Friday, September 30, 2022

Writing the Cross-Genre Book--Some Tips on How to Successfully Straddle Genres

Early in the writing process, an author faces their genre. What kind of book will this be? Agents and publishers need to know, but more importantly, the author must know because structure often depends on genre.

Sometimes the answer is very clear. Other times, not.

I remember a great email from a writer in Virginia who told me how confused she was about her book's genre. "I’m either writing a very boring memoir or some sort of self-help book which has stories to illustrate my points. Which should it be?"

Not something anyone can decide but you. And often, when the book doesn't easily fall into one solid slot, it crosses genres into the murky land of hybrid. More hybrids, or cross-genre, books are being published now, so I am guessing more authors are running into difficulty categorizing their book by genre. Or maybe the book's too large to be categorized--and that's fine.

I've published one cross-genre book and another cross-audience (both YA and adult) novel. It was actually harder to find satisfying structures for these projects. But I ended up happy I let them expand into more than one category.

There's no rush to deciding when you're just gathering the pieces of a book, such as my reader above. She was still writing 'islands' and not yet sure her book's direction. That gathering phase is all important and shouldn't have audiences or agents or publishers looking over your shoulder, ideally. The random creative part of you needs to explore without observers, I find. Often, in those early months or years, the book hasn't a strong enough voice to guide its genre and its structure.

Once there's a first draft, even rough, you face the genre choice.

Why is choosing well in genre so important? As I said above, the big world of readers and publishers sell your book by slotting it into a category. Booksellers use certain categories for shelving their stock (or grouping it online). Publishers use genre categorization for marketing purposes.

But as I also mentioned above, it's not only for that. Readers bring expectations to each genre. A novel that reads like a workshop is not really a novel. A memoir that's not about the writer is not truly a memoir. At least according to traditional publishing--and there are certainly exceptions.

When I was writing one of my nonfiction books, How to Master Change in Your Life, it took quite a while to find its genre. I started with memoir, writing stories of my own experiences with radical change. But I was also fascinated by research on change, how people faced it (or not) and how they changed. Was it easier to initiate change in your life or be forced to change by outer circumstances? What about people who change all the time, who love mixing things up? Do they also find challenge in more interior, subtle kinds of change? I read and studied and gathered notes, and slowly built them into my own stories.

When I finally printed out my very rough first draft, I was astonished to see that the book had leaned towards self-help, not memoir. I realized my purpose was not to tell my own story as much as to help others. So I began restructuring the book to fit the self-help genre.

But this didn't feel right either. In the end, I was able to find a publisher who welcomed the cross- genre mix I'd created, half memoir, half information and self-help ideas.

The turning point for me came when I asked which of the two genres was most vital to the book I wanted to write. That's when when my deeper desire to help people surfaced. Often we don't know the reason we're writing until this point. Not always--some writers are clear on their purpose from the get go.

Since that book was published in the 90s, a lot of cross-genre books have emerged. I'm in good company.

If you suspect you're building a cross-genre manuscript, read as many cross-genre books as you can find that are similar, just to give yourself a chance to consider which genre might take up the most real estate in your book in terms of pages. In my case, I ended up spending 150 of the 350 pages in tips, techniques, information, which gave the book a self-help flavor. If I had the entire manuscript pivot around a life-altering event, such as a death or illness, then the memoir genre is the one to structure for.

A dear friend who is also a hair stylist told me that hair has a natural part, where the hair divides. You can tease it and mousse it in any number of directions, but left to its own devices, it will most easily fall into its natural part. This is what you're trying to discover about your manuscript. Where is it most naturally moving?

Here are some questions you can ask yourself. First, find out which genres your book might inhabit. Read other books that are similar (google cross-genre books to find them). Then ask:

How many pages are books in these genres, on average? What size are they?

How do they begin?

Is there a triggering event--a moment that starts the story--and how far into the first chapter does it appear?

Is there a resolution?

How are the illustrating anecdotes combined with information if you are crossing fiction or memoir with nonfiction?

Are there sidebars or boxes? Exercises?

Anything else you notice that tells you about this genre?

Friday, September 23, 2022

Writing the Unsympathetic Narrator--So What If Your Readers Don't Like Them?

Last week, I talked about false beliefs, how they create character change and growth. As a character in fiction or memoir faces the limitations of their beliefs about a situation, themselves, or the world, they often find a bigger view. That gives them the opportunity to change, to learn stuff, to become a more authentic person.

Life is life, though. The opposite is also (sadly, often) true. We see the limits but we continue to embrace them. We may clasp even more tightly, fearing the unknown more than we detest our current situation. Character in fiction and memoir do this too, even more so. They become what's called unsympathetic.

Many writing books and many writing teachers have advised me to lean towards the more sympathetic character--if I want readers to engage in the story. I've found this sometimes true. If a character is really awful, or very stuck, and it's hard to get behind them, readers can detach from the story.

I suffered from this, as a younger writer. I tried to make my cast as likeable as possible. Sometimes, this made them cardboard cutouts, unreal. I'd get feedback like, Doesn't she ever get mad? Readers, I learned are equally frustrated with characters that seem too good.

As I grew in my character-writing skills I began to buck this sympathetic-character rule. I wanted to write from the point of view of a man who is deserting his ill wife to have an affair--a loathsome choice, certainly. I happened to be lucky enough to take a class with Josip Novakovitch and I workshopped a scene from this character's story. Josip encouraged me to push the darkness even further, find out the why behind this character's decision. Getting that kind of permission from a writer I respected allowed me to get to know this character much more deeply, and he ended up in two of my novels, successfully, I feel.

Another writing teacher, more recently, was strong in her belief that unsympathetic narrators are very worthwhile in literature. The key, she told me, is to make them believable and show them in action, rather than just in their heads. One of my female characters in my forthcoming second novel, A Woman's Guide to Search & Rescue, has plenty of action at the start of the novel. "It would help to know more of what she's running from and to," this instructor told me. Other readers had said they had trouble getting into this character because she was fairly unconscious of the effects of her bad decisions until the final third of the book. By inserting more of her backstory, all that changed. She was still not entirely likeable, but my readers didn't disengage.

If you follow the theory of false belief driving a character's growth (discussed in the blog last week), the unsympathetic character holds fast to their false belief until point 4. There are few hints of change ahead. This becomes authentic and believable only if we know, as my instructor said, what the character is running from and to in their life.

Authenticity may come late in the game (the story) to these folks. That's OK. They can keep us readers engaged anyway. We will love to be frustrated with them. We will hang in there just on the off chance that they'll finally face themselves.

And unless they are truly tragic, they will.

My male character who was tempted into an affair while his wife was ill became one of my favorite narrators. But only after I explored his psyche and learned why he was so stuck, so unable to see the effects of his actions. I think Josip would be pleased with how he turned out.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Your Narrator's False Belief--and How It Drives Your Story

Character in fiction and memoir is built on certain convoluted pathways. Because tension and conflict drive story, these pathways are often full of false beliefs or mistaken views of self and life that get examined as the story moves forward and the character grows.

As readers, we witness the journey: the narrator's relative ignorance or unconsciousness at the start of the book, maybe creating a life fueled by fear or anger; the changes as they grow more aware, shedding their limited views; the downslide of the tragic character who embraces their mistaken beliefs even more.

False belief makes a great structural model for story, both in memoir and fiction, and it's even applicable to nonfiction (the reader comes to your book with a limited view and uses your material to expand that view).

Friday, September 9, 2022

The Art of Time in Your Book: Working More Consciously with Flashbacks, Backstory, and Pacing

I read The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silbers many years ago, when I briefly stalled out with the then novel-in-progress. Normally, I consider time and its shape in a story at the revision stage, but I've learned it doesn't hurt to have it in mind as the chapters are initially drafted. I found this book very useful for memoir as well--anything, actually, that attempts to tell a story along a certain timeline, moving backwards and even forwards, trying to keep the reader oriented.

Some writers find that better shape and smoother flow via plot work. Raising the stakes. Finding character motive. I use these tricks too. But there's also a real use to getting concrete about your timeline--especially if you feel you are drowning in pages.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Rockin' (or Jazzin' or Rappin') Out: Why a Playlist for Your Book Can Help You Write It

Most writers know about free writing. It can literally "free" the random word associations inside your linear brain. Some use it as a warm-up before launching a writing session. Free writing allows whatever is blocking the creative pipeline to free up--or so I've found.

In the same way, exploration of sound can also free the creative flow. For me, sound is an important player in creation of theme, voice, and pacing, especially during revision.

I learned from one of my teachers way back in grad school to create a soundtrack for my book. Which became a playlist. To me, the soundtrack is one of the best parts of a great movie. Of course I love good acting, excellent setting details, and brilliant cinematography. But when the soundtrack is stellar, it can really intensify the meaning and emotion of each scene.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Am I Any Good? What to Do with That Question and How to Tell

I subscribe to quite a few writing newsletters and blogs by writers I admire. One is George Saunders who writes a Substack newsletter called Story Club. This week, Saunders answered a reader question about self-consciousness and the question "Am I any good?" In a brilliant response he gently guided the new writer through the self-education of two parts: the writer and the editor. If the question (Am I any good?) is asked during the writing part, it stops the process. It's an editor question, a question best asked and answered once the writing is at least roughly drafted.

A reader of this (my) blog wrote in recently about my recommendation to let a manuscript rest for 1-2 weeks before the editing part dives in. The 1-2 weeks is my best-guess minimum. Some writers need more time, some less. The goal of this rest is to allow a clean transition between the writer who is typing words on a page and the editor who is asking, Is this any good? The two are not usually in sympathetic conversation. They need to operate in separate rooms, especially if writing books is new to you.

Friday, August 19, 2022

The Pros and Cons of Workshopping Your Writing--How to Find the Best Feedback to Suit Your Writing Needs and Temperament

Learning the craft of writing is obviously essential in the long journey to get a book published. But learning the art of receiving feedback is also essential. When is the best timing for your draft? Who do you ask? And most importantly, what do you do with the feedback once you get it?

Most of us have war stories. When the feedback experience is bad, it can destroy the spirit of a piece and your courage and confidence too. I've suffered from many bad readers--comments that range from off the wall to outright destructive. I've also learned that bad readers are my own responsibility, in a large part. My naivete in how and when I choose to share, whether I structure the feedback or not, and what I allow myself in terms of post-feedback reaction determine the value, 100 percent. This was learned over many years and much heartache.

Friday, August 12, 2022

How to Discover and Develop Your Own Writing Voice--Your Uniqueness Manifest on the Page

I've been writing and publishing for decades, and for just as long, I've been considering, thinking about, and searching for my own unique voice as a writer. I have my characters' voices nailed down--usually. Although that can take multiple drafts. But if someone were to ask me, What is your voice, how is it different from everyone else's? I have to really think about it.

Funny thing is: I teach writing classes on voice. I can recognize in other writers, no problem. But to define or describe my own? Challenging, most of the time.

Friday, August 5, 2022

The Famous "Fifty Moves"--The Blunt Instrument's Invaluable Resource for Fiction Writers

I first came across the Fifty Moves list in an online class I attended for writers of flash fiction. It's a resource created by Elissa Gabbert and Mike Young, and it's proved invaluable for my own writing when I get stuck or can't remember the point of my story. I've mostly used it for fiction, novels and short stories, but I think many of the tips would be great for writing memoir too.

This week set aside some time to check it out. The link is here, but you can also visit www.electricliterature.com and search for 50 moves to find it. Many good resources on that site as well, but this is my favorite.

Try one to three tips this week and watch as they spark up your writing life!

Friday, July 29, 2022

Writing Out the Sadness and Anger--How to Get Strong Emotions on the Page Authentically

Sometimes I come to my writing with a lot of emotion--from my reactions to life events, the world, my own self. Maybe you've experienced this, especially lately. Do you find, like I have, that it is tricky to translate strong emotions into story, in a way that a reader who is living a completely different reality can enter?

It takes a certain writing skill, certainly. But I also find it takes some personal processing time, either on the page or otherwise, to gain the objectivity that makes an emotion universal.

In my early writing days, I didn't understand this. I "journaled" my own emotions into my characters. Basically, this is told emotion--we tell ourselves the feelings and thoughts when we journal. Not a bad thing at all, very needed when we are trying to make sense of our lives. But these emotions are often one step removed from the reader--they are too personal to our lives.