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.

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