Experiments in Style
My Experience Writing 13 Days of Dark & Weird
There’s really only one commandment for aspiring writers like myself: Read a lot, write a lot. The purpose of the former is to become familiar with what’s possible, what’s been done and what hasn’t, what works and what won’t. It’s an incredibly important part of any writer’s development, and luckily, a mostly pleasurable one.
Unfortunately for me, it’s something I kinda suck at.
See, I’m not widely read, I’m thinly read. I became a Stephen King junkie at age thirteen, and went on to read him almost exclusively until I finished the whole collection. Then, if I didn’t have something new to read, I’d go back and pick up one of my favorites and read it again. There was a period in my life where I read The Stand once a year. So I’m very familiar with Stephen King’s writing style, and most of my writing follows his formula of straight-forward prose, not because I’m consciously trying to imitate him, but because it just feels right when the words come out that way. It’s familiar. It’s what I know.
Gradually, though, I’m getting better at branching out, discovering new voices and new ways to achieve certain effects. The next step, then, is to attempt to implement those techniques and add them to my own toolbox. It was in this spirit of experimentation and growth that I decided to take on this particular version of the 13 Days of Dark & Weird. I wish the idea had been my own, but credit must go to my lovely wife, who suggested it to me. However, as soon as she said it, I knew it was brilliant, exactly what I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone and get better at what I love most, so I deserve some credit for listening.
I truly believe that these stories are the best I’ve ever written, not because of some fluke or momentary burst of imagination, but because of the conscious effort to try something new. But it’s not enough to see the results of an experiment; you have to know how it was done in order to understand why it works. Therefore, I’ve written a short discussion for each of these literary experiments of mine, outlining the author’s style and what I learned from forcing myself to write like the greats. I may not have hit every mark, but I certainly hit enough of them to make myself proud, and I’ll definitely be using some of the little tricks I picked up moving forward. And now, let’s get to the stories!
Author Style: Kurt Vonnegut
When I originally had the idea of a wormhole opening up in the Earth’s atmosphere, my mind went to all these dark, serious places, with world governments thrown into chaos and new religions replacing the old. But the simplicity and nonchalance with which Vonnegut’s fictional characters approached otherwise catastrophic events was too appealing, and The Hole in the Top of the World was born.
My biggest takeaway from Vonnegut’s work is that you really can do anything you want when it comes to writing. The thought of a single page chapter seemed completely laughable and childish… until I read Cat’s Cradle. Starting multiple sentences in the same paragraph with the same word or phrase sounds amateurish and lazy, but in this story I wrote an entire paragraph where every sentence begins with the word “My”, and I loved doing it. It felt like walking down Main Street buck naked and unashamed; in other words, it felt like literary freedom.
Author Style: Margaret Atwood*
A while back, I wrote a review of The Handmaid’s Tale, and my biggest criticism was Ms. Atwood’s use of language. Concept and story were both great, but her overly poetic, fragment-heavy stylings were a real buzzkill for me. So it’s more than a little hypocritical that I used her style in a story of my own. However, having walked in those shoes, I think my mind has been changed (slightly).
You see, a lot of writers, both practiced and new, try way too hard to make their words sound deep and meaningful. Oftentimes it comes out a clumsy mess, where the reader is left to find patterns in the static, pareidolia in print. Not my cup o’tea. But when used properly, poetry in prose can really drive a point home in a very powerful way, and that’s what I attempted to do here. I leave it for you to decide if I succeeded or not.
*A note to Ms. Atwood’s fans: I’ve been made to understand not all of her work is like this, but I’m afraid I only had one point of reference, so if I’ve misrepresented her work in some way, mea culpa.
Author Style: Douglas Adams
Telling a coherent story is hard enough, but to do it well and be funny? Next to impossible. But as a big fan of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series and the Monty Python absurdist humor that inspired it, I had to give it a go, though with a religious horror theme rather than sci-fi.
One of the things Adams does well with his comedy is to juxtapose points of view for comedic effect. Maybe the best example is this quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide:
For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.
I attempted to do the same in my characters interactions with each other, and also at the level of the story. Usually it’s the demon who’s offering a human a deal which is too good to be true, rather than the other way around. Something else Adams is good at is personifying inanimate objects, another technique I stole for this story. As fun as it was to write, this one was also a major challenge. TL:DR — Jokes are hard, y’all.
Author Style: Dr. Seuss
Sometimes, ridiculous combinations of words float through my mind and spark an idea. In this case, it was “Dr. Seuss” and “zombies”. And the sight, once seen, could not be unseen — I had to write this thing.
This one required a bit of research to do, as I’ve read maybe two Seuss books in my life and had no idea what anapestic tetrameter was. Thankfully, Wikipedia set me in the right direction. The first couple of paragraphs were tricky, and I had to force one or two rhymes, but once I got moving I found the words flowing into place quite naturally. Wish I could say the same for my sonnets. More on that later…
Author Style: H.P. Lovecraft
I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Lovecraft. I tried. I once bought a book of his short stories, started one, never finished it and never went back. Even in doing the research for this piece, I couldn’t finish The Call of Cthulhu. But he’s a mainstay of American horror, and I felt obligated to give it a shot.
Thankfully, his style is very distinctive, making it easy to pick apart. For example, half or more of his stories are named “The [blank] [of/at/in] [blank]”. He uses unnecessarily long sentences. The language is archaic (including spelling the word “show” as “shew”), as are the sensibilities of his characters. Above all, there’s a sense of helplessness before powers unknown. By focusing on these boundaries and setting the tale in a place I’ve actually visited, I was able to put together something I’m really proud of.
Author Style: Cormac McCarthy
I read No Country For Old Men back in 2007, around the time when the movie came out. One of the most striking things about the movie was the lack of a musical score; however, once I read the book, I completely understood. There’s something about the way McCarthy writes that is devoid of music. Instead, he simply lets the terrible implications of his words stand on their own. It’s impressive and powerful.
IF you can get past his style.
See, he’s set himself different rules when it comes to punctuation, and for some readers, it’s simply too difficult and cumbersome to enjoy. As a badge-wearing grammar sheriff, I HATED WRITING THIS STORY. But once I allowed myself to let go of the rules, I was able to focus on what really mattered, the words themselves, and I have to admit, the story’s stronger for it. I’m not quite ready to turn in the ol’ badge just yet, but maybe, MAYBE, I can see my way to being a little more lenient.
Author Style: William Shakespeare
Come on, I couldn’t not do Shakespeare. It’s his fault you all know what iambic pentameter is, even if you’d never ever in your life actually attempt it. And you know what, I wouldn’t blame you. I spent hours writing this single sonnet, and I’m still not happy with it. As if that weren’t bad enough, there were originally supposed to be three of them on the same theme, but I realized halfway through the second that I wouldn’t finish the whole set before the end of the challenge. After trying and failing, I have a much greater appreciation for those who can stick to such rigid rules and make it sound great. Also, it kinda makes me feel like a cheater for using free verse in my poems.
Author Style: Herman Melville
If Vonnegut taught me the joy of brevity and simplicity, then Melville has showed me the value of perseveration and ornamentation. Strunk and White be damned! I filled this thing with so many needless, superfluous, redundant, unnecessary words, and it was a blast. I also used a ton of needlessly long, convoluted sentences that require a map to navigate. Because of this, I quickly ran out of space to tell the story I originally envisioned; in fact, this is closer to an excerpt than an abridged version. That’s the price you pay, I guess.
In addition to the language, I used a few other devices to mimic Moby Dick — specifically, the inclusion of literary quotes as an introduction, and a discussion of bats that has nothing at all to do with the story. Also, this was inspired by my travels overseas, like Melville’s novels. I don’t think words can adequately capture the horrendous smell of bat guano, but I certainly tried.
So there you have it, friends! A guided tour down my path to improvement. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Once again I’d like to thank Daphelba and Julia for hosting this event and providing a home for my experiments. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some Christmas-themed stories to prepare…