Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing Style

Several writing friends and I have been discussing writing style. What it is, how it works, its difference from voice, etc. What precipitated the discussion was I’ve noticed that agents who have asked for fulls of my current novel are often those who have asked for fulls of my earlier novels. That might not sound unusual, but the genres I’ve submitted to these agents are very different—young adult, murder mystery, and literary fiction.  And it’s over a long period of time, so it’s not as if they remember my name. I’ve been pondering what it is that makes some literary agents consistently ask for my work and others not. (Note: And these agents are not those who ask for lots of submissions.)

One writing friend (Adele) mentioned that she’s always been taught that while voice can/should change from book to book, style does not. I think she’s right. Maybe that’s how computers identify the authors of those “anonymous” books—they analyze for style. According to M.H. Abrams (you know you’re a lit fantatic when his Glossary of Literary Terms is at your fingertips):

“Style is the manner of linguistic expression in prose or verse—it is how a speaker or writer says whatever it is that he says. The characteristic style of a work or a writer may be analyzed in term of its diction...its sentence structure and syntax; density and types of its figurative language; pattern of its rhythm, component sounds, and other formal features, and its rhetorical aims and devices.”

I suspect that the reason I’m more “successful” with certain agents is that, like all readers, agents have certain styles they enjoy reading. And certain ones that they don’t. That may explain why agents often turn down books that later end up on the NY Times best seller list. The style just didn’t work for them. And I guess that’s not surprising since we see this in classics all the time. Some people love James Joyce—though why they do is a mystery to me—and some people love F. Scott Fitzgerald.

One of the lessons to take from this (besides that you should query widely) is to keep records of which agents requested your work—they may be more likely to consider your next book. It also explains why query letters are so important. I’ve heard a lot of writers gripe that query letters are archaic and hard to write. But query letters are an opportunity too. A query letter is your chance to introduce an agent to your style. It’s a chance to see if your styles will mesh. And you really don’t want an agent who doesn’t “get” your style.

What about you all? What are your thoughts on style? What are your experiences querying multiple books—are they similar to mine?


  1. I struggle sometimes with distinguishing between style and voice. And I know that my style changes a lot between genres - not just my voice, even the length and shape of sentences, my use of punctuation, how much or how little description I write, etc. Sometimes it's a conscious style change, while others, it just flows naturally with the genre. Does that make sense?

  2. I agree with your take on style, how it's more about the way an author writes. And yeah, both style and voice are hard to explain and hard to pin down.

  3. From what I've heard, Joyce wrote like a lunatic. As for Fitzgerald, I find him depressing.

  4. That's a distinction a lot of people don't make. I think voice can and should change, because every narrator or story has a unique feel -- but that doesn't mean a certain something won't thread through all your books, that thing that makes them yours. For me, that's style.