Sneetches, Whos, and The Cat in the Hat

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose.” — Dr. Seuss

 I did not need to credit Dr. Seuss with that quote for it to be recognized, his style was so unique it revolutionized the way we look at children’s literature. Characterized by rhyming, made up words, and a knee bouncing rhythm, Dr. Seuss’s books are delightful and timeless.

This does not mean I think we should all begin writing in rhyme and add whatever fa-lloo-fall-in word we think up. However, it is worth noting that Dr. Seuss was able to engage kids in reading all because of his style.

Dr. Seuss’s books are known for their moral lessons, however, as Dr. Seuss himself recognized, “Kids can see a moral coming a mile off and they gag at it.” His books are instead a candy-coated roller coaster. When we get off, we are begging for more, and are a little bit more inspired, more accepting, or more courageous to boot.

Dr. Seuss commented on his style, “The problem with writing a book in verse is, to be successful, it has to sound like you knocked it off on a rainy Friday afternoon. It has to sound easy. When you can do it, it helps tremendously because it’s a thing that forces kids to read on. You have this unconsummated feeling if you stop.” Generations of kids have kept on reading because he did not stop. You will find Dr. Seuss’s rhythmic and rhyming lessons painted in bedrooms, in bios online, or tattooed on our very hearts. A few favorites:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

 “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

 “I’ve heard there are troubles of more than one kind; some come from ahead, and some come from behind. But I’ve brought a big bat. I’m all ready, you see; now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!”

 “We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts! 
So, open your mouth, lad!
 For every voice counts!”

 All these quotes have starred in Dr. Seuss books read to countless children, on countless knees, countless times. The lessons they teach are not necessarily novel, but they are presented in a novel way that manages to create a lasting impact for those reading.


“They Just Don’t Like My Style”: Style vs Voice

One of the most famous defenses of writing assignments everywhere: “My teacher just doesn’t like my style.” I know that line, I have said it when picking up that essay which should have been immediately listed on the literary cannon and yet is stamped with a deflated C+.

The fact is, a teacher can “not like your style” and that does not mean they just “don’t get you.” The problem is the distinction between style and voice.

Style is a combination of a writer’s use of diction and tone according to Wheaton University’s writing center resources. Style is something that the writer manipulates to accomplish their specific purpose in writing.

Voice, on the other hand is the “you” in your writing. “Voice is your own. It’s a developed way of writing that sets you apart from other writers (hopefully). It’s your personality coming through on the page,” according to Writer’s Digest.

Writer’s Digest goes further by giving this example, “Here’s one way to think about it: WD tries to have all its articles fit a similar style—conversational yet straightforward. But between the covers, each piece is written by a different author whose own voice colors his particular piece. So the continuity of the magazine stays together, but each piece is still different.” When writing for a specific purpose it is important to analyze what style best meets the needs of your intended audience. If you write for a travel magazine, perhaps a style that includes longer and more detailed sentences is appropriate. If you are writing a manual for putting together furniture, any unnecessary content should probably be omitted for shorter, more direct sentences.

So if a teacher, publisher, or editor does not “like your style,” think about revising your work. Or, if you think they simply do not “get you” then shout, “they just don’t like my voice!” instead.

The Style of Defining Style

Whenever engaged in a conversation about a writer’s style, I find my head full of absurd images of Shakespeare with greased hair and a leather jacket climbing off the back of a motorcycle; or Hemmingway in stilettos with a pink boa and a peacock feather quill. Obviously, this is not the definition of style which we are discussing; it is just what pops into my perpetually eleven year old brain.

However, it made me think about the definition of style—writing style that is. I wondered how different in style definitions of style could be:

– a distinctive manner of expression (as in writing or speech)

– The mode of expressing thought in writing or speaking by selecting and arranging words, considered with respect to clearness, effectiveness, euphony, or the like, that is characteristic of a group, period, person, personality, etc.:

– The basic defining characteristics of a person, everything from talk, dress, hairstyle, demeanor, etc. A majority of the time it is the person’s appearance in general and can be categorized (grunge, hippie, preppy, hoochie, nerdy, etc). A few people have their own style which usually makes them unique while most go with whatever is the “in” thing at the time in all the above categories. Can also be used as a compliment

-A way of using language

This is just a brief example of the diverse ways in which the definition of style can be stylized. It may seem like a silly way to explain style, but now you not only have four definitions, but four different examples of style—none of which involve top hats or bedazzled sashes.

“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

“Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.”

Earnest Hemmingway may be better known for what he does not say, than what he does say. His brevity of words was perhaps one of his greatest strengths as a writer. His style has been coined as “hard boiled.” According to, “hard boiled” means to be unfeeling, callous, coldhearted, cynical, rough, obdurate, unemotional, [or] without sentiment.” Rather than describing an emotion, Hemmingway strove to describe the event that evoked the emotion, and leave the emoting to the reader. Hemmingway says in his book Death in the Afternoon, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things.”

Hemmingway’s concise writing, known for penetrating the heart of the issue without delay, is what allowed him to be the center of a famous urban legend: it has been said that while in a bar with some buddies, Hemmingway bet that he could write a novel in six words. His buddies took the bet, and after scribbling six words on a napkin, Hemmingway showed his friends and collected his winnings. The famous six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

This urban legend is in fact a legend—there is no evidence of this actually occurring as it is fabled. In fact, the story and similar stories have been traced to pre-Hemmingway. However, the succinct style Hemmingway demonstrates in his writing is worth immolating for anyone who finds their work crammed with long, awkward, invasive, superfluous, and unnecessarily adjective laden sentences. It also helps one meet word counts.

One way to practice this style is with a six-word memoir, pioneered by Smith magazine in a contest where they challenged people to write their memoirs in six words and submit them. They got so many wonderful submissions they published them in a book titled, “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.”

Therefore, I challenge you to write your six-word memoir, and I will leave you with mine: “Saving my six words for later.”

Repeatedly Rejected

After receiving your third, fifth, or twentieth rejection letter, it may be difficult to keep up morale and still consider yourself a writer.  Looking at the success of an author like Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) may cause you to feel slightly jealous, or to froth at the mouth in rage.  Either way, it may be nice to know that even for Handler, the road to success was paved with rejection letters.

After graduating from Wesleyan University, Handler wrote a book.  Then, he threw it away.  He did not even submit it for publication; it did not make it to editors who could reject it.  This is where Handler’s comedic advice to “steal paper from work” comes from, because he believes everyone has to at least write one book and throw it away before they get to the good writing.

Once Handler had thrown out his first attempt, he wrote The Basic Eight.  It is written as the diary of Flannery Culp, who is in prison for the murder of a teacher and a fellow high school student.  In an interview with The Daily Beast, Handler enlightened us as to the success of his book, “After it received 37 rejections, it was purchased for the lowest amount of money my literary agent had ever negotiated for a work of fiction.”  In fact, his book was rejected so many times that he began hosting a reading series called, “Great Writers Who Can’t Get Published.”  But then, in 1999, The Basic Eight was finally published and was followed shortly after by Watch Your Mouth in 2000.

Handler went on to assume the role of Lemony Snicket, write the best selling books A Series of Unfortunate Events, and achieve literary fame and fortune.  So even if you have had the misfortune of receiving thirty six rejection letters, it could be worse, and success is still possible.

A Poor Pitch

When “pitching” a book, or other piece you have written, it is suggested by publishers and editors alike to send in a formal and professional query letter.  This is the best way to ensure that your work has its best shot possible of getting read.  However, there are exceptions.  Daniel Handler is one of those exceptions.

Daniel Handler openly admits he is bad at pitching in an interview with, “I’ve never been good at pitching. To this day, sometimes a magazine will write me and they’ll say, ‘We like your writing and you should write something for us—why don’t you pitch it?’ And I’ll always write back and say, ‘If I pitch it, the pitch will take longer than the article. So if you want me to write something I’ll write it, but I won’t pitch.’ And then usually they say ‘Yeah, never mind.’”  With this approach to publishers, it is hard to believe any of Handler’s writing has made it to print.

When Handler first had the idea for A Series of Unfortunate Events he felt it was “so terrible” that it could only be told to his editor in person at a bar.  That way, when she hated it, they could “have another drink and it [wouldn’t] be a complete waste for everyone.”  However, luckily for readers everywhere, Handler’s editor had better taste than he and liked the book, despite the unprofessional pitch.

This “anti-pitch” theme continued on in the way Handler chose to market his series.  He struggled so immensely with why someone should read his book that he instead decided he would market it as reasons one should not.  He strived to immolate the warning labels on drugs for the back of his books.

This is post is not meant to be a suggestion to subvert all known rules and standards for pitching and marketing.  It is just to let you know that in the case of Daniel Handler, it is possible.

The Putrid Process

When I picture how Lemony Snicket writes, I imagine him smashing away at an old type writer in an ancient hotel during a thunder storm.  My mental image would be hard pressed to contrast more with how Snicket, or should I say Daniel Handler, composes his work.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Daniel Handler illuminated his writing process.  After conceiving an idea for a book, he begins to read material he deems “appropriate” to his idea.  All the while he writes down many things on index cards and legal pads and mutters to himself.  He humorously stated that this process continues until, “suddenly I say, this is enough, get going, and it’s enough, and I get going.”

Handler states, “when you’re a writer, the important thing is to find the time to write, because you probably need to write one book and throw it away- if only one book.  You need to get a lot of bad writing out of the way before you can get the good writing done.”  Handler, who writes everything longhand on legal pads, therefore recommends to aspiring authors that they steal paper from work.

Half the time he writes from a desk at home, the other half at cafes.  All the while he munches on carrots and drinks lots of water.  Sometimes Handler listens to a Buddha Machine, which produces ambient sound for “times when music is too much and silence is not enough.”

The Sorrowful Pseudonym

“Lemony Snicket was born before you were, and is likely to die before you as well.  His family has roots in a part of the country that is now underwater”

  The Afflicted Author

Daniel Handler researches quite thoroughly before he writes, and his desire to write a sort of Gothic novel for children led him to read tons of Gothic literature.  One common quality he noticed was the presence of an overwrought narrator, and so he decided to create one.  In this case, he wished to publish under the name of the narrator and create a character that blurred the line of where fiction ends and the real world begins.  The narrators name was, of course, Lemony Snicket.

The name itself was invented when Handler was doing research for his book, The Basic 8, and needed some materials from a political organization to mock.  In an interview with, Handler recalls,  “I didn’t want to be on their mailing list, and so they asked me my name and I said Lemony Snicket.  And then years later when I started writing a Series of Unfortunate of Events, I had this name that was just gathering dust.”

Handler’s brilliance comes from turning Lemony Snicket into something much more than a name.  Lemony Snicket has become just as much of a character as the Baudelaire he writes about.  He is the interactive narrator of all the Series of Unfortunate Events Books, the subject of Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, and is the main character in Snicket’s latest series All the Wrong Questions.

Lemony Snicket bridges the gap of where the mystery of books end, and where the real world begins.  When about to embark on the book signings and “meet the author” events for A Series of Unfortunate Events, Handler was approached by his agent and asked what he planned to do about revealing the deliciously obscure Lemony Snicket to be a not-so-unordinary Daniel.

Handler agreed to address the dilemma for he felt, “why would you want to destroy the mystery of writing?”

Daniel Handler then assumed the role of Snicket stand-in— excusing Snicket’s absence due to some outrageous disaster which detains him.  Though the audience will miss an ill-fated Snicket, they are satisfied with a humorous, accordion playing, Handler.

Injustice Influences

“Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair”A Bad Beginning 

One would be hard pressed to find a man less interested in happily-ever-afters than Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket).  Even when he was a child, his father claimed that, “if a book had a syrupy ending, he’d toss it aside—it drove him crazy!”  His disdain for “syrupy” travelled from his reading into his writing, where any syrup you find is at the very least ineffective cough syrup, but is more likely poisonous.

Handler’s books are full of imagination and out of this world circumstances, and yet they strike a chord of realism in young readers that many more “syrupy” books may not.  Handler put a lot of emphasis on subverting the idea fed to children that people get what they deserve—that the world is just.

In an interview with bwog, Handler explains how children that read his books are just beginning to become aware of injustice.  He gives the example of when perhaps for the first time a teacher says to a child, “I don’t care who started it! You’re both in trouble!” This is injustice that’s happening, and the child will realize it.  Handler states, “I think that you start to be aware of that when you’re young. And the books reflect this, so in some ways seem less fantastic than books that say, ‘And if you work hard you’ll be rewarded.’”

The Insidious Inspiration

If you happen to find yourself in a Lemony Snicket book, be afraid and be prepared—to be laughed at.  It is hard to find a balance between misfortune and humor, but Lemony Snicket, also known as Daniel Handler, achieves it regularly.

Handler claims that his inspiration came from the first book he ever bought, The Blue Aspic, by Edward Gorey.  The story of a rising opera star and an obsessed fan, The Blue Aspic is described as “a heart-wrenching and oddly hilarious tale of unrequited love and the dangers of celebrity” by

Edward Gorey was best known for his cartoons of children coming to macabre ends, such as falling victim to natural disasters, being carried off by giant birds, or being eaten by comic monsters.  Gorey’s work, however, is not horrific— it’s hilarious.  His style served as some of Daniel Handler’s greatest inspiration when writing A Series of Unfortunate Events, a charming chronology of the hazards heaped upon the heads of the Baudelaire orphans.

So, if you find yourself suddenly etched in a cartoonish fashion in a Gorey illustration, or perhaps parading about in the melancholy pros of Handler, prepare for misfortune and death.  But be consoled by the fact that somewhere, you are making some reader smile.