Writing Style

green and black typewriter on brown wooden table
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When I started to write with the idea of submitting stories, way back in late 1992, I never thought consciously about style. Instead, I attempted to imitate the styles of those writers who I read regularly. At the time, this was Piers Anthony, whose books I’d been reading since the mid-1980s1. I suppose this is a natural thing for a new writer to do.

In 1993 and 1994 I discovered writers like Barry N. Malzberg and Harlan Ellison, thanks in large part to what I consider to be the best science fiction magazine ever produced, Science Fiction Age, edited by Scott Edelman. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on books, but fortunately, I attended the University of California, Riverside, where the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy resides. I could checkout books from the library. I read lots of Malzberg and Ellison in those years, and my writing style almost immediately reflected their influence.

Looking back on some of that early writing, it appears almost ridiculous today, an unintended parody. It is like someone who thinks they are good at impressions doing an impression (badly) of a famous person. I remember wondering then if I would ever develop a style of my own. How did these other writers manage ot do it?

Then, in the spring of 1994, I picked up a hardcover copy of Isaac Asimov’s newly published book, I. Asimov: A Memoir. Up to that point, I’d read very little Asimov. I’d read The Caves of Steel twelve or thirteen years earlier, and I knew that he wrote a lot of nonfiction in addition to his fiction. But reading that book was a revelation to me in many ways, one of which was an author’s style. In the case of Asimov, that was an almost deliberate cultivation of no style–that is to say, a style that is virtually invisible. I liked that idea and began to imitate that style in my writing.

Over the next five years or so I immersed myself in Asimov’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction. His writing, more than any others, led me to branch out further and further afield in my reading, which in turn broadened my experience with style. Over that time, without being quite conscious about it, my own style began to take shape, formed the way a stone is shaped over time by water, wind, sand, abrasion, taking bits of each while other parts are chipped and worn away.

Style, however, is an evolving thing. It changes more slowly over time, but it changes nevertheless. Andy Rooney and E. B. White are two other writers that made subtle contributions to my style. At its core, my style aims for the clarity and invisibility of Asimov’s. Whether or not it achieves this is not for me to judge.

There are styles that I admire greatly but that I know I could never really achieve in any way short of parody. Barry Malzberg’s style is one. My second published story, “Hindsight in Neon,” which appeared in Apex Magazine, was a deliberate imitation of Malzberg’s writing, but it was not my style. Harlan Ellison had a style unique to him that I could never reproduce. I love the style that W. P. Kinsella achieves in books like Shoeless Joe. For nonfiction, I am a great admirer of Will Durant’s style of writing, but it is beyond my capabilities as a writer.

Style, by the way, is different from voice, at least in my mind as it applies to fiction writing. Voice is an evocation of character, a setting of the tone of a story. Style is much more like handwriting, distinctive and unique to the person from whose hand is emerges, but separate from the voice and tone of a story.

If you have any doubt that style can’t change, you have only to look at early posts on this blog, from sixteen or seventeen years ago and compare them with more recent posts. The writing I’ve done here began before I’d sold a single story and I think it makes for a good example of how my style has been influenced and changed over time.

Written on April 30-May 1, 2022.

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  1. Mostly books outside his Xanth, series, although I did read the first 8 or 9 of the books in that series at some point.


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