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Genre therapy: the art and science of finding the sweet intersection between what you were born to write, and what’s most likely to reach the widest possible audience.
Are you back? Okay, great.
And now we continue at Question 10:
What kind of pacing do I prefer in my storytelling?
Pace is a bit like voice, and a bit like knowing what types of scenes you like to write.
Ask yourself how fast you want your story to move. Think about your favorite stories. Are there a lot of shorter scenes, or fewer longer ones? Do you prefer a James Patterson style, where there are typically more than a hundred chapters, but some are only a handful of words, with a pace that’s designed to shove a reader through the book?
Or do you like longer sentences and lingering prose, the kind of writing that asks you to stick around, take your time, and sink deeper into the words?
This is a harder one for me, and it might be for you too.
I actually prefer to write longer, more lingering sentences. I like a lot of description, and for a reader to take her time with my work. But if I’m trying to make money on a project, I know the other way is much, much better.
The majority of readers want to be entertained a lot more than they want to think. Consider that when designing your writer’s cocktail.
A few years ago Johnny and I set out to write our most commercial book yet. We hit a home run by making sure the book moved faster than anything we’d ever written before. Each page was filled with short paragraphs, about half the length of our regular work. Same for our sentences.
That book, and its eventual series made five figures a month for a long time.
By contrast, the book we are most proud of, with passages beautiful enough to frame and hang on a wall, sold less in a month than our commercial series did in any given hour.
This is an especially important place to know your why? Every year Johnny and I write a book without any commercial considerations whatsoever. We need a place where we can write how we want to, to push our art over commerce.
But if we build our entire business around books like that, we would be broke, and so would all of our writers. Understand the pacing you prefer, so you can fit it into the commercial stories you are most capable of writing.
How many sensory details do I naturally include?
Sensory details can be one of the most powerful elements of well -told story. It can also be unnecessary clutter, bruising your best intentions with unnecessary color — most of it purple.
You want readers to remember your words. A great way to do this is by nudging them into using their senses. When reading regular narrative prose, your brain processes text. Add sensory details and you’re lighting up different parts of the brain.
Tasting a donut, feeling sand between your toes, smelling a sudden whiff of sulfur, staring up at the Sistine Chapel and seeing something beautiful enough to break your heart, hearing the whistle of a bitter winter wind.
Sensation stokes memory and desire. It makes your reader an active participant in your writing.
When it comes to writing the senses, you’re probably best at whatever you’re most comfortable with. I constantly have to remind myself to get deeper into feeling senses more than sight senses, which are more natural for me. Motion is also easy. Active words to describe movement.
If it’s easy for you to picture or feel, that’s your sweet spot when it comes to sensory details. Lean into that preference as hard as you can.
What types of conflict do I like to write about?
Do you prefer interpersonal conflict between individuals? Man and wife, two siblings, mother and daughter?
Or would you rather write conflict with gargantuan stakes, like between a government and its people, a man and his machine, or Heaven and Hell?
Of course, no matter how big the stakes, you’ll also need smaller conflicts embedded among them, but gauge your overall level of interest before choosing your genre.
No military sci-fi book can be truly great if it’s missing conflict among its characters, but the author must also tap into a larger canvas of global or local conflict. An entire galaxy might be at stake.
Johnny and I like giant conflicts. We get deeply personal with our characters, but the global stakes are always huge.
Things tend to be more intimate with Dave. Conflicts are closer and darker. When I write with Dave, our main character’s biggest enemy is often himself.
Conflict is core to every story. Take the time to understand the kind of friction you like. Intimate arguments are different than meteors on the way. What you prefer might have something to do with this next question:
What kind of personality traits do I like writing about?
Another big one authors rarely ask themselves. But it is important.
I love writing strong women. I grew up in a family flower shop, ran a preschool for several years, and have spent a lifetime surrounded by strong women. Their roles are generally not round enough in fiction, and often relegated to secondary or cursory roles.
Some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing was with book about a girl from the Midwest who moves to a trendy beachside town in Southern California. She’s a sweetheart, and all she wants is to open a flower shop. She never asked for a war with the harpy who owns the furniture store across the courtyard. From the bakery owner to our heroine’s best friend and confidant, the women in this book jump off the page. And that’s because they bled out of our fingers.
Genres have personality types. If you don’t want to write dialogue for the crusty old sergeant, you probably shouldn’t be writing military sci-fi. If you don’t want to write an aggressive, arrogant asshole, you should probably steer clear of billionaire romances.
The more you can mimic various personality types, the more well-rounded your writing will be. But knowing the types of characters or traits you most like to write about will help you to craft stories that interest you without boring your reader.
How can my unique experiences and background as a human being influence the stories I’m going to tell?
The story about the woman who wants to open a flower shop was only possible because I grew up in one. Without that background, I would’ve never chosen that particular story, and I’m sure Johnny would not have wanted to co-write it with me.
I just finished a story about product placement in memory. My years as a copywriter made that a breeze to write and a total joy.
Dave had a miserable childhood, so all of his stories are always tormented, with children forever in jeopardy.
Treat yourself as a character. Write a thousand words detailing who you are well enough that you could easily add yourself to one of your stories. Then ask yourself what types of stories that character would most like to write.
Am I a plotter or a pantser?
There is a spectrum, and you don’t ever have to be one or the other, but you should absolutely know how you lean.
Plotters have it all mapped out ahead of time. They know what’s going to happen before they write it, and are thus very rarely ever staring at a blank page. Pantsers start with the empty space and keep writing until the story is finished, giving them nothing but open road and infinite flexibility, which can sometimes crash them right into a wall.
When I first started writing, I was a pantser all the way. I didn’t like homework in school, I sure wasn’t assigning any to myself. But not having a plan makes it easy to get stuck. And worse, it makes it harder to have the sort of books that fly with intention and therefore keep the reader glued to the page. That’s why a lot of pantsers hopscotch from project to project, while the planners are better at seeing things through.
There isn’t a right or a wrong. King is pantser, Patterson not so much.
Some genres have tighter expectations, and won’t allow you to wing it nearly as much. If you’re writing a mystery or a procedural, good luck writing without an outline. If you’re writing something more cerebral or literary you’ll have much more latitude.
You can evolve over time, all of us have, but know where you stand before starting your next project.
What kind of protagonists do I like to write about?
Do you prefer heroes that are more like Walter White or Dudley Do Right?
Many actors agree that it’s always more fun to play the villain than it is to play the good guy. Even actors known for being pure souls like Henry Fonda or Tom Hanks found tremendous joy when finally getting their chance to go dark (Once Upon a Time in the West and Road to Perdition, respectively).
I don’t like my heroes to be pure of heart, nor my villains to be pure evil. I believe that most of us exist in the spectrum in between, and prefer my stories to have that perspective.
Know out where you are on the line. If you want to write a dark antihero, pick a genre that supports the decision. If you prefer a knight in shining armor, stay miles away from horror.
And that takes us into our final, directly related question.
What kinds of subjects do I want to explore?
Johnny and I are always asking ourselves what makes the world tick; why people behave the way they do; what is the true nature of good versus evil, and how are they dependent on each other?
My stories with Dave explore the darkness of humanity, and the depths it will go, alongside the glimmers of hope that keep us going in even the most dire of circumstances.
With my third writing partner, Bonnie, we’re always exploring the nature of story itself.
The better you know which themes resonate with you, the more emotionally evocative and memorable your stories have the potential to be.
Finding yourself as a writer is a process, not an event.
It isn’t easy, and if you’re doing it well you’ll probably make at least a few mistakes before you get to the place where you’re better forever.
But the worst thing you can do is be careless with your career. Refuse to consider that you might be doing it all wrong. And continue to make those same mistakes with only marginal improvement at best.
Ask yourself the hard questions, answer them honestly, and use your work over time to refine your responses.
Good luck writing, and finding the genre that’s right for you.
If you want more on Genre Therapy, check out these previous posts: