Recently, I was introduced to Katherine Luck's How to Write Like... blog. Katherine was kind enough to participate in the following interview:
How did you come up with the concept of the How to Write Like... blog?
Two things happened simultaneously in my writing career. First of all, I’d just published my second novel, The Cure for Summer Boredom, which was written in a very different “voice” than I’d ever used before—but it was still very true to my writing style. It’s set in a quirky, colorful town in Texas where all the characters are obsessed with Swedish culture. I’m from dour, gray Seattle, and my years spent working as a journalist and copywriter haven’t exactly encouraged a “quirky” or “colorful” writing voice. After I was finished writing the novel, I couldn‘t explain how I’d done that—write “not like me” yet still “totally like me.”
Second of all, I started a brand-new job. As a marketing copywriter, I’m used to changing how I write to suit the reader or customer. But this time, the company I was working for had a very, very different “corporate voice” than my previous employer—or anyone I’d worked for in the past.
It was such a dramatic change, in fact, that it got me thinking about the mechanics of “how to write like...” a Silicon Valley software engineer, Midwestern grandma, myself, and so forth. In the past, I’ve tried to figure out what makes the writing style of an author or a company unique by pure instinct. But now, I wanted to find a way to analyze, quantify, and reliably reproduce a particular style on command.
What do you hope other authors benefit from the How to Write Like... blog?
I’ve always been more interested in how a particular author wrote something than why they wrote it. And I usually have a hard time finding out the “how” part. Most authors, myself included, would rather talk about what inspired them to write a story—which family member influenced a certain character, why that trip they took to Spain in college was included in their memoir, and so on.
Writers are typically reluctant to explain the thought-process behind their word choices, paragraph structures, or intentional overuse of ellipses. But those structural elements play a huge part in making their work distinct from everyone else’s. Personally, I think this reluctance stems from the fact that most authors exactly aren’t sure how they do what they do. Taking a look at how other writers do it is a great way to learn more about your own style.
How do you choose authors for the blog?
I gravitate towards famous authors I’ve read in the past, whose work I’ve ether passionately loved or passionately disliked. And indie authors whose work is ground-breaking, unusually creative, or just plain rock-solid.
How do you approach analyzing different writing styles?
I have a pretty set system. First, I read as much of the author’s work as I can find. I take a ton of notes while I’m reading, and usually run a section of text through an online word-analysis program like wordcounter.net. Then, I try to write in their style. I approach it more like a literary forger rather than a satirist—I try to mimic their word choices, sentence structure, diction, and overall style. My goal is to produce something that would make an expert in that writer’s oeuvre stop and think, “Gee, maybe they really did write this!”
I publish the final product on my other blog, the-delve.com. So far, I’ve done Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, H.P. Lovecraft, Jane Austen, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nostradamus, and several others. Nostradamus was the hardest, by far.
It’s only after I’ve tried my hand at writing like a particular author that I go back and read up on their life, see what the experts believe are the key elements of their style, and, if I’m lucky, find out what the author had to say about their own work. I boil all this down into a “How to write like....” blog post and publish it on howtowritelike.com.
Has your analysis of various styles changed how you read books?
Oh, for sure! I’m a lot more aware of the “carpentry” as opposed to the McMansion itself now, if that makes sense. Rather than just looking at a piece of writing and seeing something I like or don’t like because of the plot, characters and theme, I tend to notice how many commas the author uses, how they vary their paragraph lengths, which adverbs (if any) they use, and so forth.?
Are there any authors or writing styles you have difficulty grasping?
Yep. William Faulkner and James Joyce are the two big ones that come to mind. I get what they’re doing, and I can satirize it pretty well, but I can’t accurately emulate it in a “fool the experts” way. Not yet, at least.
Do you have any suggestions for authors who straddle genres in a blended writing style?
I’ve definitely grappled with “genre-straddling” in my own novels. My first novel, In Retrospect, is a straightforward psychological thriller set in Seattle. But the next two both dip in and out of various genres.
The Cure for Summer Boredom bounces around between the conventions of the YA genre, magical realism, and satire. And my latest, False Memoir: Based on an Untrue Story, explores and subverts the tropes of conventional memoirs, journalism, and serial killer crime fiction.
The way I approach genre-straddling is to make sure I have a solid grasp of the style and voice I want the book to have long before I start writing. If your tone, diction and structure are consistent and deliberate, you can play around with the edges and gray areas of literary genres without disappointing your readers. I'm working on a fantasy novel set in a film noir world right now—we'll see how that goes!
In your opinion, should authors improve upon the style they know best, or should they venture out of their comfort zone to explore other styles?
Authors should venture out of their comfort zone, often and adventurously. Without change, your writing gets stale. The same metaphors start cropping up again and again, the same themes get reused, and your characters get flat because you’ve written about someone exactly like them many, many times. And you start using the same adjectives and verbs over and over. Once you find that you’re unconsciously self-plagiarizing like that, it’s time to shake things up by trying a completely new style on for size.
Which is better: encouraging authors to find their own unique voice, even though it might be more difficult to connect with readers, or emulate common writing ground, because that is what readership is most comfortable with and expects?
In my experience, this depends entirely on what stage of development a person is at as a writer. Some of the worst advice I’ve heard given to amateur writers is “Write like you speak.” When a still-developing author takes this to heart, the result tends to be incoherence. Their unique verbal tics, tone, spoken word emphasis, and so forth usually won’t translate well when downloaded directly from their brain to the page, and the final product tends to be weak at best and incomprehensible at worst.
The flipside of the coin is something I, and a lot of professional writers, struggle with. After years of churning out “professional voice” writing, like newspaper articles, ad copy, and press releases, it’s very hard to turn off that “professional voice” and write like ourselves. Sure, we can produce extremely coherent writing, but it’s often cold, impersonal and generic.
So, the answer is, it depends! You’ve got to be brutally honest with yourself. How developed are you as a writer? Can you explain your style and voice to someone else, or are you just winging it? Do you feel like you’ve effectively lost your unique voice over time? The answers to these questions will help you decide how you can best work on connecting with your readers.
I always like to end my interviews by asking if there is any question you wished the interviewer asked, and how would you answer it. This is the wild card question to talk about anything you'd like, even out of the scope of the interview.
Well, the big question I usually get is: What's the deal with the Japanese candy? When I imitate an author on the-delve.com, instead of writing a regular poem, short story or blog post, I write a review of a different type of Japanese candy. Why? Two reasons.
One, it’s something that none of these authors would ever have written about, so it’s an extra challenge for me. Can I convince readers that this is how ee cummings or Dorothy Parker or Nostradamus would write about Adzuki Bean KitKats or Green Tea Pocky? Plus, it’s a good faith way of indicating that I’m not really trying to trick anyone through literary forgery.
And two, I love Japanese candy!
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir: Based on an Untrue Story, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all.
You can read more of her work, including the Dead Writers and Candy series, at the-delve.com and howtowritelike.com.
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Last updated: 2019-05-02 07:02:19