Choose Your Genre Part 1: What is Genre Therapy?

This is One of the Biggest Mistakes Most Authors Are Making (Yes, Including You)

You’ve probably never heard of genre therapy, but those two words might change your writing life. If you let them. 

Genre therapy helps an artist be more creative with less effort.

And aren’t you dying to be more productive than you already are? 

So … what is genre therapy?

To explain, I need to tell you a story …

Our story studio, Sterling & Stone, was born when three storytellers decided we wanted to tell (and sell) as many stories as we possibly could, and thought it would be much faster to do that together. 

My first partner, David Wright, loves science fiction and horror. We both love mystery box style storytelling and our work reads like the literary love child of Stephen King and JJ Abrams. 

My other partner, Johnny B. Truant, trends toward the philosophical. Thanks to his background in genetics, our work is more like Jonathan Nolan, Michael Crichton, or Alex Garland.

In other words, we’re all over the place. This works for us, creatively. And always has. But commercially, it’s been hit and miss. As a business plan, it’s a targeted disaster.

We learned the hard way that the straightforward path to building a profitable writing business is to know your genre. That’s the advice we give to the authors who listen to our podcast, and in our book, Write. Publish. Repeat..

That guidance is simple: Know your genre, connect with your readers, and keep doing it, getting better as you go.

Done well, it’s a very profitable formula. The most lucrative one in publishing. 

But it’s easy to get wrong, and most authors do.

We sure did. But that was fine. The goal was never to become powerhouses in a single genre, especially for Johnny and myself. Our biggest objective in those first few years of writing and publishing was to tell as many stories as we possibly could, become master craftsmen, and understand narrative on a molecular level. 

If we wanted to eventually move into film and television (we do!), we knew we couldn’t rely on telling just one kind of tale. Knowing how to navigate from one genre to the next would give us a storytelling superpower. 

But that ethos wouldn’t work for the writers we were inviting into our studio. It was one thing for us to follow our muse, regardless of where she might lead us. We have a responsibility to our authors; it’s our job to make them profitable. 

That meant approaching our story craft in a more targeted way.

All three of us are terrific at coming up with commercial ideas, with hooks that are easy to sell. But we’re also stubborn storytellers, who enjoy exploring narrative in artistic but not necessarily commercial ways. Working with other authors means we can have our popcorn, and eat it too.

So starting last year, we began to build a commercial division within our studio. We still want our stories to be meaningful, high-quality reads that are also fun to write, but our primary objective of these new books is to sell as many as possible.

That can’t be done unless we're nailing the genre.

Things went bad fast. Our authors were writing in lucrative, self-selected genres, and yet they were getting stuck in the mud. But that’s okay — if they hadn’t, then genre therapy would have never been born.

What is Genre Therapy? 

Genre therapy is 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.

This doesn’t mean writing the equivalent of a popcorn flick if you’re not that kind of artist, nor does it mean settling for anything you don’t actually want to write. Illuminate some of the erroneous assumptions that might be controlling your creative development, and you can give yourself the fresh start you probably didn’t even know that you needed. 

We were operating under many such assumptions ourselves. Not for us, but for our newest authors. When someone assigned themselves a genre, we believed them. 

Because, of course every individual should know themselves best. 

The problem is, that assumption is a lie.

Your creative perspective is the same as your life perspective. 

There are times when someone else can see things with much more clarity than you can. So getting an outside view is paramount. 

We started out by segmenting our new projects into genres. Every writer knows what a juggernaut the romance genre is, and always will be. Trafficking in love, sex, and desire, those stories are like crack to those who consume them. Some readers plow through a book every day ending in Y. 

Because romance is so ostensibly profitable, and there is an abundance of writers in our network who specialize in the genre, it seemed like a great place to start, even if we wouldn’t be writing them ourselves.

We’d ghosted several profitable titles ourselves, and understood the market well enough to produce a few new series from afar. We just needed writers who were familiar with romance, and excited to write in the genre.

Our studio is filled with excellent writers, and one of the strongest came aboard specifically to write romance. This wasn’t the genre she settled into because she didn’t know where else to start — this was her self-selecting from every available option. She’d worked in romance for years, and it was the place she felt most at home. 

We worked to develop a highly commercial series that could last for many books. And as with everything currently in production, we wanted to keep a side eye on film or television potential.

The ingredients were all there. A strong concept, a commercial title, and an exceptional writer with a fantastic ear for dialogue. Soon, we had a finished draft for what would be our first highly commercial and long running romance series from the production wing of our company. 

But there was a problem. 

We like to start with a Book One that acts as a pilot. Same as in television, the pilot either works or it doesn’t. We can green light the project and get started on the rest of the series, order “re-shoots,” or start over. A few times, we’ve had to cut bait and cancel the project altogether.

Quality and sustainability are everything. We need books readers will love, that our authors can’t wait to write. The quality was there. Again, a natural storyteller, and gifted with dialogue. 

Something was off. None of us knew precisely why. We all felt that something was wrong, but no one could quite articulate the problem. 

After writing millions of words, you tend to know when a story isn’t right  So we scheduled a meeting with our new writer to figure out a way to fix our pilot and proceed with the series.

We had no idea what was about to happen.

After talking for around twenty minutes we began to realize that the genre itself might be the problem. But that didn't seem possible. She’d been writing romance for more than a decade. This was her genre. She had written several series already. It’s what she knew best, and was most comfortable with. 

Or so she thought.

In reality, it didn’t take long before we were scratching at a new and interesting truth.

“What do you like about the romance genre?” I asked.

“I love dialogue!” The words flew out of her mouth.

“What is it you enjoy about writing dialogue?” 

“I love the banter between characters, especially male and female.”

I considered this for a second, then replied, “So, like Mulder and Scully?”

An eager nod, then, “Yes! I love the X-Files.”

“What don’t you like about romance?”

Her face changed. Everything about it. In front of our eyes, she became someone else.

“Well,” she said. “I hate writing sex scenes.”

Wait … stop … say that again? 

Because although there are exceptions, by and large, romance books are supposed to have sex.

“Forget about the books you are writing with us,” I continued. “In previous books, in the series you’ve already written, do your characters have sex?”

“Well, yeah, I just hate writing it.”

I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t. Instead I asked, “What else don’t you like?”

There had to be more. 

There was.

“I really don’t like happy endings!”

I finally lost it, laughed right out loud. I couldn't help it. Because the only thing more important to a romance reader than sex — and therefore of core importance to the writer — is the HEA, or happily ever after.

Of course, this conversation went on a lot longer, but I’ll skip to the punchline. That will tell you everything about this story you could possibly need to know.

“If you could write any kind of romance, without having to worry about the market, simply writing directly to your muse, what kind of romance would you write?

She thought about it. 

Appeared to deeply consider, not wanting to answer too fast or say anything wrong. 

Then, without so much as a drop of irony, humor, or mischief, she said: 

Is there any such thing as a Jack the Ripper romance?

And Genre Therapy was born.

We started working on a dark thriller project for her immediately. Within a few weeks she was blazing through the new story, and was deliriously happy. Writing had never been easier, or so much fun. She’d never felt an outline like that before. 

It was a crazy revelation that infiltrated every part of our company.

Johnny and I had been narrowing in on our genre for years. At first, we were willing to write anything. We’re born storytellers, but when writing is your business, then the bottom line matters. It’s important to know your genre as an artist, and as a marketer. 

Figuring out who you are will help you find your ideal audience, because the heavy lifting of your marketing is in the art itself.

We told ourselves and the world that we wrote “inquisitive fiction,” because that sums up the kind of stories Johnny and I like writing together. Regardless of the genre, or size of the idea, our primary objective beyond entertaining our readers and telling an engaging story, is to shake the universe and see what might tumble out.

But it wasn’t until we saw how the other authors in our studio were benefitting from this concept when we finally realized we could benefit from a similar line of questioning. So even after many years and millions of words, we needed it to.


Next week: Choose Your Genre Part Two: How Do You Know if You Need Genre Therapy? (Hint: You Probably Do)


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