(For fairness’ sake, I have to admit I’m not a wine drinker.)
This won’t come as anything new to most authors, but I wanted to reflect on it because I think it’s a really cool phenomenon. Established writers will smile and remember their projects; brand-new writers will have something to think about when choosing reading material.
When I say “writing is like wine”, I mean it in the sense of flavor. As far as my limited experience with wine goes, a wine isn’t just grape water. It picks up flavors from the soil it’s grown in, the ripeness of the grapes, and a bunch of other things that I’d rather not guess at for the sake of a pretty sentence. When a wine snob takes a sip and says, “reminiscent of fresh tennis balls”, you have to laugh. When three separate snobs say the same thing independently of each other, you have to think, “Why the hell does anyone want to drink something that tastes like tennis balls?”
But seriously. Writing works the exact same way. When you’re reading something while you’re writing, a little bit of the tone, the language, and sometimes even the narrative style of the work you’re reading will enter into the work you’re writing. It’s like a charming homage to your favorite authors.
For instance, I’ve been writing a short story while reading Mark Twain’s autobiography, dictated in 1906 and just recently published. (The autobiography, not my short story.) Check out a little passage of the story:
(Deep breaths, Reed, they can’t hate you from a few sentences.)
Terjjen had just finally gotten himself back to sleep when a stranger entered his chambers unannounced.
Three moments late, the manservant Willough was atop the staircase, trailing empty apologies from heaving breast. By that moment, Terjjen’s knife hand was pressed close enough to the stranger’s chin to feel the smoothness of his beardless face.
The three men stood silent, each waiting for the other to respond.
“I held razor myself this morning,” the stranger said, as if reading Terjjen’s thoughts. With one pale finger he moved aside the blade of the dagger threatening his throat, ignoring without flinching the blood that spilled from his fingertip. “So I must decline your offer for a shave, kind though it is.”
You don’t know my usual writing style, but it’s not this. And it’s definitely not Mark Twain – with the run on sentences, separated by commas, as though with any punctuating mark – including dashes – he can continue a sentence, extend it into infinity, and still somehow arrive at a point at the end.
This is a hybrid style, a little bit of Buck and a little bit of Twain dancing a merry jig on the page (or screen). Ripping off the style of your most admired authors is a great way to emulate them and learn from them.
(Just make sure you’re not reading trashy literature while you’re writing something you care about.)
That’s all for now! Enjoy what’s left of your weekend.