Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#22: Changing Time, Tone, and Type

by Seanan McGuire

People will talk about 'authorial voice' and 'developing your own way of writing,' but the truth of the matter is that each of us will develop multiple styles of writing. They're going to be very different, and they're all going to be uniquely ours. The trouble is finding a way to force them all to get along with one another. That takes us to today's expanded topic:

Your writing style will actually change over the course of a single day, not just over the course of your lifetime. I write very crisp, sharp prose in the morning, and very purple, rambling prose at midnight. My sentences start turning into spaghetti around ten o'clock at night. A finished work is going to need to stick to one of these styles of prose, and I need to be aware of that when I'm editing, because otherwise, the transition can be so organic that it isn't visible until someone else gets a look and starts screaming at me for blinding them with adjectives.

A lot of people fail to account for what state of mind can do for their writing styles. They also fail to account for what state of exhaustion can do for their writing styles. This is, I believe, a mistake, because if you don't understand your own quirks, you're not going to know how to compensate for them. (As one of the quirkiest people on the planet, I get a lot of practice compensating.) So how do you identify your cycles? How do you compensate for the changes in tone -- and how do you learn to catch them?

That's today's topic. Ready? Excellent. Now let's begin.

Dictionary Definitions.

As we so often do, we're going to kick off today's essay by making sure that we're all on the same page. According to Wikipedia, 'writing style' is:

Writing style is the manner in which a writer addresses a matter in prose, a manner which reveals the writer's personality, or 'voice.' It is particularly evident in the choices the writer makes in syntactical structures, diction, and figures of thought.

(Also, Wikipedia goes on about writing style for a long, long time, with multiple sub-headers and everything. I learned quite a lot by reading their entry. I'm not going to quote it any further here, because I didn't write it, and because you should really head over and read the article yourself, if you're interested. Fascinating stuff.)

So there you go. Your writing style is your approach to the text, as well as your choices in syntactical structures, diction, and figures of thought. We have a definition; we may thus continue.

Timing Matters.

Your writing style will always be your own, regardless of your mental condition, because your writing style includes things like preferred sets of images and frequently-used words. There are certain metaphors and references that I just can't seem to keep myself away from, certain rhymes and tricks of scansion that are so ingrained I can compose them in my sleep (and I've occasionally done exactly that). You're probably never going to find a good, helpful spider in the works of Stephen King, or an evil white horse in the works of Mercedes Lackey -- and if you did, it would almost certainly be because the authors were trying to play against type, and not because that idea occurred to them naturally. My work is filled with mermaids, Snow White figures, and seasonal monarchs. I can't help it. It's just how I'm wired.

All that being said, the time of day is going to change the way you handle things. If you ask me to write a paragraph at six in the morning, you're going to get something like 'Lilly stood. Stretched. Looked out the door. Another damn day.' It's four sentences long, and my middle school English teacher told me that was a paragraph. Now go away unless you're planning to give me a Diet Dr Pepper.

Make the same request when I'm actually awake, and you're likely to get something very similar to what you see in this essay: long, occasionally complex sentences, a variety of punctuation, words of more than two syllables, and thoughts more complex than 'go away or die.' Paradoxically, my sentences don't become less complex as I get tired. They get more complex, crossing an intangible line from 'poetic' into 'purple.' I have written some real howlers at midnight. There's a reason I always try to look things over before I let anyone else see them.

An example, taken from life: I was working on the second Toby book, A Local Habitation, and had allowed my eagerness to finish a chapter to push me past midnight, leaving me writing at almost three o'clock in the morning. As one of nature's early risers, this didn't do terribly good things for my mental acuity. Completely absorbed by my own narrative, I described a falling gate as 'descending with the pendulous slowness of stone.'

Pause a moment. Consider that sentence. There's every possibility that it makes you want to claw your own eyes out, which is only fair, since that's how it made me feel when I woke up the next day and saw it sprawling garishly across my page. I squinted at it. Considered ritual suicide. And finally scratched it out, replacing it with the much more appropriate 'it fell.'

Please note that there's a time and a place for densely poetic prose. That place really doesn't fall in the middle of one of my many, many action sequences. So if your writing style trends towards the dense, that's fine -- just make sure you know what your own version of 'it fell' is supposed to look like, and make sure to replace your truly tortured midnight sentences with something you won't be ashamed of in the light of day.

Choosing A Style.

Now, it's possible that the style you really like in your own work is going to be the one that comes naturally to you after midnight, or at six o'clock in the morning, or at any other point on the clock. That's fine. Look at samples of your writing from each of your personal time zones, decide which one works for you, and run with it. Once you've learned to tell those styles apart, you should be able to see the places where one transitions into another, and adjust accordingly. If your chosen style is one that only comes naturally when you're wide awake, that will inform your editing decisions. If it requires a couple of beers, well, your literary career may be measured out in the capacity of your liver.

Edit, Edit, Edit.

Unless something is very short, assume that it will need to be rewritten at least once, due to the shifting nature of narrative styles. (I honestly recommend assuming that everything needs to be rewritten at least once, no matter how long or short it happens to be.) You're going to need that revision to take the midnight sentences, the early morning sentences, and the daytime sentences, pick the best parts of each cycle, and smooth it out into a coherent whole. Without that revision, you're going to find that readers who don't share your specific set of natural cycles may get frustrated by what seems like some major unevenness in your text.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a shifting style. All of us are programmed that way, and everybody's programming is different. Admitting it won't solve the 'problem,' because brain chemistry isn't a problem in this case, it's a reality. Refusing to deal with it, now, that can be a problem.

Watch the clock.
© 2010 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue was published by DAW in September of 2009. A sequel, A Local Habitation, was released in March 2010.

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