My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, December 4, 2015

How Long to Find One's Voice (Mailbox)

A turkey mailbox?
Oh right, because I started this article before I got sick....
in the before time.
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. When I say "each Friday" it's more of a guideline than an actual rule.]  

Li asks:

Can I ask a question? ...revising my writing and seeing where the plot holes are, the bad grammar, where it needs more work, how I somehow changed perspectives without noticing on a few scenes... treating each story as an individual thing... How long do you think it takes to learn your style in writing? I mean I know it's one of those 'well that depends' questions... say you're writing everyday for a couple hours ect... What do you think are the fundamental things to consider first when turning a draft into a next level novel?

My reply:

It depends.

Oh....wait. Goddamn it.

Okay, let me start with your second question.

Writing style is a living thing, kind of analogous to your personality. It will always be changing throughout your life. Morphing. Adapting. Refining. But thankfully not in a horrible human amoeba way like Tetsuo in Akira. Because that could just get messy.

Naaaaa Naaaaaa Na Na.  Ding!

Oh my god, that part where he stops the tank shell and blows up the bridge, and then they fight with the giant tubes snaking around....oh man, that was awesome! Wait...what was I talking about?

Steve's been watching 80s anime.

Oh right. Writing style.

When you're a young writer (by which I mean a starting writer, not necessarily a writer of a certain age–though writers who start physically older tend to move through the phase more quickly), your style can change quickly, dramatically, suddenly, and sometimes from day to day. (Much the same way a young person's personality can be mercurial.) You will probably even find that your style shifts wildly based on who you're reading (like some people's personalities change as they move between groups of friends). If you're reading a lot of Lovecraft, you will find your style becomes languid, almost Byzantine in its complexity and richness, forming several clauses in each sentence to spill out rich and detailed descriptions. Hemingway will make you clipped. You will use short declarative sentences. Reading me will make you verbose and take forever to get to the point.

Your style will solidify as you write. The longer you've been writing, the more sure you'll be of your inner voice and the less other authors' styles will influence you, even if you're binging on a single author harder than your Jessica Jones marathon. Much as older people will be more solid and confident about who they are even when around very different folk.

You'll never be completely free of influence or completely free of evolution. A casual glance at any prolific author's collected works will bear this out, as you will see their style change over the arc of the decades they wrote. But the difference between their first few works will often be noticeable and their last few will seem more solid.

Stephen King did a major post-publication revision on the first book of The Dark Tower series because he knew 1970's Gunslinger voice was very different from his early 2000s voice, and if you've ever Salem's Lot after Mr. Mercedes, you know he's not fucking wrong.

That sort of answers part of your "how long does it take" question, Li–it never really ends. However if you're wanting to know how long it takes on the short end to get really comfortable in your style as a writer, I'm not sure. However, I can leave you with this tidbit. Most writers don't publish the first novel they write. Few publish their second. Many many writers who publish their first or second book have written in other media for years first. If you're writing a couple of hours a day (and I mean religiously) it would probably take at least two or three years.

Really though, this is like the cheesy martial arts movies. I sip my tea and stroke my long pointy beard and tell you that only you can know for sure, Grasshopper. When you start to realize that you're ignoring most advice about prose and just writing how you're comfortable writing, you're getting close. Of course revision and editing work are still vital, and we all write sentences that need to be taken out behind the chemical shed and executed, but if you are pretty comfortable and most people say they understand you and enjoy writing, you're probably mostly there.

No, not THAT rewrite! 
As far as the most important thing you can do (which answers both your last question and the first one about grammar and tense/POV shifts and such) is not to try to "revise" your first draft within a word document. You really need to REWRITE your manuscript at least once. Print it out, mark it up, and start a completely new document. You can't imagine how much you're willing to slash and burn or completely change if you're committed to rewriting the whole thing anyway. And you won't believe how much people will try to fudge some genuine revision if they think they can keep big chunks of useless text. Your work will also be so much crisper in terms of grammar, plot holes, and such. After that second complete rewrite, your work is likely solid enough to survive being revised instead of rewritten. There are some philosophy differences among writers as to whether you should rewrite once, twice, or three times and revise four, five, or even eleven times, but almost every writer of merit highly recommends that the second draft be a complete rewrite, not a revision.

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