The evolution of my writing style over time

Writing continues apace. I’ve been highly productive lately. Have written two new short stories, including a new sci-fi story! The story writing was inspired by the sale of a story I wrote maybe a year ago or two years ago to The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy (my second story to sell to that publication). I was like, hmm, maybe I’m still able to do this short story thing.

I have to say, for years I’d write a story I thought was particularly accomplished only to find that it would go unsold. So it’s nice to see those stories sell nowadays on occasion. I have a close friend who’s shopping around a story collection, and I even got the misty ideas, hmm, maybe I’ll put together a collection one of these days! I wonder what my combined ouevre would say about me?

I actually got an offer once from a specialty press to put out a collection, but I turned it down, after looking through my published stories, because I realized I just didn’t hadn’t written enough stories that I felt proud of.

That might still be true, to be honest, but I hope someday it won’t be.

It’s nice to put out an SF story. I think this year I’ve had a story out in Asimov’s, and I wasn’t stressed about it at all. Once upon a time I used to google each story and see what was happening with it and then assiduously market it online for awards nominations. Now I’m like whatever. Either people will notice or they won’t. Either it’ll get nominated or it won’t. A person only has a very limited amount of marketing energy, and there’s no point wasting it on things that don’t really matter.

What’s most exciting about some of my latest story sales is that my writing style has really developed! I’ve advanced tremendously in my ability to expand and contract time, in my ability to dip into and out of the protagonist’s head, and in my ability to module the colloquialism of the language to reflect whether we’re hearing the main character’s thoughts or hearing the disembodied thoughts of the narration. I think that, like Berthold Brecht, I’ve often struggled because I write characters who I don’t necessarily want the audience to fully identify with. Part of me wants to hold them up to scrutiny. However, unlike Brecht, I don’t despise my own characters. I want my readers to like them, but also to understand who they truly are. And it’s taken some time to find the tools to write about them well.

Writing is an odd thing! You work and work on something, and people don’t see it for years. Like in my soon-to-be-released YA novel (WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL is out March 31) I think my main efforts were spent in peeling back some of my initial training regarding plot. With every draft, I made that story less dramatic and more character-focused. I was learning how to tell stories that hinged upon internal conflicts and how to avoid letting the machinery of drama take up too much of the story. The problem was that this led to a lot of dialogue and a lot of internal rumination. And it was only in the final drafts of the book that I began to condense some of that stuff and turn it into narrative summary.

So what readers will see in WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL is primarily my efforts to tell a less-dramatic story, something more focused upon tiny emotional movements. Whereas before I used to attempt to dramatize the internal, by finding events that served as an exterior analogue for what was happening inside, now I’m trying to portray the internal with simple honesty.

But I’m beyond that now. All that stuff is already a part of the toolkit. Now I’m trying to make the narration carry more weight, so I don’t need to scramble as much for interesting situations (which, in modern life, are relatively rare). And it’s not a simple thing. Every change in my writing has served to make it less dramatic and more, dare I say it, boring.

Yet I still come from a background steeped in the virtues of a good plot. I always try and think, “Why is the reader still reading this? What question do they want answered? What relationship is unresolved?” So I still have a story. That’s the fun part! There’s always a story, there’s always a plot, and, at least if you’re me, it’s a plot you’re genuinely excited by. Is Nandan gay? Does Jhanvi (the protagonist of my new book) actually manage to become friends with this other girl? The trick is that the plot hangs upon such small changes in mood and in circumstance, and unless you’re able to portray those things accurately, the book fails.

This makes me sound like a writer who’s focused primarily on language. I would not say that this is the case. You can tell, even from my blog posts, that I’m not the most careful writer on a sentence level. And even the virtues of my prose are usually considered vices. I love to put in extra words and extra phrases just for the rhythm of the sentence. My sentences can be long and full of dependencies. I tend towards the mannered, and not entirely with good reason, but in part simply because mannered prose tends to give off some sheen of seriousness that’s borrowed from the Victorians.

I still believe strongly in structure and in content. When I read Proust, I’m impressed not primarily by the sentences, but by the complexity of the portraits and of the relationships. And, similarly, when I want to revise my books, I think primarily, “How can I change my premise in order to tell this story better.” It makes revision much simpler, I’ll tell you, when instead of needing to go through and alter every sentence, you’re simply able to reduce the book to its constituent parts and think, “Which of these parts needs to be different?”

Well there you go, that’s a thousand words on what and how I’m writing these days.

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