Writing Style – Asset or Liability?

In a recent Writer’s Digest magazine, one expert said the following: “Novels – and especially screenplays – don’t sell because of writing voice.  But they do get rejected because of writing voice.  What sells are great stories, told well.”

While I have never been an editor, I have certainly been a reader.  What I can tell you is that for me, novels get set aside most often because their style is boring.  Maybe I’m not a typical reader, but I’m one who samples.  A lot.  In a typical trip to the library, I’ll pick up 5-10 books, with the best of intentions to read them all, cover to cover.

However, out of a pile of books, at most one in five keeps my interest. It’s not that the story doesn’t grab me, though that’s often the case.  Nor is it that the story has poor grammar or spelling, or any of the other things that make a manuscript “wrong.”  It’s just that there’s not enough that’s “right” about the books to get me to keep reading.

I mostly read contemporary and high fantasy, with some science fiction thrown in.  Since a typical epic fantasy can easily weigh in at 200,000 words or more, when I decide to read one of these monsters, it’s a big commitment.  After all, every hour I spend reading one book is an hour I can’t spend reading another.  It’s 60 minutes during which I’m not writing, spending time with my children, keeping up with my friends on Facebook, and so on.

As a kid, I recall getting bored easily.  Okay, I would never admit this to my parents, who saw an admission of boredom as an invitation for them to assign me more chores, but I would complain about boredom to myself, anyway.  During my free time for the last twenty years, I can’t remember getting bored too often.  There’s just so much to do.  So many things demand my attention.  It’s like walking through a carnival and hearing dozens of barkers calling out to you to try your luck at this or that game.

Reading isn’t like that.  It beacons quietly, usually without demand or timeline, and perhaps that’s its charm.  It’s an invitation to slow down and leave the world to itself for a few hours (it will get along fine without you for a little while).  It’s a golden ticket to enter another world where you suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride.  You accept made-up characters and even find yourself caring about them.  We worry that something bad is going to happen to these people that never were, and if their struggles are without purpose, we might just pitch the book across the room, never to open it again.

So, why do we do it?  For me, it’s the entire experience.  And a big part of that for me is the voice in which the book is told.  I’m not talking about an actual narrator’s voice here.  I’m talking about the soul of the book that leaks from the mind of the writer onto the pages and into my mind and heart.  It sets a mood, but most importantly, it sets my mood while I read.

Again, I’m probably not a typical reader, but I want someone to tell me a tale with the flair of a skilled showman.  I want unexpected turns of phrase, quotable lines, and words put together in creative ways that prevent me from skimming, for fear of what I might miss.

To me, those things are what I consider the style and voice of the book.  It is what makes me buy books written by the same author again and again.  It’s also what makes me avoid works by authors if their style just doesn’t call out to me in a voice that’s all its own.  I know it’s not fair, but if an author’s style doesn’t excite me, I probably won’t pick up another by the same author.

So whose style has grabbed me lately?  I have really enjoyed “Return to Exile” by E. J. Patten, a middle school book that catches me off guard with interesting word combinations I find myself wishing I had created.  Another author that I enjoy is P. R. Frost, whose style is fresh and spunky (did I really just use the word “spunky”?)

While some Writer’s Digest contributors may claim that a unique voice or style is a downside, just two pages later in the same magazine, another author, Steven Harper, said the following.

“Almost every set of submission guidelines from agents and editors says they’re looking for authors with a strong voice, a unique voice or a powerful voice. …  And publishing pros of all sorts are fond of advising writers that a good voice will grab their eye above anything else.  …  A fascinating voice can get the reader to overlook other problems, or even fail to notice things like cliches entirely.  The unique voice overcomes the tired archetypes.”

So, it seems that even writing experts don’t agree on the importance of voice and style.  Mr. Harper’s statement rang true to me, making me more likely to read his articles in the future, and creating a readership is what sells books and pays the bills for professional writers everywhere.

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