Recognizing Your Style–and Everybody Else’s

Happy new year! Thanks to all of you, who make this blog a writer’s haven!

For any who will be in the New York City area on January 17th, I’ll be giving a writing workshop and talk at the New York Society Library. Details are on the In-Person page here on the website.

Thanks to everyone who suggested titles for my expulsion book! I’m putting together a list of possibilities for my editor, and I’ll let you know what happens. If her answer turns out to be None of the Above, as I fear, I’ll come back for more help.

On October 12, 2018, Melissa Mead wrote, How do you identify your writing style? I’m thinking of sending “Malak’s Book” to an agent, and one of the things they want in the query letter is examples of authors with a similar style.

I know who I WISH I wrote like, but how can I tell if I actually DO?

Melissa Mead later added this: Many years ago I sold a series to a magazine, and the editor encouraged me to submit stories to the later issues anyway, but under a pseudonym. So I did. I also used a different address, phone #, you name it. Here’s what happened:

Editor: “Nice story, Melissa, but I’m afraid we won’t be using it.”
Me: “How’d you know it was me?”
Editor: “I recognized your style.”

I had a style! I’d only been writing for publication for 2 years, and I had a recognizable style! I was giddy.

MAN, I wish I’d thought to ask him what it was.

Raina replied, CPs (critique partners) are a big help here. Often, they can see things that we can’t, or see things in a different way than we do. You can also make a list of things that you write a lot or write really well; are your books funny? Do you write beautiful descriptions? Thrilling action sequences? Literary or philosophical things? (A CP can also help with this.) After that, just find authors who are a match for some or all of those attributes.

Also, do they specifically want you to list authors with a similar style, or just comp titles in general? Because with the latter, it doesn’t have to be an exact match, just books/authors whose readers might also like your book. Most people use the same ones, to be honest, which just shows how un-specific they are. For example, in YA Fantasy, Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardugo, and Victoria Aveyard are the big names I see in queries.

I love technical questions like this. Please send more if you have them.

My advice would be to not say your (or anyone’s) style is like Shakespeare’s! Probably not like Tolstoy’s, Faulkner’s, or Jane Austen’s, either–even if it’s true!

Seriously, though, sometimes I think we give the gatekeepers (editors and agents) too much credit. If you say your style is like, say, mine, I doubt very much that an editor will launch a comparative analysis of the two of us.

It’s probably safe to name authors of books you admire in the genre you’re writing in. It’s likely to be true, too. If you read a lot of someone’s books and tend to reread them as well, his or her style is likely to infuse your own writing, even without your awareness.

I would blithely list authors you aspire to be like. I don’t think it’s terrible–or matters at all–if we’re clueless about whose writing is most similar to our own. There are aspects of the question that I’m not crazy about anyway. It seems fraught with danger. Suppose you say your work is like the writing of an author this agent or editor happens to despise. Or, if you say it’s like someone on the New York Times bestseller list, the editor or agent may suspect your motive for the comparison–implying that your manuscript will also land on bestseller lists. What if the editor has never heard of the author you name, and he feels stupid?

You might do some research and find out what writers the editor has worked with or the agent represents. Then, being a conscientious person, you can read the books of those writers and see if you feel an affinity. That’s not a bad way to go. I would be straightforward about it, though, and say what you did in your query letter.

Another option is to ignore the question. If I felt I could get away with it, that’s what I would do.

However, editors and agents aside, I think there’s value in inquiring into our style, though I tend to think of the term as voice. What follows is full of prompts, so there won’t be any at the end.

For one of my poetry school craft classes, my classmates and I had to read a poetry collection every week and write an analysis of the poet’s style and an imitation poem. I loved writing the imitation poems!

To do them, I examined each poet’s work on both a micro and macro level. On the micro level, I looked at things like line and sentence length, where line breaks occurred, sound devices (like alliteration and assonance), formal elements (like rhyme and meter), punctuation, capitalizing, metaphors, similes, etc.

On the macro level, I paid attention to tone, subject matter, how personal or not the poems were. Were they, in poetry lingo, confessional? Intellectual, idea poems? Were they easily understood or the opposite or somewhere in the middle? Did they tell a story?

Then I used what I’d discovered to write my imitation poem. Some of it was mechanical, but it was also creative to get inside someone else’s approach and make it, at least briefly, my own. By the end of the semester, I had new moves I could apply to my own poems, approaches that hadn’t been natural to me but became part of my repertoire.

We can do the same thing with a fiction writer we admire. We can look at what she does on both a micro and macro level. Try it! Open a beloved book to a random place. How does the page look? Are there lots of paragraphs or just one or two? Is there dialogue, or just narration? Or only dialogue? Open to a different page. Is the same still true? Do you see a pattern?

Examine a paragraph of narration, or a few if they’re short. Look at sentence length. Are they long, short, or varied? Do the beginnings repeat? Do words repeat? Do you see any italics? When you go to the next paragraph, does the beginning repeat from the one before? Is the vocabulary difficult? Do you notice exclamation points? Many questions? (If you’re reading my books, probably yes, many questions–I have to pull myself back.) Do you sense a rhythm in the prose? (There needn’t be any.) Do you see many or any parentheticals? Dashes? Colons? Semi-colons?

Zooming out, think of the book as a whole. Look at POV, tense, first-person or third. Do any of these switch? Does this writer use flashbacks? Are there big time jumps? How does the book start? With action, description, dialogue, setting? Do you see a lot of thoughts? Much emotion and emoting? Does telling or showing predominate? Humor?

Examine your own writing in the same way, asking yourself the same macro and micro questions. I’m pretty sure you’ll make discoveries about your voice/style.

Returning to the micro level, pick a paragraph–any paragraph that’s long enough to work with–in your own WIP and rewrite it as an imitation of the voice of the writer you’ve just studied. Have you learned something? Do you feel that you broke out of your mold and acquired new options?

When you’re about to start a new project, think of the macro level of the admired writer. Is there anything you can incorporate? When I wrote Ogre Enchanted, I decided to make Evie choose the guy I believe Jane Austen would have chosen, if she wrote fairy tale fantasy. She may have rotated in her grave, but I didn’t hear her bones rattle.

If you try my suggestions, please post how the process went. What did you learn?

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you for the suggestions! They’re helpful beyond my question, because maybe they’ll help me figure out why I like my favorite writers so much, and how I can put more of that kind of awesomeness in my own writing.

    What I ended up doing in this case didn’t really answer the style question, but it must’ve been ok because the agent asked to read the full manuscript. Their website says they like character-based stories, and Malak’s an unusual hero because he’s been raised as a serpent-demon, and most people think of them as “the bad guys.” So I compared him to the goblin protagonists in The Goblin Emperor and Jim C. Hines’ Goblin Quest.
    We’ll see what happens!

  2. I like your advice about finding author styles that are like yours! Thanks for that! It might come up in something in my writer career, and I’d like to be ready.

  3. When i was younger, i made a story. Quite a long adventure story with so much characters involved. It was like a diary to me. Everyday, I would update or continue the story until I completed several notebooks. I even made a sequel for the story. And created another which was not continued. Unfortunately all these notebooks were lost (except for the first notebook). I really love that story, the characters, the world I created and all. But since I lost the rest of the notebooks and I really can’t remember everything that I wrote, it really makes me feel bad. I cannot explain this feeling but it is very sad. I want to try to create or rewrite the story but I don’t think it would still be the same. I am not a writer, and I don’t intend to publish that story, though I remember reading that story to my younger cousins. It really breaks my heart.
    Did it ever happen to you? How did you cope up with this? (‘Am not sure if such were already discussed in your blog, I just discovered your blog recently. Anyways, I’m a fan.)
    Thank you.

    • I’m so sorry the notebooks got lost.

      When I first started writing Between Worlds, my computer crashed, taking the opening of the book with it. I was devastated and dreaded rewriting the whole thing, but I think it came out better in the long run.
      (And thanks for reminding me to back up my files! 🙂 )

      • Thank you so much Melissa. I’ll try to rewrite it and recover everything i remember and I hope it would turn out to be better like your book.

        I’m also interested with the book you mentioned “between worlds”, is it available as hard copy or ebook only. I’ll try to get a copy from bookstores here.

        Thank you.

  4. Gail Carson Levine says:

    I’m sorry, too, that you lost much of your story. Fortunately, I’ve lost only small bits here and there.

    I agree that this is a big loss. We put our whole selves into our stories!

    I have a couple of thoughts, though I’m not sure they’ll work. You might write something like a journal entry about the loss and what it means to you, because putting that down on paper–or computer–may be comforting. If you don’t want to rewrite your story, you might summarize everything you remember about the plot and the characters, because over time your memory will fade and you may wish you had a record–also, at some future, unanticipated date you may want to approach the story again.

    • Thank you so much for your suggestions. Actually, posting about the loss here in your blog and the response i get from you and melissa is very comforting already but i will also try the journal entry you suggested and ‘will also summarize everything i remember. Especially the characters. Maybe I would be able to make better stories out of it (maybe short stories or side stories of these characters) or I will be able to rewrite the whole story, differently but better since now, I learned so much from this blog and your book writer to writer. I will try to apply those tips on writing a story.

      The first book i read this 2019 is your “ogre enchanted”! I really loved it. I also read your “lost kingdom of bamarre” though I’m still looking for a copy of your “two princess of bamarre”. I also wanted a copy of “fairest”, i remember spending my whole day reading it on a bookstore since i can’t afford to buy it before (also ella enchanted which i only puchased together with ogre enchanted, im reading it again but this time at home). Some of your old books are not readily available now in our country though taking special orders would be my option.

      Again, thank you!!

  5. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Does anyone have any advice on how to end a story in a bittersweet way? I’m a sucker for bittersweet endings. However, I’m not sure how to really do that. I often feel as if bittersweet endings aren’t satisfying enough, and there’s always going to be a part of readers that wanted everything to end happily. Any advice on how to fix this problem?

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        In the kind of stories I like to write, I like to make my characters suffer. Losing a loved one, getting their memory wiped, realizing they may be wrong…even I’m tempted to let them live happily. Most people are satisfied when they think that someone, after so long, can have a rest. But then again, I could be wrong. I personally have always wondered if people who fought in wars that took up most of there youth could really ever move on. I guess I want to satisfy the part of me that wants a happy ending, and the part of me that doesn’t.

    • One key thing I’ve noticed in a lot of bittersweet endings is that characters (and by extension, the readers) want a lot of different things, but only get some of what they want. Or there are two good possible outcomes, but only one can happen. Sometimes the characters have to choose themselves, while sometimes it’s decided for them by the universe. One example of the latter is the ending of the final Narnia book; the whole gang gets to go back to the magical world of Narnia at the end and stay forever but *SPOILER ALERT* they do so by dying in a train crash, which means they also lose access to the “real world” forever. Sure, Narnia is a paradise and the characters seem pretty happy with living happily ever after there, but I, at least, was a bit sad at the thought of them all dying.

      From a different perspective, I think adding some “sweet” to a bitter ending can by done by showing that life goes on or starts anew, even when loss happens. A great example of this is Charlotte’s Web. While the story does kind of have a happy conclusion to the main conflict (all the efforts to keep Wilbur alive succeeds, and he’s now safe from being slaughtered), the story also takes a major sad turn immedietly after when *SPOLER ALERT* Charlotte reaches the end of her lifespan and dies. But there’s also a glimmer of hope at the end because Charlotte left an egg sac behind, which then hatches into a bunch of baby spiders, a few of which elect to stay and keep Wilbur company. So even though Charlotte is gone, there’s also a promise of new life and new characters that help make up for the loss.

      Another option is a pyrric victory, in which the ending is happy, but getting to that ending came at a cost. The Harry Potter books is the perfect example: Voldemort is defeated, all of the main characters end up with happy lives, and the wizarding world is back to normal, but a whole bunch of beloved side characters died in order to get to that happy ending. So while the epilogue is more of a traditional happy ending, I imagine there’s still some sadness when you think about all the characters that aren’t there to enjoy it.

      • Great examples!

        A Pyrrhic victory is one where the cost wasn’t worth it. I just find those depressing. With Harry Potter, even though we mourn the people who were killed, it does turn out better for the world in the long run.

        “One example of the latter is the ending of the final Narnia book; the whole gang gets to go back to the magical world of Narnia at the end and stay forever…” Except for poor Susan. I get nightmares thinking of what it must have been like for her, left behind with her whole family killed. The Chronicles are some of my favorite books, except for that..

  6. Hi!

    I’ve been working on a retelling of the Mulan legend. What I’ve been wondering is, how far can you take a story from its origins before it stops being a retelling? For example, would you consider it to be a retelling of Mulan if it’s not set in China? I was reading book reviews of another Mulan story, and the reviewers seemed generally unhappy with the fact that the author took the story out of China. And that’s only one example of a way I’m deviating from the original legend… 🙂

    Any thoughts on what makes for a good retelling?

    • Do you feel the need to label it as a retelling? If not, you can just write the story you want to write, and if people notice the similarity, it’ll be a fun bonus for them. Most retellings that I’ve seen don’t label themselves as such. Disney added a tiny “inspired by The Snow Queen” in the credits of “Frozen”, because the story was so different.

    • I think that it can still be a retelling even if it’s not set in China. I’m actually working on a retelling as well, which is in a medieval-fantasy setting even though the original took place in ancient Babylon. And I’ve read fairy-tale retellings that are set in the future. I think that it’s a retelling if it keeps a similar plot line to the original, for example, with Mulan, a girl who goes to war in place of her father, or whatever your twist on that will be. 🙂

  7. Completely unrelated question:
    In another WIP (yes, I have several 🙂 ), the MC’s husband gets captured, and she’s sad for a few pages, and then her sister gets sick and that becomes her top priority. Then I realized that I had made her completely forget about him, which I don’t want. Any advice on how I could balance her two worries?
    Also (on another unrelated note 🙂 ) I self-published my first book this week! I just wanted to say thank you so much Mrs. Levine! This blog and your writer’s advice books have been so helpful!

    • Congratulations!

      One could make her think of the other- Ex, as she’s tucking a blanket around her sister, she wonders how cold it is where her husband’s being held, and if he even has a blanket.

  8. I’ve got another technical question: What’s the difference between voice, style, and tone? I’d always thought of voice and tone as things that apply to a specific story, with style being a more overarching thing. I just remembered, though, that a reviewer once compared one of my stories* (favorably!) to Roald Dahl. I don’t think “Malak’s Book” is a Roald Dahl type of story, though. So maybe that’s not style? It’s confusing.

    * A different reviewer called the same story “One of the 3 weakest in the issue.” You can’t win ’em all. 🙂

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I know I asked for this kind of question, but I don’t know! I think of my writing voice as part of me, as attached as my chin is. Maybe someone else would like to take this, and I’ll add to it: What’s the difference between tone and mood?

    • I will pretend that I knew this and didn’t just research it. Ahem.

      Voice: the author’s personal touch that carries through all their works.
      Style: the mechanics the author chooses to use, which differs from work to work.
      Tone: the attitude and overall feel of the particular work.
      Mood: what emotional atmosphere is conveyed by a particular scene.

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