Discover Style. Don’t Force It.

One of the most important lessons I have learned in writing so far as that you must allow creativity to break through and guide you where it will. For many writers, this is probably a no brainer. But I am a left-brained, linear person. I like to quantify my knowledge into manageable blocks and see a logical progression from one to the other. It confuses me when I have to adapt to another way of learning.

For example, I was listening to my “Michel Thomas Italian Foundation Course” CD this morning whilst cooking. For those of you not acquainted with Michel Thomas, he was a multi-lingual teacher who developed one of the best language learning methods of the modern age. Eschewing traditional norms of sitting with a heavy grammar book and trying to learn a thousand different rules (a.k.a the method I’ve been using ever since high school), he maintained that the responsibility for learning lay solely with the teacher, and the student should not try to remember, memorise, take notes or do homework. The genius is in the way he teaches, building blocks to gradually ingrain the fundamentals of the language (he taught French, German and Italian) in the mind of a student. As he famously said, “what you know, you will not forget”.

The issue for me is that I am firm disciple of the traditional method of language learning called “grammaire-traduction”. (Grammar Translation). This involves sitting down with a chunky grammar book and learning all the basic rules for a language, studying conjugation tables and reading texts. So when listening to Michel Thomas, I had to keep reminding myself NOT to try and remember, not to try and memorize, not to go and look up everything I had just heard. I needed to tap into some confidence that I WOULD be able to pick up the language easily and naturally.

I think the same can be applied with writing. Style cannot be taught. Methods of good writing can. The key is to learn the basics in as natural and as pain-free a way as possible, supplement it with plenty of reading, and then one personally develops their own style. You need to put faith in the intangibles of writing; the things you feel, the things you sense, the inexplicable direction that your pen wants to lead you in order to make beautiful prose. This leads to the evolution of one’s personal style. You probably will not recognize this at first, but I think that when someone selects something they would like to read, and thereupon builds a preference in that arena, they are subconsciously deciding what their style will be like. And once oyu have a style, then all rules go out of the window– I maintain there are no writing rules, only guidelines. But my key point is that much of this gravitation is subconscious.

In my own case, I was never able to force myself to be aware of what I liked, until I was actually writing and doing some more reading. The summation of my preferences were simply based on things I just knew. I liked description, lots of it, written in marvellous prose. I eventually grew to like creating, examining, moulding and showing character, and this became my strength over plotting. I knew that when reading, I struggled to turn off my editor brain, and with regards to editing, I knew that I paid meticulous attention to the rhythm and flow of the text, the placement of comma’s, the use of semi-colons, word choices, fragments and succinct expression.

There wasn’t any “Eureka” moment for me, but rather a series of them. The description and preference for examing character led me to realize I preferred character-based stories, and literary fiction. My preference to for examining the nuts and bolts of writing expression led to my lifetime ambition of becoming a multi-lingual line-editor. But this doesn’t mean I can kick back and forget about all other forms of writing. My all-time favourite genre of writing is crime fiction, and this proves that although character-building is my stronger area, I will have to work hard on plotting if I am to successfully write my own crime fiction piece. Currently, I have one possible thread in the works which I thought up whilst half-asleep. (Unbelievable, but true).


This works beyond the technicalities of writing technique itself. As I explained in an earlier blog post, Purgatory and Crime, I am currently a writing a novel in which my protagonist is trapped in a dystopian world as a punishment for refusing to keep the secrets of a shady company that engineered her decade-long prison sentence.

Then at the end of last month, another idea hit me. What if, in a future time, China fell? And then a new idea was born: an intrepid journalist who worked for a World Government in the year 2044 is turned against its deceit and tries to bring it down. I very quickly started scribbling notes down for this and now have at least 3000 story notes and counting.

So the big deal is that: both of the novels I am currently writing have some very strong similarities. They both have an anti-establishment protagonist (one female, one male) who is fighting against a the hegemony of a higher organization. One is fighting against the dystopian world of Purgatory, taken, of course, from Catholic theology. The other is fighting against a maginified Government that encompasses the world. Both refuse to yield to collective authority and will face increasingly greater consequences for not doing so.Therefore, I looked at these and wondered whether there was a problem with me happened to write two stories with such similar themes inside them. Did that mean I lacked creativity? Shouldn’t I be aiming to reach further away from my comfort zones, or at least be focusing mainly on crime fiction– neither of these two novels fit the label of crime fiction. The first one, which will be named “Banks in Purgatory”, was supposed to, but outgrew that label when I developed the concept.

But considering many of the great novels from history, one will see that their works had many similarities underpinning them. Social commentary and exposure of glaring inequality ran throughout Charles Dickens novels. Toni Morrison always deals with the black American experience, particularly the black female experience. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of my favourite writers EVER, often deals with the hegemony of unjust totalitarian regimes (and you will see the influence of his writings on my own work). Jane Austen’s best-loved works always feature a heroine and one or more eligible bachelors. The difference is not necessarily the theme, but the characters, setting and plot.

So looking back, I can see many differences between my two novels. My female character, Dido Banks, is unwilling and shy, whereas Thomas Stackford, the journalist, struggles to determine whether he acts in the cause of right, or whether his actions are to appease his ego. Banks hates academics and is a true creative mind. (Hard for a linear-minded person like me to write her!) Stackford is erudite and speaks Mandarin Chinese, and is a seasoned foreign policy correspondant. Banks is a radically independent woman, whereas Stackford is an old-fashioned, traditional man at heart who might remind you of a Victorian gentleman. Banks has a connection with her roots, whereas Stackford, an African-American, has yet to discover his. Banks is a rebel, and that rebellion landed her in prison, whereas Stackford has always believed in living by the law.

I am going to have a LOT of fun building these two. It would be very interesting to see them interact; I don’t think Stackford would think very much of Banks, and vice-versa.

What I have found out, is that these novels will say something about me. To be honest, I am not entirely sold on the idea, as I like my privacy. But if these novels feel so natural to me, then, as I wrote in my story notes for “Stackford Versus The World”, it must mean that they articulate my way of looking at the world. There is some of me in both characters, some of my views in their outlook on the world.

I could never force myself to see this. I had to discover it.