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Marginal Notes

The Lessons of Genre

I once heard an editor say that, if you wanted to break into print, turn your current work into a mystery. Just pick a character, kill them off, and go from there.

Not great advice, but there is some truth behind it. It’s always been easier to break into print when you’re writing in a genre. Readers prefer to buy books they know in advance they’re going to enjoy, and just the fact that your book is shelved next to other genre books tells them there are some elements of your story they’ll like. Mystery readers will get their denouement, science fiction readers will get their speculative future, thriller readers will get their fast-paced page turner.

In addition to making them easier to sell, the conventions of a genre can make the books easier to write. After all, some of your storytelling decisions have already been made for you, just from the genre you’ve picked. You have the frame of your novel already in place and just have to fill it out.

But as any genre writer can tell you, genre novels aren’t taken as seriously as mainstream novels. Major awards rarely go to popular genre books, which are often dismissed as “commercial fiction,” as if popularity undermines a book’s quality. There is some truth behind the prejudice, though. Great writing can exist within any genre, but the same thing that makes a genre book easy to write can make it easy to turn into formulaic hackwork.


Most genre novels focus around and are defined by a single storytelling element, and when you’re writing one, it’s easy to focus on that one thing and forget everything else. A great novel, though, is a complex ecosystem, with all sorts of different aspects feeding into one another. And the way to transcend mediocrity even when you’re working in a genre is to look beyond what defines the genre.

Rex Stout and Kinsey Milhone don’t simply deliver effective puzzles with surprising answers. They also deliver witty, engaging characters with distinctive voices. J. K. Rowling doesn’t just create a clearly-imagined magical world. I’ve read a review that favorably compared the plot complexity of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with John leCarre. And Jane Austin is great literature in addition to being great romance because she handles her plot twists with the skill of a modern mystery writer – as in Sense and Sensibility, with the revelation that Lucy Steele married Robert Ferrars after Edward was disowned.

As an editor, the advice I give most often is to focus on more than one thing at a time. I’ve often worked with clients who created brilliant characters, but with a plot that was little more than a series of incidents strung together. Or who have created wonderful, dramatic situations that simply dribble to a conclusion with no plot twists, surprises, or a clear climax. These clients were competent, but they didn’t rise above competence because they were ignoring large parts of the storytelling craft.

Developing this ability to pay attention to everything at once is not only the key to good genre writing. It’s the key to good mainstream writing. In fact, here’s a dirty little secret: literary fiction often behaves like just another genre. It has a pretty well defined readership, with certain expectations – original, often challenging use of language, characters who lead you into the dark corners of human experience, often not much in the way of plot. But truly great novels deliver more. The Great Gatsby is pretty tightly paced, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is nearly as real as Middle Earth, and Anna Karenina is a love story, even if it doesn’t include the happily ever after.

Regular readers here know that I’m an organist with a fondness for baroque counterpoint – an approach to music where, instead of having a single melody, the piece has several independent melodies going all at once. It’s a wonderful metaphor for how novels work. Most of the time, when one voice starts doing something exciting or complex, the other voices tend to calm down – when your feet are tapping out complicated runs on the pedals, your hands usually only have to supply an occasional chord.

Then there are Bach’s Trio Sonatas. As you might guess, they only have three voices, but for most of their length, all three voices are doing rich, interesting, completely independent things at the same time. This makes the pieces notoriously hard to learn – I knew an organist in his eighties who had been working on them for forty years. But they are beloved enough by audiences that organists are willing to invest decades in learning them.

So how do you make sure that you’re not ignoring part of your story? You might start by reading novels in a genre you don’t care about. If you’ve always looked down on romances, crack a few and find out what all the swooning is about. If you’ve shied away from horror, read some Stephen King and see why others find him so hard to put down.

Then look at your manuscript again, watching for those elements that don’t excite you. If the thing that turns you on about your novel is the plot twists you’ve built into it, stand back and take a look at how richly developed your characters’ internal lives are. How much thought have you put into your setting and how your characters are rooted in it? If you’re enamored of your characters, look at your pace. Pay attention to the elements you’ve been taking for granted.

Sol Stein once told me that he didn’t distinguish between literary and commercial fiction but between literary and sub-literary fiction. If your pace dovetails with how much information you’re revealing to your readers as you develop conflict between very independent characters within a plausibly imagined world -- in other words, if you can pull together the unique strengths of thrillers, mysteries, romances, and fantasies – then you will be writing literary fiction, regardless of what genre you’re working in.