Sunday, July 18, 2010

I write like WHO now?

In the last few days, a wacky little site called I Write Like has attracted some attention by analyzing text and finding similarities between submitted prose and work by famous authors. On a whim, I decided to see whom I wrote like. The results were … interesting.

I copied and pasted the whole first chapter of Masks and was informed that I write like Raymond Chandler. Well, I haven’t read as much Chandler as I should and don’t really consider him an influence, but I am writing a noirish adventure story set in Los Angeles, so a certain Chandlerishness is probably good.

Chapter 2 came up as similar to the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. Hmmm, weird, since that’s the chapter where Trevor is having frantic paranoia fits and talks to a crazy homeless guy. Maybe Frank the crazy homeless guy was Sherlock Holmes in disguise. Keep going.

I skip ahead a bit to Chapter 6, where Trevor makes a grim and life-altering decision. Apparently I am now like William Gibson. I’m familiar with Gibson, of course—seminal science fiction writer, author of Neuromancer, coiner of the term “cyberspace”—but I, er, haven’t actually read him. Oops. Wonder how that happened.

Chapter 7, then, where Rae and Trevor actually talk for the first time. It’s long, vocabulary-rich, and has lots of dialogue, which I haven’t really tested for, and should provide lots of data for the analysis. But now I’m apparently like David Foster Wallace, and actively insulted because I’ve only ever read one David Foster Wallace story and I disliked it so intensely that I now use it as a classroom example of how not to write an interesting story. And my manuscript readers all like Chapter 7! Grrrr …

Chapters 9 and 10, where Rae meets the Masked Rider and Trevor meets John Lawrence, score as Cory Doctorow and Margaret Atwood, respectively. Now I’m really confused, because I’ve never read Doctorow. And why would the chapter that’s all about the interaction of two male characters score as similar to the works of a prominent Canadian feminist? Interestingly, Atwood herself tried the site when it first came online and was told she writes like Stephen King, so perhaps I write more like Margaret Atwood than Margaret Atwood does.

I enter some later chapters. I assume the comparisons to Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer are some kind of default mode, and the fact that James Joyce comes up three or four times may be the equivalent of an error message—certainly my brain always returned an error message when I tried to read Joyce in high school. Arthur C. Clarke comes up—well, maybe he and Gibson are the only sci-fi authors in the database, and I do use the word “teleport” a lot. But why H.P. Lovecraft keeps popping up is a complete mystery to me. I didn’t notice any tentacled monstrosities oozing through the book—just one teensy werewolf. And he has eczema, so he’s really not very scary.

After I’ve run the whole book through, a chapter at a time, I am intrigued to find that none of the authors whose work I enjoy most, except for Doyle, are on the list. None of the authors I consider my strongest influences show up, either. And that gets me thinking.

The question of literary resemblance is always a tricky one. Every new author wants to present himself or herself to publishers as being just like some successful author, to suggest that he or she will make just as much money for the publisher. But of course, the world doesn’t need another Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer (although two or more of Neil Gaiman might not go amiss—one of them could write all the time while the other does all the public appearances his fans demand, and perhaps a third actually gets to see his fiancee and kids). And nobody sets out to write just like anybody else—at bare minimum, we always tell ourselves that we’re trying to write like us.

But the fact is that we writers do learn by imitating. When I was starting out and hadn’t yet dreamed of writing for an audience of actual human beings, I carefully studied the works of my favorite authors to see how they achieved their marvelous effects. I had a few Timothy Zahn science fiction novels on audiotape, and listened carefully to how he worded his fight scenes. (I also learned about one-sentence and one-word paragraphs from him—so please direct any complaints there.) I studied the musicality of words in the works of people like Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman. I learned how to write first sentences and first paragraphs from Sol Stein. I studied the way Spider Robinson constructs his jokes, and his expository sections—there are whole pages in his novels that are actually staggeringly dull exposition and character development, and you aren’t bored because it’s all disguised as puns and drinking games. I studied how Terry Pratchett deals with big philosophical concepts in the middle of a gut-busting satire of the postal service. And just about anything I studied in novels, I studied in comic books too—how to develop characters, how to pace a scene, how to combine visuals with other information, how to write memorable dialogue. I got the very idea of writing prose fiction about superheroes from Michael A. Stackpole (who has said that he himself learned by studying Roger Zelazny and Edgar Rice Burroughs), but no one who reads my work thinks it’s especially similar to his.

And that, I suppose, is the goal. We begin life by imitating. We speak our parents’ languages, in their accents; we play the games other children play; by adolescence we spend much of our energy trying to walk, talk, dress, and think exactly like everyone else out of a morbid terror of not fitting in. (Or, in my case, declare ourselves to be space aliens and therefore exempt from human social conventions.) And yet, if we are wise enough and long-lived enough and above all lucky enough, we eventually learn not to imitate. We become less and less the people around us, and more and more ourselves. We start out singing along to our favorite recordings, and then some of us get lucky enough to learn to sing our own songs, to our own melodies, in our own voices. And maybe there’s a note here or there that a trained observer—or a particularly benighted computer program—will connect to someone else. There are only so many words in a language, after all, and only so many sounds a human throat can make. But I find I treasure the readers who say, “Well, you’re sort of like X, and a bit like Y, but not really … I guess you’re just like you.”

And as I grow older, I find that more and more I am comfortable in my own company, and slowly becoming the person I wanted to be all along. And I rather like her.

Which almost makes up for the fact that the stupid website thinks this blog entry was written in the style of H.P. Lovecraft …

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