What’s in a Style?
Haven’t posted here in a little bit – been busy, starting new projects, editing old ones, and keeping up with the day job, etc.. I also had a little conversation with my agent recently that kinda knocked me on my ass, because I don’t really know how to respond to it.
Basically, in discussing my next novel, he made the comment that I’ve proven that I can write in a wide variety of styles and, furthermore, that I am able to write convincingly in all of these styles. But then he asked me this:
I’m just curious what an Auston Habershaw novel would sound like if it didn’t sound like something else.
What whooshing sound you hear is my self-esteem escaping through a crack in the door.
Now, my agent said he did not consider this a criticism, per se – merely an observation. See, the book he just read of mine has a wildly different style from the Saga of the Redeemed. Part of this is because it is a first person narration, part of this is because it’s a time-travel caper and not an adventure fantasy, and part of it is because, to be honest, yes, I am a bit of a style chameleon. I can write in just about any style convincingly.
But what I heard from him when he asked that question was that he isn’t sure I have my own voice and, instead, I’ve been doing “funny voices” to entertain people. Like an impressionist. That I don’t have a style of my own – there’s no way for you to see me inside the words – and it felt (a little) like being accused of having no soul. I’m some kind of doppelganger, cursed to mimic others without ever being authentic.
I don’t think my agent meant it that way, but I’ve been wondering about what he said and also wondering if that is what it means even if he didn’t mean it.
Of course, I feel like I do have a style (you’re reading it). Everybody does, honestly – style is like a fingerprint in your work and you sort of can’t avoid it. Except maybe that I can. But wait a minute, though – if I’m embodying the voice of a character, shouldn’t I be obscured? I think so. But of course, I suspect my agent thinks so, too, since he went out of his way to point out that this wasn’t a criticism, just a question. He wants to know if I have some kind of natural voice inside me. He’s pushing me to be better, and that’s a very valuable thing. All that said, though, I can’t escape the idea that I might be derivative, and that I very much don’t want.
Hence my defensiveness.
So okay, let’s accept for the moment that I have a malleable style that mirrors other work very ably but is not distinct to myself. How does one even go about changing that? I mean, I have no real idea what it means to “be myself” when I’m writing from the POV of others. Who am I, and why would you listen to me, anyway? I want to take you on grand adventures, not putter around my study with a mug of coffee and a faded sweatshirt (note: I don’t drink coffee, but you get the idea. Another example of me not being me, maybe?).
Anyway, I’m not sure what to do or even if I should worry about it. I’ve resolved, for the moment, to just let it ride, keep working, and see what develops. Ironically, my current WIP is about a shape-shifting alien with a variety of identity and self-esteem problems, so that seems weirdly appropriate. Perhaps, in Faceless, I’ve found myself after all.
Time will tell, I guess.
Posted on June 7, 2019, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged feedback, style, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
My favorite line in the Goosebumps film with Jack Black is when the teenage male lead realizes he’s in a car with R.L. Stine and just to piss off the guy behind the driver’s seat says “Stop trying to be Stephen King.” I crack up every time I hear that line (and I’ve heard it a few times). I thought of it when I first picked up The Fireman by Joe Hill. I was somewhat interested in the story, but I was really put off by how much he sounded like Stephen King, to the point where I had to look at his author photo, and lo and behold, he looked like a 1978 version of Stephen King. What the hell?
Then I found out he is Stephen King’s son, and I realized how much sense this made. What I love most about King’s prose is that it reads (even epistolary material and stories-within-stories like in “The Body”) like someone just talking to you, telling you the story. That is, I think this is Stephen King’s natural voice, even though he can do a pretty good Lovecraft impression. I think his style is really just him talking, like the regular guy that he claims to be. So Joe Hill, if he’s just talking naturally, is going to sound a lot like his dad, like how I sound like mine, even if I try to avoid it.
And here I find myself revising my own work to sound less like someone writing a novel, and more like how I would really tell someone a story. Since I do that all the time, I really shouldn’t have that much trouble with it. I realized recently that I haven’t been just telling a story, just writing, I have been following a bunch of rules that don’t add up to good writing. And so I’m rewriting my novel to just be me telling a story, giving the reader a heads-up, TELLing plenty of expository material where it fits, and I don’t know what it will sound like when I’m done with this revision. I sort of think it will sound like me telling a story, but I don’t really know. We’ll see.
Incidentally this fits with my blog style, where I don’t do revisions: I just sit down and write about stuff I’m interested in, as if I was writing an email to a friend. And I think that does sound like me.
So yeah. You’re right.