Showing posts with label genre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label genre. Show all posts

Thursday, April 24

Chapter Length And Genre

Chapter Length And Genre


The other day I wrote about James Patterson (see: 7 Tips From James Patterson For Writing Suspenseful Prose). I learned a lot about the man, things I had known but hadn't thought too much about. For example, Patterson sells more books than anyone else and has done so since 2001; one out of every seventeen hardcover books sold has Patterson's name on it.

Now, granted, Patterson doesn't write all these books himself. Some believe that whenever he writes a book with another author that Patterson's sole contribution is his name on the cover.

While I wouldn't be the least surprised if Patterson left the bulk of writing to his co-authors I think he contributes one very important thing: the outline.

Outlines


Whether are not to outline can be a contentious subject. Some writers feel outlines sap a story of its life, of its artistic worth. Others feel that without an outline they could waste valuable time going down dead ends, doing rewrite after rewrite after ... well, you get the idea.

One thing that I have heard from every writer who has used an outline is that it saves time. Sometimes a lot of time.

It came as no surprise that James Patterson uses a detailed outline. The extent to which it changed during the writing did come as a surprise. I believe that sometimes writers think of an outline as something set in iron, but it's not. It just gives you a detailed account of where you've been and where you intend to go. You can always change your mind.

I think the great advantage of an outline is that, like a map, it lets you know where you are.

Since Patterson's chapters are short, averaging about 600 to 700 words, even one paragraph of chapter summary composes a significant amount of the book. If his book is 60,000 words long, the outline would be about 1/6th the length of the manuscript!

Copywriting


A few months ago I began listening to the podcast Under The Influence, by Terry O'Reilly. The podcast is all about how advertising affects ordinary people. 

One of my favorite episodes is Advertising Alumni, about famous people who began their careers in broadcasting. When I heard James Patterson's name mentioned, it took me off guard. Here's an excerpt from the program:
"Patterson took a job as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson in 1971. He went from being a writer to Creative Director to running the ad agency in only two and a half years, and was later named CEO at the age of 39.

"While there, he penned the slogan, "I'm a Toys 'R Us Kid" for the toy retailer, and "Aren't you hungry for Burger King now" for the fast food giant.

"He wrote his first book on the side, called, The Thomas Berryman Number in 1976, but it was turned down by over 30 publishers.

"When it was eventually published, it would win Patterson the Edgar Award for Crime Fiction.

"But his breakthrough book came in 1992, when he published Along Came A Spider.

"Against all opinions in publishing, Patterson insisted the book be promoted with television commercials. He wrote, produced and paid for the commercial himself, and aired it in the three most influential book cities in America - New York, Washington and Chicago.

"When the ads went on, the book jumped onto the best seller list immediately.

"In 1996, James Patterson would leave the advertising world, and focus on novel writing full-time.

"Unsatisfied with the publishing industry's informal approach to marketing, he handles all his book advertising - from the design of covers, to the timing of releases, to the placement in retail stores. And he demands to see market share data and sales trends.

"Stephen King once called James Patterson, "a terrible writer."

"Patterson just shrugged it off, saying that thousands hate his stuff, millions like it.

"He has written over 100 novels in the past 30 years, 47 of which topped the NY Times best-seller list, making him a Guinness Book of World Records holder. And he has sold more books than Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined." 
My takeaway from this is that James Patterson has a goal: he wants to sell a lot of books. 

How is he doing that? By writing the kind of books people want to read. 

Of course, that's the trick, isn't it? Figuring out what people want to read, what kind of stories they'd like to hear. One aspect of this, one that I've overlooked until recently, is chapter length.

Chapter Length


I was in a drugstore yesterday and stopped by the rows of books they have at the back of their magazine section. Right on the end was one by Mary Higgins Clark (incidentally, Clark, like Patterson, used to be a copywriter)[1]. 

For my article on James Patterson I had gone through various books of his and calculated the average length of his chapters, which turned out to be around 640 words. As I stood in the drugstore isle, I opened one of Clark's books and looked at the length of her chapters. 

They were about the same length as Patterson's. 

When I got back home I checked and found that her latest book (published April 1, 2014), I've Got You Under My Skin, has an average chapter length of 768 words. I'll Walk Along (published May 12, 2011) has an average chapter length of 1,021.

You may be thinking: so what?

I mentioned these chapter lengths to a friend who doesn't read anything on the bestseller list and they were surprised. "That's short!" they said.

And it is. Very short. But that's only when you compare these books to books from other genres.

My Research


Here are the chapter lengths of two of the top sellers in the Amazon Kindle Store:

The Target, by David Baldacci. 
- Published: April 22, 2014
- Currently #1 on the Amazon.com Kindle Store.
- Around 1,555 words per chapter.
- Genre: Thriller, Assasination thrillers

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
- Published: Oct 22, 2013
- Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Currently #2 on the Amazon.com Kindle Store.
- Around 24,767 words per chapter.
- Genre: Literary Fiction.

Now, of course, that's not even close to being representative, but what a difference! The Target's average chapter contains 1,600 words while The Goldfinch's average chapter contains 25,000 words. That's a novella! That said, of course the books couldn't be more different. Baldacci writes light entertainment; a literary snack if you will; while Tartt's book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

I looked at a few more books and found that, as one would expect, there are trends within genre. Romance books tend to have longer chapters (about 3,000 words or so), as do science fiction novels. Thrillers, though, tend to have shorter chapters of around 600 or 800 words. 

I would like to write another post about this sometime, about the average chapter lengths of the bestselling books in each genre and how that has changed over time.

In Summary


It sounds simple, perhaps even simplistic, but I think that the key to James Pattersons phenomenal success has been, at least in part, his focus on creating stories readers want to read. I think he approaches writing with marketing in mind and uses his talent for catching the public's interest to write books that will entertain them.

Part of crafting a book that will entertain is knowing the expectations genre readers have when they open a book. For instance, thrillers are supposed to be, above all else, suspenseful. Page turners. Romance books are supposed to be about the emotions, the ecstasy of love won and the agony of its loss. And so on.

It may sound silly, trivial, but readers of a particular genre or sub-genre also expect chapters to be a certain length.

Common sense might tell us that a chapter can't be 600 words long. But Patterson shows us that it can. 

What genre do you write in? What is the average length of your chapters?

Notes/Musings



"Before beginning the actual writing of her books, Higgins Clark prefers to develop an outline and perhaps detailed character biographies. Each chapter is continuously revised as she writes, so that when she is ready to move on to the next chapter, the current chapter is considered done and is sent directly to her editor. By the time the editor receives the last chapter, the book is primarily done." (That information comes by way of A Conversation With Mary Higgins Clark.)

Photo credit: "Far de Capdepera" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, March 31

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre

Every story has a unique structure; no one structure fits them all. That would be boring. Good writing, good stories, may be a lot of things--thought provoking, exciting, uncomfortable--but they aren't boring. 

That said, stories of the same genre have a structure in common. Which really is just another way to say that all stories within a certain genre follow certain broad, general, rules. That is, after all, an important part of what makes a genre story a genre story! 

Genre


I know it's obvious, but for a story to be a murder mystery it must have both a mystery and a murder. There will also be various clues as well as a sleuth who investigates them. Certain characters will be suspects and there will be at least one murderer. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the sleuth will, at the end, reveal not only the solution of the mystery but how he winnowed away the lies and subterfuge to arrive, finally, at the truth. As a result, order is restored.

But there are different kinds of murder mysteries, each with a more particular, more exact, set of requirements.[5] A cosy or whodunit (think Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers) should have all the above plus a logical, rational, solution. No hocus pocus, no unfounded intuitions, are allowed. Also, the focus is on the mystery of the murder (it seems impossible that the person was murdered yet they were) as well as how the sleuth goes about solving the crime. In these stories it is crucial that the storyteller play fair with the reader and tell them everything the sleuth learns as he (or she) learns it.[7]

A hardboiled detective story, on the other hand, often focuses less on the mystery and it's solution and more on action and gritty realism. Thrillers are different. Though they generally crank up the suspense, thrillers have about as much mystery as any other kind of story. 

Another popular genre is romance. Breaking that down further, there's contemporary romance, fantasy, erotica, gothic, historical, military, paranormal, regency, and more. 

The thriller genre, on the other hand, breaks down into legal, military, political, (my favorite) psychological, suspense and techno-thrillers. And many, many, more.

My point is that each genre--mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, horror, etc.--breaks down into sub-genres and each of these sub-genres have their own conventions, their own requirements. Their own structure.

If one writes a book and then markets it as a psychological thriller but doesn't talk about their characters' psychological states, if they don't do a study of their characters emotions and how they change over time in response to the (multiple) tensions in their environment (as exemplars of this see William Golding's Lord of the Flies or Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club), then while they may have written a thriller there really wouldn't be anything uniquely psychological about it. As a result, anyone who bought the book who wanted to read a psychological thriller would be disappointed no matter how good the book was.

As Lorenzo Semple Jr. said in his interview with Lee Goldberg, if he sat down in a restaurant and ordered fish but the server brought him, instead, a beautifully cooked steak he'd be upset no matter how good the steak was. Why? Because he wanted fish! He'd feel deceived. Ripped off.

If a reader feels mislead about the kind of books they've bought then they aren't going to be happy with the book or, most likely, the author. Personally, I think that's the reason for the lion's share of one star reviews: a reader's expectations were not only disappointed, they were taken out behind the barn and shot. 

Since there are so many different genres and sub-genres I won't even try to talk about a typical structure for every one. Though, that said, I do talk in some length about mysteries--whodunits in particular--and what the requirements of that form are.

Further Reading/Links/References


1. Write Your Own Murder Mystery, by Lindsay Price over at theatrefolk.com.
2. List of literary genres, Wikipedia.
3. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James.
4. Mystery Fiction, Wikipedia.
5. It is often said that the primary distinction between genre and literature is that genre is plot/structure driven while literature is not (mainstream is often viewed as moodily occupying a no-man's-land between the two). Humbug! Literary stories simply don't have as rigid, or as much, of a structure, but they do have a structure. I love reading Ursula K. Le Guin on this subject and agree with her completely:

- Le Guin’s Hypothesis, by Ursula K. Le Guin over at Book View Cafe. In part she writes: "Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicates and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art?" Yes. That. Exactly.
- On Serious Literature, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I found this gem on Ms. Le Guin's website (ursulakleguin.com). It is a piece of flash fiction (only 577 words). Marvelous. 

6. Storyville: What is Literary Fiction? by Richard Thomas over at litreactor.com.

Thursday, May 9

4 Tips On How To Find A Genre To Write In

4 Tips On How To Find A Genre To Write In

Writing a story is great.

Writing a story that sells is even better.

The quality of a book obviously influences how well it will sell. Is it riddled with grammatical errors? Does it have narrative drive? Are the characters three dimensional? Do they have goals? Do they have something to win or lose? Are they likable or at least possible to identify with?

But the quality of a book isn't the ultimate arbiter of sales. Though I read and enjoyed Dan Brown's, The Da Vinci Code, no one would suggest it was a better book than, say, Ernest Hemingway's, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and yet it sold more copies by orders of magnitude.

Part of the task of a writer--a writer who seeks to earn their living from their scribbles--is to write a great story, the other, equally important part, is to sell the story.


Finding An Audience


As soon as one mentions selling it brings up the question of audience. Who do we want to sell our story to? Who would be interested?

In her article What I Learned from Thomas Edison and Steven Soderbergh and How it Applies to Novelists, Julianna Baggott recounts the story of Thomas Edison's first invention, a vote calculator, and how it failed because there was no demand for it. It was a wonderful piece of machinery that did exactly what Edison expected of it, but no one wanted it so it was a commercial failure.

I think writers have it a bit easier.

We have all heard this advice countless times before: write it, make your story as good (within reason) as you can, and as long as you love the story, it will sell. To someone. At some point.

But it would seem to make sense to at least have a certain audience in mind before one sets pen to paper. As Russell Blake holds (point #11), know your audience before you write your book:

Read a fair amount of the genre, look at the reviews of your competitors, of the bestsellers in your genre. Figure out your audience before you start writing. (Russell Blake's 26 Tips On How To Sell A Lot Of Books, My Paraphrase)


How To Pick A Genre To Write In


1. Write what you love


I'm probably the worst person to give this advice, I love reading murder mysteries but haven't written a single one. And I love experimenting and often write in quirky genres. But (as I remind myself constantly) there's nothing wrong with writing for the market.  One just has to find a popular genre that holds one's interest.

Don't misunderstand, I think stretching oneself as a writer is both good and necessary; if we aren't growing we're devolving, atrophying. BUT the rent must get paid and there's nothing wrong with picking a popular genre to write a book in.

Recently I've done a number of posts on how many authors write as much as 3,000 (or more!) words a day and maintain this frenetic pace. I think that a big part of the key to success as a midlist writer is to find one, two or (possibly) three genres you like to read, genres you understand, and then familiarize yourself with what is expected.

2. Understand the conventions of the genres you write in


Deny your readers what they expect (that the crime will get solved, that the lovers will live together in bliss for the rest of their natural, or unnatural, lives, and so on) and no matter the technical merits of your book there'll be hell to pay.

I'm not talking about a formula, not exactly, but (for instance) a romance writer isn't going to get far unless she understands that sometimes readers insist on a "happy ever after" (HEA) ending.

3. Short is good


One of the keys to indie success is to produce new work quickly and regularly. Judging from what Nathan Lowell and Russell Blake have said, novels do better than novellas, but in the interest of producing a lot of work quickly you might not want to choose a genre, such as high fantasy, where readers are used to 120,000 word tomes!

Also, I've found that it takes me much more time to revise a 80k manuscript than it does a 60k one. The longer work requires a more complex story and with a more complex story more things can go wrong.

4. Make a long term commitment


This is related to point 1, pick a genre you love. Another point that Nathan Lowell and Russell Blake agree on is that writing books in series helps to build an audience. Russell Blake went so far as to say that books in a series sold four times better than his standalone books.

That means that whatever genre you write your book in it should be something you could envision making a long-term commitment to.

This is why I think it's a mistake to ever write in a particular genre solely for the money. Can you imagine being tied to a series that stretches to 20 or so books and absolutely hating it? This has happened to several well-known authors (Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot and Sir Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes).

What genre(s) do you read? What genre(s) do you write in?

Other articles you might like:

- Russell Blake's 26 Tips On How To Sell A Lot Of Books
- Is There Such A Thing As An Aspiring Writer?
- Writing Exercise: Flexing Your Verbs

Photo credit: "HPIM0567" by enigmachck1 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, June 24

Ursula K. Le Guin On Literature Versus Genre

ursula k le guin, literature vs genre
Ursula K. Le Guin

What is the difference between genre and literature? Here's what Ursula K. Le Guin has to say about it:
I keep telling myself that I’m done writing about Literature vs Genre, that that vampire is buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and garlic in its coffin. And then it pops up again, undead. Its latest revival is a cheery one in an entertaining article, “Easy Writers,” in the May 28 New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who discusses the literature/genre divide and while seeming to make light of it does a pretty thorough job of perpetuating it.
 .  .  .  .
If we thought of all fictional genres as literature, we’d be done with the time-wasting, ill-natured diatribes and sneers against popular novelists who don’t write by the rules of realism, the banning of imaginative writing from MFA writing courses, the failure of so many English teachers to teach what people actually read, and the endless, silly apologising for actually reading it.

If critics and teachers gave up insisting that one kind of literature is the only one worth reading, it would free up a lot of time for them to think about the different things novels do and how they do it, and above all, to consider why certain individual books in every genre are, have been for centuries, and will continue to be more worth reading than most of the others.
You can read the rest of her excellent article here: Le Guin’s Hypothesis. Thanks to the Passive Voice Blog for bringing Ms. Le Guin's post to my attention.

This is completely off topic, but Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929 which, by my calculations, makes her 84 this year. She is one amazing lady. I think I need to re-read her book The Left Hand Of Darkness.

Tuesday, September 13

Indie Success Story Bella Andre: Two pennames are better than one


In the past 18 months Bella Andre has self-published 12 books in two genres: spicy contemporary romance and sweet teen romance. Further, she has published under two different pen names: Bella Andre (erotic romance) and Lucy Kevin (sweet young adult romance).

Her key to success?
Diversification across genres and author brands.
Thanks to Joe Konrath, here is her incredible story:
In April 2010, I began e-publishing with two sexy, contemporary, backlist Bella Andre romances. After having a bit of unexpected success in those early months, I knew my chance had come to finally write the book my readers had been sending me emails about for five years. When LOVE ME did better than I ever imagined--Joe and I spoke on the phone last summer and I remember telling him I was shocked to have sold 1000+ copies of that book. He cheered!--I realized there was something to this whole e-reading business.

Of course I quickly went out and bought a Kindle and then a Nook later that fall and most recently an iPad. I released a couple more backlist books in October 2010 and then an original sequel to my Bad Boys of Football series that had been released through Pocket a few years back.

Amazingly, GAME FOR LOVE went to #28 at BN.com and was one of the top 5 erotic novels on Amazon for months at $5.99. This June 20th I launched a 8 book contemporary romance series about the Sullivan family with THE LOOK OF LOVE. It hit #19 on BN.com right out of the gate and has been a consistent Top 30 romance bestseller at Apple. Frankly, the whole thing continues to blow my mind.

Meanwhile, my husband had been watching my e-numbers rise for these self-published Bella Andre books and he kept saying, “Put out those fun chick lit books you wrote that no publisher ever bought!” Because I’d written them several years earlier, they needed significant rewrites, but I had always believed in the novels...and I like my husband to feel like I listen to him now and again. :) But since those books were very sweet (and snarky all at the same time), I knew they couldn’t be published as Bella Andre books.

Lucy Kevin came into being on a cold January morning in the Northern California wine country. Honestly, I figured 6 people would buy her books. To say that I was shocked when more than 25,000 people had downloaded SEATTLE GIRL and FALLING FAST by the end of February is a huge understatement. I released a third Lucy Kevin book in March titled SPARKS FLY.

The thing people are surprised to hear is that I didn’t draw from my existing Bella Andre readership for the Lucy Kevin books. In fact, until the Washington Post article came out, no one knew that Lucy and Bella were the same person, because I wasn’t sure the readerships would overlap between my teen-friendly books and my super-sexy romances. With the Lucy books I got to experience launching a new digital author--and building that readership--entirely from the ground up. It's been a lot of work, but I've loved trying to figure out what made people want to take a chance on a book. Heck, I’m still trying to figure that out :) and then find enough hours in the day to actually make it all happen!

Amazingly, here’s what happened--in some cases retailers were more excited to feature Lucy Kevin because the chick lit/sweet romance novels could reach a bigger mainstream audience. It simply didn’t seem to matter that no one had heard of Lucy Kevin. The fun, flirty covers (Oh, hello new graphic design skills I never thought I'd need!) seemed to draw people to the books and I’m guessing the $.99 to $2.99 price points helped, as well. Once I’d developed relationships with retailers via my Lucy books (I’m a “PubIt! Pro” for Barnes & Noble’s self-publishing wing), my recent launch of the more mainstream Bella Andre THE LOOK OF LOVE became even bigger and better.

But wait, that wasn't all Bella did. Besides being a writer and graphic artist she is a singer-songwriter. She writes:
I took things another step further in April when I decided to incorporate multimedia in my latest Lucy Kevin young-adult romance, GABRIELLE. In my previous career I was a singer-songwriter, so I wrote five original songs (rather, my songwriting heroine, Gabrielle, wrote them during the course of the story) and linked to them via Youtube and iTunes as an ebook package to create not only added value and excitement for my readers, but also another potential revenue stream.

Here's Bella's analysis of her success so far:
I really like not having to depend on one author name to maintain--and build--sales. Having two brands means I can build sales with new books while offsetting risks. We all know that diversifying our financial portfolios is a good money strategy. I’ve found that diversifying my e-book portfolio has not only been a good financial strategy, but as importantly, it had been a really lovely creative strategy, too.

So if you have a new idea or platform – if you want to try something completely different from what you’re doing now – I say go for it! Even if you think no one will be interested, the truth is that until you put your book out there, you'll never know.
Bella is an inspiration; a very talented inspiration! What she says about writing under more than one pen-name, or at least in more than one genre, rings true to me. As independent writers we aren't strangers to risk, why not try and reduce it?

Joe's comments are, as always, one of the best parts of his guest posts. To read the rest of his great blog post, click here.

Cheers!

Monday, August 1

In Defense of Genre


In A Genre Writer Accepts Himself, Will Lavender writes:

There is a war against popularity in many MFA programs in America, and in my 20s, I was on the front lines. I wrote literary fiction, the only work serious and relevant enough to be worth my time. I cut my blue jeans off at the knees and called everything ironic. I read John Banville's "The Sea" by an actual sea. I wrote the kinds of hard-bitten, muscular novelettes young men are supposed to become famous for writing.
....
In those first thrillers I read, I actually found a common bond to the experimental writers I'd once mimicked; in some of these books -- Abrahams' "Oblivion" is certainly one -- the writer looks to unmoor the very literary style he has invoked. Abrahams' novel is a detective novel, but it is one that slowly becomes unhinged; it is Raymond Chandler held up to a fogged, cracked glass.

If Lavender's books -- Obedience and Dominance -- are as interesting and well written as this article, then I think they would be well worth a read.