Saturday, 9 November 2013

Substance versus style: Virtual WFC 2013

Can you separate substance from style, how do you find your style, and how do you find your plot? Geoff Ryman (moderator), Jack Dunn, Lisa Tuttle, and Ellen Kushner discuss.

31 October - 3 November was the World Fantasy Convention 2013 in Brighton, filled with very good writers saying interesting things to each other about writerly topics. For those who missed it, this series is your own virtual WFC 2013.
(Your virtual conference so far: you've just dashed upstairs from Neil Gaiman's talk, proud of your ability to navigate the Escheresque layout, but don't imagine there's time for the loo or to grab some more water, you're late already. Hurry down the aisle, sidle into a seat, and oh, this is one of the hot rooms after Oxford hall's chill, so remove as much clothing as you decently can. After this you can get a coffee, promise.)

Style is transparency of thought, says Dunn; as you learn the craft, you're learning how to think. Once you're able to put on paper specifically what you mean, and you keep doing that, the person that is you comes out. Tuttle suggests that style and substance are inseperable and Kushner offers something closer to the writerly experience: "Your personal style is the choices that you make... I have learnt over the years to trust my own choices and to know when I'm making them, but sometimes the loveliest thing is when you don't know you're making them."  She discusses how plot gets privileged over style: great plots sell fantastically even if the writing is dull. Personally, she can't enjoy books like that, but people's taste varies. Dunn agrees: "If the prose is really clunky, that throws me out of the story."
     Despite this naturalistic view of style, "There are reading protocols that writers write to all the time," points out Ryman, and he describes how literary writing students on a sci-fi writing course couldn't write science fiction to save their lives. The stories didn't work, because they were hiding the emotions and hiding the idea. The Hemingwayesque protocols they were used to from literary fiction weren't working. Style changes according to substance, then.


Tuttle's early work was very much copying other writers, she said (something Neil Gaiman mentioned too in his earlier talk), often deliberately. She'd aim to write "a Ray-Bradbury type of story", or another "type" of story, whereas now she thinks, "How can I tell this story?" Part of that comes from entering the story more fully. She offers examples of flawed storytelling, in the pulp-fiction genre - an albino's eyes "gleaming" in a pitch-black room, because the author wanted them to gleam and hang the reality! Avoiding that involves immersing yourself in the story and in whose point of view it's from.
     Dunn identifies with this copying of other styles and sees it as a way of learning to write. Those issues of immersing oneself and the reader in the story also crop up for him: "People don't realise that they're writing a map, it's cartography," he says, and emphasises the importance of getting point of view spatially right.
     "A lot of style is in the rhythm of the sentences," says Kushner, "the rhythm of speech in dialogue" and how that distinguishes characters and mood.  "When you miss the mark," she adds, "It's often because your rhythms aren't really congruent with what you're writing."
     This difference between visual, spatial, and auditory focus intrigues the panel: in thinking about style, each chooses their own preference as their main judgement.

On the side of substance, Ryman asks the panel where they get their plots. Tuttle is amazed by people who can totally outline a story, but she does need to know where it's going. "If you've got a strong enough basic idea and the characters are real to you as a writer," she says, "the plot tends to develop.  Things keep changing as you go along, a lot of it is just made up." One adds detail and trusts that it will pan out; things added instinctively or on a whim later become key.
     "You can't think of a story," says Ryman, "You have to imagine it."
     Dunn laughs. "Writers work so extraordinarily differently," he says. I imagine that just as they each judge their style by their preferred sense, so their approach to plot is equally various.


Ryman's own approach to style has changed.  "I used to think prose was to put things in people's head and then evaporate," he says, but now he's come to see the value of beauty, through Annie Proulx's comments on style and cultural transmission. The panel moves on to the intricacies of finding a "house style" for collaborations. Dunn has a sense that "the story needs to be told this way". The greatest benefit in collaboration, observes Ryman, is plot. Tuttle agrees: collaboration is motivating, but there's also a new confidence knowing someone else will help fix this stuff. "If you don't honour plot, it will bite you in the bum," declares Ryman. He says that every plot wants a character who wants something. Kushner may agree with that in the finished product, but says that for certain temperaments, posing that problem, "Who is my main character and what do they want?", is a big mistake, and you need to follow the character around some to find out.  "It's all tied in so tightly together that it's impossible to take it apart," they conclude.

And Megan says... Of course the storyline and style it's told in can be taken apart, to discuss them, as the panel's just done, and they can be looked at separately to develop your skills in each. The better a piece of writing is, though, the more they seem inseparable: that this story couldn't have been told in any other way. That's a mark of quality, but not a mark of process, much like writing that reads effortlessly isn't necessarily effortless to write. Few writers start out with that command of their own voice: as the panelists said here, and as Neil Gaiman said in the talk before, it takes time to find one's own voice and during that time, one writes in a lot of other people's. That's fine. Just keep writing and, increasingly, learn to trust the way you want to say things.
     The most valuable insight for any writer from this panel, I think, is Dunn's: how extraordinarily differently writers work, from their sense-touchstones of style (mine's visual and synaesthetic) to how they identify their plots. Any writer that says "You should" is actually saying "I prefer to". Allow for your own way of working and, as Kushner says, your own temperament. That, and writing lots, is a surer path to finding your own voice and your own stories than trying to wear someone else's skin, but playing dress-up in their clothes can help.

Next panel in the Virtual WFC: Writing for series TV, with David Pirie, Brian Clemens, Stephen Gallaghaer, Richard Christian Matheson, and Richard Shearman

The virtual conference is created from my own rapid scribblings at the panels and talks and paraphrased - all as accurate as possible, but if you take exception to anything or I've got any details wrong, contact me. Direct quotations are my transcription of someone's exact words as best as I can.

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