Writing Style Is the Dress of Thoughts

Parsing prose. Syntactical structure. Conceptual framework. Your writing style is the voice you use to speak to your audience and is more than just diction and the words you choose, as it offers a glimpse at your true personality. It takes the literal and transforms it into a subjective expression that evokes an emotional response from the reader.

As to how you develop a writing style… you write. Write what comes natural to you. Write without worrying about acceptance or being published. Write without concentrating on influences. But you’ve heard me bang on about this already, so I invited a few friends to help get you into the proper frame of mind:

1. “A good style must, first of all, be clear. It must not be mean or above the dignity of the subject. It must be appropriate.” — Aristotle

2. “Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be tired. Be confused. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.” — William Zinsser

3. “Carefully examined, a good–an interesting–style will be found to consist in a constant succession of tiny, unobservable surprises.” — Ford Maddox Ford

4. “A good style should show no sign of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.” — W. Somerset Maugham

5. “A strict and succinct style is that, where you can take away nothing with­out loss, and that loss to be manifest.” — Ben Jonson

6. “The hardest thing about writing, in a sense, is not writing. I mean, the sentence is not intended to show you off, you know. It is not supposed to be “look at me!” “Look, no hands!” It’s supposed to be a pipeline between the reader and you. Once condition of the sentence is to write so well that no one notices that you’re writing.” — James Baldwin

7. “The greatest possible mint of style is to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

8. “When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.” — E.B. White

9. “I am well aware that an addiction to silk underwear does not necessarily imply that one’s feet are dirty. Nonetheless, style, like sheer silk, too often hides eczema.” — Albert Camus

10. “It was from Handel that I learned that style consists in force of assertion. If you can say a thing with one stroke, unanswerably you have style; if not, you are at best a marchande de plaisir, a decorative litterateur, or a musical confectioner, or a painter of fans with cupids and coquettes. Handel had power.” — George Bernard Shaw

11. “Who cares what a man’s style is, so it is intelligible, as intelligible as his thought. Literally and really, the style is no more than the stylus, the pen he writes with; and it is not worth scraping and polishing, and gilding, unless it will write his thoughts the better for it. It is something for use, and not to look at.” — Henry David Thoreau

12. “People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” — Matthew Arnold

13. “Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just, if your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage.” — Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield

14. “A man’s style should be like his dress. It should be as unobtrusive and should attract as little attention as possible.” — C. E. M. Joad

15. “The style is the man himself.” — George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon

16. “The old saying of Buffon’s that style is the man himself is as near the truth as we can get–but then most men mistake grammar for style, as they mistake correct spelling for words or schooling for education.” — Samuel Butler

17. “When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man.” — Blaise Pascal

18. “Style is the hallmark of a temperament stamped upon the material at hand.” — Andre Maurois

19. “The essence of a sound style is that it cannot be reduced to rules–that it is a living and breathing thing with something of the devilish in it–that it fits its proprietor tightly yet ever so loosely, as his skin fits him. It is, in fact, quite as seriously an integral part of him as that skin is. . . . In brief, a style is always the outward and visible symbol of a man, and cannot be anything else.” — H.L. Mencken

20. “You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.” — Katherine Anne Porter

21. “Style is the perfection of a point of view.” — Richard Eberhart

22. “Where there is no style, there is in effect no point of view. There is, essentially, no anger, no conviction, no self. Style is opinion, hung washing, the caliber of a bullet, teething beads.” — Alexander Theroux

23. “Style is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. It is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.” — Robert Frost

24. “What’s important is the way we say it. Art is all about craftsmanship. Others can interpret craftsmanship as style if they wish. Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters.” — Federico Fellini

25. “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style.” — Jonathan Swift

26. “The web, then, or the pattern, a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

27. “The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.” — Raymond Chandler

28. “The style of an author should be the image of his mind, but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise.” — Edward Gibbon

29. “One arrives at style only with atrocious effort, with fanatical and devoted stubbornness.” — Gustave Flaubert

30. “To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated.” — Jean-Luc Godard

31. “Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one; style is a thinking out into language.” — Cardinal John Henry Newman

32. “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” — Oscar Wilde

33. “Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being.” — Alfred North Whitehead

34. “Style is not something applied. It is something that permeates. It is of the nature of that in which it is found, whether the poem, the manner of a god, the bearing of a man. It is not a dress.” — Wallace Stevens

35. “All my stories are webs of style and none seems at first blush to contain much kinetic matter. . . . For me ‘style’ is matter.” — Vladimir Nabokov

And if I may tack on a few extras pieces of advice: don’t forget to take risks, give voice to that quirkiness of thought that you possess, avoid clichés, if at all possible, be concise and precise, and develop a keen sense of word choice.

Oh, and be patient. Style is a thing that can’t be rushed and it might take a while for yours to become evident, but you’ll know when it finally arrives. Words will flow easier, you’ll feel more comfortable with the act of writing, and you’ll be able to recognize that identifiable cadence that belongs to only one person in the world… you.

Sally forth and be writeful… in style.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Neil Gaiman on Writing: From The Nerdist Podcast

Neil Gaiman chats with the nerds about American Gods, describes scenes that were cut from his Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife and doles out phenomenal advice for aspiring writers.

If you’re interested in listening to the entire interview:

Nerdist Podcast: Neil Gaiman

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

To Save or Not to Save (the Cat): That is the Question

save-the-cat
“There’s this inherent screenplay structure that everyone seems to be stuck on, this three-act thing. It doesn’t really interest me. To me, it’s kind of like saying, ‘Well, when you do a painting, you always need to have sky here, the person here and the ground here.’ Well, you don’t.” — Charlie Kaufman

“Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!” That’s the town crier outside your window, all decked out in a red and gold robe, white breeches, black boots and a tricorne hat, clanging his handbell and making the public pronouncement that “Hollywood is broken!”

A statement which isn’t close to being accurate. Even if the industry fails to rake in the desired opening weekend profits from their current crop of mega-budget box office bombs, it will continue to churn out content even if it has to scale back production costs and cut salaries to do so. The real problem with Hollywood lies within its mindset, the outdated mode of thinking it still employs.

The simple fact is what used to work a few years ago no longer does and unless you’re Amish, a hermit, a bunkered-in end-of-the-world survivalist, or possess a serious dislike for 24-frame-per-second entertainment, you’ll have noticed a decline of late in the quality of Hollywood movies. And you’re not alone. Not only has theater attendance been dwindling and the grousing of movie critics and cinema snobs increased regarding the lack of originality springing from the loins of Tinseltown–particularly during this painful remake, reboot and prequel/sequel franchise phase—but even the average LCD movie-goer has begun to experience a touch of ennui in the midst of all the fast-paced, mind-baffling CGI and excessive explosions.

No big news if you’re a screenwriter, aspiring or otherwise, as this has been a source of debate and complaint for a couple of years now and it didn’t truly become headline worthy until Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke at USC, weighing in on the subject and predicting the inevitable “implosion” in the mega-budget film industry. Which, of course, led to a series of articles speculating, finger-pointing and assigning blame.

The latest target is American screenwriter Blake Snyder, who released a screenwriting manual in 2005, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. His book provided a by-the-minute pattern for screenwriting, which included 15 essential plot points or beats that all scripted stories should contain (the example below is based on a screenplay 110 pages in length ):

1. Opening Image (Pg. 1) – Is a snapshot of the world before this story begins.

2. Theme Stated (Pg. 5) – Where you state what your movie is about before the adventure begins.

3. Set-Up (Pgs. 1-10) – The introduction to the world, the protagonist and the overall problem within the story.

4. Catalyst (Pg. 12) – Often referred to as the inciting incident, this is the point where something happens within your protagonist’s world that sets the story into motion.

5. Debate (Pgs. 12-25) – Though it’s obvious that your protagonist must accept the “call to adventure,” he/she doubts the journey they must take.

6. Break into Two (Pg. 25) – Your protagonist has faced the now-or-never choice and proactively steps into Act 2 where the story begins to ramp up.

7. B Story (Pg. 30) – Usually associated with the “love” story, this is where the protagonist encounters the person to whom they can confide what’s happening. But the role isn’t restricted to a love interest — it can be a Mentor, or a bunch of new characters that will help the protagonist understand this strange new place, assist him/her, and teach them the lesson of the journey.

8. Fun and Games (Pgs. 30-55) – This is where you find your “trailer moments.” The plot gets put on hold as your protagonist explores the new world (essentially it’s your pitch for the movie when it comes time to sell it).

9. Midpoint (Pg. 55) – Is the “no turning back” part of your movie, where your protagonist faces a whole new problem — even bigger than the one they started out with. This is where we get either a “false victory” (high) or a “false defeat” (low). It’s also where “time clocks” appear to pick up the pace of the story and rush to the end.

10. Bad Guys Close In (Pgs. 55-75) – From this point, both internal (problems inside the protagonist’s team) and external (the antagonists tighten their grip) pressure is applied that makes life tough for the hero.

11. All Is Lost (Pg. 75) – Something (an old belief system) or someone (the mentor) dies at this point in the story, forcing the protagonist to change in order to grow into the person they need to be to accomplish their goal(s).

12. Dark Night of the Soul (Pgs. 75-85) – The “Why hast thou forsaken me?” part where the protagonist is bereft and wondering, “Now what?” They have lost all hope.

13. Break into Three (Pg. 85)
– But thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute advice or information from that person representing the B Story, the protagonist takes a proactive step into Act 3, devising a brand new plan of action and committing to going all the way!

14. Finale (Pgs. 85-110) – By adding what he’s learned to what he was before, the protagonist applies all that they are in a brand new way. Here is when your hero is at the doorstep of defeat yet “digs deep down” for that last ounce of strength — and faith — to triumph!

15. Final Image (Pg. 110) – Since all stories are about “transformation,” this is reverse of the Opening Image, a “snapshot of the world after,” proves that a change has occurred within the protagonist and their world.

Unfortunately, Mr. Snyder passed away in 2009 and is unable to defend himself, but is his book actually the reason that more and more people are becoming disenchanted with new releases? Screenwriters fall on both sides of this argument. There are those who see Save The Cat as a boon since the book instructs writers on producing unique, hot concepts, requires that they carry out the “promise of the premise” and beseeches them to “escalate the stakes” with full force in a bold new manner. While others think Mr. Snyder’s formula is best suited for high concept family comedies and has no business being applied to adult-themed stories that operate in black/grey moralities, as shoehorning them into the rigid 15 beat structure chokes the life out of the original work.

When it comes to the subject of creating beat sheets, not to sound like a fence-rider, but I find myself being both pro and con. On the plus side, hats off to Mr. Snyder for analyzing the composition of Hollywood films and further segmenting the 3 Act structure into smaller more manageable parts, much in the same way Gustav Freytag did in the nineteenth century with stage plays (see: Climbing The Freytag Pyramid). It really does help you gain a better understanding of the basic anatomy of an average studio-produced movie.

On the negative side, you have what I call the Nostradamus Effect, and if you’ve watched more than a handful of movies in your lifetime, you’ve experienced it to some degree. It occurs whilst viewing a film and suddenly you’re able to predict all the salient plot points, the futures of the supporting characters, and spot each and every twist and turn as if you’ve read them on signposts a mile off. That’s your brain recognizing the pattern, the formula. And I firmly believe that formulas cannot produce art, nor can they possess the spontaneity necessary to shock and surprise the modern day movie audience.

Having said that, I take a “Hey, man, whatever gets you writing” approach to Mr. Snyder’s methods when it applies to other writers. And that’s not to say that I don’t use the Save The Cat formula on occasion, but only when a stubborn story refuses to take shape. Once I get that bad boy locked down, I shake things up accordingly in the rewrite. Rules are meant to be broken, after all, and any writer worth their salt knows this. But guess who doesn’t? Yup, the rest of the industry.

Studios employ script readers who provide coverage–the analysis and grading of screenplays with Pass/Fail marks—which takes the whole beat system a bit too literally about hitting all the 15 marks on exact page counts. And if a script happens to be lucky enough to make it past these literary sentries, it will go through an additional series of rewrites by various screenwriters, adding studio-suggested bits stolen from other popular films “that worked previously”—whether the recycled bits fit the theme of the current script or not–often resulting in a frankenfilm. Sorry, you can’t hang that on Save The Cat.

I can’t tell you the number of early draft screenplays I’ve read that were far and away superior to the finished product. A few recent ones that come to mind are: Jon Spaihts’ “Alien Engineers” (Prometheus), Evan Daugherty’s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and Kurt Wimmer’s “Edwin A. Salt” (Salt).

In closing I’d like to invite all the doomcasters to stop picking on a dead man whose system is quite possibly the victim of misuse and put their sandwich boards away. Hollywood is getting a much needed wake-up call–thanks in no small part to the internet and other modes of content distribution–and isn’t in danger of imploding, it’s just experiencing some growing pains. The first thing it needs to do, in the process of mitigating its risk in the creation of new product, is to focus a little more on forecasting what will sell tomorrow (#innovation) rather than duplicating what sold yesterday.

Sally forth and be structurally knowledgeable yet rule-breakingly writeful.

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

This is Who You Are

“When asked by my creative writing professor… what I planned to do after graduation, I replied that I was considering social work. ‘You can do that if you want,’…handing back my writing, ‘but this is who you are.’  After nearly ten years of writing, rewriting, abandoning, and reclaiming, I sent the newly revised novel…sold it in two days. Like my character April, I consider myself a late bloomer.”

— Tess Callahan, author of the novel, “April and Oliver”

Popular Made Up and Misused Words That Need to be Given Their Walking Papers

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

Irregardless isn’t a word. The one you’re looking for is regardless.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

So not a word. Supposedly is, though.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

The only way this exists is if flustered and frustrated had a baby. And they didn’t.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

Can we conversate a moment about the proper usage of the word converse?

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

Random doesn’t mean weird or goofy. It means, “without definite aim, direction, rule, or method.”

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

It’s sherbet.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

So that means you do care a little bit? Perhaps you mean you couldn’t care less?

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

Intents. And. Purposes.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

Please enunciate when you make up words. Or even annunciate. Certainly don’t announciate.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

It’s foliage. FO-LEE-IDGE.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

There’s no X in espresso, ma’am.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

Nauseous means to cause nausea. If you’re sick, you’re nauseated.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

C’mon, no Z sound!

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

Misestimate or underestimate. You can’t have both. Don’t be greedy. Misunderestimate is a charming Bushism that should be left in the past.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

The correct phrase is simply vice versa.

17 Misused And Made Up Words That Make You Rage

Nother is nonstandard. Just say another or whole other.

Sally forth and be correctly speakful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

“They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free” – A Letter From Charles Bukowski

Image of Charles Bukowski

Back in nineteen sixty-nine, publisher John Martin offered to pay a then forty-nine-year-old Charles Bukowski one hundred dollars a month for the rest of his life, on the condition that he quit his post office job and dedicate his time to becoming a writer. Bukowski took him up on the offer and completed his first novel, Post Office, in nineteen seventy-one, which was published by Martin’s Black Sparrow Press. Some fifteen years later, Bukowski wrote to Martin about the absolute joy at turning his back on his former full-time job:

8-12-86

Hello John:

Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s OVERTIME and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,

Hank

(Source: Reach for the Sun Vol. 3 by Charles Bukowski)

Do Your Legwork… the Proper Way

Lately I seem to be coming across more and more authors who thumb their noses up at the thought of doing research, which makes me scratch my puzzler. Not only is it a fundamental part of the process, regardless of the type of fiction you write, it is also a chance to learn and grow as a person as well as a writer. The simple fact is, if research truly is the bane of your existence, then you’re not doing it right.

Yes, you are most likely creating an entire world from scratch, in your own image and the laws of reality obey whatever rules strike your fancy, but even the most fantastical setting must have a sturdy foundation. And that foundation must be built with bricks of solid facts in order for your story to have any sort of credence.

I personally enjoy the research stage almost as much as the construction stage, but I understand how daunting a task fact-finding can be, so I’ve jotted down a few of the steps I tend to use when I’m in that researching frame of mind:

1. Pinpoint the right questions. The assumption is that you either have a strong interest in or possess a rudimentary knowledge of the story you’re attempting to pen. And that’s all you need in the beginning when you’re plucking the idea from the ether and committing it to the page in the form of an outline. But as you rearrange the story sequentially and create scenes to flesh the idea out into proper story form, you should be asking yourself how you’re going to make the story mechanics work. If your story is a period piece, you should be knowledgeable of that era, if your main characters hold down specific jobs, you should be familiar with the basics of their occupations, if the story takes place in a different part of the world… you get the point. Your research begins when you write your outline because that’s where you’ll find the questions that need answering.

2. Locate your resources. You’re probably thinking this part’s a cinch as long as you’ve got internet access, and I can’t really argue the point. As I’ve stated in a previous post, the internet is the wise sage of our virtual village (see: Applying Life Lessons To Your Writing) but, as is true with a great deal of online content, the reliability of the source material found therein can be erroneous, so verify, verify, verify as best you can in order to avoid unnecessary embarrassment at a later date. Myself, I tend to be a bit old-fashioned in my approach to research and armed with my trusty dusty library card I visit ye olde public bibliotheca in search of books pertaining to the various subjects in my story. I only rely on the internet as a back-up resource if I come up empty at the library.

3. Make a treasure map for your gold. What good is that golden nugget bit of research that you’ve discovered if you can’t lay your hands on it when you need it? If you own the book, sure you can bookmark or dog-ear pages, underline or highlight passages–but only if you own the book, please, marking up someone else’s tome is utter book sacrilege. If the book isn’t yours to mar, you can create your own index system by jotting down the book title, page and paragraph numbers, and a few keywords on the passage’s content. Then when you’re done info-gathering, you can transfer the text to your computer (arranged by subject headings) or to a notepad if you prefer to write longhand.

4. Create a vision board. Sounds hokey, I know, but pictures have that magical ability to transport your fertile imagination to all the unfamiliar aspects within your story and adding a visual component to your research and writing can help to serve as inspiration for time periods, locales, era clothing, vehicles, weaponry, etc.

5. Walk around in your story like you own the place. Nothing worse than a writer who lacks the confidence to strut their stuff within the world they’ve created. Even if that world is rife with utter nonsense, your job is to sell that nonsense as truth. There’s a saying that used to be popular when I wore a younger man’s clothes, but I haven’t come across it in a dog’s age, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Now, this doesn’t mean you should out-and-out lie to your audience, but if the moment arrives when research fails and you need to invent something in order to make your story work, you should endeavor to portray it with as much authenticity as possible.

All the rest of the time? You live up to the trust that your audience places in your hands by checking and double-checking your sources and making sure your facts are as accurate as they can be. Also, you need to keep in mind that despite your best efforts, you aren’t ever going to get the facts correct all the time, but that doesn’t give you a reason not to do your due diligence. And should you ever deliberately decide to ignore the facts, you should alert your audience either in the author’s notes or afterword.

One of a writer’s biggest attractions to the written art form can be best summed up as, ex nihilo omnia fiunt–from nothing, everything is created–but we owe a duty to our audience to make the lie of fiction as truthful as possible.

Sally forth and be researchful.