market knows that market-timing is a rube’s game. Look to the fundamentals. Write what you write. Do it the best you can. Someone in the market is getting tired of the noise and shallowness and is looking for the literary and quiet. Fuck all, NAME, you could find yourself on the cutting edge of the next trend simply by sticking to your style–sticking to yourself.

    • Mornin’ Tet. Me thinks someone had an extra K-cup this morning because your synapses are firing full bore. I love it when you say fuck. Oh…and you’re right.

    • T – I’m a bit weepy at this heartfelt manifesto.
      Much to ponder at Betsy’s today. Thx.

    • Tetman hit on what I was going to say, “This above all: to thine own self be true, so that to others you will not appear false.” (Yea, I know those aren’t the exact words…)

    • Write what you write and do the best you can. You’re keeping it real, Tetman.

    • “…you could find yourself on the cutting edge of the next trend simply by sticking to your style–sticking to yourself”

      You have no idea how often I tell myself that very thing. It may just be my coping mechanism but damn, it’s nice to hear (read) someone else say (write) it.

    • I know I’m always looking for literary and quiet – and by that I mean, I’d buy your book.

      Loads of good advice here – better than what I could offer you, but I will say this, if you’ve been told it’s too literary and quiet, that simply shows your depth.

      Sidebar! I’ve been packing today for a week long getaway (I’ll still be peeking at Betsy’s blog while I’m gone – can’t resist). I thought of yesterday’s blog and what everyone does when getting home. Does a bottle of wine count instead of champagne?

  6. “You may not change your style but you can change the result”.

    Thanks JD. I now have a new mantra.

    I’ll pass on the golf story to my husband, his game sucks but he loves his balls.

  7. I recently wrote a post on my blog about for whom I write. I figure it has to start with me as the audience. If I don’t write for myself first I’ll never be happy with my work.

    That being said, I would not be able to change my style. It is who you are! I’ve tried to imitate others and it doesn’t turn out well because I am not them. However, as others have stated above, practice, experience, and life will fine tune your style. I look back at papers I wrote as an undergrad and compare them to grad school (about 4+ years between most of those writings) and I cannot believe the same person wrote them. I didn’t do anything besides live and practice.

  8. Great advice, here. It might also help to read outside your comfort zone. You sound like a squared-away writer (not one of those crazy ones, heh-heh) and you probably already read everything you can and will and must, but have you read “Fear and Loathing” three times in a row in less than a week?

    Kidding. But if you can’t thoroughly enjoy reading a good or great book that isn’t quiet/introspective, then why try to write one?

    Hope to learn your name in whispered letters upon a noir marquee.
    (Erm, good luck.)

  9. When I hear ‘too quiet’ of a writer’s work, what I think is ‘too careful’. It may be that Name Withheld is a kind person, a gentle, considerate person. That will never do. Not in writing.

  10. I work with a lot of visual artists, and my experience is that they, like writers, often question their style. Some experiment with it and go off in bold new directions, some hold onto their style as their staff–an inner artistic compass–and some do a little of both. My perspective is both are necessary. Style is part of our intrinsic voice. Yet if we hold on to that voice too closely, perhaps we impede our way of finding other inflections in our voice.

  11. Oh dear lord, it’s enough work to try and write like myself, much less trying to be something else. And I feel like writing is much like getting older in general — with experience comes confidence, not changing but becoming more solidly yourself.

  12. Jennifer Egan’s another good example of a writer who’s modified her style over the course of her career. My favorite of her books is still “Look at Me” which was hyper-realistic but subtly so, a story that was told in retrospect from a wide variety of POVs all of which were handled masterfully. She very intentionally altered her style in “The Keep”, a gothic novel and it didn’t work for me at all. She shifted again with “Goon Squad”, structuring the book in a post-modernistic way with a non-linear plot and characters who intersected only tangentially. I thought most parts of it soared though a few chapters didn’t appeal to me at all. My advice would be to stay true to the stories and characters and details that compel you but experiment with modes of telling. You might unearth aspects of your style you didn’t know existed.

    • Great example. You can see hints of Goon Squad in The Keep but they are very different. I thought every word and every page of Goon Squad was brilliant.

  13. sometimes i think you alter your style when you are pushed, intrinsically or extrinsically, and the result can be magic. there’s this thing that happens, the skips and jumps that make you laugh out loud when the words come flying out.

    do you think the person(s) giving you feedback are asking you to risk more in your writing? are you holding back?

    i once took a class in which the instructor took our short stories on the first night and she kept them. we didn’t work on them the entire 10 weeks. each week she assigned something completely different: a character sketch from a photograph of a man, dialogue between two characters, a poem, a fable, a radio play, and so on. it was stimulating and fun.

    i generated a ton of new, different material and, looking back on it now, discovered i can write humour. i wouldn’t have known unless pushed.

    PS. i won’t talk about the poetry class i took last year. the gnashing. jesus, i can’t write poetry. but i now add poetic elements to my stories and that’s a good thing.

  14. I would agree with James Wood–your style is in the way you hold together artifice and verisimilitude. Contrary to instinct they are not in conflict, but always in service to the story. Each story. Writing well is not about being a good person or a good student.Or even about being true to yourself. To me it’s about finding balance.

    • That may be the best comment I’ve seen here (although I admit to some fondness for my own). I had considered questioning what we mean by style and even questioning how much it matters.

      Here’s a thought that might complicate things in the present discussion. I’m reading an advance proof of a book of conversations with British composer Thomas Adès, in which he says (more or less) that style is a superficial issue and that what matters is how a piece lives, how it works, where it takes you.

      You might say that style is a matter of how a voice sounds; what’s much more important is what that voice is saying, the value of the words. You have to be pretty practiced at reading and/or writing to be able to regard writing that way, but I can see the sense in it.

      • If we are always three–trapped in the language of our era, our own small voice and our protagonist’s dilemna–how can we know who will hear us now or in the future. No one knows what will last. No one. Sad and Ironic, yes, and to me freeing.

  15. I feel your pain, NAME. I also tend to write “quiet, literary” pieces, and I know that the market does not tend to favor those works. I also really want to publish — thus the problem.

    I recently got a (for me) extremely helpful critique from an agent who requested a partial and then gave me a super nice rejection. — She said there came a point when the work began to lack “narrative tension.” This was like a lightbulb for me – there does not need to be action, but there must be narrative tension to make a reader want to keep reading. Don’t know if it will help you, but for me, this way of thinking has really helped me improve my work. — no change in style necessary.

  16. We’ve never read “Name Withheld’s” work, but we have dealt with the age old question of whether or not we should change our style in order to conform to what’s marketable. We believe that you have to be able to bend in some ways if you’re wanting to be “commercial”, but if you’re writing for the market, chances are… you’re not putting your heart and soul into it. There’s always room to learn and grow while staying true to yourself. Good luck with everything.

  17. I like people who question what they’re doing. I like reading stories by people who question what they’re doing.

  18. Years ago I read a piece written by Stephen King, pre ON WRITING fame, just plain-fame, he said, and I am paraphrasing, he always wanted to the write the great American novel knowing that he probably never would because horror was his genre. I may be confusing, genre, form, and style, my apologies to Mr. King and Betsy, but what always stuck with me was that he knew what he loved to write, wrote best and wrote. For anyone seeking to be published for the first time, for all of us searching for a way to reach beyond our own personal audience, King’s ON WRITING is the best, especially when he is home alone and gets ‘the call’ regarding Carrie.

    Live, learn and continue to write what you love the best way you know how to write it.

    Having just plowed through my own doubts regarding unfulfilled writing effort I’m having that sentence tattooed on my ass, backward, so I can read it when I get frustrated. So Name Withheld, read my ass.

  19. Geeze, Wry, I thought “Read My Shorts”, my collection, was good, but “Read My Ass”?? Wow!

    Anyway, regarding style- I can wear a coat and tie and a smile, but I yam what I yam, and if you look closely, you know, you just know, that I’m fakin’ it, that I’m a sow’s ear in silk purse camo, that I need different clothes and weather.

    I want to be a better writer, not a different one. Maybe I won’t get the brass ring, but I’ll sure enjoy the Merry-Go-Round.

  20. If I was gonna change something, I’d a done it 40 years ago.

  21. I really needed this post. As a new writer, I’ve been constantly wondering how much of my style is my own, and how much I’ve adopted from things I read or watch.

    In your opinion, is it healthy for a writer to take a “reading hiatus”–at least when it comes to books by other authors in their chosen genre–while they’re writing?

    • I don’t know whether you’ll get many responses, since activity on this post is dying down, but I’ll throw in my 2 cents’ worth.

      In writing, everything is allowed, nothing is forbidden; all that matters is whether it works for you. If it seems to work better for you NOT to read related writing, then don’t.

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