Thursday, March 21, 2013

Developing Your Writing Style

Earlier this week, Julia did a beautiful job talking about how we can write memorable secondary characters. Today I want to keep the discussion going by looking at how we can create a memorable style.

First off, I want you to take a second, and think of five books you really like. You may even want to write the list down. 

Here are my five:

  • Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart, by Beth Pattillo
  • My Life As a Doormat, by Rene Gutteridge
  • Miss Invisible, by Laura Jensen Walker
  • Secrets, by Robin Jones Gunn
  • Save the Date, by Jenny B. Jones
Do you know what each of these books has in common? They all have characters, settings, or plots I distinctly remember--things that have stayed in my mind long after I put the books down. Does the same principle apply to the list you made?

Let's look at a few examples. In My Life As a Doormat, the main character really struggles with standing up for herself, and her initial attempts to change that tendency are hil-arious. We're talking, laugh out loud funny. Rene does a brilliant job creating a character that is so relatable, she hits us in the heart with the truth of her story. Same thing applies to Miss Invisible. The main character in Miss Invisible likes to be . . . well . . .  invisible. She, too, is sassier inside than out, and she struggles with her weight, which is an issue I think most of us can relate to because everyone, regardless of weight, has struggled at one point or another with self-confidence and self-perception.

Secrets by Robin Jones Gunn is memorable for a different reason. This story is set in a fictional small town so real and quaint, it makes you wish you could jump on a plane and join the characters for a cup of afternoon tea. And maybe, in a certain way, you can. Maybe that's the power of this story.

Your writing needs this same kind of zing. The question is, how can we learn to develop our own writing style so that readers remember something about the story long after they put the book down?

Well first, I think it's important to acknowledge that writing style takes on many forms. Maybe your writing sparkles because your pacing and word choices are poetic. Maybe you write characters who seem to jump off the page, or plots that keep readers turning from one page to the next. It's important that you realize your own writing strengths so that you can then further develop them. Having a seasoned writer or a critique partner read through your first few chapters can help you identify areas of your writing you might think are commonplace, which, in reality, actually stand out beautifully.

It's easy to assume everyone else thinks the way we do. But the reality is, they don't. So we must first become conscious of the preoccupations in our own minds as well as the things we do well, because doing so will allow us to grow all the more. Once you have a good idea of your own strengths and voice, I would encourage you to take it a step further by asking the following questions:
  • What am I passionate about? I'm talking about deep-level passions--story questions that drive the whole book--as well as the various "random" passions you hold in your life. The latter can bring flavor to the in-between points of your story. I'll give you an example. I am very passionate about animal rescue, so I try to include a rescued dog or cat in each of my stories. I've found that doing so not only makes my characters more relatable and likable, but it also incorporates something that really matters to me. When we write our passions, the vulnerability and spark behind those passions comes through on the page. So if you're having trouble with a chapter or subplot that feels dry, try spicing it up by infusing one of your own passions or interests into the writing.
  • What am I good at? It's important to know your weaknesses so that you can make them better. Everyone would agree about that. But it's also important you know your strengths, so you can make those better too. If you write lyrically, great. See if you can go from a very good lyrical writer to the best in your genre. If you write characters your readers empathize with, see if you can go from making them cry, to making them wake up in the morning still crying. Find your strengths and never stop working to develop them.
  • What do I want readers to remember about this book? Do you want to offer readers some escape from the world through a funny story? Are you the I Love Lucy of CBA? Or do you want to catch the attention of the secular market, presenting the gospel in a metaphorical from, like The Shack accomplished? Do you want your readers to feel inspired by your characters and remember them as friends (i.e. Christy Miller)? Or do you hope readers dream about your book through the night, and God uses the imagery to stir the depths of their hearts? You don't have to only pick one thing, of course, but it's a good idea to define your goals and strive for one particular effect. Doing so will help focus your writing and keep you goal-oriented through each page.
  • Am I confident in my calling? All too often, a lack of confidence keeps us from having a greater vision. We're scared to try something out of the box, or to be unique. We might be afraid of rejection, never selling the book, or just not doing it "right." While there is certainly something to be said of being attentive to the trends of the market and being smart about what you write (i.e. not trying to sell a chick lit vampire romance to Harlequin's Heartsong Presents), you don't want fear to take the place of God's direction over your story.
I hope these questions encourage you to dig deeper into the heart of your story, as well as your own heart, to discover a little more about yourself and the direction you want to go with your writing. It's amazing how a greater understanding of ourselves can so often make for more captivating (and easier) writing.

Which books did you think of at the beginning of this blog? Why do those stand out to you?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Anonymous said...

Another GREAT post, Ashley. I only thought of a couple of books off hand. One is the one I'm reading right now, by Susan May Warren--You Don't Know Me. Her characters have become so real to me, the setting is sketched out and colored in in my mind, and the story question has me thinking. I've loved it. Another one is Dining With Joy, by Rachel Hauck. Loved this one for its story question and how the characters are so likeable. I love Dee Henderson's O'Malley series because of the characters. She has a way of creating complex, thinking characters whose thoughts have made me really think about the issues they deal with.

I could list more, but I'll stop there. :)

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, I love your examples! Don't you love when you're reading a book and it's so good, it inspires your own writing? I need to read that Dee Henderson series-- I've heard so many good things about it. Thanks for stopping by today!

Ruth Douthitt said...

Great list!! I don't read a lot of fiction, but I am working on it. I tend to enjoy non-fiction.

But a book has to grab me at the start with a detailed setting and interesting characters. An original inciting incident that makes me wonder if the protagonist will endure to the end helps me stay hooked, too.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I love your tips, Ashley! - especially the one about incorporating your passions into your writing! You know, I hadn't really thought too much about this before, but you're so right! Now I'm imagining how I might incorporate an interior designer into a future novel... :-)

Ashley Clark said...

Ruth, those are great points! I agree with all of them, especially an interesting setting... I think writers sometimes underestimate the effect setting has upon the story, but it really can set the tone for the whole thing. Thanks for sharing!

Ashley Clark said...

Karen, I love that! I hadn't really thought much about the passion thing either (aside from the obvious, big-picture passion that drives the story) until my last book, when I realized my little passions should really be coloring everything, because that's what makes for interesting writing. I can't wait to read your interior designer book!