Over the past month I’ve explored my writing as it’s developed these past twenty years. I’ve been using the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores and the old fashioned eyeball test to chart changes in my work. We’ve looked at some of very early pieces, purple and laden with adjectives, a more transitional phase where I started to reign in my wordier impulses, and then some of my published work, where my voice and prose began to resemble something similar to how I write today. In this last post we’ll look at recent work, and see how the writer I am today is different from the writer I used to be.
Before we get into to those recent examples. Here are the other posts in this series for reference.
- The Way I Write Part 1: The Early Years
- The Way I Write Part 2: Evolution
- The Way I Write Part 3: Refinement
“Night Games” (circa 2014 A.D.)
This is passage from my short story “Night Games,” which I completed in 2012 and sold in 2014 (after a revision or two). I sold it again to Pseudopod in 2016 (click this link to listen). “Night Games” is an important story to me because it’s one of the first pieces I wrote where I really felt like I knew what I wanted the story to accomplish, and then I went and did that (and it mostly worked).
Randall Simmons only plays night games. As he steps into the right-handed box and taps his bat on the plate, he reminds me why. His smile, aimed at the pitcher’s mound, is wide and predatory. The bright stadium lights catch for a moment on his teeth. Even from 60 feet, 6 inches away, those teeth are too long and too sharp.
Randall is showing me his secret smile, some of it anyway. His smile is for me because I’m here to preserve the Kansas City T-Bones’ one-run lead in the top of the ninth against his team, the Wichita Wingnuts. It’s also for me because I’m the only person in the stadium who knows Randall Simmons is a vampire.
Anytime I step out of the bullpen it’s a big deal. It’s a chance to earn a save, win the game, and even make someone notice a washed-up twenty-five-year-old pitcher trying to make it to the bigs. That’s a tall order in the independent leagues, where dreams of big-league baseball and big-league money go to die. Unlike most nights, I’m not thinking about my fastball, my curveball, or the good slider that got me drafted by the A’s five years ago. I’m thinking once the game is over Randall Simmons will kill me.
I’d had the idea for this story rattling around in my brain for a few years, and then one day it all clicked, and “Night Games” became a thing. I’d say it’s the first story I published in, well, my current era of writing, for lack of a better word. With this story I started to figure out what my strengths were and how best to utilize them, but let’s have a look at the numbers.
- Passive Sentences: 0%
- Flesch Reading Ease: 73.3
- Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 7.0
You might notice those numbers are a little higher than where I was trending in the last post. The difference here is that I am trying for a specific voice, one that’s going to come across as technical and a little wordy (baseball is a pretty nerdy sport). That voice is borne out in the numbers, but, as opposed to the wildly purple prose of my stories from the early aughts, this is still very readable.
Let’s move on a couple of years and look at another piece.
“Scare Tactics” (circa 2016 A.D.)
With this story I started using a voice and style that is very much what and how I enjoy writing. This story is one of the first of my horror/noir/urban fantasy mashups that features a healthy dose of black humor. It’s also one of my most successful stories, as I’ve sold it three times. The Dunesteef did a great little audio version of the piece you can listen to right here.
She got out of the car, popped open the trunk, and made a face at the awful stink within. A pungent mix of the worst fart overlaid with rotting meat and old garbage wafted up from the dark enclosure.
“Jesus,” Lindsey said, covering her mouth. “Can’t you control that?”
A jumbo-sized Raggedy Ann doll that had seen better days lay face-up in the trunk. Moth holes pocked its pinkish cotton, and its once-bright dress was dirty and stained. Only the red yarn hair retained its original color.
Adramelech’s voice drifted up from the doll, faint and irritated. “You know I can’t help it. You keep a demon in physical form, you get the stink. That’s the way it is. Maybe you shouldn’t stick me in a small, enclosed space.”
“And have that stench up front with me? No thanks. Hey, switch to silent mode. It’s almost show time.”
Ugh, are we doing this again? Adramelech’s voice spoke in Lindsey’s head now, as she’d requested. It wasn’t quite telepathy. He couldn’t read her thoughts, like she couldn’t read his, but they could “hear” each other when they wanted. It’s demeaning, you know. I’m a demon of the first order, a goddamn chancellor of Hell. I’m not some bullshit scare artist.
Lindsey stifled a chuckle. Chancellor, my ass. I’ve read de Plancy. He says you were primarily Lucifer’s fashion consultant.
I had so much fun writing Lindsey and Adramelech, and I’m about to write a whole lot more about them. Anyway, this story just clicked for me, the characters, the subject matter, the genre mashup, all of it. I think a lot of having any success as a writer is figuring out where you belong, and for me, this is probably it.
Okay, what about the numbers.
- Passive Sentences: 0%
- Flesch Reading Ease: 80.5
- Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.4
Yep, that’s right where I want it. Nice and conversational. These stories have a ton of dialog (and a fair amount of four letter words), and so they make for quick and, well, easy reading, and that too is where I live now.
One more story.
“A Point of Honor” (circa 2019 A.D.)
The final story is one I published last year, and it’s a bit of a departure for me in genre and tone. It’s near-future dystopian sci-fi that deals with a real-world issue–cyberbullying–in a Twilight Zone-esque manner. You can check it out from the publisher, Radix Media, right here.
Jacob opened his mailbox and froze. The sight of the scarlet envelope between the bills and advertisements twisted his stomach into cold knots of dread. He’d never seen a declaration from the Bureau of Honorable Affairs in person.
Jacob glanced around the street, empty and quiet, terrified someone might see. He snatched the declaration from the mailbox, tucked it into his robe, and hurried inside.
Sara stood at the kitchen counter drinking coffee. “Anything in the mail?”
He pulled the declaration from his robe and tossed it on the counter. It looked like a fresh bloodstain on the white tile.
Sara’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth with one hand. “Why do you have that?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t hurt anyone.”
“Of course you haven’t. You’re a forty-year-old computer programmer.”
He grimaced at his wife’s blunt assessment. “Maybe it’s a mistake. They’re a big government agency. They screw up, right?”
“Yes, a mistake.” Sara seized on this scant hope. “Has to be.”
The difference between this story and “Scare Tactics” is mostly tone. The writing is fairly similar I think, with direct, even Spartan prose and a lot of dialog, but let’s check the numbers.
- Passive Sentences: 0%
- Flesch Reading Ease: 75.1
- Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.5
Yeah, that’s still in what I’d call my sweet spot. The reading ease is a tad higher in this passage, but if you run the entire 5,000-word story its right at 84.
Before I wrap this thing up here are the readability numbers for all the stories in the blog series.
|Date||Story||Reading Ease||Grade Level|
|2007||The Fate of Champions||62.9||8.7|
|2012||At the Seams||85.8||4.7|
|2019||A Point of Honor||75.1||4.5|
So what have I learned from this exploration of my writing over the last twenty years? I think the easiest conclusion to draw is as the writing became simpler and more direct, i.e., more readable, I started getting published. This is not the only way to get published, of course, but for me, stripping things down, focusing on dialog and action (things I’m good at) instead of long descriptions and beautiful prose (things I’m NOT good at) has allowed me to publish a fair amount. I’m certainly still a work in progress, and there’s more growing and learning to be done, but I like where I’ve ended up. I don’t think I’m trying to sound like other published fiction (at least not on purpose), and I now have something resembling a style. But who knows? Maybe in five years I’ll change my mind and start trying to sound like H.P. Lovecraft’s dictionary again. 🙂