I admire the writing style of many other writers and I try to emulate them, but most of the time it doesn't turn out how I want it to. Is this because it's not uniquely my own style, but rather forcing myself to write similar as authors that I admire?
Neil Gaiman writes:
Don't worry about trying to develop a style. Style is what you can't help doing. If you write enough, [...] you'll have a style, whether you want it or not. (Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats, A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, given at ProCon, April 1997)
He also writes:
We all swipe when we start. We trace, we copy, we emulate. But the most important thing is to get to the place where you're telling your own stories, painting your own pictures, doing the stuff that no one else could have done but you. (ibid)
Your style is whatever you do, the way that you do it. Don't worry about it. Emulating others is a normal learning process. Don't worry about that either, just don't get stuck there forever. Another quote from Neil Gaiman:
Dave McKean, when he was much younger, as a recent art school graduate, took his portfolio to New York, and showed it to the head of an advertising agency. The guy looked at one of Dave's paintings - 'That's a really good Bob Peak', he said. 'But why would I want to hire you? If I have something I want done like that, I phone Bob Peak.' (ibid)
Now, you're trying to write like author X, but it doesn't come out like author X's work. Here's the question you should ask yourself: does it not come out like X's work because you don't know how to make it more like his work, or does it not come out like X's work because you want to take it somewhere else instead?
If your work doesn't come out like author X's work because you don't know how to make it more like X's work, that's not because "you're forcing yourself". That's because you don't know how to write in that style. You can learn if you choose to. You don't have to, but you can.
Similarly, a modern artist might not work in an Impressionist style, but he can learn it if he chooses to. He might not enjoy working in that style, the same way the Impressionists didn't enjoy the Neo-Classic school, but it's not that they couldn't do it. In fact, they could do it quite well.
If your work doesn't come out like X's work because, while knowing what X would do, you choose to take your work somewhere else, well - that's your prerogative. You can take the work wherever you like.
+1 Galastel, Your style is literally like your voice, instantly recognizable as "you" but nearly impossible to convey to somebody else in words. It is how you, with your thought processes and training and imagination, attack the problem of conveying a scene. So I'll try to come up with something different than her.
I approach(ed) writing like an engineer, not like a poet. I presumed there were techniques behind the good stories I read, ways to introduce a story, or a chapter, ways to describe a scene, or a character, ways to do plot, plot twists, everything, so the things I imagined could be realized on the page.
I was right about that. I recommend anybody that wants to write should do the same. You should try to copy what your favorite authors have done, but get deep into the weeds on what they've done. Count the words, count the adjectives. Pay attention to the tense. Pay attention to whether they use active or passive voice, and why. How many details did they mention about a new room? Why? Is it more or less for some purpose? Exactly how do they write a fight or battle?
I think of it as taking apart a machine, in a way that will let me put it back together, or build a similar machine. They constructed a scene. Presume there is order in the scene, in the way things are described and told, in the way the scene ends, in the way dialogue is used and when it is not used.
Many of these 'parts' you can find on sites like this one, there are many others giving writing advice. They can help you identify the types of things to look for, but what you really want is to see how the authors you love and aspire to emulate are using those parts, or not.
Eventually you will learn those patterns, and have your own favorite "parts" to build a machine with. Your style may be similar to theirs, but it will still be unique, just because you will find you like using the parts in slightly different ways. Some more frequently than others. And also because if you write original stories, the stories will just call for using the parts differently. The characters, settings, goals and descriptions will all be original.
Your first task, and it's a long one, is to start reading analytically, looking for the patterns and techniques that show you how a novel, a chapter, a scene, a conversation is crafted and made to work by someone you regard as a master. What did they do, to evoke from you whatever feeling they evoked?
What you write will be heavily influenced by your unique path through life, and ultimately that is what will determine your style.
Are There Enough Styles to Go Around?
It is impossible to know if each writer has a unique style. To see if it is possible, I would try to estimate how many writing styles exist, so I need to understand what constitutes a style.
How many factors go into a style? We can list some:
- sentence length: short, medium, long, varied, sawtooth up, sawtooth down
- word preference: common, erudite, uneducated, short, long
- adjective use: many, few, never, sequences, interminable
- adverb use: often, rarely, used in multiples, never, inverted order
- passive voice: frequent, rare, never, constantly
- sentence fragments: never, occasionally, in dialogue, as exclaimations
- sentence run-on: never, when passionate, when bored, often, always
- contractions: avoided, used whenever possible, varies with the speaker
- Oxford comma: yes, no
- scene linkage: focused on setting, focused on character, focused on action
- and so on for a very long list.
Like any combinatorics problem, you multiple the number of choices in each attribute. For this short list, we have 6*5*5*5*4*4*5*3*2*3 = 360,000 styles. In short order, we can define more styles that there are people. We have shown that it is possible for each person to have their own style.
But, you asked if each writer does have a unique style, not if it was possible.
We don't know, but I have full faith in the ability of literary critics to draw a line, however thin, between the product of any two writers. A line drawn is a style defined.
Your style comes from you.
If when you read what you write, it doesn't sound like you want it to, don't fret -- rewrite. Write it again. Feel the setting. Listen to the sounds. Share the characters feelings. Write it again. Repeat until it carries the full message you desire.
If may want to shape the writing. Often when writing dialogue, each character has a unique style. Those words should sound like the character speaking. Even with those utterances as if from another mind, the overall piece will still sound like you.
That will be your voice and your style. It will change constantly with changes in you, in your mastery of technique, and with what you are writing about. You will know it is your voice because when you read it the words will fit in your mouth.
Imitating other people's styles is a great writing exercise. It can help you learn a lot (including things that may make their way into your own style). But --as you've noted --it isn't suitable for writing your own work, unless you're writing a parody or a tribute. It's always better to be a real you than a fake someone else.