JWAM reader request no. 27: Voice

Kate L Says:

I have a writing question that I always have trouble with. A lot of writers have a distinct style or tone. You can pick it up while you’re reading but, for the life of me, I can’t decipher what gives the writing the qualities that seem to ooze out of the sentences. How do you define style and tone? How do you foster it? Heck, how do you even find your own tone in your work in order to foster it? It’s so hard to pick out the nuances that make writing yours in your own work.

This is another one that’s too hard for me to answer. For starters, there are people who say that I do not have a distinctive voice that’s instantly recognisable across my fiction. I’ve had people tell me that they find it hard to believe that the same person who wrote the Magic or Madness trilogy also wrote How To Ditch Your Fairy. Those who’ve also read the Liar book say it even more vociferously.1 So as I do not have a clear voice except when writing this blog I clearly don’t know how to acquire such a voice.

Fortunately my friend Diana Peterfreund can answer. I wrote to her in a panic because I did not know what to say. And she responded thus:

    Fear not, my dear! This is a favorite topic among romance writers!

    Some helpful articles:
    http://julieleto.com/advice_for_writers.html#book_of_heart ***especially this one!***



    Like Julie, I believe that a writer’s voice is something that develops over time, through the process of putting words on the page, over and over. She writes that it’s one of the hardest aspects to define, because it is so different depending on how it manifests. With one writer it could be the way they choose to put sentences together, or their propensity for wacko similes (or avoiding them like the plague, as they always come out cliched “like the plague”), or the fact that they write super short chapters, or that they always write XYZ kind of characters. It’s what makes you love one writer’s historical romance but not care very much for her contemporary thrillers. Or vice versa.

    Like that famous quote about pornography, you know it when you see it. But that doesn’t mean you can define it.

    You also know it when you feel it—or more likely, when you fail to. There are all kinds of books I can’t finish, though their subject matter/genre/plot/characters/style seem as if they’d be right up my alley—and it’s because I don’t like the voice.

    So, enough about defining another writer’s voice. How to go about fostering your own is actually an easier question. Write. Lots. Write about what you love, what you’re driven to write about. Pick out the parts of your writing that you love the most, the parts that readers have reacted to the strongest. Those are likely the parts where your voice shines through. Your voice comes as you develop as a writer.

    I’m not going to get into the argument about writer’s “adopting” voices, where you see a writer coming out with one set of book in a particular style, and then really changing it up and having a whole other kind of book—E Lockhart or you, Justine, with the departure of the Liar book.2 I also do think that some writers prematurely limit themselves in terms of what they can do because they decide, a priori, that their voice is such-and-such and so they have to write that. I think that’s a modern marketing thing, or a branding thing. Who knows? It’s very common these days for a unpublished writer with one or two manuscripts under their belt to take some “brand development” workshop and go, oh, I write sexy category romances! (That’s what I would have come up with had I taken one of those workshops with two books under my belt. And, as we can see, not the case.) I find it baffling. What if Jessica Bird, with her established career in family-oriented category romances, had called that for herself, had not said, oh, you know what? I’m going to go out and write a bunch of hot, homoerotically charged, urban-speak large worldbuilding paranormal romances that are markedly different than my previous novels. There’d be no JR Ward.

    I do think that a commercial writer needs to recognize their strengths, in style, tone, voice, plot, genre, etc. and head in the direction of what works. However, at the same time, challenging yourself can also produce great rewards. And, it’s important to note that as you write more and gain confidence in yourself as a writer (like we were talking about last night, in terms of “can we write this project, are we there yet in terms of skill?”) that the voice will emerge/develop to tackle it.

    The answer is: write a lot. Write a lot, and as you gain more confidence in yourself as a writer, your voice will emerge.


What she said.

As you can tell from the above, Diana and I talk about writing A LOT. We share snippets of our work in progress, brainstorm ideas, talk about what worries us—action scenes (me, not Diana), what make us happy—killer uni**rns, (both of us).

Part of what I’ve been trying to do this month is open up the kind of writing conversations I have with my writer friends to the readers of this blog. Talking about writing is part of the process of becoming a better writer. Obviously, nothing beats actually, you know, writing. But I’ve gotten lots of insights over the years talking with other writers. Thank you, Diana, and every other writer who’s shared the delicous moments of talking shop over the years. From way back when I was a teen writer to the present day. I’m a better writer because of you all.3

This is the last post of the writing advice series. That was more work than I thought it would be. *Collapses in heap* In the end I wrote more than twenty thousand words on writing . . .


Wow. That’s more than I wrote of the 1930s novel this month. Scary.

I’m so pleased that some of you found it helpful. It’s been a lot of fun for me even though you kept asking HARD quessies that forced me to actually THINK. Damn your eyes! Thank you for pushing me. I’ve probably definitely learnt more from your questions than you have from my answers.

Never forget that much of what I’ve said will be completely wrong for some of you. The only subjects I’m always right about are cricket and Elvis.

I’ll continue to answer any questions you care to ask on any subject. But not every single day.

As you were.

  1. Get it? Voc=voice thus voice-iferously. Oh, never mind. []
  2. No comment. []
  3. And a more excellent procrastinator. That’s Diana’s fault. And Scalzi’s and Doselle Young’s and, um, er, possibly my own fault. Let us never speak of it again. []


  1. Monica on #

    Thanks for answering all these questions! You’ve given me a lot to think about. In a good way.

  2. Gillian A on #

    Just to say that I’ve really enjoyed this series of writing advice posts, and found them very helpful. Thanks Justine.

  3. Glenn on #

    Thank you again for the whole month, Justine. It has coincided quite nicely with my new year’s resolution to start writing again and your blog has been an inspiration.

  4. Alexa on #

    Thank you for writing these they’ve been great to read and very informative!

  5. Kate L on #

    Thank you very much Justine and Diana for answering my question. I will be writing lots and I’ll look into the links suggested 🙂

  6. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    Well done on the month long effort. All very interesting reading. Thanks for making the time to do this.

  7. Rachel on #

    Thank you so much! Your writing posts have been so awesome and helpful!

  8. rockinlibrarian on #

    I will miss this series! Thank you for taking the time to write it!

  9. Taylor Hicklen on #

    This month rocked, Justine! I wish more writers would follow your lead.

  10. Alisa on #

    Justine, I read the Magic or Madness trilogy and found the voice consistent throughout, so I came to think of it as “your” literary voice. Then I read How to Ditch Your Fairy, and was thrown off, because it seemed like it was written in your blog voice. I thought maybe I hadn’t remembered M or M correctly, or maybe your blog had grown six heads in the meantime and cannibalized you from the inside out. But now reading that Liar is going to be “a departure,” I am 10x more curious to read it.

    (Don’t know why exactly the blog voice of HTDYF was a problem. I like your blog lots. Maybe I have an “everything in its proper container” problem.)

Comments are closed.