Monday, November 18, 2013

Know What You Write--and Write It Right!

I promised some thoughts on the Baker's Dozen entries, so here you go!  Jodi covered all the main points in her excellent blog post last week, but I've got something I'd like to focus on here:


This has two meanings:

1.  Know your genre.  If you don't know what you're writing, how can you create a world that is believable?  For instance, if you don't know that science fiction and fantasy are two completely separate genres, how will your story make sense?  (There is no such thing as "science fiction/fantasy".  A story is either one or the other. There is such a thing as "science fantasy", which incorporates elements of both.  But, again, it's a separate genre, and you need to know it if you want to write it.)

Know, also, that "YA" and "MG" are not genres.  They are categories.  And within each category, there is a wide realm of genres, from contemporary to mystery to fantasy to historical.  If you are calling your story simply "YA" or "MG", that tells me right up front that you don't know what you're writing.

"Fiction" also doesn't cut it.  If you say that you write "Adult Fiction", that tells me nothing.  Is it a thriller?  A romance?  A fantasy?  You need to know what you are writing so that you can write it well.

2.  Once you know your genre, LEARN IT WELL.  In other words, read it.  Research it.  Talk to people about it.  And read it some more.

(And when you're reading it, make sure you are reading CONTEMPORARY WORKS.  Because reading HEIDI and THE LITTLE PRINCESS and THE BOXCAR CHILDREN is not going to prepare you to write a good, contemporary children's novel.  And that is what you need to produce--a contemporary novel.)

It seems like voice is most often a problem with middle grade novels.  Usually, it's a question of not nailing a middle grade voice at all--the "author voice" is imposing itself on the story, giving it a narrator-y feel and infusing the young characters' dialogue with adult-sounding words and phrases that simply don't work.  If you write middle grade, you need to read A LOT OF GOOD MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS.  And it also helps if you spend time with REAL MIDDLE GRADE CHILDREN.  For some reason, finding a really good middle grade voice is challenging.  The more you read and research, the better chance you'll have at nailing it.

We also came across some middle grade novels with a voice that sounded more YA.  The characters were TOO sassy and sophisticated for their ages.  There is a firm dividing line between MG and YA, so make sure you know which one you want to write, and then work on nailing that voice.

Less frequently, we ran across a YA with a voice that was too young.  Again, know your genre, and READ your genre.  A 16-year-old does not think, reason, or talk like a 12-year-old.  So it's important to know the difference.

Again:  READ.  READ.  READ WHAT YOU WANT TO WRITE.  You can't be a good writer without being a good reader!  If you try to do it, you will, in effect, be writing in a vacuum, and your novel will reflect that.

Think of this in terms of music.  There's jazz and pop and classical and Celtic and blues and country.  And dozens more.  And if you want to be a songwriter or performer, you need to know what it is that you're writing or performing.  Because if someone hires you to play jazz at his book launch party, and you show up and play Yiddish folk songs, someone's going to be unhappy.

"What do you play?"

"Oh, music."

"What kind of music?"

"You know.  MUSIC."

It doesn't work that way.  And it's the same with novels.

"What do you write?"

"Oh, fiction."

"What kind of fiction?"

"You know.  FICTION."  Or... "You know.  YA."  Or...  "You know.  MG."

(Just today, my barista asked me what I wrote.  I immediately said, "Science fiction and fantasy."  Because I know what I write!  And now he knows, too.)

Know what you write.  Read what you write.  Then you will be able to WRITE IT RIGHT!


  1. I've actually come across people who don't read AT ALL and expect to be able to turn out a good novel. I'm not saying it's not possible, but's pretty much impossible.

    But are you saying it's a bad thing to write in different genres? If I were to write five YA novels, all of different genres, would that be a no-no? I guess that would make it difficult to be well read in your genre, but that leads me to another question. How well is "well read"? Couple books a month? Couple books a week?

    I'm just curious because I believe I read a lot but I don't read a specific genre A LOT. One week I might read Rainbow Rowell's FANGIRL and the next, Rick Yancey's THE 5TH WAVE. Should I narrow what I write and focus my energy on only reading in that genre?

    I know these are just your opinions and there's no "rule" but I'd love to know what you (and everyone else)thinks :)

  2. Madseasongirl,

    It's perfectly okay to write in multiple genres! Just be aware that when you get an agent and sell your first novel, you'll be expected to write your second book in the same genre. If you don't want to do that, it's something to discuss with your agent during the offer of representation call. Because it's hard to brand someone who genre hops a lot. (I don't mean branding in a bad way. I mean like it would be confusing if you went to a Red Lobster in Austin and got seafood, but the one in Houston served Mexican food. Tasty, maybe, but not what you were in the mood for.)

    As for how many books one should read? That really depends on the writer. "As much as you can" is a pretty good amount. You'll want to know the market, as well as what's really popular, and what's winning awards, and just plain what you like. And you should read widely. Take in lots of genres. All Authoress is saying about reading genres is that if you're going to write in one, you need to be extra well-read in it so you can know what's currently being done.

    I tend to go on binges and read four or five books in a row between drafts, and otherwise one or two books a week, depending on how into the book I am/how writing is going. It averages out to about 80 or 85 books a year, including a few drafts of friends' books that I critique. (Goodreads says I'm at 72 books so far this year, but it's not counting the drafts and so on.)

    That helps?

  3. Yup, knowing your genre is very important. I attended the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference this past September, and participated in a critique session hosted by an agent. She had us go through an exercise where we wrote what genre we thought the book was based on the pages alone, what we thought it was after reading the "summary" (which could be in either the style of a synopsis or a back-cover blurb), and then each writer stated what he or she felt the book's genre was.

    There were only about three of us for whom most readers correctly guessed the genre (I was one, and so felt very special. :) ).

    The point being, even the first pages of your book set up a "promise" to the reader of what's to come. Like Jodi said, it's not that one is bad or "not tasty," but it can be a disappointment for the reader to expect one thing and get another.

    I will say that the more specific the subgenre, the more space there is for differences of opinion. I seem to recall a previous discussion on this blog about what "supernatural fantasy" means, vs., say, urban. The conclusion on the MSFV blog, IIRC, was that supernatural fantasy involves ghosts, spirits, etc. At the same critique session I mentioned, all of us, including the agent, concluded it was a term most often used for "supernatural romance" and, if "supernatural" were applied to fantasy, tended to mean more or less the same thing as urban fantasy (assuming it was a contemporary setting).

    So I think agents may be willing to forgive a misstep of subgenre. But if you don't know that you're writing romance and not fantasy, then yes, that is a problem.

  4. I am really, really surprised that this had to be brought up at all. Like, this is a thing people have problems with?
    I dunno, it's just strange to me. I kinda wish i could see some of the BD slush (but also, not at all because i do not envy all the reading and decisions you and Jodi had to make)

  5. Thanks Jodi, that does help. I'm still pretty new at this (working on my 3rd MS) and I got kind of nervous that I couldn't come out and say what genre I write. I mean, I know what genre each MS is, but they're all different.

    Usually I just read whatever I feel like but maybe I should make more conscious choices when it comes to what I read.

    Sarah, I don't think it's very surprising. Tons of people have problems with their genre, and as Authoress pointed out, it probably stems from not being as familiar with their genre as they should be. We're all in different stages in this industry, and if anyone reading this has genre confusion, don't beat yourself up about it. Learn from it and move forward.

  6. Jodi said all the good things. :)

    There aren't rules about how much reading is "enough". I absolutely don't read as much as Jodi does. I often long to be able to read when I have to do other things instead (this is especially true since I've started my editing business). But here's a thought, too--we usually write what we like to read, and we usually like to read certain things because, well, we like them. So if you REALLY hate paranormal romance, for instance, you don't have to force yourself to read it just to feel like you're "well read."

    Read what you love, read what others are raving about. And sometimes, read something that comes across your path that's so different from anything else you've read that it'll stretch you.

    But in the end, our writing and reading usually lines up.

    And yes, Sarah, it's a thing. One of the many steps along the way -- learning genre! :)

  7. When I haunted libraries in my youth, basically the library was divided into "adult" and "children" areas. These were divided into non-fiction (with Dewey numbers) and fiction. Fiction was sometimes subdivided into SF, mysteries, and a few other things, but often all the books were just shelved by author.

    Somehow I did okay finding books I liked in this chaos, but I'm not sure how the publishing industry managed!

  8. This is so true. I had a YA fantasy that I loved and adored. I worked on it for years and collected some lovely rejections. I even submitted it to MSFV. After so many rejections, I realized my 16-year-old characters were acting like 12-year-olds. I scrapped the entire manuscript, kept certain plot points and turned it into a middle grade. I just signed a contract with a small publisher last week. :) All I had to do was embrace my middle grade voice.

  9. Excellent post. I keep hearing the question 'Would this idea of mine be considered NA?" Well, if you've read NA you would know the answer. Same deal with any genre. If you have to ask the question, it means you're not reading the category/genre and you should be.

  10. Such great advice -- thank you! I'm new to this, and MG is indeed a super-special tricky dinosaur. Would love to hear your thoughts on MG with a range of character ages. I've been reading RJ Palacio's WONDER with my 9-y.o., and while he moves comfortably from the 10-y.o. MG narrator to the high school-age narrators, there's clearly a range of voices and maturity in what is marketed as an MG book.

    Also, what about something like Anne Ursu's BREADCRUMBS? The emotional story is so very clearly MG, yet the language is incredibly rich and poetic and sophisticated, and the story sometimes rather abstract.

    I've been wondering about this because my Upper MG fantasy WIP has a 12-y.o. MC whose relationships with adults are firmly MG-level rather than YA, and an emotional core that speaks (I hope) to MG readers. Still, the secondary MC is almost 15, holds down a job (albeit out of necessity), and must make big life choices on her own. And the MC finds herself immersed in this world and must adjust her expectations and behavior accordingly. There are also several adult protagonists and antagonists who are fleshed out enough to be more than merely foils/authority figures, so their POVs get some airtime. Yeah, this WIP's fantasy, so there's room to world-build a place in which young kids have more responsibility foisted upon them than in a contemporary novel. But still -- do agents and publishers run screaming from this sort of fuzziness these days? Is Upper MG even a thing?

  11. I'm so glad you said science fantasy was a genre. I'd like to think I have something to do with that ;-)

  12. If I tell you that Jodi taught me about it first, will you be very sad? :)

  13. That's cool. You've known Jodi longer :-) But this is explaining a lot of why I like you both so much.

  14. I love the way you explained all this. I think some new writers aren't sure. I know when I first started out (years ago), I didn't even know what MG meant. :)

    P.S. Now did you ever disclose your true identity? Because I've been waiting years to find out. ;)

  15. This is great advice - as always! Thank you!

    I wish I read as much as Jodi. That's truly amazing. I tend to go through feast/famine cycles, where I read a ton, then don't rad at all, for weeks. I'm trying to find a happy medium!

    But yes, reading, knowing what you're writing, exploring and getting to know your genre, are all essential.

  16. Hi, my name is Stacey and I'm a genre jumper. I write anything under the sun within MG/YA. I've even considered a pseudonym but until I'm published there's not a huge point in it.

    I do, however, think I know my way around those categories. Reading is a HUGE part of being a writer (a fun part!)

    Everythings a learning experience. Good luck everyone :)

  17. oh sorry, i wasn't very clear in my comment. My bad. i didn't mean that i didn't think there were writers out there who don't know what genre they're working in. I get that, and i know for a lot of writers, learning genre is just something they have to do. I meant that i was surprised that you get BD entries where they didn't know their genre, or didn't include it with the entry. I guess i just think if i didn't know something, i'd find out before i entered a contest. But i'm also the type of person who needs to write stuff down, sometimes, before i call someone on the phone...