What’s Your Writing Style?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

The other night I watched a novelist’s TV interview on a crime novel he had written. John Banville is a respected Irish novelist, known for the literary quality of his work. But he decided to try his hand at resurrecting a famous protagonist, Raymond Chandler’s private investigator, Philip Marlowe. I guess we could call this the height of fan fiction.

Here’s how Banville, who chose the pen name of Benjamin Black for the novel, The Black-eyed Blonde, described his two styles. He generally writes like a mole, clawing his way through each writing detail, not sure where the story will go, and fussing over any sentence that needs work before moving forward. But with the crime novel, he wrote like a tightropblack-eyed blondee walker; the goal was just to keep going, not to look back or down, to make it to the end–which was a fixed point, to write fast and not to worry about individual sentences.

That an established author would take up the challenge of writing a story centered on a character well-loved by noir crime readers is fascinating in and of itself.ย  But the way he talked about his styles set my mind to racing with questions. I’d like to hear your responses to the queries that occurred to me and any other thoughts you have from this fascinating look into one writer’s mind.

  1. Do you relate to Banville’s dual writing styles? Have you observed the same is true for you?
  2. Would you describe yourself as a mole or a tightrope walker?
  3. Do other images fit your writing style better than the ones Banville suggested?
  4. When you consider the difference between literary writing and crime novels, do his dual personalities make sense?
  5. Do you think his decision was a smart career move or a disastrous choice? Why?


Can a writer’s style change on demand? Click to tweet.

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70 Responses

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  1. Lori Benton says:

    “Would you describe yourself as a mole or a tightrope walker?”

    Mole. Definitely. I don’t agonize over sentences though. Not in the first draft. I agonize over character, digging down as deep as I can with each scene before moving on, because those deeper layers have proven time and again to inform the next scene, and the next. But I don’t always find those layers on the first or second pass. So I give it three or four or five passes before moving on. I don’t want to race off track by writing my first draft too fast.

  2. I try not to ‘see’ myself, as a writer or anything else, because it’s too easy to become enslaved by the mirror in one’s own hand.

    I suppose I write in the way that’s most effective for the moment. Thinking about the ‘how’ gives me a headache.

    Banville’s effort to bring back Philip Marlowe could be a real gift to Chandler’s fans (I’m not one), or it could be an embarrassment.

    The SF writer Arthur C. Clarke, close to the end of his life, worked with some other authors to bring some ideas to the page that he knew he would not have the time to complete.

    The results were dreadful. “Rendezvous With Rama” was a sci-fi classic; the ‘ghosted’ sequels (three of them) were not up to the same standard, and were among the few books I regretted taking the time to read to the end.

    • The “headache” thing made me laugh out loud!

    • Janet Grant says:

      The reviews for The Black-Eyed Blonde have been over the moon; so it would seem Banford/Black has managed to “channel” Philip Marlowe effectively.
      Andrew, one of the things about the interview that fascinated me was how conscious the author was of his writing style. Maybe he found the differences that came out in writing the crime novel startled him. He certainly was conscious of those differences.

      • That consciousness, and Banville’s literary talent, can make the difference between a true homage and a kncokoff.

        I’m delighted to hear that the reviews were good. What a treat for Chandler/Marlowe fans!

  3. That must have been an interesting interview. The two different styles for two different genres does make sense to me. If you are agonizing over every word/detail while trying to write a fast-paced, tension-filled book it might slow it down.

    I am a social mole when figuring out my characters. Social because I sometimes talk with writing friends if I’m stuck on a certain aspect of a character.I want to know them well before I write a single word on the first page of the story. I also take time to plot out the big points of the story. So I have the framework.

    When I’m actually writing my first draft, I’m more like the tightrope walker. I write fast, without looking back. Then, I turn into a mole again when I go through revisions.

  4. A nit-picky mole on a tight rope with a thesaurus addiction.

    That’s totally a category, right?

    • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

      Yes I am sure that is a category! Hmmmm…I’ve been working on the same novel for 10 years so in that way I am for sure a mole. But I’ve also stopped to write other things and recently accepted a challenged to write something really fast and for fun with a writer friend and man we zipped through drafts like we had lightning wings. It was hilarious and fun and I think our stories really reflected the good time we were having. So I guess I’m a bit of both.

    • Janet Grant says:

      That creates quite the picture. I can see the mole hugging a thesaurus and wearing sunglasses (because all that sunlight would be blinding)and dashing across the tightrope.

  5. Angela Mills says:

    I remember when Scarlett, the sequel
    To Gone with the Wind came out. I was in high school and I saved up my money to go buy the hardback as soon as I could. Sometimes fans of beloved characters will be very forgiving as long as the story keeps moving forward, but in some genres, I think fans are harder on the writer. I’m not a big crime reader, so I can’t guess how this will go.

    I don’t think I’m quite mole or tightrope, but if I had to choose, I lean more towards tightrope. During my first draft, I had a post it reminder of Anne Lamott’s philosophy of crappy first drafts on my laptop to remind me to give myself permission to breeze through it and not fuss. But I wasn’t exactly hurrying either, so I’m in between.

    • Janet Grant says:

      And what did you think of Scarlett? I know the critics panned it, but readers still might have enjoyed it.

      • Janet, my neighbor handed me a copy of Scarlett to read back in my early 20’s. I wasn’t much of a reader then … and was aggravated that she expected me to read it. But once I started, I couldn’t put the book down. I didn’t know how it was critiqued, so I had no expectations at all. I haven’t read it since … but I loved it at the time.

      • Angela Mills says:

        I actually really liked it! It wasn’t a literary masterpiece, but it held my interest and I especially enjoyed the part where she’s in Ireland.

      • Angela, I was thinking the same thing … I loved all things Ireland!

  6. How interesting that a well-known novelist would change his writing style. Maybe I’m not so multiple-personality after all. ๐Ÿ™‚ My perfectionist approach is mole. But I’ve been forcing myself to be a tightrope walker to see if it would work better. Of course, the combination would be best — the output of a tightrope walker with the finished product of a mole. And everyone said…amen! ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. I am not sure I want to compare myself to an animal, and I’m not nearly as talented as a circus performer! Grin! I’ve written non-fiction and fiction, and I seemed to write the same for both. I just pressed forward. I might beg for direction periodically, but I never get hung up on sentences. Like others, I work to try to make sentences better in the edit.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I confess I’m a mole. It’s terrible being a mole because you feel a compulsion to perfect everything before moving on, making it difficult to ever move on. So be glad you wouldn’t characterize yourself that way–if you could bring yourself to use either metaphor.

      • Janet, after some consideration, I’ll compare myself to, instead of something living, something dead. Now there is a new concept. Ugh. Don’t try this at home. Grin.

        But after the winter we’ve had in Texas, and other regions have had, I’ll compare myself to a snow plow. Ha! I can only relate from the winters I spent in Spokane, WA. I usually plow full steam ahead as time allows but often have to go back for the fragmented stragglers or bits that seemed to have run away. I really enjoy the edit … I could lose myself in it and ruin my eyes.

        By the way, my daughter read that Margaret Mitchell almost ruined her eyes writing GWTW. I can barely relate … after editing my non-fiction, my eyes felt bruised.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Shelli, I’m afraid far too many people can relate to the snowplow image who wish they didn’t know what you were talking about.
        I remember reading that Margaret Mitchell took the train to New York with this mammoth heap of papers that comprised Gone With The Wind. She was on her way to meet with publishers. Can you imagine what every editor thought when he saw this woman show up with half the forests of Georgia turned into a novel?

  8. This is definitely interesting to hear. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m more of a tightrope writer. I’m very focused – honed in – on the story’s direction, yet I also must roll with the punches, err teeters in this case, to re-balance and keep going when I hit a snag in the plan.

    Right now, I’m going through a line by line edit of my first book and it’s a tedious task to say the least. But I know my story will be stronger for it and I’ll keep tightroping on toward my next MS.

  9. What a fascinating post. I think you can get away with such risks when you’re well known and people can expect a quality book. My style change comes in because I write mostly for children, but when I blog or when I write something else for adults, I feel free to be a bit edgier.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I think it helps Black that he’s writing about a character crime novel readers love and want to connect with again. Also, there’s the curiosity factor that would cause Chandler fans to check out Black’s book.

  10. I think if you are going to write two very different types of books, it would probably require two different styles. Almost like marinating in a different personality. My writing style is like a painter. I start with broad background strokes, outline images, then fill in detail. My work is kind of like those children’s books that have pages that overlay more details on top of details. I don’t think I could have written as well when paper was scarce. Word processing is a God-send to me.

  11. I don’t know. I found something interesting this past month. I took up my journals and started writing from what I learned there in my Secret Place. The writing that mulled, stewed and grew in respect to my maturity produced beauty.

  12. Tricia Goyer says:

    Great question!

    Mole the first 1/4 of the book and tightrope walker after that!

    The first 1/4 is the hardest. I go over those chapters again and again to get the story, motive, characters, setting, etc. just a I like it. Then after rehashing I finally get chapters I’m happy with the the rest of the novel flies from there! I usually have an idea of where I’m going, but I just keep moving ahead, and I’m usually surprised along the way!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Tricia, thanks for making the good point that starting out slowly helps you to set in place all the details that enable you to fly through the rest of the manuscript.

  13. Wendy Lawton says:

    Fascinating, Janet. I think there’s a lot of value in what this writer did. I often wonder how a writer discovers his style? In the days of the Great Master Painters an aspiring artist would paint “after the style of [name of mentor]” for a while before developing his own style. Most of the painters whose work fetches millions and is hung in every gallery around the world started out by copying the styles of the masters before discovering his own style.

    If I were to teach writing, I think I’d include a semester or two of style copying before moving on. It could be a fun assignment to include in a workshop.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Wendy, style copying is a creative idea. It’s pretty much how I learned writing principles–by close observation of strong writing. One of my strongest memories of trips to European art galleries is the art students, who were mimicking the great works hanging on the walls. And the replicas were exquisite. I suppose a writer could innately know what his or her style is, but for most writers, I suspect it develops and matures through experience and experiment.

  14. Sue Harrison says:

    A tight-rope walker, but I’m giving in to a few mole tendencies by stopping at natural break points in the novel to reread and rearm. I’ve found that I can get myself into terribly tight corners if I don’t stop now and again to consider my plot and my use of tension to keep the reader in the story.

    As for multiple voices, it drives me nuts to have a writer discuss his or her “voice.” I believe that the voice should belong to the main POV character, that person who carries the story, even if that story is written in 3rd person POV.

    • Sue, I can relate to your habit of pausing at “natural break points in the novel to reread (out loud) and rearm”. I follow a pattern for scene structure that helps me hone in on needed adjustments.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Sue, oh, yeah, that thing about not painting oneself into a corner is a powerful reason to let the mole in you take over for a bit.
      Your view of voice is interesting; I hadn’t thought of it that way before. For novel-writing that makes some sense, although the writing style, which often is a recognizable style in a writer, makes it hard to distinguish between voice and style. In nonfiction I guess the writer is the protagonist and therefore voice and writing style would be too tightly tied together to pull apart. That is, unless you’re writing narrative nonfiction using a journalistic approach, and then the writer shouldn’t be the protagonist. I’m going to have to think about this some more.

  15. I’m like a frisbee catching dog.

    The thrill is flying up into the air . . . not knowing if I’ll catch the darn thing or not.

    Then, doing the same thing over and over again until:
    Any sentence that needs work – becomes the best I can make it which means, this time . . . I caught the frisbee.

    Then taking a well deserved nap with Dinozzo.

  16. Judy Gann says:

    I’m a mole. Definitely. Ahem, just ask my agent and critique partners. ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. The painter image is so good. The novel I finished recently made me see myself as a sculptor. Started with a big glob of rough stone. Chip, chisel, smooth, sharpen, soften, “Oh! There’s a nose!” until the glob looked more like, maybe, a form. My arms ached with the effort of holding the chisel and hammer, but with every tap, more details revealed themselves. I had to step back often to see what it was becoming. What I hope other see is “art with heart.”

  18. Peter DeHaan says:

    I have two writing styles, but it’s a different situation. When I write a book, I have the whole thing mapped out, and I simply write from one point to the next.

    However, when I write short pieces, I often let the piece evolve – and often end up in a different place than I expected. (As a bonus, I may not have tapped my original idea, so I can use it in the future.)

    Thanks for a great post and spurring some interesting discussion!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Peter, I think I’m into evolution on magazine articles or blogs, but I’m a mole on the tightrope with a book. I know where I’m going, but I’m into the minutia on my way there.

  19. Janet, do you think the style or approach a writer takes merges with the elusive concept of voice that we talk about so often?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jenni, I do think writing style and voice are intricately woven together. That’s why the tightrope walker would be a match for a fast-paced crime novel; whereas the mole is the right choice for a literary work in which each word must be the right word.

  20. Much closer to a tightrope walker, I think. At least kon the first draft. On the second and subsequent drafts, probably a mole.

  21. Darby Kern says:

    I’m totally a tightrope walker. I have my story plotted out and i don’t always write in order but I waste as little time as I can going from my brain to the page. The only thing I do consciously is try NOT to sound like anyone else. I’m working on a crime story now and one of it’s virtues is that I can’t find another writer doing it in a similar voice.

    Though there is a little bit of Chandler influence. Nt much, just a bit.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Darby, yeah that whole idea of not wanting to “waste time” doing anything but getting the story down makes you a nervy tightrope walker. And that method would suit crime writing well.

  22. I guess I’m a picture frame writer. I plan the framework, then fill in the details as I go. If I plan everything I get bored and loose interest but if I don’t plan at all I end up with a mess.

  23. It was interesting reading your post and even more interesting reading through the different responses. I would say I am both depending what kind of scene I’m writing. When I’m writing an high action scene, I write really fast and continue writing until I get to the end of the scene. But when I’m writing other scenes I’m a mole. On the other hand the first draft of short stories are almost always written start to finish in one sitting as quickly as my fingers can type.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Susan, thanks for contributing the great insight that it depends on what type of scene you’re writing as to whether you’re a mole or a tightrope walker. Writing fast for an action scene would help to propel the reader forward quickly; the quieter scenes call for a more mole-like approach.

  24. An interesting post and comments. I just filled out a titling form for my work in progress. For me, that’s never a fun thing, but I’m always glad it’s something I have to do since it means another book on the way. But one of the questions on it asked me to describe my “writing style.” I’m always flummoxed by that. But now, if I get to fill out a new one, I can claim to be a tightrope walker or a mole.

    I’m trying not to be envious of you tightrope walkers. There you are up there racing through the air while I’m down here grubbing the story out of my head, word by word. I do rewrite as I go, but mostly just to get me into the story again to move forward inch by story inch. Of course, if I was up there on that tightrope, I might be walking inch by inch anyway since I’d be terrified.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Ann, you’re so funny. I can just see you tapping out on your keys “mole” the next time you fill out a titling form. And everyone on the publishing team reading that and saying, “Mole? What’s a mole writing style?” But moles tend not to do well on tightropes; you’re where you need to be…underground.

      • I’m not real happy with the thought of tunneling underground as a mole, Janet. I like the idea of digging out the words better. Perhaps I’ll think of myself as a gardener of words where I have to prepare the ground with research and pre-writing. Then I can plant the seeds of events and character interactions with the hope that the story will grow and produce fruit. So I’ll choose to be a gardener. That sounds much better than being a mole.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Ann, I so agree the gardener imagery is much more fetching. But the mole is memorable.

  25. Jim Lupis says:

    I am a mole during “pregnancy”, before I write a word. A story is inside of me slowly (very slowly) being birthed, Then, when I begin to write, I start walking the tightrope. The problem is I then feel if I stop I’ll fall off. This has lead to some really wild writing. Grin!