Style is a funny thing. When you start out, you write like your current favorite author. I still remember with some embarrassment my Hemingway phase (I think all writers go through this) when I actually tried to follow his advice and start the day with a shot of whiskey Don’t do this, by the way. It was terrible advice. I also wrote lots of short sentences (“He went to the river. The river was there.”) and had lovers talk asynchronously as if they weren’t in the same conversation.
I was very fortunate to have a creative writing professor tell me very gently that it was perfectly normal to ape someone else’s style while you were finding your own but a bad thing to make a permanent habit.
It was good advice but I’ve always been a bit leery of his belief that style would come to you in time. I think it was always there, like a natural force pushing me toward writing the words I felt comfortable with. Maybe a better way to describe it is as an internal need to use my own words instead of someone else’s.
So when I started putting little homages to Kurt Vonnegut in my stories, they naturally worked their way out in rewrites when I used my own language. The same thing happened in my Heinlein phase and my Herbert phase and so on. I kept coming back to my own style because that was what felt right to me.
The problems that took me so long to overcome were subject matter and character development. I remember sitting at a traffic light in Leesburg, Virginia just fuming about my latest attempt at a novel. I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what was wrong with it. I could read it and it sounded fine but there was something about that story that rang false like bad key on an otherwise perfectly tuned piano.
I wish I could explain how I came to the conclusion that my characters were cardboard cutouts but it literally struck from the blue. The light turned green and I suddenly couldn’t wait to get home and start another draft. I was mad for the work and wrote like I had a devil on my shoulder. Tellingly, the new draft came out twice as long as the first.
A few days into the process I got a call from an agent to whom I’d sent the earlier, skinnier version. She was enthusiastic but had some qualms. I cut her off by saying, “I know, it’s the characters. I’m working on it right now.” Three weeks later I sent her the new manuscript and she signed me right away, going on and on about how much the readers had liked it and how they were all going on about how it was going to be a big hit.
As for subject matter, that’s a much more humbling story but not a unique one. The first time I knew I wanted to be a writer was while watching the movie “20 Million Miles To Earth” on Saturday morning in fourth grade. As soon as the movie was over, I wrote my first ever short story, which, oddly enough, turned out to be a retelling of the movie.
I’ve spoken before about the wall of science fiction paperbacks we had in the house. No matter where we moved, and we moved a lot, I had access to a full library of science fiction from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny and even some Harlan Ellison thrown in for good measure. Fifth through eighth grade I was never without a book.
I read constantly and always science fiction or fantasy or crime, but when it came time to write my first novel I was frankly ashamed of my obsession with genre fiction. That shame pushed me to write mainstream stories that weren’t very good, mostly because I wasn’t using my language. And then I flat couldn’t come up with anything to write about because my head was full of the God Emperor of Dune, not a troubled marriage in Scarsdale.
So I basically gave up on writing for a long time, a hiatus that ended when I decided to do what I loved and started writing science fiction, fantasy, and crime novels for fun and absolutely no profit. I did get an editor to offer me a contract with that first mainstream novel but I wasn’t happy with writing again until I went full genre.
Good writing comes from honesty. If you can’t even be honest with yourself about what you like to write, you’re in for some pain.