How not to write like yourself. Or keeping prose at a manageable level.

Posted: April 10, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

This month’s feature article is taking more research time than expected, so it’s more off-topic.  I just finished a trilogy of novels and I won’t name them as this isn’t a review.  The first was one of the most original ideas I’ve ever seen.  The entire first book was from the position of the antagonist, who you think is the protagonist.  As she doesn’t follow the story arc that we expect from a character, you begin to hate her as a reader.  Then, at the end of the book when you demand for her to suffer, you find out she’s the series villain.  It’s like if the Star Wars prequel trilogy had been good and the next time you watched the classics, you actually hated Darth Vader as much as Leia does when he traffic-stops her Corvette.  Then the following novels are pretty much standard fare and a complete disappointment.  Not only because they follow a too-standard formula, but because the author forgets how to not write every character from her own perspective.

Prose is a form of literary expression.  Literally it just means ‘straight forward delivery of concept.’  In literary slang, it references when an author follows an obvious formula.  You will often hear someone refer to a specific person’s prose or style of prose.  They mean an arbitrary formula, like the prose structure, that the author always follows, even if that person is say, a poet and writes in verse, rather than prose structure.  Sorry for that, but many people don’t understand the actual meaning of the word, so I had to interrupt to explain.

In the worst case (and most of it’s modern use), the word is condescending.  When an author is accused of it in the negative, it usually means they are allowing their own opinions and perspective to obviously influence the narrative.  The worst thing about this is that it is the most basic human nature.  Until recently, the majority of stories told by humans were for the benefit of the teller.  People wrote history to make them look good, myths glorified the local beliefs while demonizing foreigners.  Even poetry often served no purpose but to boast the author and belittle other poets.  The idea of stepping outside of ourselves and intentionally creating characters that many others can identify with is as relatively new as the novel.  Also the concept of critics with enough time to notice how many times you use the same phrase is as relatively new as the novel as well.  Nobody ever criticized the bible for the overuse of “And thus…”

For example, in the novels that inspired this article, every time a character makes a brazen statement, the author writes “…he/she stated baldly.”  I stopped counting at over 30 uses of the same turn of phrase.  When many alternatives are available, such as:  “…wearing his mind clearly on his sleeve.” or “without decorum” or even just boldly or brazenly instead of ‘baldly’ for a sentence.  When the chapters are written in the perspective of different characters, but all of their inner monologues sound like the author herself, you have an obvious prose problem.

And here we come to the meat of it (did you see that?  I started a sentence with And, like Tolkien and the Bible).  How do you not write like yourself?  Besides the obvious retort of: “Listen to your editor, moron,” there’s more to it.  The hardest thing is listening more to the criticism you hate than the criticism you can handle.

If someone tells you that they just can’t believe your characters, it’s probably because you just based them on your perception of people you know.  Our own perspective is always warped.  The way we see the people close to us is always clouded by emotions we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge.  Things like envy, buried lust, loathing and private sanctimony color the way we view even the people we care about the most, meaning you can never truly know how you feel about most people.  This is why you should only sparingly base characters off your close friends and family and only in parts.  Otherwise you may find for example that you base a shady character in your story off someone you believe to be untrustworthy.  If that is just your unfair assumption and doesn’t fit with the rest of their personality, you have just created an unlikely character.  It’s always much easier in the end to create a whole and believable person that you could see yourself being or you can somehow imagine.  Whether it be someone you once were but aren’t anymore, or someone you could see yourself becoming.  Don’t even try to write inner monologues of people you can’t understand.  For the secondary characters, stick to third person.  Never try to create a living breathing version of your biases and criticisms unless you are writing humor.

As far as literal prose goes, it’s important to have at least one person read your work who doesn’t know you.  People who have read your stuff for years are used to your overuse of the word ‘baldly.’  They might read three 700 page novels of it and not even comment.  Having someone who absolutely hates the genre on general principle is a good idea too.  They will be nitpicking from the start and are far more likely to notice if you begin eight chapters with: “Then, suddenly…”

Above all be humble.  One thing I’ve noticed is if you write in a very provocative style, people are hesitant to openly criticize it.  They may agree with you 90%, but not want to criticize the other ten, because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of that sharp tongue.  If possible, glue your mouth shut and nod after the first criticism, so they continue.  If you immediately jump to your own defense, they may clam up and you will hate yourself years later when you realize what they could have told you then: there is an obvious hole in your work that you can’t see because you’re you.

  1. lagunawsu2 says:

    “It’s like if the Star Wars prequel trilogy had been good and the next time you watched the classics, you actually hated Darth Vader as much as Leia does when he traffic-stops her Corvette. ”

    Epic win, and very much your voice.

    • ryanlecocq says:

      You like that? Every time I write about a literary form I put in surreptitious examples like Easter eggs. Did you notice I wrote a whole article in couplet a few months back?

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