Do Modern Writers Lean Too Much on Blunt Shock Value?

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Catching your readers off guard once in a while isn’t a bad thing. It can make your story seem more novel (pun intended) so that people are motivated to go all the way to the last page. But then I stumbled across this Tweet:

The tweet got me thinking about how writers are approaching fiction writing in general. Like Chris, I’ve been getting the impression that there’s a lot of emphasis on the “traits” or technical elements that go into a draft, like making characters more compelling. But you can have all of those elements and still have a book be less than incredible if your actual writing is subpar.

But what makes it stand out?

For me, great writing is poetic, not in the sense of being flowery or verbose, but in the sense of having incredibly beautiful imagery, rhythm and metaphor that stirs deep feelings of empathy. You absolutely can have your own style here. But readers get the sense from your connotations and phrasing and analogies, from hints and implications between the lines, that the character has some real experience with life. It’s truthful and relatable in an incredibly deep way.

From my perspective, much of modern writing lacks this poetry. It is incredibly sharp and blunt, designed to drop the jaw and not waste time. Perhaps that is because there has been so much of an emphasis on pacing and driving the plot. Perhaps that makes us afraid of what will happen if readers are allowed a moment to think beyond the pages into the psychological or other realities those pages contain. Or perhaps it is the reader who is already so overwhelmed that all they want is an “easy” beach read, to be entertained instead of forced to keep thinking and feeling. Or perhaps we are all so conditioned to the dramatic, to explosions and fire defining “action”, to technology forcing us to want immediate gratification and response, that we think bluntness is the only way to communicate.

This bluntness can be problematic in any genre, but I think it’s especially visible in horror/thriller. The stories aren’t just more gruesome. They also quickly throw out events that are so unexpected that I cannot help but feel like seams are showing, like it was clearly the writer’s intent to shock. And because I see the intent, I am not shocked. I’m disappointed and distracted from the story.

The solution isn’t easy. It’s to focus on yourself. It’s to be so comfortable with who you are that you don’t censure, that you no longer worry about what anyone else is going to think as you pull from everything you know and have been through. You must listen to your own instinct and capture it in a way that makes purpose clear. You can do this listening even if you choose to change scenes or character traits, and it’s not about what you say, but how. Do it well, and your voice will never be lost, no matter how many revisions you go through.

Why Classifying Books According to Genre Needs to Die

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If you go to agent or publisher websites, a common call is for writers to create something entirely fresh, something that doesn’t fit the usual molds. But even with those statements, I’m not entirely convinced that the publishing world or general public has abandoned genre classifications as much as agencies and houses would have people believe.

For starters, bookstores, websites and libraries still label books based on traditional genres to make it easier for people to find what they are looking for. And if you query as an author through tools like QueryTracker or other online forms, the tool almost always require you to smoosh your book into a category. Agents and publishers also want to know what genre you’re working with and show that you understand how your book fits that target niche or compares to previously published works. They expect a summary for that in query letters and proposals, and most of them are very clear on the site which genres they do or do not work with.

I absolutely understand the need for a system of organization. But what if, for example, I have a mystery set in an earlier period, something a la Enola Holmes? Is that a mystery or a historical? What if I have a love story set in outer space? Is that science fiction or romance? Or what about books that challenge social conceptions or time? The recently released “Bridgerton” on Netflix, for example, is based on Julia Quinn’s novels, but since it is an intentionally contemporary spin on the 1800s era, is it too inaccurate to be a regency anymore?

Some books do fit very neatly into categories. But many do not. They are like sporks in a utensil drawer, simultaneously belonging and not belonging for their “oddity”. And as a writer, I see the current mode of labeling as being truly problematic. If my book does bend genres, it can be very difficult to present it according to the tools and expectations agents, publishers and book stores all have. It even can be hard to determine whether certain agents or houses would want to accept a query, which then can create additional work for authors who submit a preliminary inquiry before formally introducing the manuscript.

But perhaps even more concerning than presentation or organization is the conflicting message of creativity and adherence to group. Writers who are continually forced to slap labels on their work for the sake of the label might mentally limit themselves regarding what their books can be. They might start to think of themselves as this type of writer or that, when in fact a good writer isn’t a “type” of anything–they can write whatever they da-n well please.

We perhaps could solve the issue simply by creating tools that allow writers and others to select an “Uncategorized” or “Genre-Bending” classification. Explaining the mashup with references rather than a label, such as X Book + Y Book, could work in queries, store placement and promotional materials. But such a shift requires people to let go of the knee-jerk desire to mentally classify to a high degree. The freedom we could gain, however, could be truly transformative in terms of what ends up on the page.

What’s in Your Punctuation? A Lot, Apparently

Part of basic elementary school training is learning the basics of punctuation–a comma does this, a period does that. And over time, we get better at using those basics consistently so that our writing is more understandable and has better flow.

But how much of punctuation relates to voice, that mysterious thing that agents, publishers and readers talk about with such simultaneous reverence and excitement?

That’s the question Lucas Reilly explored in a recent article for Mental Floss. Reilly reported how people have used stylometric analysis, which is the process of using quirks within writing samples to identify who wrote the text, for decades. But now, a team led by Alexandra Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, applied the concept to genres and the evolution of author style over time. Could you, for example, tell a romance novel from a science fiction one, based just on the punctuation in it?

The researchers discovered that this is totally possible. They created formulas that could pinpoint authors with 72 percent accuracy, and genre at 65 percent. Not perfect, but still pretty impressive.

The researchers also noted that we’re using commas and semicolons less than we used to, and that the use of periods and quotation marks and periods has gone up. This shift might reflect the massive technological shift we’re going through. As people struggle to focus online, the emphasis is on concise writing, and people throw in plenty of quotes to try to include the authority that’s going to give their piece the credibility necessary to be heard in the noise of the Internet. (More cynically, this also might be a reflection that we are struggling to rephrase concepts in our own words.) The idea that the tools available to us might sway us to adopt writing tendencies we otherwise might not have matters. The tools we select are always within our control, but we must be aware of their influence to make more conscious choices about what to utilize.

But lets go back to those stats for a second. Each genre arguably has its own “feel”. This arguably is part of what endears readers to one type of book compared to another, and punctuation clearly is playing a huge role in providing that feeling. It’s a lot like music–hip hop doesn’t feel like classical, classical doesn’t feel like jazz. And within those, composers communicate within a set of rules in their own way–Brahms doesn’t sound like Mozart, yet they’re both “classical”. We cannot dismantle that completely, at least not all at once, because it would feel “off” to the reader who has a set of expectations about what the genre needs to be or have.

But what if we messed around with that? What if we broke away, committed more to our own style of punctuation and didn’t conform so much to the genre? The potential is there to create something entirely fresh–you know, that characteristic that agents and publishers say they are constantly looking for in manuscripts. What if, for example, a Victorian romance novel had the pointed brevity of Hemingway but maintained all the classic plot “essentials”? Wouldn’t that make it marvelously easier for writers to cross genres and not get unnecessarily labeled as one type of writer or another, to explore all kinds of storytelling instead of allowing themselves to get stuffed in a box?

And this all raises another question. Writers always influence other writers to some degree. As you might see in my posts, for instance, I use longer structures, and I’m not afraid of commas. It’s a testimony to the many hours I spent with Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Melville and a whole gaggle of others. So what if we’re holding ourselves back by immersing ourselves in a preferred category? What if we’ve read so much science fiction or whatever else that the sound and rhythm of it is too ingrained and we cannot truly speak as ourselves?

So this brings to the fore the need for writers to read a lot, and read everything. We need to understand that there is more than one sound, more than one cadence, more than one way to break ideas apart or string them together. And while all of us have to be concerned with “readability” for the audience, there is no “right” cadence, sound or method. We stay aware of that the more we expose ourselves to variety.

It’s a lot like Paul Maclean (Brad Pitt) finding his own way with his fishing rod in A River Runs Through It. Find your pace. Find your flow. It’s your own mark and secret byline, if you let it be.