Friday, July 17, 2009

Smart Running

I would never call myself a runner - more like a plodder - but I do enjoy pushing myself across a distance. I recently went for a run with a friend of mine who does 42 km marathons. He really likes to mix up his training program. He does 3km sprints, then walks, or does a longer distance but for two kilometers he runs for 50 paces, then walks for 30 paces, that sort of thing. I just stick with the same distance, pushing myself on at the same rate.

'Hey you run too much in your grey zone,' he says, with the relics of his Dutch accent and grammar.

'What do you mean?'

'You need to mix things up. You will never improve if you keep running the same.'

The whole thing just got me thinking. What I get out of running is a kind of pay-off for my own bloody-mindedness. I love pushing myself, exercising my determination to push on through exhaustion. Yet I am so inflexible. I resist things, such as different approaches that would really improve me.

I've always had that determination to go it alone. I don't know if its the fact that my Dad was a rare breed of righteous policeman that would actually book other cops for speeding (and after the notorious Fitzgerald Inquiry was named as the only honest cop in Queensland, but that's another story - guess how many friends he had), and this has rubbed off. But I always wanted to do it myself.

At university I got incredibly angry when a friend of mine asked me to cheat in an exam. I have had much the same reaction at panels when established writers calmly state they deliberately copied the styles of other writers early in their careers, aping the structure of their prose to such a degree that they wrote it out as an exercise in absorbing it. That kind of thing horrified me. Creativity is SELF expression. I was always determined I would succeed with my 'natural' style, with my own voice, perfected through my own sweat (there I go again pushing myself the distance - alone). I wanted my ideas. My prose.

But have I been shooting myself in the foot?

I am a natural structuralist. I try to cram all my ideas in with plots and subplots. Sometimes I end up with so much complexity that the story openings get hopelessly bogged down in 'necessary' backstory. In my frustration, I have finally relented and for the first time am actually studying the openings of other books to see how other writers balanced their work, handled character etc.

This might seem so basic to everyone else, but for me its just such a different approach. Almost like - gulp - asking for help.

How much do other people study other writers?

In the development of your own style, did you make a conscious effort to absorb the styles of writers you wanted to emulate? Is this cheating or just good sense?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, I think I just read and read and internalised stroy structure, dialogue and charactersiation.

If I found a book I liked, I'd read it once for fun, the second time to see what worked and the third time to see what didn't work. Where pacing flagged etc.

John Lambshead said...

I read other writers for pleasure and to see how they technically handle certain things.

I also tend to soak up other writers' styled to some dgree, however I guard against it. Not a good idea. A writer needs to develop their own style, as does a composer, performer, comedian etc, if you want an audience.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris, sweetie,

First of all, let me tell you we come from very similar backgrounds, and I used to be a marathoner and it never occurred to me to vary my running style, except in competition because we were told "if you can no longer run, walk. You'll be surprised what just keeping moving gets you." In one major competition, it got me second because all the people between me and the first had stopped by the side of the road to rest, while I rested "trotting" until I could run again. Now I think about it, the same might be said for my career, so maybe I'll get somewhere yet. ;)

Studying other writers is not cheating. I wish it were, in the sense that I wish it were that easy. "I'll study Heinlein's pacing and presto/changeo, I'll have it."

Other writers are the textbooks of our profession. Painters in the renaissance (and the naturalist school, still) learned by copying the masters. Still they can tell you who did the third angel from the right in a painting, because it's not that easy to "absorb" the style. If you're doing it for ONE characteristic, it helps. Like, plotting. Pacing. Beginnings. It's not cheating, just reinventing the wheel.

And for the record, the only styles I consciously "alluded" to were Shakespeare and Dumas, and I did no more than ALLUDE to them, because the current taste would not read them. That's actually very difficult. Integrating just enough of the "flavor" that people think "so and so" without losing the modernity and ease of reading and your own voice (and in the Musketeer mysteries, my own CHARACTER sense, because his wouldn't fly) is an art in itself, and one I don't want to try again any time soon.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

(oh, the sweetie is not a put down -- you just reminded me of myself and it's an affectionate familiar interjection. It just occurred to me it might sound odd since we had so little face-to-face acquaintance. Sorry. No caffeine yet.)

Also I had the same issue for a long time. If you can find a copy of Don Maass's first book on writing, read the chapter on beginnings. It -- if not the rest of the book -- helped me. The other thing that helped me was doing short stories. It teaches one very quickly to start well and bury the backstory.

I also recommend you study a few Heinlein beginnings and not the juveniles necessarily. The one that opened my eyes on how not to slow down action to give background was Friday -- by no means one of my favorites -- but The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is very good also. OTOH The Door Into Summer is how to give an infodump in a fun enough way people don't mind.

I've used both of those.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, other things that aren't cheating and I thought were for the longest time:

1) being friends with editors you like. I used to treat them with frosty distance so no one would think they were playing favorites. It's stupid because it actually sets you at a disadvantage and it makes some poor editor think you hate him. (Notice Sarah vanquishing temptation to say "or her") This rule also applies to bestsellers you like. No reason not to be naturally friendly to them.

2)Getting a friend to introduce you to someone they know. Look, in this field as in most human endeavor, it is who you know. If you refuse an introduction/recommendation because you want to get there on merit alone, SOMEONE ELSE will get there through personal recommendation. So stop being silly and just be worthy of the advantage. (And here speaks the woman who -- though by then chatting with her on AIM -- didn't tell Mrs. Heinlein she was writing until Ginny saw novel sale announcement in locus and was wounded and gently told me "I could have helped." Took me four tries to get the agent she would have got me in with at first try.)

3 - Happening to hear of an anthology you want to be in and emailing the editor with a "May I submit on spec." It's called "being alive to the news of the day." My first anthology sales came that way.

Things that are cheating in my opinion -- paying or bribing a reviewer; taking most of the idea, plot, style, etc of someone's unpublished/unsubmitted work and passing it off as your own; lying about "facts" if what you're writing is yours or someone else's biography or in any way factual. Suppose for instance I wrote a bio of Queen Victoria and said she had an illegitimate child at 16. Unless new scholarship supported it (as opposed to a suspicious illness) -- that is cheating and also a lie. OTOH if I wrote a short story about it, particularly an sf/f short story involving aliens or elves that's fine. NO ONE could believe that was "true". (though a lot of people thought my Shakespeare series was an attempt at biography. I'm not responsible for people's mental health lapses.)

warpcordova said...

I found a writing style I liked, then blatantly stole it from the author after he told me how he came up with his writing style: stealing it from elsewhere.

Thanks John....

matapam said...

Err, perhaps one or more of you would like to discuss what a writing style is? My formal writing education is "practically none" so I'm not quite sure what you mean. What it is, what the various types are best for might make an interesting blog, next time you're up.

And how you manage to study a writer's techniques rather than getting sucked into the story all over again?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well, Pam (will someone save Chris from me, please? I'm avoiding writing an outline) style is like porn -- I know it when I see it. Actually style to me is what makes me go -- without looking at the cover -- "I'm reading a Heinlein" or "I'm reading Austen" or whatever. This sense can be fooled. I thought Witches of Karres was Heinlein for years. I'd read it, see it wasn't, then remember it as being. However 99% of the time it is right. How many times have you found a page torn from something, or perhaps a book with no cover, and you're reading along and you say "I'm reading Bradbury" or whomever? It's happened to me countless times. That's style -- the... uh... for lack of a better word, the habit of the mind behind the words. The things that -- like someone admitted to someone else's dream -- we find perfectly natural within the narrative, but which might seem absurd under another's control.

This differs from "voice" btw in that voice has more to do with word choice -- not the feel of the mind -- and might be quite different for different subjects.

As for how you study the style, for me it normally involves grabbing something I've read ten or more times, and go over it with notebook in hand, forcing myself to be "bob the editor" instead of Sarah the Writer.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't style myself after another writer if it meant my life. Of course, I found this out as a very young writer by trying to do exactly that. It simply didn't work. Maybe other writers are more adaptable than me, but I kind of doubt they would be to the level of actually seeming like their studied writer. I've come to believe that you can study all you want, and you'll never have "that" writer's voice (unless it's just coincidence that you do anyway). If in the process, you pick up a thing or two which helps you, all the better.

Now, as an "on the way" writer, I do note other writers' work (I'd be a fool not to) and try to pick up a thing or two, but I certainly don't waste time trying to emulate them. And I have to say that my own writing got so much better when I finally caved in and wrote in my own voice and style.

Sure, I wish I was as good as so many other writers, but maybe one day. Until then, I can only do my thing.

Linda Davis

RJ_CruzeJr said...

The way I think about it is that having your writing style influenced by your favorite authors is no more different than being influenced by anyone else important in your life. In fact, I don't think it's possible to not be influenced by those authors you like, even if it's just subconsciously.

Another way to look at it is like Sarah pointed out: Why reinvent the wheel? Good writing techniques are good writing techniques. So if you're stuck on an intro paragraph, and Author X has a particular way you like of writing intro paragraphs, why not use that method? Remember, it's still your story and your words. If someone has a better way of doing something, why not use that? It's no more different than an Apprentice using the techniques taught by his Master until he's ready to develop his own. The way I look at SF, every successful author out there is a Master, and every newbie out there is an Apprentice (though, I'm thinking, once I get a couple more published stories under my belt, do I get to go for my Journeyman?). But just remember: you still have to supply your own tools.

And even if you're emulating a another author's style, it's still your style at heart because you have your own unique worldview and set of life experiences to draw upon and color your writing. That's also why I think it's a good to read widely, so you expose yourself to a variety of styles. Thing is, once you write enough, your own style will branch off and evolve.

Mind you, you can screw yourself by following a particular author's style too slavishly. After all, if I slavishly emulated David Weber's style, I'd be shooting myself in the foot big time. After all, David Weber does a much better job of emulating David Weber's style than I could ever hope to :-D

Anonymous said...

Having just read all of the other comments (should have done that before my comment, huh?), I would like to second Sarah's opinion on getting know folks in the business.

I used to "want to make it on my own" until I got a job with the State of Florida with the help of a cousin who was already in the system. I realized then that many times, as long as you have the basic requirements of the job, it is about making yourself known to folks. How else are they going to know who you are and that you have things to offer?

Here, that would mean being a competent, if not stellar, writer. With specific regard to anthology editors, I try to e-mail the editors I know about once a year just reminding them that I am still interested in being on their "submission on spec list". If I were to find out before the fact regarding an editor reading for a closed list, I'd not have any qualms about requesting to submit on spec (with respect and politeness, of course). Editors are people, and are usually on the look-out for new talent.

Yes, it's taken many years for me to become comfortable with people. I grew up living in fear of "bothering" people for something I wanted. I think that attitude is prevalent in this field because writing is a pretty much lone activity, and so many writers don't get out a lot. I finally decided "why do all the work of writing something and then kick myself in the head by not taking advantage of an introduction or assistance by someone willing to give it?" The road to success is long and hard anyway. Why make it longer and harder by walking it yourself?

Linda Davis

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I think will all absorb things from what we read, and perhaps also from things we see i.e. movies etc. Its impossible not to I would guess.

In terms of re-reading books - that is a very new thing for me. Up until the last few years I would either fly through something, or not be able to engage it. One or the other, then I would read it furiously and move on, eager for something that would give me that same sense of excitement. Movies were the same. I'd never watch the same thing twice.

Now I don't know whether its getting older and wiser, or just having absorbed enough to slow down, but I now have some favourites that I will return to.

Because (up until recently) I have only read things I really loved, re-reading them to actually LOOK at what they were doing has been a real problem. I'd get sucked into the story so readily!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, John. Over the last couple of years I have been making deliberate attempts to read widely - even things perhaps I don't *like* that much, but which are generating some attention.

My approach has been to read them as a reader, but also as a 'reviewer'. In that sense I have become alert to style, structure and characterisation.

I guess this 'impression' I might get (and often write about in a mock 'review' just to get my thoughts straight), is different from the sort of active deconstruction I am attempting now for the first time.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. Don't worry about your affectionate appellations, darling. Having met you and your family I think you would have to try very hard to offend me. I love youse all.

Thanks for the advice. I'll check out those titles you mentioned. The Don Mass book sounds good.

Interesting that you were also into long distance running. I guess there is a real parallel with the mental and emotional stamina required to get to the writing 'finish line'

[Or maybe its just obsessive behaviour :)]

I must admit, trying to break my own personal isolation has been a challenge. I have managed to develop this strange functional disconnect where I can perform at high levels when required, for example in an interview for a job(I kill interviews), yet when what is at stake is something that I care about, or am emotionally connected to - I could not reach out if my life depended on it.

I see you also have that streak of fairness with a capital F in you that has at time held you back from posiitoning for 'self' advantage.

Its something I've come to realise though. When it comes to relationships, you have to throw that all out the window, otherwise - as you mentioned - it sends the wrong signal to people you actually like.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, warpcordova. Thank for throwing that into the mix.

As writers I think we are all trying to get to the same place in a way - to a balanced, engaging story. But the number of approaches it endless. I think once you get to the place where the story works, at that point, it has to be yours - otherwise it wouldn't be working.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. Like you I have had much the same problem trying to put the breaks on!

My all time favourite author is David Gemmell. But those books rip along so well that my prior attempts to look at what he has done with various elements have been a wash. I think I managed about five dot points before the pen was back on the table.

This time though, I restricted myself to the first two chapters only - and really forced myself to stop and look at each par.

Hard but rewarding. Gemmell really knew how to get out of his own way.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. I think you're right about trying to emutlate style. I suspect that anything that is going to work has to be organically developed in any case.

I'm glad to know that is possible to learn to make those approaches. As I said earlier I have a weird split personality - some very extraverted elements and some very extremely introverted ones.

For some reason, anything anywhere near something I am creativly invested in triggers the wallflower.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, RJ. I think you're right about development of style. Once you have tried to actually use that in your own story, how can it not end up in your voice?

And good technique is good technique. Some things are nothing more than the fundamentals of good writing, like managing Pov, Showing not Telling etc.

Although I guess getting to more specific tricks it kind of depends on your own style what will work for you.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Absolutely, Chris. Talk to a few experienced craftsmen or tradesmen in the same field, and you'll find that while they usually use the same basic tools, each one's toolbox will be customized according to that individual's demands, tastes, and experiences. When they've reached a certain level of experience in the field, they know which tools work best for them, along with which ones they tend to use the most on a given job, so they're going to keep those handy.

Writing is no different. The tools are just a bit on the intangible side. Though, you have to be a bit more careful with these tools because they don't make metaphorical hard-hats or philosophical steel-toed boots...

Naturally, a coarse, unsophisticated n00b like myself is going to have to lug around every freakin' tool in the shop like a bloody Sherpa until I get enough seasoning to know what to take and what to leave behind ;-)

Kate said...

I started by the osmosis method, then with the help of some good mentors started to actually look at what writers I admired were doing and how they made it work.

That's not cheating. Studying someone's technique - given that the various how-to books out there cover everything from nuts and bolts grammar through plotting and character development to esoterica and fluffy bunnies, and contradict each other along the way - is a good working method to look at what works and what doesn't.

You can't copy anyone else's style, because you don't live in their skin (at least, I hope you don't). The most you can do is produce a kind of pastiche of that person's style which never quite rings true. A homage works better, and as Sarah said, is a heck of a lot more difficult than just aping the style.

Short version? The more you read, the more styles and tools you get exposed to, and the more you can learn. All of that goes into the toolkit leaving you with the next stage of figuring out when to use which tool.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. I think you're right about style. I don't think it will ever ring true if you are deliberately aping - it needs to be something that has been transformed by your own conception.

I guess I've kind of embarked on a bit of a new journey here. I've always reflected on what I have read, but never with this degree of focus. Its quite exciting actually.

Now that I've broken the ice on it, I've been surprised by how driven I now am to get into this. I want to read everything! If only I had the time, damn it.