Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Writing to Genre

This tends to happen more with newer, inexperienced writers, but it also happens with those who have been hanging around writer circles long enough to understand the mysterious and baffling world of genre. Here's the basic scenario. A writer generates a manuscript that doesn't fit any particular genre. There's a mystery, but it's handled in a subplot. There's a romantic relationship, but it already exists on page one and doesn't really change by the end of the story. The main character is female, but her personal journey doesn't form the central plot or structure -- some other external plot does, and the protagonist doesn't change as a result of the external plot action. There are family dynamics involved, but those dynamics are not large enough to carry the weight of a family saga. There are supernatural characters or horror elements, but all the other competing elements relegate them to a supporting role. There might even be a political assassination attempt thrown in somewhere around the midpoint. And, the cherry on top, it's set in 1870 in Wyoming. In short, the book is about everything and nothing, and it doesn't fit into anything like a recognized genre, let alone a particular subgenre.

A book like this will be hard to market even during good times. During these times of across-the-board uncertainty, it will be virtually impossible.

I know that's a tough reality. Believe me, I see the evidence of how tough it is for writers with this kind of book. This is something I deal with pretty regularly with clients, and these dealings tend to follow predictable patterns. I suggest ways to shift the book more firmly into one or another genre (which is the right move, especially if you're a new writer with no track record or fan base). I usually outline more than one strategy to accomplish this so that the writer has a choice of direction. But the response is usually uncomfortable, sometimes even hostile. "Why do I have to change this?"

Because you do. Because books are a retail commodity marketed under "the same but different" principles. Because you are an unknown. Because until readers start asking bookstore clerks for your books by your name -- "Do you have the latest Steven King/Scott Turow/Nora Roberts?" -- they will be more likely to buy your book if it bears a resemblance to the latest King or Turow or Roberts.

Someday, you might have enough pull, or times might be good enough, so that you can publish your hybrid romance/mystery/horror/political thriller/family saga/coming of age/western novel. But when you're new and untested, the best way for you to find readers will be by writing to recognized genre standards. Innovate within the form now, and innovate the form itself later. (If ever. Chances are, after you have ten or so books out there, you'll also have a tidy collection of tales of woe from authors who risked books like that. Seriously, folks, there's a reason these books rarely get published. No matter what happens on the actual last page, the story almost never ends well.)

Does this mean the hybrid book is terrible? Of course not. In fact, I've read some excellent hybrids over the years. None of them have seen publication, but they were darned good, and I'm glad I had the chance to read them.And yes, there are tales of breakout, genre-busting books -- and yes, some of the books I've read could find huge crossover readership. Or they could end up disappointing readers who were looking for "the same, but different," and found not enough same, and too much different. Regardless, the reality is that these books are a damned hard sell, and if you're interested in being a career writer, it's wise to start by writing to genre specifications.



LilySea said...

Yep! My first novel was not only badly written (alas) but also very much a weird amalgam. The thing is, I read those kinds of books myself and I also read a lot of old books (I'm an English academic and specialize in the late 19th century) so I was a bit out of touch with the market. I had no idea that what commercial fiction people call "literary" fiction was such a small market share.
I want to write novels and get paid to do it, which means a traditional career with traditional publishing routes. In order to increase my odds of achieving that goal I have learned all I can about genre, market conditions, and--oh yeah--the art of writing fiction.
So far, these things have done nothing to dampen my creative spirit.

Magdalen said...

I don't think I write "hybrid" books, but I clearly am not writing to current publishing trends. That's why self-publishing is so amazing. I can write my single-title contemporary romances about urban professionals, even as the current trend is for blue-collar small town or rural heroes. (Check out this Time Magazine article as proof.)

But digital publishing is forever, so I can write my books now, self-publish them, and if either a minority of readers like them and seek them out, or if the trend changes, all my books will still be available. Plus I make more money as my own publisher per book, and maybe even more overall.

I think that's a better deal than trying to write about an entire class of people I know nothing about just so I can get published. My work would suffer and I don't think I'd be happy.

Adrian said...

Good hybrids will become more and more viable in the digital publishing era.

In the bricks-and-mortar age, the bookstores needed to know where to place your sci-fi/paranormal/romance so that readers would find them. It was impractical to place physical copies in three different sections, and-even if you did--it would be hard to design a cover that would catch the eye of your diverse set of readers. Hybrids were a tough sell.

In the digital age, it's entirely practical to market your book in all three categories, and even give them unique covers to appeal to readers of each genre. Of course, the book must be good, and it must have enough of an appeal in each genre to satisfy genre readers.

Anyway, isn't "mainstream lit" where you put everything that doesn't fit in one well-constrained genre?

Edittorrent said...

Adrian, yes, direct publishing opens up new options, but right now, the best selling books in the kindle store are all straight-up genre fare. Do you really think "mainstream lit" is a dumping ground for books that don't fit elsewhere? I don't, any more than I believe "women's fiction" is a catchall for any book with female characters.

Mag, you don't write hybrids. At least, not that I've seen!

LilySea, that's a wise approach. You've identified your goals and planned a path to reach those goals, and that's wise.


Edittorrent said...

I think "niches" will be more important than ever when we all "search" by keyword for a book. But while you can sneak the interpersonal dynamics of a family law firm book into the "legal thriller" category, a lot of readers who came for that keyword might be annoyed.

I think the trick is to pump up one of the identifiable genre aspects so that yes, we learn all about the 19th century conflicts of this family and firm, but we also get a great 21st century legal thriller plot. And actually, genre plotting is great for helping to organize an unwieldy story while allowing in all that fun other stuff.

In my experience (editing more than writing, but writing too), it's not that hard to focus on one aspect of the big story, and the most important tip is: Start that plot at the beginning, develop it in the middle, and end it at the end. That might actually be all we need to make this a "legal thriller" or "big romance" or "horror" novel. And truly, this sort of disciplined organization can really improve an overstuffed book. Looking back at "big" books I've loved and re-read, like the Dunnett books, generally each book has a genre plot that starts early and ends late, but also has much more. Without the forward momentum and the familiar "cues" of the genre plot, however, the reader might not hang on for the fun stuff.

Wes said...

Good advice.