Genre therapy: the art and science of finding the sweet intersection between what you were born to write, and what’s most likely to reach the widest possible audience.
And now we continue at Question 5:
What is my voice?
Voice is hard to define. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to home in on and improve.
In general, it’s the individual style a writer uses to communicate, how they navigate syntax, vocabulary, diction, and punctuation. Beyond the words themselves, voice touches character and dialogue across a body of work.
Voice is the way a story is told, in addition to the construction itself. The Beatles show their voice in both the construction and execution of With a Little Help From My Friends, but Joe Cocker uses an entirely different voice — thereby making it sound like an entirely different tune — when covering that song.
You don’t need to settle for one voice. As a ghostwriter, I was responsible for developing more than I could keep track of. But you do have one that feels most natural, and leaning into that voice will help you to tell better stories faster.
Think about the last long email you wrote, the one where you started typing and barely stopped before you were staring at hundreds of words. You went over the email, and it hardly needed an edit. That might be too conversational for a book (though with some genres it would be great), but there are still elements of that email that will help you to understand your voice.
The mistake most authors make is in asking, What’s the most commercial voice?, rather than taking the time to discover their most natural one.
What is my preferred mood or atmosphere?
As with most of these answers, I’m a bit of a unicorn. That’s a function of spending so much time reading and writing all over the place, making a living as a ghostwriter, and working with many collaborators.
When writing with Dave, the mood is always dark. That’s his vibe, and it’s my job as his partner to adapt. I enjoy getting to dabble, and appreciate our collaboration. But this is not my natural state, nor anywhere close to my preferred mood. While writing our second serial, I watched a lot of AMC’s The Killing, because the show was set in a dark version of Seattle, with unrelenting rain, and the heartache to harmonize with it. That was perfect to lubricate my mood.
Johnny’s the opposite. Much closer to my natural aesthetic, he prefers a brighter, more optimistic tone. Even our dystopias have moments of pure wonder.
If left entirely to my own devices, I want an optimistic mood with a bit of darkness. And that makes perfect sense, since it’s how I see the world. The novella I finished earlier this morning reads like an episode of Black Mirror. Very dark, but also funny. It met my natural aesthetic almost perfectly, and parts of the novella felt like they were writing themselves. Part of that was was due to working from an exceptional outline, but the ease of production and quality of the story also came from aligning the atmosphere with my personal creative aesthetic.
Understand the timbre of your general mood to nail the tone of your ideal atmosphere, then use that knowledge to craft the writing environment that’s most unique to you.
What story types or tropes do I lean on the most?
We all have stories we like to tell over and over. For romance writers this is easy, but most of the ones I know get bored if they can’t stretch it after it while. Boy meets girl usually isn’t enough.
Do you like the one where the hero is told that they can’t trust anyone, then of course they do, and they get betrayed at the end?
How about the assassin in exile?
Or the boy who pretends he doesn’t love the girl, but really does?
A gruff older character whose life is changed by a precocious child?
The unlikely hero of humble origin?
We have a line of books we are working on now to publish later this year. Stand-alone novels instead of a series. Each book is essentially the same story, even though they are also totally different. The pen name is based around a unifying trope, or foundational belief — that there are broken parts in all of us, and that every relationship has cracks that leave us vulnerable to exploitation.
While you should never allow your favorite movies or television shows to be a primary driver dictating the type of story you create, it can and should be an influencing source.
Writers get into trouble when they try to copy wholesale, without understanding why something works, or how it applies to them. You may love the show Westworld more than anything else on TV, but if you don’t have an AI or robotics background and you aren’t gifted with the ability to craft complicated narratives with severely fractured timelines, you probably don’t want to write that style of story yourself. But if you’re looking at Westworld as a piece of pop entertainment, you can see that ultimately, the show is asking a universal question: What exactly makes us human?
There are countless stories you can tell addressing that question.
I watch an episode of television, or a movie almost every day. Sometimes more than one. Everything I see influences me in some way, but not because I’m copying environments, characters, themes, or anything else.
Instead, I’m always asking myself why I liked or didn’t like what I just finished watching. Even the awful stuff can sometimes lead to a glittering mine of storytelling opportunities. If I liked the premise of a show enough to watch it, and yet the narrative fell flat for me, there’s always a reason.
The next time you see or read something that misses the mark, ask yourself:
How would I have done that differently?
How would I have improved that story?
What can I say, that this artist did not?
Next, let’s talk about the actual writing process itself.
How do I feel when writing my story?
If the answer is stilted, frustrated, or hesitant, there’s an excellent chance that you’re writing in the wrong place.
Johnny and I went to the Robert McKee conference a few years ago. Three days of nothing but McKee talking about story. You can get most of the conference by buying and digesting his two books, Story and Dialogue. Both are excellent. I agree with most of what he says. But there is one thing I couldn’t disagree with more.
McKee claims that writing is the hardest job in the world. “More difficult than brain surgery.”
Yes, those were his exact words.
And that is ridiculous.
Writing might not be easy, but it should never be harder than brain surgery. If it is, you’re definitely doing it wrong. McKee knows the principles of a good story, but he isn’t a working writer. His two books are all about the craft. The only stories inside them are about Story itself.
The formula for writing that’s fun, rather than the kind that makes you want to tear your hair out by the handful, is knowing your story well enough that you’re transcribing more than writing, and feeling so excited about the project that you’re thinking about it even when far away from the page.
Frustration comes when you have no idea what to write, and are wrestling all that white space, on a project that makes you feel lukewarm at best.
How many times have you been writing something when you get to the midway point and ask yourself why you even started that project to begin with?
That’s a simple problem to solve in the preproduction phase, and yet most authors fail to do that.
Look at your last finished draft, or your current work in progress, and honestly ask yourself how easy it was to outline, write, and edit.
Next, ask yourself what kind of perspective you’re most comfortable writing in.
First person, third person, first person present tense, omniscient narrator?
Different genres have different expectations. Yes, within every genre there’s room to maneuver. No reason you couldn’t use your preferred perspective in a genre where that isn’t the convention. But be careful, this is a great way to get lukewarm sales and reviews, and a much harder road to winning over diehard fans.
Never forget, no matter what your chosen genre might be, if you want to be a commercial writer, and hope to make a living with your words, then you are in the business of reader acquisition.
How you feel when working on your story will make those goals more achievable, and your writing easier to sustain.
What kind of scenes do I like to write?
Do you like writing action seems, dialogue focused scenes, or reflection heavy scenes?
Your answer might be, All of them, but that won’t help you here.
Yes, you want to have all of these tools in your box. And yes, keeping them sharp will help you to become the strongest possible author. But knowing what you’re best at, and what’s therefore easiest for you to execute and maintain, is yet another piece of a very big puzzle which, once assembled, will help you to highlight your most potentially profitable genre.
When Dave and I first started writing together, he mercilessly made fun of my action scenes. They were stupid, terrible, ill-conceived, and altogether hard to understand.
But, whatever. I worked hard on them. These days, I write fantastic action scenes. The last draft I passed to Dave blew him away. Writing scripts help a lot with that. The visual economy required in a script compared to prose is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. If you can make action work in a script, the novel part becomes suddenly easy.
But even now, no matter how far I’ve come, I’d never say that action is what I’m best at. And thus, it should never be my first choice.
I love dialogue, and inner monologue. If I had to choose one it would have to be the latter.
Knowing that your preference in scene construction will help you to choose the right projects, and keep those projects on track.
Come back next week for part 3 of 3, and if you want more on Genre Therapy right now, check out some previous posts: