Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Style Guide

I've lived a long time without needing to have a style guide or even to know what one is (hint: it has nothing to do with wardrobe or hair), but now I have one.
The occasion? Working with my wonderful book designer Nita Congress on the interior layout of Karmafornia, my soon-to-be-released novel.
Which words are hyphenated, which are compound words, which are separated? Do you italicize words from other languages, or does that depend on whether they show up in your favorite dictionary as accepted American lingo?
How do you treat numbers, time, percent, degrees and costs?
What's the best way to represent a character's thoughts?
How about notes and letters?
What about words like mohawk, swiss army knife, kleenex, superball and frisbee?

Why does it matter? Given that language is an imperfect tool of communication, the closer we get to the feeling not just the meaning of words, the better we express what we're trying to. Since writing style is a key element in conveying not just information but flavor, texture and nuance, the way words appear has impact beyond the specifics of meaning.
"No place" is just "place" with a negative. "He had no place in that company" or "Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home."
"Noplace" is a negative place. "You're going noplace with that attitude."
How about "OK"? My characters use this word frequently, and it's always OK, never O.K. or okay. Why? Well, for me it's important that such a concise agreement be represented as briefly as possible.

Style can torture - I gave up reading Don Quixote after about 250 pages (out of 1000 or so) because he rarely indents for a new paragraph. Open the book to any page, and you'll see solid print, top to bottom and edge to edge. That's discouraging.
Then there's James Jones. After seeing the 1964 movie starring Jack Warden and Keir Dullea, then Terence Malick's 1998 version which was so different it hardly seemed based on the same story, I decided to read The Thin Red Line. That was agony - it has almost no chapter or section breaks, and the soldiers' names are nearly all words of one syllable, similar in sound: Doll, Bell, Call etc.

Style can woo - At the other extreme is Richard Brautigan's The Hawkline Monster, with such short sentences and brief chapters it's hard to put down: "I'll just read one more, then go to bed," I'd think, and before I knew it, I'd finished the book.

Punctuation is part of style. As a teenager I read Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Tom Wolfe's uninhibited use of colons, italics, exclamation points etc., instilled a freedom I've enjoyed ever since.
Oh, I've been scolded for it. My use of dashes unnerves people. Knowing my writing habits have developed through reading, I revisited one of my favorites - John Crowley - and was gratified to see all his dashes.
How did Ward Just get away with using no quotation marks in The Weather in Berlin?
The undisputed master of the comma is Henry James, who in myriad phrases set off by commas, circles the meaning of an object, or statement, or action, such that when you arrive at the pith of the sentence, you know exactly what he means.

Breaking the rules. In nonfiction other than memoir, standard language is expected: subject is everything.
In fiction however, style is part of the package. Hemingway's short pithy sentences are essential to depicting his blunt masculine characters. The colloquial voices in Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule convey as much as her narrative.
The greatest rule-breaker of all is Herman Melville. In Moby Dick he changes voice, tense, point of view, uses straight narrative, stage directions, and language ranging from the argot of sailors to the biblical and Shakespearean phrasing of Ahab - and it's OK!

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