Following the growing career of Myke Cole has been one of my favorite parts of being a reviewer. His debut novel, the frenetically paced and thought provoking, Control Point was one of the first novels I read in 2012. I was fortunate enough to get an EARC of the sequel, Fortress Frontier and I can honestly say that Myke managed to raise the bar for himself in every way. I'm anxious for the upcoming Breach Zone, and look forward to watching Myke's career continue its rise to the peaks of the genre. I considered it a coup, when Myke agreed to be a part of this series. Little did I know that his installment would provide me with some of the best writing advice I've gotten to date. I hope you find it as useful as I did.
Prose is defined as, “The ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse.” What that really means is, “Anything in the book that isn’t poetry or verse.” But when I’m sitting in the lobby of the World Fantasy Con hotel chewing the fat about an author’s “prose style,” I’m usually thinking of all the words that aren’t dialogue.
Dialogue, by definition, is prose and I admit to butchering the definition beyond all recognition, but this is my guest post, so lock it up.
So, ahem. Here’s my point: When you take the dialogue (and poetry and verse) out of a novel, you’re still left with a lot of words. Prose (as I define it) is really, really important. You don’t want to get it wrong. You don’t want your prose to drag, or to be unclear, or to be so sparse that the reader misses key details and loses track of the story. You don’t want to ramble, and you don’t want to short your audience. Neither purple nor beige, folks. This porridge must be just right.
Well, good news: There are a few well-known, clear and easy to follow rules on how to write effective prose in fantasy and science-fiction. If you stick to them, you are guaranteed to write prose that sings and leaves your reader begging for more.
HAHAHAHAHA! *gasp* Hahahahah! *sniff* Ha . . . heh . . . Sorry. Couldn’t breath for a sec there. Man, that’s funny.
So, yeah. There are no rules. What makes prose effective is completely subjective, and different writers pull it off in different ways. It’s a huge topic, and it’s easier to tackle when you boil it down to opposing extremes. I started this with a false definition, and now I’ll extend it with a false dichotomy. George R.R. Martin set up the Gardener vs. Architect opposition in novel planning, and I’ll take a page from his book and set up my own: Stylist vs. Economist.
Stylists: China Mieville and J.R.R. Tolkien
For Stylists, the prose is, in and of itself, part of the appeal of the novel. While prose is not poetry, the prose has a lot of the same appeal. It is sonorous, lyrical, evocative. The words serve to carry the plot and characters, but they do so in a way that is beautiful and elegiac in its own right. Stylists bring as much pleasure to the reader from the quality of the prose as they do from the story itself.
The best example I can think of here is China Mieville, author of several novels, including one of my favorite fantasies of all time: The Scar. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s a quote from Mieville’s Perdido Street Station:
“Its substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry…each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof. The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces.”
I can read that passage over and over again. Even without knowing anything else about the book, the word choice, cadence and arrangement are so transporting that the prose itself carries me along.
When done wrong, Stylists distract from the narrative, pull their readers out of the story and annoy them. I’ve heard many readers complain that Tolkien takes paragraphs to describe the side of a hill or the surface of a leaf, when all they want to know is what’s happening next. But done right, as I believe Mieville does, Stylists add a layer of drama and resonance to their story that makes for a more effective reading experience.
Economists: Peter V. Brett and . . . well . . . me
Peter V. Brett has a great expression: “All mules must haul wood.” Your mules are your words, and every single one of them needs to be working to either advance the plot or develop characters, ruthlessly pushing the narrative forward. The Economist viciously prunes their prose, weighing and judging every word, working hard to ensure there is no trace of excess that could potentially slow the story. The goal is a tight, fast-paced tale that aims to catch readers up and hold them. Economists seek to write “page-turners” that will keep you up long past bedtime on school nights.
Look at this tight description of a landscape from Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man:
“He walked for hours more, eventually leaving the trees behind and entering grassland: wide, lush fields untouched by plow or grazing. He crested a hilltop, breathing deeply of the fresh, untainted air. There was a large boulder jutting out of the ground, and Arlen scrambled atop it, looking out at a wide world that had always been beyond his reach.”
No extra details. The description builds the world (undeveloped by mankind, forest giving over to grassland) and furthers the character (breaking free into a wider world he longed to see). Short. Tight.
For the Economist the story, and not the delivery mechanism (the tenor of the words), are what’s important, and they go to great lengths to ensure that nothing gets in its way. Economists may leave out description when they feel it’s not necessary. I don’t spend a lot of time describing camouflage patterns, or a gun, or the color of lightning. I know that the vast majority of my readers already know what these things look like. If I just say that they exist in the story, I can leave it up to the reader to fill in the descriptive details, saving valuable space and time and making the story move faster.
There’s no judgment here in this admittedly false dichotomy. I am a huge Peter V. Brett and China Mieville fan. The experience I take away from their respective work is profoundly different. I go to Mieville for haunting, resonant experiences. The story is still fantastic, but I enjoy the delivery every bit as much as the plot and characters. I go to Brett for a pulse-pounding narrative that gets right to the point and stays there, page after page, until I’ve finished the book in a stretch of sleepless hours.
The important thing is to find a prose style that works for you, somewhere on the contiuum that exists between these two poles I’ve framed for the sake of argument. Once you have, you’ll have found your “voice,” as writers call it: the rhythm of words on the page that is distinctly you. Once you’ve honed that voice, your readers will recognize it, associate it with your name, and if you keep developing your craft, it will bring them back to your books again and again.