Nailing Genre by Studying Successful Authors

I’m going to talk a bit about craft in some of these Writing for Life posts since they are off topic from the course I’m running this year (The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, which runs Wednesdays). And really, this topic has as much to do with marketing as it does with actual writing craft. And for some, it’s a controversial topic.

Although there are some who oppose studying, deconstructing, mimicking, or breaking down (it’s called many different things) another writer’s work, I wholeheartedly encourage it. When I studied one particular novel last year to get a feel for a genre I had never written in, and then ran a blog post about my process (which went viral through the Internet writing world), in the midst of tremendous support for what I’d done, I had a handful (three or four) people go on the warpath to attack what I did.

Why? I think it’s important to answer this—not to justify what I did (I feel no need to since I did nothing wrong) but to help writers understand that studying, emulating, and learning from authors who know how to nail their genre is a good thing to do. In fact, I might even say it’s the best thing to do if you want to sell well in a specific genre.

What It Means to “Break Down” a Novel

When I was attacked for breaking down the structure of this author’s book (and failing to give her all the credit for my successful sales), it made me ponder the process of “copying” another writer’s style or structure. In my case, I did the most basic and simple type of breakdown. I jotted down a list of the author’s scenes, whose POV each was in, what the basic plot idea and structure was being presented. I wrote things like “introduce the hero, show him in his ordinary world” and “show heroine in conflict and wanting a change in her life.” I noted she only used two POVs: the hero’s and the heroine’s. That was helpful to me.

What I ended up with was a general structure for this genre that I had never written in that helped me frame my novel. I veered from her structure tremendously, and of course ended up with an entirely different novel—not just in plot and content but also in structure, style, and voice. Yet, studying what she did in her best-selling novel gave me a feel for the style, tone, flow, pacing, and content of the type of book I wanted to write.

This Is Not Plagiarism

Keep in mind I am not at all talking about plagiarism in any fashion. Stealing another’s writing is not just unethical, it’s unlawful, and I would never encourage anyone to do such a thing. Which makes me consider how popular fan fiction is, which actually utilizes the same characters and settings as real novels and movies, and yet these books are wholly accepted and sell well.

Let’s take this down a notch. What about stealing ideas?

How many times have you seen the same basic idea rehashed again and again by various authors? This author who raged against me for not crediting her for my success, basically accusing me of plagiarism  (although she publicly admitted she hadn’t read any portion of my book) and attempting to have my book removed from Amazon (unsuccessfully, of course) and evicted from The Romance Writers of America (also unsuccessfully)  for “studying and breaking down” her novel, wrote and published a historical Western romance about mail-order brides.

I happened to have noticed when I was studying the descriptions of this subgenre (historical Western romance) that there were loads of books about mail-order brides. When I read the descriptions of these titles, they were essentially the same story. The town or state may have been different, as were the characters’ names and descriptions, but the plots? Same story. Again and again. Hmm, shouldn’t someone complain that these authors are “stealing ideas”? Aren’t they plagiarizing?

Is Writing the Same Basic Story Considered Stealing?

I’ve heard it said there are no “new” ideas. And we might all agree that every novel, in some way, in some of its structure and components, is like other novels. Some stories are almost identical. What would you say if you gave ten great writers a detailed outline of a plot in the genre they wrote in and had each write the “same” story? Would it be the same book? Similar enough for you to say (if you did not know they had been assigned to do this) that one must have stolen the idea from the other? Enough to decry what they did and accuse them of stealing?

My thought is that everyone writes so differently that unless they are copying passages nearly verbatim, a novel with the same basic plot is still going to be a wholly unique book. So where does that leave us? Do we then grab a few novels we think are great, “break them down” to the point that we copy the plot of every scene, then write our own version of that exact book and publish it?

Lawyers and courts and juries might well be the best judges of that. I’m not. I only know I want to be original and write my stories and not someone else’s. I have no interest in stealing anyone else’s idea or plot or characters. In addition, I welcome writers who want to deconstruct my novels and learn from them. And if they want to write a “similar but different” story with a comparable plot and story concept, I’m fine with that. I should feel honored. Imitation is the greatest flattery, right?

All the Best Authors Do This

Here’s the thing: I do want to sell well in each genre I write. And if you do too, I believe the best way to achieve that success is to take the time to study and “deconstruct” other novels. There is nothing wrong with that. Writers have been doing this very thing for centuries. They do it all the time. It’s a good thing to do.

If you think for a moment that most best-selling authors don’t first study those who are already successes in their genre, you should think again (which is exactly what that angry author did before she wrote her first novel in that genre). In interviews these authors talk about the writers that influence them, the novels they studied and admired and that inspired them. They did their homework. No, they didn’t plagiarize—they did the required work needed to be a success.

Romance writers who want to write for certain publishers have to follow a very strict format that includes a set number of words and chapters, as well as a particular development that has to occur with each chapter. It’s very formulaic. To write for that kind of publisher, an author has to study other novels that have followed that required structure.

Pick Your Authors, Then Tear Apart Their Novels

If you want to write like Stephen King and cash in on the suspense/horror market, you need to study his novels and see just how he structures his plots. You would examine his voice, writing style, pacing, length of chapters, balance of narrative to dialog to backstory to description. There is nothing wrong with writing novels that are similar in style, plot, and structure to a successful novelist in order to fit in and sell alongside that author.

There is nothing wrong with hiring a cover artist to create a similar-looking cover. In fact, authors are usually encouraged by other authors to do so. Most indie authors I know find their cover artist by contacting the artist that did covers for the books that are similar to the one they are writing or ready to publish. I was attacked for doing this very thing: hiring the same cover artist that did a number of book covers in the subgenre in which I was writing. My covers were not copies; they were original and intended to brand my series.

So, with that said, I’m going to go a bit in the next posts showing ways an author can nail a genre by studying other novels. If you think it’s a crime, you can stop reading, file your complaint, and go on your way. But if you are a writer who wants to gain readers and is trying to write in a genre that sells well, you would do well to learn some key ways of nailing your genre.

Any thoughts on this? Where do you draw the line between emulation and plagiarism? Do you think authors should study others’ novels to learn how to write a particular genre?

Photo Credit: Bogdan Suditu via Compfight cc

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Part of targeting genre requires accurately identifying these successful niche genres. But another important factor is learning how to write to that genre. How to study other books that are selling big and emulate their structure and style, as well as use the best keywords in your promotions to get your book to fit in the slots right alongside those best sellers.

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  1. Why are people pitching hissy-fits about this? It should be a non-issue.

    This kind of deconstruction is a major staple of college literature courses. I can find handfuls of them available for free online as MOOCs, and they can be purchased as packaged courses on DVD. Nothing new or controversial about it, and it is a very helpful practice.

    I’ve never gone to the bother of outlining a book, but as I read, a part of me pays attention to the parts of a book that I like and the way an author accomplishes his/her tricks. I’m aware of these in general terms, and adopt them to my own work–but I keep my own style and voice. If anyone should ask, I name my influences as though they were honored mentors.

  2. To me, there’s nothing illegal, immoral, or unethical about what you did. You simply were studying the bones of that novel, then applied it to your own. I’m sorry this became so controversial. Thanks for the great info.

  3. Not to sound sarcastic, but . . . please.

    Any writer who has ever studied writing–from the three-act structure or the Hero’s Journey to “don’t overuse ly adverbs”–has studied the analysis of other writers’ work. They just didn’t do the breaking down themselves. Probably because they lacked the skill.

    I would also suggest that every decent writer, including anyone raising Cain over this perceived slight, has examined a book they loved and asked themselves, “what did the author do and how did they do it?” Those folks just didn’t bring the same level of granular detail to the process that you did. Probably because they lacked the drive.

    Finally, any writer who degrades, interferes with, or even comments upon another writer’s work without first reading it is acting selfish, unprofessional, and territorial. Probably because they lack maturity.

  4. I’m glad this worked out for you. In my genre of choice (thrillers) I’ve mostly discovered what I *don’t* want to emulate, and I much rather spend my time discovering for myself the style and approach that naturally flows from who I am.

  5. Totally agreeing with the previous posters, and just want to add a big thank you for doing this! Lots of writing advice books tell us to do this but not how. So, thank you, and im looking forward to it!

  6. In my other life. I’m an indie writer of YA fiction. But I’ve been reading adult romance books since I was in high school. So much so, that I’ve decided to try my hand at writing one. I’ve been reading books by Carly Phillips, Lori Foster and Jaci Burton for years and there’s a reason why I continue to do so. Because they do it SO well. But I never thought to deconstruct their books to see HOW they do it. So, thank you for the suggestion. As to what you did, I would have to agree with everything Eric B said. 🙂

  7. Legendary SF editor John W. Campbell, Jr., would often give the same story idea to varied authors, knowing the stories he would get back would be nothing alike. And they weren’t.
    I’m told there’s at least one publisher out there with a template for how many scenes of certain kinds must be in their books, when they should come in the story, etc. How could they help but have similar structure?

  8. Excellent post.

    Plagiarism is, as you say, taking exactly what someone else writes and claiming it’s your own work — no references. Learning your craft by studying the best in the field is entirely different. It is what every new, wanna-be, author is encouraged to do. Too bad someone, who is at the top of her game chooses not to be a mentor, but criticizes newbies to her field. As you also suggest, writing techniques (for plot, characters, etc) are well established. What’s new comes from our individual twists and voice.

    I look forward to your upcoming posts.

  9. I stand by you 100%. I don’t care what genre you write in, you have to read like a writer and that means examining the structure of the story. I studied for three years with a great mentor and our group torn apart a number of novels by award winning authors. You have to understand the basic fundamentals or you produce nothing worth reading. Obviously the author that struck out has little background in what makes a great novel.

    Not worth anyones time and worry lines.

    1. Exactly, thank you. I had a similar experience with another petty insecure best-selling author who was so upset by my negative review of her book, she went after me and also had her friends threaten me (to return my books, to trash my name online, etc.). All over an unfavorable review. You can read that post here: My point being it’s ludicrous for a successful author to go on the warpath, obviously so threatened by something insignificant, instead of being supportive of other authors and wishing for their success as well. We now live in an era in which there is room for everyone to enjoy success without being a “threat” to another.

  10. Hi Susanne,

    I really like this post; it’s actually something I am doing right now as I take my “required” break between my and second draft (reading AS MUCH of the books I love and/or that are in the genre I am writing for). I want to fill my brain as much as I possibly can with the fantastic writing of those who have done it before, so that when I DO read through my own MS, I will notice immediately the glaring differences/ways I went wrong/ways I went RIGHT. Writing is by all means about creativity, but it also needs to be examined as a business; that is, if you want to make any money at it. To make money and in “some ways” write well, you must emulate those who have done it successfully before you. So great advice, and I wait anxiously to read the next posts you write in this series!

    1. My take on this is that writers don’t have to sell out to sell well, but there are definitely genres that sell better than others. About 40% of all Kindle sales are romance, so that speaks for itself. My decision now is to write some books in genres that sell well to make the money I need to allow me the time to write other books that probably won’t sell well.

  11. Hi Susanne,
    This type of analysis or deconstruction is normal in any English literature course at college or university. We often hear it as part of ‘advice to authors’ – but I’d take it even a step further: I think any writer who reads for pleasure is, at some level whether they are conscious of it or not, absorbing awareness of structure, pace, flow, scene construction etc.

    Even when we are barely aware of it, and don’t know what to name these elements, they influence our opinion of the book and how highly we rate it. Being given the names of these elements gives writers the power to utilise them to their full potential.

    It’s unfortunate that particular author reacted so poorly – unwilling, perhaps, to acknowledge that she herself must have gone through this same process rather than simply being born a best-selling author? That’s foolish – we are all learning from those around us all the time, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

    Thanks for a great post (as usual!)

  12. I’m looking forward to this series of posts, thank you.

    Is it okay to ask what happened to your planned book from last year “From Idea to Selling in Three Months”? I usually keep up with your news, but I may have missed if you decided to put that off or go in a different direction.

    1. It’s still something I want to do, but I realized my priorities were to first get three novels and three writing craft books out. I’m now doing some posts about genre and deconstruction, and that is a start. I may just share all my findings and ideas via my blog posts soon, and then compile them. The first step is to decide on a genre that sells well, then buy a number of the best-selling books in that genre and break down the elements to get a feel for it. I will be talking about that in the next couple of weeks, so hope that helps, for starters.

  13. A few years ago, my writing partner and I deconstructed James Lee Burkes, Glass Rainbow. Unless you’ve deconstructed a novel, don’t knock it. What we learned was amazing. How he used one charcter to bring another charcter on stage was worth the tme we took to deconstruct. I’m curretly reading K.M Weilands annotated version of Jane Eyre. A big book at almost 500 pages, it’s deconstructed for the reader. It too is worth the time it takes to study it.

  14. I read a few years back about an Ivy Leaguer who took apart one of her favorite books and literally wrote her book based on the exact same structure. And she was very open about it. And it was published, too!

    Different story, characters, etc. Just the structure and the minutiae of it were copied.


  15. Hi Susanne,
    Thanks for writing this post. And I agree with Ms. McDermot — it seems to me that whether one realizes it or not, they get the gist of writing for romance, gothic, science fiction or young adult every time they begin reading such a genre. Some time during the middle 1990s I realized that I was attracted to series, specifically some by W.E.B Griffin. Then I discovered Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and I knew I wanted to try telling a long story in many volumes. My novel about an ex-pat in Japan has morphed into a mystery series set in Tokyo. And despite all the other books I read, then and now, I re-read series, because in my mind I’m still learning, particularly such things as how the writer handles certain situations like continuity and repeating vital information in fresh ways for each volume. I never did anything like putting pencil to paper to outline, but the result is the same. My feeling is, the more I learn about deconstruction, the more I learn about the craft of writing fiction. How can that be a bad thing?

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