Genres are like Cornflakes
A wise author once told me that buying a book is like buying a box of cereal. You walk down the aisle, looking at the boxes like they’re book covers, past boxes of Cheerios, Crunch Berries, Lucky Charms, Wheaties, until at last you find what you're looking for—Cornflakes!
Yes! You know exactly what you're getting just by grabbing that box.
Now imagine you get home and open that box, and there are Apple Jacks in there instead of Cornflakes. You'd probably be pretty annoyed. Maybe you even like Apple Jacks—goodness knows, I do—but at that moment when you grabbed that box of Cornflakes, what you wanted was—CORNFLAKES!
Your book is a lot like that. And readers come to your book with two things: 1. Genre expectations and 2. A desire to be entertained, whether that entertainment takes the form of being romanced, terrified, or gaining some escape and wonderment.
So how do we make sure we are delivering on the promise of our genre—that when a reader grabs our epic fantasy, they GET epic fantasy?
One way is the cover. Since that’s often up to your publishing house, I can’t say much except this: a good cover is worth its weight in solid-gold Cornflakes.
What I can speak to are genre expectations and the question we authors so often wrestle with: How do you serve your genre while creating something absolutely brand spanking new? How do you dance to the tune while incorporating your own moves?
Here’s what’s worked for me:
1. Read in your chosen genre
There’s no better way to learn the tropes and commonalities of your genre than by reading in it. Read the classics, read the new stuff, read the stuff you’ve heard was terrible but is a big seller. Read it all.
CAVEAT: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can’t read while you’re writing. All that means is you think your voice isn’t developed enough. If it’s not, the answer is to write more. Not less.
2. Read Like a Writer
Many of us read for pleasure or relaxation. Some read to be entertained, to be terrified or romanced or to have our thoughts engaged. But to read like a writer is to look for the technique hidden beneath the words—and, believe me, good technique is 100% invisible.
So how do you see technique when it's invisible? Like this: when you’re reading and you find yourself frantically turning pages or feeling an emotion, ask, How is the author accomplishing this? Then pay special attention to the word choices, the structure, the paragraphing. Is the author creating tension by using short, snappy sentences? Is she evoking emotion by using certain words? Is the dialogue fast-paced? What verb tense is the story told in?
CAVEAT: Steal the technique and make it your own. Don’t try to copy
3. Read Outside Your Genre
Cross-genre is becoming more and more popular because of its wide appeal. This is why a lot of Hollywood blockbusters have action, romance, thriller aspects, maybe a touch of horror. Because the more universal emotions (love, fear, hatred, jealousy) you can pluck the strings of, the more you connect with your reader--and the more readers you can connect to.
CAVEAT: Don’t try to force a genre trope into your story at the expense of the story.
4. Ask a Reader
Crit group, crit group, crit group. I cannot emphasize this enough. Have a critique group, a group of people who are responsive, who know your genre, and who are avid readers. Let their knowledge work for you. They’ve read 5,000 romances. They can tell you if you’re hitting the key marks, if your hero is too jerky and pushy, if your heroine is whiny.
CAVEAT: Choose your crit partners carefully. Your mom or dad or bff might not be the best person for the job since s/he might be more inclined to only telling you the Good Stuff. You need someone who can also tell you the Bad Stuff.
5. Address the Tropes
Address. Not bow down to, not surrender to, not mindlessly adhere to. But address them. Because the reader comes with two things, and the first is expectations.
Genre readers like to know what they're getting into. Most of them buy FOR the genre. I read epic fantasy because I like the epic quest, the battles, the courtly intrigue, the high language. When I buy the book with a LARPing group on the front and some sweeping mountains in the back, it better have most of this stuff in there.
Why? Because when I pick up a box of Cornflakes, I want Cornflakes. If I get it home and there are Apple Jacks in there, I'm not going to be a happy camper.
So address those tropes and then shatter them. But don’t ignore them. Hell. No. Stephanie Meyer, whom some tout as writing the worst vampire book ever, still addressed the issue of vampires and sunlight. We’re told why Edward and the other vamps can walk out in the sun. It’s not ignored.
By addressing it, she gives a nod to the genre expectations and lets her readers know that she knows what these expectations and tropes are—and she's choosing to change them. Thus, it's a matter of choice not ignorance. To fail to address genre expectations without explanation is to risk looking like you don't know your genre.
6. Twist the Tropes, Turn Them, Break Them
All else aside, I think it's absolutely imperative to do something new. We owe it to our genres to push the boundaries, to give the reader what they want--to pay homage to the old, but also usher in the new.
Genre readers are well read. They’ll known in an instant if your elven archer is a knockoff of Legolas or if your child prodigy is Ender in a cheap disguise.
Develop your own unique characters. Your own unique voice.
That thing you’re afraid of? That’s what you’ll build your legacy on.
So, how does this whole Cornflakes metaphor shake out? Well, in the end, we write what we're passionate about, and the best way to do that is to learn our genres top to bottom so we can address genre expectations. Thus, we make it so that when the reader opens our box of Cornflakes, she doesn't mind if there are a few Crunch Berries in there. They just sweeten the deal.
As always, thanks for reading!
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