Where does that ultimate stage of the journey begin? Many authors break into the business writing some type of genre fiction. It’s a great way to start. Plot foundations are in place. There is a ready audience. Reviews and even awards can be won.
Genre writing, however, can also be a trap. Plot patterns can become a crutch. Characters can conform to fan expectations and genre conventions. Easily renewed contracts make genre boundaries safe and reliable.
Genre writers, I find, can get so stuck in their comfort zone that they can’t find their way out of it. The larger scale of breakout level plots becomes intimidating. Their characters stay small. It’s as if authors’ imaginations have atrophied. What is really happening is that they are afraid.
At the same time, much best selling fiction incorporates genre elements. Have you every read the latest literary-slash-commercial best seller and felt, “Hey, that’s really just a mystery”—or romance, or SF story—“and it’s not that different from what I write. What gives, here?”
What gives is that those literary-slash-commercial authors are writing bigger stories, and that in turn means that the purpose behind the novels is larger. They are not merely dressing up a mystery, romance or fantasy. They are writing novels whose subjects are really something else.
To understand what makes literary-slash-commercial fiction larger, try analyzing it this way. Pick such a novel. Now mentally subtract the genre element. Pretend it isn’t there. Okay, what is left? That is what the author is really writing about. That is what lifts this novel beyond genre.
A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass’s agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.
You can order The Fire in Fiction online, and learn more about it from the publisher.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s nurpax