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I've recently got a crushing critique. The critic pointed out I was obviously unfamiliar with the basic tools of the trade and that my style was non-existent. She insisted that "everybody can invent a story", but that the art of a novel lies in the way it uses words -- i.e. in the linguistic style of the author. Good style, she decalred, is the product of tireless iterations. If a text is to become a work of art, every word is on purpose, and no description can be more accurate.

Personally, I strongly disagree with this notion. (Not least because I am aware of so terribly few authors whose style lives up to the "every phrase is perfect"-standard. I am aware of the concept, of course, but have only very rarely seen it actually implemented.)

My question, specifically for those of you who have published their work or are involved in the publishing industry, is: How right is my critic? How important is style? How much does it contribute to the overall value of a novel, apart from hooking the reader to the story in the first place and making his or her reading experience more comfortable? If you ranked the elements of a novel -- plot, characters, scene design, style, and everything I have forgotten here --, where does style come in(*)?

I'm desperate for more varied input than the opinion of that one critic. I hope it will help me to process her input and turn it into something constructive.


(*) I would expect such a ranking to be naturally subjective. For example, for me it's "characters > scene design and style > plot", although the distinction between the latter two is quite blurry for me. I can forgive a style that does not resonate with me 100%, and I'm willing to accept slightly flawed plots, but characters need to be up to my standard for a book to wow me.

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Consider style, plot and characters the three pillars on which your book is going to stand. All three should get a passing grade, a failure in one will ruin an otherwise promising book.

If you think that your critic is giving you an "F" for the style, and you believe that she may be right, that should be a serious concern. No matter how good your plot and characters can be, if your writing is poor, this definitely needs to be addressed.

If, on the other hand, your style is Ok (just may need some improvement), can you compensate any shortcomings there with strengths in different areas? I would say yes, and there are many examples, particularly among young authors, who deliver very successful books without showing much skill in literary style. Serious, demanding readers might look down on such authors, but you have to think about your target audience. Do you want your book to win acclaim among the most critical readers, or it's Ok to meet a less ambitious goal?

Polishing your style will take years, and you can write many good books while getting there.

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    Absolutely. I like the sense of a "passing grade" -- a book with great characters doesn't necessarily need style that does anything fancy, but it does need style that doesn't get in the way. – Standback Feb 1 '18 at 13:23
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"Everybody can invent a story" -- No. In his classic book Story, Robert McKee reports just the opposite: There are a great many people who can write beautiful prose. There are very few who can tell a captivating story.

My years of critique groups and writing classes bear this out. Most of the manuscripts I have read over the years displayed decent prose. Some of it was quite beautiful. Hardly any of them told a good story.

The best seller list confirms it too. There is much on that list that has prose that is pedestrian, often quite awkward and stilted. Those books sell because they tell compelling stories.

How important is style? It is certainly a grand ornament to a story if you can tell it in a splendid style. But a good story will get by just fine with ordinary prose competence. Style without story, on the other hand, can quickly get out of hand and become painfully purple. In particular, an author trying to produce emotion through style rather than through story is likely to produce something particularly painful to the ear and eye.

However, one of the drawbacks of critique groups is that it is very easy for a group to end up with several stylists and no storytellers -- not even anyone who can recognize genuine story faults. At that point the critique becomes all about style, and no one is getting any nearer publication.

Style is the sizzle, story the steak. Anyone who does not understand that is not helping your writing career.

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    +1, with one caveat. While it doesn't matter (that much) how good your style is, bad style or style that is incorrect for the genre can make a book almost unreadable. Problem is that those are subjective judgements by the reader. There is probably a reason bestsellers are often "pedestrian". A style that is considered "good" can actually be a distraction and make the book worse for parts of the audience. A valid complaint about style is probably based on it being too complex or inconsistent. But I am in the STORY>>STYLE camp, so YMMV. – Ville Niemi Jan 31 '18 at 23:49
  • +1 I can attest to the truth of this from my own experience. I'm a journalist, and my work has attracted praise for its evocative style. I've spent literally years trying to turn that style into compelling stories, with nothing worthwhile to show for my effort. – Bob Tway Feb 1 '18 at 9:17
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    "The bestseller list confirms" only one thing: That mediocre style sells. If that's the OP's goal, let them focus on a suspenseful story, by all means. But if the goal is to write a good novel, and the bestseller list is secondary, style must be addressed. The ideal is, of course, a beautiful mastership of language which lends its structure and expressiveness to a deep, compelling story. Brace for the Nobel. – Peter A. Schneider Feb 1 '18 at 18:34
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    @PeterA.Schneider I going to assume that you mean that compelling stories sell despite mediocre style, not that mediocre style is itself a selling point. If you mean the latter, it only sounds like snobbishness. I'll agree on the beautiful masterpiece of language that tells a compelling story, as long as the beauty of the language supports the story rather than competing with it. Stories move and inspire and inform and guide us more than words ever can. But if it is the Nobel you want, pandering to the tastes and prejudices of the chattering classes is a more assured route to the prize. – user16226 Feb 1 '18 at 18:47
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    @MarkBaker I didn't mean any more than I said.The OP asked "How important is style? How much does it contribute to the overall value of a novel [...]?" The question is, what value? Value as a means to generate income, as a vehicle to popularity, as propaganda to further a cause, as a piece of art? While the roles books can play are not entirely mutually exclusive they tend to form distinct clusters. Each role has different demands for style. It is obviously not necessary to be a stylist for earning money with books. But you certainly need style for propaganda or art. – Peter A. Schneider Feb 1 '18 at 21:22
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Caveat: I am not published.

I hope you do not abandon your style. You have a unique voice, and there will certainly be people who try to convince you to write your story their way. No. Write your own story.

Now, that said, the phrase she said that I agree wholeheartedly with, is "Good style is the product of tireless iterations."

How many iterations did yours go through?

I initially expected 12 drafts on my project. Now I expect closer to 40. The first and second and fourth drafts were ... readable, but not polished (even at 4th draft stage). It took that long for me to realize that certain characters, for example, did not have identifiable motivations. As each draft continues to noticeably improve, new problems come to light. At the moment the problem is that one character does not stay firmly 'the same age' in how she reads to the reader. This was not obvious early on - because there were other bigger problems.

Because of my own process, I expect many drafts. Others get by with far fewer. So this will be up to you to decide, (and you may not need many) .. but it could well be that you simply need more iterations. And if you do more iterations, guess what - it is still 'your' style.

(Incidentally, as more and more people tell me something I need to change about my project, the more I realize that my writing is engaging to them. So much so they want to take it elsewhere. FWIW - it may be that you are engaging her. Don't be crushed.)

Also - on the subject of characters, these also can benefit from iterations and have multiple facets to themselves - motivations, personality quirks, growth, relational qualities, and so on.

Also, also - I just received a beta reader comments. I know I need to wait a good long while to open it. They are often crushing. I need to be in the right space. You are not alone.

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    Worse, some people will try to convince you to write their story their way... – a CVn Jan 31 '18 at 22:28
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Well, is it dry?

Have you passed your story through other test readers? They might provide you with the same - or different perspectives. Perhaps your narrative IS dry, unimaginative, boring and difficult to read. Perhaps the editor just did not like your manuscript... Get other perspectives. Only 1 critic is not a good barometer... but 2 or more...

There are a lot of possibilities, feel free to ask her some of the points where you could improve the writing or telling of the story. What you provided really does not tell me WHAT is wrong, just that she wants you to craft better wording.

If writing in a genre, use language that matches that genre. If character is important, make sure your characters are fascinating. Just because you value characters, scenes have a place and should not be merely neglected.

So it brings me back to :

So, how dry is it?

4

I wouldn't worry much about style, I strongly disagree with your critic.

I wouldn't say there is a "most important component" because there are a few elements that must be there no matter what. The most important thing is sustaining reader interest, and there are a few ways to do that, typically used in combination. They can be interested in the protagonist(s), the setting, the struggle to achieve some goal (meaning the plot), and the ongoing mystery of what the protagonist(s) discover next or suffer next, bringing them closer to or further from their goal. Whether their guesses are right or wrong, and ultimately revealing the puzzle, piece by piece, of what they (the protags) must solve.

The reader has to want to see what the character(s) do next (plot), the reader has to want to see the next place the characters will get (setting), the reader has to want to see what the next clue is (some mystery or uncertainty).

IMO you are definitely wrong by a mile to put "plot" last, the plot is the story and the reason characters are doing anything at all. "Style" is not really necessary at all, and authors like JK Rowling make $millions with barely serviceable writing: Because she has likeable characters in plots that sustain suspense for her young-adult readers (and many old adult readers too).

The novel should be a suspenseful struggle for the protagonist to achieve something against some kind of opposition (a villain, the environment, society, the uncaring or corrupt police, the mafia, oppression, themselves). The ups and downs of that struggle are the plot.

Unless somebody has made a $million from their work (and I have not), I would question whether they are an authority on "what is art" and what it takes and how it is produced. You don't need "style", you need "story", and that means interesting characters with an interesting struggle that it seems will defeat their very best efforts; so the reader keeps turning pages to see how that defeat is avoided.

  • "I would question whether they are an authority on 'what is art'" - Calling anyone an authority on 'what is art' is always a pretty dodgy assertion. Surely making a pot of money producing some work doesn't qualify you, but I can't think of anything that would. – Jon Kiparsky Feb 2 '18 at 15:24
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As a keen reader, I have to agree.

You have to remember you're telling this to someone. Some authors (e.g. JK Rowling) will exclusively focus on plot. Some authors (e.g. Kazuo Ishiguro in "Remains of the Day") may focus on characters, and nothing much happens, but what you see of the characters and their development is emotionally devastating. But what they all have in common is that they describe this in words.

So compare JK Rowling to, say, Dan Brown. What makes her better? Simply, it's the fact that she has the tools of the trade. Her wordsmithing is simple but effective. Where she needs to stop to set the scene, she does; but otherwise she uses her words to drive the plot on. And it works. Now look at Dan Brown. How does he do it? Answer: long descriptions for irrelevant stuff. Long sections of exposition. People telling each other things which they both already know. Tools of the trade - missing. If you want to write plot, then be more Jo and be less Dan.

So, how about someone like Neal Stephenson? Pages upon pages of digressions. How does that work? Answer: those digressions are always relevant in some way to the plot, and usually they are in the voice of one or other character. They let you into the inner workings of the character. In terms of plot you could almost always axe them, but in terms of character they're doing important things. Case in point: "Snow Crash". You could simply describe YT's mom's job as soul-crushing and overly-regulated and move on, but four pages (or was it more?) of memo from her boss about rules on using toilet tissue, including inventing TLAs for a toilet tissue roll and the cardboard tube? That's using "show, don't tell" - you appreciate yourself exactly how she feels, because you've experienced it directly yourself.

You also say "apart from hooking the reader in the first place". You'd better make damn sure those first couple of pages are awesome, otherwise the book goes back on the shelf and you don't make a sale. As a keen reader, the style is what tells me whether an author has something I want to listen to. Think of a teacher, or someone giving a presentation. If they're just droning through a Powerpoint, do you want to be there? But if they're enthusiastic and really good at presenting the subject, they could be wandering at random through theoretical physics and it'll still be interesting, even if you would never have thought you'd want to listen to that. (Think Richard Feynmann.) And again, that comes down to words.

4

I have come to understand that there is no one book for every audience. There exists a certain niche audience, to which your critic belongs (made up largely of writers, aspiring writers and critics) for whom style is everything. It is unlikely that your book will ever appeal to that audience. That doesn't mean their opinion is worthless, but it does mean that taking on their obsessions is unlikely to lead to a work that pleases either you, them, or your natural audience.

My own ranking would be story, characters, style. But that is far from meaning that style should be neglected. If your story and characters are already strong, writing with style will make your book stand out and rise to the top. To quote Delany quoting Dickenson, "Nothing survives but fine execution," and style is often a lot of what makes a book truly memorable. It's worth taking the time for polishing up your craft --mastering all the tools in the writer's toolbox.

With that said, the final product should display your style, not someone else's. "Every word a piece of art" is not everyone's style --and that's ok. Identify the audience you are trying to reach and write in a style that will speak to them.

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I am also just a reader, not a writer, but I consider style a very important part of the experience indeed. I cannot say how well-founded your critic was, as I don't know your work, but style is very important to the value, in my opinion.

For me personally, reading a book, especially a long one (not so much for short stories, where the idea is the most important part), style is probably the most important attribute. If I am constantly disappointed in the style department, I'm likely to drop the book sooner than later.

For example, Tolkien. I read his books (Hobbit, LOTR, Silmarillion) first when I was an adolescent - with English being a secondary language. Aside from improving my english score a lot, I to this day remember the feeling of reading those arcane words. Most adults I know find the original works very boring indeed - pages upon pages upon pages of description of irrelevant stuff, chapters upon chapters of people hunting around for something, nothing really happening. Still; to this day, when I open his books on any page, the words themselves are enchanting. The sheer amount of melancholy he puts into everything, not only through story/plot/character...

Same for others like Ursula Le Guin, Ian Banks, Peter Hamilton, Umberto Eco and more - yes, the list may be a bit incongruent, but all those people have their individual style that is wildly attractive to me. Back when I had lots of time to read, I bought every single of their works as they appeared without question, and was never disappointed. None of those are perfect, but whatever they miss in other area, they more than make up with their style to me. Letting their words flow through the mind was more than sufficient to keep me going (though most of them had interesting content/story/characters on top, of course).

In contrast, I'd usually rather do nothing than read the more throw-away mass-production books/leaflets, maybe written by ghost writers, especially surrounding certain big movie franchises...

And needless to say, there may be authors whom I cannot stand because of their particular style.

So, all in all, I cannot help you with your quest of finding your own style, but I'd assure you that style is an essential part in making a book valuable to me.

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In my experience how much I enjoy a book is usually not too dependent on how much I like the style. This however is not to say that style cannot have a great impact on a piece of writing but simply that it usually does not make or break a story.

Style is usually relevant only in extremes, if your style is noticeably entertaining or noticeably poor than it will definitely have an effect but a style that does not lean too far either way will usually have little influence. A unique style will definitely aid you but it shouldn't be a main focus of yours. If you practice your craft and continue writing, a style will often come more naturally but if you try to force it you can fall into the trap of trying to imitate others and never finding your own style. Style comes with a-lot of time. It develops from finding a unique part of yourself and your experiences that can come through in your writing to create a more enjoyable experience.

Another thing to consider is that the question of style is highly subjective and the answer to this question will inevitably change from person to person. Some people find a decisive style exceptionally important while others see it as secondary to developing a good story. Even after working on a style for a very long time some people will still dislike it. Your critic could be one of these people and there's really nothing wrong with that.

If you are looking to improve your style I think that this post gives a good general overview of where to start.

https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/develop-unique-writing-style/

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