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Style and Register

I’ve been rereading Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent essay collection, The Language of the Night, most particularly “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” which examines the importance of language and style in writing fantasy. Le Guin’s main thesis is that fantasy isn’t defined so much by wizards and dragons. What makes it fantasy is the style: “The style, of course, is the book…If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.” (Le Guin, The Language of the Night, p. 94).

She hastens to add, “I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer…Style is how you as a writer see and speak” (ibid).

Which is certainly true. Style can be learned, imitated, affected—but we all have a style that is uniquely us, as personal as our fingerprints or speaking voice.

But I was thinking—I have a story coming out in Lackington’s at the end of this month that’s a very different style than my other fiction. It’s contemporary and snappish (the editor called it “almost hardboiled,” which delighted me to no end). And yet—it’s still me.

As usual, I turn to music to help me understand my own writing process.

“The Village Choir,” Anton Azbe (1900).

First, some technical things: vocal registers.

Vocal pedagogy is its own delight, but for our purposes, let’s talk about chest voice, head voice, and the break. Super simply (I apologize), chest voice is the low part of the vocal range, head voice is the upper part, and the break is that frustrating bit in the middle.

There’s a difference singing across registers. Physically, of course, but also in terms of intention.

And yet, it’s still the same voice—used differently, resonating in different places, useful for different types of music (I would die trying to sing descants in my chest voice).

For me, this is a useful way to think about writing. Some stories sit in my chest voice. Some sit in my head voice. Same voice, same style, just applied differently.

(As a sidebar that really deserves its own blog post, I think that the same logic applies to fairy tales. Tolkien famously described a “fairy-story” as “…one which touches on or uses Faërie, whatever its own main purpose may be…” (Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, p. 16). Much like how fantasy isn’t defined by wizards and dragons, fairy tales aren’t defined by wee sprites. I think defining “fairy tale” comes down to register, rather than plot motifs or tropes—a “Faerie voice,” if you will. But I digress.)

But wait, there’s more!

Even within the same register, vowels change the sound dramatically! Consciously adapting vowels is an important skill for choristers; just like adapting vocabulary, syntax, and vernacular is important for writers.

Good singers can sing across all genres of music. Sure, it may sound different, but it’s always them, always their style. Good writers do the same—and that’s what I’m aiming for.

-KT

What I’m Listening To This Week

Christmas has started at the dayjob, so bring on the Christmas/Advent music! It’s going to be a fun six weeks. Here’s a macaronic piece already getting considerable play on my rotation: