How does a bat move? I had an interesting discussion with one famous fantasy writer recently when I said no decent writer should describe a bat as ‘flitting’.
‘Why?’ he said. ‘Bats do flit.’ Yup, they do and, were I sitting in a pub garden watching a bat fly overhead I might think ‘There flits a bat’. However, when we come to writing, more is required.
Anyone can say a bat flits. A writer has to be more inventive. So I set my mind to it – and came up with this, which pleased me greatly. ‘A bat, bouncing on the currents of the night air’. Except it isn’t actually very good. It’s an image formed by my idea of a bat’s flight, not a bat’s flight itself. Bats do bounce, but only on strings in 1950s B movies. In fact, I think I might have got my idea of a bat’s flight from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
So, back to the drawing board and that’s where I’ve stayed. I haven’t really come up with a good alternative yet – it’s only a little exercise, not for something I’m writing.
What we’re discussing here, of course, is writing style – the word choices, sentence construction, the grammar that gives flavour to our writing. Style is honesty. If you want to know how a bat flies you need to actually sit in that garden and wait to see them. I hadn’t done that and my poor choice of language showed it. I suspect my friend’s flitting bat showed the same.
That said, my friend is a very popular writer, much more popular than me. He doesn’t get hung up on such things. His bats flit, his cats slink, his birds flap and his witches cackle. Oh, and his books fly off the shelves.
So, does writing style matter in fantasy writing? This is an old debate and one that I’m happy to settle today. No. It doesn’t. Not a bit.
Why, then, do I spend hours sweating over it (with mixed success)? I don’t know and this blog will perhaps help me work it out, while raising some issues that you as a reader, or even as a writer, might find interesting.
Good writing, as in original ideas expressed in an original and elegant way is not going to shoot your book up the best seller charts. What gets you there is story, pace, clear characters with defined wants meeting seeming implacable opposition. The thriller writer James Patterson, who knows a thing or two about penning a bestseller, says don’t worry about the words at all, just get the story boiling and all else follows.
Literary writers, or writers like myself with literary pretensions, will tell you to disregard this advice. That we should avoid cliché in language like an Unsullied avoids Greyscale. But read lots of bestselling works and you’ll see them packed with clichés. Characters run like the wind, they cower like whipped dogs, they jump like scalded cats, they eat veritable feasts, they laugh like streams and they snarl like dogs. The literary style snobs – like myself – will tell you to avoid adverbs too, particularly in dialogue attribution. ‘Ha ha!’ he cried menacingly. ‘Now you die, halfling,’ he sneered viciously. They’ll tell you to avoid using verbs like ‘cried’ and ‘sneered’ in dialogue attribution too. Work the dialogue, they will say, let it be obvious how someone is speaking and restrict yourself to ‘said’.
There are a hundred of other no nos we’ll list too. Why, then, when you open a bestseller – say a Bernard Cornwell or a Jeffrey Archer (I’m steering clear of the many Fantasy examples to avoid annoying people) do you find it full of such things? 50 Shades of Grey or the works of Dan Brown are just a long list of clichés, so much so that for a time I became paranoid and began to think these people were writing solely to appal me.
It’s an enduring mystery of unfathomable depth to me how The Da Vinci Code outsold Ray Bradbury but it did.
Can you write a sentence like this, Brown?
‘They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-coloured eyes, seeking revenge with their panic coloured teeth.’
You can’t and it must make you weep – all the way to the bank.
One reason might be that some people like clichés. They like being told how a character speaks too. I’ve spoken to readers who say ‘it means I can get to the story quickly. I don’t have to think.’ That strikes me as an odd reason to pick up a book.
I pick up a book specifically to think. To be challenged, rocked, surprised, amazed and daunted. If I don’t get those things, I find the work boring. But, each to their own.
A piece of advice I often pass on when working as a creative writing tutor is, ‘let the reader do the work’. But, let’s be honest, many readers are lazy sods who don’t want to do any work and who prefer to receive the literary equivalent of McDonalds. They want to read the same thing delivered in pretty much the same voice over and over again.
So why not give it to them? Why not, as James Patterson has suggested, forget about the writing, just get the story down?
Well, the first reason, if you’re a new writer, is practical. Readers may not give a hoot for style and some may brand you ‘difficult’ if you don’t give them the string of clichés (in plot and character too) that they want. Publishers, however, are a different breed. They, on the whole, love books and grew up admiring writers who had a true and unique voice. If your manuscript stands out from others by its lambent style then it will stand a much better chance of getting picked up than something more dull or, worse, hackneyed.
If it gets in to print, it’s possible the hackneyed thing will sell more. But it will have less chance of making it to print in the first place.
The second is, for want of a better word, spiritual.
Style is not the icing on the cake, it is the cake, something to add after the main work is done or to be left off altogether. It’s your vision. All your work is, is words. And it’s the choice of those words, their ordering that brings your world to life. It’s your voice, maybe heightened, maybe different but your voice, the words only you can choose, in the order only you could have determined.
Don’t you want to do your very best in every aspect?
I’m not saying that I’m up with Ray Bradbury, just that I’m trying to be up there with Ray Bradbury. It’s like, if I played guitar, I wouldn’t be modelling myself on some grimly competent, anodyne session musician, I’d be aiming for Robert Fripp on Scary Monsters or Random Jon Poole or Steve Jones from The Sex Pistols. I wouldn’t want people to listen and think ‘that’s nice’. I’d want them to listen and think wow! I try – and often fail – to achieve this in my own writing.
In short, you do it right or not at all. Otherwise, you’re just churning stuff out without pride or even very much thought and what you have is a job – in the case of Patterson, a factory. I never wanted a job, ever. Writing isn’t a job, though old cynical hacks will sometimes insist it is. It’s a vocation, a calling, something that goes far beyond self expression and intensely connects you with the stream of life. It finds corners of yourself you did not know existed, pulls out personalities that lie sleeping within you, offers you delicious and frightening possibilities of lives you have not lived, places you could never visit. It changes you, it lifts you and it casts you down. It can do none of those things if you write with the attitude, ‘that’ll do’.
In the end, we need to pay attention to style because style asks the most fundamental question in writing, maybe in life. ‘What do I want to say?’ And, if your bats flit, what you want to say is what millions of other people have said before. So you may as well not say it.
MD Lachlan is the author of The Night Lies Bleeding, available from 22nd Feb.