|(from Jonathan Reyes)|
In one of my later attempts, though, I lapsed into my natural voice, which was considerably simpler and plainer. And on that section, my professor wrote, "This is the best writing in the piece."
Suddenly the bells started going off in my head. Maybe other people's writing was best when it was lyrical and poetic and ornate, but not mine. Mine was best when I was not trying so desperately hard to impress everyone.
There are all kinds of people in this world, which means there are all kinds of writers and styles of writing. Sometimes I hear people disparaging one style or another because of some idea they have of what "real" writing is or should be, calling all lyrical prose "flowery" or all sparse prose "simplistic". But saying, Why isn't this writing poetic and pretty? or Why isn't this writing straightforward and utilitarian? is a little like critiquing an apple for not being an orange, or vice versa.
That's not to say that we can't evaluate the quality of writing within a particular style-- I actually think this is an important skill to develop, or we will never be able to improve our own writing. But I do think it's important to first determine what sort of writing you're dealing with before you decide if it's well-executed or not. Lyrical prose succeeds when it's not overworked, when the comparisons within it are understandable but not cliche, when the writer has command over their words instead of letting them run wild across the page. And I think that simple prose succeeds when it's specific, precise, thoughtful, and its observations are not obvious.
To demonstrate, I have this paragraph from Raymond Carver's short story A Small Good Thing. (Side note: I looked for YA examples and then I got really nervous about defining a particular book as "sparse" when there's so much room in between, so I decided to just go with what I knew from school.):
"They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he’d worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers."
This paragraph struck me as a good example because the sentences and words are all relatively simple, but there is something interesting and beautiful about them: "the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty," "icing knuckle-deep," "Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet." The examples that the baker offers us of his daily life are very specific, understandable but not obvious.
I am a sparse prose girl, and I, personally, don't improve as a writer by "fancying" up my prose, like I once thought. If you are a lyrical prose person, you don't necessarily improve as a writer by paring down your sentences to their barest elements, either. We don't have to yearn and long and pine for a different style than we have. Rather, we can improve by picking apart the writing of authors with similar styles who do it better than we do (for me there are a LOT of those, let me tell you), and trying to meet that criteria instead. I can improve by being more precise with my words, and by not leaning on the most obvious metaphors or similes or observations; by making my characters complicated even if their words and sentences are not; by watching for repetition and varying sentence structure-- in dozens of different ways, I can become a better writer, but the important thing is, I don't have to become a different writer.
It can be difficult to acknowledge that your voice will never sound just like your favorite authors' voices-- it won't, and if it does, that might not be such a good thing. But acknowledging that can be the first step to figuring out how you can become the best writer you can be, with the unique perspective that you have, instead of tearing yourself down for failing to meet someone else's standards. That doesn't mean we can't learn from writing that's different than ours; it just means we should embrace our own words, our own voices, our own stories.
(P.S. if you have good YA examples of particular writing styles, list them in the comments! They might be helpful for your fellow writers.)