Friday, April 24, 2009

Changes in Writing Styles

I’ve spoken a number of times in this blog about the changes that have taken place in Christian fiction in the last fifteen or twenty years. By listening and studying, paying attention and practicing what I’ve been learning, I am gaining steadily in my skills of recognizing and using these new styles. Another thing I’ve done to build my skills is to read primarily the kind of fiction I want to write and authors I know writing in the new style.

You see, not everyone has made changes. A few well established writers have such a following and have sold so many books that they haven’t needed to worry making changes. Why should they if people are reading their books as much as ever?

This brings up a question about whether these changes are necessary, even justified. Have they really made the reading better? Few deny that Christian fiction two or three decades ago was shallow and not highly thought of by people who knew quality writing. Those who advocate these style changes are convinced they strongly increase the quality of Christian fiction.

Again, what kind of changes are we talking about? We’re talking about helping one’s readers to experience the actions and emotions of a story rather than simply telling about them using strong nouns and verbs rather than “propping them up” with adjectives and adverbs, and giving readers credit for “getting it” the first time, not talking down to them through an omniscient narrator who explains things.

Though as I said I’ve been reading almost exclusively novels written by authors writing the newer styles, I broke my pattern this last week. I picked up a book by an ultra-successful author who has been writing for many years, who has sold dozens of books in multiple series (stories that follow the same characters, often generation after generation). I wanted to see what his writing style has been in more recent times.

I found the book written the way I used to write.

The first thing to be obvious was that he didn’t follow the current mandate not to jump from one character’s head to another’s within the same scene. That style change, called point of view, or POV, was one I resisted for a time. It took practice to master it (and maybe my Genesis contest entry will show that I still slip up). (I’ve learned it did indeed evolve during the past decade and didn’t start out as firmly entrenched as it now is.)

Questions have been raised about this POV business, such as whether readers who aren’t writers really notice, let alone care. I can’t answer that, but I know that now that I’ve become aware of the difference, I didn’t like going back to the old ways as I read this book. Perhaps the author has made changes in his writing more recently, but in 2003 he was still “head hopping” all over the place. It bothered me a lot, and I didn’t like having that omniscient narrator popping in all the time to tell me how things were instead of setting me up to discover them for myself.

So this weekend I’m back to continuing work on my novel (written so long ago) where I’m trying to show instead tell and take readers deeper into the hearts of my characters through the illusive thing called “deep POV.” Only time will tell whether it will be worth the effort.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I’ve been working the last several days on chapter summaries of my novel. This is for an agent who invited me to submit my work. The end result will run to four pages, each with two columns.

Chapter summaries are interesting creatures. You have to pull out the essence of the chapter and express it is 1-3 sentences. My longest two or three are fifty words long. Most are in the thirties and forties, with a handful under twenty. The agent says he wants to see the flow of the story. That sounds like a worthwhile reason.

Summarizing is a challenging mental exercise. A similar effort is called synthesizing. My Merriam-Webster Dictionary says a summary tells the main points briefly, while a synthesis is a combination of parts into a whole. I’m sure some of my education cohorts could explain the difference between the two, but that doesn’t concern me right now. “Telling the main points briefly” sounds like exactly what I’ve been trying to do.

Once I finish, I’m going to study the whole to see if I’ve missed expressing any elements essential to the story. I’ve already become aware of one crucial plot ingredient that isn’t strong enough. Going back and figuring out where and how to strengthen it will be a good setup for the rewriting I have yet to finish. Or perhaps I will decide I have it expressed well enough in the text and just need to get that clear expression into the summary.

I remember sitting with family members working to write a summary of each of my parents’ lives for their funeral programs. Each of them lived fewer than eighty years. Today I read the funeral program of a friend who lived ninety amazing and eventful years—again, a summary, only this one even more condensed.

I wonder what kind of summary someone will write about my life when I’m gone. All I know today is that I hope to add a lot more to the whole before that happens. Then let someone else figure out how to cover the main points briefly or weave the parts into a whole.