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. [Read more…]