Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.17: Q&A on Style, Diction, and Paragraphing

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard

We fielded some questions on style, diction, and paragraphing:

  • Is it okay to have pretty prose in a straightforward adventure story?
  • How do author voice and character voice differ?
  • How do you prevent paragraphs from rambling?
  • I feel like my writing is derivative of the writers whose work I read. How can I find or develop my own voice?
  • How much does diction play into genre fiction?
  • Is it okay to write in a natural speaking voice?
  • During which part of the writing process do you pay attention to style?

By Way Of Correction: “Unaccompanied Sonata,” by Orson Scott Card, is the story about anxiety of influence. “Tunesmith,” by Lloyd Biggle Jr., is about music, and even has the name “Bach” in it, but it’s not the story Howard described.

Homework: Ask your alpha readers for their definition of your voice.

Thing of the week: Wayward, Volume 1, by Jim Zub (writer),  Steven Cummings (Illustrator), John Rauch (Illustrator), and Tamra Bonvillain (Illustrator).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: Is it okay to have pretty prose in a fairly straightforward adventure story?
A: Yes. Pretty prose can make the story more interesting.
Q: How do author voice and character voice differ?
A: Authorial voice is your voice, probably natural and unconscious. Character voice depends on the character, and is usually due to conscious decisions.
Q: How do you ensure consistency in authorial voice in a novel that has taken several years to write?
A: Fix it in editing. Or accept that you have changed.
Q: Besides just knowing, how do you make sure your paragraphs don’t ever ramble or slow the pace of your novel?
A: Apply the upside down rule. Look for redundant statements. Watch for the feeling at the end of descriptions that the characters have gotten lost, or that a dialogue question has been forgotten.
Q: I feel like my writing is derivative of other writers. The ones I love to read. How can I find my own voice?
A: Write a book. You find yourself as you do it. Don’t stress over it, keep writing.
Q: How much does diction play into genre fiction?
A: Every genre, all the time.
Q: Is it okay to write your normal speaking voice or should you mix in more formal grammar as well? A.k.a. do you write like people really sound or do you use the fake version of how people really sound?
Q: I try to write the way people actually talk. Know what you’re doing and stick to it. Think about the genre and setting. Write your characters to read well and make a fun story.
Q: During which part of the writing process should/do you focus on style?
A: Draft one, get the book done. Draft two, fix continuity problems. Draft three, first polish and style. Then repeat in fifth or sixth draft. OR draft one, get the mess out. Second pass, what was I trying to do, and style goes into play. OR first draft, style and wording. Later tighten it up, work on pacing and characterization. OR jump around, sleep on it, and then commit art.
SUMMARY: Everyone has a style, like an accent. Learn to recognize your style, to do it consciously.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 17.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Style, Diction, and Paragraphing.
[Piper] 15. Minutes. Long.
[Dan] Becauseyou’reinahurry.
[Howard] And… We’re not… That…
[Brandon] [gasp] What are you doing?
[Howard] Smart!
[Brandon] You people. You… Okay. This is… I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper, I guess.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] All right. I’m going to give them questions and distract them from doing stuff like this. Catherine asks, “Is it okay to have pretty prose in a fairly straightforward adventure story?”
[Howard] Yes.
[Piper] Yes.
[Dan] Yes. Next question?
[Howard] I like it. Because if… A straightforward adventure story that is just blow-by-blow workman prose the whole time isn’t offering me anything except the adventure, and I want… I want to see more, I want to feel more, and pretty words are going to make it more interesting.
[Piper] Actually, beautiful.
[Brandon] Part of the charm of the Barsoom books is the fact that they were written in an era where what we might call purple right now was a little more common. But it’s not always purple, and it has often this very lyrical beautiful prose about a naked man on Mars fighting four-armed monsters for an equally naked princess. You’re like, “This is ridiculous, but your writing is so straight and beautiful.” So I think there is room for all kinds of prose.
[Dan] Well, I would also add adventure movies are often some of the most beautiful ones. I mean, big shots of desert and jungle in Indiana Jones, that’s what your narration is supposed to make up for, is that we don’t get to see that, you have to describe it.
[Piper] I’m going to say, I’m a sucker for a really well-written action scene, a beautifully written action scene. Jim Butcher writes some gorgeous battle scenes, and the prose in that is quite beautiful and violent.

[Brandon] All right. How do author voice and character voice differ?
[Dan] Ouch.
[Piper] Author voice. Well. I talk like a normal person. Character voice? It depends on my character. My character may be a very soft, gentle, shy person which is completely and contrary to myself. It could be a guy. Who’s my character?
[Brandon] I think we probably covered this pretty well in the style episode. But I’m interested in hearing your take on it. Do you have, Piper, an authorial voice? That you’re like, “This is the Piper voice?”
[Piper] I have developed a voice. Per genre, I think. So my romantic suspense, I’m very well known for very short, clipped thought moments. Right? So I’ll go through a narrative, and I have a tendency to just end with a pithy phrase or a short, clipped phrase, and then move on. That’s my deep POV. My deep POV isn’t a longer paragraph. My deep POV tends to be a short thought by the character, and then we go back to a higher level of third person.
[Brandon] Right. Now, did you develop that specifically? Like, were you conscious or was it a natural thing?
[Piper] I kind of fell into it naturally, especially considering the types of characters I was writing. I was writing a lot of ex-military, I was writing mercenaries. Whether they were male or female, they had a very concise frame of mind, and were just very high efficiency, and therefore had that way of thinking. But every once in a while, we’d go deeper or we’d go into further narrative, and so, like you had that ebb and flow of wording, but it always comes back to that tight line somewhere in there, that goes into the deep POV.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] I think it would be interesting to… Those of you who are asking the same question to yourselves, look at blog posts by writers you like and then read some of their fiction. Ask yourself how those voices are different? Because I know that for me, the voice that I use when I’m writing a movie review, the voice that I use when I’m tweeting something, versus the voice I use when I’m writing Sgt. Schlock versus Kevyn Andreyasn, the scientist, those are all discrete and the movie review is the one that is unconscious and is the one that is the most like my natural voice. All of the others are… I’m making conscious decisions about the voice itself.

[Brandon] I have a question for you specifically then, because Nick asks, “How do you ensure consistency in authorial voice in a novel that has taken several years to write?” Well, in a graphic novel that has taken well over a decade to write, have you done anything to ensure a consistent voice?
[Howard] Confession time. I’m… I will often say, with regards to the problems inherent in writing the same story over the space of 16 years, Schlock Mercenary is what it is. I’m not going to go back and fix voice things. I’ve looked at things I wrote in the past and realized, “Oh. That’s not a very good way to tell that… Tell the story that way. I don’t like that piece of character voice. I bet I can make that character more believable if I change the way they speak this way in this book.” So I changed. That might break the work for some people. But I think it makes the work better. If, however, I had been working on the same 150,000 word novel for five years, I would make an editorial pass in which I reduce it to a 100,000 word novel and make sure that my voice is consistent. I’d fix that in editing.

[Brandon] Excellent. All right. Walker asks, “Besides just knowing, how do you make sure your paragraphs don’t ever ramble or slow the pace of your novel?”
[Piper] Ooo, pacing.
[Howard] I use the upside down rule. Usually it happens when I’m editing. Is I’ll… And I’ve talked about this on the podcast before. Sometimes, I will write my way into an idea, and then state the idea very clearly at the end of the paragraph. The paragraph becomes more interesting if I lead with the idea and then support it with a few sentences. So, that exercise, just taking a paragraph and turn it upside down will often tell me is it too long? Did I say too much? Does it even need to be here?
[Piper] I also look for redundant statements. Because if you decide to state the same thing three times in a paragraph, you might be able to take one or two of those out. So if you’re paragraph’s running long…
[Howard] Unless you’re writing three… A three beat joke in the paragraph. Where that redundancy is part of the joke.
[Piper] [inaudible… But that would be the joke.]
[Howard] But that’s a different… You’re writing a different thing.
[Piper] And you’re doing it on purpose.
[Dan] I’m always really concerned… Probably overly concerned with this. Because as I read other people’s books, I find that they tend to describe things and explain things way more than I do. I think that’s because I just get really antsy about it. If I get at the end of a description of something and feel compelled to write, “Hey, earth to character? Where have you been for the last three paragraphs?” Then I know I’ve written too much. I think I feel that more often than I should. But that is one sign that I’ve way over… Gone over the top.
[Piper] Actually, I would say that what I find is a sign is that sometimes I’ll be in dialogue and I’ll have a question as the last thing that was said. Then, I’ll go into some sort of narrative. I realize it’s too long if I get to the next piece of dialogue and no one remembers what that question was that they’re now answering. Then that transition took too long.
[Dan] Questions are a place that happens a lot, because you’re like, “Hey, did you get the blah blah blah?” Then you have to describe what the blah blah blah is, and then everyone forgot about the question.
[Piper] Exactly.
[Brandon] I love the blah blah blah something. Okay.
[Dan] Did you get it, though?

[Brandon] “I feel like my writing,” Oliver says, “is derivative of other writers. The ones I love to read. How can I find my own voice?”
[Dan] By writing a book.
[Piper] Continual… Continue to do the thing that you do. You kind of find yourself as you go do it.
[Brandon] Remember, human being creativity… What we call creativity is recombination. We do not… I say this for human, we do not imagine new colors. We don’t imagine new tastes. We take things that we have experienced, we remix them into a way that is distinctive for us, and we become that. My style is heavily influenced by the authors I read and read growing up. Don’t stress this as much as you might be feeling that you are. The more you write, the more interested you are in your writing and in other people’s writings, the more your style will come to you comfortably. We hit this topic in the first week of the month. But I will hit it again. Don’t stress it. You can do things to move along, but don’t stress it.
[Dan] Well, I will add, I did not really feel like I had a good sense of what my own style or voice was until I was writing Partials. Because it was so different from John Cleaver. It was easier for me at that point to look back and say, “Well, my style isn’t just John Cleaver and my style isn’t just Partials, my style is somewhere in the middle.” So you might have to write four or five books before you really know who you are as a writer.
[Piper] The different series, I think.
[Dan] Yeah. Different styles.
[Piper] When it comes down to, we noticed that I have a very similar voice across paranormal romance or sci-fi romance and my romantic suspense. My voice carries, even though the two genres and the setting are wildly different.
[Dan] I think by that definition, your voice might be the parts that carry across from genre to genre and style to style.
[Howard] By way of metaphor, there’s a story by Lloyd Biggle Jr. called Tunesmith, in which someone who is a famous music writer but who is kept by the government isolated from all other music. They want his music to remain pure. Somebody smuggles him some Bach. He listens to it and falls in love with it. But he’s horrified, because he’s now committed a crime by listening to someone else’s work. This short story is perfect for anxiety of influence, which is what you’re describing here. Okay. But he’s terrified because now I’ve committed this crime, and I need nobody to know, and I’ll lose my job. He ends up losing his job and he asks the guy, “Well, why? How did you know that I listened to Bach? I thought I hid all that?” The guy said, “It’s because everything that could have sounded like Bach disappeared from your music.”
[Howard] When I think of anxiety of influence, I think of that. I’m never going to be able to remove my influences from my voice. They might be the parts of my voice that people love the most. I have no way of knowing. The important thing is that I just keep writing.

[Brandon] I’m going to stop us for the book of the week. Number one, you could go read that story, which sounds awesome.
[Howard] Lloyd Biggle Jr., Tunesmith.
[Brandon] But, one of the things I love about having transitioned to an ad-free version of Writing Excuses is that we can pick things that we didn’t used to be able to. Some of those are graphic novels. Howard’s book of the week for us is Wayward.
[Howard] Yup. Wayward, Volume 1. It’s written by Jim Zub. I’m a bad person. I don’t have the names of the pencil and the anchor and the colorist and the letterer all memorized. But it is the story of… Describing it in mashup terms, think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except she’s in Japan with Japanese oni and other demons, and the things that are happening… Her ability to interact with the demons and her friends and their abilities… Jim is creating some beautiful metaphors for the culture of Japan and the culture… Modern culture in general. Also, it’s just a rocking good story about girls and kittens and demons and stuff.
[Piper] Now, are the kittens demons at all?
[Dan] That would be a spoiler.
[Howard] Some of them…
[Piper] Okay.
[Howard] Might be.
[Piper] Maybe.
[Howard] Wayward, Volume 1, by Jim Zub.
[Brandon] I have read some Jim Zub because Howard foisted him upon me, and I have found them excellent books.
[Dan] He’s really good.

[Brandon] All right. So. How much does diction play into genre fiction?
[Piper] I could say, a lot.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Brandon] Okay. That one is handled.
[Howard] When you say diction, you’re specifically talking about our ability to speak the sentences that are written on the page?
[Brandon] No. Choosing words. Diction is using one word instead of a another. Diction choices. Yep. Sorry. This is talking to the audio…
[Piper] I was like how do you say it versus what do you say versus…
[Brandon] Diction, I would say, plays into science fiction and fantasy genre, romance…
[Piper] Every genre.
[Brandon] Every genre.
[Dan] All the time.
[Piper] It’s not just dialogue. It’s narrative.
[Dan] Just in the way that technology is described and… That lets you know, do they have a really weird word for that thing? Do they just call it a car? When you’re reading fantasy, most fantasy is wildly anachronistic anyway. But the good stuff doesn’t feel like it, even though… I don’t…

[Brandon] Okay. Let me ask you this. Because Amanda has something that piggybacks on this. “Is it okay to write your normal speaking voice or should you mix in more formal grammar as well?” This kind of question, do you write like people really sound or do you use the fake version of how people really sound?
[Dan] I do my best in my writing to write to the way people actually talk. I can get away with that, in part, because I am primarily writing either modern or near future. So it doesn’t feel weird to have an orc in a loincloth and an ax speaking the way I’m speaking right now. But I get away with bad grammar, I get away with all kinds of awful things with plural disagreement, things like that. The copy editors hate me for it. They fight me constantly. I say, “No. I know your version is right, but that’s not how people talk and that’s not how this character talks.” So you just have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing and stick to it.
[Howard] I have to watch that to the dialogue bubbles a lot. There was one recently where correct grammar would have been him and I. I realized… Or he and I… I realized no, that’s absolutely not how this character would say it. She’d say me and him. So I wrote it as me and him. I know I’m going to get hate mail for it, because it’s bad grammar. But that’s just the way this character’s going to speak.
[Piper] Genre matters, too. I’ve noticed that how people talk or the grammar that they use… It’s going to be different if you’re writing a Victorian steampunk as compared to writing a contemporary romantic suspense. So the way people talk there, you want to think about your genre and where you’re setting them, as to whether or not you’re going to use more formal phrasing versus more broken speech. Right? It’s a level of… Was that a time where people spoke that way, if you’re going to go with any kind of alternative history?
[Brandon] I’m going to point out here, there is a spectrum. In fact, it probably goes in multiple dimensions. On picking how accurate you want to be. Because even most people who are very… Wanting to write very accurate speech will cut out the ums and ahs and things like this. Because the amount we actually do that is really distracting, if you pay attention to it.
[Dan] Oh, yes.
[Piper] Uhum.
[Brandon] But other people, and I often… I usually use Joss Whedon as an example, right people who do not speak like normal human beings do. They are like hyper-clever, great at banter, type people. I like to write things like this when I can. I don’t… I intentionally don’t write my characters to sound like people do. I write my characters to read well…
[Brandon] And make a fun story. Neither are wrong. What you’re asking here, or maybe you’re saying, is it okay to write? Yes. The answer is it’s okay to do anything in writing if you are owning it and doing it intentionally.
[Dan] Now, one… I’ll give you a specific example of a place where I will cave toward grammar. It is very common in modern American English to leave verbs out of sentences and to leave pronouns out of sentences. I find that if I tried to do that too much, it reads very poorly and it’s hard to understand. So I will find myself adding verbs back into a sentence that doesn’t really need them, just because it’s going to read better.
[Howard] When I’m writing Schlock Mercenary dialogue, I will often do those sorts of clipped sentences where something has been abbreviated. When I read it, I realize, “Oh, ohohohoh, I’m picturing the way the character is delivering this dialogue, and you can get away with a clipped sentence if they’re gesturing something. If there’s a prop they’re interacting with. Because to the reader, the clipped sentence doesn’t have enough information. That’s really where you’re tripping them up.
[Dan] Yeah. And the lack of information, what that means is that the reader is picking one of the other words and verbing it, and all of a sudden, the sentence means something else.
[Howard, Piper] Yeah.

[Brandon] I think I’m going to end us on this one. During which part of the writing process should you focus on style? I’m going to say which part do you focus on style? First draft, which revision, that sort of thing. And I’ll kick us off, because you guys are kind of looking at me like this. My first style pass is draft three, usually. Draft one is get the book done, just kick it out there. Draft two is okay, since we just kicked it out there, we have huge continuity problems right and left. Let’s fix those. Draft three is let’s actually look at the stylistic choices, the diction, the paragraphing and these things, and do my first polish. I will do that again, usually in a fifth or sixth draft as well.
[Piper] I’m usually on my second pass. I’ll start, draft one is that mess. Right? You’re just getting it out. Get it out, finish it. Okay, fine. Maybe I’ll come up with something clever or two that I absolutely love and write myself a note not to forget that I loved it. That’s that. But draft two, I’ll start to be like, “Okay. What was I trying to do with that scene? Did I really do it?” That’s where my style comes into play.
[Dan] I do what we always tell people not to do. I focus a lot on style and wording in the first draft.
[Dan] That’s because…
[Piper] We had a fist bump, guys.
[Dan] That’s because that’s how it has to work for me, because I know that it’s not where I wanted to be in the characters are not saying things the way I want them to say them, if I’m just putting out this kind of unformed story. The later drafts are for me to tighten it up, and they’re for me to work on things like pacing and characterization.
[Brandon] So the opposite of what I do.
[Howard] I would love to be able to screencap the process of writing a Schlock Mercenary strip. Because what you’ll see is a set of actual panel boxes on the screens, and words appear in one of them, and then in another one, and then in another one. Then I’m going back to the first set of words and adjusting them. Then I jump over and write the fourth set of words. Then the second set of words disappears entirely, and I scoot them around, and then I resize the panels. Really, the whole thing all comes together at once. Then I sleep on it.
[Howard] And come back to it the next day. I’m not going to commit art to that, the same day I wrote it.
[Brandon] It’s like you write poetry about people shooting each other in the face.
[Howard] It’s a little bit like poetry.
[Dan] Awesome.

[Brandon] So, I’m going to cap it here, although I will reiterate something I spoke about in our style episode a number of weeks back. Remember, everyone has a style. It’s like an accent. You would… The first time you meet somebody who says, “Oh, your accent’s so interesting,” and you’re not used to thinking about that, you’re like, “I don’t have an accent.” Right? Nobody thinks they have an accent. You do. Everybody has an accent. Everyone has a style. The whole conversation about developing your style is about looking and seeing what your style is, doing things consciously instead of unconsciously. You don’t have to stress having a style. Instead, focus on how do I want to shift my style.

[Brandon] I’m going to give you some homework that might help you with this. I want you to take something you’ve written, and I want you to give it to some alpha readers. People who… It’s okay if they’ve read your work before, but I want you to ask them to describe your style. Not the character voice, but your voice. What are hallmarks expressed through your writing sample? Have them kind of make a bullet-pointed list. See if you give it to five people, how many little points are the same? How many of them are different? Hopefully, this will get you to start thinking about that in the right way. What is my style rather than how do I come up with a style.
[Howard] Might also force you to engage with some human beings to become alpha readers.
[Brandon] Yes. That is true.
[Dan] I want to do that.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.

[Howard] By way of correction, I pointed you guys at a story by Lloyd Biggle Jr. called Tunesmith which is not actually the story I described to you. The story I described was Unaccompanied Sonata by Orson Scott Card. Both stories are about musicians. As a former musician, I love both stories. But the one that talks about anxiety of influence is Unaccompanied Sonata by Orson Scott Card.