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On Reading Like a Writer: How to Write within Your Genre

This week we’re talking about becoming a better writer through your reading, and yesterday I talked about a college class I’m taking on that very topic. So far we’ve read How to Train Your Dragon, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, The Cinderella Deal, and First Lady.

I don’t really read much young adult fiction, but How to Train Your Dragon was a lot of fun, and Jeremy Fink was surprisingly heartfelt. As far as those last two, genre romance…well, if you’ll recall, yesterday I talked about learning from books whether you like them or not. Let’s just say I learned a lotĀ from the romance novels.

How Genres Work

Just two genres in, and neither of them my genres, I’m learning a lot about genre writing. One of the big benefits of that study has been learning why we have genres, and how they work.

Genres as we think of them were invented by bookstore owners. Booksellers wanted to know where to shelve new books, where to send customers looking for new material. They eventually flexed their financial muscle and made publishers cooperate, labeling books (and, ultimately, selecting books to publish) based on a handful of arbitrary category designations.

Over the last hundred years, those categories have become so entrenched that publishers now deal exclusively in certain categories, editors and agents specialize in just a handful, and writers — by and large — restrict themselves to working in just one or two.

Readers use the categories, too. They learn which ones they like, which genres run the right length for them, which ones have the right kind of endings, which ones offer the right balance between character and plot.

Those are all book-specific elements, and they’re all very subjective. There’s no right way or wrong way to do any of them, but the industry has settled on standards within each category, and a reader can expect most thrillers to run 90,000-110,000 words, and most fantasy novels to focus on adventure over character development.

Finding Your Genre

Those standards are all arbitrarily limiting, but readers have learned to make the most of it. And, unless you want to spend your career wrestling with editors, publishers, and your readers’ expectations, you should probably do the same.

Chances are good you’ve already got a genre. I had one, when I started. Without ever so much as considering it I dove right into high fantasy, and it startles me when I look back now at Taming Fire and even The Poet Alexander — despite the technical weaknesses in my early writing, I mostly got the genre conventions perfect. Courtney did the same with her high fantasy Triad.

But for the last few years I haven’t been writing high fantasy. As soon as I started on Gods Tomorrow, I was in unfamiliar territory. It’s sort of science fiction, sort of mystery/suspense, sort of thriller…it’s even got elements of romance. And I barely know any of those genres at all!

Writing Your Own Story

That didn’t stop me writing the story, and I’ve been told it’s the best story I’ve ever written. The problem is that, as I’ve spent the last month trying to get the book published, I’ve found myself slamming against those arbitrary walls again and again. I’ve done a lot of work trying to perfect my promotional material to manage reader expectations, but if I’d written my story according to the genre rules I wouldn’t have to mess with any of that.

And even as I’m finishing up that project, I’m starting from scratch on some urban fantasy and classic science fiction, in addition to the ongoing cop drama series. And, for her part, Courtney’s writing Christian urban fantasy and she’s tried her hand at humorous metafiction. Chances are good, no matter where you start, that you’ll eventually want to strike out and try something new.

It’s fun. It’s an adventure! I strongly encourage you to do that sort of experimenting (and NaNoWriMo is a great time to do it), but as your writing coach, I also encourage you to save yourself some trouble.

Any time you delve into a new genre, do yourself a favor and spend some time reading like a writer. Explore the category, compare and contrast, and figure out what’s consistent within the genre. What’s the standard length? What’s the plot pacing? Are the endings light or dark? How much time do the characters spend thinking? Talking? Traveling? Fighting?

You’ll save yourself grief if you can stick within those guidelines, but you might also be surprised to learn it’s not all limitations. Once you learn the rules, you can put them to work for you — just like readers do. It can simplify the writing process every bit as much as it does the sales process.

Try it out and let me know what you find. And for my part, I’ll tell you how things work out with Gods Tomorrow. We’re always learning, every step of the way.

2 Responses to “On Reading Like a Writer: How to Write within Your Genre”

  1. Courtney Cantrell says:

    In my college Creative Writing classes, there was only a single thing I did not enjoy, and that was market analysis. Our task was to identify our genre, then delve deeper and identify its typical characters, its typical word count, its audience, its publishers, its sales figures, etc, ad infinitum ad nauseum. I *hated* that exercise…

    …but since it taught me how to do market analysis, I’ve since learned to do it almost without thinking, and it’s been one of the most useful tools in my trusty writer’s toolkit.



  2. If I really had to, I would put Gods Tomorrow in something of a scifi dystopia genre–something like Farenheit 451 and 1984, only not nearly as so depressing and fatalistic. But let’s face it, Hathor is messed up, and it’s going to take our heroine Katie to find out what’s wrong and expose them. Right? Or is that just me?