The genre system – is it good enough any more?

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I’ve been browsing through the ‘Blogs I follow’, trying to keep up with all the discussions, concerns and new releases and I’ve been seeing a lot of posts where authors are grumbling (quite rightly IMHO) about the trouble they’re having with squeezing their novel into a genre category.

And it’s not surprising. For instance, on Wikipedia, there are currently 80 genres and sub-genres listed under fiction alone. Yikes! My own novel,  ‘A Construct of Angels’ would currently fit into the horror, romance, Urban fantasy, religious fantasy, thriller or mystery categories.

There are How-to-Write books on the market that happlily suggest that writers should choose a genre and write within its boundaries if they want to sell. But why should we have to work within such restrictions? We’re not aiming towards library shelves. Some of us aren’t even looking towards bookshops any more. The electronic age has changed all that.

In these days of indie eBook publishing, with sub-genres and even sub-sub-genres sprouting up, the whole idea of ‘genre’ feels overloaded and outdated. Of course, to declare that, an alternative is needed and here’s my (fledgling) idea;

Wouldn’t it benefit both readers and retailers if some sort of ‘tick box’ or a graphic system was introduced where the elements of the book can be highlighted (or illustrated) by a sliding colour scale such as we have with rated domestic applicances (in Europe at least)?

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energy rating

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I experimented with a few variations on this theme and didn’t find them to be flexible enough as I was still having to insert genre labels. It was colourful, but no better in terms of classification. Perhaps you could see a way to make it work.

So I tried a pie chart instead. This is a simple chart, created using ten subjects that are most relevant to my debut novel  ‘A Construct of Angels’;

CoA pie chart

Note that I said the ten most relevant subjects – there are others that I could justify adding in there, but ten is plenty. Perhaps ten is too many and five would suffice. Who knows? This is all hypothetical and open for discussion.

BTW, for you with your magnifying glasses against the screen, there’s only 0.5% sex in the story. 😀

In an ideal world, the catergories would be listed from most relevant to least relevant, top to bottom, thus;

CoA pie chart sort

This arrangement should make it easier for the potential buyer to interpret. They would be free to scan the top two or three subjects and decide if the story is for them or not. They might still be swayed if their favourite genre was listed as number four or five – something which wouldn’t happen if the book had been listed under ‘Thriller’ when they prefer to read about religion- or horror-based stories.

I don’t think it would be too difficult for an algorithmist like Amazon to feed the percentages into their version of Deep Thought deep in the heart of Amazonia and begin to categorise the books in this way.

As I said, this is all hypothetical.

Do you think the time has come for the library shelf-based genre categories to be given a shake-up? Perhaps you have a fledgling idea that leaves my suggestion eating dust.

If so, please share! I would be happy to eat humble pie chart. 🙂

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Writers – are we all amateur psychologists?

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Make yourself comfortable on the couch…and tell me, how does this make you feel?

len-k-a couch

When we write fiction, we play God within the boundaries of our own created world. Depending on the genre, we might invent a brand-new race of beings, decide what stage of development their civilisation (if we decide to even give them one) has reached and set up the conditions of their planetary system.

In other genres, we might set the limits on magic that can be used, whether the land is forest or desert, decide if vampires  turn into charcoal at the merest hint of daylight or if they just sparkle and look moody (you know who I’m talking about).

Even if you’re writing contemporary tales set in real cities (*raises hand*), the writer still must lay out a basic plan of many of the character’s lives right up to the point where we first meet them and – yes, I’m finally getting to the point – why they act the way they do.

In order to create a credible and engaging story, we must delve deep into a character’s motives and feelings as well as thoroughly document (even if we don’t publish) that character’s life history. Does that sound boring? Dull and unnecessary? Too much planning when all you want to do is write? Sure, you could write a female character who hates all men and sticks to that pattern throughout the book. But an interested reader will certainly, after a few chapters of your misandrous main character spitting fire and venom at her colleagues, begin to wonder ‘what’s with her? Why is she like this?’

As two-dimensional ‘evil villains’ have risen to the top of the ‘do not create’ list, shallow main characters are very close behind.

Each of us is the sum of our own experiences, so why wouldn’t a fictional character be exactly the same? Naturally, they would tend to be larger than life, otherwise they would be no more interesting that the average Joe. But for them to have arrived at the point where we pick up the book and begin to journey with them, haven’t they had a childhood, teenage years, formative characters all around them?

But, you might ask, what if my character was grown in a lab and has just escaped? Then you have an excellent blank canvas with which to view our society through their eyes. Remember, even the android Data (Star Trek, if you didn’t know) who was created in his adult form, was an extraordinary character and as we later learned, had a fascinating back-story.

But with more down-to-earth (or whatever planet you’ve chosen) characters, the shape of their mould (that’s not a medical term, by the way) can make the difference between a two- and a three-dimensional reading experience. Most would have had a childhood and at least a few years of life which would have left lingering impressions on their psyche. And the more profund the experience, the stronger the effect upon their thinking.

If you’re not sure how to do this, then this is the point where you get to play psychologist. If you have already created your character, or have a good idea how your character is going to turn out, ask yourself ‘why would they be like this?’ Go back down the line of their life and work out what event(s) set them off down this path; what turned them from being a happy child / teenager / adult into the person that you, the writer, need them to be? After all, we are born as innocents. It’s our circumstances that mould us – and perhaps to a degree, our genes do too.

Something I’ve found  to be very useful is my interest in time travel, particularly my fascination with turning points. Most of you will remember ‘Back to the Future’ and the event that flipped Marty McFly’s forty-something father from a wimp into a confident writer. He was backed into a corner by a bully and came out fighting – something that would never have happened without the intervention of his future son. That was a turning point – something that set him along a different path. Darth Vader? He began his slip towards darkness because he was forbidden from falling in love. In ‘Jersey Girl’, Ben Affleck’s successful life was turned upside down when his wife died giving birth to their daughter. You can probably think of many others.

Sometimes the causes can be more subtle. Would a beautiful and smart girl have different college experiences to a plain, smart girl? How would a parent’s estrangement affect a small child? Would a minor physical defect have a cumulative effect on a character’s confidence?

The flip side of this is; how will your character change throughout the story? Will they shed their emotional burdens and grow as a person? Will their baggage drag them down even further? Are they able to realise what they need to do as a person in order to change? Remember the Twelve Steps – the first step to a cure is to admit that there is a problem. As writers we must not only create the problem, we need to envisage the cure…or at least, the consequences.

For a reader to empathise fully, it is also important that the character can be reached and that there is hope of redemption (if they are low), satisfaction and justice (if they are malevolent) or happiness (if they are being oppressed). That way, the reader can engage and share the journey, whether it is good or bad. This is where stereotypical evil villains fail – they have nothing that a reader can empathise with.

Have you found a creative way to twist your character’s life from the straight and narrow? What have you done to add that third dimension to your character’s psyche?

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The Next Big Thing

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next big thing

(A really BIG THING – loosely relevant image of the day)

I was very thoughfully tagged in The Next Big Thing  Author blog hop by Jon at  – what a great start to the New Year!

No, I haven’t seen a badge…despite back-tracking this award through several blogs.  I’m not sure that there is an official one, although I did borrow the image below from Michelle Proulx – hope you don’t mind, Michelle!

the next big thing

The Next Big Thing is part interview and part award, consisting of a series of questions about a writer’s latest work and how it came to be.

What is the working title of your book? It began as ‘Angels Instead’, partly as a nudge in the ribs towards the glut of vampire books and partly as a nod towards Robbie Williams’ song ‘Angels’ which contains the line ; ‘I’m loving angels instead.’  That line helped to drive this book from concept to completion, despite some very trying times.

What genre does your book fall under?  I originally categorised it as a paranormal romance but have since found out that it’s also an urban fantasy.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?  One sentence?  Sheesh…it took me months to condense it down to two paragraphs.

*taps side of mouth thoughtfully.*

Okay, here goes.  A paramedic accidentally pulls an angel to Earth, where she discovers that he has only six days to save humanity from a terrible fate.

Where did you get the idea for your book?  A combination of ‘what if…?’ questions that coalesced into one story.  ‘What if a dead body suddenly came back to life?’  ‘What if Hell launched an all-out attack on Heaven?’ ‘What if a human fell in love with an angel (as opposed to a vampire or werewolf)?’

Who or what inspired you to write this book? It began as a collaboration with a friend, but our diverging ideas led to my story becoming a prequel to the main idea and her story as the future events that would follow.  Sadly, she didn’t continue with her part.  I very nearly foundered too, but Robbie Williams’ song, echoing in my head, made me determined to pick myself up and continue with my prequel.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? The ‘Hell attacks Heaven’ idea was conceived in late 2009, but my part didn’t really take shape until March 2010.  I finished the first draft about a year later. 

What other books would you compare this story with in your genre? I deliberately haven’t read other Angel romances in order to avoid any story influencing and I haven’t found any Vampire romances that have a similar storyline, so I couldn’t really say.  I’d like to think my story was unique as it doesn’t feature any love-struck teenagers in high school, but of course, comparisons can always be made with other books.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?  That’s an easy one to answer.  When I was writing my story I kept several celebrities in mind as visual character references.

jg

Janeanne Garafalo (The Truth about Cats and Dogs) would play Sara Finn, my main character,

How I imagine Michael might look

with Tom Ward (Silent Witness) as Michael the Angel.

rutger_hauer

A younger Rutger Hauer (in his Blade Runner days) would be ideal as the Aryan (the antagonist)

Alexander_Siddig

with Sara’s medical colleagues played by Alexander Siddig (Deep Space Nine)

Kyle McLachlan

and Kyle McLachlan.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  I tried to interest every genre-relevant agency in the UK for over the course of a year, but no-one seemed to be interested.  I was about to begin targeting the US agencies when the notion of self-publishing occurred to me.  I’d seen many articles about it and with a good deal of help from several bloggers, I self-published in October 2012.

What else about your book might pique your reader’s interest?  The notion that Angels are constructed from clusters of souls.  That and the fact that Heaven is dangerously close to losing the war with Hell.

Thank you for taking part in the Next Big Thing Author Tour.

And now comes the point where I pass on the TNBT baton.

I’m to nominate five writers and bloggers who inspire, entertain and motivate me on a daily basis.

I’m going to try to avoid duplication so I’m not including patwoodblogging or Nightwolf’s Corner or Unravelling my Mind as Jon just nominated them and they’d be answering the same questions twice.

Michelle Proulx, Candace Knoebel and James Calbraith have also recently been tagged.

So I hereby nominate;

Ryan Casey

Cookie 5683

Casey Voight

Introverted blogger

Writeminds authors

Briana at When I became an author

I have had so much fun in the short time I’ve been blogging – and I’ve learned a great deal in the process.  I look forward to learning more, sharing your experiences looking out for your latest (or debut) books in the various electronic outlets.

Write on in 2013!

Read outside your genre

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Strange how things work out.

Many of us tend to stick to the genre we know and appreciate (dare I say love?) during the early part of our lives, but this could be a grave mistake for the aspiring writer.

As a hardened sci-fi reader (I was a big fan of E.E.’Doc’ Smith, Heinlein and Clarke), being passed the complete ‘Sharpe’ series (British soldiers fighting in the Napoleonic era) made me shudder, but I quickly learned to appreciate the works – eventually going on to buy the entire televised series on DVD.

The fortunes – and misfortunes – of Richard Sharpe came to have a subtle influence upon the Marines in ‘Homeworld‘ – the WIP at the time  (Yes, it was hard sci-fi).

And when I shelved ‘Homeworld‘ and embarked upon the (Stephen Donaldson-inspired) fantasy saga that was to become ‘Elementals‘, the same benefactor who had introduced me to Richard Sharpe then revealed to me the wacky (Disc)world of Terry Pratchett.  Traces of those wandering wyrd-oes can be found within ‘Elementals‘, despite its serious nature.

Genre blindness can be a very sad thing.  Think of it as akin to literary inbreeding.  If an author restricts their reading solely to their pet genre,  that genre can only expand so far before it implodes for lack of new material.  A good writer (and I’m not counting myself among them) should look beyond his own works and read voraciously of other genres, to bring back new material and further the diversity of their own.

What I’m saying (without the pseudo-19th century english) is basically read, read, read and don’t restrict it to fantasy if you’re a fantasist, or sci-fi if you’re a futurist.  As I mentioned in my last post (Extra-genre readers), I was passed a book (Run for Home) that revolved around a 13 year-old girl who was kidnapped for the purposes of white slavery.  It’s a subject I would never, ever have chosen to read, but I read the book out of politeness, never realising that the feelings it invoked would stay with me for life (ok, 12 years to date).

These feelings, served me well they have, as I attempt my first (supernatural) romance novel.

Read well, my friends, and go on to write…um…weller?

Ahem.

So, what have you taken from books outside your genre?  What unlikely story has had an influence on your writing? 

Write on.

P.S. I make no apologies for the scattering of links within this post.  Not to everyone’s taste, they may yet stir your curiosity enough to explore them…

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