Friday, February 22, 2013

What Genre Is Your Book? A Look at the New Hybrids in Creative Nonfiction

A January 18 essay in the  New York Times Sunday Book Review, "I Change, You Change," by writer Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, discusses a new genre called the memoir/self-help hybrid.  More than just traditional memoir, this kind of book also addresses the reader directly, offering advice, examples, even exercises to spur change.

I enjoyed the essay very much--and I am glad all sorts of hybrids are being discussed in the New York Times.  But, hey, folks:  this genre isn't new.  There have been writers and readers preferring it for decades--because it solves a conundrum.

A personal example:  When I published my second memoir in 1997, I debated its genre.  The book was a combination of my stories of loss and change, and good advice I'd received over the decade I went through cancer, bankruptcy, divorce, marriage, and other such upheavals.
I didn't just want it to be about me.  I wanted it to be about the reader too.  So I called it How to Master Change in Your Life, a kind of tongue-in-cheek title (can one ever master change?).  It sold very well and is still print, here and overseas.  I still get fan mail.  It served a broader readership than just my own stories would have.  I felt it was a kind of payback for all the gifts I'd received in darkest moments.

Is your book, perhaps, one of these "new" hybrids?  Do you straddle the line between a book about yourself and a book for others?

How do you decide?  And how is the structure of your book going to be different, depending on which side (self-help?  memoir?) you lean toward more?

Are You Writing a Hybrid--And Why?
Many writers 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. 
You may not start out with the intention of writing one or the other, but as the story evolves, you realize you don't t just wanted to share your own experiences.  You want to give information about the experiences you went through--parenting, search for faith, adoption, infertility, finances. 
In my own book, I began writing my scenes, or "islands," watching their tone.  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? 
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" (dramatic scenes, snippets, descriptions)  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?  

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