Observations: Style in Pastiche

John Watson has style. He has it in spades....

John Watson has style. He has it in spades….

Part 4: Style

We might as well call this, “Other Stuff I Think About That Didn’t Fit Anywhere Else.” It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, but here goes…

"Just a few changes here and there...."

“Just a few changes here and there….”

The Basics

No matter where you are in the publishing food chain–Big New York House, small independent, or self-pub, everyone seems to agree that editing isn’t what it was several decades ago. If you’re really fortunate, you’ll have an involved, talented editor who suggests improvements in your story, and an expert proofreader. Of course, if you have those things, you’re probably not reading these essays anyway. It’s much more likely that you’re expected to provide these services on your own, or close to it. Some people do an incredible job, but quite a few do not, and unfortunately, the ability to think up a fantastic story does not necessarily include the skills required to tell it well or present it professionally. Here are a few common mechanics issues I’ve seen:

Incorrect punctuation

The further you get from high school grammar, the harder it is to remember those pesky rules. I struggle to punctuate sentences going by how I think they should sound if read aloud, and end up with bewildering messes that would give my old English teachers fits. The informality of email, social media, and texting also leaves us out of practice. It’s probably a good idea, therefore, to give yourself a refresher course. You should also see if your publisher has a style sheet for guidance. If not, The Chicago Manual of Style is an invaluable help–and you can even find the basics in handy chart form.

Incorrect Usage

Because we don’t speak the way we should write, this is a common problem. Subject- verb agreement, using the wrong verb tense (or mixing tenses up), writing plurals or possessives incorrectly…all of these creep into our writing if we are not vigilant. Strunk and White’s venerable The Elements of Style is a succinct guide to avoiding these mistakes. Written by Cornell English professor William Strunk, and later revised by his one-time pupil, E. B. White (yes, of Charlotte’s Web fame), this book is both easy and entertaining to read, so don’t worry about dozing off the way you did during school grammar lessons.

Spelling/Typographical Errors

The ability to spell is, I am convinced, a talent all its own. You have it, or you don’t and, just like musical aptitude, not having it is no reflection on your intelligence. That being said, you gotta get it right. Fortunately, word processing programs can check for spelling errors, and tell you how you should have done it in the first place. They have their limitations, however:  they’ll sail blithely over incorrect words spelled correctly, such as “to” substituted for “too.”

It all comes down, therefore, to proofreading. Make a few passes on your own, being careful to give yourself a few hours’ break in between, as it’s amazing how much you’ll miss simply because you know what you meant to write. Then, hand out your manuscript to some willing friends or family members. They’ll be able to find even more errors, as well as sections in which you’re not as clear as you might be.* As stand-ins for your eventual thousands of readers, their services will prove invaluable: reward them accordingly. Can’t find anyone willing or able? Then I really would suggest biting the bullet and hiring a professional freelance editor. Changes in the publishing industry, as well as the difficulty of making a living from writing alone, mean that there are many skilled people out there. Check the Editorial Freelancers Association website  for a searchable directory.**

Finally. I know, I know, it’s tedious. It’s mind-numbingly tedious. To some, this focus on details may even seem “unartistic.” It’s crucial, however, both to telling your story effectively, and establishing your reputation as a competent, professional writer.  Look at your manuscript as a bit like a Seurat painting (the ones using pointillism). Those dots of paint weren’t dabbed on randomly. Instead, each is painstakingly placed, with a view towards the greater effect. When it comes to your book, every keystroke counts.

So, what is he putting Holmes up to this time?

So, what is he putting Holmes up to this time?


If you’re publishing on your own, either electronically or in print, or if you’re using a small publisher who leaves formatting up to you, make every effort to produce a book that looks just like it came from one of the Big Houses. I have absolutely no experience in electronic formatting, but from what I’ve heard, it can be challenging. Again, if you find yourself having difficulties, don’t hesitate either to hire someone, or to upgrade your self-publishing package. In the case of small publishers, remember: readability isn’t enough. Pay attention to margins, paragraph divisions, typeface, etc. Read up on desktop publishing and layout. Making the effort now could mean a difference in sales later.

It's always good to know what you're doing.

It’s always good to know what you’re doing.

A Case of Identity

So, what are you writing, really?

There are plenty of articles and online discussion about the proper use of the word “pastiche.” Technically, a pastiche is a work written in the style of another author, as an homage to him or her. A parody would be the same–except it’s written to poke fun at the original artist, either to make a point, or just for laughs. So, to write a true Sherlock Holmes pastiche, you’re going to need to write as Watson.

“But what if I don’t sound like Watson?” you ask. Take heart. Perhaps you just need a little practice. If you really want to mimic the Watson voice, reading the canon over and over again may be enough to get you going–particularly if you read it just before you begin a writing session. Still, not all of us are good imitators, and people who love the Watson voice are remarkably sensitive to its quality or lack thereof. If this is true in your case then, rather than try and fail (and get called out on it in reviews), it’s probably best to tell your story from another point of view altogether. Perhaps you can use a variant of the third person, or write as another character, either from the canon or original. Remember, if you write as Watson, you have to take on his qualities and look at things through his eyes; it’s more than simply sounding like a Victorian writer. Sometimes, it’s actually useful to look at Holmes–or a case–from another perspective entirely.

Of course, once you do this you’re no longer writing a pastiche, really, although lots of us tend to just throw that word around, trading accuracy for convenience. No, what you’d be writing then might better be called Sherlockian or Holmesian fiction. But is it fan fiction?

Well, yes and no. Every fiction work featuring Sherlock Holmes as a character which was not written by Sir Arthur himself is, technically, fan fiction–fiction written by fans. Still, having read  tons of non-commercial Holmes stories on sites like Fanfiction.net or Archive of Our Own (AO3), I have to say that there is, in many (but not all) of them, a difference in tone and subject that may make it difficult for someone who is used to writing for a fic audience to take the same work and simply print it, as is, for the larger market, even when that person is very skilled. I’ve thought a great deal about what this difference is, and come up with one possible answer.

It may have something to do with the “genres.” Stories on fan fiction sites typically belong to genres, which are listed at the beginning, to let the reader know what type of story they’re looking at. Some genres–eg., “Mystery,” “Romance,” “Drama,”–are self-explanatory.  Others are peculiar to the fan fiction world. If a story is designated as “Angst,” for example, you can expect a lot of emotional discussions, emotional brooding, emotional release, and just…every kind of unhappiness imaginable. Another popular one, “Hurt/Comfort,” features a main character being injured, ill, or upset, then being comforted by another character. If such a story contains “whumpage,” you can expect that the character on the hurt side is going to be taking a beating, over and over again. In fact, even in a very traditional “casefic” (a story focused on one case), the serial nature of fan fiction may mean that the author throws in all sorts of subplots, setbacks, and whumpage to a degree that one wouldn’t expect in a commercial novel.

I don't think Holmes can take much more.... Oh, goody! Erysipelas!

I don’t think Holmes can take much more…. Oh, goody! Erysipelas!

And that’s the difference, I think–expectations. People go to fan fiction for good stories about characters they love, but they also read fics because they want to explore certain scenarios. Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, for example, tends to contain a lot of hurt/comfort stories in which Watson is hurt, and Holmes takes care of him–a way for the writer to explore the feelings and actions we’re given a glimpse of in “The Three Garridebs.”*** For a similar reason, there are many tales which feature, as a main part of the plot, Holmes brooding over his relationship with Watson (generally feeling guilty because he’s treated him poorly), or Watson being angry because…well, he believes that Holmes has treated him poorly. Depending on the skill of the writer, these stories can be either rich, complex tours de force, or just a nice distraction. The thing is, however, I don’t think the larger Sherlockian audience (the kind to whom one is trying to sell books) is looking for this–at least, not to such an amplified degree. In order for a fan fiction to transition well to the regular market, it’s probably necessary to adjust the Holmes, Watson, or other canon characters in one’s headcanon to more traditional versions. For example, it’s all right to explore Holmes’ and Watson’s relationship–in fact, it tends to add depth to the story–but it’s better to do it more subtly than happens in most fics, without many protracted brooding scenes or tears.  “Whumpage,” too, should be more realistic. There are quite a few stories in which the amount of physical and mental punishment dealt out would have killed the target character by the third chapter. In the fic world, everyone plays along. Your typical pastiche reader, however, will probably be more skeptical.  In a similar vein, I’m also not so sure that vignettes and writing exercises, like “drabbles” and “221Bs” translate well, as is, to a commercial book. People don’t always seem to understand what they’re for. It’s best to incorporate these into the story, with the caveat that they should be relevant to the larger plot.

When it comes to publishing your fan fiction for profit, then, a rewrite will, most likely, be in order. Look for out-of-character moments, repetition, loose plot threads, anachronisms, plausibility questions, etc. Do the historical research your story calls for, if you haven’t already.  And let me finally add that I love fan fiction. Ok, I adore it with every fiber of my being, and there are authors posting right now whose level of writing talent I covet. Still, if you’re considering publishing your work off-line, it’s probably advisable to ask for a critique from a reader (or three) who is not familiar with fan fiction. Use their comments to help re-create your work into a book with appeal that spans age, gender, and experience.

I would, incidentally, very much like to know your opinions on this. Do you see any difference between online fan fiction, and what is generally published? I have to ask that, if you do comment, don’t name fic writers, and definitely do not do so if you’re planning to comment on their work in a negative way. Those posts will not be approved. Unless you want to use your personal experiences, the discussion should probably remain general. Still, in a world where, every once in awhile, a writer can emerge from the land of fanfic and do quite well for herself, wouldn’t it be nice to see a Sherlockian author do the same!†

So. Here endeth the series. Thanks for your indulgence. It’s been on my mind for several months, and I hope you’ve found it interesting, perhaps even useful. Even if you think it’s all rubbish, keep writing–that’s the important thing.  And, as always, let me know what you have to say in the comments.


*For example…

Husband: “This sentence is too long. Isn’t there such a thing as a period?”

Me: Grit teeth. Fix it.

**In general, if a person cares enough to join a professional organization, it’s a good sign.

***Or for Holmes to mess it all up in a humorous way. It’s not all dark and depressing in fanfic land.

†Preferably without “shades” of anything.


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5 responses to “Observations: Style in Pastiche

  1. James O'Leary

    Another informative piece. And thanks for the glimpse into the mysterious world of fanfic.

    • Have you read Betsey Rosenblatt’s article on Fanfic in the Baker Street Journal? I thought it was excellent. She’s also done a podcast interview with the Baker Street Babes, but I haven’t heard it yet. I am woefully behind on podcast-listening.

      • James O'Leary

        I have read Rosenblatt’s article and heard the Babes’ podcast. They really don’t get into the different categories such as “Angst”, “Hurt/Comfort” and the “whumpage” you mention. Along with “shipping”, it seems there is a lot of fascinating re-purposing of established characters that goes much farther than just telling new stories. You make an important point in distinguishing between fanfic and writing a pastiche for mass market consumption.

  2. Thank you for this whole series! (I can say this without reservation, even though I haven’t read #3 yet!) So much illuminating stuff, plain talk on subjects that are often implicit but never treated with such care and persuasive insight.
    The first portion of this post is very familiar to me, since I worked for many years as a professional copyeditor (and still do it for the other author who lives in my house!). Cheers for all the things you mentioned–they do indeed make a difference. Even so, when I came to publish my own book, I benefited greatly from editing by other eyes (and minds) and especially from the book design talents of those gifted in that area.
    The second portion was all new to me, and shows I am utterly naive about the fanfic world. “Whumpage” and “hurt/comfort” were definitely new, but you explained them so well. I am more familiar with the realm of pastiche and parody. Interesting to consider how much one can stretch the “ground rules” in a pastiche before it verges into parody, or simply becomes one of many related stories in a corner of fictional space. For example, could a plausible case, solved by Holmes with Watson’s aid, but narrated by Mrs. Hudson, be considered a pastiche, whereas a series about the new detective adventures of Mrs. Hudson herself would be a Sherlockian offshoot? Fun to ponder, and it’s all out there!

  3. Great thoughts on the various degrees and labels wrapped up in fan-fiction. I personally feel fan-fiction is akin to a cesspool. That is not an insult, simply an observation. It is a place that excludes no writer, without holding lack of skill or talent against them. There are published authors here with dirty little secrets and many brilliant writers who use this as a stage to hone certain skills. Technically it may be off the main map of literary awards, but there are lovely (if not perfect) stories and anyone may practice the craft with barriers removed. The fifteen year old high-school kid has as much right to cast her lot as the bored housewife or the middle-aged English teacher with the stack of rejections tucked in his desk drawer.
    The lone hermit writer has given way to a world wide support network and instant feedback. Publishing has changed and will keep on doing that just as it has been known to do since invented. I think this is a great tool for people to simply enjoy as a lark or to use for a hobby. No, it doesn’t have to end there. It is a lot of work to write and this is a type of hellfire for the novice. (a good glimpse of reality and a few cruel reviews saves many people years of frustration while it toughens other people’s skin)
    Some of it is horrible. Some of it is brilliant. All are in good company, however, even Sir Doyle was technically writing Fanfiction. He expanded and twisted them enough while improving the realistic scientific details that few notice that he did nod to his own inspirations.
    There were reasons he didn’t like his Sherlock and spent 8 years refusing to write any more of him. Imagine 100 years from now, your published novels are hardly remembered and yet your Fanfiction is still read with Sherlockian enthusiasm?
    In ACD’s books Sherlock never played the violin as a professional, but only for himself. Perhaps that is a good analogy of those who write in this medium. I cannot imagine a common street buckster loves his tatty violin less than the concert violinist worships the strings of his priceless antique of impressive name. If a bit of my own fanfiction should ever be enjoyed in the far future, it would please me just as much as any work I managed to inflict upon the world through conventional avenues.
    I think all writing is an act of emotion. It is better when it is done well. Not all of it will be good enough to be remembered, but not every great building will withstand the needs of future generations nor will every great violin come with a provenance that will impress the trained ear.
    Not everyone can write a pyramid or plot Bach’s Chaconne, but many can build a cozy house and saw out a nice tune on a thrift-shop violin. Fan-fiction seems to have room for mansions and tin shacks.
    The grass grows lush near the cesspool and fanfiction may have a new name, but it has been around much longer than the Internet. Not so long ago, I too thought no story should use other’s work as a base. However, a class in character analysis changed my mind. Breaking down the elements of another author’s fictional persona, by clues and action alone, allows you to return to your own original works with much more control.
    I loved this post. Thanks so much for writing it.