Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Creating Genres

Yesterday I talked about the importance of researching the market and writing to specifications if your primary goal is to become an author. Today I want to talk about writing when fame and fortune is not your first aim--when you have a story burning a hole in your heart and the heartburn is only eased when you spew the story into a Word file. Yes, you do want to publish, but your story drives the genre issue, rather than the genre dictating the story parameters.

If you’re writing because you have a particular story you want to promote, you may have a harder time finding a publisher. Often those kinds of stories don’t fit within the very narrow genre guidelines that publishers are asking for. And if your book is unique enough that it doesn’t fit into any existing niche, many publishers will turn it down, simply for that reason. Again, they don’t want to take unnecessary risks.

There are exceptions—notable ones. Some of those exceptions become best-sellers, and often that’s how new genres are created. The Left Behind series is an example. These books created a market for a specific sub-genre of post-apocalyptic stories and became best sellers beyond all expectations. The creators of these books found a publisher only because they were already best-selling authors in other genres (they had platforms), and the Christian publishing house that turned down the first book in this series is still being good-naturedly teased by the publishing house that decided to go with it and made lots of money.

The Shack is another example of writing outside the box that found, or created, its own niche. This story didn’t fit into any genre and was so different no publisher would have touched it with a ten-foot red pencil. William Young was not writing for a market when he created this book. He wrote it for his children. But when others who read the manuscript connected with the content, he decided to self-publish. He did some marketing on the side and the book took off in the ratings. You can bet there are publishing houses that wish they had gotten their hands on it in the first place.

In an interview on the Christian talk show, 100 Huntley Street, Young was asked if he thought he had created a new genre with the writing of The Shack. I’m not sure he did. Interestingly enough, The DaVinci Code probably introduced the genre that The Shack fits into. Both are novels that use plot and dialogue to convey a theological or doctrinal message. Tosca Lee’s books fit into that category as well. In Demon: A Memoir Tosca uses dialogue almost exclusively (and plot only as background) to communicate a fictional but biblically-based perspective on how evil came into the world and how it will leave.

I am encouraged by this development because I think the story that’s been burning a hole in my heart might fit in this new genre. A few years ago, a novel that allowed its characters to discuss theology would have died on the vine. Now there’s hope. There may be something else fatally wrong with my manuscript, but I’m encouraged to know that at least the story idea has a chance in today’s market.

But enough ruminating about publishing. My next posts will focus on the mechanics of writing. Not grammar. I know how you hate that topic. Instead, I’d like to share some of the tricks I’ve learned about using Microsoft Word to create a best-seller. (Sigh.) I mean a manuscript. Microsoft Word can be either a friend or a foe. I’d like to help you discover some of its friendly capabilities and also tell you how to defeat at least one of its little deadly and devious attempts to frustrate you on your journey toward publication. Please come back next time for: “Microsoft Word: Friend and Foe.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Genre and Writing

In this post, and the next, I want to talk about writing to genre specifications and about how new genres are created. (I know I said only one more post on genre, but I’ve changed my mind. I’m a girl so I can do that.)

How you go about writing will depend on your motivation for doing it. If your primary aim is to become a writer—to develop a writing career—you will approach the process in a specific way. I’ll talk to that scenario in this post.

If, on the other hand, your desire to write is story-driven—if a story is burning a hole in your heart and you have to write it down to stop the pain—your approach will be different. Tomorrow I’ll post some thoughts on that scenario.

These thoughts are geared primarily toward the creation of book-length fiction, but much of what I say would apply to short fiction and non-fiction as well. Researching and writing to specifications is essential if you want to publish magazine articles, for example.

Writing to Genre Specs

If your primary goal is to become an author (a published writer), you need to begin by doing research to find out what specific genres are being sought out by publishers and agents, and then you need to write to those markets. Publishers don’t take risks, especially in today’s tough market. This applies both to secular publishers (the American Booksellers Association, ABA, in North America) and to Christian (the Christian Booksellers Association, CBA). "The bottom line" is what drives their decisions about what to publish. They have to make money to stay alive.

Publishers look for three things in manuscripts they consider: 1) professionalism of the writing; 2) quality of the story; and 3) marketability. Marketability has to do with staying alive, and marketability has a lot to do with genre.

Each publishing house has its tentacles into a particular, usually very strictly defined, market niche. They know what specific kinds of stories have sold for them in the past, and, with some exceptions, they stick to those kinds of stories.

They also know their competitors and they don’t publish books in genres that are already being successfully marketed by other houses. They find their own niche and go with it. That’s why you need to do research to find out which publishers are buying which kinds of stories.

You would also do well to do some research on trends. Publishers do that. They want to know what has sold in the past, but they also try to predict what will sell in the future. They think ahead—usually three to five years ahead, because once they’ve found a manuscript they like, it takes at least two years to turn it into a book and to market it.

(Someone want to edit that sentence? Do you see what’s wrong with it? Hint: last word of the last sentence.)

A writer I met at the ACFW conference in September had a story that was set in the civil war. One of the big publishing houses picked it up eagerly. Why? They were obviously impressed with the writing and the story, but it also helped that the U.S. is planning, between 2011 and 2015, to mark the 150-year celebration of the Civil War. This publisher is expecting that celebration to create a market demand for books about the Civil War.

That trend is already developing, in fact. Google “Civil War” and you’ll see it happening before your eyes.

Here’s a great idea: if you already have a story in mind, Google the topic and see if you can find some stirring of interest beginning to happen in the culture. Let your imagination lead you to a place, down the road, where readers might be heading. Think in terms not only of story idea, but setting (Where on earth--or in space--will attention be focused in three years?), the plot (What kinds of things will be happening in the world?), or characters (What kind of person will people be fascinated with in three years?) Ask yourself, Can I clothe this story idea in garments that will be appealing to readers three to five years from now?

So if you want to sell a manuscript to a publisher, look at the kinds of things they sell, but also look at trends. Decide how long it will take you to prepare a manuscript, then pick a topic that will catch the attention of readers and publishers within that time frame.

If you’re just writing because you have a story in your head that is making you tell it, you will look at the whole business of getting published differently. I'll talk about that situation in tomorrow’s post.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What to Call the Baby: About Genres

This post is another one about a writer's vocabulary, and it’s very basic. I know some of you will be rolling your eyes, and I don’t blame you. (“Sheesh. Just how dumb does she think I am anyway?”) This is stuff you learned in high school, unless you hated English and spent class time daydreaming and looking out the window, in which case you might have missed some of it. So I apologize. My excuse is that I’m an English teacher and I have an obsession with “covering the material.”

You can skip the next two blog entries without doing irrevocable damage to your writing career, but at some point identifying your genre will become important. I wallowed around for a while trying to figure out the 'ins' and 'outs' of it. I still wallow, but I’m gradually coming to terms with the fact that my novel doesn’t fit anywhere so it’s getting easier.

I promise to get to the good stuff in upcoming posts, but please humor me for just two more posts on genre talk, okay?


As I said in the previous post, genre is a type, or kind of writing. All writing falls into four very broad genre categories:

Poetry is anything that is written in some kind of poetic form. That’s a loose definition, I know, but modern poetry is not always easily categorized. A contemporary poem may or may not display rhyme or rhythm, but it should at least be formatted with an emphasis on lines rather than sentences or paragraphs. Every poem should also use poetic, or figurative, language and most poems also have a figurative, rather than a literal meaning.

Prose is easy. It’s any piece of writing that is not poetry, including both fiction and non-fiction. It’s more a “style” of writing than a “kind.”

Non-Fiction is writing that is literally or historically true, usually presented with little subjective interpretation by the author. Non-fiction writing could be historical accounts of events or people’s lives, including newspaper articles, biographies or autobiographies, or it could be a presentation of thoughts and ideas of the author on a specific “real” topic, such as “how-to” books or articles.

Fiction is writing that is the opposite of non-fiction. Though it might be inspired by actual facts, the story is an imaginative account that is only “real” in the mind of the writer and the reader.

NB: Some recent best-selling books have deliberately (and some would say dishonestly) blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction. The Da Vinci Code, mixes fiction and historical facts indiscriminately, which makes for interesting reading but the confusion that arises from the mixture can be disconcerting. Some memoirs also fit into this category. A Million Little Pieces sold a lot of copies and received rave reviews until someone discovered that the “memories” of this purportedly autobiographical memoir were fictitious. Most serious authors look sternly down their noses on this writing technique and do not respect authors who use it.

Categories of writing can be further broken down into genres. And this is where things really get confusing.


The most frustrating and confusing discussions about genre dance around the difference between literary and non-literary works. No one—not even the “experts”—have a complete handle on where the difference lies. Having said that, I will meekly attempt an explanation of the difference based on what I have learned in my university English classes and in writer’s conference workshops I’ve attended on the topic.

Strictly speaking, literary fiction uses figurative language much more deliberately than other kinds of fiction; the plot and characters are used to develop metaphorical as well as literal meanings; and literary fiction centers around universal themes about life and the human condition. Literary fiction is designed primarily to challenge the reader’s thinking and develop in him/her a deeper human experience. Entertainment is a secondary aim, if it is an aim at all, in literary fiction.

At the other extreme, what is generally called “pulp” fiction, or “pop” fiction is created for the sole purpose of entertainment. It provides an escape from real life, rather than an avenue into it. Pulp/pop fiction appeals to the masses and does nothing more for them than give them a respite from the harsh realities of the world they live in.

Fortunately, a broad category of writing that falls somewhere between literature and pulp fiction has developed, and that’s what most general readers are buying today. This style of writing makes some use of figurative language, reflects the complexities of real life, and deals with significant themes and issues, without being either "stuffy" or "fluffy." Today’s more sophisticated readers enjoy this middle ground and many, though not all, of the best sellers would fall into this category. And while the literary elite used to look down on the more non-literary styles as being unworthy of their place in the world of published writing, the prejudices are relaxing somewhat.

If you want to reach a large market audience, you’ll probably want to steer clear of writing purely literary pieces. And if you want to say something significant, you’ll want to avoid the pulp fiction market. Anything you want to say can be written for the more general market in any one (or three or four or five) of a number of genres.


There are a plethora of genres and sub-genres out there. Good luck at figuring them out. Romance, for example, is a general genre category with sub-genres galore (including such sub-categories as historical, contemporary, medical, Amish). Mysteries might include detective stories, police stories, or stories with humorous elements and happy endings, called “cozy mysteries,” such as the Murder She Wrote series. Sci/Fi is increasingly being sub-divided into separate Science Fiction and Fantasy categories with the recent upsurge of new fantasy writers and their huge following among younger readers. And non-fiction works fall into a whole other mess of sub-genres as well.

Wikipedia gives a great comprehensive list of writing genres. Check it out for more detailed information.

One more post coming tomorrow on the genre topic, then I promise to begin a rash of more practical entries. I'm especially keen to share some great tips for using Microsoft Word to streamline your writing/revision process. Please stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Writer's Language

When you write, it’s good to discuss what you’re doing in the language of the profession. Here are some tips about the words you will want to use when you describe what you’re doing.

Q: What is the difference between an author and a writer?

A: A writer is anyone who writes anything with an eye to publication. An author is a writer who has been published. What counts as “publication” is a little questionable. I’ve been published a number of times but not for money, so I don’t consider myself an author yet. It’s sort of up to you when you start calling yourself an author, but you’re always free to call yourself a writer if you’ve done enough of it to feel like one. I’m waiting until I get my first check to call myself an author, and even then I may not feel quite ready.

Q: What is a WIP?

A: A WIP is a Work-In-Progress. It applies to any piece of writing you’re working on, whether it’s a book-length manuscript or an article, fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry.

Q: How do you refer to your WIP and how do you title your manuscripts?

A: In the literary world, titles of works are punctuated differently depending mostly on their length. Titles of book-length works are either underlined or put in italics. Titles of smaller works, such as magazine articles or chapters in books, are put in double quotation marks. However, this only applies to published manuscripts. Before a manuscript is published the title is simply put in double quotation marks, like titles of published articles would be, and before publication the work is called a “manuscript” not a “novel” or a “book” or an “article.”

Q: I’ve heard the terms, “brand” and “platform.” What do they mean?

A: I’m still trying to figure that out, but here’s what I’ve decided so far.

A brand is very much like the mark cowpokes put on the butts of their cattle to distinguish them from animals that belong to other ranches. It’s a distinguishing characteristic of a writer that sets him/her apart from the rest of the herd. It’s very much connected with the genre they write in and their writing style. If it’s successful, it’s also geared deliberately toward the market they want to reach.

For an example of how branding works outside the publishing business, think of the music you hear when you wander into a clothing store in the mall. It’s an element of the store’s “brand.” The music blaring from the speakers in The Gap sends me up the wall. That tells me I’m shopping in the wrong store. If I bought something in that store and wore it outside my house my kids would roll their eyes and a picture of my cellulite thighs would probably end up on the internet with the caption, “At some point people should stop wearing Daisy shorts.”

I have a writer friend who writes light-hearted young adult novels. Everywhere she goes she wears short-short, flared skirts with tights underneath and one leg of the tights is always a different color than the other. That’s part of her brand. It says something about her (and her books) and it resonates with the young audience she is writing for.

Brands are hard to come up with. Sometimes they just develop naturally after you’ve written for a while. I’m not going to worry too much about my brand until I have a butt large enough to have one burned onto.

Platform is related to brand, but is slightly different. Your platform is the stage you stand on to advertise yourself and your writing. It’s your public image and it’s related to what you do besides writing to get people’s attention.

A platform would include your personal or professional qualifications and/or expertise and what you do to make them available to other people. You might develop a platform by blogging on topics that provide useful information to readers, or by developing a speaking career, or by writing and publishing in areas either related or unrelated to your current writing project.

Tim LaHaye stood on a well-developed platform of writing in the area of biblical prophecy before he wrote the Left Behind series. Rick Warren’s platform was his pulpit. Yours might not be so dramatically significant, but anything you can do to make a name for yourself can become the platform from which you launch your writing career.

Q: What is “genre” and how do you decide what genre you’re writing fits into?

A: Good question. Genre is, simply put, the kind of story you are telling—the species, if you will. That’s where the simplicity ends, however. The definition of “genre” is a little like quicksilver. It’s hard (and sometimes dangerous) to hold in your hand. Because it’s such a huge topic, I’ll save it for a separate post. Please check in next time for “What to call the baby.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Manuscript Formatting for Dum Dum's

Here’s my first tip for dum dum writers: If you ever want to see your story or article in print you MUST pay careful attention to manuscript formatting. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions (“FAQ’s” in computer lingo) about manuscript formatting.

Q: What is manuscript formatting?

A: Manuscript formatting is simply the way your story is laid out on the page. It includes such things as width of your margins, spacing of your lines, size and type of your letters (“font” in computer lingo—Yes, I said this was for dum dums), how many spaces you indent for paragraphs and where you place your title and chapter headings.

Q: My writing is brilliant and my plot is riveting. Isn’t that enough to get my book published? Who cares about these itty bitty details?

A: The short answer is, no, it’s not enough. In order to get your manuscript published, you have to get the attention of people with extreme attention deficit disorder. I’m talking about agents and editors. They are the ones who care about the itty bitty details, and they won’t read far enough in your manuscript to discover your brilliant writing and riveting plot if you don’t format properly.

Q: That doesn’t make sense. Don’t editors and agents understand they might be missing the next War and Peace by not paying attention to content instead of details? I bet Tolstoy’s publishers weren’t worried about format.

A: I know it doesn’t make sense but that’s the way it is. Tolstoy’s editors weren’t deluged by thousands of manuscripts demanding to be published like today’s editors are. Editors and agents have minds like a steel trap: they snap to conclusions and they don’t unsnap. An editor/agent will decide in less than three seconds whether or not to read the manuscript they’ve just picked up, and their decision will be based, first and foremost, on how the words are laid out on the page.

Q: Why are they so hung up on format?

A: Three reasons: First, readability; second, computer display capabilities; and third, something much more devious.

About readability: Editors and agents read lots of stuff. Their eyes get tired, their minds are easily distracted, and they become annoyed if they have to adjust, not only to the unique content of the manuscript, but to a different formatting style. They want to be able to see your writing in a form they’re used to so their minds can focus on the brilliance of the writing.

About computer display capabilities: Not all computers are created equal. Some won’t display certain fonts (Have you ever tried to open an e-mail message and seen lines of little rectangular boxes in place of the characters? That means the message has been printed in a font your computer doesn’t display.) Your manuscript may look nice and neat on your computer screen the way you’ve formatted it, but on the editor’s screen it might be all over the place. If you format your work according to the guidelines laid out by the editor you’re presenting it to, those problems won’t occur.

About the devious reason: Editors and agents are interested in your baby but they’re also interested in its Mommy. They don’t like to work with mothers who can’t take advice or who think their child is perfect and needs no formatting, or who aren’t smart enough to follow simple instructions. The care with which you format your manuscript tells them something about you that they need to know.

Q: You’ve convinced me. So how do I format my manuscript properly?

A: Every publishing house or agency has its own manuscript submission guidelines, and these include formatting information. You can usually find submission guidelines on the internet. Since most publishing houses are more interested in marketing books they’ve already published than looking for new manuscripts, information for prospective writers is not so easy to find. You will have to do a bit of research to get to sites that give you this information. A quick way to find what you’re looking for is to type into the Google search box the name of the publishing house or agency you are interested in along with the words “manuscript subscription guidelines.” That should lead you to the information you need.

( A “heads up” here: Be prepared to hit a brick wall if you do this with major publishers. Most of the big ones are not accepting “cold call” submissions or proposals. Don’t be discouraged, but listen to their advice about how to approach them appropriately and follow through. It’s not easy to get published, but it’s possible, if you are tenacious and are willing to follow the rules, and if some major miracle happens along the way!)

Q: Are there general formatting guidelines I can follow while I’m writing, before I know who I’m going to submit to?

A: I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve just found a gold nugget of formatting information—a clear, complete, simply written article about manuscript formatting that any dum dum can understand. It tells you exactly where to put your cursor (that pointy arrow that moves over your screen when you move your mouse) and what to click it on, step by step, to do proper formatting. These guidelines are for manuscript submissions to the Genesis contest, a contest sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers Association, but they are an excellent guide to general formatting for any submission and, more importantly, the article explains HOW TO DO formatting in general--how to make formatting changes on your computer. You will find the article at this web address:

Q: Okay. I’ll look it up when I’m far enough along with my writing to worry about it.

A: DON’T WAIT!!!! This information may disappear after March 31st when the Genesis contest deadline is past. I printed the article and put it in my writing file. Believe me, it’s worth the paper you will print it on.

It’s true that you don’t need to worry about formatting until you’re farther along in your writing. Thanks to modern computer technology, you can format at any point in the writing process. In fact, the best time to do the final adjustment is just before you send it away to someone important. But these general guidelines will be good for you to follow as you write. Doing so will help you get used to the process and the feel of what professional writing looks like on paper.

So go for it. Format away. And please come back next time when I will give you a small handful of other informational nuggets that will make you feel super savvy and “in the know” about writing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing Techniques for Dum Dum's

I've decided to write a series of posts on this blog giving basic writing tips and techniques. I learned so many things by guess and by golly as I began my writing "career." It was kind of fun--like discovering Piltdown man on an archeological dig, or a ten dollar bill in the bottom of an old coat pocket. But many of those discoveries would have helped me even more if I'd made them sooner.

My latest discovery is that other writers, both beginners and those who have been at it for a while, haven't yet learned some of the things I know, even as a relative amateur. So I've decided to share what I've learned.

I'm going to call this blog series "Writing Techniques for Dum Dum's." If you notice that title sounds a little like a famous series of instructional books that have made millions of dollars for the publication industry, you're pretty clever and you probably don't need these blog posts. I decided to use the term "Dum Dum" for myself and my readers so that if the "Dummies" authors stumble onto my blog they won't sue me for stealing their title.

"Dum Dum" was the obvious alternate choice for obvious reasons. I'm talking about me, here, not you. I'm not stupid, but for some strange reason I have an awful time figuring out how to do things or how things work. So I appreciate it when I run across something that explains what I need to know in words any nitwit could understand. I'll try to do that kind of explaining in my posts. It should be pretty easy, since that's the only kind of explaining that makes sense to me.

I'm also pretty sure that other writers who read my blog have their own cache of neat tricks and shortcuts that I haven't yet discovered. I hope, if you're one of them, that you will comment on the posts and share what you've learned with the rest of us as well. So what if it's a case of the blind leading the blind. If enough of us clump together we're bound to find our way to someplace worthwhile in our writing, aren't we? Or is that a dumb thing to say?

So please follow this blog, and chime in with material for the posts whenever you can. I'd love to hear from all of you.