I am starting a new category on my blog today about creative writing in which I’ll be talking about how to write a good story.
I am particularly interested in novels, so we will be examining questions like:
- How should a novel be structured?
- How do I create suspense?
- How do I write good dialogues?
- How do I make my characters seem realistic?
- How do I avoid errors in point of view?
- How do I create atmosphere?
- What does “show, don’t tell” mean?
- How do I find the right genre for me and what do my readers expect?
Rats’ eyes can move in different directions at the same time, including upward. This helps them spot predators.
I would like to start today with part of the last question, a topic which is often underestimated: What genre am I writing?
There are many different literary genres, from coming-of-age novels to crime fiction, horror and thriller to science fiction and most genres can be divided into various sub-genres. For example, in my favorite genre, fantasy, you could find high, low, urban, or dark fantasy, and a historical crime novel would be a subcategory of historical fiction. I am sure I could fill the pages of this blog for half a year just writing about the different genres in fiction.
When you are writing a novel or even a shorter story, as a rule, you should be aware of the genre you are writing. “Huh?” you may be asking yourself. “Why would I need to know that? Why would I want to restrict myself like that before I even start writing? Can’t the reader just wait and see?”
Readers have expectations
Writing means being creative. And being creative means that we want to let our stories unfold the way they want to and give free rein to our ideas. After all, that is what makes creative writing so appealing. Nevertheless, the question of genre and with it the question of your target audience should not be completely ignored. And there are two good reasons for this.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you don’t just write for yourself. I’ll bet you want your stories to be read. That’s great. But, in order for them to be read, it is helpful to give readers what they expect, at least to some degree.
Imagine you enjoy reading crime novels, but the book you just purchased (thinking it was a crime novel) begins with a twenty-page romance. Or one of the detectives has magical powers. Or – way worse – the author tells you whodunnit within the first quarter of the book.
Admit it: You’d be disappointed and maybe even stop reading.
After all, when I open a book I have certain expectations of what awaits me and I strongly assume that these expectations will be met. A fantasy story without magic, dragons or mythical creatures? Unthinkable – strongly disappointing! My chic lit novel contains a detailed description of someone being tortured? Even if I enjoy reading thrillers, didn’t I pick this book up today because I was in the mood for an easy-to-read romance?
There are, of course, exceptions and it is certainly possible to merge genres. The Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde come to mind as a great example. And yet, within your creative space, you should always keep your readers in mind to a certain degree. There is, as I mentioned, a second good reason for this.
Marketing your story
I’ve already dropped the words “target audience” above. If you really want your book to be read by people other than your family and friends, it isn’t really that much different from any other product you are trying to sell. Every business plan includes the issue of the target audience – with good reason: If I know who I want to sell my product to, I can tailor it to their liking (or needs) and I can advertise it more effectively.
The first argument (to adapt the book to the audience’s taste) has only limited application in creative writing. We are, after all, creative people and we need to express ourselves and pour out our hearts. Writing exactly what we think others want to read would be counterproductive to our creativity. As we have seen above, though, it usually won’t do to completely lose sight of the reader, either, if we don’t want to disappoint or alienate them.
What is more important, here, is the argument of advertisement. If I know whom I have written my story for, I can market it in a way that will resonate with the readers and get their attention. Whether you have a publisher or you are publishing the book alone, knowing your target audience will help find the right place and also the right way of promoting it.
In other words: Be clear about the expectations that readers will have of a certain genre. Learn the rules and boundaries of the genre you have chosen. And only deviate from them if you deliberately mean to do so, but never out of ignorance.
That being said, the Golden Rule of writing still applies: Write about what you know. If you have never been interested in science fiction, then leave the futuristic novels to another author. You are sure to write better stories in a genre that you feel comfortable in.