Your own style will develop naturally the more you write. It’s always beneficial to study other people’s styles, but never, ever try to copy them, however brilliant you think it is. When I first started to write short stories, I tried to imitate the style of a female author who I particularly admired, with disastrous results. When read aloud, the writing sounded horribly rigid and unnatural and was, quite obviously, but a poor imitation of the original.
Aim for clarity and consistency.Edit
Make sure you use the same tense throughout. This may seem obvious, but switching tenses mid-story (or even mid-sentence) still happens frequently in even the most distinguished of newspapers and magazines. Be careful, too, that your buxom blonde doesn’t suddenly turn into a skinny redhead without you noticing.
Don’t be guilty of ambiguity.Edit
Another obvious one, perhaps, but it’s a mistake easily made. For instance: ‘Being very dirty, I was able to buy the carpet at a really good price’ leaves the reader wondering whether it’s the carpet or you that needs a good scrub. Whereas ‘I was able to buy the carpet at a really good price because it was very dirty’ clarifies the matter nicely.
Despite what I was taught at school (admittedly a long time ago), it’s OK to use ‘and’,’ but’, ‘so’ or ‘then’ at the beginning of a sentence if it helps it to flow and clarifies its meaning. Split infinitives are all right too, for the same reason, although they’re best avoided if possible.
Again, vary the length of your sentences, but don’t make them too long. If the story does call for a longish sentence though, make sure your punctuation is perfect so as to make its meaning crystal clear.
Try to make the title and first sentence attention grabbing, so the reader will be hooked and spurred on to read more.
Check that you haven’t used the same word too frequently.Edit
Try to find alternatives. A thesaurus is invaluable for this as well as being a lot of fun to use. Avoid using long and complicated words when a simpler one will do just as well. Your reader won’t be too happy if he has to trawl through the story with the help of a dictionary.
Avoid clichés like the plagueEdit
Avoid clichés like the plague unless your character happens to be someone who talks in clichés all the time, in which case you can use them for effect. Otherwise, you really need to find another way of saying Grandma’s at death’s door, or Emily went white as a sheet. Besides, thinking up alternatives can be very entertaining and good exercise for the grey matter.
Use of SlangEdit
Slang’s fine as long as you’re not writing for the mass-market. The only trouble is that it tends to date your work because slang expressions change so rapidly. ‘Hey, man, what a groovy chick’ sounds ridiculous today, unless your character happens to be an ageing hippie. ‘Bottle’ ‘wicked’ ‘pukka’ and so on sound great now (especially if you’re a fan of Jamie Oliver), but what’ll they sound like in 10 years time? Incorporating well-know TV personalities (which I do all the time!) into your work is similarly limiting. Who’ll have heard of Fern Britten and dear old Jamie 10-15 years down the line?
Obscenities are OK to use as well, as long as they’re not included just for effect (easily spotted by an editor if they are) and they’re relevant to the character that’s spouting them
Note: Clichés, slang and obscenities (although, shock, horror, I have noticed the occasional ‘bloody’ appearing in the ‘glossies’) are a definite no-no if you want to aim at the mass-market. (as are, by the way, heroines who smoke and/or get plastered and any sort of violence/stalking/abuse).
Don’t make a Scotsman growl ‘Och aye the noo’ or an Irishman trill ‘Begorra!’ Find another way to convey the fact that they speak with a brogue. Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes is a brilliant example of this. The characters were all 100% Irish and not a ‘begorra’ to be found between the lot of them.
Use adjectives very, very sparingly.Edit
All editors (whether mass-market or not) hate purple prose and flowery description. Don’t interrupt the middle of a murder, for instance, by waffling on about the beautiful, mind-blowing, vermilion sunset barely visible through the dilapidated, ash-grey net curtains.
Get down to the nitty-gritty straight away with a punchy opening sentence. Make sure it grabs the reader’s attention and that it makes clear whether the story is going to be humorous, dark, light-hearted or serious. Create the mood immediately.
A short story’s climax should, ideally come right at the end. Bring the story to its natural conclusion and try not to be tempted to add any further unnecessary explanations or superfluous observations.
Your own personal style is what distinguishes you from every other writer, but it doesn’t do to get too hung-up about it, either. If you try too hard, your writing will just be boring and unimaginative. Far better just to write, write write and let it develop in its own good time.
© Andrea Lowne 2001