Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Tag Tackles Genres. Again.

I’ve talked about genres before on this blog, but a conversation with my friend Wonderdog led to tackle it again.

Wonderdog was marvelling over my ability to write many different genres, and I said my books were all similar types of story, just with a different genre focus. I mentioned one book I was struggling with, since I couldn’t decide if it should be fantasy or romance. We then got to talking about what I would need to change to make it fit into one category or the other.

Firstly, it is worth covering what genre is:

Simply speaking, genre is the primary emotion of the book. It is also a label that allows booksellers and librarians to easily shelve your book so it can be found by readers who will enjoy reading it.

So, what do I mean by the primary emotion? Well, the primary emotion you should feel while reading a horror novel is fear. The primary emotion you want to experience while reading a romance novel is love or infatuation. Action is excitement. Thriller is tension. Drama is often nostalgia. Fantasy is wonder. Obviously, most novels will have a range of emotions. It’s very difficult to make someone feel an emotion strongly without contrast. To have high highs, you need low lows.

However, in most cases, the primary emotion is going to correspond with the genre.

And when people go looking for a book, what they are really looking for is how that book will make them feel. Good, sad, intelligent, whatever. Which is why you should want to be grouped in the correct genre in bookstores. If you are grouped in the wrong genre, then people are not going to get what they want, and they are going to be disappointed.

Not knowing your genre doesn’t make you cool, special or different. It just makes it hard for your book to find readers, and tells me it has no strong emotional impact.

Have you stopped bragging about defying genre now? Good. Let’s go on.

Next Topic: What Makes A Story One Genre Or Another?

Quite simply, it’s the focus and word use. In a previous post, I talked about atmosphere and gave three descriptions of the same room. I used those examples to demonstrate how you can take the same information and, in the way your present it, completely change the reader’s perception.

Genre is basically the same. It’s not the content itself, but how you present it. Take for example a man with a sword. In a fantasy, I might introduce him like this:

He was big, brutish. The sword at his side had seen a lot of use. He moved like a fighter, light on his feet and much too alert to be the simple merchant he claimed.

However, in a romance, he might look a bit more like this:

He was tall, roguish. The sword at his side had seen a lot of use. He moved like a dancer, light on his feet, his bright blue eyes alert and attentive. He looked much too capable to be the simple merchant he claimed.

Instead of big and brutish, he becomes tall and roguish. Why? Because big and brutish are not sexy, but tall and roguish sounds like the sort of man women would like to meet. In both cases, he is light on his feet. However, in one he is compared to a fighter, in the other, a dancer. With the added bonus of alert blue eyes.

To go back to the setting and place blog post examples:

Safe and exciting:
The den was lit with cheery, jumping candlelight. Two overstuffed leather couches would be perfect for reading in on cold winter days. The bookshelf was overflowing with titles, new and old, and the TV was so big, it took up half the wall, almost as good as a movie theatre.

Tense and scary:
The den was cold and sallow in the flickering candlelight. Two overstuffed couches stood hulking on opposite sides of the room, like sagging, bloated monsters about to fight. The dusty bookshelf, spilled over with books, both forgotten and abandoned. The TV was the worst of all, a vast yawning blackness that took up almost the entire wall.

I would consider the first example to be suitable for a YA action or even romance, and the second to be a horror or thriller.

How Does The Reader Feel?

At the RWA conference last weekend I was talking to some awesome fellow writers about my psychology degree and if I thought it was better than a writing degree. The short answer is ‘yes’. However, that is true for me, and might not be true for everyone else. It depends on your skill and temperament.

I quickly realised the ladies I was speaking to thought psychology was important to learn how to write characters. Which it is. However, you get a lot more out of psychology when you apply it to readers.

There is a joke in competition judging: The story that makes you cry the most wins.

Think about best-selling books. People are passionate about them. They felt something strongly while reading them. Same with blockbuster movies. What about big budget movies that fail? When was the last time you watched a big budget movie that tanked? How did it make you feel? Sort of meh? Like, it was okay, just… meh?


When you are writing a horror, you want the reader to feel afraid. When you are writing a romance, you want the reader to feel caught up in the character’s infatuation. For some of us, this just happens. We can do this innately, by writing things that make us feel those things.

However, you can often have a lot more emotional impact if you consciously think about what you want the reader to feel. Research how to make them feel that way. Both by learning about psychology, and reading fantastic books and studying how other people do it.

Make sure your book is delivering on the promise of its genre.

And if you aren’t already, follow me on twitter. I always link back to new blog posts and often post really cute pictures of my cats. What more could you ask for?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Writing Skill Point Allocation

Fair warning, this post is less of a writing lesson, and more of a brain dump. I’m talking about ideas I haven’t really finished developing, so it may be a little scattered. It will give you a terrifying insight into how my mind works though.

In ‘On Writing’ Stephen King talks about the writer’s toolbox. I am not sure if he coined the term, but ‘On Writing’ was where I first read about it.

It refers to the idea that writing skills, and elements of writing, are tools in a toolbox that writers use to construct stories. Stephen King suggests we need to use the correct tool for the job. For example, if you wanted to show that a character was crass, you could use dialogue.

It’s quite common for writers to use these tool metaphors when speaking about the different elements of writing: description, exposition, dialogue, etc.

It can be a useful metaphor. However, on Friday the 28th of July, I went to an hour-long discussion panel with CS Pacat and Peter Ball at the QWC. It was quite a general talk, but Pacat is a master wordsmith, with a fantastic understanding of writing and writing elements. It’s no surprise her books have been such a success. While the talk wasn’t focused on writing skills, she did mention two very interesting concepts, one of which, was the idea of ‘writing skill point allocation’.

She and Peter were discussing authors such as Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown and Suzanne Collins, who many readers find to have a number of stylistic weaknesses, but are nonetheless very successful as authors. They have what Pacat calls ‘narrative traction’ and after a little googling, I have concluded it is a term coin by Pacat, and one I would like to discuss further in a later blog post.

An audience member asked if having great narrative traction meant you had to sacrifice other writing strengths and Pacat said: “That’s an interesting question. I don’t think so, I think it’s just if you have ten writing skill points and you allocate five of them to narrative traction, then you only have five left to put into all the other things.”

As an avid gamer, I instantly loved the metaphor. Writing Skill Point Allocation. It made so much sense. As in video games, you see some writers who are all-rounders, allocating their points evenly and not really excelling anywhere. Then you see others who have gone full glass-canon. All their points are in one area, leaving the others woefully inadequate.

However, since narrative traction tends to sell very well, those who have allocated all their points writing points there, still do quite well. Even if their world building, characters and general style are somewhat lacking.

This morning, I was reading a sample of a romance novel. The emotional resonance was so intense, within half a page, I was completely invested in these two characters and their relationship. However, the dialogue was awful, there was virtually no description and the exposition was so heavy-handed and awkward it made me cringe.

Still, I was going to click buy. Just because the emotion resonance was spectacular. Until the tension broke right before the sample ended. The two characters confessed they loved one and other and I thought: ‘Well, there’s no point in reading anymore. The tension is resolved.’ It didn’t matter what the rest of the book was about, I had what I came for.

The author should have invested a few points in conflict and tension.

It occurs to me, I have no idea where my own writing points are allocated. For my own personal development, I am writing a list of writing skills. I’m going to re-read some of my favourite books, giving them points in each skill until I can tally their final score. I’d also like to compare that to any sales data I can dig up to compare their final tally and the areas they excel to raw sales data.

As Pacat identified, I think the books that sold better will have higher scores in specific areas. I think a lot of best sellers have very high narrative traction skills, however I suspect my personal favourite books will score higher on character development and world building.

The current list of skills I have identified (which I am still adding to) is as follows:

- Character development
- Dialogue
- Exposition
- Description
- Narrative Traction
- World Building
- Emotional resonance
- Sociological resonance
- Sensory resonance
- Style
- Voice
- Pacing
- Tension and Stakes
- Structure and plotting
- Action

Since I already have 15 skills on the list and we all use most of them in some way or another, even if it is poorly, the base number of points a person can have is probably 15, one in each. When I analyse works, the maximum score someone can receive in a skill will be ten.

However, looking at my favourite authors, I can already see they would receive different scores for different books. Skill level is not set in stone and they will rise and fall depending on the project, and probably the day of the week.

So why am I sharing all this?

Well, hopefully to give you a new perspective on writing that will help you improve yours. And help you give better feedback to others. If we can first identity these skills in writing, then learn how they function, we can help others identify their weaknesses and show them what skills they need to develop to improve.

I’m not sure if I will ever be able to disconnect from my own writing enough to rank my own skills realistically. However, I do have at least three skills that I am consciously trying to improve and learn more about. (Dialogue, narrative traction and emotional resonance.)

Maybe looking at this list you feel the same way, and you suddenly know what you want to research and look for in other people’s writing. Or maybe you’re more objective than me and are willing to sit down and analyse your own writing to identify where your strengths and weaknesses are.

If you can think of any authors you think have earned a ten in any of those fifteen skill areas, please posts a comment here or drop me a line on twitter and tell me who they are I’d love to check them out!