It’s Not the Words You Use But How You Use Them
by Brad Windhauser
I discovered Miles Davis when I took “The History of Rock and Roll” my freshman year (and only semester) at Cal State Northridge. We were studying the roots of rock and my professor played us Bitches Brew. He talked us through what we were hearing, the way Davis caressed certain notes, favored short bursts in places and drew others out like a dull moan. This information enabled me, by semester’s end, to distinguish a Davis song (even one I didn’t know) from a Coltrane song pretty easily.
Most great musicians have this type of distinctive sound. So do most great authors. And this distinction should be thought of as an author’s signature.
Proust foisted the sense of smell on his characters to evoke memories (Further reading: http://nyr.kr/11gSZMq). Hemingway, influenced by his time as a reporter, utilized a lot of short sentences (Further reading: http://bit.ly/18E0HEZ). He also had a thing for dialogue (which I would wager influenced Tarantino’s scripts). Faulkner could write page-long sentences (slight exaggeration) (Further reading: http://bit.ly/13r8QqC). You can go on and on (so don’t feel I’m slighting an author by overlooking him or her).
Each author’s use of technique served as their signature, and they are important, because they speak to style—the author’s approach—and they also help the author stand out: you notice these signatures to the degree that you can identify a Hemingway story even if you’ve never read it.
You should develop your own signature style.
Be careful, however. Whatever signature you cultivate, it should feel organic; not only to the story it’s used in but also in your body (or period) of work. Cultivating this will take time and lots of practice. Think of learning a new language. How much practice do you devote before attempting to engage in a conversation with someone? If you’ve been around a French beginner, you know how painful it can be when someone attempts words and sentence structures out of their limited reach.
So how do you practice with writing? How do you experiment?
First, study the authors you like. What signatures do they have? Once you isolate it (or them), study how often these surface in a work. How does it contribute to the story, the style? Think hard about what this style achieves. Does it help the pacing? Does it add a dimension to character? Look how this signature is set up—what comes before a snappy piece of dialogue? What comes before that beautifully intricate sentence? What follows it? You want the signature to be noticeable but not drowned out.
Then do what authors do: steal.
See which of these signatures speak to your writing sensibilities. Then copy sentences—preferably by hand and then perhaps typing them. Feel the words form thoughts and thoughts form sentences. This will help you see how these things are assembled.
Then experiment with your own work.
Take a paragraph and manipulate it with whatever signature you are trying out. It doesn’t have to be pretty—this is like doing sit-ups, which aren’t meant to be pretty. It’s about their impact on your muscles. This practice is exercising your creative brain. And practice, practice, practice.
At the end—like everything you write—read it out loud. Hear the sound. A memorable signature is a JOY to read. The last thing to consider is sticking to one and only one signature. If you only have one arrow in your quiver, your work will feel stale.
Hemingway may have relied on short sentences, but he also had great dialogue. Outside of style, he relied on a varied though familiar batch of content for his wheelhouse: can you think of a good Hemingway story that isn’t about masculinity, drinking, hunting, women, bullfighting, war, or fishing?
What would you like to be known for? Create your own wheelhouse and make it sing.