This is possibly a strange post coming from me, as I am a rather pedantic person (and a super critical Virgo) but in writing I like to stay a little flexible. The beauty of short stories is that your writing progresses quickly, and you learn writing techniques (or mistakes) that you can incorporate (or remove) in new works, without having to revise an entire manuscript in progress. I’ve learned a lot about dialogue, first person writing (hard to believe I never wrote in first person once upon a time!), redundant words, show don’t tell (although I’m still working on this), and more. I’m picking up ways of writing that fit in with what my peer group aspires to, which is well and good, but it has an interesting impact.
I find myself picking up novels, or short story anthologies, and identifying the pet peeves of those around me. I am focussing on writing “mistakes” that I am working to remove from my writing, yet these authors are well-known, highly-respected and published authors. In my mind, this begs the question: is there a point where our pet peeves get in the way of recognising good writing/a good story?
One example is the use of exclamation marks. I posed the question on twitter (and got one response, thanks writing friends! :P) and in person at the Byron Festival: is it ever ok to use exclamation marks in dialogue? My twitter response said yes, sparingly. The in person discussion was that you should use language effectively so that you don’t need to, or set the scene so the audience knows the exclamation is an exclamation. I’ve come across several instances in my stories where an exclamation mark would be appropriate for dialogue, yet I try to find ways around them because I know the use of them is frowned upon (and yes, in writing that is not dialogue I see no need for them). The other day I opened a story by Clive Barker, and found his dialogue liberally sprinkled with exclamation marks! (<< for emphasis ;)). Did he not get the memo that exclamation marks are out? Hmmm.
There have been quite a few different examples of this cropping up for me recently. I read a brilliant short story last night, Margo Lanagan's "Baby Jane" from her Red Spikes collection and as I read I noticed several pet peeves of some of my writing friends. They didn’t detract from the story at all, I found it compelling and beautifully written, but I wondered how those friends would react. I could rave on about the story itself (and I might in another post) but I guess the point is that certain turns of phrase, uses of punctuation, etc considered to be “bad” are subjective and in some settings can be used effectively; we run the risk of getting bogged down in our peeves in the quest for “perfect writing”. And truthfully, I’m a perfectionist so for me to write that is a big step! My aim is to tell a story, hopefully leave an impression, and use some beautiful language while I’m at it, but I’m not going to get hung up on what other writers are doing. (Of course I take it in and examine it but at the end of the day my writing must be my own expression, and I must express it as well as I can without losing my authenticity).
I’m not writing this from a place of arrogance, although it may seem so? Rather, I aim to learn from a variety of sources and recognise when an author is a skilled writer even when they use a device frowned upon in my circles. I don’t have all the answers, and at some point I accept that others know their voice better than I do. My “voice” is something I’m still trying to pin down, and I have a feeling that in order to embrace it fully I need to accept (sparingly) some devices that may earn me anticipated criticism from my writer friends.
But I guess that’s part of the journey, right?