Working Your Genre to Improve Your Writing
My, how things have changed.
Though not everyone apparently approves or even wants to admit it, the lines between genres (or more to the point, between genre and mainstream) are blurring. Agent Donald Maass wrote a book about this a few years ago. Time magazine has covered the genre bending and so has, gasp, the New Yorker (they came out against it, no surprise). And even a star such as Ursula LeGuin has weighed in, saying that literature is “the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.” Check out the New York Times bestseller list on any given week and you’ll see that it is often dominated by genre.
So, to me, there’s no doubt about it—genre is the new black. Okay, sorry, I had to go there. Even literary fiction is considered a genre now, as is my favorite category, and what I write, women’s fiction. (Where is the “men’s fiction” you ask. Excellent question. It is somewhat of a point of contention that women’s fiction must be labeled as such while men’s fiction is just considered literature.)
Here’s a pretty good map that will give you a good idea of just how far the country of genre extends (though I think their non-fiction categories are rather limited.) And for a really extensive list, including some I’ve never heard of, go to our old buddy Wikipedia.
My real interest in this post is to explore how working within the confines of your genre can improve your writing. For years, as evidenced by the kinds of statements I used to hear, genre writers were considered hacks. Now, with the proliferation of writers and writing styles, genre is a useful tool that differentiates various styles for readers. And you can and should use it to your advantage. Here are what I see as the benefits to working your genre:
- Passion. Most people start writing a particular genre because they love to read it. If you don’t love reading your genre, and try to force yourself to write in it just because it is popular, that will show. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to write YA to no avail.) But on the flip side, if you love romance or women’s fiction, the words will come easily to you. (Or maybe I should say easier.) Let your passion flow and it will deepen the worlds your create, no matter what genre.
- Expertise. Embracing your favored genre will give you experience and knowledge. Rather than trying to write whatever is popular, or what you think you “should” write, allow yourself to sink deeply into one genre. Read widely in the field, not just other novels, but craft books as well. And write like crazy. Soon you’ll have all the tropes of the field down pat. James Scott Bell has an excellent tutorial on this at the beginning of his book, Revision and Self-Edition for Publication.
- Structure. Genre novels have ready-made structures, which is part of the appeal of reading and writing them. For a mystery you need a body (most of the time) and an investigator that people want to spend time with. For a romance, you want star-crossed lovers. For science fiction, you’ll need the future or a unique world. The point is that you’ve got conventions established and waiting for you.
- Transcend. Once you have mastered the lay of the land you can go farther and make the genre your own. BUT ONLY AFTER YOU’VE MASTERED THE BASICS. I’ve always thought that a mystery needed a body up front, as close to the beginning of the book as possible. But nowadays I read mysteries that don’t even have murders. Don’t try this at home, folks, until you have mastered every aspect of the genre.
- Meld. Similar to #3, once you’ve learned the basics you can blend and shape your genre your own by mixing it with others. Kate Atkinson’s mysteries, for instance are to cozies as a chocolate cake is to a piece of peppermint candy. That’s because she blends in elements of literary fiction in her writing style and focus on character.
- Readers. As in, you’ll likely get lots of them. Genre readers are the most avid on the planet, which makes them a particularly satisfying field to write in. And a writer can learn a lot from which books do well with their target audience and which fall flat.
- Fun. This takes up back to #1. If you enjoy a particular genre, there’s nothing that’s going to give you more pleasure than writing it. And, remember, we do this for fun, people! If you’re not enjoying your writing, you might want to go get a job in a dentist’s office.
Do you write genre? Why did you choose the genre you write in? Please weigh in!
Photo by austinevan.