Structure Part 7–Genre Matters

Fail to pick a genre ahead of time? Welcome to HELL…

For the past several weeks we have been exploring structure and why it is important. If you haven’t yet read the prior posts, I advise you do because each post builds on the previous lesson. All lessons are geared to making you guys master plotters (and, yes, this is even helpful to the pantsers out there).

Understanding structure helps us write cleaner and faster. Whether we plan every detail ahead of time or just intuitively have the architecture in our head, structure makes the difference between a workable first draft and a nightmare beyond salvage.

I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. Think of this like stocking your cabinet with spices. If you like to cook Mexican food, then you will want to have a lot of tumeric, chili powder and paprika on hand. Like cooking Italian food? Then basil, rosemary and oregano are staple spices. In cooking we can break rules … but only to a certain point.

We can add flavors of other cultures into our dish, but must be wary that if we deviate too far from expectations, or add too many competing flavors, we will have a culinary disaster. Writing is much the same. We must choose a genre, but then can feel free to add flavors of other genres into our work.

Twelve years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to start writing fiction, I didn’t do any planning. I knew zip nada about the craft, and, frankly, was too stupid to know I was that dumb. To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-inspirational-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants.

I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

Just as nailing the log-line is vital for plotting, we also must be able to classify what genre our novel will be in. Now, understand that some genres are fairly close. Think Mexican Food and Tex Mex. An agent at a later date might, for business reasons, decide to slot a Women’s Fiction into Romance.  Yet, you likely will NEVER see an agent slot a literary fiction as a thriller. They are too different. That is like trying to put enchiladas on the menu at an Indian restaurant.

Um, ew.

Part of why I stress picking a genre is that genres have rules and standards. For example, last year, I had a student drop out of my critique group because she wanted to basically write a literary thriller. There was no making her understand that there were serious pacing issues with this combination. People who love thrillers like fast, steadily rising action. If we stop to take time to explore feelings and social issues, we will vex the very audience we are trying to entertain. People who read thrillers and people who read literary fiction are two very different audiences.

This is like trying to blend Transformers IV with Joy Luck Club. Not only will it not work but the target audiences are polar extremes. In trying to please everyone, we’d end up pleasing no one. Could we possibly mix these genres and be successful? Sure. Anything is possible, but why make more of a headache than necessary?

Granted, there are people who like to read everything, but betting our writing future on entertaining statistical outliers is a serious gamble. It’s like creating tuna ice cream. Sure, there is likely a handful of pregnant women who would love tuna ice cream, but most people would just pass. I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

In writing as in food, some combinations are never meant to go together. Paranormal thriller? Okay. Cool. Popcorn jelly beans. Literary thriller? Tuna ice cream of the writing world. Just my POV.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to plotting. It will also help you get an idea of the word count specific to that genre. I am going to attempt to give a very basic overview of the most popular genres. Please understand that all of these break down into subcategories, but I have provided links to help you learn more so this blog wasn’t 10,000 words long.

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit.

Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

Thriller/Suspense—generally involve trying to stop some bad thing from happening at the end. Thrillers have broad consequences if the protagonist fails—I.e. the terrorists will launch a nuclear weapon and destroy Washington D.C. Suspense novels have smaller/more intimate consequences. I.e. The serial killer will keep butchering young blonde co-eds. It is easy to see how thriller, suspense and mystery are kissing cousins and keep company. The key here is that there is a ticking clock and some disastrous event will happen if the protagonist fails.

So when plotting, all actions are geared to prevention of the horrible thing at the endThrillers can run 90-100,000 words (loosely) and sometimes a little longer. Why? Because some thrillers need to do world-building. Most of us have never been on a nuclear sub, so Tom Clancy had to recreate it for us in The Hunt for Red October (Clancy invented a sub-class of thriller known as the techno-thriller).

Pick up the pacing and you can have a Mystery-Suspense. Think Silence of the LambsA murder happens at the beginning, and the goal is to uncover the identity of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (mystery), but what makes this mystery-suspense is the presence of a ticking clock. Not only is the body count rising the longer Buffalo Bill remains free, but a senator’s daughter is next on Bill’s butcher block.

When plotting, there will often be a crime (murder) at the beginning, but the plot involves a rising “body count” and a perpetrator who must be stopped before an even bigger crime can occur (Big Boss Battle). These stories are plot-driven. Characters often do not have enough down-time to make sweeping inner arc changes like in a literary piece.

Pick up the pacing and raise the stakes and you have a Mystery-Thriller. Think Killing Floor by Lee Childs. The book begins with a murder of two unidentified people at a warehouse, but if the killers are not found, what the killers are trying to cover up will have global consequences. And I am not telling you what those consequences are b/c it would ruin the book :D.

When plotting, again, there is often a crime at the beginning with rising stakes, and the protagonist must stop a world-changing event from happening (Big Boss Battle). The focus of your plot will be solving the mystery and stopping the bad guy.

For more information on this genre, consult the International Thriller Writers site.

Romance—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your Big Boss Trouble Maker (read Structure Part Three if you want to know what a BBT is). Yes, the guy will likely be a scene antagonist, but that is different.

Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance.

Literary Fiction is character driven. The importance is placed on the inner change, and the plot is the mechanism for driving that change. Literary fiction has more emphasis on prose, symbol and motif. The events that happen must drive an inner transformation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road is a good example. The world has been destroyed and only a few humans have survived. The question isn’t as much whether the man and the boy will survive as much as it is about how they will survive. Will they endure with their humanity in tact? Or will they resort to being animals? Thus, the goal in The Road is less about boy and man completing their journey to the ocean, and more about how they make it. Can they carry the torch of humanity?

When plotting for the literary fiction, one needs to consider plot-points for the inner changes occurring. There need to be cross-roads of choice. One choice ends the story. The character failed to change. The other path leads closer to the end. The darkest moment is when that character faces that inner weakness at its strongest, yet triumphs.

For instance, in The Road, there are multiple times the man and boy face literally starving to death. Will they resort to cannibalism as many other have? Or will they press on and hope? Word count can vary, but you should be safe with 60-85,000 words (The Road was technically a novella).

Note: Literary fiction is not a free pass to avoid plotting. There still needs to be an overall plot problem that forces the change. People generally don’t wake up one day and just decide to change. There needs to be an outside driving force, a Big Boss Troublemaker, and a tangible physical goal. Again, in The Road, the man and boy have a tangible goal of getting to the ocean.

The only difference in literary fiction and genre fiction is that plot arc is now subordinate to character arc. In commercial genre fiction the plot generally takes precedence. In Silence of the Lambs catching Buffalo Bill is top on the priority list. Character evolution is secondary. In literary fiction these two arcs reverse. The character growth and change is of primary importance and plot is merely the vehicle to get them to change.

For instance, in Joy Luck Club, June’s impending trip to China is what brings the women together and what forces each of them to change the patterns of the past. The trip is irrelevant save for two purposes—1) bringing the women together to face their demons and 2) when June actually makes the trip to China to meet her mother’s twin sisters (the lost babies) we know the change has occurred and the chains of the past have been loosed.

Fantasy and Science Fiction will involve some degree of world-building and extraordinary events, creatures, locations. In plotting, world-building is an essential additional step. How much world-building is necessary will depend on what sub-class of fantasy or sci-fi you’re writing. Word count will also be affected. The more world-building, the longer your book will be. Some books, especially in high-fantasy can run as long as 150,000 words and are often serialized.

In regular fantasy, we will generally have a singular protagonist. In high fantasy, the various parties each become protagonists. Think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.

Consult the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for more information.

Horror—This is another genre that breaks down into many sub-classifications and runs the gambit. It can be as simple as a basic Monster in the House story where the protagonist’s main goal is SERE-Survive Evade, Rescue, and Escape. The protag has only one goal…survive. These books tend to be on the shorter side, roughly 60,000 words.

Horror, however can blend with fantasy and require all kinds of complex world-building. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a good example. Stephen King’s horror often relies heavily on the psychological and there is weighty focus on an inner change/arc. For instance, The Shining chronicles Jack’s descent into madness and how his family deals with his change and ultimately tries to escape the very literal Monster in the House.

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers AssociationThe Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

Young AdultI won’t talk long about YA, since YA beaks into so many subcategories. Often YA will follow the rules of the parent genre (i.e. YA thrillers still have a ticking clock, fast pacing and high stakes just like regular thrillers). The differences, however, is that YA generally will have a younger protagonist (most often a teenager) and will address special challenges particular to a younger age group.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin.

This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story or change the genre entirely because she actually wrote a Women’s Fiction and NOT a romance.

Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.

I have done my best to give you guys a general overview of the most popular genres and links to know more. If you have some resources or links that you’d like to add, please put them in the comments section. Also, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t address other genres, like children’s or Western. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? I love hearing from you. What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

Quick announcement: Have trouble putting down and enforcing boundaries with yourself? With family? Always putting everyone else ahead of yourself? I am teaching a new class called Good Fences–The Writer’s Guide to Setting Boundaries and it is only $15 so I hope you will take advantage. This class is perfect for those who want to do Nanowrimo. I’ll help you learn the Art of the Loving NO.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. 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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of October I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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  1. #1 by Jarm Del Boccio on October 22, 2012 - 8:33 am

    A concise list to refer to and share…thanks so much! I will be bookmarking and sharing this one.

  2. #2 by Satin Sheet Diva on October 22, 2012 - 8:41 am

    OMG – based on your genre descriptions, I’ve been writing literary fiction / romance (lol). Is there a sub-genre name for that and seriously, do those two even belong together? Either way, thanks for breaking the genres down. These gave me clear directions for fleshing out my plots going forward, not to mention helping me clarify what I’ve already published. My “elevator pitch” will be stronger with this new knowledge.

  3. #3 by Jesse Lozada on October 22, 2012 - 8:41 am

    Genre is one of those things I am on the fence on. Its very easy to use the rules of the genre as a reason to be lazy and rely on cliches – it’d be nice if you’d do a post on how to keep genres fresh.

  4. #4 by Marvin Mayer on October 22, 2012 - 8:58 am

    What a wonderful tool you have shared this morning. I write for children (picture books and easy reader “chapter” books,) but I always try to see how your teachings show up (or don’t!) in the stories I have written. Today’s “gift” is super!

  5. #5 by LauraDrake on October 22, 2012 - 8:59 am

    Kristen, I understand why you posted this so close to Halloween – people, save yourself horrors – DO NOT mix genres! I did. WF and Romance. There wasn’t that much difference between the two – I could get away with that, surely? After all, it was a kick-ass story!

    I considered the book WF. My agent did, too. The editors who considered it were split, 50/50. It sold as a romance. Whoo hoo!

    THEN the edits hit. I now understand the difference — and the gulf is MUCH wider than I thought. HUGE edits – structural as well as scenes. Oh the pain, the horror, the writer’s butt!

    I know, I know, “It sold, you whiner. Shut up.”

    But why make things harder on yourself than they need to be?

    GENRE MATTERS!

    • #6 by macswriter on October 22, 2012 - 1:37 pm

      Laura, I have the same problem, but I’m stubborn. Although many people have told me it makes for trouble down the road, it’s still what I seem to want to write. Why can’t it just exist if it’s what we want to write and read? I loved Kristin’s post. It’s concise and handy. But the definition of WF still stumps/irks me. (I notice you make a distinction Kristin, but you don’t define WF here either.) Can either of you tell me the crux of those editorial differences in twenty words or less? I’d sure appreciate it.
      By the way Kristin I have your book We Are Not Alone but have not yet had time to do more than skim through it. I’m looking forward to it, though. I’d link back to your blog from mine but mine isn’t really a blog yet. Thinking about that, too. You mentioned your online Blogging class in Anaheim and I’m wondering where/when I can do that.

  6. #7 by Jacqueline Hopkins on October 22, 2012 - 9:02 am

    Great reference list on the different genres all in one place (tweeted and shared). I always find mystery, thriller and suspense a fine line between them, but remembering the differences is key.

    Just a note: In order to join a local RWA chapter, a person has to also be a general or associate member of RWA National before they can join a local chapter.

  7. #8 by Lanette Kauten on October 22, 2012 - 9:31 am

    Literary Thrillers:

    THE BOOK OF AIR AND SHADOWS by Michael Gruber
    THE THIRTEENTH TAIL by Diane Setterfield
    REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier
    THE SMILING AFFAIR by Jeremy Sheldon
    THE RULE OF FOUR by Ian Caldwell

    • #9 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 22, 2012 - 9:36 am

      This is why I use terms like “generally.” We can always break the rules, but we must understand the rules who we know how and where to break them.

  8. #10 by AB Harms on October 22, 2012 - 10:05 am

    Ensuring that my character’s goals are clear and that the evolution of her character is occurring has been a challenge. I am a total pantser so as I write, the story keeps changing- what started off as her goal has changed along with it. I have resolved to keep these goals in mind and during the second draft, after I find out how in the world this thing will end, go back through and make sure that the pieces fit together and abide by (the majority of) the rules. Is that normal or do I need to stop writing and ponder, think, and contemplate? Oh heavens to Betsy, I can’t stop/restart now, I think it would cause me physical pain…

  9. #11 by Miriam Joy on October 22, 2012 - 10:27 am

    I tend to write YA urban fantasy (okay, I write a lot of different types of YA, but the trilogy I’ve been working on for some time is urban fantasy) and they tend towards being tragic. Most of your structure things, however, suggest that things need to work out in the end, even if it’s not a ‘happy’ ending. Yet although I have romance, they don’t end up together because stuff like dying gets in the way. Is this a no-no for the structure? It’s kind of my entire plot :/

    • #12 by amandalewisab on October 22, 2012 - 11:32 am

      I love that instead of saying to us over and over (with beatings lol) “focus! Stop dawdling! Get your butt in seat and focus!” You are actually showing us “HOW” to focus. And ur so awesome Kristen that you make focusing easier cuz you know you’re audience so very well… And that in the end is the mark of a great writer… Not re-creating the entire world of a genre, but finding your own niche in it and making people remember you with your awesome writing! Xoxo

  10. #13 by Gus Sanchez on October 22, 2012 - 10:33 am

    I enjoyed your definitions of each genre. Your definition of literary fiction is the best definition I’ve read so far. I tend to lean towards character over plot, which is why I tend to lean towards literary fiction, albeit with genre leanings. I like breaking the rules.

    Excellent post.

  11. #14 by Karma Lee Nash on October 22, 2012 - 10:42 am

    Thanks, Kristen. I write a blended genre, but knowing each genre’s hallmarks means better structure and holding it together. Even more important for mashups of genres. Knowing the genre means not writing tired tropes and knowing when to get off the beaten path. Great post!

  12. #15 by jenniburkeyoga on October 22, 2012 - 10:51 am

    I. Love. You. Great advice, you give me so much more clarity every time I read a post! Thank you.

    • #16 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 22, 2012 - 1:32 pm

      Awwww *hugs* I love you guys, too. I know what it’s like to feel very lost and very stupid so I really hope these posts help.

  13. #17 by KM Huber on October 22, 2012 - 11:00 am

    By far, one of the finest descriptions of literary fiction I have ever read. It is the genre I read and write. As others have said, this is an excellent post on genre description in general, a must for any writer to understand completely: unless one knows the rules, one cannot break them. Brava, Kristen! In addition, it is a very fine essay.

    Karen

  14. #18 by Glory Gray on October 22, 2012 - 11:05 am

    Thanks, Kristen. I was smelling tuna every time I opened up my computer manuscript file and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. You gave me the ah-ha moment I needed to fix a plot point I was struggling with!

  15. #19 by Heather Wright on October 22, 2012 - 11:16 am

    Thanks for another great post, Kristen. I love the ‘rules’ of writing genre fiction. They form the fence around my playground, and I have lots to play with inside the fence. I don’t think that Tolkien, Martin, Rowling and LeGuin were lazy because they wrote fantasy rather than literary fiction. Mystery writers followed the rules and we got villains and heroes that will last many lifetimes of readers: Hannibal, Cadfael, Moriarity, Salander, Poirot, Wallander, Marlow. Fifty Shades of Grey is a long way from Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, and The Rose Garden, but they’re all versions of romance.There’s lots of scope within the rules to create great things.

  16. #20 by Samuel Solomon on October 22, 2012 - 11:17 am

    great stuff Kristen. I typed a big comment and it vanished on me.

    Anyway, I think that my work fits in its genre nicely, but has elements of others in it. A love story with youngish characters could also be YA or a romance novel. (probably depends on the smut level)

    I do love a good love story, but my next one will be a love story that finds its beauty in tragedy, rather than in ‘happily ever after’- at least in the traditional sense. Fiction? Literary fiction? Christian fiction? Not sure. I don’t know if I’m ‘literary’ enough. I can wax intellectual or bust out some purple prose but it seems like it becomes melodrama so easily. I keep a rein on that and like to cut it with action or even humor.

    Anyway, I’m loving what I’m doing, and the advice to know your genre on any given book is wise- helping us write a book that works, and preventing deviation and all manner of bunny trails =)

  17. #21 by annerallen on October 22, 2012 - 11:23 am

    One of the best run-downs of genres I’ve seen. The links to the writers’ organizations are especially helpful. Thanks Kristen!

  18. #22 by Karen Limbrick on October 22, 2012 - 11:34 am

    Kristen, I am having trouble with this (especially when it comes to entering contests). My heroine is haunted by nightmares of a historic murder. She finds herself in another time and in another body. By reliving the past she solves the crime she sees in her nightmares and also solves the crimes committed in her current period in connection to the historic events. Souls of the past haunting the present to right a wrong are an element of explanation in my novel. So far I describe it as a cross time historical mystery with romantic elements. What official genre does that fit into though? I was told Paranormal. Also, if reincarnation is involved does that also determine paranormal genre? I would really appreciate any thoughts you have on this. Thank you.

    • #23 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 22, 2012 - 1:30 pm

      Sounds like paranormal mystery to me.

  19. #24 by Dee on October 22, 2012 - 11:51 am

    Kristen, this is such necessary information. Thanks for sharing. There’s nothing like trying to do it all and basically ending up confused!

  20. #25 by Flora Brown on October 22, 2012 - 11:58 am

    There are times when I’m enjoying a great novel that for a moment I feel that I could write fiction. Then I come back to my senses and scoot back to the comfort of nonfiction.

    Each November I consider joining NaNoWriMo, but feeling totally out of my element, get cold feet. Reading your posts about structure and genres makes me believe that perhaps I could learn to write fiction after all, with the right guidance.

    Becoming a master plotter is a worthy goal. Hm-m-m.

  21. #26 by Laura Dennis on October 22, 2012 - 11:59 am

    Kristen. I’ve read all the parts, including Plot and Structure as you recommended.

    I think historical fiction is big these days –is it a sub-genre of literary fiction, or can it be a thriller or a romance, depending upon plotting and pace? I mean, historical fiction does involved the ‘creation of worlds,’ albeit one that did likely exist.

  22. #27 by Sandra on October 22, 2012 - 12:04 pm

    Thanks Kristen, this does clear things up for me but two questions: If I’m writing character-driven women’s fiction where there is no real symbolism or motif, is it still literary? Do I have to have those elements? Or this is now just plain fiction?

  23. #28 by Ann Foweraker on October 22, 2012 - 12:42 pm

    Hi Kristen – great blog as always – but please can you give us a definition of the genre ‘Women’s Fiction’ as from Laura Drake’s comment above it is not the same as Romance, and is probably not just Literary Fiction with female protagonists either.

  24. #29 by Tamara LeBlanc on October 22, 2012 - 12:59 pm

    Hmm, I think my biggest hurtle in reference to genre is picking one. I like a whole bunch of them, but I think my favorites are romantic comedies and paranormal/urban fantasies. But i’ve written novels in almost every genre…even a nice western romance I’d love to work on again one day.
    Loved the list and links you provided! Awesome breakdown!!
    Have a fantastic week, kristen :)

    Tamara

  25. #30 by Rose on October 22, 2012 - 1:12 pm

    thanks Kristen, I am finding your blogs most informative and humourous too! I too, am wondering why you didn’t include historical fiction as a genre. Or would you consider it a sub-genre? How about real-life fiction? Do you think these two could cross well with literary fiction?

  26. #31 by athenabrady.co.uk on October 22, 2012 - 2:13 pm

    Hi Kristen, (Mama Wana) thanks for all your great advice. You look after us well.

  27. #32 by yvonnekoechig on October 22, 2012 - 2:26 pm

    Hi Kristen! I find your postings about structure to be super helpful. Would it be alright with you if I posted a link to them in my NaNoWriMo forum? I am the Municipal Liaison for Europe:Luxembourg Region and I like to share great sources with my lovely (and growing) NaNoWriMo group.

    Cheers,
    Yvonne

    • #33 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 22, 2012 - 3:40 pm

      I do these posts for the betterment of Writerkind, so post away. So long as you give me credit, this content is yours to share :D. Thanks!

      • #34 by yvonnekoechig on October 22, 2012 - 3:49 pm

        Thanks a million! You’ll have that Credit-Love coming and for all to take notice of!

  28. #35 by Pamela King Cable on October 22, 2012 - 3:00 pm

    I think the most important thing to remember is … “Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.”

    I find most writers cross genres at some point. We do ourselves a great injustice to pigeonhole our writing into one solitary category, and yet I agree with Kristen … you got to know the rules before you make that clean break. The point is, study the craft first. Then write your heart.

  29. #36 by MishaBurnett on October 22, 2012 - 4:43 pm

    In addition to the literary thrillers listed above, I’d add “New Jersey’s Famous Turnpike Witch” by Brad Abruzzi. To my mind, one of the great things about self-publishing is that it allows authors to break out of the genre stereotype.

    It was mixing “horror” and “romance” that made Twilight into a huge seller and created “paranormal romance” as a genre. Going further back, Raymond Chandler more or less mixed the classic “mystery” with what would have been called “slum fiction” at the time to create the “hard boiled detective” genre.

    Most of my favorite authors have ended being pigeonholed as “science fiction” because “we don’t don’t what the hell this is” doesn’t fit on the spine of a book. Phillip Dick, William Burroughs, Samuel Delany, Tim Powers, George Alec Effinger–none of them really fit into any definable genre.

    Which is not to say that genre isn’t a useful tool for laying out a plot, just that I think there is a lot of room for stories that fall into the cracks between the conventional genres.

    • #37 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 22, 2012 - 7:38 pm

      But again we MUST understand the rules to break the rules. Many new novelists can’t define what a “literary work” actually is, but they claim to be writing one. What are the requirements for a work to be literary or thriller or suspense? We have all kinds of writers running around throwing a bunch of elements together and then trying to put it in a genre after the fact. Sure, if I toss a chicken in a pot of broth and then just start adding spices it might be fabulous. Chances are it will be an inedible waste. Failing to understand genre ahead of time is like trying to invent cuisine without knowing the parameters of Mexican, French, or Italian cuisine. I don’t toss a bunch of stuff in a pot then when someone says, “What is it?” I try to get someone else to figure it out by backtracking what spices I chose and THEN classify it. That isn’t art, that is relying on amateur blind luck and it might work in a handful of cases, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a career path.

      And just because something has “elements” of something else, doesn’t mean it has fully changed the dynamics. Chances are all those “literary thrillers” still had a plot arc that took precedence, but, unlike commercial genre fiction, placed more emphasis on character, symbol and motif. But again, how many writers define literary fiction as “whew, now I don’t have to learn how to plot”? I have met quite a few, :D.

      • #38 by MishaBurnett on October 22, 2012 - 8:15 pm

        Yes, I agree that we have to know the rules in order to break them. However, I think that confounding the reader’s expectations of the genre can be a powerful technique. The Coen brothers, for example, have pretty much made their career from it.

        • #39 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 22, 2012 - 9:23 pm

          I agree and you see the same thing in music. Rappers adding classical, for instance. I have no problem with bending and breaking rules so long as we are doing them understanding what and WHY we are doing what we are doing. I think it makes some amazing writing. But, as one of the commenters pointed out, staying in boundaries has also brought us some of the best fiction ever written—Sherlock Holmes, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dune, Lord of the Rings, Silence of the Lambs, etc. So just because we stay within a genre doesn’t mean we will lose creativity.

  30. #40 by MegansBeadedDesigns on October 22, 2012 - 5:27 pm

    great list! Thank you for the concise definitions and helpful examples.

  31. #41 by The Hook on October 22, 2012 - 5:43 pm

    You really do provide clarity to those of us who are stumbling about in the dark…
    Thank you!

  32. #42 by Melanie Marttila on October 22, 2012 - 7:02 pm

    Excellent thoughts, as usual :)
    Have to share the lol moment your picture gave me. Silence of the lambs meets Harry Potter: It writes the words on its skin or it gets the hose! Love giggling on a Monday after a loooong day at work! And yes, I’m that twisted :) Thanks!

  33. #43 by Poodlepal on October 22, 2012 - 7:16 pm

    I can think of a few thrillers with literary aspects (or literary novels with some thrills). The Doctor’s Wife would be one, and another one would be a medical literary thriller called Oxygen. Both took on social issues and had character development, but at its core was a crime. In college, my English professor had us read Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. That was certainly a thriller, but must have had some literary merit if we were assigned it in English.

    Of course, since I am not a literature expert, maybe I’m wrong in thinking these are literary novels, but they were definitely written at a more sophisticated level than a pure page-turner novel.

  34. #44 by Kate on October 22, 2012 - 8:01 pm

    I love this series! I’ve added it to my Resources for Writers page. Thank you!

  35. #45 by Jon Rieley-Goddard (@baldyblogger) on October 23, 2012 - 2:45 pm

    Tnx for helpfyul post. I can see that my efforts fut better in another genre than the one I am citing.

    BTW, my houseplants say hi.

  36. #46 by Jon Rieley-Goddard (@baldyblogger) on October 23, 2012 - 2:48 pm

    … for *fut*, read *fit* … .

  37. #47 by Susan Malone Semadeni on October 23, 2012 - 8:17 pm

    Thank you, Kristin–incredibly helpful as always! I’m definitely going to check out these links in greater detail. My WIP and NaNo piece are both fantasy, though there is an underlying romance theme to the WIP as well. This is not present in the NaNo piece that is somewhat of a prequel, though the two characters in question meet at the end of the prequel. Would this variance make publishing them as a series a no-go?

  38. #48 by jodenton445 on October 24, 2012 - 6:53 pm

    Excellent post! Extremely helpful as always.

  39. #49 by melorajohnson on October 26, 2012 - 4:37 pm

    It’s funny, I’ve just realized in the past couple weeks that my primary genre is science-fiction, which can share elements easily from other genres, but that’s primarily what it is. I’ve always loved science-fiction but it took me a long time, and the tenth Doctor, to realize that’s what I really want to write. Thanks for the interesting, and entertataining, blog post.

  40. #50 by E.b. Black on November 6, 2012 - 11:08 pm

    I have had a lot of problems with genre when writing novels. The second novel I ever wrote, I decided was a paranormal novel for adults, but when I gave it to my beta readers, even though my characters were adult ages, they acted juvenile and they told me it was actually a YA novel.

    Sometimes you pick and it still doesn’t come out right.

  41. #51 by KC Bjornsen on December 12, 2012 - 9:21 am

    Hello Kristin–you helped me during the BEA Boise ID Social Media event–you came downstairs to meet with me, because I’d injured my knee!! Thank you for all your pep-talk, high energy help. In your book, at the back, I was hoping to find your web site, but no go. Instead, I found you through Google, no problem. I am getting a web built, and have read, and am re-reading, We Are Not Alone. Thank you! I don’t have a blog yet, because I don’t have a web page yet, and am still blury on tags and abouts. But no fear, it’s in your book, just haven’t gotten back to it yet. Thanks for the Genre topic–I will follow your other writing tips blogs, I know I need them. My manuscript is at my 6 beta-readers, and I’ve re-read my copy (6th re-reading of the hard copies) and STILL more changes! This may go on awhile, once I get my 6 copies back. Overkill? 4 read my Paranormal Romance / F&SF genre; two do not, but love me enough to do me this favor! Regards, KC Bjornsen (look for me on the web under that name, once I’m up and running–January sometime??) Oh, I’ll be at the SFWC in February, you going? Thanks again for your help! KC

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