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?

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