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Style File: What Kind of Writer Are You (And Can You Change It?)

The end is nigh ... but wait, that's a good thing! At long (long!) last, I am approaching the end of my novel's first draft: the first draft of several, I expect! Nevertheless, now I have a stronger sense of my book and the themes I want to place at its heart, I can focus my attention on technique. Exactly what kind of writing will most effectively express the story I want to tell?

Of course, writing style is not an all-or-nothing topic. However early you are in the process, I'd advise that writers always have an eye on the quality of their writing and not just the quantity. Perhaps that's why it has taken me so many months to reach the revision stage (that and the fact I'm juggling my writing with painting, pet ownership and part-time library service!) Personally speaking, I don't have the most easily compartmentalized mind (it's more of a spidergram than a neat diagram!) and it wouldn't feel right for me to sit with writing, even in draft form, that didn't chime the right chord. And yet I want to enjoy this new opportunity to polish my work, if not quite to perfection then certainly to the very best of my abilities.

The process of editing is something that I typically find easier when writing poetry. I've been very fortunate to have a few poems published, and have come to realise that my most successful writing style is restrained: often relatively short in length and using word choice that is as carefully crafted as possible. When writing prose, however, I can become almost overwhelmed with enthusiasm and often fall victim to redundancy (that old bugaboo in which writers use many words to express what a few could do better). I simply love the world's words so much that sometimes I can't resist the temptation to add an extra one, or two, or occasionally even three (at least it has helped me reach the 50,000 or so words needed to make a full-length novel)!

Reflecting on the differences I've discovered in my work, depending on my writing form, leads me to wonder whether style - indeed, if identity - is fixed. Does it depend on who is writing what (and when!)? I mentioned in my last vlog that I was reading William Trevor's The Silence in the Garden (more details below!) and when researching his career I found some quotations that really spoke to this idea (and funnily enough, also my previous month's Diary entry - I wish I'd found these comments sooner!) Discussing his career as an art teacher and sculptor before becoming well-known as a writer of poetry, short stories and novels, Trevor noted in 1989:

'If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more.'

At first I was simply excited to discover another artist-writer (or writer-artist, or maybe arter-wartist?!) But it is also intriguing to gain insight into the writing practices of someone who explored and excelled in several different areas. For me, my novel writing can undoubtedly learn from my poetry: having confidence in concision and knowing that any ability I have (!) doesn't need to weigh heavily upon readers. But I hope it isn't one-way traffic. My enthusiastic prose may require greater discipline (and probably another year of drafting!) but the idea is not to remove my passion - rather to refine my words in order to express that passion. If I stay open to creativity, and have the courage to adapt my style according to the piece of work at hand, then I hope I'll find the right words.

Ps. After drafting out this blog, I was delighted to hear that one of my short stories, 'MMM' - inspired by the artist Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - will be published in New Writing Scotland this summer! The letter was the most wonderful surprise and feels like a shot-in-the-arm for my fiction abilities just when I needed it most! For lovers of beautiful language, we might call that 'serendipity' (now there's a good title for a novel!)

Line of the Month (my favourite line I've written this month - although whether it makes the final cut is a different story!)

The sun sits suspended on the horizon, as if the ocean is holding its breath.

This is a subtle turning point for my main character Ellen: a moment of stillness that, we'll soon discover, marks a change in who she is (and who she can become).

Bookmark (what I'm reading when I need a break from writing - otherwise known as often!)

William Trevor, The Silence in the Garden, 1988. Borrowed from the library, this book should currently be travelling back to its branch of origin (you've got to love that request system!) The narrative focuses on an Irish island off the coast of Cork, where I understand Trevor himself was born. As a writer, his intelligence is obvious and yet he wears it lightly: embedding it within each sentence and empathetic descriptions of time, people and places. I can see how Elizabeth Strout, one of my favourite contemporary authors, has been inspired by Trevor: both tackle significant social issues but save the bulk of their attention - and respect - for the lives of everyday people who are often unseen and under-acknowledged. Their attitudes are modern, but a surprisingly strong sense of morality reinforces much of their work. The characters who turn out to have the resilience required to survive (emotionally as well as physically) are not necessarily the ones their society expects.

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