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.

Who Are You Really?

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Are people inherently good or evil? It is a question that has puzzled our species for millennia, and likely will continue to do so for a very, very long while. No doubt this question takes such a hold on us because the nature of humans is divided. There is a conscience in us all, but there also is a beast. Which of those two halves do you consider to the more real part, or is each one an equal half of the whole? Are there only these two halves to a person, or is there an entire spectrum in between? If you are able to answer all of these questions for yourself, am I fundamentally the same as you or might my own reality be different?

These are ponderings of the soul, and as such the deepest, most personal musings we can ever engage in. And we certainly do engage in them, every single one of us has an opinion on all these matters. Even if this were the first time you had heard such questions and had never before given them serious thought, you will still have an initial default reaction that accepts some of the notions and rejects the others.

But what’s with all of this philosophizing in a blog about writing anyway? Well, what better way to give expression to our beliefs and ponderings than through story? Writers have considered and influenced philosophical opinion for as long as pen has been to paper.  One obvious example is the advice Polonius gives us. “To thine own self be true” he says, but Hamlet, like all the rest of us, wrestles with knowing who exactly is that own self he is to be true to?

Shakespeare was by no means the first author to grapple with these ideas, though. More than 2400 years ago Sophocles wrote of Antigone, the faithful sister that tries to bury her brother in defiance of the king’s command. She asserts that this defiance answers to a higher law, one written into the very human soul, a moral compass that defines her. So powerfully does she feel on the matter, that when she is frustrated in following this inner guide it breaks her and she cannot go on living.

Shifting our focus to somewhere more recent I am reminded of an episode from the original Twilight Zone series entitled The Masks. Here an old and wealthy man plays host to all of the mean and rotten descendants who will soon inherit his fortunes. He requires each of them to wear masks, ones that grotesquely reflect their individual character flaws. In this way, the wearing of the mask is actually the unmasking of the true self within.

In my own way I have tried to incorporate themes of discovering one’s true self in each of my short stories during this last month. Each of these four stories has approached these questions in a different way and with different conclusions.

The Wolf in the Room had as its objective to query what it is that defines a person as such. Here we had a main character that scene by scene lost more and more of his humanity, finally transforming into something new: a wolf. Meanwhile there was a corresponding wolf that incrementally gained in humanity until it took the form of our main character.

My purpose with this strange account was to pose a culturally relevant question, absent any answer. If a man changed into the form a wolf while a wolf changed into the form of that same man, are the two now their original selves or their new selves? I expect the outcome of the story will be dissatisfying to most readers, where it is determined that a person is defined by nothing more than their current physical status. I believe most of us would maintain that as we grow and change in life, there yet remains an inner identity within us that remains constant. What, then, is the essence of that which remains permanent?

In Stars and Stones is something of an outlier in this series, given that it features no central characters, therefore no personality arc, and therefore no questions about the true self. And that is exactly the point. This is a story about what is left of life when it lacks any consideration for one’s own humanity. Everything in this piece is presented in a cold and calculated way, a textbook reading of numbers and events, with no consideration for what any of it actually means. The conclusions that are drawn from this clinical perspective are quite bleak: all things die and no legacy is permanent. Life, as such, is meaningless.

Socrates suggested that the unexamined life was not worth living, and surely he meant examined by the heart. Numbers and statistics are wonderful tools for measuring this world and we have a great need for them. Yet we must not forget that we also have great need for humanity, for thoughtful introspection, and for loving connection to others. Yes there are the cold facts of life, but there also the wonderful warm mysteries within it.

The Basketball in the Water echoes the importance of these humanizing moments, though it was far more forward with its themes. At the outset we have a man meeting with his therapist, a man who has gone to great lengths to avoid just these sorts of introspections. So much of the anxiety and fidgeting he exhibits are a direct result of that unwillingness to look at the man within, and the story suggests that it is most often tragedy and guilt that prevents us from engaging in this otherwise natural and healthy self-reflection.

Because of his mistakes he is burdened with a fundamental belief that at his core he is inherently evil, not good. He feels his past has condemned him, and so sees nothing but pain in rehashing that past. I tried to craft his plight in such a way that the reader would understand why he would naturally feel that way, but in the end want him to accept that he is being too hard on himself. The hope is that if the readers were able to have that sympathy for his situation, then perhaps they could consider whether they are not being too hard on their own situations as well.

Revenger of Blood suggests the presence of not only a self, but also of a higher self. Throughout its length the main character is grappling between a sense of duty and a conscience that refuses to consent to that duty. Ultimately the protagonist is able to come to the epiphany that the only true duty is that of the conscience. Sometimes we try to make the decision between right and wrong so complex, weighing pros and cons and debating both sides of the field. Nine times out of ten, though, our inner compass has already told us what we ought to do, and we’re just not willing to face the unpleasant consequences that can accompany acting on our conscience.

I might go to a grocery, select my items, and purchase them for their full retail value. At this point I have done no wrong. I have not tried to rob the store, I have obeyed every law, and I am completely justified. However the absence of doing wrong is not the same as doing right. The law does not require me to smile and brighten my cashier’s day, but perhaps my conscience does, though my introverted nature is uncomfortable with the prospect. If I do not learn to answer that higher call of my heart, I will lead only a half-complete life. The greatest acts of good we do are those that are demanded only of our own heart.

 

It has been quite fulfilling writing this more contemplative series of short stories. Obviously when authors publish work with introspective musings a very personal part of them has been opened for all the world to see. You can probably already tell that my answer to the question “are people inherently good or evil” is that I believe them to be good. There are those that would feel obligated to defend that belief by citing all sorts of logical or religious rhetoric. I suppose those have their place, but for me I cannot give any better evidence than that when I do good, I simply feel that I am being by most true self.

This Thursday I will be posting my final story in this current series, and I will be maintaining the theme of characters seeking to discover their true selves. Specifically I will be focusing on the idea of being called to redefine oneself into something greater. I hope to see you then.