Monday, July 6, 2009

Holloway on Distinctive Style

Dan Holloway, author of the serialized online novel The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes, argues at How Publishing Really Works that distinctive style (or voice, in his parlance) is more important than fine diction, tight plotting and memorable characters. He makes his case by appealing to something that any fan of live music understands -- the difference between an opening act and the headliner. Excerpts:

I’ve seen … lots of support bands this year. They all perform excellently. The songwriting is uniformly exceptional. The frontmen have real charisma. But when you hear one song, then a second, you realise if you heard a third song, in a different context, you’d have a hard time saying whose it was. Any number of people could have written them.

On the other hand, every headline act I’ve seen writes songs that couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Within a bar (a note, even -- just the tuning of their guitars is often enough; or if you prefer your music older and more German, think “Tristan chord”) you know exactly whose music you’re listening to.

And that, in a nutshell, is voice.
Read the whole thing. Perhaps we should, in addition to voice or style, call it distinction, that odd quality of someone sounding precisely like himself and no one else. It’s possibly one of the most difficult things to do when writing – and one of the delightful things to read.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


B. Nagel said...

Hey, Switchfoot picture! And more music talk!

I know that there are a lot of authors and bands that get repetitive (Orson Scott Card, Nickelback). Sometimes, they make some genuine interesting sounds, but in general they're a skipping record.

I think the hardest thing for me to get back into is the voice/style/distinction of a project once I've walked away from it for an hour, a night, a month. That's part of hwy I do so much background on my stories, so that I can sort of edge my way back into the storyline, into the narrator's headspace.

Loren Eaton said...

Thought you'd like that picture.

I remember Neil Gaiman saying in an interview with his daughter (direct download) that the hardest thing for him to do as a young writer was sound like himself. That's a skill that can take years, if not decades. Sadly, some people never quite get there.

ollwen said...

The same is true for visual artists. I tried a cartooning project for a class in college only to realize I had not developed any particular style, let alone something all my own. I still struggle with that.

I also remember rereading most of what I'd already written on a story to try and get the "narrator's headspace" before writing so much as a new paragraph.

This also reminds of a an attempt to reread a particular work of a popular fantasy writer, which I had previously read in high-school. The narrator at the start is a snarky, slightly self-pittying/ self-deprecating american college student at oxford. I loved the first few chapters on the second reading, mostly for the tone and wit of his narrator's voice. After the momentous transportation into the fantasy world of Celtic mythology, however, the author makes a hard switch into 'standard 1st person fantasy narrator' voice, and I lost interest in just a few paragraphs.

For fun, some distinct web-comic art styles:


and of course Tuna

Loren Eaton said...

Developing your own style (distinctive or not) is probably one of the most challenging things to do for artists of any stripe. But its so fun to see when a person nails it just right.

Hey, those sites are fun! I particularly like Lackadaisy. And poor Tuna! A hacker hit their mainframe and completely destroyed the site. They're trying to build it back up from scratch, so if anyone knows CSS and is willing to lend a hand ...

ollwen said...

Tracy Butler of Lackadasy is one of those artists that makes other artist 'wow!' and despair at the same time. Interestingly enough, I think she's a pretty good writer too. If you haven't had time to check out the archives of Lackadasy Cats, you should. She does a lot of great period research. Great characters. Unfortunately in persuit of quality, her updates are sporadic.

I'm afraid my CSS skills aren't what they should be, or I might try to help the Tuna gang.

Loren Eaton said...

Lackadasy sure nails that Prohibition-era feel, doesn't it? I spent part of my lunch hour looking at it. Fun!

Just checked Tuna, and it looks like the redesign is proceeding apace, which is a good thing. I'd hate for it to get caught in limbo.

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

Wow! How cool to stumble across this! Thanks!
B - you make such a good point, and one that only really occurred to me last weekend when I was listening to some of the bands at ...(I'm not gonna name and shame) Festival. There are some bands whose style is really distinctive, but who only really have one song that they repeat again and again. What the very best ones have is the ability to have an unmistakable sound that they carry across a really wide repertoire.

Dan (

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks for stopping by, Dan! It's great to have you.