Be Yourself Because It’s Too Damn Hard To Be Somebody Else
Robert Parker did his doctoral dissertation on Raymond Chandler, so when Putnam needed somebody to complete Chandler’s last novel, Poodle Springs, they called on Parker. He did a magnificent job of mimicking Chandler’s style, but when Putnam asked him to write another Chandler, he declined. It was just too damn hard writing in somebody else’s voice, even a voice he knew as well as he knew Chandler’s. And now I know what he was talking about.
The assignment for the third McDaniel module in the first romance writing course was to write an original fragment of a fictional narrative in the style of one of the romance novels we had read for the course. Micki, one of our Argh people, asked if I’d do the assignment with them, and I said, “Sure.” I took three of the different authors we studied and rewrote the start of a WIP I’ve had on ice for awhile, trying to make the same narrative choices they did and adapting individual phrases to try to capture their voices. The exercises are short, only about four hundred words each, but I almost lost my freaking mind. The urge to lapse into my own style was overwhelming. I don’t know how Parker did it for an entire novel.
Rather than tell you what happened as I mutilated the styles of three writers I admire, I thought I’d show you. The first three beginning excerpts below are my exercises, followed by my notes on their styles and my reactions to mimicking them, mostly whining about wanting to write more dialogue. The fourth excerpt is the original beginning to my WIP.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!”
Alice Archer tossed her long straight white-blond hair, almost dislodging the black stocking tied carelessly on top of her head, and leaned her hip on the desk, one hand in the front pocket of her long black jersey hoodie, the other rubbing the side of her black-and-white-striped leggings.
Emma Broadbent regarded her cautiously. “Did you reach your parents?”
“They’re out of town, Miss Broadbent. I called my uncle. He’s coming in.”
“Oh.” Emma observed the girl who was her most disconcerting student. Alice was tall and slender, exotic and odd and mature in a faintly ominous way, gliding through the halls as if she owned the school, wearing Mary Janes that commandos would wear if commandos wore Mary Janes.
Alice had been an anomaly since she’d entered the school at eight. Each succeeding year, she was at the top of her class without ever dominating the classroom, popular without ever being at the center of any one group, admired without ever being mimicked. It was as if the girl was there but not there, a fifteen-year-old but not a teenager, staring back at everyone across an invisible divide. “She’s never any trouble,” her teachers all said, but they said it nervously, as if the fact that she’d never been any trouble didn’t mean there wasn’t something big coming down the road, that if Alice Archer ever decided to make trouble, it would be something that possibly they couldn’t handle, that possibly the school couldn’t handle, that possibly the universe couldn’t handle.
“Alice, I think I should probably talk to your parents, not your uncle.”
“Southie’s a good guy,” Alice said. “He’s probably easier to talk to than my dad.”
Anybody would be easier to talk to than Alice’s dad; his cool disinterest was terrifying in its competence and disconcerting in its extreme handsomeness. That kind of power had to be genetic. You couldn’t learn to be like North and Alice Archer, it had to be buried in your DNA.
“You’re a lot like your dad,” Emma said.
“He’s my stepfather. My parents are dead.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’m well-adjusted, I get good grades, and I have no cavities. North and Andie have the parenting thing covered.”
Heaven, Texas, Susan Elizabeth Phillips:
Starts with dialogue from first line.
POV character describes hero in his head, gives back story, without betraying anything of his own character; focus is entirely on hero, mythologizing him. Observer narrator.
Moves into colloquial dialogue, lots of white space on the page.
Gestures and details:
Hero’s clothes, walk
POV character’s unwilling admiration
POV character’s straightening papers to gain time, composure
“regarded him cautiously,” “observed the man who was his most important client”
My Reaction: Really interesting to see how Susan gets her hero in place as such a larger than life character. I had a hard time not characterizing the observer narrator, but his anonymity is why the hero is so front and center. I also had a hard time not skipping all the observations and just letting them talk: Dialogue is my life.
It made sense that North Archer’s daughter would be as cool and damn-your-eyes as her son-of-a-bitch father.
The fact was, teacher’s conference or no teacher’s conference, Bradley Stanton muttered those words into Alice’s teacher’s ear as they stood looking at the slender, raccoon-eyed fifteen-year-old girl standing in front of them.
Emma Broadbent ignored her principal. She didn’t want Alice to feel as though she were in trouble. Alice was in enough trouble already without adding that. The whole school was talking about Alice seeing ghosts. Half the students thought she was crazy, and the other half thought she had special powers, and both halves thought she was awesome. That’s what Kellie, the girl who’d ratted her out had called her, talking about how she’d stood in that storeroom and faced down a ghost and been just awesome. Kellie hadn’t seen the ghost, but she’d known it was there because it had gotten really cold in the storeroom and because Alice had said so and Alice was, well, awesome.
It had been pretty clear that Alice did not feel the same way about Kellie and her big mouth.
Wasn’t it interesting, Emma mused, that Alice did nothing to court the admiration of her fellow students and got it regardless, just by being Alice. Emma liked to think of her as Ohio’s Buffy; if vampires showed up, she was absolutely certain that Alice would pull out her number two pencil, jab viciously to the right and the left taking out all comers, and then return to her multiple choice test, acing it.
She remembered the first time she’d seen Alice walk into her classroom. The other kids had jostled each other in the doorway, but nobody had jostled Alice. Nobody would dare.
Alice Archer stood very still, waiting patiently as her English teacher and her school principal watched her.
“Did you reach your parents, Alice?” the principal said.
His voice was kind of smarmy, like he knew something she didn’t but he didn’t want to make her mad. Or probably didn’t want to make her father mad. She could have told him that North almost never got mad at anybody and never got mad at her, so if he was thinking he was going to get her in trouble, he was wrong as usual.
“They’re out of town, Mr. Stanton.” Alice and braced herself to receive his reaction.
Montana Sky, Nora Roberts:
Starts in a character’s head who’s never heard from again to provide an over view of the story. Observer narrator.
Talks about the protagonist’s father, not the protagonist. All back story.
POV character gives back story without ever thinking of his own life.
Thinks in vernacular.
Then switches into protagonist’s POV
All interior monologue, ending with short dialogue, slightly formal speech.
Gesture and detail:
Start with the unanchored hook, interior monologue: “Being dead didn’t make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch.”
Muttering into companion’s ear about the protagonist. “The fact was, funeral or no funeral, Bethanne Mosebly muttered those sentiments inot her husband’s ear”
“Wasn’t it interesting,” mused.
Details are all internal monologue, not much gesture until end when switches into protag’s POV; even then she “stood still,” “braced herself,” passive not active.
My Reaction: It made me crazy to write without dialogue for so long. And again, hard time not characterizing the observer narrators. Fun writing all that back story, though.
Three sharp raps on the metal door frame signaled that her student conference had arrived. She pulled out her chair, positioned as always under the big blond wood teacher’s desk, and sat down, motioning for her student to come in.
Alice Archer, a slender, raccoon-eyed fifteen-year-old girl, walked into the room as if she owned it, acknowledging Emma with a cautious nod. Emma cleared the papers from in front of her and motioned her to a seat, but Alice remained standing.
Emma knew from her own experience that Alice wasn’t just in trouble, she was troubled, and troubled teenagers could not be ignored. “Did you reach your parents, Alice?”
“They’re out of town, Miss Broadbent.” Alice leaned against the desk, one hand in the front pocket of her long black jersey hoodie, the other rubbing the side of her black-and-white-striped leggings.
With a concerned expression, Emma leaned forward. “Do you have someone taking care of you?”
Alice nodded. “I called my uncle. He’s coming in.”
At fifteen, Alice was a striking girl, the only student Emma ever felt disconcerted by. Alice, with her long straight white-blond hair tied carelessly on top of her head with what looked like a black stocking, was exotic and odd and mature in a faintly ominous way.
Emma put the heels of her sensible flats together under the desk and reminded herself that she was the teacher here, and then remembered that Alice didn’t wear sensible flats, Alice wore the kind of Mary Janes that commandos would wear if commandos wore Mary Janes. She towered over Emma now, would still tower over her if Emma stood up, at least six inches taller. Emma had once described it as trying to talk to statue; Alice came with her own pedestal.
Emma shuffled through the papers on her desk again, trying to find the report she’d filled out on Alice. She needed to have details to deal with Alice. She needed even more to deal with Alice’s father, and now, probably his uncle.
“Southie’s a good guy,” Alice said reassuringly into her silence. “He’s probably easier to talk to than my dad.”
With all seriousness, Emma replied, “I really should be talking to your father.”
Indigo, Beverly Jenkins:
Doesn’t identify the POV character until the second paragraph
Drops in exposition; semi-omniscient (doesn’t break POV but moves out of Hester’s thoughts)
Lots of action, not a lot of dialogue.
Rich description. Lots of modifiers (although doesn’t abuse adverbs)
No antagonist so doesn’t break scenes at climaxes; no classic scene structure
Almost no dialogue (this is KILLING ME).
Gesture and detail:
Starts with sound: “Three loud thumps”
Precise description: “the rocker, positioned as always in front of the big bay window”
Used action in place of dialogue “acknowledged Hester with a terse nod”
Distant third person: “Hester knew from her own experience . . .” “With a shocked expression, Hester turned his way.”
My Reaction: I never realized I had such an addiction to dialogue until I did these three exercises. It took everything I had not to let these people talk.
Emma Broadbent smiled across her desk at the slender, raccoon-eyed fifteen-year-old girl standing in front of her. She didn’t want Alice to feel as though she were in trouble. Alice was in enough trouble already without adding that. “Did you reach your parents, Alice?”
“They’re out of town, Miss Broadbent.” Alice leaned against the desk, one hand in the front pocket of her long black jersey hoodie, the other rubbing the side of her black-and-white-striped leggings. “I called my uncle. He’s coming in.”
“Oh,” Emma said, a little at a loss around the girl, the only student she ever felt at a loss around. Alice with her long straight white-blond hair tied carelessly on top of her head with what looked like a black stocking was exotic and odd and mature in a faintly ominous way.
Emma put the heels of her sensible flats together under the desk and tried to remind herself that she was the teacher here, and thought instead that Alice didn’t wear sensible flats, Alice wore the kind of Mary Janes that commandos would wear if commandos wore Mary Janes. Some day, Alice would wear stilletos as if she were barefoot. You just have to be born to that, Emma thought, and wondered what it would be to glide through life as if it were a cakewalk instead of dotting all her I’s and crossing all her T’s, checking behind her in case she’d forgotten something—
“Southie’s a good guy,” Alice said reassuringly into her silence. “He’s probably easier to talk to than my dad.”
Anybody would be easier to talk to than Alice’s dad; his cool disinterest was terrifying in its competence and disconcerting in its extreme handsomeness.
“You’re very like him,” Emma said.
“He’s my stepfather,” Alice said. “My parents are dead.”
“Oh.” Emma felt like hell. “I’m so sorry.”
“My mother died when I was born. My dad died eight years ago. I’m over it.”
“Oh,” Emma said again and kicked herself. You’re thirty-two and you can’t hold your own against a fifteen-year-old, she told herself, but to fair, the fifteen-year-old was Alice Archer.
“It’s okay,” Alice said. “I’m well-adjusted, I get good grades, and I have no cavities. North and Andie have the parenting thing covered.”
Emma smiled brightly at her. “Well, that’s—”
There was a knock on the door frame and she looked over to see a brown-haired version of North Archer—tall, good-looking, well-dressed, and absolutely confident—raising his eyebrows at her.
“Miss Broadbent,” he said, and Emma thought, Oh, hell, another Archer.
“I’m Sullivan Archer, Alice’s uncle.” He came in and looked at Alice with great affection. “What have you done now, Trouble?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Alice said. “Except say the wrong thing in front of Kellie who cannot keep her mouth shut.”
“Well, we’re done with Kellie then,” Sullivan Archer said amiably.
He switched his smile to Emma, who smiled back. Anyone would have.
“Can you release her to my custody? I’m sure we’ve got an ankle bracelet around the place that’ll keep her grounded for a week.”
Ghost of a Chance, Jennifer Crusie:
Thank god. Dialogue.