Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Universe without the Voice

 The good Paul Thomas Miller has set out another little writing prompt for Doyle's Rotary Coffin -- "Holmesoween" tales for October enjoyment. And, as anyone who reads this blog now and then knows, I can't help but put words together -- furor scribendi, my old neighbor used to call it. But as I set out to come up with something for the DRC this time, I really noticed a problem area I have.

The story I started writing, and may yet finish, was a more traditional pastiche, written as Dr. Watson. It's the path the other three contributors to the project have followed, and it's the more traditional Sherlockian path. These stories are the source of our pleasure, so why not imitate them? Makes perfect sense.

And yet as long as there have been Sherlockians, there has been a struggle to capture Watson's written voice. Something that came so naturally from the original author is nigh impossible to replicate. It's why we're all not Stephen King or Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway -- every writer's voice is their own.

And yet Sherlockians struggle and struggle to replicate Watson.

During the Left Coast Sherlockian Symposium, one of the speakers raised the question: "Is it easier to write in someone else's fictional world?" Most of those present said "yes." But I suspect the difference between those who said "yes" and those who said "no" was that they were answering different questions.

Is it easier to write a story that takes place in a universe someone else has already fully formed? Well, the mass of work that fills Archive of our Own should answer that question. Of course it is. You can move right to creating the story, without worrying about characters, settings, or timeframe. Writing a story based on a world created by a television show is wonderfully convenient for such work -- you get the world to write in, but no existing prose to compare it too. We don't expect a story to feel exactly the same as watching a TV show or movie, so the writer gets a bit of a break.

Sherlockians, however, have traditionally set themselves an impossible task -- not just writing in the world that Conan Doyle created, but writing in his voice -- Watson's voice -- as well. Why do we torture ourselves so? Even the most successful and skilled among us will still get their best work met by a "Well, it's not Conan Doyle" from some grumpy Gus. It's like our love of those sixties stories has put a curse upon us: "Ne'er will ye write that which ye so desire!"

Fans of Star Trek were never cursed this way. Those who came through the BBC Sherlock door after 2010 have less of this curse upon them. Their Sherlocks get to be mermen or rock stars or whoever they feel like being and their stories wind up being better stories. I mean, I'm sorry if I offend anyone here, but if you take all the BBC Sherlock stories and match them against all the ACD pastiches ever written with some fairly objective way of measuring quality . . . I think the former would win hands down. Their writers did not start the process shackled by trying to speak in a voice not their own.

We're all better when we just write with our own voice. And, yes, mimicking another is a great way to start out in finding your own writer's voice. I couldn't tell you all the times I tried to imitate a writer I admired in voice but not world. Dashiell Hammett, William Goldman, Andrew Vachss . . . the more distinctive a voice one admires, the more one has to try to mimic. And in that case, it's usually attempting to use the voice without borrowing the universe, so no one knows it's fan fic unless both your pen and their reading ear are good enough to communicate style.

Writing is hard at the start, and it's interesting when we choose to make it even harder by trying to do Watson. For Holmesoween, I got lazy, threw Watson out, and just wrote in the universe without his voice. I'll probably go back to my little Watson-voice experiment for the holiday celebration, but, man is that the harder route to go.

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