Perfecting the Mashed Genre Recipe

By Flickr's qthomasbower
Mashup by Flickr’s qthomasbower

Today’s guest Jeannie Ruesch wrote her first story at the age of the six, prompting her to give up an illustrious, hours-long ambition of becoming a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader and declare that writing was her destiny. That journey to destiny took a few detours along the way, including a career in marketing and design.

Her first novel, a fairytale-like historical romance, was published in 2009, but the darker side of life had always captivated her. After a dinner conversation with friends about the best way to hide a dead body, Jeannie knew she had to find a way to incorporate suspense into her writing (the legal outlet for her fascination). Today she continues writing what she loves to read—stories of history, romance, and suspense.

Of Jeannie’s recent novel Cloaked in Danger, Flashlight commentary said, “Far from the average romance, Ruesch’s second novel defied my expectations and swept me into a whirlwind of wit, romance and intrigue.” Jeannie is also the creator of the WIP Notebook a writer’s tool to help you stay organized while you write (see her website for more information). Connect with Jeannie on Facebook and Twitter.

Perfecting the Mashed Genre Recipe

Write the story of your heart. Let the words flow. Be one with your scifi-YA-literary-thriller-with-the-alcoholic-zombie-lead-set-in-the-Civil-War novel. (Well, the alcoholic zombie might be too much.)

In a dozen ways, we’ve been told to write the book we’re passionate about. But what about when your book mashes genres or creates new ones?  How do you feel about throwing a little avocado in your coffee? What about some vampire action in your literary book? Writing a book is like making a great stew: the flavors and aroma you create depend on what you stir into the pot. So how do you discover the right recipe for a yet-to-be-proven genre?

Despite my cooking analogies, I’m as far from a cook as you’ll get. If there’s a way to burn it, overcook it, and undercook it all in the same meal, I’m your gal. But I’m determined to become a master chef in mashing genres, since that’s where my passion lies. Imagine Judith McNaught’s historicals meet Lisa Gardner’s suspense, and you’ll get what I’m aiming for. My recent release was my first historical romantic suspense. Writing it was an exercise in self-doubt—was it enough suspense? Enough romance? Did I kill off enough people? (Only one. No, actually two.)

Readers choose their favorite genres with emotional gusto and expectations. The problem is you might not understand just how far you can smash those flavors together until you’ve already dished up your masterpiece. CARINA_0114_9781426897849_CloakedDanger_JeannieRueschI wrote the best book I could, one my editor loved, and waited to discover on the flip side how well that story resonated. Yes, I’m talking reviews. When you’re blending genres, I believe reading reviews is imperative. You can’t please everyone, and you’ll make yourself crazy if you try but when you’re writing in a mixed genre, readers are the ones who will tell you what worked—and what fell as flat as a startled soufflé.

What are your readers’ non-negotiables?

People read the genres they do for one core reason—emotions. We fall In love with how a book makes us feel- be it smarter, happier, spooked under the covers or enthralled with a new world. We’re drawn to similar books to relive those sensations. Those are the elements you must deliver to make or keep a fan. Romance readers want that happy ending, but I believe the one absolute is ending the book with closure and hope. Oddly enough, I think suspense readers want the same thing. Bad guys vanquished, faith in humanity restored. Hope.

It’s important to understand and meet the non-negotiables for your genre. Did I meet the must-haves for my readers? One reviewer of my book said she “really, really wanted to love the book.” She liked it, gave an insightful review, but she felt gypped because it wasn’t enough of a romantic resolution. A few other reviews were similar, and some loved it as it was. The good and bad, I appreciated them all. (Thank you, reviewers!) We want to write what we’re passionate about AND we want readers to love it. Studying the reviews has helped me gain understanding about the must-have elements. So, what are the non-negotiables for your genre? How well have you honored them?

What story are you compelled to protect?

The degree to which you deliver those non-negotiables depends on your core genre.  At the heart of your project you’ll find there is a story you’re determined to protect. For my mashup, it was the emotional fall-out of the suspense story. My heroine was abducted and emotionally tortured. Not the stuff of fairytale romances, and I had a need to protect and honor that fall-out. That need drove me while writing the book. So my base genre? Suspense—with a generous dollop of romance that complicated everything.

Set the expectations

Part of that choice includes drawing in the right readers to your work and letting readers know what to expect. This is about building your brand and making a promise you can deliver on. Tracey Devlyn, author of historical thrillers, states, “Much to my publisher’s dismay, I’ve always categorized my writing as historical romantic thrillers (translation: a slightly more grievous journey to the heroine’s happy ending). This notation is in my bio, part of my website’s description, and how I verbally refer to my writing when asked. I do this because I want the readers to know what they’re in for before they ever read page one.”

Readers want to love new books and authors. We have that on our side. As a mashup author, you’re asking readers to trust you while you mess with their beloved genres. By listening to their needs and wants, hopefully, we can gain new fans from all the genres we’ve mashed and start the next trend.  Post-apocalyptic zombie cozy mysteries, anyone?

What are the non-negotiables for your genre, and how well have you honored them? What are some of your favorite mashups?

 

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Comments

  1. says

    “At the heart of your project you’ll find there is a story you’re determined to protect.”

    I don’t think I’ve seen this expressed quite this way before – that’s perfect.

    It’s true even if you’re not writing a mashup.

    The subtitle of your story should carry that core, the one thing you want a potential reader to know right away.

    I describe Pride’s Children as ‘a novel of obsession, betrayal, and love.’

    But, if forced to make it as short as possible, I use ‘a love story,’ because that’s the most important part. That’s the story I’m ‘compelled to protect.’

    Every writer makes promises to the reader from the very beginning of the story. Astute readers pick up these promises – and will be very unhappy if they don’t get what they expect. Many reviews I’ve read basically state that: ‘I thought this book was about X, but I was disappointed.’

    They shouldn’t necessarily see it complete when they start – there has to be some mystery about how the story will go – but after finishing, in hindsight, as a reader I want to know I’ve been in the hands of someone with a plan all along – and that the writer hasn’t lied to me.

    Love your comment about ‘drawing the right readers to your brand.’ Even with the tiniest bit of promise, title, subtitle, description, cover copy.

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    • says

      Hi Alicia,

      Thanks for your reply. :) While I was writing this article, I thought about how I’d written the book…and remembered how often I chose another plot direction or went a different way because of what I was determined to protect in the story – my character’s emotional journey given what she’d been through. Realizing that there was a core I was determined to build from was great, it helped me clarify as I wrote.

      You said: “Every writer makes promises to the reader from the very beginning of the story. Astute readers pick up these promises – and will be very unhappy if they don’t get what they expect. Many reviews I’ve read basically state that: ‘I thought this book was about X, but I was disappointed.’”

      This is so true, and those expectations come from a lot of places. For instance, the blurb written by my publisher for my book included two words that confused a few readers and set their expectations for a very different book than I offered — and they didn’t like what they read because of it. We have since changed those two words. But even two words in the cover copy can really set a reader’s mindset.

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  2. says

    Wise words, Jeannie. I write as a pantster and the story determines the genre, so I have no fixed readership in mind as I create the story. Most of my writing combines, or ‘mashes’, genres. I suspect my main problem with building a brand is that I don’t stick to any specific root genre. So, I’ve written books that fall into the main areas of romance, thriller, erotica, scifi, horror, humour and fantasy. This means that each new book is essentially asking a new set of readers to place that trust in me. Interestingly, all my books have attracted 5 star reviews, which suggests I’m getting something right, I suppose. But, of course, my scattergun approach means it’s far more difficult to build a dedicated readership. I suppose my hope is that readers of one book will take the risk of reading another, even if it falls outside their general reading area. It’s what I do myself when reading. That way, I get to know a great number of writers and learn a good deal about the world in general, rather than being confined to a particular hilltop. My approach, therefore, is a long term aim. I just hope I live long enough to discover whether or not it works!

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    • says

      Hi Stuart! 5 star reviews definitely means you’re doing something right! :) On the branding front (I’ve been in marketing and design for 20 years), I bet if you look through all the genres you write in, you’ll find a few similarities— in your tone, your voice, and a core emotional component that you offer your readers, no matter what genre. Try focusing your branding around that and see it compels more people to jump genres, maybe?

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  3. says

    This post will be filed away for future reference. Thanks so much–it’s extremely helpful!

    I believe my novel crosses genres, although I’ll admit I haven’t read enough in the two genres it crosses (steampunk and mystery) to be sure, since both of the genres mentioned exist primarily in adult fiction. YA, which makes up 90% of what I read, consists of contemporary and that’s about it. To figure out my readers’ expectations, I think a trip to the library is in order.

    Again, thanks for the post!

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    • says

      Hi Anastasia! I would say write your book first, so it’s from your heart and then in your edit mode, maybe look at what “must-haves” might look like for your genres.

      As for authors to read, have you checked out Ciara Knight? She writes steampunk YA/NA, though not really mystery, but might be a good option to check out. :)

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  4. says

    Honestly, it all seems a crap-shoot when it comes to genre, finding readers, sales, ratings, marketing and building your brand. Donna Tart’s Goldfinch has a 3.8 rating on Amazon and she just won a Pulitzer. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is still at 4.7. We all tend to mistrust reviews and genre categories these days. I don’t think there should be any single formula or method in a category to tell your story. I’d like to see genres blend or bend away. Story is story. I say, write the story you want with the characters that truly live in you as the writer. If that means creating a hybrid, go for it.

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    • says

      Hi Paula– I agree there is no exact formula for writing or success. And what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. But there are a lot of ways that we can put our best foot forward.

      If I stick with my cooking analogies, there are recipes that you can follow and make something really good, that comes out just the recipe said it would—well, not me—and it’s good. Great even.

      And then there are cooks like my brother — who can come into my house, look in my cupboards (in which I swear there is nothing usable) and come out with a gourmet meal that tastes out of this world. He learned the recipes, he learned what flavors work together and now he’s able to go beyond them to create his own magic. That’s the spot we all want to get to, I think — where we know enough to create our magic.

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  5. says

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Jeannie. Sometimes a genre can be a strait jacket; however we know that’s how publishers market authors. What is non-negotiable for me is that my stories must focus on family dynamics. My favorite genre, as you might guess, is family sagas, but I read and appreciate many genres. I once wrote a story that was a murder-mystery and the crime affected families and individuals in profound ways. I still haven’t figured out what genre it is and I still haven’t published it. I found it was liberating to write in a different genre. It really stretches a writer’s horizon.

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    • says

      Hi CJ! I do think that the marketing of books based on bookshelf location is changing a bit, but not so much that readers don’t look for books in genres they love.

      I love books that include family dynamics—no matter the genre. I think the relationships in a family are so powerful. Your murder mystery family saga sounds right up my alley! :)

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    • says

      LOL Lori! You most certainly can.

      And in fact, I must admit the image is a true one. It wasn’t a souffle, but a cake that I attempted to make when I was about 10-11. There is a picture floating around my house somewhere that shows me with my first attempt at baking — an extremely flattened, splatted cake. (That whole I’m-not-a-cook thing started young…) Still not sure what I did wrong. LOL

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  6. says

    I spewed my coffee at the startled souffle line. Oh what fun. ;)

    So this is totally perfect because at this very moment I am running round and round my own brain trying to decide where my story fits (it’s sort of a paranormal suspense romance with a dash of crazy and also messed up past with a tortured orphan hero with some avacado and chocolate chips mixed in…. ).

    I’d already decided to just write the thing and see where it lands.

    Thanks for the guidance!

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    • says

      Sarah – who doesn’t love a little avocado with their chocolate chips? :)

      I ultimately did the same thing—wrote the book I loved, and then prayed someone would love it. When my editor did, I was over the moon. And I’m proud of it. And I’m learning what I can to make the next one better. The concept of the non-negotiables is such a moving target, too. Everyone’s opinion of what that is will be different. But I really did find that asking myself what story was most important to me to protect helped. Once I knew that answer, the rest fell into place.

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  7. says

    Hi Jeannie.

    At my agency we’ve been handling cross-genre fiction–and more lately crazy mash-ups–for thirty-some years. In a nutshell, here’s what I’ve learned.

    A genuine mash-up that honors elements from several story types incurs exactly the risk you identify: You will not please all readers. The only thing to do is shrug, write the book the way you need to (defending what’s important), pick a primary genre as a launching pad, and go. Readers will find you.

    The problem is that those readers tend to be a subset of genre readers, meaning a limited group.

    The other way to go is to build your what-the-heck-is-it novel so big and powerfully that it’s no longer a hybrid of genres, it’s a great novel unto itself. You know you’ve gone that when folks stop playing the genre guessing game and simply start talking about your story.

    Great novels create own genre. Diana Gabaldon and Jim Butcher come to mind. They’re novelists first. They borrow, sure, a bit, but only to serve their own ends. They’re not imitating, they have imitators.

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    • says

      Hi Don!

      As always, I learn from your words. :)

      I love this: “The other way to go is to build your what-the-heck-is-it novel so big and powerfully that it’s no longer a hybrid of genres, it’s a great novel unto itself.”

      It reminds me of a workshop of yours I attended where you said to imagine all the things you could take away from your protagonist, and then find something else to take away, too. I’ve always remembered that.

      And from your comment, “folks stop playing the genre guessing game” I know where to aim my efforts. :)

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  8. says

    Genre is such a tricky, slippery beast to begin with — different people draw their lines in different places. Battles are fought… nations divide over genre definitions!

    Then there are pieces that somehow get sucked out of the definitions of genre, like Chabon, Atwood, or going waaaay back to one of my favorites, DH Lawrence’s the Rocking Horse Winner. Yes, more stuff for people to deliberate over.

    Ultimately, I agree that expectation is the key, more so than sticking to a particular, pre-arranged definition. (Cookie Cutter, if we stick to food metaphors!)

    So I think you’ve given writers another reason to perfect their blurb and elevator pitch: To create the right reader expectation, and get that mashed-up story into the hands of the right audience.

    Otherwise… angry readers love telling all their friends what a disappointment a story was.

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    • says

      Hi Arley! I agree— we all have our ideas of what we like to read and where those lines are drawn. When I look at the reviews of books I adore, I always see comments of other readers who didn’t love it or disliked aspects I thought made the story incredible. It just shows how subjective all of this is.

      I think knowing the expectations readers have, then writing the book you love and adjusting how you present that book accordingly can go a long way. And I can see easily where looking for genre must-haves could end up cookie cutter, but it depends on what “must-haves” you’re focusing on. If you’re making a checklist of “my paranormal YA must have a vampire, a shapeshifter, a kick-ass heroine and a turtle” then yeah, you’ve pigeon-holed your story. But if you think more in terms of what each genre represents emotionally, those are far more fluid guidelines—for me, at least.

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  9. Poeticus says

    How about peanut butter, paté de foie gras, cheddar cheese, dijon mustard, romaine lettuce, cucumber, and red bell pepper on marble rye bread? With a robust and dark Irish porter chaser? Yummy, really! Genre mashup but delightfully delicious flavor symphony. I am a retired chef.

    This is my audience for genre above. Off the beaten path, yet appealing to like-minded readers. Charles Frazier’s phyrrich second novel success _Thirteen Moons_ strongly appealed to my sensibilties and sentiments but caused a critical controversy from its overly generous advance, that Random House cannot hope to recover. Though 750,000 copy sales is nothing to sneeze at, what kept the novel from performing as well as _Cold Mountain_ was much on my mind.

    The novel’s historical romance overarching categorization is partially its genre mashup, yet other categories simmer underneath: self-reliance inspiration, esoteric and exoteric culture and identity matrices–identity fracture and reintegration: self-realization, like E. Annie Proulx’ _The Shipping News. That self-realization genre premise was perhaps too subtle for general audiences in _Thirteen Moons_.

    (Spoiler) And it was unsatisfactorily finalized in the end. Okay that the love interests didn’t happily end. Okay that Cooper’s identity reintegrated, but the ending left Cooper an unsatisfied accommodation to his reintegrated identity. Indifferently, nonconsciously shooting at passing trains to draw attention for perhaps companionship? Okay, but that means he’s lonely in the end and doesn’t self-realize. That’s to me a shortcoming: realistic but self-realization underdeveloped. Frazier missed the bottom slice of rye on that self-realization genre sandwich mashup convention.

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    • says

      Poeticus – a retired chef? I hope my food analogies did this justice. LOL

      Would you consider self-realization a genre or more of a theme? I suppose I still think of genre in terms of where it would be shelved in a bookstore, and I could see the theme of self-realization present in so many genres, but not necessarily it’s own shelf. Maybe it should be! :)

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      • Poeticus says

        Jeannie Ruesch, I see genre as category generally. Marketplace category label assignments are suitable for commerce purposes, though I think too limiting for writers and readers. I feel the marketplace can do its definition thing, readers can base winnowing decisions on category or not as they choose, and writers should define theirs independently of convenient shorthand labels.

        Theme-based categorization is one consideration for writers, say a theme of social alienation as causal of identity fracture; as is perhaps shape, like hero’s journey, visitation, gathering, bear at the door (routine interrupted), specimen, etc., from Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction. Another category is length: micro, short, long fiction. Yet another category–genre–is poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, script; and others.

        As Donald Maass wrote above, paraphrasing, great works transcend their labels. Breaking out of label boxes I feel is a practical way to manage a genre mashup. The marketplace will label one whichever category best suits a work for convenience’s sake anyway, regardless of a writer’s intent.

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