The Technique of Pastiche

I opened a letter with this question:

If you don’t mind my asking, I wondered what your process was for  pastiching Van Vogt in Null-A Continuum and Hodgson in Awake in the Night Land. (And if I’m not mistaken, didn’t you also write a story in Vance’s style for Songs of the Dying Earth?)

I’ve been researching the methods authors use when writing pastiches, and as the creator of several of the most successful examples, I had hoped you might have some advice on the techniques you used.

My comment: I am just egotistical enough to be a writer, and ignore the slings and arrows of outrageously poor sales of poor reviews, but I fear I am not egotistical enough to believe anyone (but my one die hard fan for whom I do everything I do) has any interest in hearing an obscure midlist author drone on about his ‘technique.’

I don’t believe in techniques. My “technique” is to sit at my desk and write until the thing I want to write is written. Likewise, a cobbler’s technique is to sit at his workbench with leather and tack-hammer and shape the materials into a shoe. It is a job. You do it by not giving up, learning your trade, and doing your word in a timely and professional fashion, giving the customers what you promised, and being grateful for the work, like any job.

However, the man asked me in a polite fashion, so I wrote him the reply below. I reprint it here in case my one die hard fan is bored. 

*  * * *

I don’t mind your asking, but I also am not sure if my answer will be any help to you at all. I did not have a method in mind. I did it by doing it.

Certain authors have distinctive voice and mannerism of speech as they tell stories, use certain favored terms of phrase, and a particular vocabulary. They have a distinctive sense of pacing.

These things are called ‘tics’ or mannerisms. You have to read an author deeply enough and long enough to recognize his tics, and by copying those tics, the reader, perhaps without noticing it, will hear the voice of the author you are impersonating, not yours.

I have a good ear for mimickry, and can copy their word-choice. Jack Vance and A.E. van Vogt also have a distinctive worldview they put across in their stories (I do not know if the authors themselves believe what their stories promote or not, nor do I care. But the stories have a clear theme that can be imitated.)

In terms of a plot, in the case of both Jack Vance and A.E. van Vogt, I was writing a sequel to an existing story, and needed only to extrapolate a reasonable variation on a theme taking place in a slightly larger stage.

William Hope Hodgson is a different case: there I simply borrowed his background and theme, and avoided his word-choice, which is, frankly, unappealing. His book I had used as a backdrop in a role playing game I ran in college, and so I had a thick notebook of notes where I had puzzled out certain details of how his world might work or look like.

In terms of theme and plot, he wrote a tale about romantic love, which the Greek calls eros. I wrote additional tales about the other four types of love: camaraderie (philos), family love (storge), filial love (pietas) and divine love (agape).

In each case, I used the nightmarish and uninhabitable landscape of post-solar Earth as a metaphor for the desolation of lovelessness, which is (or so I would argue) Hodgson’s own use. In other words, in this case I did not copy his voice, but I copied his footsteps and extrapolated what he had established to find a story he had not.

I also used Antigone and Aeneas as mythic models to establish the frame of the stories, since I interpreted Hodgson to have written a science fiction version of the Orpheus story.

Certainly it helps that I have read nearly every word Vance and Van Vogt have ever put on paper, and that I have been fans of these writers since age nine. Their distinctive voice and tone is easy for someone raised with these authors to mimic.

By way of contrast, I do not think it is easy to copy the distinctive tone of an author like Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, because they both use a transparent and journalistic style, without distinctive verbal tics or mannerisms.

The other secret is humility. I deliberately wrote the A.E.van Vogt pastiche to make the kind of points and put across the kind of message he would have put across. My books can put across my points.