Sunday, January 23, 2011

Developing a signature style

Okay, I wrote about writing tics yesterday. The post gave me a couple of ideas for some new blog content, so I thought I'd go ahead and write a follow-up.

Earlier, I wrote about my love for keycards, an inexplicable, unrequited love affair that I should not speak of anymore. Yet, I can guarantee you that keycards will continue to appear in my work...unless I can devise some sort of foot scanner (credit that idea to a dear friend of mine).

Writers have persistent themes they return to time and time again. Michael Crichton, for example, was the king of sciency-awesomeness. When you read an excerpt from a Crichton book, you know it's a Crichton book. The same thing can be said about most skilled authors. It could be a word or a phrase or a theme, but there's something recognizable about their style. The great ones are this way; their works are memorable, their turns of phrases enduring. Your more forgettable, hack writers (who's got two thumbs and is a hack writer...THIS GUY!) churn out Twinkie writing that fills you up for three seconds and then makes you want to have another. Eventually, you realize you've eaten the whole box of Twinkies and you're still hungry because the snack wasn't very fulfilling.

As I think of the different books and short stories I've worked on, I've identified a few things that help define, for better or worse, my own style.

Sports references. I'm an unabashed sports fan and I bring that to my work. You'll find many of my books have a character who follows sports. In some cases, the book may actually be about sports (Seven and 17th Parallel are both books that mix science fiction with pro sports). This fandom typically sticks pretty close to home, too. I enjoy putting in characters who are fans of the Indianapolis Colts or the Cincinnati Reds or Indiana Basketball or Notre Dame football. Let's face it, enough characters in popular culture are Yankees fans...why not add a little Midwestern sports sensibility to that? I also use a lot of sports analogies ("He drew his gun as quickly as Manning reads the defense and releases"--that's an awful piece of writing).

Midwestern sensibility. I think those of us who hail from the Midwest sometimes feel like we don't exist. News and sporting events that happen on the east and west coasts often seem to get higher priority than things that happen in the middle of Indiana or Iowa. Since many media companies are headquartered on the coasts, the Midwest often feels lost in the shuffle. "They" make fun of our Big Ten and our backward ways (you know, like saying "hello" to people). Many of my characters have a background in the Midwest or the action is set in the Midwest. I like characters I can relate to; people I'd like to go see a movie with. My work often reflects this.

Don't push your Midwestern sensibilities on me, pal.

Sense of humor. I'm not the king of the bad pun, but I'm second-in-line for the throne. I love making characters who have a sense of humor or putting characters who don't have a sense of humor in funny situations. Sarcasm runs rampant throughout my work and characters because these things make me smile (and I hope they make other people smile, too). I'm just not the brooding writer type who locks himself away for hours on end to talk about why the sun won't rise the next day (at least, not typically). If I'm going to be entertained, I'm probably going to need humor...or explosions. Sometimes both.

Absurdity. I'm not Mr. High Concept or anything like that, but I like a certain element of absurdity in my stories. This can lead to funny situations or head-scratching moments of "what the heck is going on?" Some of these situations can be downright weird (stories like "Swatch, Guardian of Time" -- in which an idiotic Time Ranger mucks up history by mistake -- and "To the Infinity Room!" -- in which a slightly unhinged man collects items from alternate realities -- come to mind). I guess I like things a little offbeat.

Absurd? Blue is absurd. The idea of turning him into glue is not.

Pop culture references. In real life, I'm a pop culture machine, a man capable of conducting conversations in nothing but MovieSpeak. I take a random moment from life and tell others how "it's like that one scene in The Naked Gun." It's annoying. My writing reflects that. In some stories, the pop culture references come at a fast and furious pace, thrown in like some poorly-produced spoof movie (you know, you throw out enough things, something's bound to stick). Maybe a particular character quotes "Star Wars" or describes the bad guy as looking "kind of like a crack-addled Billy Zane." It's a wink-wink to readers who get it and probably a little confounding to those who don't (learn the Wikipedia, my clueless friends...and the IMDB).

Sometimes I mix pop culture references AND sports.

It's science fictiony-fantastical. I do have some ideas that are a little more grounded, but most of my stories have a speculative bent. That means they're set on another planet, involve advanced technology, or include aliens. I love tropes like time travel and alternate realities (each could really have its own category in this list). Oh, and robots. Yes, give me the robots, be they simple, kind, despotic, evil, or cultured.

We need a hero. A protagonist doesn't always have to be a hero and many stories are about people who are the very definition of cowards. However, my work tends to find at least something heroic about a particular character. Whether that character is a rogue like Sheridan from Sheridan's Hammer, who decides he's had enough of a repressive government or Swatch, who tries his best but usually messes up in his Time Ranger duties, I try to find the most noble part of a character and cultivate it.

Sometimes, you just need a hero.

For some people, you have to look REALLY hard to find something heroic. And then there are lost causes.

Bureaucracies suck. From government to big businesses and even the church, bureaucracies are a part of life. Bureaucracies are evil, soulless machines composed of flesh, paperwork, and endless procedures. They do more harm than good, allow things to slip through the cracks, overlook important details in the name of productivity, and throw responsibility to the next person in the chain. They are so head-scratchingly inefficient that the only real choice is to make fun of them. Mercilessly.

No one knows the horrors of bureaucracies like this guy.

Media and Mass Communication 101. I work in TV news. I studied journalism in college. News and media are things I understand intimately and I like to use them in different capacities. Sometimes it's as simple as making an offhand reference to a TV news report; sometimes it's a story set in the world of TV news. One short story, for example, follows a live news crew forced to cover a story on a chicken wing shortage; the story soon changes to some sort of mutant invasion. In my book Seven, I employ a broadcasting team with announcers named Bob and Skip. At certain points in the book, I let them take over the play-by-play duties during game action instead of writing long, descriptive game summaries. That book also takes a good, hard look at sports media culture.

News team assemble!

Meta-fiction! I like to give readers something extra and try to think of ways to make my books stand out. One way I like to do that is to create meta-fiction. The concept isn't that hard to explain: let's say a character references a non-existent book during the course of the novel. I might add an appendix that contains an excerpt from the fake book mentioned (or that excerpt may appear in the book proper). My most complex example of this to date is I, Crimsonstreak. The book's narrative itself is on the short's only about 62,000 words (and actually probably needs to be beefed up quite a bit). The work itself, however, totals 85,000 words. In addition to the main story, the novel includes "secret" hero and villain dossiers, newspaper articles of past exploits from characters, magazine feature articles, journal entries, and even a few newspaper columns the main character wrote when he was in college. Admittedly, this idea got a little out of control and required a handwritten timeline of dates and important events. I have similar ideas for other books. Seven, for example, is a baseball book. So one of these days I want to map out a schedule for the baseball team and come up with box scores for every game of the season, along with game write-ups, web copy, etc. It would also be fun to do a podcast of some of the play-by-play calls from important moments from key games. For Sheridan's Hammer, one of the central conflicts centers around two warring religions. This book includes verses from two fake holy texts. They're not fully-formed pieces of meta-fiction, but they're intended to give the universe a "real" feel.

Meta-fiction? This comic may be the king of it.

Time to play. Sometimes, writing in chronological order is a drag. It's also something that many stories require. I enjoy playing with flashbacks and framing devices; you've seen this concept a hundred times in movies and books. You know, the book starts with the character walking the plank and you flashback to how he got there until he's on the plank and the action picks up from there. For whatever reason, the movie "Maverick" immediately comes to mind, although there are plenty stories done in that style. I like to play with timelines and flashbacks, but it can be difficult work. These stories often require a detailed outline to make everything click. In some cases, using a flashback narrative structure has saved a story. One piece of short fic, "Last Stand on Cyclonus Seven," probably would've been scrapped if not for a flashback structure. I knew where I wanted the story to go, but as I wrote it chronologically, it didn't seem to work. It began to drag. So, I made that story work backward. The end comes first and the narrative travels backward between the present and what led to it. It got relatively complicated and I had to make section headings (i.e., "Ten Hours Ago"). I'm pleased with how that story turned out, but it wasn't working until I started to play with time a little bit.

I'm sure I've left out something, but these are the things that spring to mind when it comes to my "signature" writing style. Is it really different from how other writers approach their work? Not really, I'm sure. In fact, one thing about writing is that you're never as unique or creative as you think; there are plenty of people with more panache and style than me. However, to write, one must have confidence, and believing your work to have your unique voice and style is part of developing that confidence.