Month: February 2013

Character, Setting, Problem

What tools do we need as writers?  How are they different from the tools we needed and learned as readers?

There is a difference.

For example, readers learn that well-rounded characters are interesting, but how do you write a well-rounded character, if you don’t have an innate sense of what a well-rounded character is?  Readers learn how to recognize one when they see one.  But that, alone, doesn’t make you a writer of well-rounded characters, or of any character at all.  What if you’ve read plenty of examples of well-rounded characters, and your characters still fall flat?

I”m trying to reconstruct what the writer tools are.  I’m at that point, I guess.

Today: my current guesses as to character, setting, and problem.  I’m using the Algis Budrys seven-point plot outline, for reasons I won’t get into here.

  1. A character
  2. in a setting
  3. with a problem
  4. which the character tries to solve
  5. only to experience unexpected failure
  6. followed by either victory or defeat, leaving a need for
  7. validation.


I ended up with three traits to make a character:

  • An attitude
  • A role in society
  • A background

A character is a fictional person with an attitude, role in society, and background.  I think this is a good starting point for discussion, because by combining these three elements, you can end up with interesting characters to write about.

  • A rude waitress from 1950s Alabama
  • A disdainful Viscount from 1810 Yorkshire
  • A dreamy-eyed cook from ancient Egypt

This should at least tell you whether you have the right name, clothes, and dialogue for the character when you start writing. You can always round out the character by making them have two conflicting elements, like “A rude but tender-hearted Asian waitress from 1950s Alabama,” or “A disdainful Viscount with a flair for engineering from 1810 Yorkshire,” or “A dreamy-eyed, pinch-fisted Greek cook from ancient Egypt.”


With setting, I narrowed it down to three (but possibly four, depending on the story) elements.  You can really go nuts (and should, if that’s what you like) on working out historical fact, or rules for how things operate, or maps, or how people dress, or whether a certain word fits in the time period (my favorite), or any other of a thousand different things.  But here’s my guess at the basics.

  • A place
  • A time
  • An opinion
  • (Optional) How far from reality it is.

A setting is a place and time, as framed by an opinion, possibly also by how far away from reality it is.  The characters have to have an opinion on the setting, even if it’s just to take the place for granted.  But there’s also room for opinions like, “I like it when magic has as much structure as technology does,” or “Sometimes the people who try to save the environment do more harm than good,” or “I’m a [insert political orientation here] and you should be, too.”

  • Surreal 1950s suburban landscape
  • Politically charged, magical ancient China
  • Dystopian post-industrial future
  • A careless day in Regency England

I think here that there is no limit to the complexity you can add, but if you want to make a “well-rounded” setting, I’d go for complexity of opinion.  “Surreal but comforting 1950s suburban landscape.”  “Politically charged, nostalgic, magical ancient China.”  “Dystopian yet hopeful post-industrial future.”  “A careless but tragic day in Regency England…the day Queen Charlotte died.”


I found breaking down problems trickier than the other two.  I’m not sure I’m there yet.

  • A situation
  • That compels the character into action
  • But there’s a caveat

I’m going to say a “problem” could be an opportunity, as long as there are issues in chasing the opportunity.  Indiana Jones doesn’t have to go looking for that idol, does he?  But it’s not easy.  The thing that compels the character into action is some part of their character. If you like, the situation is the external goal, the thing that compels the character is their internal motivation, and the caveat is the conflict.  Without the caveat, a situation can be resolved by a sufficiently competent character (I treat incompetence as a caveat).

  • X can’t resist the challenge (compel) of a tomb containing a priceless antiquity (situation), but it’s guarded by countless traps (caveat).
  • A bad day at the subway (sit) that makes X snap (comp) when X can’t afford to lose focus on an assassination job (cav).
  • An unbearable (comp) injustice happens to X’s worst enemy (sit) when any attempt to help him will cause a war (cav).

Saying that a problem is goal, motivation, and conflict doesn’t do it for me.  It doesn’t build stories for me; it only helps me analyze.  Thus, this.

Shake it all about

  • An unbearable injustice happens to a rude waitress from a surreal,1950s suburban Alabama’s worst enemy, and any attempt to help him will cause a war between diners.
  • A dreamy-eyed cook, brought to a dystopian post-industrial future from ancient Egypt in a failed time-travel experiment, has a bad day at the subway that makes her snap when she can’t afford to lose focus on an assassination job.
  • A disdainful Viscount from 1810 Yorkshire sets off on a careless day in Regency England because he can’t resist the challenge of a tomb containing a priceless antiquity, but it’s guarded by countless traps: marriageable women and their domineering aunts.

Sticking these things together: on the first one, I tried to stick together two things that matched and one that didn’t, and patched the holes to make sense (I liked this one the best).  The second one, I stuck together three things that didn’t match and patched things together as little as possible (it feels like a Phil K Dick story to me, actually, too much of a muchness).  The third one, I stuck together three things that matched (it sounds so plausible that I have no interest in writing it, but I wouldn’t mind reading it).

There are still a number of ways for each potential story to go; I doubt that any two writers would handle them the same.  But they are story ideas, so I think I’m getting close 🙂

More on Genre: “What Should I Write?”

Last week I did a post called “When you promise genre, what do you promise?”  More thoughts on the subject here.  (Yes, it’s arrogant of me to pick genre apart at this level.  No, I really am that analytical, so I will end up doing it anyway, even if it’s idiotic.)  The tl:dr is after the last bolded header 🙂


One of the things you ask as a beginning reader is, “What should I write?”

The usual advice is, “Whatever you want.”

If you push people a little further they’ll go, “You shouldn’t write to the market, because the market will change by the time you get done writing.”  And if you keep pushing, agents and editor may admit that yes, it’s nice to keep an eye on the market, but really, you have to write what you want to write.

Dean Wesley Smith talks about this this week too, in “Return on Investment,” which sparked some thoughts on this snowy morning (about three inches, thanks) about how it ties to my running meditation on genre.  If you’re a Zen master you think about the nature of desire and how it’s illusory.  If you’re me you think about how to make people want to buy your books.

I started out thinking, “Okay, I’ve done more or less what I wanted to with the main genres, and getting things organized.  What about subgenres?”  I quickly realized that I don’t know enough about every damn subgenre to be able to lay out the emotional expectations for every one.  I only know some, and some of those that I read, I don’t understand well enough to explain.  After talking to my friend Doyce about magical realism last week, I realized that you can go down the rabbit hole, trying to figure out the fine points of a subgenre.   There probably isn’t a limit to the knowledge of a subgenre you can gain, and you can follow a specific niche up to the bestseller lists.  I’m pretty sure being “the” expert writer in a niche is a good way to go.  I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t study subgenre, just that I’m not the person to give an overview of all of them.

But I still have to answer the question: “What should I write?”

The problem is that subgenres change.  (I’m going to avoid pointing out in detail how subgenres are like froth on the top of an ocean wave, because I’m going to have to name names, and someone will be defensive about their subgenre not being dead, and that’s not the point.)  At any rate, aiming at a subgenre is trying to hit a moving target, which is what I think agents and editors are talking about when they say, “By the time you go to get published the scene will be different.”

After some thought, I ended up with four points to consider with subgenres:

  • What you want to write
  • What you’re good at writing
  • What readers want to read
  • What gatekeepers think will sell

Indies, stay with me on this last one.  Amazon is a gatekeeper when they list their categores and decide whether or not to put you on some list.  (Anyone who’s had to deal with the current lack of YA as a category at KDP knows what I mean.  WTF, Amazon?)  Indies have gatekeepers, too.

Okay.  Imagine a Venn diagram (those ones with the overlapping circles) with four circles.  Ideally, what you should write is someplace where all four circles overlap.  You write what you want to write, which you’re good at writing, and it’s what readers want to read and what the gatekeepers think will sell.  Money!  Success!  Fame!

However, all four circles move.

This means that you need different strategies for different stages of your game.

  • As a beginning writer, you’re not good at anything (or don’t know if it you are), you don’t know what readers want, and you don’t know what the gatekeepers think will sell.  Therefore, write what you want to write and work on improving craft.  If you get published, great!  But it’s really dumb luck, and might not be repeatable once those circles move again, so keep working.  You can guess at the other three circles and should.  But the important thing is just to keep writing, really.
  • As a writer who is getting better at craft, you don’t know what readers want and you don’t know what the gatekeepers think will sell.  Write what you want to write with an eye towards expanding your craft skills.  Write specificially to improve something you’re not good at.  Now you should know what you’re good at.  Don’t just write there.  Don’t sit still; all four circles are moving.  You can guess at the other two circles and should.  You might end up in a subgenre, you might not.  It’s more luck than not.
  • When you know what you’re doing, you can really start getting into the meat of what readers want, and how specifically to do it to them. This is where you really have a handle on subgenres, on your subgenre.  You can actually write fast enough to keep up with the markets and trends now, but should you?  Should you write something that isn’t within your area of interest?  If you’ve been working on expanding your craft (you have), then you have a pretty wide area of interest, because it turns out it’s really hard to learn certain techniques without reading the hell out of certain genres, dammit, so now’s the time to start considering whether you should write a project to a subgenre if you don’t naturally read that subgenre, or if it’s a new subgenre.  I think.  (A note: I’m not here yet.  I can almost see it over the top of the @#$%^&* hill, though.)
  • When you know what you’re doing with readers…you can make your own subgenre.  Or even genre.  You can move the little circle that is “What the gatekeepers think will sell” all by yourself.  This might happen accidentally, by being at the right place at the right time and being good at it.  Or it could be on purpose.  The more I read Patterson, the more I go, “This guy invented Thrillers.  Other people were headed toward that spot.  They built a fertile ground.  But that guy said ‘this is how it’s going to go down,’ and nailed it to the wall.”  It didn’t happen without knowing what the reader wanted.  He didn’t just say, “You will want Thrillers.”  But he did go to the gatekeepers and say, “This is what you will sell.”

Should you try to write to a certain subgenre or to follow a trend that may or may not become a subgenre?  Yes, if you’re a pro-level writer and you’re interested.  No, if you’re much under or above pro level.  (That is, go ahead and do it anyway, but don’t force yourself to write something you don’t want to.  I’m all about breaking writing rules.  But don’t expect to make the same sales as a pro writer doing the same thing.)

But does that even answer the question about what a subgenre means, emotionally or otherwise?

No, it just sets the stage.

How do you figure out if you’re in a subgenre?  What even makes a subgenre?

I suggest that subgenres are so different that it’s pointless to say, “You just need to find out X, Y, and Z, and that will tell you the subgenre.”  The subgenres split along such different lines that categorizing even what makes a subgenre across different genres becomes meaningless.

So…how to find out your subgenre?

I propose two methods for finding out:

  • Research existing books.
  • Research the audience.

How would I research existing books?

This sounds pretty basic, but I hadn’t been doing it, hadn’t even realized that I needed to be doing it, so maybe it’s not as obvious as it sounds.  Bear with me.

Find out what the top 100 books of that subgenre are.  Make sure you’ve read at least one book by each author on the list.  On a list dominated by one guy (e.g., Patterson), read a lot more of that guy.  Make sure you’re up on at least 25 specific books on that list.  What King did 30 years ago is not what he’s doing today.  Study books from the last 10 years especially (thank you, Dean).  You might think you know a subgenre, but what you know is Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers (cough-me and cozies-cough).  The circles have moved since freakin’ Heinlein and Asimov, right?  They’ve even moved since Snow Crash.

Look for patterns.  What types of patterns you find will be different and not limited to these.  But play with:

  • What type of character is the main character?
  • What problems does the main character face?
  • How many “real” people are there, who affect the outcome of the story?  Versus “extras.”  Who are they?
  • What is the main character really afraid of, when stripped of all situational/external trappings?
  • What are the main character’s goals?
  • What does the main character want–their motivation–underneath it all?
  • What kind of external/internal conflicts are there?
  • What is the setting like?
  • Are there rules to the setting (e.g., rules of magic)?
  • What does the character feel about the setting?
  • What possible opinions of the author does the setting reflect?

I keep thinking in terms of character/setting/problem here, and finding out what external goals in internal conflicts are implied in that. I wish I could nail this down better, but I think I’m working at the edge of my abilities here 🙂

How would I research the audience?

Who is reading this type of book?

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Social status
  • Educational background
  • Opinions (political, religious, cultural)

Once you know those things, think about what that kind of person is likely to want.

Let me apologize here for not actually being an expert on this, just someone who likes to analyze.  This could be, and probably is, totally off.

But–let’s go back to the example of Geezer Lit from the other day.  It’s so new that there probably isn’t a bestseller list for you to look at, and the audience is pretty clearly defined: geezers.

They feel mature but not decrepit; they have a sense of humor; they’ll appreciate references to Baby Boomer stuff.  (A facile assessment, I know.)  They probably want to be reminded of good things from the past (with maybe a shrug towards the bad things), they probably want to feel more in control of or more accepting of a changing environment, they want to make fun of young idiots (cheap shots are still pretty satisfying), and they want to laugh.

I think that probably “chick lit” was such a hated term not because of the books that came out of it but because the label made assumptions about the audience that the audience didn’t make about themselves.  It showed a lack of reader understanding by the gatekeepers.  You say, “African-American fiction,” not “@#$$%^ lit.” (Sorry.)

I don’t know that “geezer lit” will fly.  I see a lot of Boomers who have a good sense of humor, who are at ease with making fun of themselves…but “geezer.”  I’m just not sure about that term.  I guess we’ll find out.


Most subgenres aren’t going to be as easy to identify via audience research, unless you do surveys or something.  Who reads Regency Romances?  Who reads Steampunk?  Who reads cozies?   With solid subgenres, there has been this kind of research, so I’d go in search of it.  But it might also be good to do the reading and hypothesize about the audience from the patterns that you pick up from the books.

Example.  I’ve been reading a lot of Regencies lately, after not having been a romance reader at all.  I’ve loved Jane Austin forever; it seemed logical.  However, I found that I tend to dislike earlier actual Regencies.  Georgette Heyer puts me to sleep.  There’s only so much Stephanie Laurens I can take.  The newer stuff, I’m quite fond of.

One pattern I’ve noticed that carries throughout:  social customs are important.  One pattern that I’ve noticed that’s changed:  how one deals with social customs.  For example, the idea that if you don’t inherit or marry money that you will be poor is there, but how the characters deal with it changed.  Before, the story was: a poor girl marries a rich man (Mr. Darcy).  Now you get things like The Ugly Duchess, where the main character not only is a self-rescuing princess but makes her own dresses.  It’s the guy who needs the money, to bail out his craptastic dad.

Extrapolate.  How has the audience for Regencies changed, and how have they remained the same?

We still want the pretty dresses.  But we don’t want to be rescued so much as…what?  Known?  Accepted for who we are?  There are different opinions, both in books and in the people who read them.   The main characters are more active.   They don’t rebel against social mores just to be rebelling, then have to learn how to tone it down in order to fit into society.  They tend to make themselves the exception to the rule more:  the ton can say what it wants.  I have what I want and I live by my rules.  –A wish fulfillment, but a different one than in the past.

It’s a solid subgenre, but that circle’s still moving.  I think what readers wanted changed, and what the gatekeepers thought would sell changed, and what the bestsellers did to fill what the readers now wanted changed the gatekeepers, etc.

So after all that…

1) What should you write? Write what you want to write.  Don’t kill your desire to write by writing what you don’t want to write.  Eventually you will have broad enough tastes and skills that you can fuss with following or creating trends.

2) Are you writing in a specific subgenre?  If you want to write in a specific subgenre, you have to pay your dues and research the subgenre and the audience of that subgenre.  Things change too much, even in established subgenres, to come up with a systematic answer.  Do mess around.  But if you want to nail it, first you do the research, and then you write the story.




Ebook Formatting update: PDFs and Kindle Ereaders

This is one of those “duh” moments that I’m sure other formatters are already doing.   But it makes me pretty happy nonetheless.

Okay, someone wants a PDF copy of your book for their ereader, and you’re willing to send it to them.  How to do that?

To size the PDF for an ereader, assume that the ereader screen is 6 inches.  They may be bigger, but if you assume 6 inches, you can also catch the larger smart phones.

To resize the document:

  1. In your word processing program (e.g., Word), set the paper size to 3.5 by 4.75 inches.
  2. Change the margins to .15 inches.
  3. You may want to make sure any images are resized/compressed for screen viewing.
  4. Flip through the pages to make sure there’s nothing too odd.  The way the pages are laid out is the way the pages will look on the ereader.
  5. Convert the file to a PDF the way you normally would.


Resize your cover to ~45% of original size (if it’s supposed to correspond to a 6×9 or 5x8ish cover, trade paperback or mass market paperback size).

See?  Duh, easy.

You should be able to send them this file, and they can transfer it to their ereader via USB cable.

However, to send the PDF to their Kindle,  send it to their Kindle email address.  To find your Kindle email address:

  1. Go to Amazon, log in, and click on the “Your Account” link on the upper right.
  2. A dropdown menu should appear.  Select “Manage Your Kindle” from the menu.
  3. Amazon may ask you to sign in again.  Do so.
  4. On the left, scroll down until you see the header “Your Kindle Account.”  Under it, click “Manage Your Devices.”
  5. Your Kindle(s) should be listed.  From here you can edit your Kindle’s name, see the email address, and more.  Incidentally, if your Kindle is ever stolen, this is where you go to deregister it, so nobody can access your credit card from your Kindle.  (You can re-register it here too, if you get it back.  True story.)  You can also, if you scroll down, turn on Whispersync, so all Kindle apps/devices, when they can access the Internet, update all your books to the last page read.  If you have several members of your family on the same account, don’t do this.

The person who is getting the file (even if it’s you) has to go to their Amazon account and allow emails from that address.  This way, your Kindle won’t accept spam.

  1. Go to the “Manage Your Kindle” page.
  2. Scroll down to “Your Kindle Account.”
  3. Click on “Personal Document Settings.”
  4. Find the header “Approved Document E-mail List.”
  5. If your address isn’t already added (you may have added your own email address while registering), click on “Add a new approved e-mail address” and follow the directions there.

Yes, this is a pain in the butt for the reader.  If they don’t like it, they can use USB or email it to themselves.

To email the PDF:

  1. You may have to pay to do it this way.  It’s $.15 per megabyte in the U.S. if you have to use/can use a 3G account.  It’s free via wifi.
  2. You can force Amazon to send it via wifi by changing the address from [name] to [name]
  3. I think if wifi is available, [name] will use wifi for free instead of charging you, but I’m not sure.
  4. On a Kindle Fire, you will not see the pretty cover, even if you’ve embedded it in the file.  You’ll see a PDF-logo cover.
  5. You may see some weird issues with text that takes less than a full page aligning to the center or bottom of the page.  (No idea what’s causing this.  I checked the vertical alignment and nothing was odd.)
  6. You can also force Amazon to convert the file to Amazon proprietary format (.azw) from PDF.  It looks okay, but if you are sending over PDF that’s really the interior layout for a POD, all your tracking will show up (smooshing words together in some spots), and the tabs will be gone baby gone.  If you want to send a professional-looking ebook file, this isn’t the way to do it.

Note: I can’t currently see how to email a document to a Kindle app.  It’s supposed to be the same as for anything else, but I’m not seeing my PDFs come up on my app, and they’re not in my archive.  But then again, I have a really old phone, so it could just be that.

Also: No idea what to do on a Nook, Kobo, iPad, etc.

When You Promise Genre, What Do You Promise?

The first rule of Writing Club is that a rule that doesn’t suggest how to successfully break itself is a boring rule.  No, I lie.  That’s the second rule of Writing Club.  The first rule is “don’t be boring.”

I’ve been playing around with the idea that genre means making certain promises to the reader–setting up certain reader expectations–and that everything else about the story will revolve around that.  I’ve been using romance (as a genre) as an example a lot lately in personal conversations.  It’s great: I’m approaching the genre with fresh eyes (I’ve only been reading it seriously for about six months), and everyone in the genre is so very, very clear about what it’s about.  It’s about the feeling of falling in love, and the risks that you take in love.  The reader expectation of a romance is that you’re going to watch people falling in love,  and that the story will be about falling in love, and that the characters will feel the feelings of falling in love and share them so effectively with the reader that they feel like they’re falling in love too.

Romance is pretty easy to work out that way.  But other genres aren’t, necessarily.  I’m going to make some preliminary guesses about genres here, and see whether I end up with “rules” that encourage clarity and play.

Here’s how I’m splitting these out: main genres are the main types of stories, age categories arethe age of your audience, and meta-genres are analagous to Dean Wesley Smith’s “umbrella genres.”  I just like “meta” better…the rules of meta-genres seem to me to have rules about how you’re going to tell the main types of stories.  Like a Christian romance…you tell a romance story, but you have to follow the rules of Christian fiction in order to do so.  You can’t really have a meta-genre story without a main genre.  It might look like you have a standalone meta-genre story, but you don’t really.  For example, you might have a thriller, and that’s all you call it, but what is the main story about? It’s a mystery, usually.  Hidden somewhere in any story is usually going to be one of the main genres; it might not have the trappings of setting that the genre itself has (like SF)–you can write a story about your fears of society without having a single futuristic or alternate or science-oriented element about the story.

So here are some preliminary guesses about the main genres:

Romance – falling in love/feeling unloved

SF – hopes for society/fears for or of society

Fantasy – mastery of society/lack of mastery

Mystery – increasing order in the world/increasing chaos

Western – what has value/what does not have value (usually expressed in terms of justice)

Horror is an interesting case.  Dean Wesley Smith argues that horror, as a genre, is going away.  I had my doubts, but I’ve been watching the bookstores that I go to, and they’re starting to break up the horror shelves, King into fiction or bestsellers or thriller, anything heavy on an alternate setting into SF/F, and anything with a relatively normal setting into suspense/thriller.  So what was horror about, emotionally?  My guess is being hurt/hurting someone else.  I want to stay away from fear as a description of horror, because all genres rely on fear.  Romance, for example, can deal with the fear of falling in love, the fear of feeling unloved.  And horror doesn’t really contain any hope, or if it does, it’s not the point.  If you go with “hurt” as the continuum there, then you can explain things like Cabin in the Woods, which isn’t a book, but comes to its unusual conclusion after weighing the balance of pain in the world, and what you’re willing to do to make the hurters stop hurting you.  Notice that it’s easier for me to find a recent horror movie that we’re likely to have read, versus a recent horror novel that isn’t one of Stephen King’s.  He’s broken out of genre, and I don’t know that he can single-handedly count as the justification for independent sets of shelves in bookstores.

And on the age categories:

Children’s (picture book) – Questions of sorting, establishing the basic categories of life.  At the earliest level, it’s about sorting out things like colors, numbers, and what sound goes with what animal.  You can crack up a little kid by pointing to a red ball and saying, “What a pretty yellow duck!” “No!” says the little one, extremely proud of being able to sort that out.  You can also get things like, “What is a family?  What are the roles in a family?  How do you know when it’s a good family or not a good family?  What is real?  What is imaginary?”

Chapter book – Sadly, I don’t think there’s a really good idea of what a chapter book (for Kindergarteners to, say, eight or nine) should do for kids.  I have some pretty strong opinions about this, but I’m not really clear on what I would have a chapter book actually do, so I’ll reserve spouting off on this one too much.  I do know that Ray never really got into chapter books, because they were SO boring.  She stuck with picture books for a long time, until she was ready to get into MG.

Middle Grade – fear of independence/longing for independence

Young Adult – asserting identity/fear of not fitting in

New Adult – I haven’t really gotten into these, and can’t really talk to them.

Adult – longing for the good life/trapped by the less-than-good or ordinary life

I also know there’s an emerging age category called “geezer lit.”  I haven’t read in it yet, but I’d predict that you’d see something along the lines of resisting change/accepting change in it.

And on the meta-genres:

Christian – Christian/unchristian.  I think how people define “what is Christian” is diverse enough, and I don’t read the genre enough, that I’ll leave it at that.

Erotica – sexually compulsive/sexually repulsive.  Another genre that I don’t read, so I’m just guessing.

Literary – ugly/beautiful.  This is a question of writing style.  You can have this elegant style writing about something horribly ugly – and it’s a great fit for literary fiction.  I don’t feel like I’ve really hit the nail on the head here yet.

Fiction – I list this here, but I think this is really just “adult genre, not overwhelmed by other genres, or approachable and popular enough that nobody cares.”  For example, women’s fiction is the longing for independence as a woman/fear of being trapped as a woman.

Historical – This isn’t really a genre anymore, but a subgenre you can apply to any other genre.  Hm…I may have to talk about the emotions involved in settings at some point.  With SF, you imbue your setting with your opinions about society so strongly that they’re impossible to miss.  With historical…you try to be accurate, yet exotic.   More thought will be required here.

Thriller – inevitable collapse/impossible victory.  There’s so much at stake, so many impossible odds, that there’s this constant feeling that there’s no way to succeed, and that if you do succeed, it’s not for very long, or something else will go wrong very soon.  If you stop a murderer, there will be another one, usually in the same book.

I’m going to invitingly add “Pulp” as a meta-genre.  It’s been coming up a lot lately in discussions I’ve been having, and I want to say that the range of emotion in pulp deals not with good or bad (and is almost negated, as a genre, by transformation of character, precluding use of that kind of structure, like the Joseph Campbell stuff).  It deals with the poles of strength and weakness: physical, mental, emotional, what have you.  I know “pulp” isn’t a genre on the shelf – but I think it should be.  (Pulp – strength/weakness.)

Each genre has its own subgenres.  Each subgenre has its own specialization of emotion.  There are many fertile areas of cross-pollenization.

So.  You have to pick one main genre and one age category.  You may or may not pick a meta-genre.  You can specialize into a subgenre (I may go there later; we’ll see).  You can pick pieces of one genre and use them in another (like science fantasy or Star Wars).  This is a toolbox, not a straightjacket.  However – when you start playing fast and loose with your genres, how do you know what genre to put things into?  What are the unavoidable constraints?  The answer I hear is usually, “Just pick one.”  Bleah.  I hate that answer.  It’s boring, confusing, and belittling.  Because the answer is really, “Just pick one, stupid.”

Let me pick something at random, build a story out of these categories.

  • Western – what has value/what does not have value (usually expressed in terms of justice)
  • Romance – falling in love/feeling unloved
  • Adult – longing for the good life/trapped by the less-than-good or ordinary life
  • Erotica – sexually compulsive/sexually repulsive.  Another genre that I don’t read, so I’m just guessing.
  • Christian – Christian/unchristian.  I think how people define “what is Christian” is diverse enough, and I don’t read the genre enough, that I’ll leave it at that.

And a tentative flow for sorting:

  1. Is the age other than “adult” or older?  If yes, then that is your main category (children’s, middle grade, etc.).
  2. Is there a meta-genre?  If yes, then it’s your genre, unless 1 applies, in which case it’s a subgenre.  2a.  If there is more than one meta-genre, then research both metas to find out whether that combination exists as a subgenre to one of the two, and where.  Is there a Christian erotica subgenre?  Or Erotic Christian subgenre?  I’ve heard the first exists.  If the genre is Christian and the subgenre is Christian erotica, then the polarity of Christian/unchristian emotions must be more important than questions of sexually compusion/repulsion.  If it’s Erotic Christian, then the question of sexual compulsion/repulsion has to be more important than the Christian aspects.  Or whatever.
  3. Is the setting the most important part of the book (ignore any historical aspects for now)?  Then sort the book into the appropriate genre for the setting.  3a.  If there is more than one possible place to sort the book by setting, then the heirarchy of settings goes like this: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Western.  If a book is a SF Western (e.g., Firefly), then it’s SF, with a Western subgenre. 3b. If you have aspects of SF, F, or Western but they aren’t the main genre, then list them as part of the subgenres.
  4. If there is a more or less accurate historical aspect, then the subgenre is Historical.
  5. If the story is about falling in love and has a happy ending, it’s a romance.  5a. If the most important thing about the story is falling in love with a happy ending, then all other main genre aspects are subgenres. 5b.  If the romantic aspect isn’t the most important one, then the book has a romantic subplot, and you usually won’t have to mention it.
  6. If the story is about a crime and the resolution thereof, it’s a mystery.  6a.  If the most important thing about the book is the crime and its resolution (bringing it to order, although not necessarily justice or truth), then all other main genre aspects become subgenres.  6b.  If the crime/order aspect isn’t the most important one in the book, then the book has a mystery subplot, and you usually won’t have to mention it.
  7. If you don’t know your genre yet, it’s fiction.

So here, we go:

  1. The age is adult or older, no determination of genre.
  2. There is a meta-genre (two).  2a.  There’s a Christian Erotica genre, so this book is a Christian Erotica, with the most important aspect of the book being questions of Christianity.
  3. The setting is not the most important part of the book, but there is a Western aspect.  I’m going to say the question of value/justice is stronger than the Erotica here.
  4. The setting’s in the Old West, but Western is more specific than Historical, and there’s the emotional aspects of a Western, so I’m going to stick with Western as a subgenre.
  5. The story is a romance, but there are meta-genres, so they win out.
  6. N/A.
  7. N/A.

Our genre is Christian Western Erotica, or possibly even Christian Western Erotic Romance.  The emotions in the story should be (from most to least important):

  1. Questions of Christian/unchristian behavior.
  2. Questions of value and justice (set in the Old West or something like it).
  3. Questions of sexual compulsion/repulsion.
  4. (And/0r) Questions of love and romance.

A likely plot might be something like, “A former preacher and now mercenary gun in the Old West is hired to eliminate a brothel.  But when he meets the madame, he finds her irresistable and falls in love with her.  Can he save this woman from a life of sin–and should he carry out what he was hired to do?”  With a plot like that, you satisfy all the emotional promises that you’ve made to the reader, in the priority order that you’ve made them.

I think writing the book first and then figuring out the genre, if you don’t know genre, is going to make it really, really easy to screw up the promises that you make to the reader, because you have specific promises that you’ve made, and they have to have specific priorities (you can play with the priorities, of course, but you have to be specific about them).  I’m probably off about more than a couple of these emotional promises that you’re making to the reader, but I think the idea as a whole is useful.

I don’t actually read either Christian or Erotica, so I’m going to play this one again:

  • Fantasy – mastery of society/lack of mastery
  • Western – what has value/what does not have value (usually expressed in terms of justice)
  • Middle Grade – fear of independence/longing for independence
  • Pulp – strength/weakness.
  1. Middle-grade is the genre.
  2. Pulp is a subgenre.
  3. Settings are Western and Fantasy.  Fantasy takes precedence over Western.
  4. Western beats Historical, so Western.
  5. N/A.
  6. N/A.
  7. N/A.

My genre is MG Fantasy Western Pulp.  My emotions should be:

  1. Fear of/longing for independence.
  2. Mastery of society/lack of mastery.
  3. Value/Justice.
  4. Strength/Weakness.

A likely plot: “An eleven-year-old boy sets off on a quest to get revenge against an evil wizard who runs his backwater town and who turned his sister into a gibbering idiot for breaking a minor law, after his parents reveal they’re too afraid to act on their own.  He finds and hires a famous outlaw to murder the wizard…but the outlaw only makes things worse.”  The boy has to act independently, and live with the consequences of his actions.  He gets the wizard killed, and then has to deal with the outlaw.   I should probably give the kid a magic power in there to help him accomplish this.  He’s going to be wondering about whether he should have tried to get the wizard killed or not the entire time: whether it was right for his parents to accept the wizard, or whether they should have fought back.  And this isn’t a situation that’s going to be resolved by talking things out, but by sticking it to the wall, a strength of determination.

Right.  And now I’m going to try to write that, to see how well my ideas are working out 🙂

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