Donald Maass

Working Your Genre to Improve Your Writing

annabench-shakespeare-paris-1147326-hBack in my early writing days, genre was a dirty word.  “Oh, she writes genre romances,” someone would sniff.  Or, “Well, you know, it’s just a genre mystery.”

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:


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.

The Writing Secret that Will Vitalize Your Work (And Help You Get Published)

And the secret is…. Silencio_silence_dedo_904581_l


Also known as tension.

Adding lots and lots of it (probably far more than you imagined you could or should) is what will make your fiction and non-fiction, pop, sizzle, and sell.  It is also what makes a book or a story a page-turner.  (Like the novel, The Improper Life of Bezelia Grove, that I read on the plane on my journey home from Nashville on Monday. Couldn't put that baby down, and completed it before the plane touched down in Portland.)

I know that all writers know this.  But do we know know it, and fully embrace it?  Or do we get lazy and think that enough conflict is enough?

I'm thinking once again about the importance of conflict in writing because of a fabulous lecture I heard last weekend at the Writer's Loft, the certificate writing program I teach at in Nashville.

The lecture was given by my colleague and friend, Linda Busby Parker, and in it she talked about tension in fiction, using short stories to illustrate her points.  Linda referred to three different kinds of tension:

  • Narrative Tension.  This is tension in the story.
  • Emotional Tension.  This would be tension in character
  • Micro Tension.  The tension in every scene.

Doesn't matter if you are writing fiction, a memoir, an article, or a book to promote your business–every kind of writing under the sun can benefit from a heaping dollop of additional tension.  But how to do it?

One of the books that Linda mentioned is the latest by literary agent and author Donald Maass, called The Fire in Fiction.  Maass avows that the key is in the use of micro-tension, saying that with its use, you can fire up dialogue, a passage of description, or narrative–all of which are traditional low-tension traps.

So here's the key to adding in more micro-tension: introduce interior or exterior conflict experienced by the protagonist.  And a kick-ass way to do this is to apply the concept of opposing forces.   Opposing forces can be set up between characters, between action, in narrative summary, and even description.  In her lecture, Linda mentioned hearing this concept expressed by a speaker at a writer's conference in Florida a few years ago.  This writer likened the concept of opposing forces to the structural tension that keeps a suspension bridge aloft.  And this same writer said that once she started applying opposing forces to her stories, they all sold.

So, opposing forces, micro-tension, conflict.  How do you utilize it in your stories and books?  What are some tricks you've used for getting more of it into your work?

*This is the first in a series of posts on things that impressed me at the Writer's Loft.  We had a great orientation weekend, with lots of fabu new students.  Really fun and inspiring.  I'll write more about it tomorrow.

**One way to impose conflict on your work is to be able to envision it properly in the first place.  Sign up for my free Ebook, Jump Start Your Book With A Vision Board to help you do just that.  The form is to the right of this post.


Photo by bialduda.