Are you writing the wrong genre?

We all have strengths and weaknesses in our writing, but are yours telling you something about the kind of novel you should write?

I was critiquing a manuscript recently and as with all drafts, there were areas that sang beautifully and others that needed more work. Some types of scene came to life in a three-dimensional, gut-pummelling experience. Others trotted through at a distance as though the writer was including them dutifully but wasn’t interested in them. (And this distance wasn’t deliberate; sometimes we use these techniques for specific effects but that wasn’t what was going on here.)

Of course you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not interested in writing a scene, the reader won’t be interested in reading it. Either don’t bother or find something in the scene to engage you.

How to pep yourself up

Perhaps you don’t feel very sure of the content. Ask yourself – what are you not sure of? Do you need to do more research to bring it to life – for instance, if it’s a new location you don’t know well? Or do the characters need more to do beyond the main goal of the scene?

Or maybe you know full well what’s going to happen but you’d rather get to the next interesting bit. In which case, you either need to generate something in the scene that excites you (for instance, add conflict, twist events an unusual way) – or do something else entirely, no matter how inconvenient that seems.

But listen to the voice that tells you you’re unengaged. It’s telling you for your own good.

However…

But this client’s manuscript was different. It was a thriller, but the author wasn’t engaged by his chases, backstabbing, skulking and close shaves with assassins. All of these were competent and well planned, but told at a summarised distance. I showed him how to make them ping off the page, of course. But he came to life, all by himself, in spectacular fashion in an extraordinary near-drowning scene, where the character has a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with the people stalking his psyche from his past. It was as though another book was trying to fight its way out of the one he thought he was writing. And one that was much more real to him.

This is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of writing. Just as parents have to let children be who they are rather than who they can be moulded into, writers sometimes have to let their true genre bust out by itself. Inconvenient though that might be if you think you’re writing a straightforward, saleable genre novel.

Is your book telling you you haven’t yet found the right genre?

Thank you, Iko, for the picture. Coming August 30: My Memories of a Future Life.

I’m fascinated to know if anyone else has done this. Have you tried to write one sort of novel and found you naturally wrote another?

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  1. #1 by Jeyna Grace on August 14, 2011 - 10:58 am

    Interesting post!

  2. #2 by Kit Dunsmore on August 14, 2011 - 11:42 am

    They say to write what you read, so I’ve tried a variety of things over the years, searching for my own best material. I love mysteries, so I gave that a try. Of all the writing I have done, this was the flattest and most cliched. Really dead. So I know now that is not my genre. Reviewing my work, I’ve discovered that fantasy excites me the most, so I’m focusing on. The vibrancy of the writing was definitely a clue to me as to what my own best material is.

    • #3 by rozmorris on August 14, 2011 - 12:04 pm

      Interesting journey, Kit. ‘Write what you read’ isn’t that helpful as you can read a much wider variety of fiction than you’d be able to produce yourself. The other way around is true, though. Thanks for being so frank about your wrong turn.

      • #4 by Lindy Abbott on August 17, 2011 - 7:00 pm

        I was so glad to hear you say, ‘Write what you read’ isn’t that helpful, because I read so much … all over the place… that I would never identify what to write about and I also read a lot of old, antiques because I love to see how people felt or talked at a different time – hundreds of years ago…

  3. #6 by taureanw on August 14, 2011 - 12:03 pm

    Great post!

  4. #7 by Amie Kaufman on August 14, 2011 - 12:31 pm

    Absolutely! I had a story I was trying to write for ages, and one day I was standing about complaining to my lovely critique partner that I had no idea what to do with it — it was going to turn out way too short, but there wasn’t anything I felt needed to be added in. Eventually she looked at me, smiled, and told me I was trying to write the story as YA, but it sounded exactly like MG to her.

    And it totally was. It was absolutely a MG story that I was trying to frame the wrong way! I write both YA and MG, but at the time I’d never thought of trying middle grade. Thus began my adventure!

    • #8 by rozmorris on August 14, 2011 - 1:42 pm

      Hooray for the friend who tells it like it is. Thanks, Amie – and best of luck!

  5. #9 by Jennifer Lane on August 14, 2011 - 1:31 pm

    Really interesting. I’ve been mired in those scenes that are SO HARD to write and your advice makes a lot of sense–to ask why they’re hard and if it’s not easily identifiable, just don’t write it. Sometimes I get bogged down in the details of a story without realizing it’s okay not to cover every little piece. conversely, if my heart is pounding reading one of the action scenes I’ve written, I know it’s a good one!

    • #10 by rozmorris on August 14, 2011 - 1:43 pm

      Jennifer, you’re right – sometimes that sticky bit just doesn’t have to be written!

  6. #11 by Stacy Green on August 14, 2011 - 1:55 pm

    I thought I’d found the right genre. Light and Dark fits nicely into romantic suspense thrillers – similar to any of the ones from Mira, etc. But I had a trusted friend/MS editor tell me it’s better to query as women’s fiction now because agents overrun with romantic suspense.

    So I’m a bit befuddled right now…

    • #12 by rozmorris on August 14, 2011 - 7:20 pm

      Oooh, Stacy, how to query it is almost a different question. But give it a go – an agent probably won’t mind too much if you’ve wrongly guessed the genre by such a short distance.

      • #13 by Stacy Green on August 14, 2011 - 7:39 pm

        Thanks, Roz. Your answers always make me feel better!

  7. #14 by Deena Safari (@deenasafari) on August 14, 2011 - 2:21 pm

    I’m in the process of this! I’ve always been a creative non-fiction writer – fiction just never really stuck. I’ve always avoided it in general, but now I’ve found a way to mix the two and I’m having more fun writing I’ve ever have! It’s like creative exercise for me; I’ve written 4 chapters in less than 10 days.

    • #15 by rozmorris on August 14, 2011 - 7:22 pm

      Deena, that sounds exciting. How do you mix the two? And 4 chapters in 10 days certainly means you’ve tapped into something.

  8. #16 by Angela Hartley on August 14, 2011 - 4:50 pm

    Most people look at me and think I’m the sweet, innocent girl next door. Imagine their reaction when they discover I write horror. I live in a very conservitive area, and I have had lots of delicate little flowers ask me, “Why do you write this? Can’t you create a sweet love story instead?” So I try to write about “Happily Ever After” and wind up with a blood-soaked bride instead. A lot of those women cross the street with their children when they see me coming in their direction. They think I must be broken in some way, but I’m not. In the real world, I have three children and a awesome husband who affords me the affords me the privilage of persuing a career as a novelist. Long ago, I discovered that I couldn’t control where inspiration takes me, anymore than a surfer can mold where a wave breaks. My duty as a writer is to ride the wave of imagination.

    • #17 by rozmorris on August 14, 2011 - 7:24 pm

      Ho ho, Angela, you dark horse! Love your description of riding the wave of imagination – yes, that’s what we have to do.

  9. #18 by A. B. England on August 14, 2011 - 6:24 pm

    Like one of the previous posters, I tried out a lot of genres. I can’t write mystery or horror to save my life, but fantasy and science fiction come naturally. I also discovered I was trying to squash the manuscript I’d been working on for years into the wrong format.

    I was trying to make an adult speculative novel into a YA. The characters didn’t read right as teens, and some of the story elements were too dark for YA. It made SUCH a difference once I stopped trying to fit the story into a mold it didn’t fit.

    • #19 by rozmorris on August 14, 2011 - 7:36 pm

      Great tale! But it can take a lot of wrong turnings before we get the right one.

  10. #20 by David mark brown on August 14, 2011 - 6:27 pm

    I started by trying to write a high art sort of literary Southern gothic, but got bogged down in winding plot and subtext while trying to create emotional, heart rending, tragedy. Under the surface I wanted to deal with tough issues like racism, sexual abuse, etc. but the delivery just wasn’t me.

    Finally I gave up on writerly image and starting just trying to have fun. It turned out that I discovered a natureal talent for writing a fast-paced action story built around outsiders/outcasts involving a much simpler plot and straight forward writing style. I don’t think what I’m writing now could be much more different from where I started (other than both are based in Texas).

    People just kept telling me that my action and dialogue were the only parts that stood out. Finally I started listening. I hope to be able to improve other aspects of my writing down the road, but for now I’m going to try to do what it appears I do best.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • #21 by rozmorris on August 14, 2011 - 7:38 pm

      Another one! David – and everyone, in fact – I’m so glad I put up this post. I’m really enjoying your tales of how you found your true genres – and what you tried in order to get there. Keep ‘em coming!

  11. #22 by Laura Pauling on August 14, 2011 - 10:04 pm

    One story that most of writer friends have thought was my best turned out completely different than I planned. It was meant to be a humorous middle grade but soon turned into a story with much deeper themes and issues, and reads a little noir. I kept doubting whether to stop but I’m glad I didn’t. I think this happens a lot.

    • #23 by rozmorris on August 15, 2011 - 7:52 am

      Hi Laura! A thread that’s emerging here is how these stories that rebel on us turn out more true and striking. Very interesting.

  12. #24 by Ezra Barany on August 14, 2011 - 10:10 pm

    Wow! You really struck a chord in me. The transition in my writing hasn’t been huge: from psychological horror to thriller/suspense. But I seem to get the most positive response to a) surrealistic description, and b) writing page-turners. My surrealistic description, according to my readers, is more “real” than my regular setting description. I guess it’s true that “write what you know” doesn’t always follow. (Speaking of which you MUST see this hilarious How To on NaNoWriMo: http://youtu.be/SEU6tMFvddg where she says she wrote about cylons meeting robot dinosaur because she was told to write what she knew.)

    It makes me think that I have to have more delusion scenes described by my bipolar character to stick with writing surreal description.

    Thanks for your wonderful post!

    • #25 by rozmorris on August 15, 2011 - 8:00 am

      Thanks, Ezra, for your wonderful reply! And ‘Write what you know’ must be one of the biggest pieces of misinformation writers are given, cylons notwithstanding…

  13. #26 by Siri Paulson on August 15, 2011 - 3:24 am

    This post is fascinating to me, and it’s especially timely right now. I write fantasy and science fiction novels — always have, always will. I dabbled in literary short stories as self-defense during university writing classes, but after university, I went straight back to genre fiction and stayed there, mostly working on novels. I’m comfortable in SFF, it’s what I love to read…I identify as an SFF writer. (I write all over the spectrum, but that’s another story.)

    But earlier this year, I wrote a short story that was supposed to be SFF, I even knew what genre element it was supposed to have — ghosts — and that element just never materialized. I got to the end and realized there was no place for the ghosts. It’s a contemporary, even literary story, probably the best short I’ve ever done…and it’s non-genre.

    That was weird enough. But I just finished another short that, again, was supposed to have an SFF element and doesn’t. I’m still trying to decide if this one works without the genre angle. This time I’m really not sure.

    Food for thought, anyway!

    • #27 by rozmorris on August 15, 2011 - 8:02 am

      Hi Siri! I love the idea of dabbling in literary shorts as ‘self-defence…’ And as I said to Laura above, I think there’s a special quality about these stories that get headstrong and go their own way.

  14. #28 by Leif G.S. Notae on August 15, 2011 - 12:39 pm

    It’s amazing when that happens, you go through and write out a manuscript/short story/flash fiction bit and it doesn’t sing to anyone. Sometimes looking at it from a different angle is a great way to spark a deeper creativity. I know I have felt I needed to carry on some sort of “stereotype genre modes” because that was what I was raised on.

    I think this is where it is a tough place to be in. Many new sub-genres were created by blending two styles together but the question is can the traditional market handle a new “Werewolf lesbian teen crime fighting supernatural thriller set in a Sword and Sorcery world”?

    I guess in the end no writing is wasted writing. Many times it can be salvaged or split to different novels. I know I’m having to wrestle with that for my manuscript, which is why I’m writing more flash fiction and a novella to get my feeling down and figure it out at the same time. Never look momentum, always more forward (even if it is a step).

    Great article, always enjoy the deep questions early in the morning! The ol’ noodle is firing!

    • #29 by rozmorris on August 15, 2011 - 1:47 pm

      Leif, glad to have woken up your grey cells! Now go and invent a new genre. Although perhaps with fewer elements than the one you describe… :)

  15. #30 by Teresa Hamilton on August 15, 2011 - 12:43 pm

    I found this post so insightful. It states the obvious but is so easy to miss – by changing genres I found my writing voice. I started writing my novel and got good interest from agents but not THE elusive contract. We relocated and I started writing observational humour about our adventures for a magazine. That’s when it all kicked off. Now I’m trying to marry the two in a new project. Wish me luck.

    • #31 by rozmorris on August 15, 2011 - 1:49 pm

      Thanks, Teresa! That’s a very important point. Sometimes the writing we do most easily – eg in journalism – could be a clue to what we might need to capture in our fiction. Good luck indeed!

  16. #32 by danholloway on August 15, 2011 - 8:13 pm

    Great post and absolutely, yes! I just assumed when I decided to turn my hand to writing for possible publication that I’d be a thriller writer. It seemed obvious, and always wondered why I struggled with it so much. Then I started writing short stories, elaborating on the parts of the thriller I loved, and I realised I’m a slightly weird kind of literary fiction writer and poet. I seem to be able to sell thrillers but it feels like pulling teeth. I am so much happier writing and performing obscure things I love writing, even if there’s no money at all in it.

    • #33 by Siri Paulson on August 15, 2011 - 8:32 pm

      Pulling teeth…huh. I’m writing a secondary-world fantasy that has been like pulling teeth, too. I don’t think it’s the setting that’s the problem, but I’ve been trying to figure out if I’m writing the wrong kind of plot.

      I’ve beaten my head against it on and off for several years now and still can’t figure out what the problem is. My current strategy is to force my way through the last half and see if it feels any better once I’ve written the climax (since the second halves of what I write often feel really awkward until the climax).

      • #34 by rozmorris on August 15, 2011 - 9:20 pm

        Ah, Siri, perhaps you have middle trouble. It’s common, and not just with age…

        • #35 by Siri Paulson on August 15, 2011 - 9:42 pm

          I’ve written other novels, and usually do have trouble with the late middles, but not THIS much trouble. That’s why I’m worried…but it’s also why I’m giving it another shot!

          (Another type of middle trouble: expanding middles. And I’m not talking books. ;-) )

    • #36 by rozmorris on August 15, 2011 - 9:22 pm

      Thanks, Dan! I like the idea of elaborating on the areas of the thriller that really interested you. And even if it isn’t your goal, perhaps you’ll find a way to make it less obscure. What might start out as an abstruse idea could become something a lot of readers will relate to.

  17. #37 by catwoods on August 15, 2011 - 11:45 pm

    My last novel started as an adult psychological thrille and ended with a YA romantic bent to it. Funny how our characters let us know the direction we need to take even if we can’t figure it out for ourselves!

    Thanks for letting us know this happens to others!

    • #38 by rozmorris on August 16, 2011 - 12:00 am

      Hi Cat! That’s quite a change… I’m amazed at the wayward nature of our muses here. (BTW, I like your typo … ‘thrille’ Someone should definitely write one…)

  18. #39 by Cindy a.k.a. crichardwriter on August 16, 2011 - 8:33 pm

    I started my writing journey writing fantasy fiction because I was really into the vampire craze for awhile. Instead of writing about dark creatures though, I wanted to write about angels battling demons. But then I found myself getting to mired in the details, and really wanting to go deeper into the characters’ backgrounds and psychology. Then, I tried writing thrillers – I absolutely love Hitchcock, and thought it would be fun to to this. I had a great story line too, but then I realized I don’t really like writing about gore and the dark side of human nature in that way; putting myself into the mind of a killer just did not appeal to me at all. So, I finally worked my way around to literary fiction, and this feels right (for the moment anyway). I enjoy building stories around the charactars and their inner dialogue, and it makes sense in terms of the stories that stick with me and that I return to over and over again. Listing my favorite books and favorite movies, and then comparing their similarities, really helped me to figure out what I am trying to write. Like one of your posters mentioned, I don’t think any writing is ever a waste of time – some of my characters from my other stories have moved forward into my current story. Thanks for the post – it has been interesting hearing about everyone’s genre journeys.

    • #40 by rozmorris on August 16, 2011 - 11:42 pm

      Hi Cindy – what a journey. I think you win for taking the longest road. It’s a good idea you suggest, pinpointing your true tastes by listing what you like and don’t like. I do that when starting a new novel – I gather a collection of novels and films I want it to be like and those I don’t. Then, as with my upcoming release, I end up with something that’s not like anything. Ho hum…

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