Thursday, September 19, 2013

Forget Flattery; Be Yourself

Imitation may be flattery and many a budding writer envies Herman Melville, William Faulkner, or fill in the blank ________ without a complete understanding of what made that writer's prose great. Far be it from me to invade the minds of great writers, but their writings give wannabe and striving writers more than enough to think about.

(While I think, you, the reader, should know that this author, me, Donan Berg, has just been informed that he landed three times in the 2013 winner's circle at the 8th Annual Dixie Kane Memorial Writing Contest. When the official results are announced, look for them here.)

Let's start with Mr. Melville. A previous blog teased you with his opening line of "Call me ______." If you didn't correctly fill in the blank, no matter. Beginning writers have often tried, unsuccessfully, to imitate the style or voice of past writing masters. What is not grasped is that the greats changed over time. Or, more accurately, they adapted their voice or style to the nature of their story.

Mr. Melville wrote a novel entitled Omoo, which often ends up as a crossword answer. Those crossword geeks love words with multiple vowels. Anyway, the story starts very simply:

"It was the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay. The vessel we sought lay with her main-topsail aback about a league from the land and was the only object that broke the broad expanse of the ocean."

Please note, no big dictionary words. Yet, there are questions. Escape from what? Or whom? Why the referenced vessel? If this was a bay, why only one vessel? Are we near a town or marooned? The hook for reading more is deeply planted.

Later in his writing life, Melville began his classic Moby-Dick as follows: (You can repeat out loud this often-quoted verbiage.)

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago-never mind how long precisely-having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."

Had Melville changed? Some would say yes. But it's more than that. It's voice. Moby-Dick is arguably more authoritative in style and voice. Omoo didn't require the Moby-Dick voice, at least, Mr. Melville didn't believe so.

I attended a reading by Alice Sebold a few years ago and she read the first chapter of her well-received and engaging novel entitled The Lovely Bones. It begins:

"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."

Does that harken back? Maybe yes, but not as straightforward as J.D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye reference to Charles Dickens and David Copperfield.

My goal is not to flog masterful writing, but to point out different stories require serious thinking to match the character with the voice presented.

William Faulkner developed his style in service to his stories as other great writers have done. Compare his daring point of view and tense that serves the Bundrens well in As I Lay Dying with the simpler, more straightforward style in his The Reivers.

However you try to style your story, the goal is to not overwhelm your reader and bury the story in an avalanche of stylistic voice copied from a person that doesn't inhabit your skin. If the voice becomes the end all, all your characters will begin to sound alike, spouting diction so similar the reader glosses over the points you wish to make. Sure, I can envision an urban street corner where everyone begins a sentence with "yo dude." Would that enhance my story or distract? Probably distract.

If you give high tension to every character, none will stand out as major or memorable. You may think of all your friends as major influences in your life, but aren't they all slightly, maybe even markedly, different. Treating them as different is not a snub. They're not robots who attended the same Star Wars training school. Come to think of it. Is R2-D2 the same as Hal the computer or that other annoying robot. I think you know the one I'm referring to. No, it's not named Ishmael or Salmon. Think of beginning with the letter C.

The main point is to be yourself. There's nothing wrong with the following in the right circumstances:

"Oh no," the pizza man shouted. "He's been fighting wid his old lady. I ain't gonna get no tip outta this pie."

Nor the following:

"Don't call me Jacob."

Think of yourself, your story. Now, go to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment