I’ve just finished reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein), and if you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend that you do. But among the many virtues of these books, one that really struck me was the voice.
Over the course of the four novels, I became so familiar with the voice of the point of view character, a woman named Elena Greco, that I felt myself unconsciously starting to write in it. (I often have this tendency to imitate; I fear the day I might meet my current celebrity crush, Tom Hiddleston, and accidentally do a bad impression of his accent.)
I decided to fully commit and try on the voice for myself. At first, I tried to spice up my own, personal journaling about my real life by writing about my day in the voice of Ferrante’s narrator. The narrator—not the character. To me, this distinction is crucial. I felt that writing from the perspective of Elena Greco would be somewhat restrictive; an Italian woman in her 60s probably wouldn’t have much to say about my life. I wasn’t looking to write from a total outsider’s perspective, but rather wanted to imitate the intimacy, the attention to detail that Elena projected on her friend Lila’s life, and on her own experience. So I focused on what the narrator sounded like, the word choice, the sentence structure. I focused on what details the narrator drew out and described facial expressions, attitude, the atmosphere between characters.
Voice experimentation and practice through imitation isn’t unheard of, but I hadn’t really done it in the past. Now, having written through this exercise a few times, I can see how useful it is to help me pick out what makes a writing voice unique. Hopefully, that means I’m improving this aspect of my own writing that can be difficult to pin down but is so necessary to great storytelling.
What are your favorite ways to work on voice? Let me know!
This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.
P.S. The header image is a photo I took of the third Neapolitan Novel. I was on a work retreat and had trouble falling asleep, so would read basically until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I woke up one day to the sight of the book in bed with me.
P.P.S. Another thing I’ve been enjoying is Elena Ferrante’s column in the Guardian. Check it out: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/series/elena-ferrantes-weekend-column
17 thoughts on “Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Practicing voice”
One technique I’ve tried and enjoyed has been typing up a story (or excerpt). I very quickly find myself veering off, writing “my version” of the story, which helps me “see” and consider how my own voice differs from that of the author. It’s often in the subtle things, like how one starts a sentence, or words that, at first glance, feel interchangeable, but when you think about it you realize they do have a distinction, even if you can’t put it into words.
For me I really dive into the character and the mood of the book. I want the language to reflect the world and wants of my character and write for that 🙂
I’ve audio-ed two Roxane Gay books lately, her non-fic ones, and I’m so in love with her voice. I recommend her books to anyone writing essays and memoirs. Great post, Caroliena! Will be sharing it on Facebook this month.
Sounds like you had lots of fun 🙂 The better I know my MC, the better I write the voice that goes with it.
I recently wrote a story that included two VERY different voices. I had a hard time switching back and forth. I had to isolate them in the rough draft to find the second character’s voice
I’ve written letters to me from my characters. They tell me what they want and why I need to write their story their way. It’s their voice all the way.
It was an exercise I found fun and enlightening. I’m glad I’m not the only one that experiments like this.
Anna from elements of emaginette
Writing a letter definitely sounds like an interesting exercise. I’ll have to try that.
Another one I’ve heard, but never tried, is to put two or more characters (who never meet or interact in the story), in a room together, in the context of a cocktail/social hour, and see what they talk about.
Yes or a character interview when doing a virtual tour. Let the hair fly. hehehe
In many ways it’s just like real life, it doesn’t matter what you do, just as long as you get them talking, ideally rambling.
This practice sounds like a lot of fun! I’m going to have to try it out. It’ll definitely get the creative juices flowing.
I’m intrigued by the fact you read a series of novels in translation, and the character voice was still so strong you could imitate it. That speaks to the writing skill of both the author and the translator.
Voice is a tricky thing. I try to present I am each character. I go through my novel only ready one character’s dialogue. Then do it again with this next. Only for major characters of course. This helps me see if I have a different voice for each.
Great idea to hone in on voice. I used to regularly imitate the voice of others I read. Now, I think I am starting to fall into my own, as it were. However, I always did my imitation subconsciously. I will definitely have to take a shot at intentional imitation and learning what I can from it. Thanks, Caroliena, for the great idea for a writing exercise.
They (the mythical they) say you don’t find your voice until book four. Everything before that is a writing exercise.
My first three books were imitations of Harlequin romances (all that was available at the time. ebooks? Pffft. Back in the day, when you wanted a book, you got in the car and drove to a Walden’s. I digress.)
Write, write, write, and one day your books will sound like you, and that is such a magical moment, you’ll sit back, pour yourself some champagne, then download the next book in your favorite author’s series, knowing one day, someone will download your book.
It’s all good.
Interesting piece and one that give me a couple of thoughts about some of the short stories I have planned.
I love your idea to write in your own journal to practice voice, I think it removes the need to think of something to write about whilst practicing and makes the voice rather than the story the main focus. I’ll definitely be trying this!
I think voice mostly comes from character attitude, so for me, it’s crucial to know the inner world of characters and their past. I wrote some ideas about that here. But I like your distinction between narrator and character. With third-person limited narration, you sometimes go close and have narration tinged with character attitude. But there are other times when the narrator’s attitude is distinct from the characters’, right?