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Mar 29 2011

Dana’s Dojo: The Writer as Chameleon

Today in the Dojo: Why a completely unique fictional voice may not be possible nor desirable, but slavish imitation can be avoided.

There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.

- E. B. White

A long time ago, my writer friend Glynis asked me a question to which I gave a totally wrong answer:

“Do you find your writing style affected when reading fiction at the same time as writing fiction?”

To which I blithely answered, “When I first started writing, yes, but not now.”  Or something to that effect.  Which was me talking out of the nether regions again, self-deceived because I hadn’t been writing much fiction, and the fiction I had written had been composed under the influence of non-fiction for the most part.

Hubris is an ugly thing, my darlings. 

There was a horrifying moment afterward when I realized that I’d read so much Terry Pratchett that I was now writing like him.  Which isn’t so awful – he’s a brilliant writer – but not quite appropriate for something that was supposed to be life-or-death serious.  Snarky, dry British humor does not quite lend to the epic mood.  It would be like Jon Stewart writing Beowulf.  John Candy doing the Iliad.  Juvenal writing the Aeneid, even.  Of course, if you don’t know that Juvenal is the Roman who wrote the Satires, that joke just flew over your head.  If you haven’t read Juvenal, by all means give him a try.  As far as non-stuffy classics go, his are the non-stuffiest.  It’s kind of like studying the Onion’s Our Dumb Century in a political theory class.  You know it’s a joke that the rest of the world’s taking too seriously.

So anyway, there I was, realizing that I was writing something that sounded awfully damned close to Pratchett and going, “Doh.”  But I didn’t lie to Glynis.  I wasn’t actually reading Terry Pratchett while I was writing the book.  I’d read him a couple of weeks before.  But when you give yourself that concentrated a dose of one person’s fiction (four books), and when the only other fiction you’d read also sounded like Terry Pratchett a bit, and outside of that you hadn’t read any fiction for some time, and then you go to write some of your own…. let’s just say that the other author’s style tends to creep in whether you will it or no, especially when you’re writing over two thousand words at a time.

So yes, Victoria, there is a style problem.  I mean, Santa Claus.  I mean – hell, I don’t know what I mean anymore. 

That experience with pseudo-Pratchett style kind of made me consider a few things, which I shall now share with you.  This is one of those times when it’s an advantage to be a struggling joe just like everybody else, because the authority factor goes up while the bullshit factor goes down.

If anybody’s bullshit detector just went off, recall the sign at the door that said PLEASE TURN OFF ALL CELL PHONES, BEEPERS AND OTHER ELECTRONIC DEVICES.  Bullshit detectors come under the heading of “Other Electronic Devices,” FYI.

And now I shall claim to speak with authority without being revealed as a total charlatan… 

Right, then.  So, style.  What is this “style” and why should it be so affected by other “styles”?

I won’t even attempt to answer that in depth.  To me, an author’s style is no more and no less than the way they write that makes them recognizable as them.  I mean, give a reader a page of Anne Rice and a page of Danielle Steele and they’ll know instantly which one’s which, even if they don’t know the authors that well.  Danielle is the fluffy one, Anne is the wanky gothic one.  Throw a page from John Grisham in, and they’ll instantly say, “Ah-ha!  That rich bastard who wrote all those damned lawyer thingies.”

Simple enough on the surface.  We’re all unique human beings.  We should have no problem with sounding like it.

However.  Humans are born chameleons.  You know what I mean.  No snarky jokes about four legs and forked tongues.  I mean that we’re good at imitation.  Imitation leather, fur, crab… we created it, baby.  We’ve done it since birth.  Babies imitate adults, kids imitate each other while imitating (or perhaps gently mocking?) adults, and adults, it need hardly be said, are the biggest imitators of all, including imitating uniqueness to the point where they form clubs.  Corporations imitate each other and their betters.  Little guys imitate big guys.  And so on.  Innovation and uniqueness are treasured, but they remain so for about 2.2 seconds before everybody else jumps into the mix and the solo performance becomes a conga line.

What I mean by all of the above is, we can’t help but imitate.  That’s what people do and always have.

If you don’t imitate, even if you are truly unique, some bastard of a critic will come along and compare you to somebody else.  I mean, for gods’ sakes, Terry Pratchett has been compared to Tolkien.  The only thing they have in common is that they’re Brits and the write things with dragons and elves in them.  That’s it.  But Pratchett is apparently just like Tolkien.

In fantasy literature, this is becoming something of a joke.  You’re not writing fantasy unless a critic reading your advance copy has commented, “Strongly reminiscent of Tolkien.”

In fact, one of my favorite bands, Leaves’ Eyes, is Strongly Reminiscent of Tolkien.  It’s based on Norse Mythology and has some strings that sound a bit like the Lord of the Rings soundtrack in places.  Never mind the fact that no one like Liv Kristine sang in the film, or that Tolkien never heard of heavy metal, or that there’s no Ring in sight: if this were a book, some critic would have said…

You know what’s coming.  I don’t have to say it.

So that’s my first point.  Sounding like somebody or other is unavoidable.  So an author in chrysalis is doomed if s/he is trying to be unique.  By virtue of being a human being writing a book, you are not unique.

But there are degrees and then there are degrees.  “Reminiscent” is not the same as “Exactly like”.  And authors, really great authors, do put their individual stamp on their writing style.  The thing is, I don’t believe that’s conscious.  Style seems to me, from what I’ve experienced and what I’ve heard about others’ experience, to be something cobbled together from bits of influence and a little touch of what makes you yourself.  A chameleon may end up resembling a plaid throw rug, but you won’t shake him out and put him in front of the door, so to speak.  Not unless you want PETA to come and speak very sharply to you.

Neil Gaiman unapologetically wrote something that sounded an awful lot like “Neil Gaiman’s Take on Being Terry Pratchett” – read Ananzi Boys and tell me I’m wrong.  But at core, you could easily tell the difference.  Take heart from that while you’re struggling with style.  Even the megasuperstars don’t always sound precisely like themselves.

That is Dana Hunter’s “No Worries!” school of style development.  Quit worrying about who you sound like and just let the story sound like what it needs to sound like.  As long as you’re not setting out to write Just Like So-and-So, you’re probably okay.  I mean, Neil Gaiman didn’t set his novel Ananzi Boys in a cheap imitation of Discworld – call it Plateworld, ha ha – he set it here on Earth, with its own unique characters.  And that made it Gaiman, despite some situations and phrases that sounded a lot like Terry Pratchett.

If, on the other hand, you sound just like the author you’re currently reading because the plot, characters, world and all else are renamed and thinly disguised versions of the book you just read, then you’ve got worries.  That’s when you need to ask yourself why you’re regurgitating someone else’s story rather than telling your own.

Of course, you must also keep in mind that many people *coughTerryBrookshack* have begun  long and lucrative careers by closely imitating other, more creative, authors, so maybe you shouldn’t worry so much after all.

However, I see you are still worrying and so am I.  So let’s see what’s to be done about it, as none of us want to sound just like other people.

The first path to finding your style is, of course, writing endlessly.  Every writer I’ve ever read about has gone through a long phase of sounding just like their favorite authors, but after writing something on the order of a billion words, they found themselves sounding like… themselves.  Even *ackTerryBrookschokeptah.*  Write enough, and you’ll stop sounding like other writers out of sheer boredom, possibly, or because you’re so busy writing you forget to be self-conscious about it.

The second path is to mix up your reading.  Don’t spend a week reading nothing but books by one sort of author and then attempt to write your own magnum opus (or magnificent octopus, as the case may be).  You’ll end up like me, sitting there reading over the last paragraph and going, “What the sod is Terry Pratchett doing in here?  ACK!”  A variety of fiction and fictional styles will prevent some of that.  I’ve found that sometimes it’s best not to read novels while I’m writing novels), nor short stories while writing short stories.  Instead, if I’m really trying to keep my style purish, I’ll read the opposite of what I’m writing at the time, and I’ll go from non-fiction to humorous fantasy to hard science fiction to mystery and all over the place.  That seems to keep my brain confused enough that when I write, I write like Dana Hunter.  Whoever that is.

A corollary to that is to read something opposite in tone to what you’re writing.  I’ve discovered that if I’m writing something serious, best to read humor.  Humorous, the most depressing stuff I can get my hands on.  And so on down the list of emotions.  It’s really hard to draw on Robert Jordan for style when you’re writing something funny, even unconsciously, let’s put it that way.

The hell of the above is, sometimes you have to read stuff that mirrors what you’re doing to keep you inspired.  That’s when the trick of variety comes in.  If I need science fiction to inspire sci fi thoughts, I’ll bounce around among Connie Willis, Harlan Ellison, Ken MacLeod, C.S. Friedman, and the like.  All of them are different enough that, again, I get the overall spirit without getting unduly influenced by particulars.

If you find that you’re one of those people who is b
asically Water and will take the shape of whatever you’re reading at the time no matter how hard you try not to, you have a few choices.  When I’m in a particularly impressionable phase, I’ll put down the fiction and pick up non-fiction for my reading edification instead.  Such as just after the Hubris Fiasco: to cleanse my palette from an overdose of Pratchett, I went through the entirety of Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God.  And watched a hell of a lot of television.  Eventually, all of that (somewhat) rid me of the tendency to let Jiahrkah sound just like Sam Vimes or Vetinari or any of Pratchett’s more snarky passages of prose.  (Unfortunately, it turns out that the problem lies not just with me but with the fact that Jiahrkah likes sounding that way and resists all efforts of mine to make him stop.)

That aside, I know of famous authors who declare that they refuse to read anything but non-fiction while writing fiction, because otherwise they, too, end up imitating their heroes.  So there you go.

If all else fails, give up worrying about it during the first draft.  I’ve discovered after much pain and gnashing of teeth that once the first draft’s been sitting quiescent on the old hard drive for a while, I’ve figured out how to get rid of the Other-author-isms and turn it into mostly-pure Dana on the second or third.

The final path that I’ve identified is to slow way the hell down.  When I’m writing slowly and really thinking in-depth about what I’m writing and how I want to say a particular thing, it comes out totally me.  But that means that a short story can take months and a novel, more years than it should.  However, if you wish to follow that path, it’s a valid one.

In all this, it’s important to remember that everyone’s style is cobbled together from bits and pieces of your own personality, things you admire in other writers, half-remembered influences from yesteryear, and funky turns of phrase that your friends and family or that stranger on the bus uttered.  True uniqueness is not really possible, nor desirable.  If you’re truly unique, then not many people are going to understand you, and that’s not the best way to tell a story.  If your writing is denser than James Joyce’s and your readers need an advanced degree, schizophrenia, drugs, Cliff Notes, or all of the above to understand it, what good is it really doing other than giving a few some snobbish delight and the rest a headache?

Remember, my darlings: whatever else a chameleon ends up looking like, in the end it looks just like itself.  Your style will do the same thing.  Don’t worry overmuch if it starts to blend a little with its surroundings.

2 comments

  1. 1
    Karen

    The flip side to all this worrying about style is the amazing effort it takes to consciously write in a particular style. The style I'm struggling with now is the Professional Geology Paper (my thesis)and bits of me keep trying to creep into the section where I speculate on what my data might imply. AAAGGGHHH! Even worse, a month or so back I took time away from my thesis to indulge in a little editing of some of my fiction work, and that made it damn near impossible to come back and write in Professional Paperese again.

  2. 2
    Lockwood

    Despite reading literally thousands of SF stories through high school, I didn't really "get" the idea of style (in a conscious sense, anyway) until I read a book of stories by Stephen Leacock around the middle of my undergrad years. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Leacock ) His ploy in the collection "Nonsense Novels" (1911) was to satirically ape a number of styles popular during the late 1800's- early 1900's, and I was awed that one person could write in all these different ways. My favorite line of his is from the story, "Gertrude the Governess", in the above-noted collection, and goes like this: "Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions." (from http://www.famousquotesandauthors.com/authors/stephen_leacock_quotes.html ) It's funny as a stand-alone sentence, but in context, the reader risks convulsions and suffocation.

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