How to Stay True to Your Writer Voice Across Genres

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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(Surprise! I made a switch of a post date with James Scott Bell. He took my Thursday, July 16, and I swapped him for his usual Sunday. Who can say “No” to Jim, seriously?)

I made the change from crime fiction thrillers to young adult (and back) because I had a niece who wanted to be a writer and I included her in on my process while I wrote my first YA – IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS (Harlequin Teen). We had fun together. I flew her from Texas and we spent a long weekend visiting the locals sights I wanted to use for the story, taking photos. I also worked with her to come up with character images and names and we plotted the first 8 chapters.

The sixteen year old character (Brenna Nash) had been born in my head while I wrote the Prologue. It should have felt like a drastic change in voice (from adult to teen), yet I made the leap with only one real foundation in crime fiction to connect my stories. I had deliberately chosen to make my first YA a cold case mystery so I could tie into my reader base. I didn’t analyze this change in genre, but I’ve been thinking of VOICE lately and wanted to break it down.

If you are a new author trying to find your way, or a more experienced writer who would like to venture into a new genre, I hope this post gets you thinking.

Keys Ways to Establish Your Own Voice Yet Stay Flexible Across Genres

1.) Ask Yourself: What is my natural voice? Answer this question on your own, but then ask those closest to you how they see you. Are you naturally cynical? Are you great with the one liners? Or are you quieter with good timing for well-timed jabs?

Exercise: Describe Yourself in Three Adjectives (Snarky, Fun, Flirty) Then ask: Is this how I talk?

2.) What books have you enjoyed in the genre you are interested in writing? I’m not just talking about reading a book and liking it. I’m suggesting you analyze exactly why you liked it. I’m talking notes in the margins and highlighted lines of dialogue or imagery you liked. Understanding your taste will help you define what comes naturally to you. You are drawn to author voices you like and hope to write yourself.

Exercise: Picture your ideal reader. If you can describe him or her, then write to your reader as if you were one on one. Does this make your voice easier to develop?

3.) Can you hear the central character in your head? Can you resist censoring him or her? I call this “free association.” It’s as if the character is telling you his story and you’re the scribe. Throw everything onto the page without filter and you might stumble onto your next book.

Exercise: Take a pen and paper and free write without censorship. Go bonkers. When you’re done, ask yourself – Do I write like this? Is this more natural than what I’m writing now? I’m convinced you must enjoy what you’re doing, otherwise it’s too much like work.

4.) Can you trust your instincts to get it right? When I’m working out a character, I resist getting feedback from anyone else. I want to feel sure about the character before I open myself up to criticism or get input from a committee of beta readers. Trust your gut. It’s your story.

Exercise: Answer these questions: Is my writing something I would read? What’s on my shelves? Am I forcing my voice?

5.) Don’t push your instincts into an area of voice that does not feel completely comfortable to you. I like writing when I’m slightly off balance and unsure, but I know my boundaries. I couldn’t write Chicklit for example. Not a whole novel, for sure. Plus my sense of humor runs more subtle so I’m not likely to try slapstick weirdness for a whole book either. Even if you’re a risk taker, I feel strongly that there are limits and we must determine what those are to make any adjustment to voice that has any hope of being successful.

Exercise: Am I enjoying what I’m writing? Does it feel like work or fun? Unless I’m writing something that comes naturally, it can seem like drudgery. Remember this is your passion and it should be fun.

Even when I ventured into YA, I still wrote about loners, the quietly brave hero, the cynical character, the well timed one liners, and the brooding male. I created my teen characters to be unique to the story line, yet my world building and character voices were consistent with my comfort zone. I read many many YA books before I wrote the genre. I wanted to write about smart and unique characters who knew how to tread through life alone if they had to, the kid who could be shadows that most people don’t notice until these kids rise up to become heroes. Those are the kinds of books I like to read and write.

So what about you? How did you develop your author voice? Any new tips to add?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

8 thoughts on “How to Stay True to Your Writer Voice Across Genres

  1. I like the challenge of finding the voice of my Lead, and then shaping the narration to that voice. Or with multiple POV characters. The master at this was Elmore Leonard. If he had a chapter with a different character, the writing style changed to reflect that character’s perspective.

    Your tip #3 is what I call a Voice Journal, which I work on until I am hearing someone other than myself. That’s one of the fun parts, when a character starts to take on life. Our Dr. Frankenstein moment!

    • Elmore Leonard is a great example, Jim. I personally like to infuse my POV character voice in each scene through the narratives as well as dialogue. It’s like the reader is inside the character’s head, therefore I must be entrenched as I write.

      A voice journal is a great idea. Good for story notes & character motivation reveals too.

      Thanks, Jim.

  2. Great post, Jordan. Nice to read your post on a Sunday. I always read them on Thursdays, but usually don’t have time to respond until the discussion is over.

    Your points and exercises are ideas I want to save. Printing them out.

    Only thing I can think to add: I like to “take a break” and write an occasional short story. It’s a great opportunity to try a new voice. Last month I did a story with a protagonist that was a grumpy old fart. Wow, that was fun. Discovered part of my voice I didn’t want to admit was me. And I’m finishing up a story for Jodie Renner’s charity anthology to benefit children in Asia (caught up in the child labor/slavery). It’s been a great exercise in studying a new culture and then write in a YA voice.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Great suggestion, Steve. Short stories are an intense exercise to reveal a character or a world, a great stream of consciousness thing. Thanks for mentioning it. Have a good Sunday.

  3. Congratulations on a successful switch, Jordan. I’m in the process of returning to the subgenre where I started. My first series was hardboiled, but when it ended I wrote traditional mysteries for Penguin, and then they asked me to write the cozy Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper series for 3 books. Ten books later, I realized I’d said all I could about Josie. Now I’ve started a hard-boiled series featuring a death investigator and it’s being shopped in New York. I’m hoping for your success.

    • I found that my time could be consumed by whatever series I had contracts for. But then I’d miss my crime fiction. I need more hours to my day.

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