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ASK THE EDITOR Knowing One's Genre: It's Only Half The Battle

By Susan Malone

March, 2000

As everyone who's tried to sell a manuscript knows, books to be published are divvied up into genres and categories (which may or may not be apparent on bookstore shelves). Specifications such as word count, gender of protagonist, age of protagonist, actual sex vs. that hinted at, type and number of conflicts, etc., etc., have their own requirements depending upon genre, and the category within said genre. Yes, that does get complicated.

But those specifics are stated, and can easily be found under a publisher's guidelines.

What becomes a bit more hazy concerns our perceptions of what the genres mean as to character, plot, and style, and where writers get confused is in differentiating between what constitutes good writing, and how that may SEEM to conflict with genre requirements.

For example, Thrillers must definitely be plot driven. But that doesn't mean the characters can be cardboard (although many a bestseller, and best-selling author, would seem to contradict this. That, however, is another column completely), or the writing flat. Good writing is good writing, no matter in what genre it is published. And good writing can be learned. But it must be studied and practiced, diligently, patiently, and indefinitely.

Another example of writing-quality misconceptions is the Traditional Western category. We all know the formula for a good western–hero encounters conflict, hero meets girl, bad guys present obstacles, hero overcomes conflict and gets girl. Okay, so that's a bit oversimplified, but you get the drift. And though an old category indeed, these westerns are often maligned as just formula work. But take a closer look. Yes, many series are filled with pulp, but so is every other published genre. Pick up one of the master writers here, and take a look at what he or she does right. I defy anyone to read many of Elmer Kelton's books (and I use the qualifier because I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading them all), and fail to find wonderful literature. Not only gripping plots but marvelous, multifaceted characters, and writing that must justly be called literary.

What happened to the flat formula?

Many writers think they can concentrate solely on one aspect of writing or another, because they only write, say Romance. And before the Romance Writers jump on me, I am saying that this is in no way the case. In fact, Romance and Women's Mainstream are blending as we speak, into a hodgepodge of a genre (which again, is my own opinion and another column). The various categories of Romance do still exist (and therefore one must conform to the required specifications for submission), but everything is changing. Or pick up a James Lee Burke mystery, and try to argue that plot is the essence. I'd counter that character is. Not to mention the style itself. Of course, he also writes pure literary as well. Fancy that.

The point here is that no aspect of the process can be slighted, no matter in what category one writes. And while it is vital to know the specifications and requirements of genre writing, that in no way absolves one from perfecting the other elements. Especially for new writers. ALL of the genres are becoming more and more competitive, and breaking in has never been more difficult. This will only continue (unless, of course, one decides to self-publish, which is another entire series of columns).

It goes back to what your mom always told you–anything worth doing is worth doing well. Even if it's writing cereal jingles. Oh, Lord, the cereal-jingle-writing companies will be after me now.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. SEVEN books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last two years. Her own newest nonfiction, FIVE KEYS FOR UNDERSTANDING MEN, co-authored with Gary L. Malone, MD, is out now. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com