Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Voice, or Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Sounding Like Stephen King

By DeAnna Knippling

New writers, we go, “I have to be careful about my reading habits when I write. Otherwise I’ll sound like whomever I’m reading instead of like myself.” I don’t know if all writers do or did this, but I did - briefly. I stopped, not because I  had some insight about it at the time or felt confident that I knew my own voice, but because it interfered with my reading.
There are probably good reasons for not reading while you’re writing, but I seriously doubt they have anything to do with picking up another writer’s voice. If I couldn’t read while I was writing, I’d have more time to write, for one thing. I did The Artist’s Way last year, and when I got to the week of no reading (it’s one of the projects in the book), I got a lot more done, both because of time (I read a lot) and because I had a craving for words. If I couldn’t read someone else’s words, at least I could read my own as I wrote.

But holding back on your reading because you’re worried about copying another writer’s voice? Why bother - you can’t.

Oh, when you’re a beginning writer, it can feel like you’re copying another writer’s voice. And, if you’re lucky in your friends, you might have someone tell you that you kind of sound like Stephen King, but - trust me - you don’t.  

Stephen King, and all writers who have a recognizable voice, have so many things going on at the same time that, as a beginning writer, there’s no way you could recreate that accurately. Sure, you could write a pastiche or a satire - but it would be just that. 

To continue with the example: Stephen King. He’s from Maine. Are you from Maine? He can do accents spot on. And not just Maine ones. Can you? Do you know how to open scenes the way he does? To handle dialogue - not just accents, but in keeping character voices different? How about pacing? Can you pace like Stephen King? And that’s not including personal details that affect his work. Stephen King has certain childhood fears. Do you have the same ones? The exact same ones?  

And so on. Stephen King isn’t just a set of features found on the page. His “voice” comes out of the unique combination of a million different things. He’s unique, I tell you. Unique.  

If you spent your life trying to learn how to write exactly like Stephen King, you couldn’t do it. You’d betray yourself, your own uniqueness. And Stephen King doesn’t hold still, either. He’s still pushing forward, getting better as a writer, acquiring new experiences to add to his “voice.” Any writer worth the paper their books are printed on does. Start trying to write like Stephen King while he’s still alive, and you’d just get further and further behind.

There’s a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” I hadn’t really grasped the story until recently. It’s about Pierre Menard, who tried to write Don Quixote from scratch. Not copying the book, but immersing himself so much in the author’s life and worldview that he could rewrite the book without actually referring to the book. The story is more complex than that, but in the end, Pierre Menard succeeds, at least to some extent, producing a few bits and pieces that match Don Quixote word for word: two and a half chapters that constitute the bulk of his life’s work.

It’s a silly story, written as a passionate defense by a literary critic, who claims that Menard’s work is “richer” than Cervantes’, even where the two texts match exactly. Silly, until you think of all the writers who are afraid of sounding like another writer after reading a couple of books by them. 

When I was younger, I wanted to write stories just like Borges. I failed; even given that I don’t have the same style, my ideas and plots aren’t even close. The writer who comes the closest, in my opinion, is Umberto Eco. In one of Borges’s stories (“The Library of Babel”), he writes of an infinite library that contains every possible book (including an infinite number of books of gibberish). Eco, in The Name of the Rose, tries to write a very similarly-described library (the library in the mysterious monastery is laid out physically in much the same way as the library in Borges’s story, and the blind librarian Jorge of Burgos features prominently in the plot; Jorge Luis Borges was himself blind and a librarian). While these two stories share a fictional element - the library - there’s no way you could confuse the two creations. The writers’ voices are too different, even though it’s fairly easy to see that Eco used Borges as an inspiration.  

Another example: Neil Gaiman likes to write Sherlock Holmes stories. Yet there’s no way you could confuse the two writers. A master storyteller - Gaiman - trying his best to write a pastiche, and there’s still no way you could confuse the two (except for, possibly, very brief passages, as in the “Pierre Menard” story).  

So what to do when you feel like you’re absorbing another writer’s voice?

The easy advice is to say, “Just don’t worry about it.” Bah. Telling someone to “just not worry” never did a bit of good. So instead I’ll say - celebrate it. Because if you can’t learn an author’s true voice, then what are you doing when you feel like you’re picking up on another author’s voice?

Learning technique. The same way the writers you love learned their techniques, from writers they loved.

Feel like you sound like Stephen King? Great! Keep at it.  

Just, you know, quick harassing your friends to constantly keep pointing it out to you.

About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.