Last night, as I read Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and felt myself in the grips of his imaginative world, I was struck by all the different ways writers can grab you in a story. While there are certainly formulas many writer often follow to tell a good story, I think the best thing a writer can do is to write toward his unique strengths. Cixin certainly has a knack for turning hard science fiction into easy-to-follow concepts that are natural extensions of the story, but he’s also created a fascinating world, a world that he reveals masterfully and at a pace that keeps the reader thoroughly engaged.
But I can be equally caught up in the way another writer crafts characters or dialogue, or crafts sensory descriptions, or plots cliffhangers and plot twists. And of course, two different writers can do those things very differently, but both well. For example, my favorite modern author, China Miéville, like Cixin, has a penchant for masterful world-building. But his style of exposition is vastly different from Cixin’s. For one thing, it’s full of delicious adjectives and a laundry list of visual and sensory details. And yet, I’m in love with both of their writing.
I had a fiction writing professor once who said that he could teach us technique but not style. I’ve certainly found that to be true (even though defining style is a bigger task in itself). A writer has to find his or her own style. We borrow ideas and learn from what has come before us, certainly. But at the end of the day, an artist has to explore what makes them an artist. What is it that you have to say that’s different than the next guy? Or how do you present it differently? Find that one thing and do the hell out of it. Be the best at that one thing.