Decide where your book fits (if it does fit). No one likes hearing it, but there are certain guidelines to follow when writing in specific fields. If you are writing an action/suspense novel, then your primary emphasis is on action. That's not to say that you shouldn't have good characterization, but you should not emphasize the characters at the expense of slowing down the action. Remember the perspective of the reader: when they bought your book, or picked it up to read, why did they do that? What are they looking for?
As I've said before, the second most important thing an aspiring writer should do (with writing being number one) is read. Read everything you can get your hands on in the field you are trying to write in. Read the published authors in your field. Read the good ones. Read the bad ones. Dissect the books and try to find commonalties, then find where some authors were a little different.
Walk into a bookstore and look at how it is laid out. You have a fiction section; a mystery section; a science fiction section; etc. etc. You should be intimately familiar with the section that you propose to write in. You should know who the authors are. You should know who the publishers are. You should be a member of the appropriate writer's group, for example, Sisters In Crime for mystery writers. Optimally, you should go to a writer's conference where a writer in your field will be and try to get information first hand. Go to the library and look up copies of Publishers Weekly and go through the reviews and see what is being published.
I am not saying that you have to fit into a genre. I am simply saying that most writers do. If you look at the recent history of publishing, there are certain names that stick out: King, Clancy, Crichton, Grisham, etc. What each of these have in common is that they basically "launched" a new genre. That's not to say that there weren't horror books before Stephen King, but it is to say that somehow King did something a little different and broke open the field. In the same manner, Tom Clancy is the leader of the pack in military techno-thrillers.
Sometimes when I talk to other writers, I realize that pretty much everything has been done before. The secret is to do it better and/or do it slightly differently with a new twist.
As I will discuss at length in the business section, though, you really cannot try to beat the market place. The time lag between concept and being in the bookstore for most authors averages around three years. So while lawyer books might be hot this year, don't count on it being hot by the time you get that book done and marketed. Write what you can write and what you want to write. I remind you of genre only to make it easier for you to study what has been done to help you do what you want to.
There are times when you don't want to fit in a genre. One of my publishers doesn't want to list my AREA 51 series of books as science fiction because they feel they can reach a broader audience if they label it mainstream. Mainstream is what everything that doesn't definitely fit into one of the categories of genre—which are basically: science fiction/fantasy, mystery and romance—goes.
A key thing to remember, also, is that your story does not have to be enjoyed by everyone. If you are writing a romance and you hand it to someone who has never read—nor likes— romance novels, to read and critique, don't expect very good feedback. If one person in ten out of your writer's group says: "Hey, I really liked that." then think about it—ten percent of the selected population liked your story. If ten percent, or even one percent, of the people who enter a bookstore wants to buy it, then you have a bestseller.
Earlier I mentioned that it seems like most aspiring writers (and writing programs) disdain genre and try to write books about "life". But go back to my analogy to being a student of architecture. The reason I always suggest to a new novelist to write a genre novel or two first before moving on to the Great American Novel is because it is like the architecture professor giving his student a set of blueprints and saying: "Here's a rough set of guidelines of buildings like the one you want to build—and all these guidelines worked. Now, use these as a reference and design your own."
Putting a novel together is so difficult that any way you can help yourself in the beginning is useful and, not to beat this to death, but making not only the subject of your novel, but the format, a familiar one will help you. If you read five romance novels a week, then you have "studied" romance writing quite a bit. You know the format. The flow of the book. You even know quite a bit about the business end (you know authors, publishers, and the market.).
I'm not saying write "formula" books. I will talk about this again in the business section. The point, though, is that genre is not only the way publishers look at books and categorize them, it is also the way readers categorize books.
Another helpful aspect of understanding what genre you are writing in, is that there are writers groups for most genres. Sisters In Crime comes to mind (address in Appendix 4). There are science fiction groups, mystery groups, and fantasy groups. There are also conventions and workshops designed specifically for those areas, such as Boucheron.
Regardless of genre, your goal should be to write the best possible book you can both in terms of plot and characterization.
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