How to Research a Genre #writing #genre

Whether a writer is trying a new genre or continuing in an old genre, genre research is a good idea. Lawrence Block, who wrote ‘Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print’ gives some instruction on how to do this research.

Block gave the example of how he did research for writing mystery short stories for various mystery magazines that in those long-ago days were plentiful. He admits voraciously reading through every magazine of that type he could get.

Since Block encouraged young writers to start with a novel since the short story markets had almost vanished, he suggested reading 8-12 books in the genre. But when he got more specific he suggested starting with six books by six different writers, some established writers in the field and some newer ones.

I would suggest a little more organized approach. Step One: Google the name of the genre. You want to find out: are there alternate names for the genre? Who are the big name writers in the genre right now? Who were the classic writers that were active earlier in the genre history? Can you find any current list of the best-selling books in the genre?

Don’t skip this step if you have been writing in the genre, have been reading the genre since age 8. You need to expand your knowledge and can’t do that sticking to the same old websites and same old writers.

After the research, pick some books. Pick 2-3 books from the current best-seller list, 2-3 books from current authors in the genre, and 2-3 from newer, less known authors.

In the book, Block gives as his example gothic novels. This was a sub-genre of romance. When I was a girl, there were whole sections of just gothic novels in shops. Then the genre pretty much died. The top writers of gothics started calling their books ‘romantic suspense’ or some such thing. I thought it was kind of interesting that Block just randomly picked a doomed genre as his example genre. It shows that a writer needs to be flexible in genre matters.

If you chose ‘science fiction’ as your genre, and you are a Christian, should you limit your reading to just Christian science fiction? Not really. Christian fiction in its broader sense— including not just Evangelicals but Catholic, Lutheran, and even Mormon authors— is still a limited group. Most Christians read more secular novels than specifically Christian ones.

Of course in the science fiction genre we are plagued by a lot of ‘award-winning’ authors that have no interesting ideas but are filled with Social Justice Warrior (SJW) conformity, and just the right kind of non-diverse left-wing diversity with a touch of fashionable hatred for ‘religious people’, mainly Christians and Jews.  If you are picking random books by random authors you may get stuck with one of these books. If the author is a newbie in the field, feel free not to finish the book, but if he/she/they/zie are well-established and actually make the genre best-seller lists, you may feel the need to force your way through it for educational purposes. I’d suggest rationing the poison, and reading a bit of something you actually LIKE after to get the stupidness purged from your mind.

Block suggests in the book that you don’t just read the books, but you write outlines of them This helps you see the structure of the book.

How do you write outlines for a book you are reading? Keep a notepad nearby. When you finish a chapter, write the main things that happen in the chapter. Page back so that you get all the character names right. Make sure that your chapter notes run to several sentences so that you get the main points covered.

When you finish the book, go through your chapter notes. If you have written a longish paragraph for each chapter, try to condense it down to two sentences covering the most important things. The desire is to end up with a tighter outline.

Now, read your draft 2 outline. Can you detect the three acts of the three act structure? Or the doorway of no return and the mirror moment that James Scott Bell speaks of in his how-to-write books?

After you have read through several books in this way, answer some questions. What do the books have in common? What is the minimum that readers of the genre expect, to show that the book IS in the genre? What are some plot elements that are so common in the genre that they might be stereotypes?

If you are trying a genre for the first time, genre research is essential so that you are able to actually know the genre requirements and expectations, and meet them. A more practiced writer in a genre may do research in order to renew their enthusiasm, and to detect changes in the genre. This is important if you tend to read the same authors over and over for years, and are reluctant to try new authors.


Sorting out the details of an as-yet unwritten novel #Writing

This is what happens: a story idea enters your head. You develop it— either by thinking about it, making stories in your head about it, or by writing down various details in a notebook. Before long you’ve got loads of material that need sorting.

The first question: is your material going to be expressed in a short story or novella? A novel? Several novels? It helps to have a general idea. If you have enough material for a seven-novel series, it won’t fit into a short story. Do you like the material a lot? You might be able to go for several novels on it. If it’s just a random idea, you might trim down the content to make it fit in a novella.

If you have more-than-one-novel’s worth: which story pieces would work for the first novel? And by first, I don’t mean chronologically first. You may have ideas that would work better as a prequel novel, after a first novel in the series is published.

I have one idea I’m working with. Some of the ideas I came up for backstory are too interesting— for me at least— to leave in the past, but they don’t work well for a Volume One of the series. So if I write from a better Volume One point, I can come back someday and write prequel. If I think it’s a good idea at the time.

Now, I am sure there are people who have ideas that march in an ordered fashion out of their heads. I’m the kind of person that creates a story-beginning and then marches backward into backstory, or forward into a youthful character’s old age. I create more story-pieces than I need, and am not organized enough to sort them out easily.

I use certain books to help me organize my ideas lately. Two are ‘Structuring your Novel Workbook’ and ‘Outlining your Novel Workbook’ by K.M. Weiland. (I also have ‘Structuring your Novel’ and ‘Outlining your Novel’ by the same author.)

Both of the workbooks have a lot of questions to answer about your story.  It helps remind you of ideas you’ve already had, so you can write them down. And it reminds you of things you might have to create, such as backstory.

Now, you can change, omit or add questions. If you are writing sci-fi, fantasy or a historical, it doesn’t do to answer questions that assume that every character came from a normal American family and went to a normal/horrible American public high school. Your character’s family background and formal education, if any, may be wildly different. Maybe your character is a space alien who was abandoned by his family at age 9 to live on the street because ALL male children in his culture are abandoned at that age. Maybe your character was taught to read by her mother because all the schools in her culture don’t admit peasant children.

Here is one idea I’ve had. When you read a question about a character, don’t answer in your own voice. Let your character answer it. That’s one way to keep yourself from becoming great at writing planning material and unable to actually write the novel. You can include actions of the character in the answer. Such as, “Peter just looked sad at the question and buried his head in his hands.” or “Amy responded to the question by cursing and throwing her beer mug at the questioner.”

Time to shop for composition books

Like other writers I tend to use composition books for outlining and planning my fiction. It just feels different to sit down with pen and paper to write.

The problem with composition books is that during most of the year it is hard to get the kind you like. I prefer colorful books so I can easily tell one from another. And if I can get it, I prefer college ruled over wide ruled.

During the back to school shopping season, there are a lot of composition books available at good prices. I got some at Walmart for 50 cents each. I got some prettier ones for $1 each.

I stock up on composition books during back-to-school shopping season. When the season is over the prices are higher and the selection is down, down, down.

I also like to use gel pens when I write by hand. I prefer different colors of pens, particularly purple. These are a little harder to get at a good price. Most colorful gel pens are sold in an assortment that includes useless colors like pale yellows and pinks— too hard to use for anything I want to be able to read later.

Each writer has certain writing supplies that mean far more to him that makes good sense. Do you have any special writing items you use to keep the writing going smoothly?

Let’s try mind mapping!

Have you ever tried mind-mapping with your fiction? Or other things? It’s a useful idea. And there is software for it.

Mind mapping is a diagram to illustrate information or ideas— such as plot events that might happen in your novel. You start with a central concept or idea— such is “My novel plot” or “What the heck is this even ABOUT!!!” (Excuse the use of the minced oath ‘heck.’ And two of the three exclamation points.)

You draw a circle around the words and then you think of things that connect— plot ideas, odd thoughts, whatever pops into the brain. Circle those words and draw a line to your original circle.

Then consider each of the ideas, words and concepts you have noted down and connected to your original circle. Find ideas that come from THEM. And put them in circles connected to the circled item to which it relates. Find out more about mind mapping here:

You can do this on a piece of paper. If you can draw, or at least if you own colored pencils and aren’t afraid to use them, you can do some colorful images as part of the map. But you can also do it using software— some of which is free software.

Yesterday I downloaded one of the free options (because I’m living on a poet’s level income.) Downloading was a horrible ordeal, but in the end I had it on my computer. I clicked on the little butterfly on my desktop, took a look around, and went on the internet to search for a tutorial. I spent some time building up a general ‘brainstorming’ type of mind-map for my current WIP. I thought it was a useful tool.

One big reason it’s useful is that it illustrates your novel ideas in a minimalist way. The way I tend to work is this: In the planning stages I can write long rambling essays about the system of ranks in a space fleet, or how the zombie causative organism can be weaponized. And then before long I have notebooks full of imaginary information and can’t find the important stuff.

I sometimes take my rambling document and rewrite a shorter, more concise version. But, perhaps because I have Asperger Syndrome, it still doesn’t show me the big picture to write shorter documents. A mind map makes it more comprehensible.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I think mind-mapping could be used to generate a working outline for your writing project. You could put your title in the center bubble, and then have ‘daughter’ circles with Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, and Act 3 on it. (If you don’t yet know about the 3 act structure, look it up, it’s useful.) For each Act, you can put down your plot ideas. If that big dragon-slaying scene you put in Act 1 really belongs at the beginning of Act 2, you can move it.

It could also be used to generate to-do lists— both for your writing and for your regular life. You can group connected tasks, and the Free Mind software provides little number graphics so you can prioritize your tasks.

Have you tried mind mapping? On paper or with a software tool? How did it work out? Are there things you might try next time to make the experience better or more useful?