Writing Across Genres

I’ve spent the past 20 years writing in different genres, and I’m frequently asked how I do it. As the market grows and genres spawn sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, it’s become such a broad topic, I’m not sure anyone can actually cover the subject exhaustively. Several years ago, I asked the members of my longest continuous running workshop to tell me what they’d want to hear if I did a workshop on the subject. They came back with a few suggestions, so I thought I’d share them here.

romance novel with roseOne asked: “How is writing a romance different from writing a mystery, different from writing a time travel in terms of mind-set, creative process, & plot?”

I think that every genre and sub-genre has its own language, its own rhythm, and its own feel. Short contemporary romances are far different from long contemporaries in terms of pace, rhythm, and language, and those are different from romantic suspense.

Romantic suspense is as different from traditional mystery as night from day, and time travel is completely different from fantasy romance. That’s one reason I was never a big supporter of the once-common wisdom to brush up a manuscript that had been rejected, lengthen it or shorten it, toss in a ghost or take the ghost out, and submit the manuscript to an entirely different publisher.

Submitting to a line that is similar in tone and texture is fine, of course, but I’ve heard editors comment about manuscripts that have obviously been redone, and I think authors make a mistake when they put themselves in that position.

I think it would take a fairly new editor without much experience not to recognize a short contemporary that’s been turned into a long one, or vice versa. There’s a big difference in the world view of the readers of the various genres, as well.

When I’m writing a long contemporary romance, I’m writing to people who believe that in spite of a few problems, life is generally good and love conquers all. The characters are rarely truly cynical people, and if one appears cynical, there is good underlying motivation for the attitude. In traditional romance, characters generally believe in the human race and they’re fairly upbeat people as a general rule.

When I’m writing a time travel romance, I find that I can be a little more cynical about life, but I still have to write with the belief that love conquers all—even to the point of leaving behind everything that is familiar, everyone the character loves, and settling in happily in a new time period.

It’s personally very difficult for me to believe that someone could willingly walk away from loved ones, so when I write time travels I tend to make the traveler something of a loner, with very few people to leave behind. And the one time I didn’t, the loss of his loved ones was an ongoing problem during the book.

Fairy LanternStill and all, in time travel romance, fantasy romance, vampire romance, shapeshifter romance, or any other kind of paranormal or fantasy romance, the overriding belief is that anything is possible, even the impossible and that romance will win the day.

Inspirational romance, especially Christian-centered romance, will be decidedly different in tone than an erotic romance, and not just in the noticeable presence or absence of sex. The characters’ views on life, family, love, and politics will be vastly different. Their thoughts and thought processes will differ.

In romantic suspense, the life view may be even more cynical, and though love doesn’t necessarily conquer all, it is a great healer. And, of course, as you move through all the various subgenres of romance and romantic suspense, things change a bit. But still, the language is romance language, in general a bit softer and more flowery (for want of a better description) and more introspective than some other genres.

When writing straight mystery, love doesn’t really play a part in the world unless love, the quest for it or the determination not to lose it, is the catalyst for the murder. In general, characters in these books don’t have to believe that love conquers anything—and neither does the author.

Obviously, if the life view is different for each type of book, it’s important to make sure that you’re in the right mind-set when you approach the book.

If you have a somewhat cynical view of life and you’re trying to write short, sweet contemporary without a lot of success, that difference may account for some of the problems you’re experiencing.

If you’ve been raised to believe that sex before marriage is wrong and you’re trying to break in to the market writing sizzling hot books, you may have trouble finding the success you want.

And if you see nothing wrong with a good roll in the hay on the first date, or if “date” is a loose description of the characters’ hook-up, but you’re trying to break in by writing for a sweet market, you just might have the same problem.

Angry ManNow, the truth is, that most of us have more than one side to our personalities, and that’s where getting into the right mind-set becomes important.

I’m capable of feeling both cynical and optimistic about the world and the people in it, so making sure that I’m in the right frame of mind is vitally important when I move from one genre to another.

If I’ve just finished writing a murder mystery, that is the time for me to do my next mystery proposal while I’m still in that frame of mind.

The first thing I would do before sitting down to write a Harlequin Superromance was to read one or two just to get back into the right frame of mind and to begin to feel the rhythm of the speech for the book I needed to write and the world my characters were going to live in.

In general (and remember, I’m talking strictly in generalities here since there’s not time nor space to become more specific) mysteries and suspense novels flow at a different pace and use a different set of words than do their romance-genre cousins. Chapters are probably shorter. The pace is probably quicker. There’s much less introspection, especially about relationships with other characters.

Chances are, if you treat a romance reader to three pages of introspection about what a character is feeling and why, or how another character looks and what your POV character thinks about that, she’ll be perfectly okay with it. Offer a mystery reader three pages of introspection about any topic and you’ll probably lose the reader.

Writing across genres and absorbing pieces of different genres into your books may not be as difficult in these days where the publishing world has changed so drastically. Authors no longer have to convince an editor to take a chance on their work, but they still have to come across believably to readers. No matter how much you may love a particular story, if it doesn’t ring true to readers, you may not achieve the success you want with it.

Bottom line, the advice I would give to any writer today is the same advice I would have given twenty years ago: Read. Read, read, read. Read voraciously. Read all kinds of books. Understand reader expectations for the genre, sub-genre or sub-sub-genre you want to tackle. It’s the best kind of research any of us can do.


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