What’s Your Style?
Can you tell if a writer has a particular style? I didn’t think I had one until my agent pointed it out. I’d always assumed that most writers don’t have just one style but an infinite number ready for use. Good writers can pastiche and mimic. Great ones perform miracles of assimilation that make you believe they inhabit the world in which they write. And a surprising number have no style at all.
If on your school report it said; ‘She/he enjoys being the class clown’ you’ve a head start over the others. Mimicry comes naturally to children. We ape TV ads, jingles, songs and comedy routines, memorising and repeating them until we drive our parents mad – at least we used to; research suggests that a new generation is being silenced by iPads. But this kind of fear has always been present – when the northern half of the country adopted Greenwich Meantime there were outraged letters complaining that we were no longer following nature’s diurnal plan but being bewitched by new technology.
As mimics eager for input, we didn’t just master the words, we copied vocal stylings. My brother and I could perform the whole of ‘A Sunday Afternoon At Home’, a radio episode of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ Voices informed style and in novels dialogue suggested character.
I mimicked actors so well that I was often drafted in to write for them; it helps if you write words that an actor can make natural-sounding. Books were a different matter; it’s not easy taking on a much-loved author’s style, but Sebastian Faulks, whom I admire, managed a pitch-perfect James Bond novel that was somehow rather colourless (probably because he had a tricky brief to fulfil) and more recently a PG Wodehouse novel. He got the latter style absolutely right, but I couldn’t read on past the first line of the Wodehouse. Here it is;
I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a dozen metal dustbins being chucked down a flight of steps.
Bertie Wooster is actually being awoken by his alarm clock at the right time, so the line is funny, but there’s that word;
It shouldn’t be there. In Bertie’s era all dustbins were metal, so Bertie would not have thought this. Faulks’s fear was that modern readers would not understand why dustbins would sound like alarm clock bells, because they’d be thinking of plastic ones. This is the same problem recently encountered in school examinations where they have had to replace traditional clocks with digital readouts because pupils can’t tell analogue time.
I felt that if Faulks was being forced into explanatory mode it would ruin the book for me. If we’re being accurate we can’t make allowances for changing times. The past really is another country, and most recreations get it a bit wrong (or on TV, completely wrong). We are all encumbered with historical hindsight.
Among the great writers who seemingly transform their style to the suiting of their subject, I can think of none greater than Hilary Mantel, whose ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy has passed far beyond mimickry into a period mindset. Peter Ackroyd did it in ‘Chatterton’ and ‘Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem’, Lissa Evans, Alexander Baron and Kate Atkinson have done it for different 20th century eras.
It’s not about simply piling on historical research – it requires a change of brain. And of course it gets harder the further back you go. But styles must be chosen. When I sit down to start a new book – as I’m doing today – I have to decide which style to adopt. The most extreme style I ever attempted was for a short story called ‘Unnatural Selection’, which appeared in the collection ‘Old Devil Moon’. It began;
Me and Shezree wuz bord, wot wiv the rane fallin all week, an now it wuz the weekend, so there wuz no wok, an wen the sun cum art I sed lez go to vat nu park, iz sposd to be buetful wot wiv orl the plantz an flowrz an vat, and she sed souns lik a chanj wy not? We can afford it now cuz we robed a bloke with lotza munni in his wollit and stabed him an that. So we wen to the park at the uver end of the tarn.
Now, this is great fun to write but hard work to read. Anthony Burgess and Irvine Welsh are both culprits, but once you get in the rhythm you theoretically forget the style. When you look through a novel you’ve liked, it’s interesting to go back over it looking for stylistic clues. You’ll be surprised how many subtle varieties there are. Descriptions of nature soften action, and colours and smells bring scenes to life. When I wrote ‘The Sand Men’ I filled it with heat images – I wanted the reader to feel warm.