Fizzle or Sizzle? How Genre is Fundamental for Story Success
Genre is a word that makes a lot of new writers cringe. Many (mistakenly) believe any kind of boundaries will somehow impair or restrict creativity and crater imagination. This is why so many emerging authors (myself included) avoid learning about structure or how to plot until forced to…at gunpoint.
Fine! Yes, I’m being melodramatic, but close enough to the truth.
It’s easy to understand why we want to skip all that boring stuff. We’re eager to write, to create, to unleash the muse! Yet, in our haste, we can lose sight of what we stand to gain by truly understanding the fundamentals and respecting boundaries.
For any author who wants to eventually sell enough books to make writing a full-time occupation, genre is one of our greatest allies.
Genre Dictates Location
Location, location, location. Yes, I remember being a neophyte, breaking out in hives when anyone mentioned I needed to choose a genre *shivers*. My book wasn’t a genre, it was all genres. It was a novel everyone would love. I didn’t need something as prosaic as…genre.
Yes, I was a clueless @$$hat so y’all can already feel better about yourselves. When we’re new, obviously we don’t understand the intricacies of the publishing profession. Why? BECAUSE WE ARE NEW.
***By the way, it is okay to be new. We all begin somewhere. Stephen King didn’t one day hatch as a mega-author.
Before we even get to how genre impacts story, we must remember publishing is a business. Many of you long to submit to an agent in hopes of a sweet contract with the Big Five. Great! You yearn to see your books on a shelf in a bookstore. Wonderful! Me too. *fist bump*
So where would the bookstore shelve your novel?
This is a critical question all writers must be able to answer. Ideally, we need to know our genre before we ever begin writing the novel, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. But first…
Genre Lands Book Deals
If we want to publish traditionally (legacy) the first step—beyond finishing the book, obviously—is landing an agent. Writers who take the business seriously research agents ahead of time because this is a partnership.
We don’t want just any agent, we want the right agent. Conversely, agents aren’t looking for any book, they’re on the hunt for books they can sell.
Most agents have a list of the sort of books they’re in the market to represent (which genre). Thus, if an agent’s bio states she’s looking for Young Adult and New Adult novels, we’re wasting her time and ours by querying our Middle Grade series. By doing a bit of research, we can locate agents who’ll be the ideal fit.
Agents create these wish lists for a reason. They know publishers all have wish lists, too. The agent’s job is to pay attention to those wish lists and hustle to deliver the goods. Their goal is to sell our book to a publisher and negotiate the sweetest deal possible for us (the author), because this benefits them, too.
Agents pay attention to the publishers’ shopping lists. If the publishers are no longer wanting Dystopian YA novels, the agent then knows that trying to sell the next Hunger Games is a fruitless endeavor.
Even if our book IS the next Hunger Games, agents won’t rep it because they already know they’re highly unlikely to sell it.
Genre Sells Books
Now, traditional publishers might reject a certain genre for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the book. Maybe they’ve already filled the X amount of slots reserved for a Dystopian YA. They don’t want to oversaturate the market. Perhaps Dystopian YA is not selling like it used to because Steampunk YA is picking up steam *bada bump snare*.
Thus, if you have an amazing Dystopian YA, you can go indie (if they’re open to representing it) or self-publish. Genre is still incredibly important because when we list our book for sale on-line, again, we have to tell Amazon (and other on-line distributors) where our story belongs.
Major publishers do, too.
Genre will directly impact metadata and will serve as a guide for keyword loading within the product description. Genre and the associated keywords will also influence which books are listed alongside ours (or vice versa). When we look up Gone Girl, we see…
This is how on-line retailers help readers find books they’re likely to enjoy more easily.
Genre Draws Fans
This is one of the reasons we really don’t want to write a novel totally unlike ANY other. The story never before told is a unicorn, first of all. It doesn’t exist.
Also, a novel that can’t be fit into any genre is unlikely to draw fans. Whether readers are browsing a bookstore or browsing on-line, they generally know what sort of books interest them and head that direction.
If they’ve just finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and they’ve read all of Flynn’s other books and want to read more books LIKE hers, genre is the flashing arrow pointing readers to similar novels (and authors).
This is a fantastic way for authors who aren’t yet household names to be discovered. Fans of the genre can then evolve into fans of that author.
Because readers can discover our work on a shelf or on-line, our odds of selling more books vastly improves.
This isn’t rocket science. People are unlikely to buy something they a) don’t even know exists or b) can’t find.
Genre Builds Brands
As Cait mentioned in her post on best practices for publishing success, genre focus is a major factor in becoming a successful author. When we focus on a specific genre we build an author brand and cultivate a devoted fan base far faster.
A qualifier here, though. Just because we write a Psychological Thriller doesn’t mean we must only write Psychological Thrillers forever and ever. Often genres have ‘kissing cousins’ and, so long as we remain within that general genre region, it’s all good. Suspense, Mystery, Thriller, Sleuth, are close enough to count.
Once we’ve published enough books, built a solid brand and cultivated a large devoted fan following, then we gain more freedom to try something new.
Genre Helps Plotting
When we choose any genre, there are certain reader expectations. Once we know what’s expected, we can then deliver what readers want. We also have a better idea how to plot. If we don’t understand how/why a thriller is different than a suspense, that’s a problem.
Let’s use these ‘kissing cousin’ genres as an example…
A thriller has large (global) stakes on the line. In the beginning a bad thing happens and it is a race against time to stop the MASSIVE bad thing by the end.
For instance, Lee Child’s debut novel Killing Floor is about a former MP-turned-drifter thrust by fate into a problem with global consequences. Reacher’s goal is to stop bad guys’ plan to inundate the market with counterfeit bills (which would destabilize the U.S. economy).
A suspense has more intimate stakes. In Thomas Harris’ book The Silence of the Lambs, the goal is to find and stop Buffalo Bill from murdering Size 12 women for his ‘woman suit.’ Ideally, Agent Starling will stop Buffalo Bill before the latest victim (a senator’s daughter) is killed. The stakes, however, are not global.
The F.B.I.’s image is at risk, Starling’s career is on the line, the latest victim’s life is in jeopardy, but overall?
Skinny girls are totally safe.
When we understand the dictates of a genre, we can plot better and also know what we’re selling (to agents, publishers, and readers).
Genre and Structure
Since this week is my birthday and the week I am re-launching my novel, The Devil’s Dance I’m going to indulge 😀 .
I’ve been blogging for a while about structure, and we’ll deep dive the different types of structure and how to use them and why and when more in another post. All have pros and cons.
Some structures are better suited for certain genres. When we know what genre we are writing, then selecting the perfect framework becomes easier.
The most well-known and widely read is the traditional three-act Aristotelian structure. This story structure works as well today as it did a couple thousand years ago. My debut novel is a mystery-suspense and I used traditional three-act structure and ALL THE COLORS!
Why THAT Structure?
I chose this straight-forward structure because, for me, it was the best scaffolding for the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to craft a story that blended the humor of a Janet Evanovich with the gritty edge of a Dennis Lehane. I’d always joke that my book was Legally Blonde meets Killing Floor. Since I was already being ‘creative’ with the KIND of story I was telling, I felt it best to not also try to be creative with structure as well.
***No novel quadruple axel for me, thanks.
I wrote The Devil’s Dance purely to entertain. The sort of novel one might inhale on vacation, or when stuck in an airport. Fun, gritty, straightforward and a very fast read. Since I wanted it to be a quick read, linear structure was ideal.
Yet, maybe we want to offer the reader a challenge beyond what straightforward linear structure can offer. This is when we might select a non-linear structure. A fantastic example of this is Into the Water by Paula Hawkins, which is also a mystery-suspense.
Granted there are at least nine POVs and shifts in time ranging from the 17th century all the way to the 21st. The time shifts and different POVs delivered red-herrings galore. For mystery fans who want a challenge?
This book definitely is a brain-bender.
Keep in mind, though, that the downside to non-linear structure is readers can easily become confused, bored or lost. Good thing Paula Hawkins is a master storyteller, just sayin’. I’m on my third pass through to catch what I missed.
In the End
Genre is incredibly helpful in a vast number of ways. We can know and meet (then exceed or challenge) reader expectations. Since we know what fans want, we can serve them something they want or even something they never KNEW they wanted (I.e. Harry Potter). Knowing the story we long to tell helps us plot faster, since the objectives are clearer.
Once our story is complete, we know how to query our novel and to whom. Also, when the book is finally published, genre helps readers find our books!
I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft, and next time we’ll resume talking abut structure. Those new to my blog, I hope you’ll check out this series. Look to the column over there–>
Need More Help? I Live to Serve….
For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .
I’m offering The Art of Character (March 22nd 7-9 EST). More advanced material, and lots of FUN! Just because we’re tackling advanced material, doesn’t mean we can’t make it a party. As always, recording is included with all classes FREE of charge 😉 .
Also, my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist is a great follow up, and this class will help you plot faster and tighter than ever. It’s being held March 29th (7-9 EST).
I love hearing from you!
And am not above bribery!
What do you WIN? For the month of March, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).