Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hybrids: When You're Writing a Book That Straddles Two Genres

A reader from Virginia wrote me:  "I’m either writing a very boring memoir which is filled with the ME in memoir, or I’m writing some sort of self-help book which has stories filling in to illustrate my points. 

"I’m still writing 'islands' so I don’t have a clear structure yet. I just know there is a book in me so I write these islands each day which are sometimes short stories and other times observations of certain goals or principles I’m working on and how to overcome obstacles to get there."  She wanted advice on what she was writing--and how to go forward.

It's a good question, one I get often in my classes.  Many writers, myself included, are stretching the limits of genre.  We may have more to say than just meets one type of audience.  We want to touch more people, explore more forms, than just one.  

I learned this when one of my books, How to Master Change in Your Life, ended up being what's called a "hybrid," straddling the genres of self-help and memoir.  I didn't start out with the intention of writing one or the other, but as the story evolved, I realized I didn't just wanted to share my own experiences.  I wanted to give information about change and I wanted to give people ways to handle the onslaught of change that is occurring in most of our lives.  

When I began writing my scenes, or "islands," they mostly came out as memoir at first.  But then I'd read a fascinating article or talk with someone who'd handled big changes like a job ending or a relationship beginning or the loss of a loved one.  Since I am always trying to improve my own skills at living in flexibility and openness to change, I naturally wanted to share these ideas I was coming across.

How did I go from the mishmash of this accumulation of ideas and stories, to a completed, published book?  It took two steps:  deciding what was most important of the two genres, and choosing a structure that allowed them to co-exist happily. 

What's Most Important for Your Book?
There are many kinds of hybrids out in bookstores now, crossing many different genres.  For simplicity's sake, let's look at a hybrid memoir/self-help book.  

When you're working with a such a manuscript, you'll first need to decide what is going to take up the most real estate in terms of pages.  Are you going to spend 200 of the 350 pages in tips, techniques, information?  That means the book will lean more toward the self-help genre than the memoir genre.  Or are you having the entire manuscript pivot around a life-altering event, such as a death or illness?  Then perhaps the memoir part is the most important.  

Why is it essential to figure this out?  Because your book's structure will need to follow one or the other.  

You may not know what is more important until you have enough "islands" written; I usually start to get clues at about 40,000 words (the average completed book might be as few as 60,000-75,000 words, so this is a bit past the midway mark).  I look at what pulls me, what I am writing about most of the time.  Where is my heart?  This is the path the book is naturally taking.

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?

Determining the Structure 
When you decide to write a book, especially if you haven't published one before, you need to get smart about what's out there, what structures are being used in publishing, what readers are reading.  Although there are many experimental forms and structures in modern literature, they are hard to carry off.  First find out what your two genres do, normally.  Here are some questions to ask as you do this research (often best conducted at a bookstore):

How many pages are books in these genres, on average? 
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?
Are there sidebars or boxes?  Exercises?
Anything else you notice that tells you about this genre?

As you look into these questions, make notes.  Think about what you're writing, and how it might fit the format you're seeing in these genres.  

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Try one of the two research steps above:  look at the real estate of your book so far--which genre predominates--or visit a bookstore to research recent published books in each genre you're straddling.

What did you learn? 


  1. This is a really interesting post. Fortunately, a new genre area already opened up for my cross-genre works so all I have to do is investigate that, but this is definitely something good to consider in the future if I ever try something even more cross-genre.

  2. Absolutely helpful to me in laying out my first book. Very instructive, giving the specifics needed to hone the structure into something quite workable, and enabling me to focus, focus focus! Thank you!

    p.s. In your 2nd paragraph of "What's Most Important...," you state it's either self-help, or, self-help. I'm sure you meant to use the word "memoir" in the second instance - right?

  3. Thanks, Kathy, and thanks for the editing catch! Always welcome . . .