Monday, March 18, 2013

Thinking of trying experimental prose/alien voice?

I just finished the second draft of a story that involved an - interesting - prose style. While much of my work is in third person deep point of view (See my Checklist for Deep POV in 1st or 3rd person), and that has its own feel, sometimes I really feel like I need to do something more unusual.

Why write in experimental prose or alien voice?

I do it because of my characters. In a sense, it's a natural outgrowth of my interest in extremely deep point of view. If a deep point of view tries to create the impression that you're listening to someone's inner thoughts and reactions to the story action, then the prose used to create that point of view should reflect the way that character thinks and reacts.

Who is your character?

This is the driving question behind alien voice, and can be one motivation behind the use of experimental prose style (there's also the possibility of using poetics in your narrative, but I won't be going into that here). My current story's protagonist is the inhabitant of a futuristic Earth where people have internet inside their heads. She comes from the slums of a big city and uses her ingenuity and hacking skills to make sure she and her gang continue to eat (this involves making raids on people refilling vending machines). I've also worked with two different aliens in previous stories: one wolf alien, and one otter alien.

What about your character might influence your prose?

When I work with aliens, the first thing I look at is what their native languages look like. The more I know about the semantics, syntax, and phonology of the alien's language, the better I can understand how that language might influence the alien's use of English. In "Cold Words," I altered the way that Rulii used verbs, by making sure he used "-ing" endings as little as possible, and also by changing which verbs he used in certain phrases - having him say "Parker shows embarrassed" instead of "Parker looks embarrassed." In "At Cross Purposes," I altered the way that Chkaa and Tsee took turns speaking, so that one of them would make a statement, and the other one would immediately be expected to chime in and testify to the accuracy of what had just been said. "These aliens resemble the Diditsaatsi." "Truth!" This same pattern would then show up in internalization, when Tsee would express an opinion about something, and then add a mental note to evaluate her own opinion.

My futuristic slum-hacker, Hub Girl, is human, but she's got a couple of big things influencing her use of language. One is the social environment in which she operates, where there isn't a lot of call to use formal language, and everybody uses slang all the time. The other is something that we're all dealing with right now - the internet. Most of us have been texting quite a lot lately, or using Twitter, or experiencing other forces that will urge us to shorten and economize our language. A great many of us have also been using services like Facebook, which though they don't require extreme economy, still put very obvious labels of our identity on all of our contributions. The result of this, and of Facebook's earlier tendency to append our names at the beginning of every message, has been a decline in the use of sentence subjects. Instead of writing "I'm thinking of you..." we'll now write "Thinking of you..."; instead of saying "We went sailing this weekend," we'll now say, "Went sailing this weekend." Therefore, Hub Girl will typically put herself as sentence subject at the beginning of a series of thoughts, and thereafter will drop all subjects unless there's some reason that the subject needs to change. Here's an example, from when Hub Girl discovers one of the gang members has been left behind and she tells her friend Fisher she's going back:

I glance up/right to put away my map. Take off my steel bracelet, knot it tight into my hair. "Fisher, I'm gonna get him."
"Right behind you."
"Hell no you don't. [...] Get home and we'll meet at the Hub."
He frowns, but moves away.
I ease toward the corner. Tie back any loose locks, and spit on my wrists. Can't afford easy grab-handles right now.

Here's what the same excerpt would look like with all the missing sentence subjects reinstated:

I glance up/right to put away my map. I take off my steel bracelet, knot it tight into my hair. "Fisher, I'm gonna get him."
"Right behind you."
"Hell no you don't. [...] Get home and we'll meet at the Hub."
He frowns, but moves away.
I ease toward the corner. I tie back any loose locks, and spit on my wrists. I can't afford easy grab-handles right now. 

So many "I"s! If I were using the sentence subjects, I'm pretty sure I'd be rephrasing a lot of this so I didn't overload the text with "I" pronouns. By choosing to drop them, I'm taking a chance and betting on my readers to be accustomed to the pronoun-dropped internet language. Luckily, with science fiction readers, it's not such a bad bet.

Make sure you have a systematic plan.

In order to work well, an idiosyncratic character voice needs principles, and reasoning behind it. It's important, once you've got your draft finished, to go through and compare beginning to end, making sure that the prose style hasn't changed. Make sure you're actually following your own rules. The voice becomes a big part of a character, and if it's not consistent, your character will seem less consistent. That's why I encourage planning. If you need to, write your draft first and then develop a systematic voice plan during the editing phase. (I personally prefer to design and get the feel of a voice before I start writing, since the feel of the voice will influence how the story gets told.) An experimental voice will ring more true if there's some reasoning behind it, so make sure that your principles link up with aspects of the character and world as you begin.

Good luck!

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