Writing Excuses 12.10: Developing Your Own, Personal Style
Key Points: Voice or style comes in three flavors: mechanical, aesthetic, and personal. We need to learn to trust our personal style. But don’t worry about it? You probably won’t know you have it, even if everyone else can see it. When you try to mimic someone else’s style, you mostly mimic aesthetic voice. Personal voice is in part word choice, but beyond that, what you choose to talk about and how you talk about it. Even a transparent or translucent prose style can be a personal style! Overriding copyeditors may be part of your personal style. But beware of overrunning character styles with your personal style.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 10.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Developing Your Personal Style.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we are going to do a podcast on style. In which we are going to focus directly on author voice, instead of character voice. Mary, what do we mean by style?
[Mary] So the interesting thing about voice or style is we talk about it and we mean three different things. Unsurprisingly, I am going to use a puppetry metaphor to explain what we are talking about.
[Brandon] Oooh. I love these.
[Mary] So, when we talk about…
[Dan] You can’t see it, but she has an actual puppet she’s explaining to us.
[Mary] Totally. He is completely accurate there. The people on the video feed are really enjoying this moment.
[Brandon] I just realized, Howard was a puppet all along.
[Mary] That’s why he has no pants.
[Mary] Okay. So, and I want you to all appreciate that I’m not going for the rest of the jokes that are there. I’ll just leave that for the reader. So, personal voice, mine is clearly involving puppetry. When you’re looking at puppets, we talk about what is the style of puppet. It breaks down into basically three things. They’re the same three things that they break down in with writing. There’s the mechanical style, which is what kind of puppet are you using, is it a marionette, is it a rod puppet? With writing, that’s are you first person, are you second person, what’s your mechanical style? That’s easy to teach.
[Brandon] Right. We’ve done that on the podcast many times.
[Mary] Yes, we have. Then there’s your aesthetic voice, or aesthetic style, which is what does the puppet look like? Does it look like a Muppet, does it look like something from the style of Chagall, what does it look like? The aesthetic voice in writing is what does it sound like? Are you going for someone that sounds like there from the Appalachians, are you going for Jane Austen, are you going for neutral American, which… And let’s just be clear that the neutral voice is a fashion thing that comes in and out. Jane Austen wrote in neutral voice in her day. Neutral voice in modern America, in 2017 when we are recording that, means middle-class white male.
[Brandon] Yeah, based on newscasters, right? The newscasters… The anchorman, in particular.
[Mary] Yep. The last one is personal style, and this is where puppetry becomes a very useful metaphor. If you take the same puppet and you hand it to two different people, it looks like a totally different character. Every single listener, even the ones who are not watching the video feed, who has ever seen Kermit the frog manipulated by Jim Henson and then modern Kermit who’s done by Steve Whitmire, it… He is a different character. It’s still Kermit, but it’s… He’s different. That’s because of all of the tiny little idiosyncrasies of taste and personal life experience that go into the character. So that Steve is making tiny, different choices than Jim did. Even though he’s a brilliant puppeteer. So what we’re talking about when we’re talking about author choices, and this is why everybody who wants to write should be writing, is because that personal voice, that thing that is made up of your lived experience and your personal taste, that’s the thing we can’t teach you. What we can do is try to help you unlock and learn to trust that.
[Brandon] Right. It’s like a fingerprint.
[Brandon] When… It’s really interesting. You may have had this experience, listeners, if you’ve done any kind of higher education classes in writing. Often, they will talk about style. They’ll preface it by saying, “You guys don’t need to worry about this, you’ll develop naturally.” Then they will spend a lot of time looking at different author styles and how awesome they are, to just intimidate you by the fact that you’re supposed to have one of these things, and you’re not sure how to make yourself have one of these things. Then they’ll tell you, “Don’t worry, you can’t make yourself have one of these things. But great authors all have great ones.” It gets really frustrating.
[Howard] My experience with style has been that it is very much like that drinking game where everybody has the name of a famous person taped to their head.
[Howard] And you are trying to guess what name is taped to your head.
[Mary] Wait, wait. Why is… Why are you the one who’s doing… Why am I not doing the drinking analogy?
[Mary] Drinking game analogy?
[Howard] I’ve never played it as a drinking game, but seen it played as a drinking game.
[Brandon] Mormons do it as a…
[Dan] As an icebreaking game at college.
[Brandon] As an icebreaking game, or a family get together thing.
[Mary] I just don’t know why that’s funny with [garbled inaudible]
[Dan] This is what happens when we haven’t recorded together in a long time. You guys are getting an interesting episode today.
[Howard] Anyway, the point there is, that the person’s style that is the most difficult for you to evaluate is often your own. Getting someone else’s input into it is super helpful. When you wrote… Mary, when you wrote as Pat Rothfuss on Twitter, Pat was completely unaware of his Twitter style. But Twitter’s verification algorithms knew what his style was…
[Howard] And they nailed it.
[Mary] That’s an interesting example. Because there have been a couple of times in my career where I’m trying to emulate someone else’s style. What I have to do, and this is I think important to understand, is that what I’m mimicking there is their aesthetic voice as much as I’m mimicking anything else. So in the Jane Aus… My Glamorous History books, I… I’m emulating Jane Austen. But in each novel, I would literally put in… I would just drop a line of Jane Austen in. Every single time… And I mean this, this is without exception, every single time, my editor and the copy editor would flag it as awkward.
[Mary] Which gave me great satisfaction to go, “Stet. Jane Austen.” But the reason that they were fighting it as awkward is because even though I was trying to emulate her style, there is a difference between the way she writes and the way I write.
[Brandon] Yeah. When I’ve done this, what I tend to do if I want to imitate someone’s style is I look for a few hallmark pointers that you can use intentionally and it can kind of fake it. But for me, it often strays into parody really fast because of that. Because I’m sure there are people out there who can mimic a style. Ghostwriters learn to do this and things whatnot. But when I tried doing it for the Wheel of Time, it was very parodyrrific. Right? It was very much a caricature, because I was taking the certain things that are known as Robert Jordan traits and I was putting them in, and it was not jiving with my own style at all.
[Mary] This is what we’re talking about when we’re saying why it’s so important for you to learn to trust your own taste when you’re trying to dev… When your style is developing. Because one of the things that can happen to an early career writer is that you will take everybody else’s feedback on what you should be writing. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t let people give me line notes, that I don’t want them, is because line notes are almost always about personal style. Sometimes they’re not, sometimes it is I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but that… Those are the ones that are so frustrating because they’re trying to make you sound like them.
[Dan] I… The idea of trusting your personal style is one I really wanna focus on for a second, because… to put you all at ease, everyone out there who is terrified as everyone is when we talk about finding your personal style, I, eight years into this professional career, have no idea what my personal style is. And the fact that I don’t know, doesn’t matter.
[Dan] I can still write what I do. I know I have one, and I know… I could probably pick out elements of it, but I’ve never sat down and figured it out, because that’s not a necessary part of being a writer. You don’t have to define that for yourself, if you are intimidated by it.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which actually Dan is going to give to us. The Inklings.
[Dan] Yeah! So, The Inklings is a kind of sort of biography, I guess, of a writing group. The Inklings was the writing group formed by C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and a handful of others at Oxford University. That’s where the Narnia books came from, and Lord of the Rings and… Charles Williams wrote a bunch of horror novels, and all these other things. It is a fascinating book. It’s written by Humphrey Carpenter, who wrote what is considered by a lot of people to be the definitive biography of Tolkien. This expands on that, and it looks at the other members of the group. So it’s not fiction, but it’s just really interesting. As a look at a writing group, in particular, and how their backgrounds informed what they wrote and informed each other in the notes that they gave to each other, is a really interesting aspect, I think, especially in light of this conversation about voice and style. When Brandon and I started our writing group, we specifically modeled ourselves on the Inklings.
[Brandon] So who am I and who are you?
[Dan] I suppose I have to be Williams, because I’m the horror guy, but… I don’t know…
[Dan] You get to be Tolkien because you’re the successful guy.
[Dan] Which means we’re still looking for our Lewis. I don’t know which of the original group would be our C. S. Lewis.
[Brandon] Oh, well. Let’s move on from that.
[Dan] Anyway. Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings. Really cool book.
[Brandon] So. We say you have to learn to trust your personal style. I would like to dig into what that means, and has meant for you.
[Mary] So, one of the things… And Dan and I were actually just talking about this as we were coming over today. One of the things for me is recognizing that the voice that I’m using, the style… That what it’s about is not just the way I shape the words, not just my taste there. But also what I am choosing to talk about, and the ways in which I’m choosing to talk about it. One of the things that I’ve had to learn to do is to… That I’m just now learning to do is to trust the fact that I’m from the South, and I never get to see Southerners portrayed in a…
[Brandon] Right. Right. There’s a certain stereotype or two or three, and not very laudatory stereotypes, usually used.
[Mary] Historically speaking, there’s some good reasons for that. But what I realized was that there were times when editors were editing out my choices, and they were choices that were comfortable to me. They were turning it into something else.
[Brandon] Oh, I see what you’re saying. Yeah.
[Mary] This is one of those things that… a lot of the community right now in science fiction and fantasy is talking about the #ownvoices movement, which is trying to get fiction written by someone from a community.
[Brandon] Right. That it doesn’t have to sound like the newscaster that is imitating the Midwestern accents.
[Mary] Yeah. One of the things that I realized was it’s like I can mimic the mechanical or aesthetic style of another community. But that personal thing, that I can’t mimic, and likewise, they can’t mimic mine, either. So, for instance, here’s… This is not puppet, really. I may have done this one on the podcast before. But, being from the South, we do a lot of avoiding putting people in a position where they have to say no. Because that’s very rude. So I’ve read lots of books where they got the y’alls in the right places, they’ve got the I’m going to go on over… They’ve got the aesthetic style of the Southern accent. But they’ve got people asking directly for things. I’m like, “You wouldn’t… You would never do that.”
[Howard] It’s very un-Southern.
[Mary] It’s very un-Southern. Like my mom… My husband and I were home, and my mom said, “There’s a bag of apples on the… Fresh… There’s a bag of fresh apples on the counter in the kitchen.” I’m like, “Oh, great. I can have a pie ready for tonight.” My husband was like, “How do you know she wants a pie?” I’m like, “Because there’s a bag of apples…”
[Mary] “On the counter.” He’s like, “Is that what you wanted?” She’s like, “Well, yes. If it’s not too much trouble.” If she had been offering me an apple, she would have said, “Do you want an apple?” But it’s that kind of conversation, that example is the kind of thing that… When you are writing with your own voice, when you are reading a book that is written with someone who is writing in their own voice, that you’re going to get, that no one else is going to write.
[Brandon] For me, it has come down to kind of trusting that it’s okay to have a translucent, or a transparent, prose style. Right? It’s this idea that not all pros has to try to be lyrical. Now, it should sound good. Being lyrical is different from sounding good. But early in my career, I’m writing this, and I’m like, “I just want to get to the story.” Is there a way you can artistically just get to the story, as opposed to everything that… Because I do read some stuff that is grating on my ears, that is trying too hard, so hard to get to the story. Is there a way you can artistically make your prose disappear so that character and story come through? That was a conscious choice on my part to develop over time, and being confident that despite what my professors were telling me, it was okay to use the more direct and simple word, as opposed to the one that you would use to evoke a poetic sensibility.
[Dan] That not all of our writing needs to impress a college English professor.
[Howard] As I’ve been writing the world book entries for Planet Mercenary, the copy editor has begun choking on some of the things that I’ve written. Sandra has had to, in a couple of cases, come to me and said, “Are we going to fight over this change?” “No, that’s totally right.” Then another change, “No, he totally undermined the joke by…” The example, I had to look for this a little bit, the carneflower entry, “These utterly unfloral predators…” And then I put a note in the side, “Note: not non-floral, because it’s utterly unfloral.” That is how that joke works. Having this copy editor go through and fix things that I was deliberately doing with my language called out to me just how often I do it.
[Howard] So, for me, the skill that I needed to develop was catching them so that I could put a note on it that says, “Hey, copy editor, leave that word…”
[Brandon] Don’t fix it.
[Howard] “I know this isn’t the word.”
[Dan] The… Copy editors was when I first realized that I was trusting my own personal style. It was around book three, maybe book four, when I started saying no to copy edits. I’d look at it and say, “Yes, she’s right. That’s not a word.” Or “That’s grammatically incorrect.” Or something. But you know what? I’m going to… I want it that way anyway. That’s the way I want it. So what I’ve had to learn to do instead is to watch the copy editors for when my personal style is overrunning the various character styles, and all the characters sound like me. Because I don’t want that. But I do want to make sure my style is there.
[Howard] That’s… for me, that is pass two on every comic strip I write. I will catch pieces of my phrasing. This is how I will begin a sentence when I’m introducing atopic cold to a group of people. I’ll often begin with “So…” Okay, I get one of those every three weeks…
[Howard] I can have that. Some of these characters just will never say that. I’m removing that one a lot.
[Mary] I just was going to say that one of the things that we’re talking about is actual word choice. But I want to come back…
[Brandon] We will have a podcast on diction.
[Mary] And just remind people that it’s… That the word choice is informed by your own personal taste, and that is the thing that you need to learn to trust.
[Brandon] Dan, you have our homework this week.
[Dan] Yes. So, one of the ways that you can start to identify what your own voice is, is to take something written by somebody else, and… Ideally, this would be something you don’t like. So a book that you didn’t really enjoy or whatever. Because you want to fix it. It feels wrong to you, it feels awkward. I want you to take that, and then rewrite it, and rewrite it in a way, going back to what Mary was saying earlier, where the main character is you, or someone very like you. Someone from your background. To make sure that it is really your voice coming through, in the narration or the dialogue or however you want to do it. Then, once you’ve done that rewrite, you’ll have a chance to see, “Oh, that obviously came from me, because it wasn’t in the original.”
[Mary] So, hey. I just wanted to add one thing that we skimmed past in this episode. We mentioned the #ownvoices movement and we didn’t actually explain what that was. The #ownvoices movement is a movement that was begun with a hashtag started by Corinne Duyvis… Duyvis, excuse me. The idea was that people who have a lived life experience… That if you’re looking for a book about a disabled person, that you should buy a book that’s written by a disabled person. If you’re looking for a book about an African-American person, you should buy a book written by an African-American person. And that sometimes people can get displaced because it’s very easy to just buy a book by an author that you’re familiar with. So the idea was that you get a more authentic experience if you are reading a book that is written by someone in their own voice. I felt like I did want to just explain where that movement came from, and you should actually read some more about it. Just searching on the hashtag #ownvoices will give you a lot of information. Just wanted to share that with you.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.