Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Choose Your Genre, Change Your World

By Jess Lourey and Shannon Baker, @jesslourey,

Part of the How They Do It Series

Jess Lourey (rhymes with "dowry") is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a regular Psychology Today blogger, a sought-after workshop leader and keynote speaker who delivered the 2016 "Rewrite Your Life" TEDx Talk, and the author of Rewrite Your Life, the only book out there which shows you how to turn your facts into healing, page-turning fiction.

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Shannon Baker is the author of the Kate Fox mystery series (Tor/Forge). Set in the isolated cattle country of the Nebraska Sandhills, Kirkus says, “Baker serves up a ballsy heroine, a colorful backdrop, and a surprising ending.” She also writes the Nora Abbott mystery series (Midnight Ink), featuring Hopi Indian mysticism and environmental issues. Shannon makes her home in Tucson where she enjoys cocktails by the pool, breathtaking sunsets, a crazy Weimeraner, and killing people (in the pages of her books). She was voted Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2014 Writer of the Year.

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Take it away Jess and Shannon...

"Each writer's homework is first to identify his genre, then research its governing practices. And there is no escaping these tasks. We are all genre writers." –Robert McKee

Mysteries, literary fiction, and romance, oh my! So many options, but only so much time. How do you make the most of yours by selecting the best genre to write your latest project in? That’s what Shannon Baker and I, author of 20 books between us, are here to talk about. We even offer a hot tip that shows you how you can transform your life—plus pen a bestseller—by choosing the correct genre.

What Is Genre?

Technically, novels are considered a single genre. Drama is another genre, poetry yet another. Nowadays, though, genre is usually applied to describe a specific style of novel, with the primary genres being literary fiction, science fiction, mystery, romance, westerns, horror, fantasy, and young adult. While there are other genres, and most novels cross genres, we’ll refer to the genres here as if they are discrete.

Shannon and Jess Talk Genre Shop

Shannon: I primarily write traditional mysteries, maybe could-be western mystery with a smattering of humor, and Hopi and environmental issues, thriller, and an experimental new adult contemporary romance that apparently missed the mark.

Jess: Sister, I like whatever you write. I write humorous mysteries, feminist thrillers, magical realism, young adult, and nonfiction, plus I have this single, red-headed stepchild out there. (Jess Lourey trivia!) Shannon, when you’re writing, do you consciously choose a genre before you begin a new project, or do you start with a concept, character, or setting, and follow that story, letting your publisher choose which genre to market it in?

Shannon: When I attended my first writers’ conference about 25 years ago (Colorado Gold, an amazing con) the panel of editors asked anyone unsure of their genre to describe the plot and they’d define it. Boldly, I raised my hand, told them about the Greek gods returning to Earth after a 2000 year vacation and meddling with a young divorcee in the Nebraska Sandhills. After they asked all the questions, they admitted I’d stumped them. Not a good thing.

After that, I decided to narrow my focus, wrote what I thought was a thriller, sold it, and discovered it was a mystery. From there, I studied and read lots of mysteries to understand the genre better. Now when I start a new project, I’m pretty clear about the genre at the outset.

Jess: I love that story of stumping the editors! To be a fly on the wall…I do something similar at the outset of a new project. I have a character and concept in mind when I begin, and I try to tell the best story I can. In the back of my mind, though, I am aware of the genre I am writing in and I find the story, either consciously or subconsciously, begins to fulfill most of that genre’s expectations. I do think there’s something to be said for choosing a genre before you begin, though, particularly if you are a new writer. If you’re writing your first book, knowing the genre expectations gives you some markers in what can otherwise seem like an overwhelming tapestry of possibilities. Shannon, would you agree, and if so, what advice do you have for choosing a genre?

Shannon:For me, landing in mystery was a little bit planning, and a whole lot of drifting where the tide took me. After a few failed attempts at selling books, I took a look at the biggest markets for fiction, where I might have the best chance to sell, and aligned that with my interests. That led me to a thriller, based on a fascinating article I’d read. When I sold it as a mystery (and an unexpected series, at that) I scurried to read as many mysteries as possible to get a feel for the genre.

My advice would be to balance the creative with the pragmatic, which is what all life is about, really. Think about what sells, think how you can contribute to that in a way that feels organic to you, and is the same but different enough to entice readers.

Choose Your Genre, Change Your Life

Jess: Good point about balancing the creative with the pragmatic. I agree, but I’ve also found a magical shortcut to personal evolution AND lucrative fiction, and it involves choosing the genre for your next project based on what you want more than anything in this life. This may sound hokey, but the New York Times’ bestseller list and science back me up. Famous authors from Sherman Alexie to Jeanette Winterson to Nora Ephron have turned their personal experiences and passions into bestselling fiction, and writing about what is eating you in real life has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression as well as increase physical health. In a nutshell: if you write about what is important to you, you’ll naturally create more engaging fiction PLUS experience personal transformation. Choosing a genre that fits your life goals is a great first step in this amazing process. Let me show you how.


First, set a timer for 15 minutes, and write nonstop during that time, answering this question: What I want more than anything is…?

Second, after the time is up, reread what you’ve written and condense it best as you can into an archetypal emotion, such as love, justice, or being free from fear.

Third, match up that archetypal emotion as best you can with one of the major genres. If you found what you most want in life is love, I recommend writing a romance. If you want to overcome fear, choose horror. If you want life to be more black and white, go with a western, but if you want justice and answers, I’d steer you toward a mystery. If you’re a seeker after the meaning of life, write literary fiction! If you want to explore, choose science fiction, and if you’re simply not sure, I recommend some epic worldbuilding with a fantasy novel. Finally, if you need to set things right in your past, young adult is a brilliant fit.

When you’ve finished this practice, post your answers to this question in the Comments section below:

If I had to select a genre for my novel right now, _______________________________ makes the most sense because at this point in my life, I want _________________________________ more than anything.

Make sure to offer encouraging responses to a few of your fellow posters, too! I go more into the science of this genre selection process in my book Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, but in a nutshell, if you write in a genre that fulfills a deep need of yours, not only will it result in compelling fiction, the creative process will also become personally transformative. Write on!

About Rewrite Your Life

According to common wisdom, we all have a book inside of us. Every author calls on, crystallizes, and shades his or her life experiences to craft fiction, whether they’re writing world-bending sci fi or a thinly veiled autobiography. It is precisely those most conflict-ridden moments of our lives—the tragedies, humiliations, and terrors—that shape the best stories. But how do we select and then write our most significant story—the one that helps us to evolve and invites pure creativity into our lives; the one that people line up to read? In Rewrite Your Life, creative writing professor, sociologist, and popular fiction author Jess Lourey guides you through the redemptive process of writing a healing novel that recycles and transforms your most precious resources—your own emotions and experiences.

This fact-to-fiction process provides not only the essential building blocks of best-selling novels, but is also personally transformative. Based on the process the author developed and field-tested in the wake of her husband’s suicide, Rewrite Your Life is devoted to the practice of discovering, healing, and evolving through fiction writing. It combines research, practical and engaging guidance, and personal experience to meet readers where they are and take their creativity and personal growth to the next level.

Tender, raw, and laugh-out-loud funny, Rewrite Your Life offers both a map and a compass for those seeking to harvest their life experiences to heal, lead a more authentic life, and craft a rich, powerful work of fiction.

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  1. If I had to select a genre for my novel right now, medical mystery makes the most sense because at this point in my life, I want to have this umpteenth revision of my right knee revision go well more than anything.

    It's the eighth surgery I've had, all to do with a joint infection and other horrors. How this would work into a mystery is beyond me but it sure as hell isn't a romance or a western. Horror might work, come to think of it.

    So, when does my new book arrive? xox

    1. Ha! Your genre sounds like Robin Cook to me! Sorry for your situation. I am hoping for a great revision for you!

    2. I dunno, Ann, I think there's romance potential there. Your repeated infections could bring together a doctor and nurse team who only meet over you? :) Except, I'm really sorry you have to deal with all the pain. Sending loving, healing thoughts your way. And maybe a book. But we'll see.

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  3. Good morning, Janice! Thanks for inviting Jess and me to visit. I want to let readers know that for two more days, there is a Goodreads giveaway for Dark Signal. Come on, you can't win if you don't play. https://tinyurl.com/y9lgu5l9

  4. Jess and I are each giving away three books on this tour. Comments on any stop count and they're cumulative. So comment often! Here's our schedule. The links are on our websites: http://shannon-baker.com/where-ill-be/ or http://jessicalourey.com/
    September 2 Mysterious Musings

    September 5 Janice Hardy

    September 7 The Creative Penn

    September 9 Write to Done

    September 12 Wicked Cozy Writers

    September 20 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blog

    September 21 There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room

    September 23 Femmes Fatales

    September 24 Writer Unboxed

    September 25 Dru’s Book Musings

    September 27 Do Some Damage

    October 3 Terry Ambrose

    October 12 Jungle Red Writers

  5. I am going between getting a little magic back into my life since it feels so drab, and worn out like an old tee shirt, so I was thinking possibly Magical Realism. And then I sure would like to feel the love...So maybe romance. Hmm can I combine them a magical realism romance?

    1. Yes, yes you can. The Universe and I grant you permission!

    2. I hear you, mariekfrench, and have you read Sarah Addison Allen? She writes magical realism romance, and she writes it beautifully. It also sells well. I think your proposed genre idea is fantastic.

  6. I'm waffling between understanding the universe and society (ergo, SciFi) and spiritual AHA moments (poetry). Mystery novel on the shelf for now!

    1. Michael, I'd love to read a SciFi novel with poetic language and spiritual AHA moments. I think you've described a bestseller. Get on it! :)

  7. Woman(unskilled writer) lives in isolated fantasy world. Fate brings her to man (editor) who takes her to family's remote mountain to co-write book. She falls in love with the family she's always wanted (who are trying to overcome a family tragedy), and also the man. Confirms her belief that loving hurts too much (she is a "touch empath") and leaves, but comes back when beloved family matriarch dying and ends up risking life to save family, proving she is strong enough to endure the pain of loving (family and the man).

    Any suggestions on genre??

    1. Sounds like a fascinating story, and you have it so clearly sketched out that I don't think you have to worry about genre--write the book, and let the agent worry about genre. If it is helpful, though, I think it's falling firmly in the area of women's fiction, with a touch of magical realism depending on how much you play up the touch empath aspect or a bunch of romance depending on how much you focus on that aspect vs. her personal growth.

  8. Thank you to everyone who has stopped by and commented! All who have commented above will be entered to win one of six free books to be given away. Every comment on the blog tour is a chance to win: http://jessicalourey.com/events/lourey-baker-double-booked-blog-tour-ii, and comments can be left at any of those stops through October 12.