The Flavor of Words and Disagreeing with Dean Koontz

I didn't like sushi the first seven times that I tried it, but now I love it. At no time was I wrong about sushi; when I didn't like it I was right, and when I loved it I was right. Flavors are individual, subjective; as in food, so in the written word.


Dean Koontz has been a very successful author for a very long time across many genres. Some of the best writing advice I have encountered so far is contained in his 1972 book "Writing Popular Fiction," but today we are going to talk about the part where I disagree.

I like so much of what Koontz says in the book that I was surprised by two style examples that he gives. Here is the entire section 5 of chapter 9.

Your style will evolve naturally as you continue to write, and you should not make much of a conscious effort to develop it. Of course, every writer should strive to create clear and dramatic prose, but if you are trying to write beautiful prose full of catchy similes and metaphors and other figures of speech, you have reached a point where you should stop and reconsider what you are doing. Whether or not you recognized it, you have your own voice already, one the reader will identify as yours, and you have only to let it grow of its own accord. If you make a conscious effort to form an individual style, you will more often end by imitating the work of writers whom you admire. Unconscious imitation, but imitation nonetheless.

In recent years, a number of young science fiction writers have striven to gain the praise of the literati, because critics have long ignored category fiction in general and science fiction in particular. These young Turks became concerned about writing styles, experimented, broadened science fiction's horizons, and generated much genuine excitement within the form. A few, disappointed that the literary world repaid this enthusiasm with only a smile and a nod, decided the mainstream critics had not accepted the field because it was still not good enough. They never wondered if the fault might lie in the perceptions, breadth of vision, and prejudices of the critics - and not in an innate failure of science fiction itself. As a result, they became even more conscious of style, more picky about word choices; rewriting and revising their work endlessly. A few of them worried themselves into writing blocks that they may never get out of unless they understand what misconceptions of their own put them where they are today. One acquaintance of mine, a better than average science fiction novelist, became so determined to polish each word so well and to write "perfect" prose that his once-promising career has collapsed. After several popular books, he has gone nearly three years without finishing another and has earned editorial disapproval by failing to deliver books that were contracted for on outlines and sample chapters. The warning is clear: if you attempt to force your style, to consciously develop your voice, you are concentrating on only one facet of fiction and are losing the perspective and spontaneity that makes your work readable and saleable.

There is one rule of style that every writer can benefit from: say it as simply, as clearly, and as shortly as possible. Only two genres are hospitable to the baroque style of writing - fantasy and Gothic-romance; all other categories are better suited to crisp, lean prose.

For example, let's postulate a detective hero, Joe Black, and two punks who are beating him up. Her's how the scene might be overwritten:

Riccio and Goldone took turns delivering the punishment. Riccio was carrying a pebble-filled kosh, and he slammed it hard against Black's skull, driving the detective to his knees. Lights sprang up behind Black's eyes, pretty lights dancing around and around . . . He didn't have an opportunity to appreciate them, because Goldone stepped in front of him, grabbed his head and brought a knee up hard, under his chin. Black croaked and passed out.

When he came to, he tasted blood, but forgot about that when Goldone goaded him to his feet. Riccio, standing behind him, brought the kosh in several times, in hard, rapid strokes, placing it square on Black's kidneys. The detective's knees jellied, but he somehow managed to stay on his feet. Riccio pinned his arms, then, while Goldone, grinning, came forward and methodically pistol whipped the detective's face. Black felt his lips split and dribble blood. His cheeks were gashed by the pistol barrel. Sweat and blood ran down into his eyes and blurred his vision . . .

This kind of thing can go on and on. And, if used only once or twice in a novel, can be very effective. The shorter, more direct, less melodramatic version will, however, be more often suitable:

Using fists, a pebble-filled kosh and a pistol barrel, Riccio and Goldone gave Joe Black the worst beating of his life. They drove him to his knees, urged him back onto his feet, and slammed him down again. Over and over. Relentlessly. They broke his teeth, split his lips and tore open his face. He was glad when he finally pitched forward, unconscious. They might continue to kick and hit him, but he wouldn't feel it - until he woke.

That's less than half as along as the first version but still adequately describes the action. Unless the scene in question is the climactic scene which should be milked for all its potential suspense, this sparser prose style is always the better of the two.

When describing the character's state of mind or reaction to story events, understatement is more effective than wordy scenes. For example, when showing a nervous character, a new writer may unnecessarily puff the description like this:

Joe Black wiped the perspiration from his forehead, wiped his trembling hand on his slacks. His car was parked a block down the street from Riccio's house, but there was still a chance he might be spotted in his stake out. He ran a finger around his collar, finally loosened the button at his throat and slipped off his tie. He kept clearing his throat when he didn't need to, and he had tapped out a dozen favorite tunes on the steering wheel before half an hour had passed.

A better way to project this image might be:

His car was parked a block down the street from Riccio's home, but there was still a chance he might be spotted in his stake out. While he waited for Riccio to show, Black methodically shredded several paper handkerchiefs. He did not even realize that he was making a mess.

One clue to a character's mental state, if properly developed, is more effective than a catalogue of his every movement.

When describing a new setting as it first appears in a novel - a new street, house, hotel, room, bit of landscape - decide whether it warrants a lengthy description. If it is the focus of only one or two minor scenes, it dos not deserve the same detailing as does the place where the climax and other important plot developments transpire. If, for example, a motel room in Chapter Three needs only a short description, don't treat it like this:

The hotel room depressed Joe Black. It measured twelve by eight feet, and it was made even smaller by the weak yellow light and the small, dirty window in the far wall. The only furniture was a swaybacked bed dressed in yellowed sheets and a battered chest of drawers with a cigarette scarred surface. The paint was spotted and peeling and discolored by too many years, too much cigarette smoke and too many sorrows absorbed from the tenants. The floor was covered with cracked, gray linoleum and stained with dozens of brands of spilled whiskey.

More to the point and less of an interruption in the narrative flow is this version:

The hotel room depressed Joe Black. Small, shabby and poorly lighted, it was the sort of room to which a poor man brought a whore, where a junkie came to shoot up, or where a hopeless wino ended up when he went somewhere to drink himself to death.

In less than half the words used in the first version, we've created the same atmosphere of poverty and despair. Economy of language is the most important stylistic goal.

In general, I like all of the advice that he gives, but those first two examples . . . I am not so sure that he improves them in his revision. He does say that shortening the piece is not always the correct approach, and he states that each persons style will be different.

I think the third piece improved considerably in the revision. It is short, sweet, and has a punch to it. The first version is pure description and doesn't even imply any action. In the second version I am thinking of characters the whole time: poor man, whore, junkie, hopeless wino. The setting is there for the characters to act upon, with, through. I don't want a character walking around describing how things look to me.

He does note that longer versions with slightly more flamboyant language may be more desirable in romance and fantasy, and although I don't care much for the plots and characters of romance, I do like fantasy. One of my favorite styles of writing is that of George R. R. Martin, who has currently risen to be the symbol of grand fantasy. Let's go over the first two examples a little more closely and see what my tastes really show, maybe about the piece, but more likely about me.

Riccio and Goldone took turns delivering the punishment. Riccio was carrying a pebble-filled kosh, and he slammed it hard against Black's skull, driving the detective to his knees. Lights sprang up behind Black's eyes, pretty lights dancing around and around . . . He didn't have an opportunity to appreciate them, because Goldone stepped in front of him, grabbed his head and brought a knee up hard, under his chin. Black croaked and passed out.

When he came to, he tasted blood, but forgot about that when Goldone goaded him to his feet. Riccio, standing behind him, brought the kosh in several times, in hard, rapid strokes, placing it square on Black's kidneys. The detective's knees jellied, but he somehow managed to stay on his feet. Riccio pinned his arms, then, while Goldone, grinning, came forward and methodically pistol whipped the detective's face. Black felt his lips split and dribble blood. His cheeks were gashed by the pistol barrel. Sweat and blood ran down into his eyes and blurred his vision . . .

VS

Using fists, a pebble-filled kosh and a pistol barrel, Riccio and Goldone gave Joe Black the worst beating of his life. They drove him to his knees, urged him back onto his feet, and slammed him down again. Over and over. Relentlessly. They broke his teeth, split his lips and tore open his face. He was glad when he finally pitched forward, unconscious. They might continue to kick and hit him, but he wouldn't feel it - until he woke.

I think the second piece is good, I just think the first is better. It really brings me into the scene, like I was there when it was happening, or watching a video of it happening. In the second piece I feel like someone is telling me about it. That immediacy of the scene in the first piece is appealing to me. You don't want to continue the piece forever, and I would probably wrap it up right there with the last two lines of the second piece. I also like the first piece because it shows more about all three of the characters involved in this immediate scene. Let's see if it is the same reason for the second set of examples that Koontz used, I myself am not sure yet.

Joe Black wiped the perspiration from his forehead, wiped his trembling hand on his slacks. His car was parked a block down the street from Riccio's house, but there was still a chance he might be spotted in his stake out. He ran a finger around his collar, finally loosened the button at his throat and slipped off his tie. He kept clearing his throat when he didn't need to, and he had tapped out a dozen favorite tunes on the steering wheel before half an hour had passed.

VS

His car was parked a block down the street from Riccio's home, but there was still a chance he might be spotted in his stake out. While he waited for Riccio to show, Black methodically shredded several paper handkerchiefs. He did not even realize that he was making a mess.

At first I thought my issue here was different, was that the different actions don't reveal the same type of character, and I think that is still true, but there is also something else. "He ran a finger around his collar, finally loosened the button at his throat and slipped off his tie." That is the sentence that I think is key. I agree that the piece can be shorter, it can end right there, but that is a lot better than the handkerchief bit. Why? Because I can see it in my mind, it is immediately a scene in my head. So, in the end, it really is the same two issues: immediate scenes and character revelation. I wonder if I could make the handkerchief bit work a little better by making it a more immediate scene, one I can picture. Let's play a little game and find out.

His car was parked a block down the street from Riccio's home, but there was still a chance he might be spotted in his stake out. While he waited for Riccio to show, Black picked up a handkerchief and tore it down the center, took one piece and tore it again, and again, and again . . . he didn't even realize he was making a mess.

I must say, I do like that better, but now I wonder if anyone else does; which brings us to the question of "Who do I write for?" I think that is a huge question, but I will probably explore it at some point in the future.

You are welcome to join me on my future explorations at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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