Voice Experiments

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One way that I play with voice is to mimic the style of another writer.  For this exercise, I write a section without worrying about voice.  Then, I take a couple of books I admire that I think might have a voice that would work for my story.  I try to imitate their style.

That is, I try to match their sentence structure EXACTLY.  If they start with a prepositional phrase, followed by a subject, verb, dependent clause, and it runs 23 words, then I try to match that structure.  I specifically try not to copy ANY words; I’m not copying, but imitating their voice.  (In actual practice, I don’t always match it exactly, but I try.)

This often tells me things about my own voice.  I tend to write shorter sentences, though, nothing like the fabled short sentences of Hemingway.  I use a lot of contrasts, relying on “but.” It helps me to understand what I’m doing and evaluate if it’s what this story needs.

Here’s an example from the opening of a WIP, entitled Horizontal Yellow.  Following are two imitations: 

 Horizontal Yellow: My Original Version 

     Davide pressed his nose to the cold glass of the window and let his gaze unfocus, let the mile after mile of Texas flat lands whiz by without really seeing. Father had the car heater turned low, as usual. Davide wiggled his toes inside his Christmas cowboy boots; he was pleasantly surprised the boots kept them so warm.
     Thump!
     “Wha–?” Father yelled and threw up a hand to protect his face.
Davide whipped his head around, barely in time to see some kind of bird flip from the front of the car onto the windshield. Thump! The bird was gone.
 (My first attempt at voice for this story)

Horizontal Yellow:  Imitating Elske by Cynthia Voigt  Elske

       Davide struggled, but boredom wore him out, hour after hour, like a warrior who pressed an attack without ever stopping. From the early morning traffic of Greeley, Colorado where he and Father lived to the late-afternoon lonely roads of the Texas high plains, Davide’s boredom grew, and with it his anger. His eyes unfocused, refusing to see the endless fields whizzing by. The road ran on into the hazy horizon and the asphalt never wavered from a straight course. The sky was empty, an unwavering pale winter blue. Davide’s anger, too, across that boring day, never wavered.
(In the style of Elske, by Cynthia Voigt)

Horizontal Yellow:  Imitating Ghost Horse by Janni Simner 

      The fields whizzed by.
       Davide stared out the car window, watching each field disappear behind him. The fields didn’t have growing plants because it was January, but rows of turned earth that had dried into clods. The sky was pale, brushed with a watercolor blue. The horizon shimmered far ahead, distant and indistinct, as if the flat Texas prairie had moved the finish line.
       Davide wiggled his toes inside his Christmas cowboy boots. “If this is Texas,” he announced, “I hate it.”
( in the style of Ghost Horse, by Janni Lee Simner)

What observations would you make about the voice of each version? 

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6 Comments
  • Clive
    August 4, 2007

    Well, Darcy, the first thing that comes to mind is that they are all distinct voices. There’s no getting muddled.

    I think the first attempt feels more contemporary and to be metaphorical, the camera is closest to the protagonist and as such I’m more interested in Davide for this reason.

    The second version, stylistically, a little more detached, more prose like – old style. Reads like it would sit nicely in a historical novel.

    The third version is more direct, shorter sentence structure and more immediate. As if the pace had been upped, foreshadowing something to come.

  • darcy
    August 4, 2007

    Clive–Nice evaluations of each voice! WOW!

    I’ve talked with editors who might think the second one has a stronger voice because it’s more of a literary or storyteller’s type voice. Interesting that you interpret it as appropriate for a historical novel.

    Another editor might prefer the first or third because they tend to publish more contemporary stories.

    In the end–the response from editors is personal: they either like the voice or don’t like it.

    As an author, I have to decide which voice is appropriate for this story. And it’s often a hard decision.

    Fun experiment. One I recommend in the early stages of a novel or of a revision.
    Darcy

  • Clive
    August 4, 2007

    Hi Darcy,

    I didn’t think about which voice an editor might want. I just analysed. But since you brought it up, yes, I agree that the second is more literary and as such, more attractive to connoisseurs of prose. One and three are definitely more contemporary. How about – write the entire book in all three voices and tell the editor – take your pick! Talk about being spoilt for choice.

    Very interesting experiment though. I’m currently writing a fantasy novel, now on draft two. I think I’ll take a section and try this.

  • Liz
    August 4, 2007

    What an interesting experiment.

    I think that the 3rd version is contemporary and commercial. So it may be more popular with editors.
    Also it seems to be closest to Davide’s ‘voice’ & POV

    The second version reads nicely and a little slow for a beginning and is more literary in style.

    I was curious to see how the Flesch reading level would ‘grade’ each version — because I’m always surprised in my writing and also when I type in a paragraph of a current YA.

    The first version 3.2
    the second 9.2
    and the third 5.2

    I’m going to try this experiment with my own novel

    Thanks for expanding my thinking =)

  • Liz
    August 4, 2007

    Questions – about what you said here –>

    One way that I play with voice is to mimic the style of another writer. For this exercise, I write a section without worrying about voice. Then, I take a couple of books I admire that I think might have a voice that would work for my story. I try to imitate their style.

    Do you do this during a first draft or after you have written an first draft and gotten to know your story and characters?

    Do you make it part of your pre-writing character study?
    Or do you think it’d be be better to try it then not worry too much about it until you’ve gotten that first draft down?

    I’m asking because I think it could slow down the writing of the first draft – especially with the second version.

  • darcy
    August 4, 2007

    Liz–

    The Fleisch-Kincaid scores do vary widely among these examples. If you look at how that test is made up, though, sentence length can easily send a text toward a higher reading level. They don’t account much for the difficulty of the words. Still, it’s interesting to see.

    Liz said: Do you do this during a first draft or after you have written an first draft and gotten to know your story and characters?

    Could be either, depending on your working style.

    Liz said: Do you make it part of your pre-writing character study?
    That’s certainly one way to use it.

    Liz said: Or do you think it’d be be better to try it then not worry too much about it until you’ve gotten that first draft down?
    Depending on your working style.

    Basically, this is a strategy that could be applied by writers in different ways at different points in the process. All of these are valid and I could add several more. I try not to dictate working styles–I find that a futile effort–but to give strategies, or ways of looking at the revision that each person uses as they need.

    Darcy