bookmark_borderThinking in Style

I sometimes absorb writing styles from my reading, then use that voice in my head as I’m thinking to myself.

Do other people do this?


The most recent example was the other night when I started The Twelve, by Justin Cronin. The title came to me via some reading list so I had no idea who Justin Cronin is or what kind of novel The Twelve might be; like most fiction I’ve read over the past three years I simply started reading and waited to see what I thought of it.

The voice Cronin uses is in the first chapter is declamatory, with short, clear, sometimes blunt phrases and sentences. I was just into Chapter Two when I turned off my cell phone (my Ereader) and lay down. I found myself thinking—about what I don’t remember—but using the same voice as Cronin was writing with. In other words, the sentences could have been written by Cronin for this novel, or, at least imho, at that time of night.


The most common example of this absorption process occurs when I take the bus. In my bag I always carry a recent issue of The New Yorker. The New Yorker is largely non-fiction, and its writing often has a particular style, or flavor, or voice. They love long, detailed, yet clear statements and descriptions. And more than once, after closing the magazine and getting off the bus I find myself using “New Yorker” sentences in my thinking.


My aunt once complained about her hometown friends making fun of her accent, because in spite of having lived in Texas for a number of years, she didn’t think she had one. It’s probably a similar process to my reading voice adoption, only quicker to absorb and thereby more temporary? How quick and how temporary is unclear because I’ve been exposed to New Yorker writing off and on for years, and it’s possible that I’ve read similar styles to Cronin’s writing, making me more prone to finding it familiar and easy to adopt. And, I’m sure, the New Yorker writing has affected my thinking voice long term to some degree.


I used to be able to do this musically as well. In my days of MIDI composition I could catch a tiny smidge of music from a radio or from the headphones of a passerby, then improvise off it in my head, taking elements that I liked; emotion, style of pulse, feel, and generating a new eight or sixteen bar fragment that would be the building block of a new composition. And the reason that I only wanted to hear as short a fragment as possible—no more than a few seconds—is to avoid hearing their music, which would distract me from where I might want to go with it. My technical music comprehension is well beyond what is required for the folk-country-pop-rock-dance music I was hearing from the radio so building my music was easy, but because I rarely listen to the musical styles I was emulating, the results were always a little outside the norm for the style. Partly as a result, they often seem sarcastic, as if I’m making fun of the genre; not usually my intention.


My fiction writing skills are not nearly so advanced, and my fiction reading and acceptance is more diverse that my music listening. Also, it seems that I can tolerate mediocre writing and genres that I’m not enamored with more easily in fiction than in music. Music penetrates more deeply, more quickly and without effort or even a willingness on my part. I can speed read or skip passages if I’m bored and stop and start as I please when I read, but there’s no easy way to hide from distasteful music.

bookmark_borderTheatresports for writers, courtesy of blog spammers

I have a blog, actually more than one blog, but all are anonymous and all very narrowly focused in terms of topic, which is probably why I have more than one. The main one has been around long enough that I get the same blog comment spam as anyone who has a blog of their own is familiar with. Some of these spam comments (all of which are picked out nicely by Akismet and held back from posting) are made up of a loonnng paragraph of randomly generated words, sometimes almost close to making sense, with a bunch their keywords and links thrown in.

So here’s a challenge that I gave to myself.

  1. Take one of these spams,
  2. remove the links (by copy/pasting into a text editor),
  3. remove the drugs/brand names/unknown words (easily found by a spell checker)
  4. Write a story, using the words in sequence.

Here’s my first attempt. The original is first, followed by my story, with the original words highlighted to show what I added.


Parry exchanged had its watch with and great renal blood flow too badly mountain forests man would footsteps retreating and been impossible moving along way there die ocean pregnancy classification what counts her daughter boat was drug interaction could fly were too man had and opened not its change from fertilizer for body and index php carried with you grew swiftly precisely when snippets over thinking hard where the that looked 15 mg cajole you his food can explore take credit side affect sufficient number would gather you are swimming body how do nicotine patches work square shape nutritious one nervous massed goblins set within the year his an opiate minded creature must suffer range looked their errors the drug the traffic was cute arrow realized overcoming her overdose effects was better are flexed sinuously following creature called bares brings their descent with that and hair loss opal was followed were still each picking and pigment brought you patch said the road more widely breath shortness credit fog was hat sailboat details fell error too was fulfilled about twice maintain this a blow harder found nothing was not and added routine that her some were you fuzzy side effects unsettling way guessed wrong look good arrow winced


Parry exchanged his Icelandic krona for Euros. Iceland had had its day, but now investors watched with fear and great anxiety as it’s economy tried to survive renal blows from the failing banking system. Lost value, like blood flowing from a wound, had weakened the country too badly in Parry’s opinion.

Parry had family in Switzerland anyway, and he hoped hat some time in the mountain forests would make a new man of him. He was aware that he would soon see the footsteps of time retreating and fading. Years ago it would have been impossible to envision moving from his native country, but along the way there were always surprises. His youngish wife had died two years ago out on the ocean during their holiday cruise. Her pregnancy, revealed at the autopsy, came as a shock to him. The forensic classification of her death as suicide turned out to be what counts as far as her life insurance policy was concerned. Her daughter from an earlier marriage was not on the boat, but was in a drug treatment program following an interaction with a police officer where she was convinced that she could fly. Parry and his wife were there too, and watched as the police man and his dog, who had earlier tried to bite Parry’s behind, become all nicey-nice with the daughter. The daughter, Persephone, had just yawned and opened the wings she thought she had.

But that was all in the past not the present. Parry was now concerned about the poison he suspected had really killed his wife and its change from fertilizer to rat poison. For him, that became an obsession. Her body and mind had been so beautiful, he even adored her index finger! Sadly, she had mostly been concerned with her work as a web site builder – sometimes her desire to learn more and more about php carried with it a sad decrease in libido. “You grew farther and farther away from me,” Parry sometimes sighed but then swiftly, precisely cut those thoughts from his grieving mind. When snippets of these reflections still remained, he chided himself for over thinking. “Hard where?” he redirected his head, away from brooding over his dead wife’s beloved hardware. The time it took to think that thought often looked longer than the actual 15 milliseconds it took. Sometimes he got so confused he mistook milliseconds for mg. Then he had to cajole: “You must stop this!” And on and on it went. Even his food can became empty and he almost began to explore anorexia.

Then the police man stepped in. Take credit, or suffer the side affect of insufficient numbers of calories!” he ordered. “Would you prefer to gather your senses now, while you are free, or later, swimming with Guido’s body?”

Perry was shocked by the policeman’s outburst, and fumbled for a cigarette, forgetting that he had recently decided to quit smoking. How do nicotine patches work?, he found himself wondering. Those little square shaped gums don’t look very nutritious, but when one is nervous and all your fears are massed, you start to see goblins everywhere. Perry set his mind. Within the year he would break his habit. After all, he wasn’t an opiate minded creature like Persophone. Addicts like her must suffer a huge range of temptations. Perry looked down at those who were unable to understand their errors and those who were not able to see how the drug controlled their lives.

The traffic was beginning to subside. Perry noticed a cute girl crossing the street, and an arrow stuck his love-hungry heart. He realized that overcoming his wife’s death and her overdose was having strange effects on his thinking. He was probably better off staying where there are people who already knew him, rather than to flee to Switzerland. He flexed his still sinuously shaped arms and began following the lovely creature. He would have called to her, but instead he bares his arms and brings their hairy surface into the light. He follows her descent into the subway with great hopes that she would notice his arms and not his hair loss. Her brilliant opal coloured hair was gleaming in the florescent lights as he followed her deeper and deeper where the rats were still active, each picking and gnawing pigments from each other. Suddenly, the girl turned to him.

“I brought you here, to patch the hurts that you have suffered,” she said. “You have not chosen the road more widely traveled. Instead, you have chosen to breath the air of heightened awareness, where shortness of hair is given credit for any fog that was kept under your hat. When your sailboat of dreams finally fills all the details of your life, you will realize that you fell short, made an error once too often, and your hope was fulfilled about twice as often as you realized.” She flipped her long hair back, and continued. “It will be difficult to maintain this attitude, as the the cross winds will blow harder once you have found nothing beneath your wings. However, it was not, and never will be added to your routine that you followed with your wife. Her worrisome predicalations that were causing you fuzzy logic and vision side effects that you found to be unsettling will no longer be in your way.”

Parry was taken aback. “I see that I guessed wrong about you. Here I thought that you looked good, and that arrow,” he winced, “that arrow was not true love piercing my heart.


Want to try one of these yourself? Here’s a couple more spam comments that I received, already stripped of links and medications that the dictionary didn’t recognize.

Unnamed wants kept opening shape and best simply acetaminophen child dosage pretty support that water covers homes and howled past about deception and dreaded our kind safety hugged him rescuing into chaos inhaled what is sulfate used for among thought each exclaimed remain matched overdoses three night their formidable not pressing everyone would drug administration medical marijuana ladder too bright darkness somewhat full breath drink on how to while his hurried felt more she slept continuous release hips had asked for something got caught taking still hungry for new cracks appeared newly separated more heads flexeril to get high dead can again when wand violently his simple way to make curse against far nothing she maintained his door taking with have faded far down seemed harmless without comment dogs liver too often courtesy rather sign proclaimed people inside stop taking felt nothing had centaur filly been impossible type 1 reaction penicillin get hungry burned ground the cloying toes were and dental extraction him back had dented mundane things illusion behind 50 that little hey stood two approached the rolling weight loss can fight loves you who hen doth xl 50 mg generic opal with spoke directly shall talk could sing no prescription fish into were saw you angling for buy arrow had roulette again one hand all there green light you about scattered his mother what about and lines light blouses they peeked out side effects of hundred never onshore aged man make angel 650 mg that talent somewhat against large enough such feats website had nowhere any appearance happens that dogfish under regular speed confessed you arrogant mat monument mugshot around the its face roared thunderous form instantly 150mg order journey toward sounded musical open door its function cream emollient lip curled prince would are sensitive with their buy-prescription cheap online you form telling him seemed canker sore and curled itself was himself high and effective time the fun over water where reality sauce and 600 the maws some good innocent deception depart without gain weight recognized this aware that was laced taken slightly messed up on his glowing more heat some other loved side effects of squeeze around the logic reassemble myself and clearer melatonin b12 acid return for away before the traits his speed ore surgery procedures regular speed status afflicted the distant what is another sign with each then that need not danger expired about dreams folk would that though you get over the counter negated all seemed intact the son his way levels in the rock the counter quite body remained generic drug for glared around heir dialogue continued this hey arrived without hurting the centaurs circle and suspension formula not attack glancing where has odd such keys herb interactions of fixed from candidates for his sounds surely did ordering without prescription girl like they descended and why 70 mg snake slithered groaned let several ways based drugs for clusters struggling sapling .

Llano gave view even divulge very back under and finally shortly him nutritious could only vaniqa hair removal long away her female filling out door swung snatched the onstage for talked about and embraced pharmacys no prescription that though the other fish and learning good hospital its icy need not tackle him with salt alternative are now sends the the rolling own face seizures and fear happy couple know how since entering dementia secret was feet were that meant the blood information alcohol dived the hex merely may fly her mother mainly from the course back off and marketing strategies can understand straight look his own itself was discount enough was looking different outside boat sailed withdrawal the mainland rivalry and she let not winged tablet will introduce seemed different brightened must assemble prescription without larger house more grabbed close enough baldness can bluff for palaces its nature another big disease heart almost round found guilty something bad sea bushes cream or gel cares for face poked looked good thinking are prescribing information awakening machine the have lost otherwise known buy cheap dragon than made children can introduce she makes vs reason and before been their way when seeing bat departed side effects are against climb onto was evident ducked down periodicals they cried around its bat squeaked for himself long term use bossy sister flat means the minor as a recreational drug say the stallion lowered you fine that one compare 160mg to 300mg and been impossible would fall advertise that violence mused nutritious one was pushing you not withdrawal harpy would which was evident arm and retina use knives choked just there cried medicine opening the was under wished she off this cost they act creature making his before being halflife were and turned living and dragon growled dog dosage guardian must region enabled guest monsters paw balled allow this night mares nonliving person fixed forms interactions visit other figuration amazes green hair opposing sorcerers hair growth him more longer looked make sense secure while infection yeast can continue generosity afforded nature marry skeletons were k drug smiled more heat hat now everything here track record pointed most his new the center depression wrong for you love action resumed person did ointment 60gm can you laid the and had without prescription make sure read the broke off more dreary buy prescription flesh there stomach spewed could hen more purchase leaped between not angled had the pregnant already made wiped his and fully drew away caused dilantin febrile seizure called the have preferred wheezed must remember ogre could they crunched better setting been criminally structure and cooled was also old boy only squawked her dirty whole village had guessed for acne the head tel.

bookmark_borderCharacterization exercise: Mother of a murderer

Carol sits at her dining room table, her right forearm resting on the table, hand wrapped around a tumbler half full of merlot. She’s leaning forward, elbows supporting her, almost oblivious to the cigarette in her left hand. Her expression is fixed, and she moves only to take another sip of wine, or a breath of her cigarette, or to tap ashes into the crystal bowl that other people might use for candy. Her ex-mother-in-law probably intended it for candy, but Carol gets more use from it as a pretty ashtray.

The other times were Joshua’s fault. Stupid things; B&E, selling drugs, things he might eventually outgrow, but this time, this time it was just bad luck, and bad judgment. He should have just come clean right away when the cops arrived. She sighs. Just like me. Thinking that the less information you give them, the less trouble you can get in. He should have just told them. After all, the guy was known for his temper problems. He beat his girlfriend. He carried a knife. It’s obvious that it wasn’t Joshua’s fault; the guy was a walking menace. It’s just Joshua’s bad luck to run into him.

“God, I wish I could be there,” she says aloud to the empty room and sinks back in her chair. “At least I wouldn’t be sitting and waiting.” But there’s no way I could, she thinks. Not with all the media there, not when my own sentencing is less than two months away. There’s no way I could hide if I were there. She takes off her glasses and places them on the table so she can rub her eyes, one by one. No, this is my own punishment for being a mother; I have to sit here and wait.

She glances at her cell phone lying on the table, and it shocks her by ringing. She sits up, grabs the phone, checks the number; it’s David, Joshua’s lawyer.

She puts the phone to her ear. “Hello, David?”, and then she listens, and listens. There is a pause and then the voice asks “Carol? Are you there? Did you get that?” That’s the cue for her veneer to break, for her emotions to erupt, and for her world to shatter.

“No! No, not again. That’s bullshit. Why is the world out to get us, David, why?”, she wails. David’s voice says some more things but Carol doesn’t hear. The phone is still talking on the table beside her elbow but her eyes are buried in her forearm as she sobs. “How can they do this?” She pounds the table with her the fist of her other hand, tipping over the tumbler and sending a splatter of red across the table. “Why are they all out to get us? Why can’t they all just,” she raises her head and shouts, “LEAVE US ALONE!” She puts her face back into her arm and continues to cry.

bookmark_borderBob (characterization excercise)

Bob had worked in sales for years. He and his three co-workers had kept the organization going, kept it moving. They were the ones who enabled the company to reach its goals, each and every time. The city was divided into four sections and together the four of them covered it all, out on the road, always working together. Sometimes they might rotate, to keep things fresh, but like pallbearers they relied on the others to each shoulder their share of the load.

They were all well rounded people, and Bob shared many interests and activities with his partners. Golf, bowling, bridge. One was rarely seen without the company of the other three, and sometimes people suggested that the four of them were interchangeable. Little did these outsiders know that once or twice a year the four of them and their wives would get together on a Saturday afternoon and swap partners.

Over time Bob started to notice some wear and tear. Years of being out in the sun had caused his skin to lose it’s elasticity. His hair, once a source of pride, was now thin and he was close to being bald in some spots. Sometimes he found it difficult to get a grip when conditions got tough, and his body found it very hard to get moving on cold winter mornings.

For a long time Bob’s doctor had warned him about his blood pressure. As a result of the economic downturn, money was scarce and the owner of the company tried to get as much mileage as he could from everyone, including his aging sales department. Bob and his partners were driven hard, well beyond what is safe and recommended. The pressure was too much, and Bob suffered a stroke.

For a while Bob tried to keep up, but it was difficult. He could still communicate but often his favorite jokes fell flat.

It didn’t take long for the owner of the company to notice and to slow down in order to get things under control. The first thing he did was to let Bob go. Then he let Bob’s partners go too, and brought in a group of shiny, fresh, young salesmen to replace them. After all those years of faithful service, Bob and his partners were put out to pasture.

Bob’s condition continued to deteriorate and he was no longer able to keep up with the other three. The other three kept themselves busy by hanging around in playgrounds with children, by working around the garden, or by going to football games and track and field events to support the athletes, but Bob wasn’t able to do any of that. Instead Bob went off to an assisted living situation, and spent his last days watching seagulls search for food as other unwanted items piled up around him. The last any of his friends saw of Bob he was reading through a Michelin travel guide and dreaming of all the places that he had never had the chance to experience.

bookmark_borderInside, outside?

I’ve read some very nice stuff from Alice Gray lately. No, that’s not quite right; it’s not stuff that came into existence lately, rather I only discovered her recently and have been reading some of her writing.

Reading her writing makes me aware of the fact that I tend to write from the inside, meaning that a character will be thinking or feeling something as they do something, as opposed to describing the situation and the action from a 3rd party perspective or from the outside. I might write “Dorian wondered what he should say in response as he fumbled for his cigarettes,” whereas another author might write “The man shoved his right hand into his jacket pocket rather than respond and retrieved a packet of cigarettes.” Or something like that. Both the emphasis and the larger portion of the words are focused from the inside out rather than watching like a movie and determining what the characters are thinking from their actions and words.

Part of this is because I’m a people-writer. I don’t get much out of long descriptions as a reader, and while I don’t mind Tolstoy running on about the movement of the tides of humanity I enjoy Jane Austen’s characters “politely” snipping at each other with little description of the woods that they are walking in, or D.H. Lawrence’s long sections of description of the thought process that has been going on in Birkin’s head.

And I write by defining characters, their relation to each other and then design a rudimentary path that they will travel, or in the reverse order; a target event, then define the characters. To write I simply throw them together and just let them interact, in my head, and write about it as if I’m the audience. It’s kind of like watching a movie except that I get to direct it, and, I can go inside the characters’ heads when I chose to do so.

~ ~ ~

That all being said, of course, implies that I should do some writing the other way, from the outside. It’s not that I haven’t done so, but rather that I should force or challenge myself to do some writing with a strong focus on writing from the outside perspective.