I Write Like…


Earlier this week, a meme swept the Internet, permitting authors to plug in chunks of text, click a button, and determine which famous author’s writing most resembles that chunk.  (Which famous *male* author – with two exceptions – but that’s another blog post…)  Ever the sheep, I tested myself against the rest of the Internet world.

I write like Jack London.

But who am I kidding?  I write like Mindy Klasky.

I recently had occasion to read every word of my first five published novels – the volumes of the Glasswrights Series.  (I was reviewing them to prepare electronic files so that they can be available as e-books.  They were written far enough in the past that I did not have a final edited version on my computer system, because the final edited version was completed on paper, rather than electronically.)

That intense re-read (well over half a million words, in about ten days) taught me a lot about my own writing.  Even as far back as 2000, my prose had a familiar rhythm.  My sentence structure tended toward a parallel symmetry that I still use today.  My imagery was similar to the metaphors and similes I use today.  Even my annoying crutch words and phrases (“and then”, “for just an instant”, “though”, “were Xing” verb constructions) were the same – although I’ve become better at trimming them away from my finished text.

Years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the novels of John Steinbeck.  Steinbeck’s first, little-known novel was a pirate fantasy called CUP OF GOLD.  Most people ignore it as a journeyman work, a fable, nothing with the power and grandeur of, say, GRAPES OF WRATH.  But CUP *reads* like Steinbeck.  It contains a lot of his trope characters.  The bones of the sentences are there, ready to be revealed to the studious reader.  The themes about the nature of good and evil in mankind spring out of that earlier work, just waiting to be explored in future novels.

I used to dream about becoming a Nobel-prize-winning literary author.  I wondered how scholars would view my Glasswrights Series, whether they would find any links to my “serious” novels.  Now, with more than a decade of experience under my writing belt, I know that I’m not going to become a literary novelist.

But even if I did, I suspect that Scholars of the Future would be able to spot Klasky fiction a mile off.

How about you?  If you’re a writer, what aspects of your writing cross over from old books to new, from genre to genre?  And if you’re a reader, who are some of the most distinctive writers that you read?


26 comments to I Write Like…

  • I think a lot of these aspects that continue from work to work constitute a writer’s voice. But there are quirks and constants that seem to jump from work to work. For me, there are certain character types that always seem to pop up (sometimes unintentionally) — the sex or age might change but the personality is still there.

  • Okay, I had to try this thing out. First I put in the opening paragraphs from my pirate story in Rum and Runestones. Result: I write like Robert Louis Stevenson.

    Next I put in part of a “coming of age with aliens” story published in the anthology “Under the Rose”. Result: I write like Stephen King.

    Go figure. 🙂

  • There are several authors that I can recognize their writing isntantly but if you asked me to put a figner on exactly why or how – I could not answer you. It just feels like David B. Coe, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, or Terry Pratchett. The more I write, the more I see old themes, phrases, or characters make a new appearance but in a better form – a refined form.

    One thing I find myself doing is usig the “…” a lot, as well as a “-“. I want it to convey a slight hesitation and to provide an emotional tinge to the writing. However, I know editors tend not to like them much.

  • Mindy — You’ve already hit on one of my favorite writers of all-time, Steinbeck. I’ve not read Cuo of Gold, but now I’ll need to fish it off of my shelf and add it to the stack next to the bed.

    You’re right about his style and how it pervades everything, even his non-fiction (which are some of my favorites, esp. Travels With Charley and Log From the Sea of Cortez). I also particularly liked In Dubious Battle (which was something of a precursor to Grapes of Wrath), and The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. I’m really sorry he died befor he got to ‘translate’ the whole of Mallory’s work.

    I’m going to stop now; I feel like I’m doing less analyisis and more fan-boy drooling over my favorite author.

  • Although, I’ll also add that I went through a period of reading a lot of Russian authors, and it very quickly became clear that they ALL seem to have a certain style and feel in common. I don’t know that I could say exactly what it was, but there is a distnct Russianness that they all share.

  • My intent/goal/dream when I started writing was to write so well that every novel had its own style and no one could tell who had written it. Much like a really great actor puts on a new persona with each part. Nicolas Cage is *always* NC in his parts. No deviation. Kevin Costner is always KC. But Al Pachino, Robert Dinero — those guys are *actors*. Meryl Streep. Helen Mirren. They can be anyone, play any part, are *never* the same.

    Leonard Elmore has that gift in his writing — the writer equivalent of a great actor. I wanted to be like that.

    Those dreams die slowly over time. Though I still strive to give each series its own narrator voice and its own feel, my writing style is still my style. I can tell it’s mine. So can other people.

    That said, when my writing method changed from being hand written on legal pads and transposed to computer, to being created from word-one on computer, my writing style did change. It went from purple Southern lit thriller style (I was compared to Flannery, by the London Times reviewer {rolls eyes}) to contemporary Southern lit.

    After that, my style is just my style: heavy on descriptions, I like certain descriptive words that other writers seem to eschew, and usually first person POV. So, I guess I write Nick Cage? 🙂

  • Stuart – If you’re hitting RLS, I’d say you’ve got your pirate work down cold! I suspect that I triggered Jack London because the sections that I submitted had a character speaking in a country-type patois, which must be similar to the trappers, hunters, etc. that London captures. When I put in my contemporary fantasy-romance, I actually got Dan Brown, which struck me as odd, because my contemporaries are all first person and (intended to be) humorous!

    Mark – I’m rarely consciously aware of an author’s style, but reading vast amounts of an author certainly helps me to absorb those styles subconsciously. One of my first readers is a religious man who spends a lot of time reading the Bible – I find all sorts of religious turns of phrase in his writing (e.g., “the cup of James sat on the table” instead of “James’s cup…”)

    Edmund – Another Steinbeck fan! I truly enjoyed working with his texts – especially LOG OF THE SEA OF CORTEZ. (In early drafts, my thesis focused on Ed Ricketts a lot; I ended up expanding the theme substantially.) As for the Russians sounding similar, I wonder if that has to do with conventions among translators?

    Faith – Interesting comparison, with actors. Of course, actors are so *visible* in what they do, that there’s that whole added layer of recognition. (Then again, there are some actors who hide very well, even in plain sight. It took a long time before I could consistently recognize Toni Colette, for example!)

  • When I plugged in the first page of Mad Kestrel, I got Daniel DeFoe. The first pages of my two WIPs gave me Stephen King. And my LiveJournal resulted in James Joyce. A combination that left me somewhat befuddled. 😀

    When I first started writing, I wanted to be just like Tim Powers. His stories are multilayered and brilliant, the result of extensive research and a wildly inventive imagination. I know I write like me, but I still try to remember all the aspects of Tim’s work that I love, and translate that to my own style to make my writing rich and complex.

  • Mindy K> Interesting post! I did the little “you write like…” thing and I got David Foster Wallace, whom I’ve not read.

    In my own work I tend toward parallels, I like groups of threes, and I tend to follow long sentences with short fragments. Like this. 🙂

    As for Steinbeck, I haven’t read Grapes of Wrath, for which I’m a bit ashamed as I am from the region (grew up in Bakersfield, CA) and my dad’s folks came from West Texas during the dustbowl. And my great grandfather (mom’s side) was the only person on the city counsel who voted against banning GoW in Bako–he even got a letter for Steinbeck, which we no longer have. I’ll have to pick it up.

  • I can understand why you focused on Rickets; he’s a fasciating character. I confess that I saw the movie, Cannery Row (starring Nick Nolte and Deborah Winger, worth seeing if you haven’t) before I read the book. In fact, the movie was what lead me to the book, which in turn lead me to the semi-sequel, Sweet Thursday, which actually turned out to be more of the basis for the Cannery Row movie than the book, Cannery Row (that was convoluted; I hope it made sense). When I finally read Log From The Sea of Cortez and realized Ed Rickets was the basis for Doc, I coudn’t have been more tickled. I love to see life and art circle around and come together that way.

  • BTW, as for the Russian writers, I don’t think it was the translators, because that feeling of Russianness came not from word choices and sentence construction but from the author’s way of looking at the world and the people in it. I wish I could put my finger on what exactly it was, but there is something distinct about it, something that feels cultural. Just like the way that the Russians live is distinct from how western Europeans live, so too the way they write is also distinct. And Pre-Soviet era writers and and post-Soviet writer all have that same feel to them, so it’s not about politics, it’s something cultural on a much deeper level.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sorry, this comment is a bit of a side-note to the discussion, but one of my favorite fantasy authors – sometimes when I’m reading her work I’ll pause at a sentence and think, “That’s how I would have written it.” I know that trying to emulate others can lead to missing what we ourselves can best bring to our work, but those moments give me a little bit of hope that maybe one day I’ll have a finished book and it will be something that maybe someone else would enjoy reading.

  • Okay, I plugged my work in and got “Dr. Seuss.”

    Actually, I’ll go and check this out next. Sounds like fun. I think….

    I’m certain that my style has many constants, even as I’ve improved my craft and tightened my prose. I rely on dialogue and the physical/facial reactions of my characters. I have certain character types who show up again and again. My descriptions are often broad stroke but with a few key specific details thrown in. Don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it is me.

    And for you Steinbeck fans, he has a King Arthur novel that was wonderful. He died before he finished, so it ends abruptly and didn’t get much attention. But it’s beautifully written and interesting to read.

  • I think that site (I write like…) is a bit too content driven. I tried it with several passages from different works and got the following results: Nabokov, Le Guin, Palahnuik, Nabokov again, RL Stevenson, Stephen King, and James Joyce. What do these writers have in common? Well, apparently they all write like I do….

  • QUOTE: What do these writers have in common? Well, apparently they all write like I do….

    HAHAHA! Well put!

    I evidently change my style based on what I’m writing and the character/narration voice I’m using. I tried 5 different novels I’ve started, the first one (epic sci-fi romance) came up Douglas Adams, the second (dark urban fantasy) was William Shakespeare, the third (epic sci-fi/fantasy romance) was Edgar Allan Poe, the fourth (witty epic fantasy) was Stephen King, and the fifth (a Bildungsroman style epic fantasy) was Tolstoy. Hrmm…

  • I think that voice has *something* to do with it. As I’ve said elsewhere, I entered my first-person, present-tense WIP and got Tolkien, but my very different personal Livejournal gave me Dan Brown.

    Mindy, not that I’ve analyzed your work heavily, but for some reason I hear a specific voice from you in your Mira/Red Dress Ink books. And when I think about it, I remember the Glasswrights and yes, there was a similar pattern to your storytelling. 🙂

    Some of my writing friends had fun with the site over the last few days. The results were mostly funny and slightly upsetting. “How can I write like Lovecraft?” asked one. “I’ve never even read him!”

    Still, it’s fun to joke around with. And in some cases, motivating. Tolkien? Cool!

  • So I thought I’d have a little fun with this. I put in several lines from Romeo & Juliet. Apparently, William Shakespeare writes like James Joyce.

  • I’d be very surprised to find that that writing analysis thingie is anything but random.

    As far as authorial voice goes, I have found that mediocre writers all sound the same to me: If you gave me random paragraphs, I couldn’t tell who wrote which. On the other hand, those who in my judgement rise above the average–Powers, Crowley, Kingsolver, Márquez–have distinctive, individual voices. I’m not talking about characters or themes, just writing style.

    But, as Mark Wise said, I could not point to any collection of elements to say what it is that makes their style uniquely their own. And taking text analysis to that level would just kill it for me anyway. Some things we are not meant to know. 😉

  • Misty – James Joyce *always* leaves me somewhat befuddled 🙂 When I first started writing, way back in middle school, my model was Katherine Kurtz – I was completely enthralled by the detail of her description of a magic-bound Catholic church. I still remember the bitter disappointment I experienced when I took a week off from my first job, to head to the beach and edit my first novel, bringing along a dog-eared copy of DERYNI RISING to keep me company. At the time, I thought that I would *never* equal Kurtz’s writing. (My tastes have changed over the years, as has Kurtz’s writing, but I think that role models are Very Good Things.)

    pea_faerie – Interesting that you got Wallace – in all the reports I’ve seen, no one else has said that they got him! For Steinbeck studies – GRAPES is his most famous work, but I’ve always had a not-so-secret soft-spot for EAST OF EDEN. I had always been taught that GRAPES was banned because of a not-really-all-that-graphic scene at the end of the novel; I only recently read accounts of its being banned because of the socialist sympathizing (which, really, makes so much more sense. I feel foolish for not having thought of it before!)

    Edmund – There’s a long out of print scholarly book called STEINBECK AND RICKETTS, which focuses on the two men, and on the evolution of Doc’s character. (It also changed the focus of my thesis, because I was going to write essentially the same thing, until I discovered the existing book. As for CANNERY ROW, I enjoyed the movie (even if it wasn’t, as you note, mostly from that book.) I *love* the description in the book, where she realizes that if she moves slowly and imitates what he’s doing, she’ll look sophisticated, even when confronting unknown challenges, like eating lobster. Oh – and about the Russians – I think that there *are* deeply ingrained social conventions in most (all?) cultures. I haven’t read enough Russian lit to comment intelligently, though, on universals there.

    Hepseba – side notes always welcome! I, too, love those moments of discovery in great writing, when you say, “I would have done that.” (Or even better, “I would never have thought to do that, but it’s perfect!”)

  • David – I found your descriptions of your commonalities interesting; I’ll have to review mine more completely. (I know that I describe a lot of facial expressions, but not so many other bodily reactions…) Oh – you made me laugh with your Dr. Seuss comment. I agree that the site is content-influenced, although I’d actually say that Nabokov and Joyce have some things in common (e.g., wordplay…)

    Daniel – I just have to say that Bildungsroman is one of my absolute favorite English-major words 🙂

    Moira – I agree that my Mira/RDI books have a similar tone (I think, an almost-identical one!) I was surprised to see, though, how much of that tone was born out of my rather grim fantasy novels! As you note, it’s more “pattern” of writing, than actual tone in similarity. It’ll be interesting to see if my category romances “feel” the same!

    Stuart – Apparently Margaret Atwood put in her own work and was informed that she writes like – I think it was Shakespeare!

    Wolf – I don’t think it’s entirely random (given the similar responses that I got for similar inputs), but I don’t think it’s a highly evolved science. I agree with you about many above-average authors having distinctive voices. I still remember sweating out my departmental comprehensive exams – one day was entirely short essays, identifying the authors of 24 excerpts, explaining how they were typical of the author’s oeuvre. (If one couldn’t identify the specific author, one babbled about how the selection represented a school of literature. I think that I only hit 8 or so bang on, with actual knowledge, but I made it through 🙂 )

  • Sarah

    I think when people write, even writers who are skilled enough to vary their voice, style and content, our writing shows the language closest to our hearts, what Richard Rodriquez called the mother tongue – not only the language we grew up with but the language that speaks most deeply to who we are as people.

    I read LoTR years ago, several times. It remained vivid in my mind and a definite formative influence, but I can’t write like that to save my life. When I try it comes out stilted and clunky, like an amateur imitation of the King James Bible. It wasn’t until I got a degree in Anglo-Saxon literature including several classes in actual Old English that I realized Tolkien really does write like an Old English poet right down at the sentence grammar level. (I will spare you a lecture on hypotaxis and parataxis and such things.) Realizing this helped me understand why I don’t and can’t write that way. Tolkien knew the language right down in his bones. It spoke to something in his heart. I can muddle through an Old English poem, enjoy the kennings, etc, but the language in my head, my “mother tongue” is actually New England dialect and Bible. I grew up with a set of rural Vermont relatives. I also grew up hearing a combination of the NIV and KJ Bible. And when I got to college I fell in love with a certain type of epic, rolling, almost heroic, but slightly ironic academic prose. The people and narrative voices I write always seem to come out of one or other of those three sources or other. I can’t abandon these sources, so I just try to polish them.

  • Mindy> That response to Wolf was interesting. When I give exams in my English Lit Survey Course (Anglo-Saxon through Restoration) the midterm has text ids. I give students passages and ask them to give me the author, the work, the speaker (if there is one), the significance, etc. I spend time reviewing and talking about how we can tell what author it is, even if we don’t immediately recognize the passage for plot. Things like “is it poetry or prose” and “is it clearly a modern translation” and “is it in rhymed couplets”? We also talk about content. Like “gee, this is about authority on marriage and this speaker’s authority based on being married five times, so it probably is NOT Beowulf or Julian of Norwich, who was an anchorite, right?”

    I suppose you could do the same thing with modern authors. Content would be my first go-to. But after that, style would be distinct to a point. Though no modern novelists that I know of write entirely in verse anymore. Alas (maybe).

  • mudepoz

    Okay, from the reader’s POV. The Tall Dude in my life has been forcing me to decide what books get to stay. What books get to go to the attic. What books are actually for research. What books are hiding under the bed that…oh, never mind about those. Anyhow, I’ve noticed as I cull my collection to only books that I have to keep or are signed is that they all share a common trait.

    Books that I only need a few bars to say, yes, I know you. I expect a good tale, yet I won’t be tricked into thinking, oh just a rehash of Book A.
    Robert Heinlein. Whether his YA or his adult, it takes only a few paragraphs to nail it.

    Tolkein. I admit, not my favorite author, but I know him. I have been fooled by a few others, but not often.

    Anne McCaffrey. Her first books. I still wonder about some before her son started writing.

    That leads me to the great question: when certain series that you knew were written by an author no longer taste the same, are they actually by the same author. Just signed me Puzzled. Oh, and drugged. Blame everything on the drugs.

  • mudepoz

    IT IS THE DRUGS. That was so not what I wanted to say. Sort of. Heinlein, Tolkein, and McCaffrey are authors I can taste. I recognize certain nuances, use of words, unique thoughts that I still taste, the subtlety of various vanilla icecreams. Which reminds me… oh and as a consumer of your fine works, I think it is a GOOD thing that you are still tasty no matter what the book, but not rehashing or changing like a car accident.

    I can tell you of an author who used an unusual name in both her first books and her more recent, but not the same character. She also seems drawn to small flying things. Must be some reason I’m drawn to her books. I find the same things in some of my favorite dog mystery writers. Found a book in the Harlequin line up, knew who it was, and yuppers, she was the dog mystery writer.
    Sorry. Really. Too much time on my hands and too sore to read for any length of time. Sucks

  • Sarah

    Mindy – I had to laugh at what you said about exams. I remember it well. During my MA oral I completely blanked on the names Marlowe and Kurtz in my discussion of Heart of Darkness. I plowed on, deliberately using vague pronouns in my discussion until one of the examiners said “Do you mean Kurtz or Marlowe?” Bing! The light went on. Frankly, I don’t think they were fooled, but I did pass so it was good enough.

  • Catching up, after having been out of town for a long weekend…

    Sarah – I haven’t read Richard Rodriguez for years – thanks for the reminder! I found your example of LotR to be particularly close to home, as my first full-length novel was a (now admittedly) awful fanfic set in Middle Earth. Part of what made it so awful was my attempt to imitate Tolkien without truly understanding how and what he was doing with language.

    pea_faerie – our exam had certain rules, including “you can’t write about the Old English selection unless you can translate it completely”, so that students didn’t just write a generic essay about Beowulf. The standard was more relaxed for Middle English, and the test writers always went out of their way to choose a non-Chaucer segment (my year, it was from Piers Ploughman, which I had just read for another class, so I felt especially lucky…) Part of the skill demanded of the test was the sort of intuition that you describe!

    mudepoz – I hope you’re well on the road to recovery! As an author, I admit that I have certain details I like to return to again and again – and ones that I purposely delete from finished text because they’re just too similar to earlier works. I was intrigued by a discussion I read a few months ago where a Harlequin category romance author was asking her readers if they would mind if she re-used a hero’s name for a totally new character, because she really liked it. That seemed … odd to me – I love learning about my characters’ unique traits – one of which is a name!

    Sarah – I used to enjoy that sort of verbal fencing that came with too much academic pressure and not enough time… The roundabout ways to describe characters until the penny finally dropped and I could remember what they were called… Or the Music 101 final, when I could remember every note of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, but not its name…