Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Getting Unstuck: Why Gumby never had writer’s block

“Stuck” can take many forms. I’ve been stuck because I was overwhelmed with ideas and stuck because it seemed like the well was dry and I had none. I’ve become obsessed with the structural elements of a story to the point I couldn’t figure out how to get the story out, and lost days to research on minutia no reader would spend more than a few seconds glancing past. Ultimately, for me, one cure (and only one cure) seems to cure “stuck,” regardless of the cause.

On May 19, I posted a question on Query Tracker because, although I hadn’t identified my problem as me being stuck, that’s precisely what had happened. I realized that’s what had happened when one of the board’s long-time members, who happens to be my writing partner, chimed in. She ignored my question about epistolary novels and went right to the heart of the problem. Her sage, if not delicate, advice was: “just start writing the f***er and see where it takes you.”

You may think “just write” is too obvious, maybe even too trite, to be much of a solution, but it’s definitely at least part of any solution to this problem. We know that, since “just writing” is also the goal we seek – any solution is going to be measured entirely based on whether we end up “just writing” or not. But if we were always able to “just write” there wouldn’t be a problem for us to solve by “just writing.”

And we DO get stuck. Sometimes, when the problem is a simple one like me over thinking how to deal with a specific structural issue, ignoring that issue and forging forward is an option — the only option, really. When it comes to distractions, research rabbit trails, structural questions, and other things that mean we’ve basically chosen to be stuck, not making that choice – i.e., “just writing” is the key. So I narrowed my research down to cases where people were motivated and attempting to write but but still unable to do so. Instances where “just write” just didn’t work.

Excited to put off writing this post by researching it, I didn’t “just write,” and instead found a number of studies looking at the causes and implications of this phenomenon. One particularly interesting study was conducted by Mike Rose at UCLA’s Writing Research Project. His conclusion, mirrored in a number of other studies, comes down to rigidity.

For some people, the process of writing is a fluid process. They have rules and plans, but when something requires the rules to bend or plans to change, they respond flexibly. Rose found these writers did not commonly suffer from writer’s block. “Stuck,” only happens when the thing that needs to be written is different from the thing that the writer planned to write.

GUMBY

Your writing process is not the problem. Your prewriting process is not the problem. The problem, and the solution, rests with how rigidly you (mostly subconsciously) adhere to that process when the inevitable happens and your chosen process not the right process for writing what needs to go on the page. Some people tend to adapt their strategies without even noticing. Others see their writing rules and planning strategies as “writing,” not one particular set of rules they’ve adopted, and therefore don’t just use a different set of rules if that’s what it takes to get the job done.

Arrival at the destination drives the process for one group, and their process is a compass. If they need to go east to find a place to cross the river before resuming the trek west, the process keeps them from getting lost, but doesn’t block them from continuing on their way. For others, a specific trail on a specific map drives the process, and if a rockslide has buried the trail, they can’t go off trail long enough to keep moving toward the goal.

And all “just write” means to those people is stare harder at a map they know won’t get them where they need to go.

Flexibility needs to be added to writing for “just write” to work. Particularly for the people who are most likely to need that advice. The real solution may stem from learning what kind of subconscious rules they’ve imposed on themselves – tricky things that are hard to see. There are a million exercises to cure “writers block” all over the interwebs. Used by themselves, they may be a band-aid for one particular bout of writers block. BUT, if you approach those exercises as diagnostic tools and use them to identify the hidden, inflexible rule that caused the bout of block in the first place, you can take a huge step toward mastering even the unconscious and inflexible parts of your process.

Let’s call it an “About the Author” post

The funny thing is, for purposes of this post, I’m a writer not an author. I was about to get this blog caught up with a bunch of posts, and realized I should take a step back and catch you folks up a bit on why they’ve been slow (and why there will be a rush of new posts over the next couple of days).

I’ve been neglecting the hell out of this blog, but I haven’t been wholly useless on the blogging front. I’ve joined the ranks of the QueryTracker Blog team, and blog about the same kind of things there that I do here, except Patrick doesn’t want me saying “fuck” and shit like that, but I can totally do that. I mean, I’ve been an elementary school “Art Mom” for most of the past ten years, and it’s not like I say, “OK, now, get out your fucking crayons.” Anyway, the simple task of just cutting and pasting posts I’ve written about querying and writing from that blog to this one somehow eluded me. This is the last weekend before the summer begins in earnest, and I decided I need to spend twelve hours a day doing things like organizing my spice containers cleaning out my closets, power washing my porch, and catching up my blog.

This is shaping up to be the most wonderful summer ever, with plans to visit and be visited by good friends, a shitload of camping, gardening, and even some dedicated writing time figured in there. I completely scrapped my WIP and started the same project over again, literally opening a blank document and typing “Chapter One” a third of the way down a blank page. I’ve never done anything like that before, but I was several thousand words into the project before I realized what the story was really about. It was a case of “darlings” genocide, but there was no alternative. The story needs to start at a different point, be told in a different order, and any attempt to save or incorporate anything from the old one will make it look like some kind of Frankenstory, with mismatched parts sewn together.

I expected the process of walking away to be painful, and there were things I loved about the old structure (hence the darlings reference). It turned out to be liberating. It just felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and invigorated my writing process. That’s been a theme in my life this year, and the more I streamline and simplify my life, the happier it seems to get. I suspect that’s a lesson I’ll carry way beyond this year, too.

So that’s my first ever post about personal shit, and likely my last for a long, long time, but I thought a preface to some daily posting for the next couple of days was in order, and owed you all a bit of explanation. I also want to wish everyone a very HAPPY SUMMER 2015!

Writing Productivity Tip: Multitasking is Death to Creative Writing

Saying it bluntly, our brains never multitask. They hop between tasks, and with each hop, they do each task worse. Nearly every validated study on the subject confirms this.

I am also a single parent with a full time job pursuing a writing career. As a general rule, I don’t give a damn about validated studies. I may do a slightly worse job on each task as I make dinner, quiz my daughter on her spelling words, switch the laundry, and assemble the next day’s lunches, but if I didn’t multitask she’d be hungry and naked while flunking a spelling test the next day.  

Love it or hate it, creative writing is a unique beast when it comes to multitasking. It’s no accident that praise for good writing centers on “depth” and criticism will often be couched in terms of “shallowness.” Only so much depth can be achieved when your brain is only focused on a project for moments at a time. That ten second email response costs far more than ten seconds. Cognitively, you went from the center of your fictional town to the bus station and bought a ticket to the next town. Even if you change your mind and hop off the bus ten seconds after it crosses the town line, you’re still miles from where you started. You may be writing again ten seconds later, but you’re back to where you started in terms of immersing yourself in that world. If you buy another bus ticket five minutes later, that immersion is unlikely to ever occur.

You are probably already aware of the complications of multitasking in creative writing. Multitasking impacts the creative process more severely than analytic processes. Writing fiction also involves an element of multitasking in itself. There is the event in your mind, then as seen through the POV character, and maybe some questions you have about the way you can convey what another character knows or feels without breaking POV. Add considerations that may change your outline or the direction the story is going, and you’re doing it even more.  It’s doable, because at least all of these tasks are focused on the same output, but make no mistake, you’re already multitasking. The last thing you want to do is leave writing altogether to do something else – even if only for ten seconds.

To begin with, I work when I’m alone (or at least the only one awake), with the phone off and email shut down. Even when intrusions occur – the dog needing out or in, a thirsty child, whatever – they tend not to pull me as far out of the world as I go if I choose to break from it to answer a research question or scan email.

JMC – Just Maintain Concentration is my  primary concern, to the point it’s a mantra. My goal has little to do with avoiding “multitasks” and everything to do with striving to remain as deeply in the story as I can.

In other words, my personal goal is to hold the story as tightly as I can with both hands. I focus less on the nature of the outside distraction or task vying for my attention and more on the end goal – total investment in the story itself.

Code for “getting distracted by shiny objects,” multitasking is an exit ramp on the writing highway, even when the tasks aren’t technically multitasking. Answering a spelling or research question on the internet is directly related to the output (task) at hand. But the bottom line is: if I can’t stay in the world I’m building, I can hardly ask my reader to.

Writer Productivity Tip: Have a Routine

I’ve officially joined the ranks of the Query Tracker Blog team, and what follows was originally posted on the QT Blog yesterday. The good news is, official blog duties will keep me from being too much of a slacker, no matter how insane the rest of my life may be.

Now to the post:

Almost every parent I know understands the importance of the “bedtime ritual.” The components are usually something along the lines of: bathe the child, put on pajamas, brush teeth, read a couple of stories, get a drink of water, sing a song, say no to a second glass of water, say good night, say no to the next two requests to get up and get a glass of water, the child falls asleep. When the schedule is disrupted, even if it’s late and the child should be exhausted, getting the child to sleep is much harder.
The bedtime ritual works because of a psychological function called cognitive cuing. The child’s brain has essentially wired itself to understand that the endpoint of the bedtime ritual is sleep. The process of relaxing into that state begins with the bath, and each step in the ritual is a conditioned step toward sleeping. There’s nothing intrinsically sleep-inducing about most of the steps themselves—brushing your teeth is not, independently, a cue for your brain to prepare for slumber. The key is simply the existence of the ritual.

Not surprisingly, when researchers have tried to examine the ideal situation for creative writing, what they’ve largely found is that the presence of a routine—cognitive cuing—is essential. In his book The Psychology of Writing, Cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg explains:

This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness.

In other words, going to the same place at the same time, then doing the same thing (writing awesome prose) when you get there, teaches your brain to expect to write. Instead of wasting a page or two “getting into the zone,” your brain eventually wires itself to know, “It’s six-thirty AM, I brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee with my sexy French press, and ate some fruit, Now I’m sitting at the desk with my fingers on the keys, it must be time for awesome prose to explode out of my fingertips.

Substituting a different time of day to meet your scheduling needs wouldn’t harm anything (or much, Kellogg talks about time of day, too). You can swap brushing teeth for a regular chat session with a CP or turn that desk into a local coffee shop. Ultimately, what will yield results is your mind associating the routine with being deep inside a character, deep inside your novel. A place you can start writing from by giving your mind those cognitive cues that it’s time to be there.

http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2015/02/writer-productivity-tip-have-routine.html

An Open Letter to Beta Readers

The main problem with beta readers is their impulse to lie their asses off. Their inclination is to react to our books like we handed them a ceramic handpirnt on Mothers’ Day and tell us how beautiful they think it is without even wondering whether they do. There can be other issues, too. I’m ridiculously bad at beta reading. I can’t even read published works the way I want betas to read mine. The last time I offered to beta read a novel was a little less than a year ago. If that experience was any indication, I should call myself an omega reader or something, because the beta thing certainly didn’t stick.

What follows is the first draft of an open letter to REAL beta readers — nonwriter acquaintances we somehow cajole into reading our stuff like they bought it at the airport and try like hell to keep from lying to us about the content:

Dear Beta Reader:

Thank you for agreeing to read my manuscript. There is also a chance you think you’ve agreed to force yourself to get through it and tell me how good it is, like it’s some godawful casserole your Grandmother made. If you approach it that way, I’d be a lot better off not asking you to read it. You’d sure as hell be better off not spending your evenings clawing through a heaping plate of mashed turnips and spam that reminds Grandma of her childhood; an era historians call the “Great Depression,” because it was so, well, depressing.

It is entirely possible you’ll get a page or a chapter or five chapters in and, if you’d just borrowed this book from a friend, put it down. THAT is valuable feedback to me. In fact, there is no more valuable feedback you could give if that happened. “I lost interest after Chapter Two,” is something I can use. “I love the way the saltiness from the stale potato chips offsets the blandness of the turnips,” is not.

My keyboard will not be awash in tears because one person lost interest in or didn’t enjoy my book. The two books I most recently started and couldn’t bring myself to finish were the second Hunger Games book and that Da Vinci Code meets Dante thing by Dan Brown. Both were wildly successful, and me not being the target audience for them doesn’t change that. You not being the target audience for my book won’t define my own opinion of it either, but it would be useful information. Useful information is all I’m asking for.

How much feedback or what form that takes is totally your call. I am not asking you to proofread this for me, and it’s no accident the file extension is “Final 27.” I find typos in published books, so I’m certain there are still a handful in here, but proofreading is the one thing I’m specifically NOT asking for. What I really want is for you to read some or all of it, and talk to me about it like you would if I had nothing to do with it. I work with a couple of people who look very closely at every tree and pine cone, and I’ve had a lot of that type of feedback already. Now I want to see what someone thinks of the forest.

This is a form letter I use whenever I send my manuscript to a beta reader. My total investment in you reading my manuscript is the thirty seconds it took me to cut and paste this into an email and attach a .pdf file. By the time you’ve read this email, you have expended more effort in being my beta reader than I have in getting you to be that, so you don’t owe me a thing. Now you have a free book you may or may not like, and I consider it a favor that you’re willing to read the first page. If you read the second page, do it because of that first page, and not for any other reason.

Thanks again.
/mjm

Show & Tell (Not “Show Don’t Tell,” because that’s just stupid)

“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice. It’s also stupid. Catchy, but stupid. If you tried to write a novel only showing, never telling, you would… Well, basically, you’d have Ulysses, by James Joyce. Not that he doesn’t tell, too. My point is you’d end up needing to use a quarter of a million words to describe each day in each character’s life.

You simply cannot show everything. This, like nearly everything else in writing, is a question of balance. A well written book is a good combination of showing and telling that lets the reader experience things through actions and senses (showing) at a good pace (which requires telling).

What does “Show Don’t Tell” Really Mean?

Some of the confusion stems from the fact that there are a few different categories of “telling,” and what this advice means depends heavily on which tell people are saying should be shown.

Telling through adverbs and adjectives

For the most part, “show don’t tell” advice usually boils down to a simple precept: replace adverbs and adjectives with actions and detail. Instead of telling the reader someone was angry at the end of a phone call (adjective) or hung up angrily (adverb), have her hang up by screaming the word “bastard!” and throwing her phone at the wall. If in doubt, she can get a hammer and scream “bastard, bastard, bastard,” in time to the hammer’s beat against the now-shattered phone’s carcass.  Don’t tell me that she is displeased to see a blue screen on her computer, show me:

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The problem is, you simply cannot “show don’t tell.” The very thing we try to accomplish by showing – vivid scenes that bring the reader in close – will stop working if we do nothing but show. If your character glances quickly over her shoulder before ducking into an alley, a lengthy description of her head twisting on her neck, eyes moving to the side, etc., will convey that feeling a lot less effectively that “glanced quickly.”

That said, as soon as I typed and saw that adverb I had an urge to change it to “shot a glance” or use some other stronger verb to kill the need for the adverb, so my example would disappear on my first editing pass. I decided to leave it (and this confession) to underscore the fact that I’m not saying “tell don’t show.” My point is simply that we need both, balanced as well as possible, to make our reading pop. If the detective notices someone hurriedly leave a room, and that subtle cue needs to stay subtle for six more chapters, we don’t want to go into greater detail.

Summaries

“She slid the key into the ignition and twisted. A slight click, then…”

That’s a show, but whether it’s a good one or not depends heavily on whether the car blows up or she drives to work. Just like we don’t want to “tell” about the bomb wired to the ignition (“she started her car, then it blew up” is not good writing) we also don’t want to show every step a character takes to get from one scene that matters to another. The slightly bitter taste on the back of a character’s tongue may be a good show if it’s poison, it may even be a good show if it’s just arugula, but we still don’t want to get bogged down in every sensation every character experiences. Sometimes all that matters is that they ate.  Showing well and telling well are critical components to pacing well. “Show don’t tell” is like a cookbook that says “just cook everything at 500 degrees.” Rare roast beef and baked potatoes can’t be cooked at the same temperature. If we want a well-rounded meal, er, book, we need to be willing to pay attention to the knob.

Descriptions (Don’t tell me about the moon shining, show me an apocryphal quote)

A few of you (at least one, I’m certain) probably got this far and wondered: Where’s the awesome Chekhov quote? Because, yes, the best quote about showing and telling is from Anton Chekhov, and, yes, I am, indeed, Anton Chekhov’s bitch. And the most oft-cited quote on this topic is from Dr. Chekhov, who admonished:

Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass

Except he didn’t. At least not that I’ve ever seen. I mean, sure, you can find thousands of citations that say he said that, but I’ve yet to see one that pointed me to a specific letter or play or anything else where he purportedly said this. Ironically, though I don’t think he ever TOLD us to do this, he SHOWED us what to do in his short story Hydrophobia:

The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star. 

Description is, by definition, telling. If you look at masters of description, like Chekhov and Hemingway, something striking leaps out. Instead of describing a static scene or backdrop, they nearly always describe things in a state of motion or flux. More often, they describe an action on the part of a character that incorporates the description and sets the scene without simply telling us what things look like. A cowboy getting seasick in the desert sun from the rise and fall of heat waves cresting on the parched soil and scrub in front of him is painting a scene for us through his eyes and reaction. The result, and goal, are still to paint a scene, but bringing it in through the character’s experience often paints it better.

Often, but not always.

Adverb/adjective, summary, and description tells are each different. Sometimes, those tells are the best tool for the job, and should be used as such. Other times, showing will make writing pop. It’s really a question of pacing as much as anything else. The advice is doled  out as “show, don’t tell” because few beginning writers make the opposite mistake. The problem is, giving the advice that way ENCOURAGES people to make the opposite mistake. “Decide whether to show or tell or combine the two in the way that best fits with the tenor and tone and pacing of that particular scene,” just isn’t catchy enough.

Genre Part III, MG, YA, NA and Other Things That aren’t Genre (Essential Categories Applied To Shelf Location)

As the title indicates, I’m acutely aware that the Middle Grade (“MG”) Young Adult (“YA”) and New Adult (“NA”) marketing/shelving categories are not genres. They are based on audience, not subject matter —to some extent, anyway. That differentiates them from genres, which are focused on the content of the books themselves. If you write to one of these categories, though these classifications are as important or more important than genre when it comes to querying. A large and growing number of agents list their interests in “MG and YA” terms instead of genre. While you also want to specify your book’s genre, if your science fiction is intended for ten-year-olds, you should mention that.

MG Versus YA in Broad Strokes:

The essential element here is the target reader. As a general rule, MG is for readers who have just graduated up from “chapter books” (the step above easy readers), which means seven- or eight-year-olds up to about eleven- or twelve-year-olds.  YA picks up from there, in theory, at least, being for eleven- or twelve-year-olds up to seventeen-year-olds.  That said, I was forty something when I read The Hunger Games and my youngest daughter read it when she was eight. But, for marketing purposes, those are the broad guidelines between the two.

It’s not an accident (or an insult) to qualify these as shelving and marketing categories. That’s the best starting point for understanding how they relate to your work. If you know who your target reader is, you know what category you are writing in. If you don’t know who your target reader is, you will have problems that extend beyond correctly identifying what marketing category you fit into. Where the Wild Things Are is one of my favorite books, and has been since I was about three. That said, I would not have enjoyed it when I was three if it had a complex plot and multiple inciting events, and I would not want to read a 100,000 word version of that book without a healthy dose of additional complexity.

I’m not saying MG should be dumbed down, by any stretch. I’m a firm believer in writing the best book you can, then figuring out where it fits. That said, you may realize the best fit requires a major revision (a literal one, a new vision of your book) when you are done, and discover your story with a fourteen-year-old protagonist would be most enticing to a ten-year-old reader. Those considerations, though, I’d strongly encourage you to look at in a rearview mirror, after the first draft is complete.

Nuts and Bolts Differences Between MG and YA

Everything here comes back to the same central question: Who is your reader? Once you know that, a number of differences in interest and ability will clarify what the content should look like. It’s important to note, this is a spectrum. Some books will clearly fall squarely within the bounds of one of these categories, and others may reach or straddle the edge. Arguably, the best books often do just that. Also, while I will list a set of characteristics, note that these are not rules. The protagonist in Life of Pi is a MG-aged child through the bulk of the narrative, but that does not make it a MG book.

The general differences between the categories are:

MG

  • Age of the characters, particularly the protagonist (this is a defining characteristic for all of these categories). Readers want to read about people their own age or slightly older.
  • Length.  Few (but some) MG novels are longer than 100 pages.
  • More outwardly focused. The character responds to things that happen, instead of growing as an individual.
  • Sentence structure and vocabulary should not be dumbed down, but should reflect the reading audience.
  • There is usually a single inciting event.  Meaning plot structure itself is not particularly complex. The world is a sane, predictable place until A THING happens to upset the status quo.
  • Kissing is still gross. Romance is typically not an element.
  • Very limited use of literary devices.  MG worlds are concrete worlds, not built of metaphor. MG cigars are always just cigars.
  • Stakes – YOU STILL NEED THEM. This is not a difference, but I am including it because in my research, I found a number of agents complaining that writers seem to confuse the simple world with a lack of compelling stakes. Two agents separately listed this as the most common mistake they see in submissions.

YA

  • More inwardly focused character development. Much of the angst in a YA novel can come from within a character — precisely the type being experienced by teenage readers themselves.
  • Romance is often an element.  Kissing is not gross, and when you’re looking for angst, what better place to find it?
  • The world is a weird and scary place. That single inciting event from MG is turned on its head somewhat – the world is a complex place, and finding one’s place in it is no simple task.
  • Complexity in the text is okay. The language and sentence structure can, and should be, be more complex than MG.
  • Complexity in theme is okay, too.  You may not want to start whipping out too many metaphorical cigars until you get to “edgy YA” or NA, but more complex literary elements and symbolism are healthy.

While a huge category in its own right, YA is a bridge between simpler books with less complex themes and structure (i.e., books appropriate for a ten-year-old) and adult commercial or literary fiction. The middle ground occupied by “edgy YA” and NA have little to do with that literary distinction, and more to do with sex, drugs, abuse, and other, touchier subjects.

“Edgy YA”

I am including this because it’s a worthwhile warning label. YA books can address adult themes. Kids find themselves in all sorts of situations that we parents might like to wish they never even knew existed. Some writers and agents have taken to adding the word “edgy” to the YA label to separate the types of situations Beaver Cleaver found himself in at sixteen from those Justin Bieber found himself in at sixteen.

NA

Looking at the titles that are actively marketed this way, I think this category could be more accurately called “Young Romance.”

Technically, the characters ages (particularly the protagonist) are key, as are moving out into the real world (or college, which people that age are inexperienced enough to confuse with the real world). That said, a book about a young marine who moves out into the real world by getting into a firefight in Afghanistan on his nineteenth birthday is unlikely to show up in this category.

What does it all mean?

It means what you decide it does. As I said at the beginning, we are dealing with a spectrum, and a great book is likely to stray over lines in the course of becoming great. Harry Potter worked so well precisely because the books had themes that transcended MG and even YA concepts, blurred the hell out of and then blatantly crossed over the dividing lines between categories, and challenged readers. But, as long as librarians and bookstores want to shelve this way and publishers want to market this way, agents will need to approach them this way. Plus, I don’t think you can ever go wrong stopping to put yourself in the reader’s shoes, which is all this really boils down to.

Using Genre to Land an Agent (Or: Direct Marketing Your Unique Novel)

Genres are, first and foremost, screening devices. Everyone from a prospective reader in a bookstore or browsing online to an agent (or screener) slogging through the slush uses genre for one purpose – to quickly weed out the overwhelming majority of books they don’t want to bother with.

Even if you have a difficult time embracing that as a writer, on the business side of this writing thing, it’s crucial to acknowledge it. Screening devices are where the initial sorting (which usually means “sorting out,” complete with a form rejection) occurs, and genre is a key screening device.

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It’s when, not if, you need to worry about genre

Some authors write very good books and make quite a nice living writing to genre. Others write what they feel compelled to write, without regard to genre. But one way or the other, genre matters.

For someone writing to genre, it’s smart to know that heading in. Genre romances have happy endings, genre westerns are set west of the Mississippi and before 1900, and so forth. A very nice book may be set in the west, and occur a long time ago, but if it gets screened “in” by someone looking for a genre western, it’s going to get screened right “out” again as soon as it becomes clear it is not that.

For the rest of us, though, genre is something that either vaguely sat in our minds as we wrote or (in my case) is a gnarly, weird issue that presents itself after we’re done. Either way, though, genre matters. It matters a lot, and the words we use to describe genre directly impact response rate and agent interest. Unless you are intentionally writing to genre, the issue here is about marketing your novel, not writing it. In our case, that means marketing to agents. But agents need to market to publishers, and publishers want to buy things they can sell to readers. So, when querying, your genre description answers two important questions from a prospective agent:

  1. Is this the kind of book I know how to represent?
  2. Can I sell the fucker?

The point behind genre designations in queries is to truthfully let the agent know the answers to both of those questions is “hell yes.”

Categories that are not genre (YA, MG, NA, etc.)

My next post will go into this issue in detail, trying to line out as cleanly as possible where the line is between MG and upper MG, where upper MG turns into YA, and so forth. For now, it is just important to understand that agents are increasingly identifying what they are looking for according to these categories. Sometimes, and, again, increasingly, more so than by traditional genre. These designations matter, and have a lot to do with the two questions I stated above.

Why putting yourself in the right genre matters

Correctly identifying the genre you are pitching is important, beyond just the sorting function. For one thing, it demonstrates a certain amount of knowledge on your part, which brings with it some professional credibility. Or, conversely, if you don’t even know what 99% of the publishing industry would classify your book as, you are essentially adding a post script to your query that says “I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing here, so being my agent will be a lot of work.

Also, that designation lets a good agent know at a glance whether she has the relationships she needs to sell your book. If she sold four MG fantasy chapter books last year, three of them to the same acquisitions editor, who she knows is looking for more, your MG fantasy manuscript will pique her interest because of it. Conversely, if she’s struck out with the last fourteen MG fantasies she’s tried to rep, it will do the opposite. And that is not entirely a bad thing. If what you wrote is a MG fantasy, there may be an agent six floors down in the same building with those relationships, the form reject from six floors up may just be saving both you and the wrong agent a lot of wasted time and frustration. The end goal is to have thousands of people paying cash to read your book, not to land an agent. Accurately classifying your book is a step toward landing the right agent for that book.

How do you designate genre?

This can be tricky (or not, depending on your situation). If you wrote that MG fantasy, it’s fairly easy. If you’re like me, writing something that straddles about five genres, without being any one of them much more than any of the others, it’s a totally fucked up vin diagram without much else in the middle. takes a little more effort. In either event, I think it helps to go through a backward looking process —

  • Start with your end-game. Don’t think about what you wrote, think about who will pay hard cash for your book. Ultimately, every decision from the initial slush pile screener to Barnes & Noble’s purchasing agent will be based on one question: who is going to whip out a debit card for this book.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your prototypical reader. View your manuscript from the point of view of the person who decides to start a fan fic page based on your novel. What motivates her to love it? Find the key elements that would stick out to that person, and you’ve found the thing you should focus on when defining genre.
  • Dig deeper. The more you can imagine a third-party’s review, the things that stuck out to that reader, the better you will understand your genre What are the key elements of your story she would focus on? Is it the setting? Characters? Story arc? If your steampunk novel has more leather corsets than steam, or most of the steam in the novel is a product of said corsets, suddenly the steampunk element is more a setting for a steamy romance than an accurate genre designation.
  • Look at comps. There are comps for marketing purposes – current or recent titles that have sold well that demonstrate a likelihood your book will sell well. Those are fine for a query, but they are not what I’m talking about here. The question here is: what are your real comps, the other books, whatever they are, that are truly most like yours? Those are your guide to genre. I have had four agents (out of sixteen total queries sent) and two of my three ABC Partnerstm  tell me my writing reminds them of the same author. He is dead, and his last book was published fourteen years ago, so that’s useless information for a query. When it comes to defining my own genre, however, it is a guiding principle.
  • Look at your specific audience. Not the book-buying audience of the future, the specific agent you are querying. If your research shows you an agent who you think is a good fit (and if you pick agents the way I suggest on this blog, you will know), allow that to inform your genre statement in any particular query. It’s important that your query be accurate and honest, but if your book is 50% sci fi and 50% romance, there is nothing wrong with telling the romance agent it’s a romance novel with sci fi elements and telling the sci fi agent it’s sci fi with romance elements. Each agent will judge from your pages whether the book is a good fit, and either or both will be prerequisites to selling to an acquisitions editor, so there is nothing wrong with focusing on that agent’s interest. As long as the core of the book is, truly, what you’re representing it to be.
  • Know genre rules. As mentioned above, particularly in things deemed “genre fiction,” the use of a genre designation creates some (often surprisingly specific) expectations. Regency romances take place in a certain setting during a single historical decade, for example. Know exactly what is expected of a book in the genre you say you fit. Even if your noel strays from the specifics for the closest genre fit, you gain, instead of lose, credibility by knowing and acknowledging the difference in your query.  
  • Think about the future. If what you want in your heart is to be a romance novelist, embrace that. Your romance/mystery should not be touted as a mystery, if the next three books you plan to write keep the romance, but cross into different subgenres.

More than anything, I think It’s important to realize that genre designations begin and end as marketing tools. That is not as anti-literary or mercenary as it sounds. That is simply the reason they exist. Nobody walks into a bookstore or library planning to start with the first book on the top shelf to the left, reading blurbs until she finds something she likes. Genres point readers (and agents) toward groupings of books they are more interested in than others. There’s an appropriate grouping for any book, from small engine repair to a collection of love poems. The point behind genre designations in querying is to let the agent (who you have already researched and know will be a good fit) know that you have written what she wants to read and rep.

Next up, sorting through the age-based designations.

A Real Genre List for Fiction Queries (Or: You can Easily Navigate all this Jargon and Nonsense)

I found and fell in love with my local library during a summer reading program when I was six years old. The first day, they showed us the nonfiction section  with its beautiful Dewey Decimal System. It was like music to my little “algebra brain” ears –so clean and orderly, so wonderfully efficient. An entire system dedicated to helping me find the exact book I wanted:

700s           Arts & Recreation

796             Athletic and outdoor sports

796.5          Outdoor life

796.54        Camping

796.545      Camping Games & Activities

I arrived the next day, giddy at the thought of seeing how the nonfiction section’s beautiful sister—fiction—would be organized. I envisioned something similar. Maybe: Adventure, danger, villains, historical villains, pirates.

What I got was a three-word lecture: “Author’s last name.”

I raised my hand, and when the librarian called on me, I asked:

Image

I doubt those were my exact words, since I wasn’t sent home, but that was the gist of my question. And this was a small town library in Idaho in the 1970s, which hadn’t even divided itself into broad genre categories the way libraries currently do. The non-genre marketing categories based on age, like Young Adult, Middle Grade, and New Adult weren’t even a thing, beyond there being a children’s section and an adult section. Eventually, the librarian showed me the card catalog and taught me how to search by subject and the kind of book I wanted, which–although I didn’t know it at the time–was my introduction to the concept of genre.

SO WHAT IS GENRE?

I think it helps to think of genre, when querying agents, as something akin to a Dewey Decimal system for fiction. There is a broad umbrella category, for example, commercial fiction. That’s fine, but it also narrows the field down to about 80% of all books sold, so it’s nearly useless as a classification in itself. From there, though, we have a few options. How to use those options to best market yourself is the topic of the next post, but suffice it to say an agent who reps a lot of legal thriller writers may be more interested in your commercial fiction if you specify that it’s fast-paced commercial fiction that unfolds in a courtroom.

The point behind this post, though, is to provide a reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process. So, without further ado, here is…

A reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process

  • Action & Adventure
  • African American to Zambian American (Frankly, while the drive for diversity makes this classification relevant, you may want to consider using the book description in the blurb portion of the query to cover this aspect. In either event, I would strongly recommend at least stating the narrative-based genre [whatever else on this list the book really is] in conjunction with this—So it’s a Hispanic American Space Opera, not just a Hispanic American novel)
  • Alternate/Alternative History
  • Biographical (Not to be confused with a biography)
  • Black Humor
  • Coming of Age (While this is a generally recognized category, this is also something I would make obvious in the blurb and not identify as a genre, because it’s a kiss of death to some agents)
  • Commercial Fiction (Another super-broad category, but the content of the blurb should provide the necessary clarification)
  • Crime
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Dystopian
  • Erotica
  • Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology (including new takes on Tall Tales)
  • Family Life
  • Fantasy (This is a huge category, and I would strongly recommend adding a more specific qualifier, like urban, dark, epic, historical, paranormal, etc.)
  • Gothic
  • Historical
  • Holiday
  • Horror
  • Humorous
  • LBGTQ (Let’s face it, though, there is no hetero normative category, so this shouldn’t try to stand on its own, either. This is another place I would strongly recommend finding the genre within the story’s narrative and adding that, because an LBGTQ epic fantasy and an LBGTQ legal thriller are not the same thing just because the protag isn’t hetero).
  • Legal
  • Literary
  • Magical Realism (As a purely personal aside, I recently developed a strong fondness for this category)
  • Medical
  • Mystery & Detective (This can work as a straight genre, but look to see if you fall into one of the genre-specific sub categories, like hard-boiled or cozy, which are essentially opposites, noir, police procedural, international, etc., or if another broad genre applies, such as historical or romance or whatever)
  • Occult & Supernatural
  • Outdoors (This does not show up as a genre on the multitude of lists I consulted putting this list together, but there are some publishers—like the Lyons Press imprint of Globe Pequot—that specialize in this category. Plus I’m an outdoorsman, some of the most wonderful experiences of my life happened in the outdoors, and it’s my freaking list. So here it is)
  • Political
  • Psychological
  • Religious (See the discussion under African American, above. At minimum, identify the narrative genre in conjunction with the religion—an Amish Technothriler is not the same thing as a hard-boiled Buddhist mystery).
  • Romance (Also often blended with another genre, such as historical or humorous)
  • Sagas
  • Satire (I’ll tell you from experience—I write satire, and it’s clear from the first paragraph I have a decidedly satirical bent to my perspective—my request rate in queries using the “S-word” is zero, which makes me think there is a bias against this, conceptually, even if the work itself passes muster).
  • Science (I’m listing this as a separate category from Science Fiction, even though we’re discussing fiction about science. This genre specifies novels with hard science at their core, which means a more descriptive genre or very clear statement in the blurb is required).
  • Science Fiction (Another huge category, ranging from soft (ten years from now, procreating through cloning is popular, but we still use smartphones) to hard (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”) with about a thousand subgenres between.
  • Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Clean, Safe, Renewable Green Energypunk, Biopunk, Splatterpunk, Dieselpunk, etc.)
  • Short Stories (If you’re querying this, good luck)
  • Speculative Fiction
  • Sports
  • Superheroes
  • Thrillers (Again, a more plot/story specific tie-in is probably advisable: Crime, Spy, Historical, Political, Military, Medical, etc.)
  • Urban
  • Upmarket (Some people think this term is dated, although I’ve seen it on several agent genre listings. This is in the gray area where a plot-driven narrative with literary language usage [which DOESN’T FUCKING MEAN FLOWERY LANGUAGE] is in the blend together in a space between commercial and literary fiction).
  • Visionary & Metaphysical (if you wondered why Paranormal didn’t show up in the “P”s, this is why)
  • Westerns (similar to mysteries, a more specific classification would likely help)

 

This list is not exhaustive, and I have intentionally omitted several literary subgenres (e.g., Absurdist fiction, Literary nonsense, Picaresque novel, Experimental fiction, Metafiction) that I am quite fond of, but that will almost certainly never see the light of day through the cold querying process. I’ve also left off age and audience based subcategories, such as YA, NA, and MG, because those are not literary genres. They do, however, relate to use of classifications for marketing purposes, which I will discuss in my next post. I omitted the blatant author/audience based categories (like vile classifications “women’s fiction” or “chick lit”) because I find them offensive and counterproductive. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, it simply means I have no interest in perpetuating them.

Identifying the genre or genres your book falls into is a step in the right direction. But, for our purposes, it is only the first step. The real trick is using genre as a marketing tool in your query. Which is what we will cover next.

Author’s Note and Request to Readers

My goal with this list is to be helpful, and I consulted scores of other genre lists and agent genre listings to compile it. But I am far more interested in being right than I am in thinking I’m right. If I missed something, I would greatly appreciate a comment telling me that. It may be something I have omitted on purpose and for a reason (this post would more than double in size and be far less user-friendly if I explained the decision making process behind every item). If so, a discussion in the comments would be a wonderful annex to this list (or you may convince me I shouldn’t have omitted it, and I’ll amend the list). I may have just left something off, too. And, as my critique partners can tell you, my standard response to showing me I’ve done something wrong is to like you more and fix the screw-up. The point is, I take criticism ridiculously well, so if you see a way to make this list better, FREAKING TELL ME.

Thanks. Next post, we’ll put this list to use.

Writers Process Blog Tour Post

Thanks to Craig Boyak for inviting me on this tour! My interview is posted below. I know you should never share the stage with kids or animals, but I live my life surrounded by both, so I didn’t have much option.

Check out Craig’s blog at: http://coldhandboyack.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/my-stop-on-the-writing-process-blog-tour/

My volunteers are two of my favorite people from the writing world. Rochelle Deans, daytime editor of some pretty boring-ass stuff, but morning and nighttime writer of some amazing YA fiction http://rochelledeans.wordpress.com/ (who, as that picture indicates, is about to become more of a nighttime feeder/changer of diapers).

And all the way from Nigeria, Ms. Jenny Mundy-Castle http://mundycastle.com/, an intensely talented writer and goddess (who had input into how she would be described, though that doesn’t make it less accurate).

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