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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How to Determine Your Writing Style: Analyzing commercial fiction and your writing

Please welcome guest blogger KH LeMoyne

Consider this a mini-workshop to fulfill the following objectives:

  1. assess the writing style of bestselling authors

  2. assess your favorite authors (this may not be the same as #1)

  3. provide a framework to objectively analyze your own writing

There are two ways to do this. The manual way and the automated way. Both are fine, neither is free. You will need copies of three books that you can electronically markup or physically write in. Use second hand copies or choose the automated option and download Kindle for PC (it’s free and you don’t need to own a Kindle to download it).

Select three books to analyze.

Book 1(your style or what you like to read) – Do people who read your work tell you that “your stories are just like …” or “your writing is very similar to…?” Pick that book. If you don’t get this kind of feedback, that’s fine. Pick a book by your favorite author.

Book 2 (well sold in your genre) – select a book in your genre by an author with high sales. Avoid mini genres for this exercise – i.e. choose romance suspense or paranormal romance instead of romantic paranormal/ time travel/ with magical elements, suspense, and vampires. This is an exercise to assess wide-selling commercial fiction, not niche genres (though you can use this approach for that later).

Book 3 (well-sold in associated genre) – select a bestselling book not necessarily in your genre but related. For example, if you write paranormal romance or romantic suspense, pick a mainstream suspense book, a straight urban fantasy or fantasy book, etc. This is to give you an idea of the writing style that appeals to a broader spectrum of readers.

Now, books in hand or Kindle for PC (K4PC) downloaded on your computer, you are ready.

I’m going to digress for a second about the Kindle for PC. This software package allows for easy reading and not only provides a search function, but also supports notes in your eBook copy. A tab allows movement from the beginning of the book to the end, if you want to jog back and forth. It’s easy, convenient and, personally, I appreciate both. The choice is yours. Okay, lecture finished.

You are going to assess the following areas for each of the three books:

  • The first five paragraphs

  • A main action scene (I’m lumping physical action, major dialog, and multi person scenes here)

  • A main transition segment (can be a whole scene or a few paragraphs where the tension is eased by internal introspection or some other technique that provides the reader interim relief)

  • Two places where you just open the book and punk down your finger, or scene of your choosing.

For each segment consider the following (and make notes):

  • Sentence length (long sentences, short sentences, or mixed – when and where does the author use them?)

  • How do the sentences begin? (Nouns, verbs, etc – you are looking for sentence structure and how interest/tension is built and released)

  • Do the sentences contain description, emotion, narrative, or all of the above?

  • How is progression handled from one paragraph to the next within major scenes? In the relief scenes? (look for specific word choices, what verbs are used, use of clauses, fragments, adverbs, conjunctions, etc.)

  • How do sentences within paragraphs segue to form the paragraphs objective? How does the author achieve flow from one sentence to the next?

  • What defines the overall flow of the writing? For example, some authors have very clipped fast-paced stories with shallow detail but great action. Others have a lyrical style with more description. Some integrate both at key points in the story. Again, no judgment, this is about style. Different readers like different styles and there is no ‘right way.’

  • What is most notable in the story? Cool plot, new types of characters, the way phrases are spun, dialogue, etc? (nobody does it all so you are looking for the strengths that define the book or author)

  • How does the author begin and end major scenes and chapters?

And finally, search for the following words (you’ll see why the K4PC makes this easier because of its search function):

  • that, wasn’t, just, but, and, had

  • and manually review for: was, as, ‘ly’ adjectives, ‘ing’ phrases and words

(As a side note: K4PC won’t pull up searches for ‘was’ but it will search on ‘wasn’t. Go figure?)

So what did you find? Do the results correlate across all three books?

Now that you’ve gone through the books, implement the same review of one of your stories. DO NOT EDIT AT THIS POINT. This is an exercise to assess only.

How do the results of you own work compare? The key here is to get a better understanding of how bestsellers construct their stories, what you have in common with them, and what makes you unique. Yes, this parallels to defining your voice for a reason!

The assessment will show elements contributing to style for the specific authors and genres. Also what readers have selected as enjoyable by voting with their wallets and, equally important, what major publishing houses and their editors find acceptable as a saleable product.

A good thing to note from the search exercise is that if you can’t pinpoint your style, a writing pattern similar to your own, then your style may have disappeared in your editing process. The search part of the exercise proves that commercial fiction uses all the words—yep even those on many writer’s ‘do not use’ lists and sometimes breaks rules.

I understand the need to edit for weak words and structure and I’m not advocating poor writing styles. Trust me, I have my own lists for edits. But the result of vigorous word cleansing can sometimes be the loss of a writer’s voice and sterile, uninteresting stories. So read, take note, and analyze.

This process of review provides an objective starting point for determining the similarities in your own writing, your strengths, weak areas, and potential adjustments for improving story flow. Hopefully, you’ll find something of value in the process.

I wish all of you the greatest success in your writing.

KH LeMoyne writes romantic fantasy. You can contact her at http://www.khlemoyne.com/, http://khlemoyne.wordpress.com/, and on twitter: @khlemoyne


2180 A.D. –

One hundred and fifty years after genetically enhanced crops and livestock decimate the Earth with a lethal bacterial strain of Salmonella only twenty percent of the world’s population remains. Small pockets of civilization flourish, supported by computerized technologies and vaccinations against the bacteria, the new cities built over the ruins of the previous age. Regents, the owners of the technology, govern the interests of their individual cities—shining examples of progress and advancement.

In a race against time, the Down Below underground network plans for the rescue of one of their own from the Regent death squads. The success or failure of their plan hinges on the loyalty of a deadly former Regent guard and one of the most brilliant and dangerous weapon’s designers in New Delphi’s history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. Thanks so much for sharing!