Creating your own voice I

There are three ways to create a voice of your own: let it happen, imitation, and design. Today I’ll deal with the first two.

Most writers create a voice unconsciously. They just write over a period of years, paying no attention to persona or devices. Eventually they get a sense of what sounds right to them, how to sound like themselves. They may accidentally modify that evolved voice by adopting new techniques they learn and like.

This method works by default, and it has two drawbacks. The writers lack the vocabulary and awareness of devices that allows them to discuss their voice with others. But they can talk about what personality readers perceive in their work, using the language of everyday discussion of human character.

Second, since they can’t describe their voice technically, they would find it hard to change. It’s difficult to think about something if you don’t have the vocabulary to think it in.

You can also create a voice by imitation. My novelist son Jason started writing seriously at the age of 11 in 1980, the year we bought our first computer, an IBM PC Model 1. With no help from me, he set out to develop his own voice by imitating other writers he admired, one per year. He started, unfortunately, by imitating the Conan the Barbarian series, all snazzy swords and overblown language and busty women warriors. But the next year, he took on Arthur C. Clarke.

You choose a writer you want to sound like, and read a lot of that person’s work, especially on subjects close to what you’re likely to write about. You’ll hear it better if you read it aloud. Then you try to imitate that writer’s style.

Actually, it works better if you parody it, try to overdo it rather than hit it exactly. Then you keep experimenting until you achieve the voice you want.

You can use a recorder to test your imitations. Write a piece, and read it into the machine. Then listen to it, paying attention to what sounds the way you want, and what does not. And then experiment some more.

It takes a lot of jiggering to get it right and get comfortable with it. You’ve arrived when you can say, “This sounds like me.”

You can imitate more than one voice at a time, either to create two voices (I write in three), or to blend them, borrowing features from each. Some combinations might work, and some won’t. Don’t even think about merging Bill Moyers with Annie Proulx. Don’t try Shakespeare.

One drawback: you need a good ear to imitate another writer. You might want to practice by writing fictional dialogue first.

[Done any experiments with creating a voice?]

Published in: on December 7, 2009 at 9:45 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very nice article. I’ve been working to improve my writing, and last week I decided to imitate one writer whose writing voice I admire. I’m unsure whether I’m doing it right–so far I sit down every day and rewrite by hand some of his works. Having read your article, I will now use a tape recorder as well. Thank you for this article.

  2. Thanks, Joe. The secret is reading aloud. That’s how you experience the effects of the voice devices. And keep experimenting until you say, “Yes, that’s how I want to sound.”

  3. Hey Don,

    If reading aloud is the secret, am I, then, wasting my time rewriting by hand, or is it in any way useful in enhancing the process?

  4. How you get it down is less important than how you hear it. Copying by hand is an ancient way of understanding a text, and it works for some people. Use whatever works for you. Don

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