For a great while now, I’ve done more serious, craft-oriented entries. Today is a small exception; we will discuss the fun, odd little twists that make great writing. I’ve mentioned the importance of quirks before; by most definitions, a quirk is “a peculiar behavioral habit”. We will expand on this definition by applying it to writers, and their writing.
Let’s start with Joss Whedon. You can pick out multiple quirks unique to Joss Whedon’s writing (heavy pop-culture savvy, particular slang, tough guys dropping restrictive clauses to sound tougher) that tell you almost immediately he’s behind it. Neil Gaiman has a tendency for poetic flourishes and archaic references. George R.R. Martin likes qualities of dynamism, large stables of characters, and switching between concurrent plot-lines.
Ernest Hemingway finds beauty in a distinct sparseness; Elmore Leonard finds realism in it. Douglas Adams goes on fun tangents, David Foster Wallace loves footnotes, Charles Bukowski has a poetic vulgarity to his writing, and Hunter S. Thompson straddles the line between journalistic brevity and the most epic run-on sentences ever.
James Patterson writes with an active, direct tone. Jack Kerouac writes with a passive, nuanced one. Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino are both masters of the one-voice, multiple-characters approach, but Smith always hides it better. (Mssr. Tarantino has improved a LOT, though.)
These are quirks. These are also knacks; if one doesn’t know any better, they might confuse the two.
Joss Whedon combines pop culture savvy with a strong comprehension of emotions and “the little moments” to pull his approach together. Neil Gaiman’s poetic inclinations and love of myths, fairy tales, and the like give him a unique perspective when writing a story in a modern setting. George R.R. Martin’s past as a TV writer allowed him to create a book that read like an HBO series, and set him apart from more traditional fantasy writers.
Ernest Hemingway started out as a reporter, and used the newspaper’s style guide as a cornerstone – because he realized he had a knack for short, effective prose. Elmore Leonard – who got his start writing Westerns, and GREAT ones at that – realized that solid dialogue and a story about a nice con would work just as well in modern days. Douglas Adams uses clever tangents to flesh out worlds, as do David Foster Wallace’s footnotes.
Charles Bukowski came at his writing from a very primal, frustrated, unpolished place (because of the drinking, it could be argued) and let it reflect what (and who) he did in real life. Hunter S. Thompson’s “Gonzo” style, a brilliant combination of prosaic fluidity and taut journalistic writing, came from his obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (he typed up their novels in an attempt to understand their prose), years of journalistic experience, and…well, he was really drunk, and needed to make a deadline for “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. From there, he expounded on it, and created something entirely his own.
James Patterson comes from a marketing / advertising background, and approaches every page (well, the ones he writes, anyway) with the attitude of selling a situation and a character, to great success. The writing is simple, but what most people miss is the fact that simple writing affords the writer directness – and sometimes, though it makes us cringe, we know that being direct can be best.
Jack Kerouac came from a philosophical background, and allowed the characters and the story to unfold as it would. Kevin Smith makes the movies that reflect his experiences with life; Quentin Tarantino makes the movies that reflect his experiences with cinema.
Quirks and knacks make us what we are as creators, as writers, as artists. Don’t be quick to dismiss the concept of the quirk as something like, “I eat peanut butter out of the jar with a pretzel”, or “I like comic books”, or “I check that my doors are locked because I’m secretly afraid of a zombie attack”. They are quirks – and if you don’t have a plan for the zombie apocalypse, I truly feel sorry for you – but you should also recognize your writing quirks. When you do, you’ll also find your knacks.
And while you’re thinking about it – get on that zombie plan. It’s called “being prepared”.