Every Wednesday I’ll be sharing some hints and tips about how to improve your writing. These are basic things I have learned over the years, from writers websites, published authors and constructive feedback from friends, family and online pals.
There is an argument that fiction writing cannot be taught because it comes from talent alone, it is in your nature to be creative. Whilst there is some truth in that, even the most creative person needs to learn how to use their ability and make the best of their craft.
This week: Understanding your chosen genre!
This weeks topic should be entitled Writing Tips Thursday because for the unpublished, penniless writer a living must still be earned via the dreaded “day job.” So I cry your pardon, dear blog reader, for the lateness of this weeks topic. With my most humble apology out of the way let’s get cracking. Did you know the word “Genre” comes from the French word meaning “kind” or “style”? Wikipedia describes Genre as:
Genre is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, and in general, any type of discourse, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.
Okay, that’s the boring stuff done. Let’s talk about your chosen style of writing. For the purpose of this topic let’s assume you’re not a seasoned writer with a well established history of writing for a specific genre. This is about identifying how your story works within a genre and understanding how it relates to the list below, if at all! You never know, maybe you’re on the brink of introducing the world to a fresh new genre niche!
What’s on your bookshelf?
Take a quick look at your bookshelf, or if you don’t have one, try your DVD collection. If you don’t have DVD’s then pop over to Amazon or Waterstones and look through the lists of genres. Then buy yourself a DVD (or Blu-ray) player because you really are missing out!
As you can see from the picture on the left there are plenty of genres to choose from. And some even have sub-genres. Even some sub-genres have their own niche sections and cross-overs, a blend of one or more genres. Some of you tend to stick to one style of story, whilst others have more varied tastes. Both are fine. If you like reading thrillers or romance then go with whatever floats your boat.
The literal world is bursting with a multitude of different styles of story telling. As a writer knowing how to identify these can be quite important when setting out on your fictional journey. That isn’t to say you should know exactly what kind of genre you intend to write about, just write and see what happens! It’s worth bearing in mind that if you’re writing a comedy about space aliens then it probably won’t fit into the Christian section.
The old saying: “Write what you know” is more than a little flawed, otherwise Jules Verne really did travel to the centre of the Earth! I don’t like this saying because it can encourage the writer to narrow their creative horizon to such a tiny angle. However, if you read mostly one specific genre yet write a different one you might be missing out on developing an important skill.
If you’re driven to pen a romance novel but have never read one, chances are you might not get it right first time. Obviously the person who wrote the first romance novel wasn’t lucky enough to have a library of romance fiction to learn from. You do. I’m not saying you can’t write romance without reading it but it will almost certainly help.
Learning how certain genres work can help you understand how to write them. From a reader’s point of view you throw yourself into the story, enjoy the characters, the plot, the highs and lows. But from a writers point of view you should take time to pull yourself back from the story and understand why it fits in that specific genre. What makes a romance novel romantic?
You might be like me and begin with an idea or character and just start writing. Genre isn’t important right then, just get those words flowing and figure out where it fits later. Fantasy genres for example come in various shapes and sizes, from high fantasy like Lord of the Rings or vampire fantasy like Dracula or Interview with a Vampire. Both are very different.
In Fantasy and Science Fiction a certain amount of “world building” is often required. This is because your story is often based around an imaginary world. Therefore you need to explain this to the reader, how much or little detail is up to you.
Some stories can span a range of genres, such as a romance story set in a far away land ruled by dragons, or an action story set in 1920’s New York. So it doesn’t always mean your story will fit neatly in any one particular pigeon-hole.
Stereotypical or Ground Breaking
Consider what your story is giving the reader. Let’s face it, there are only so many plots to choose from, so it’s likely your story has already been told before, but what it is important is the twist you employ to make your story different. Whether that comes from your characters approaching the story in a different way or how your own unique voice paints the story.
For example, the Twilight Saga is merely a vampire tale, however it became a best-selling story because of the unique characters and settings. When Lord of the Rings became popular it was something new, something different, and went on to gain a huge following. If it wasn’t for Tolkien, Stephen King would likely never have written his epic Dark Tower series. He said he wanted to write his own epic fantasy story but so many other authors had already done so. So he found a niche genre, mixing old wild west cowboys with science-fiction, fantasy, adventure and romance. Yes. Romance. Trust me on this.
I prefer to read the book before I see the movie or TV series, but I’ve just started watching The Game of Thrones. I’ll likely read the book after, but for the moment I’m impressed by what I’ve seen. This seems to be a blend of high and dark fantasy, though I wasn’t expecting the adult themes! Again this story is similar to others, Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule and Dragon Master by Chris Bunch. It’s difficult to break apart from a well established genre and storyline, but a new slant on an old tale can be every much as absorbing for the reader.
Things to consider when writing your genre
History – If you base your story in the past, using actual places and times, make sure they’re accurate. If writing about an alternative history then make sure the reader knows this to avoid confusion.
Humour – Unless your story is clearly written humour in mind, make sure that jokes are well placed. It’s okay for your characters to share a joke in the midst of an epic battle or action scene providing it’s within context and adds something to the story and helps the reader learn something new about the characters.
Science Fiction & Fantasy – You can be as inventive as you like but be wary of what you show the reader, too little and the reader won’t get what you’re trying to say. Remember they don’t know what you know unless you tell them. On the other hand too much detail can be laborious for the reader. World building is a fine thing but let it out in small chunks.
Realism – If you want to use a specific real world object, like a character using a Glock 26 pistol, don’t say how huge and powerful the gun is because it actually isn’t. The Glock 26 is nicknamed the “Baby Glock” because it’s small and compact. The reader may know or find out that you haven’t done your research properly, and that can lead to loss of credibility. If you use real world details you must make sure they are accurate.
Guts & Gore – Richard Layman loved his blood and entrails. Plenty of his stories had some blood and gross stuff in them, but he got away with it because the stories weren’t just about that. He created characters that were believable and reacted to their bizarre situations just as you or I would. The reader could relate to them. Too much guts and gore is called “Gore porn” and any fan of the Saw movies will know what I’m talking about.
Romance – Personally I’ve found this a tricky genre to write. Hey, I’m a guy! But I understand how there is a need for conflict, a need for desire, longing, humour and a good amount of build up and tension. If you get straight to the icky love scene without building it up first then your story falls flat. The reader needs to be rewarded by the characters finally getting together, or falling out, splitting up, going off somewhere with someone else, then getting back together again – cue violins & tissues etc.
Sex – Like Humour, unless you’re writing none stop porn, you need to make sure any erotic or sexual scenes are within context and mean something. Would your characters really get jiggy in the middle of the desert during WWII? If so, why? Remember, less is more. Sometimes a hint is all you need to let the reader know what’s going on. Naturally you can be as creative as you like but remember to think about how it fits in with your genre and if it’s really necessary.
I’ve recently finished writing my novel, The Range. If I told you it’s a story that slots neatly into the zombie section of your book store, would you read it? If you’re not a zombie fan then probably not. Instead if I said it was a post apocalyptic story, again would you seek it out? Not if you only read romance or thrillers or spy novels.
However, if I told you The Range is a story about survival, friendship, unwanted leadership and people with the courage to stand against a tyrant, do you think you could easily place it in the right genre section?
I wanted to write a zombie story for a long time but couldn’t find a suitably different slant on the genre that grabbed my attention. Originally I wrote half of it from the point of view of a video camera handed between characters during a time of chaos, panic and lots of gore. Thankfully I trashed the concept in favour of a more personal first person perspective. This told through the eyes of a university student heading into a city to find her friends, get them out of harms way and back to safety.
Truth be told there aren’t technically any zombies in it, though I guess that depends on your point of view, and the actual war/apocalypse is just a back drop for the main characters. There are a mixture of different elements from action and suspense to love and friendship. So even though I set out to write a zombie story, I ended up with a tale of one person’s journey through fear, courage, love, loathing, shame and valour. I used the concept of a plague ridden world to tell a story with a different twist.
At the moment I have a few close friends reading through the current draft. So far the feedback has been very constructive, with good bits being pointed out and the inconsistencies highlighted. To keep busy, and not thinking about The Range every waking moment, I started working on a second novel, a follow-up to The Range called The Survivors. The third book in the series is only in the concept stages.
Beyond that I have a few projects I’ve started but yet to finish. I’ve written 50,000 words of an epic fantasy story, currently on the back burner, which I hope to return to and finish at some point.
Maybe. Baby steps!
That’s all folks!
Whatever genre you want to write about it is well worth doing some research. Not only to see what’s good and bad about that genre, but to learn what not to do. If you’ve read an awful spy novel then take notes on what made it so bad, then avoid making those mistakes yourself. Remember to write for you, first and foremost. A blogger friend, J.Birch, recently posted a great article called Why Bother to Write, where he states:
“I can’t tell you why you should write, but I’ll tell you why I write. I write because I have to write. That’s it. That’s the root of my passion. I gotta. And that’s why I’ll write, everyday, for the rest of my life.”
I could not have put it better myself. Write for you. Write with passion. Love it. Live it.
Do you have any tips or insights on knowing what genre to write?
If you have any writing tips and advice and feel like sharing, pop me an email or rant in the box below!