While we might all harbour hopes of some day writing a startlingly original novel, there are many advantages to writing genre fiction. There’s a game plan in place, for starters; a set of well-tried and tested literary conventions that, if you’re a new writer, will guide you on your way. Publishers also know how to market you; be it fantasy, or horror or romance, there’s generally a well-worn path to getting your book on the shelf, and off it just as quickly, with any luck.
Genre also sells. And with sales figures for all kinds of fiction experiencing some stress lately, a book which immediately lets potential readers know by its cover, its title and its position on the shelf exactly what they’re getting for their money is a safer bet these days than that amazingly original story about a midget-like race that lives under the MacGillicuddy Reeks. Genre readers on the whole are fiercely loyal, and it’s the bestselling genre titles that keep the industry afloat.
Also, and call me biased, a lot of genre fiction is simply very good (Marian Keyes, Jo Nesbo, Stephenie Meyer …). So if you’re looking to make a living, and reach as many readers as you can, you could do a lot worse than write a decent thriller, or some quirky women’s contemporary fiction, and to hell with what the literary critics say.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it looks easy, though. We’ve all done it starting out. When I was a teenager, Mills & Boon novels used to be passed covertly amongst our dormitory beds – steamy titles like ‘His Wicked Way’ and ‘She Loved Too Much’ – and after devouring one or two of them I was absolutely certain that I could write something just as good. Dark brooding hero meets slightly ditzy heroine, they row for a hundred and fifty-seven pages and then fall into a passionate kiss: job done, right? I duly knocked out a couple of chapters, thinking I’d write under a pseudonym like Tilly Templeton and nobody would ever know it was me.
I got a prompt and courteous rejection letter for my efforts. The editor suggested I try to ‘develop an original voice’ and ‘three-dimensional characters’. I was advised to read extensively within the genre, especially their top authors who managed to write prolifically yet originally every time, and then to pin-point what I might have to say that would be different.
It was the most useful rejection letter I was ever to get.
So the real question is, how to stand out in a niche market, yet without being so different that you’re going to alienate readers who expect a certain type of story? The last thing you want is Amazon reviews that say, ‘it wasn’t at all like the cover suggested, and I was really disappointed.’ But even worse would be, ‘totally predictable and bored the pants off me.’
Tone. This is one of the obvious ways you can tell essentially the same story but with a new twist. Are you hilariously funny, by any chance? Does dry irony come off you in waves? Are you able to tell a story wryly, quirkily, blackly, or with suspense, intrigue, mystery? Agents and editors are always on the lookout for a different voice. So if you’ve got one, don’t be afraid to shout.
Setting. (Don’t go too wild though; remember those readers’ expectations.) Setting is obviously more important in some genres than in others, but if you can come up with a quirky or unusual landscape, it can put a new slant on an old story.
Break the rules. I write contemporary women’s fiction (or chicklit, if you must) and while there’s still a stubborn perception that it’s only about romance and shopping, the field actually encompasses a whole plethora of sub-genres. Themes have expanded to include marriage, depression, family, alcoholism, grief, betrayal to motherhood to name just some. Novels don’t routinely end with a kiss and a trip to buy new shoes, and this is because writers before us have already broken the rules. They’ve pushed boundaries with characterisation and subject matter. They’ve eschewed happy endings in many cases, and thrown a couple of fingers up at the idea that all women want to read about is finding Mr Right. So while the conventions are there, it’s sometimes necessary to break a couple of them in order to make your book stand out.
Keep changing. Nobody wants to write the same book over and over again. Your sales will fall, and you’ll go mad. Some writers allege that, once they’ve written a successful genre book or two, they feel pressure from their publishers and agents to keep producing the ‘winning formula’. In my experience, publishers want you to stay fresh; they want you to bring your audience along with you as you grow and develop as a writer, instead of stagnating. So this means trying something new every time. For my eighth novel, Would I Lie To You?, I wrote in the first person, which I’d never done before. It was daunting, but it gave me a completely new perspective and I felt like I was writing my first novel all over again.
Keep an eye on the market. Genre fiction is evolving too. The boom in digital books sales, and access to the market by authors who can’t or don’t want to be traditionally published (by the traditional genre rules) is having an impact. There’s also an increasing crossover between literary and genre fiction, as writers and publishers seek to broaden their readership base. So while the genre you’re writing for might still have a firm label, the reality may be that the top sellers on the shelves are already pushing it in a new direction, and you need to ensure that what you’re writing is still relevant.