Once upon a time, in a forum far, far away, an aspiring author commented that they never read anything in the genre they wanted to write. There was the online equivalent of a gasp, followed by stunned silence. Then a lone voice asked this author why? Why didn’t they read the genre they wanted to write? Virtual heads nodded as the online community waited, wondering what magical explanation the wannabe writer might have.
The answer was simple–and oh so misguided. They didn’t read in the genre they wanted to write in because they didn’t want their “original” idea and voice to be tainted by what was out there.
Now, on the surface, that might seem like a reasonable explanation. Except it really isn’t. You must read in your genre to understand trends and tropes. You need to read in your genre to know what’s out there and what has been done to death. Yes, you might have an original idea about how to handle your plot, maybe, and your voice might be different from what’s out there, but how do you know if you don’t read the genre?
However, there’s another reason, a more important one, to read in the genre you want to write in. You have to know what your readers expect. What tropes do they need to see in your book in order for them to enjoy it and recommend it to family and friends?
It seems simple, doesn’t it? But this is a lesson so many writers seem to overlook.
Too many wannabe writers think they can learn all they need to about a genre from reading how-to writing books and going to seminars (usually ones they pay big bucks for). Those can help (maybe) but reading is the one sure way to see what readers want. Of course, that means you have to decide what your publication plan is. Are you going to go the traditional route or are you going indie?
Yes, it does matter, even if it doesn’t make any sense. After all, the readers are all the same, right? They are. But the buyer is different. If you are going the traditional route, your first buyer is going to be the agent who finally takes you on. The second will be the publishers who may or may not buy your book. They are going to be driven by what books they are currently publishing, as well as those published by their traditional competition, are making the most money. They look at current trends to determine what will hit the shelves in 12-24 months. They are a bit more responsive to market trends than they used to be but they are hampered by limited number of publishing slots, antiquated business plans and a mindset that still hasn’t fully wrapped itself around the digital age.
That worked well enough before the influx of indie authors into the market and readers figured out you didn’t have to wait a year or more between books from a favorite author.
What brought all this home to me–again–is a conversation I had with a fellow writer not too long ago. I’d been noticing a trend in this writer’s work over the last year or so that bothered me. Twenty years ago, the trend wouldn’t have caused me a second thought. But today, with the changes in the genre they write in, it had me scratching my head. It finally dawned on me what was wrong. The books read like they’d been written twenty years ago.
So I asked specific questions about why the book we were discussing started the way it did. I looked at the tropes and addressed them. Even as I did, I started pulling up examples from the current best seller list for that genre on Amazon. You see, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t off-base. Then I waited to see what the author had to say, wondering if the delay in response (we were doing this via IM) signaled they were thinking about what I asked.
It all came down to two things: first, they couldn’t name a single book published in the last three years in their genre that they’d read and, two, they were doing what they’d been told to do in some long ago clinic. The first explanation was why I’d looked up current best sellers, ones I’d already read and knew they would be good explanations for what I wanted this writer to look at. The second explanation I suspected but it still had me wanting to beat my head against the desktop.
If you are a writer, you need to be aware of what your competition is doing. That means we have to read. This is Business 101. Yes, I used the “b” word. I know most of us would prefer it if we didn’t have to worry with this aspect of our profession but we can’t ignore it. Not if we want to be successful. So, along with worrying about writing, editing, packaging, promotion, taxes, etc., we have to keep an eye on what other writers in our genre and sub-genre are writing. We need to know how they are covering their books. We need to know what the trends are in plots and tropes. We need to know how those books are selling. Then and only then can we determine what we need to do to make our book stand out.
In other words, write to the market but with a twist.
But you can only do that if you know what is out there.
As for the second, all I can say is you have to be careful with any advice you are given, especially when it comes in a clinic or lecture format. Questions to ask, before you plop down your money, include (but aren’t limited to) what are the presenter’s qualifications? Are they an author, an agent, an editor, what? If they are an author, do they write in your genre? (Especially important if they are lecturing/critiquing on the marketability of your book). The same basic questions are to be asked regarding an agent or editor.
For example, a number of cons and writers conferences let you book time with agents or editors, often for a fee, to pitch your book. Before signing up and handing over your good money, do you take time to search to see what that agent’s or editor’s track record is? Have they sold anything in the last couple of years that comes close to your genre? Are the currently looking for projects llike the one you’re presenting? Do they actually work with authors in your genre or sub-genre?
(Just because they say they love science fiction, doesn’t mean they handle hard scifi or science fiction romance. Or, if they rep or publish romance, that doesn’t mean they do erotica or urban fantasy.)
Then, if one of them says to do something, like cut a chapter or more from the beginning of your book and they are doing so only on seeing the first chapter or two, think hard about the why of it? Ask questions. Then don’t blindly do what they say. Use a critical eye, of your work and of their comments. Decide what works best for the book. In other words, read, write and then review.
I’ve kind of gone off the rails here, but I’ve seen too many writers ruin books because they’ve come back from a conference or a pitch session and followed to the word what the agent or editor told them. Look, I get it. But I also get that these sessions are minutes long, on the whole. Some a short as five minutes. These agents or editors have seen, at most two chapters of your book. They are making plotting and pacing decisions based on a very minute part of your work. Yes, some of the critique is good. Some is bad. But none of it should be taken without question or consideration unless a contract is offered and accepted.
The lesson, if there is one, from all this is to do your homework. Learn what is going on in your genre and sub-genre. You do this by reading. Reading in the genre, reading sites dealing with publishing (traditional and indie). Reading reviews for books to see what readers are saying they want and what they like.
Write. Write to the market, especially if you are trying for what is trending now, but put your own spin on it. Don’t just change the names and locations of a best selling book and expect not to be called out for it. That said, you can do a Hornblower in Space and not be deemed to be ripping off David Weber. At least not if you make it your own.
Review market trends, both indie and traditional.
Review what your readers say in their comments about your books after they are published. Review what your critique partners say. Is there a common thread? Is it a strength or a weakness and how to you play it up or make sure you don’t make the same mistake going forward? There’s more but it’s getting late and this post expanded into areas I hadn’t planned on. I’ll continue it a bit more cogently next week.
In the meantime, read, write, review.