Thursday, November 29, 2012

The reader-author connection: Joe McCoubrey on writing style

Joe McCoubrey on Style

Joe McCoubrey knows a thing or two about writing style. As a newspaper editor, he dealt with several writers' styles before turning to fiction with his first novel, a thriller set in his home of Northern Ireland during its "troubles."

Joe has graciously agreed to weigh in on Written Words' Style debate.

How would you describe your own writing style?

I like to think it’s a tell-it-like-you-see-it style. I tend to go for the line of least resistance by getting the reader involved as quick as possible. That tends to mean I cut out the flowery stuff and reduce scene-setting to the minimum. I think it’s important, particularly in action thrillers, not to lose sight of why the reader has picked up your book – it’s certainly not to help an author indulge in rambling descriptive stuff and dialogue that takes forever to get to the point.

Are there any authors whose style you admire? Do you try to emulate them?

I love the styles of Lee Child, Matt Hilton, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor and James Patterson. They produce works that are not only a great read but succeed, where too many others fail, in putting the reader into the heart of the action. You can learn a lot from the style of writers like these but budding authors should never try to emulate. It’s important for an author to find his or her own style – without it I would suggest it is almost impossible to pen a credible story.

Are there authors whose writing style you dislike?

Yes. I’ve discarded literally dozens of books after only a chapter or two because the writing style, or more correctly, the absence of it, makes it difficult to buy into the story being told. I won’t name any particular authors but generally there are too many first-time writers who narrate their story rather than coming down from their overview perch and stepping into the events as they are unfolding.

How important is your writing style to you? Are you happy with your style, or are there aspects of it you try to change during rewriting or editing?

I subscribe to the view that without a style that is personal and identifiable with an author he or she ends up pushing a rather large boulder up a steep hill. Style is something that develops over time and needs to be worked on. I constantly edit to make sure I’m keeping true to the style I have chosen, though it does become easier to employ with the experience of continual writing. After a while it simply becomes natural and requires reducing effort to "slip into" character.

How can readers identify your writing style? Are there particular words or kinds of words that you tend to favour? Sentence structures? Or is it more in the story, the pacing or the characters?

In many ways it’s a combination of all these characteristics. For me the important first starting point is sentence and paragraph construction. I detest having to read a story that is filled with six or seven line sentences or where single paragraphs take up an entire page. Readers like to catch breath and be able to keep up with what’s going on in the page rather than face steep cliffs every time they turn a page. If I had a motto it would be "keep it short and tell it succinctly."

Joe McCoubrey's first novel is
available exclusively on Amazon

Do you think your genre imposes certain restrictions on writing style?

No question about it. Action demands speed and tension, not a slow build up that will leave the reader wondering when the action kicks in. I don’t mean that every page should be full of action but when the time comes for it then go to it! Obviously this would not apply to other genres where a slow-burner approach is not only necessary but is expected.

Do you think your audience responds to your writing style, consciously or unconsciously?

Yes, there has to be a connection between the reader and author. Often this will be a subconscious connection where the reader is comfortable with the writer’s style and this is what makes him or her keep going back for more. Clive Cussler is perhaps the best example of an author who has developed a way of telling his stories – the style and format never change from book to book, and that is what attracts his army of followers. They love what they get and they know they can trust the author to deliver the next time around.

How important do you think writing style is to an author's commercial success?

It is everything. Devising storylines and plots is relatively easy. We all see enough TV and films to be able to conjure up a story with a few twists and turns but the real work lies in being able to tell the story with authority and effect. There are, of course, a few exceptions where relative success has been achieved despite the clear absence of style. However, if a writer wants longevity in this business he or she will need to impose their style. Just look at the list of bestselling authors – they top the charts for one very good reason. They have style!

About Joe McCoubrey

Joe McCoubrey is a former Irish newspaper editor who is now a full-time action thriller writer. In the early seventies he was working in the civil service based at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland government, and was watching behind the scenes as some of the country’s most momentous events unfolded. These were the early dark days of the “troubles” — events that reverberated around the world, and somehow served to push him towards his real passion of writing. He became a newspaperman, started his own media business, and took a front row seat as history was played out in Ireland.

His debut full-length thriller Someone Has To Pay was released by Master Koda Select Publishing in September. He has also had a short action story, Death By Licence, published in an anthology and is preparing a second full-length actioner, Absence of Rules, for release in January 2013. He has now started work on an Irish crime thriller, also due out in 2013.

Joe McCoubrey has lived all his life in the beautiful Irish town of Downpatrick, made famous by its association with the national patron saint, St. Patrick.

You can visit him at:

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