Skip to Content

Editor's advice 3 - Genre writing


Genre writing

Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. is a long-serving WritersServices freelance editor. This new series, based on the advice she has given writers over the years, deals with the most common problems she has encountered in the manuscripts which cross her desk.

In the third article Maureen deals with genre writing.

Genre – there are no short cuts to success

Some manuscripts lodge in the mind, long after the report has been written and sent back to the author.

There was one particular science fiction novel; it was beautifully written, the author hadn’t put a foot wrong anywhere, and if only I could have sent it back to 1970 in a time machine, her fortune would have been made. However, in the twenty-first century, it was simply a well-constructed period piece.

There was the crime writer whose characters were springing off the page, larger than life, but who were trapped in the world’s most pedestrian plot, waiting to do something far more scandalous and innovative with their time, because no one had told the writer that a crime novel could have characters as well as plot. If only the writer had read Margery Allingham, whose baroque characters were part of the very fabric of her novels.

And, much though I hate to say it, the people who’ve read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and think ‘hey, I can do that’ are legion, and their novels are generally not very good. In fact, most of them have never read Lord of the Rings itself, but have read a book by someone who read Lord of the Rings and thought ‘hey, …’ By the same token, watching a few vampire films does not necessarily qualify you to write a horror novel any more than seeing Bridget Jones a few times means you know how to write a chick-lit novel.

Go into any high street bookstore and the shelves are heaving with genre novels. Most people read genre novels somewhere along the way, and genre novels are what most people, intentionally or not, set out to write. The intentional thought process goes something like this: there are loads of genre novels being published, ergo, there’s a market for genre novels, so I’ll read a couple of these, get a feel for what’s needed, and hey presto, I too can knock out a few genre novels and make some money as well … because most people read genre novels, rinse, repeat. The unintentional thought process runs: I love reading crime novels, I want to write a crime novel, I want a detective who does this, this, and this.

In fact, I rate the chances of the unintentional writer over those of the writer who brutally reasons out what the market will apparently sustain because the unintentional writer is at least starting from a position of knowledge, even if the first couple of drafts are a bit rough, while the brutal reasoners are often alarmingly mechanistic in their approach.

Most genre readers are extremely discriminating creatures. I once heard two elderly women, avid readers of romances, discussing their likes and dislikes in the kind of technical detail that would not have been out of place in a university seminar. They knew what they liked, they knew why they liked it, and why they didn’t like the rest. What’s more, they could spot an author who was in it for the bucks rather than because they understood and cared about the genre.

The same is true of any other genre reader. I’ve been reading science fiction, fantasy and crime novels since I was a teenager, and I can spot when a writer doesn’t fully understand the mechanics of their chosen genre. It may not matter to a casual reader but it really matters to the fans, and if they don’t like what they find, they’ll be telling their friends why the novel is rubbish.

So, what do you do about it? How do you become a successful genre writer?

You do it by getting to know your chosen genre intimately. You do it by writing, of course, but you also do it by reading a lot of genre novels. And I do mean ‘a lot’. You read a lot of genre novels in order to get the overall ‘feel’ of things. You read modern genre to understand what’s currently ‘hot’ so you can play with the ideas and extend them, rather than simply regurgitating the same old ideas. You read the back catalogue to understand what the current writers read before they got started. You can look for ideas, yes, but you’ve still got to do something new with them. You see, like all literature, genre has history. In most instances, the history extends back no further than the mid-nineteenth century, but that’s plenty. The best authors are aware of it and acknowledge it though they’re always trying to do something new. To be a good genre author, you need to know where you’ve come from in order to figure out where you’re going.

Genre writing is not about trying to construct a toolkit of literary bits and bobs that can be bolted together in new, pleasing, and of course money-making, arrangements while ticking all the right genre boxes. Whatever you may think, genre doesn’t work like that. Trust me, it just doesn’t. The joins invariably show. I can generally tell you which three fantasy books you cribbed your ideas from, and which two films you watched before you sat down and wrote that vampire novel.

Like everything else, genre writing is hard work, requires as much research and effort as ‘literary’ writing, if not more. It’s not a way to make a quick buck. You have to care about it just as much as you’d care about any other kind of writing. And if you do, the chances of success are so much greater.

An Editor's Advice 1 on Dialogue
An Editor's Advice 2 on doing further drafts
An Editor's Advice 3 on genre writing
An Editor's Advice 4 on planning
An Editor's Advice 5 on points of view
An Editor's Advice 6 on autobiography and travel
An Editor's Advice 7 on manuscript presentation

See also Maureen's many reviews of writing books in our Resources section.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian.

© Maureen Kincaid Speller 2007