ersatz_read (ersatz_read) wrote,

the kernel of style

I've been piling up books that represent the kinds of stories I'd like to write.  This is not an attempt to copy another writer's style; at this point I have (finally) found my own voice and can (mostly) stand my ground on it.  But I'm curious to see how the style I've developed as a writer compares to the style I most appreciate as a reader.  The two did most of their development at separate times in my life.

I'm using the term "style" loosely.  I'm not talking about sentence structure or cadence, but more about form, content, and approach.

This is not a collection of Great Works of Literature.  These are stories and authors that have a visceral connection for me, personally.  Books where I start reading and just keep on reading, without hesitation and without my attention drifting, and that stick in my mind and bring me back for another read.  What do they have in common?  What stands out?

It's not a simple list to make.  Some books generate a visceral response because I clung to them so tightly during high school - is this because they spoke to my idea of literary perfection, or because they were the correct form of escape for the time?  Did I choose them because they were representative of a pre-existing ideal, or did my sense of the ideal develop from them?

Currently, I'm only looking at novels.  YA's, short stories, poetry...these are all separate topics in need of their own list.

book/author list so far:

-- The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
-- Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut
-- Dune, by Frank Herbert
-- Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
-- Maia, by Richard Adams
-- Bellwether, by Connie Willis
-- The Integral Trees, by Larry Niven
-- Michael Swanwick
-- David Brin
-- Ian McDonald

What do the novels in my list have in common?
  • A richly-detailed world, where one can sense a depth of information beyond what is specifically used in the story.  This implies a need for a lot of background work.  One neat trick for getting the sense of richness without re-inventing the wheel is to spin off from a real culture.  Herbert used Middle Eastern culture; River of Gods uses Indian culture.  Jean Auel, although not quite on my list, deserves mention for her extensive use of archaeological data.  
  • Easter eggs for the reader.  I like it when stories have foreign-derived words in them ("mahdi", for example), or locations and legends I can find in source material, or cultural trivia as in Bellwether, or science that just tickles at the edge of my understanding.  (Although my capacity for the science is less than what I would like; it's been a long time and...let's just say I did not fully apply myself in college.)  The Crystal Cave launched me toward an avid study of Arthurian legend; Clan of the Cave Bear had me in the yard knapping flint.  If I have to read a book with a dictionary nearby, that's not a bad thing, IMO. 
  • A near-realistic world, except for human capacity being just a bit more than what most people assume it is.  I like my fantasy to be just at the edge of attainability, and I like promoting the idea that we are more than we are commonly led to believe.
How does my personal style measure up on these fronts?  Pretty well, actually.  This pleases me.  The one where I drop the ball the most is the Easter eggs.  Some readers really do not like them, and I've been dinged before for too many foreign-derived words in my writing.  I have not yet decided if this means I should dismiss that set of readers outright, or if I do need to dial it back a bit.  Stories with cultural trivia seem to be more well-received.   

It's an interesting exercise; I recommend it.  If nothing else, you'll spend some time surrounded by a pile of very good-to-you books.  If you try it, I'd like to know what you find out.

This is a very superficial treatment so far; there's much more I could say.  I wanted to get a start on this, but it is - gad - 3am, and I'm supposed to be at work in six hours.  I'd better throw an extra Red Bull in the bag....

I have not yet pored over the books in sufficient detail to make comparisons on other fronts, such as plot, level of character development, etc.  I'm curious to do so, but do not expect the books to present as much similarity on those topics:  plot and character needs change depending on the story. 

Hmm...has anyone started a "literature genome project", similar to the "music genome project" and Pandora?  Something where one could seed a reading list with favorite authors and stories?  That would be a treat....
Tags: writing
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