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?
- 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.