Genre Management

This isn't the map to use if you want to go to Frankfurt.

Like you, I look forward to Steve’s “Writing Wednesday” posts. I don’t ask to see anything early or cheat and read his stuff before it goes live.  I like to read them at the same time as the rest of the tribe. The truth is that if I didn’t know Steve, I’d still be on this site every Wednesday.

And I especially liked his most recent one about Seth Godin’s wonderful reminder about the importance of leading, “This Might Not Work.”

I read the comments too and there was a great question this week from Susanna Plotnick.

Here it is:

Steve, I’m having a hard time reconciling what you’re saying today with what you’ve been saying in recent weeks about ‘going from unpublishable to publishable.’

If we are working on our own, creating new forms, breaking rules, aren’t we courting ‘unpublishability’? Where do we draw the line between courting publishability and being a hack?

Could you elaborate on this, please?

I know Steve has great insights about this seeming paradox and I know he’s going to address it next week, but I thought I’d throw out my point of view in here. I make a chunk of my living sorting ‘publishable’ from ‘unpublishable’ work and I have some ideas about the notion of the “hack.”

The answer to the “where do we draw the line” question is something I call UNIQUE FAMILIARITY.  What that means is that a novel or work of nonfiction is attractive to me and to major publishers, “publishable,” if the book has a singular quality but is also within an established commercially viable tradition. It’s a serial killer thriller “with a twist” or a family saga about criminals. It’s a new take on an established form.

One of the great difficulties for publishers is to describe a new book in a way that sales people and ultimately consumers will embrace.  The way they do this is to make analogies.  They compare the work to something that has been successful before.  Phrases like, In the Tradition of… Or “If Sylvia Plath were to write a thriller, THE BELL JAR CONSPIRACY would be the result.” Seriously, get your hands on any publisher’s catalog and you’ll read this over and over again.  I know I wrote my fair share of this kind of copy.

Giving a reader the storytelling territory in which a book resides gives them an expectation. It’s just common sense.  When we go to an ice cream shop, they don’t just have a bunch of tubs full of ice cream without any explanation of what to expect.  One guy’s Vanilla is not the same as the next guy’s, but Vanilla as a label helps us understand the territory that the two artists are exploring.

If you were told that someone writes like Robert Ludlum, you’d expect to read a thriller right?  If you were told that someone writes like Ann Tyler, you’d expect some sort of domestic drama right?

What this ultimately boils down to is GENRE.  I can’t tell you how many times I hear unknowledgeable people in the business denigrate a writer for being a Genre Writer, the subtext is “what a hack.”  The truth is that every storyteller must have a comprehensive understanding of Genre.

If he doesn’t know the requirements and conventions of a particular story form, he’ll never create anything publishable.  And worse, he’ll never have the opportunity to play with the form, mash it with another genre, slightly alter it, or lead it in a new direction.  If you don’t know what something is, how do you know where you could improve or change it?

This is why my literary agency is called Genre Management Incorporated. I want clients who know their chosen genre/s backwards and forwards so that when I ask them why they made “the hero at the mercy of the villain” scene as their inciting incident in their thriller, they’ll clearly explain that choice. I don’t want to have to explain to someone that they can’t write a love story without having a falling out between the two paramours by the midpoint of the story. A mechanic doesn’t have to explain what a carburetor is to a car designer.

Genre conventions are akin to that old Chekhov line that if you introduce a gun in Act One, it better go off in by Act III. If you start writing a horror novel, someone better face a fate worse than death.

But how can you lead artistically if you work within the confines of genre? Or as Susanna asks, if a writer is “working on our own, creating new forms, breaking rules, aren’t we courting “unpublishability”? Where do we draw the line between courting publishability and being a hack…”

To me, here is the only difference between a hack and an artist:

What is often forgotten about Stories is that they are supposed to mean something.  That is, Stories are intricately planned long form arguments built on conflict.  They must have a controlling idea in order to even come close to that thing we all call art.

Writers with no controlling idea in their stories are hacks.  They create scenes and characters merely to entertain or excite the reader with no deeper meaning to be had beyond “isn’t this cool!” They are bottles thrown into the ocean with no messages inside.  Wouldn’t it be more interesting if a slam-bang read also had a deep resonate meaning underneath the artifice?

Steve’s books have that.  Every single one of them, nonfiction included. Plus Steve has written fiction in just three Genres—Sports, War Novel and Military Thriller. Has he been unable to lead? Gates of Fire singlehandedly revived an entire Genre. So did The Legend of Bagger Vance. If that’s not leadership, I don’t know what is.

I think it’s best for writers with no prior books published under their belt to refrain from trying to create new forms or break fundamental rules of Storytelling. Why not use a genre, or mix and meld a bunch of genres into something unique in order to SAY SOMETHING.  ANYTHING!

Hack work is easy to spot because it doesn’t promise any meaning beyond what is already on the page.  So Susanna, I think when Steve talks about “publishable” and “unpublishable” he’s talking about the art of creating a controlling idea or as Steve calls it, his THEME.  And of course, successfully expressing that theme underneath a familiar storyline is the work of a leader.

Writers can “Lead” with their THEMES while playing by the rules of their chosen GENRE/S. If you do this you will not only have a publishable novel, you’ll have a work of art. But as Seth also says “It might not work!”

So what! Write the next one and see if that one does. Be a leader. Don’t forget though that leaders have a plan.  They plot a course before they head into the woods. You should too.

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  1. Patrick on July 26, 2013 at 5:37 am

    Thanks for another great post Shawn! Besides reading broadly in a particular genre, do you have any recommendations for where to really learn the ins and outs of a genre? I know Mckee has genre specific workshops; any other sources you can recommend?

    • Shawn Coyne on July 26, 2013 at 6:10 am

      Hi Patrick,
      Bob McKee is presently working on a series of books on each of the major genres. I’ve read a bunch of the material and it is outstanding, absolutely the kind of thing aspiring writers could really sink their teeth into. Stay tuned for those. In the meantime, I suggest you read say ten of the major books in the particular genre that you want to explore. Make notes while you are reading and write down scenes or elements that they all have in common. After you’ve finished, you’ll likely find 5 to 10 MUST-HAVES. What’s remarkable is that all of us already know what they are from viewing and reading over years. We just don’t know that we know.

  2. Gene on July 26, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Steve used to tell a story that I will forever remember. He told me that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky believed that every story comes down to a single, core statement. According to Steve, Mr. Chayefsky encouraged all writers to write that single statement before they begin the manuscript and to have it prominently displayed so they can see it throughout the process even if it takes years to complete. That is a terrific piece of advice because it enables the writer to keep every word of his project focused on the core meaning of his work: what is this book, story, song, etc. REALLY about.

  3. Erik Dolson on July 26, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Cross-pollination: Steven, Shawn and Callie sharing reflections, creating a whole greater than the sum of parts. Thank you.

  4. Beth Barany on July 26, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Shawn, Awesome! So important to know your genre, I agree. I feel I need to scurry back to my romance and fantasy stories and be sure my theme is there.

  5. David Y.B. Kaufmann on July 26, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    So much to respond to! I remember when studying the rise of the novel – and how I love Austen! – I was drawn to the concept of “understanding conventions,” which of course is synonymous with “reading genre.” The writer (artist) has to work within the conventions, then test (i.e., challenge, extend, modify, even refute) them, in a way that the reader (audience) can see the game.

    I thought of the sonnet while reading this. One of my favorite forms. The sonnet is a poetic genre. In the hands of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it said “love poem.” But Milton’s “On His Blindness” is not a love poem in any classical sense. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Keats’s “Bright Star” play with the form.

    “Unique Familiarity” is a great term, because it illuminates the specific-general nature of narrative. On another blog, we were discussing character vs/and plot, and the point is similar: there is a general structure, set of conventions, flexible rules for each genre (type of plot), within which the individual, particular story must be told. In a Comedy, the hero and heroine must get married, but who they are, how they get married, the kind of obstacles and villains they face – that’s always different – unique.

    Another point: we always proceed by analogy or metaphor. (George Lakoff’s early career was built on an intensive study of how metaphor shapes our minds, how we think in metaphors. His later career proceeds from that.) So the publisher’s comparison is requisite; it also helps set the boundaries or frame – the conventions or “tribe” into which we move.

    In fact, this is Seth Godin’s blog post for today: “More than features, more than benefits, we are driven to become a member in good standing of the tribe. We want to be respected by those we aspire to connect with, we want to know what we ought to do to be part of that circle.

    Not the norms of mass, but the norms of our chosen tribe.” Very powerful, and reflecting what you’re saying here.


  6. Basilis on July 27, 2013 at 1:38 am

    A “seeming paradox”. Those two words seem to fit perfect to describe the situation.
    I also find the “unique familiarity” a good term and an illuminating answer simultaneously.
    It’s very good that we see this excellent post before Steven’s insights, so that the tribe will be more prepared to add in the comments difficult questions.

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  8. tolladay on July 27, 2013 at 11:06 am

    Well said Shawn,

    Your point near the end, the one about a hack writer not saying something beyond the mere words, made me wonder. It is possible that the hack writer might have something to say, but is unable to communicate it? In other words, the deeper idea is there, but not communicated well to the reader.

    I ask because I suspect that “hack” is one of the stations the writer train stops at on its way to professional. Like many other readers here I to am wanting to catch the next train north. Learning how to make my “deeper” ideas read well would be a big help, if this is in fact a problem. Not that I’m expecting you to teach this, it might be something one can only learn by working with an editor/reader they trust.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

  9. Jeff on July 28, 2013 at 8:37 pm


    I was wondering what your thoughts were on genre vs. for lack of a better term, the “kind” of story one is writing. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone would normally be considered a YA Fantasy novel, so that’s it’s genre, but it is actually structured like a Mystery. Blake Snyder’s 10 Kinds of Stories aren’t about Genre, per se, which is why he terms both Jaws and Alien as “Moster in the House” stories.

    So I guess the question is, when you talk about using an established genre to tell a different kind of story (and to say something worthwhile via theme) how much of that might involve using an established genre with an unusual-for-genre KIND of story?

    So, for example, Jim Butcher’s first Dresden Files novel was supposedly pitched as “Dirty Harry Potter” — urban fantasy genre + hard-boiled, Noire detective/”Institutionalized” story.

    Just wondering your thoughts on that as it pertains to genre and “Unique Familiarity.”

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