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I always receive the same critique when I write fiction. The critique is good for my characters and plot, but I am told that my writing style is stiff, awkward and amateurish. When I wrote academic papers for university, I was often praised for my eloquence, but apparently that writing style does not work for fiction. What resources can I turn to, or what can I do in order to develop a strong writing style for fiction?

When I posed this question to a handful of experts, I was told to read a lot of fiction. I read fiction rather obsessively, and I have done so ever since I was a child, so that does not appear to help.

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You can paste one or two paragraphs of your writing into a question and ask for advise here. Maybe that teach you something, maybe not. If not, you can still use the foolproof way of writing: write, write, write, read tons and tons and tons, write, write, and write! –  John Smithers Jan 24 '11 at 10:08
    
@JohnSmithers uhm, I think you mean "advice" ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 24 '11 at 12:25
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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

You've already read a lot, which is a good thing. I suspect what you're missing at this point is reading to learn: taking something that you love which is well-written, and tearing it apart to see how it works.

One way to do this is to find a book or story that you admire not just for its characters and plot, but specifically for its prose style. Read a chapter or so to get it fresh in your mind, then go and write something of your own imitating the other author's style as closely as possible. You really want to do everything you can to pass off your work as the work of the other author. When you're done, go back and compare your writing with the other, and look at what the differences are and how you can adapt your style to better match theirs.

The purpose of this exercise is not actually to copy the style of another author. Rather, it's to gain a deep, inside understanding of how that author does what they do, how they knit their sentences together in that amazing way that they have. After doing this a few times, you can go back to your real writing with an appreciation of that author's techniques and tricks, and hopefully apply them in service of your own style.

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Oh yeah, learning to pastiche +1 definitely. When I started out I did really poor pastiche Stephen King. What tends to happen is you work out how the other person's style holds you back and where you can do things better another way. –  One Monkey Jan 24 '11 at 15:43
    
wait, this is an actual technique? back when I was pasticheing Stephen King in seventh grade, I was just told I was a nutjob (for writing horror) and a hack (for writing like someone else). Vindication is mine! –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 26 '11 at 21:43
    
@Lauren - King's probably a target for a lot of budding authors because his style is quite lumpy, a lump of horror stuff followed by a lump of character stuff it's quite easy to see. He's also not great at plots or exposition so it makes people feel better: "Hey, if this guy who can't make up his mind why the car is evil from chapter to chapter can get a movie made of his best selling but nonsensical novel, so can I!" –  One Monkey Jan 27 '11 at 10:11
    
@One Monkey: I find that analysis interesting, and kinda funny. Stephen King was the reason I decided I could be a writer in the first place, pretty much because I said to myself "It's so easy -- look at Stephen King! If he can do it, I can do it!" –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 27 '11 at 13:53
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I'm also working on increasing my fiction writing skills (I do mostly technical writing).

My approach is taken from my previous life as a musician. The best way to learn to play a style in music is to listen, practice, and listen again. Translated to writing, this means reading, but not just for pleasure. When you read a passage that draws you in, analyze the passage and figure out why it draws you in. Then try writing a similar passage, a parallel story, or an alternate story using some or all of the techniques you discovered. Try it with some different authors and see if it helps you break out of your academic rut.

I also recommend reading some books about writing - my favorite by far is Steven King's "On Writing". It is filled with example after example of why some writing works and why some writing stinks.

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Writing is not a single task, as made plain by the fact that your plots and characters work but your style doesn't. In just the same way as a sportsman can work on a part of the game he plays so a writer can work on parts of the writing process that concentrate on strengthening weaker parts.

When I was younger the dialogue I wrote completely sucked, it just didn't sound like stuff people would say. I wrote a lot of scripts, specifically screenplays. It made things better. Screenplays also help with identifying the way to make something more show and less tell. For this reason I think that writing a screenplay could also be of use to you.

In a screenplay a writer has to be constantly asking if the scene gives a cast words to say and a director pictures to shoot. A great director can shoot loads of people talking a room and make it visually compelling but the writer can help by ensuring that pure exposition is eliminated wherever possible. Screenwriting mavens have a term for it: Turn your exposition into ammunition meaning take the things you have to explain to the audience and work out how to demonstrate that principle visually instead of just having a character explain it.

I never got caught in the exact situation you describe as I've only ever written fiction. One thing that revolutionised my writing style was when I chose to tell what I considered to be "a simple story". My key aim was to describe the protagonist journeying from point A to point B to do a thing, a quest story.

At the time I was trying to give myself an easy ride for the first time I ever attempted "National Novel Writing Month". The process of telling a story I figured I should be able to tell standing on my head opened up a whole number of opportunities for me to develop my general writing skills. For this reason you may want to write a story you feel should be well within your capabilities, your take on the saga of Beowulf for example.

The point is to do some work that forces you to concentrate on the weak point. The work should be simple enough to support you in your efforts and I imagine, although I have no actual proof even anecdotal beyond my own experiences, that going through that process will allow you to flex your skills at storytelling.

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I love "Self Editing For Fiction Writers"; get it here: http://amzn.to/eKcfJP

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