Finding Your Sense of Style

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One of the most valuable things about writing regularly is that you start to learn things about yourself you never knew. Perhaps one of the revelations that comes quickest is what aspects of writing you are bad at. Personally I’m bad at character descriptions. And by bad, I mean I just don’t even do it in most cases! I’m worried about dragging down the pace, so I blitz past giving the reader a mental image of any character. I guess I struggle with knowing how to tackle that in stride with the plot, and it’s something I need to get better at.

A little bit after discovering your weaknesses you will also get to know your strengths, a far more pleasant discovery! Obviously this is subjective, but I think I’m pretty good at incorporating messages into my stories. I’m able to have arcs that are “going somewhere.”

After your strengths and weaknesses further revelations will follow. You’ll learn how hard-working of a writer you are (or aren’t), how consistent, how many typos you’re likely to make for every thousand words written. You’ll start noticing the differences in how you write when you are happy and how you write when you are sad. You’ll learn how some of your scenes will be deeply moving to you when in some moods, only to be laughably corny when in another.

But one thing you may not fully realize until you’ve written for a decent while is what your style is. If I had been asked before this blog what my writing style was I really wouldn’t have known how to answer. The last time I wrote stories consistently was in my mid-teenage years, and those were “high fantasy adventures that are liberally inspired by Lord of the Rings.”

Now I still like high fantasy adventures, but I really don’t think I would say that is my particular style any longer. As I’ve paused to reflect on all of the titles that I’ve written for this blog I’ve been noticing some strong new trends emerging, ones that I had been entirely ignorant of while writing. Just this last series of short stories illustrates a lot of those common themes especially clearly. Let’s take a look at them.

 

Allegory)

First and foremost is allegory. With the Beast and Glimmer are both overflowing with it, and as I look back on all of the short stories I’ve written on this blog almost each has had some from of it at one point or another. I seem to like taking intangible concepts and bringing them to life as a character.

In With the Beast these principles are the various virtues and vices that can live within a man, the regret when the latter destroy the former, and the hope that the former never actually do die. In Glimmer the allegory is based on nothing less than good and evil, themselves! They are manifested in a ball of light, an eternal void, and the various souls that are moved by each. We see how good becomes personified, and how persons become good. We see the difference between active evil and inactive evil, and the dangers of both.

When I reflect on my stories from earlier in life I don’t find any allegories among them. I’ve reflected as to why that might have changed, and one event stands out the most to me as a likely turning point. As I mentioned before, it was my mid-teenage years that I last wrote stories consistently, and that period was brought to a close as I started at college.

While there I didn’t have so much time to write stories, as I began writing essays instead. At first essays were unnatural to me, and it was only after a great deal of practice that I began to really write them properly. With essays I had to learn to see things in terms of a culminating message, a thesis, a point where we say “and thus from all of this we learn…” I was learning to write in allegories and I didn’t even realize it. Now on the other side of college I find myself writing stories again, but ones that have been flavored by the allegorical lessons from college.

 

Supernatural)

I tried to base my story The Heart of Something Wild in a situation that was based on reality…mostly. The specific tribe and location in Africa were works of fiction, of course, but were meant to represent something that could exist. But then, after establishing the familiar I threw something odd into the mix: a large and lethal bat-like creature with rows of finger-like mandibles and a deep sense of empathy. It was utterly bizarre and clearly a work of pure fantasy.

With the Beast also shares a setting and a place that are realistic, even if not contained within any actual history book. Mid-industrial era explorers come to a tropical island to begin a family enterprise. But all the while they are being followed by an invisible phantom, one that has an uncanny knowledge of their future and later in the story will become embodied as a supernatural beast.

Again, when I reflect on my other recent stories I continue to find more mixes of the ordinary with the supernatural. When I consider why that might be I suppose it has to do with being religious. I believe in a reality beyond the physical, and things like God and angels have certainly taken deep roots in my subconscious. By their nature these things are impossible to pin down in full definition. One may come to understand them better, but never perfectly. Thus they churn and gestate in the mind and heart, and the hands naturally express those ponderings through characters and prose. I think for many of us our writing is just a way of thinking-out-loud the things in the soul, and that stream of consciousness is often best expressed through the supernatural.

 

Slow)

Writing in the short story format has been hard for me. It’s taken real effort to keep things moving along at a brisk pace, and even then I end up extending some of my stories out to parts 3, or 4, or 5. I’m looking at you, Glimmer.

That’s not to say that I don’t incorporate action into my stories, I certainly do, but usually in a single punch at the end. That was certainly the case for The Heart of Something Wild. I began the story with a promise of a duel, but then spent the entire story slowly building up to that moment. I wanted to raise the tension and stakes with a long burn, and didn’t want to release any of that pressure with mid-story moments of cathartic action. When at last I came to the promised battle it was fueled with all of that built up plot and drama, and I then stoked it further with a few moments of shock and intrigue.

For Glimmer I have followed the same basic pattern, but with a few variations. In the middle I introduced the enemy and included a brief battle. That scene was crafted to only raise tension, though, and not to resolve it. The hero spent the entirety fleeing, just trying to escape a foe she could not handle. I suppose she did have a triumph in the form of successfully escaping, but also anxiety for the future confrontation that is surely waiting in the wings. Then, with just this last section I finally let loose and it has been a much more drawn-out action sequence than in any of my previous stories. For the ending of this story to work, I really felt it needed to break its tension in a long and exhausting sprint to the finish.

There’s obvious reasons for wanting action in a story, but I’ve paused to consider why I specifically like it in the form of a slow burn that bursts out at the end. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that this pattern matches up very well with how I exercise. When I run, for example, I never sprint out a single rush. I don’t speed up and slow down in cycles, but neither do I hold the exact same pace all the way to the finish. What I do is run just slightly beneath my ideal pace, storing a pocket of fuel that I suddenly let loose at the end for a dramatic finish.

 

So when all the above is considered, just what is my particular style? I guess I would categorize it as some sort of “slow fantasy allegory.” I had no idea that this was my default when I first began this blog, but as I reflect on all of the stories here I find that the vast majority of them all fall under this very narrow genre.

There are, of course, some exceptions. A Minute at a Time stands out as a real outlier. In that story there is no action whatsoever, there are no supernatural elements, and there isn’t really anything that could be called an allegory. It’s just a very straightforward, quiet drama. And actually I really like it a lot.

Because, of course, having a particular style in no way means that you don’t like other options. I don’t know that I’ll ever be any good at writing a pure comedy, but I certainly enjoy well-crafted humor. And while almost none of my stories have featured any romance, I still appreciate when a heroic epic weaves love into its tapestry.

Who knows, maybe one day my particular style actually will stray into those categories. Because if there’s any main takeaway here, it’s that when you pause to consider why you write the way that you do, you’ll probably find that it is merely an extension of who you are today. And who you are as a person naturally evolves, and as it does the way you write will follow.

Certainly I want to branch out and challenge myself, exercising new skills can only improve my work as a whole. But while I do that learning and improving, I know I’ll also enjoy the times when I settle back into my cozy and familiar voice.

And you can bet that when I post the last section of Glimmer on Thursday, it’s going to involve a slow burn punctuated by moments of action, a hefty amount of allegory, and a strong presence of the supernatural. Personally, I’m looking forward to it very much.

Balancing Fantasy and Authenticity

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Humans are funny things. We’re just as capable of finding meaning in a wild flight of fancy as in a calm, lifelike drama. We can learn rudimentary life lessons from wizards and space pirates, and we can live out power fantasies through the “neighbors next door.”

It’s not as though fantasy and authenticity are an all-or-nothing affair, either. To some degree every story straddles a balance between the two. The most imaginative of all fantasies still requires something relatable to establish a common grounding, otherwise the reader will not be able to understand what is going on. Consider the following passage

The Collans repeatedly phased through the entire Baryth spectrum, giving rise to the deepest Gerru yet. It coalesced with the Hinter fields and the resulting Delawa washed over them all.

This is meaningless without any context. It’s perfectly fine for an author to make up characters and phrases, but if you’re going to reference a Baryth spectrum you first need to define it in terms that are grounded in my real world understanding.

On the other hand, even a narrative that strives to capture true-life characters and events must take some creative liberties to fill the gaps in our historical records. Otherwise it isn’t a story, it is just another one of those historical records, a mere timeline of occurrences. For example, when Napoleon was in exile on Elba there must have been a moment of decision that led to his triumphant return to France. We know the world events that likely influenced his decisions, but we do not know exactly which point it was that convinced him the time was right to return. Any narrative of this man’s rise then fall and rise then fall would likely feel compelled to capture this pivotal turn between the two halves of that trajectory. As such the narrative would need to fabricate some fitting scene for this moment, one that is at least true to the man if not the history books.

On Thursday I posted a story where I tried to give a very down-to-earth report on the fictional end of the world. I knew that I wanted to employ an understated style of narration and avoid any melodramatic statements, so that I could create an authentic atmosphere for this tale of mankind’s demise.

At a certain point, though, I had a narrative decision to make on where that commitment to authenticity ended. I had in mind a symmetry of astronomers and archaeologists discovering the signs of the world’s impending doom simultaneously from the heavens above and the earth below. These signs would be foretelling of events that would be pretty extreme, and in extremity comes all sorts of complications with authenticity. And so the decision I faced was between maintaining that narrative symmetry, or else trying to be more authentic to the principles of physics, astronomy, and geology.

Ultimately I decided to go with the narrative symmetry. I was already giving a fictional account and I didn’t take issue then with bending the natural laws to fit my purpose. I made that decision simply by examining what mattered to me as the author, what points were most important for me to convey, and then being true to those cores. Another author with different priorities would be perfectly justified in making the opposite decision. In fact, in other stories I, too, would make the opposite decision to favor the more authentic approach. Consider the following mostly true account of the real-life mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel.

Kurt Gödel was a contemporary of Albert Einstein, and even a good friend of his. Where Einstein shook the world with his advancements in physics, Gödel defined some of the greatest principles of mathematics and logic to this day. He discovered his love for these sciences in his youth, and completed a dissertation in that field when only 23 years of age. This dissertation, called the Incompleteness Theorem, turned the entire scientific world on its head when first published. One of the most intriguing applications of this work has to do with how it defines the limits of science. You see the Incompleteness Theorem proves that there are truths which are true, but which cannot be proven as such.

This proof does not dispute the fact that the natural holds universal truths and mathematical principles, but only establishes that not all of these can be discovered through the calculations of science. This discovery came at a time where mathematicians were beginning to boast that soon they would have answers to every question in the world. The Incompleteness Theorem proved that they would not.

Gödel not only provided the proofs in the papers he wrote, he also illustrated them tragically through his own life. Though he maintained an amazing genius and a strict regime of reason in his professional work, yet he held onto deep and irrational fears in his personal life. In June of 1936 a personal hero of his was assassinated by a former student, having been given tea laced with a fatal poison. The loss shook Gödel personally and deeply and germinated a paranoia in his young mind, specifically a fear of being poisoned himself.

Though Gödel maintained his composure well enough to lead an accomplished and fulfilling life, the fears persisted and grew as he advanced in years. By the time he reached 70 years he refused to take any food that was not prepared for him by his beloved wife, Adele. She remained his singular constant, the only one whom he dared to trust. When, in 1977, she was hospitalized, he ate nothing at all, shriveling away to a mere 65 pounds until at last he died. She soon followed him.

Gödel remains one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known, seeing the facts and realities that others never could. Yet for it all there was an incompleteness to him, much as the one that he had defined for the science he loved. For in them both there were mysteries and shadows that defied all reason, questions that could find no answers.

As I said at the outset, this story is mostly true, there was only one point in this account which I fabricated. Gödel did, indeed, have a personal hero that was killed by a former student, and it was this event that sparked his deep paranoia. However that professor was not assassinated via poison, but rather shot with a common pistol. I do not know why a shooting resulted in Gödel fearing poison more than guns, but somehow it did. Changing the method of assassination gives the story a better symmetry, however in this case I would choose to err on the side of authenticity. The literary qualities are already remarkable as they are, there is foreshadowing and allegory, triumph and tragedy, character and plot. All these authentic elements I would argue should be allowed to shine more brightly by repressing the urge to fabricate any enhancements to them.

If in your own stories you find yourself testing that line between the fantastic and the authentic, I recommend you pause to take in your narrative side-by-side with your objectives. There isn’t a cut-and-dried answer as to where you should draw that line of authenticity, you simply have to weigh what principles are the most important to you in this tale and what is lost be being more imaginative versus more realistic. In the end all your story really needs to be true to is itself.

 

This Thursday I’ll be sharing a new short story that walks the line between what is real and what is imagined, and that within its own narrative. Our main character will be a psychologist helping a patient to tease the truth of actual events out from the truths of the heart. I hope to see you then.