Nailing Your Novel’s Genre in Your Opening Scene

In the last two posts on my blog in this Writing for Life section I’ve been exploring how writers can target genres that sell well in order to find their own measure of success. I’ve done numerous posts on success: how we writers might not only define success but tweak our personal definition of success so that we can reap deep joy and a sense of fulfillment in our writing.

I firmly believe attitude plays a huge part in feeling successful. For, even if a writer is a “flop” according to worldly standards (numbers of copies sold, revenue per title, etc.), she can feel successful in the way that really matters—which is in her own soul. We have to live with ourselves, and the way we measure success can either open the way for great joy or for great misery.

But setting all that subjective talk aside, there is the practical matter of wanting or needing to make money off the sales of our books. For many of us, setting aside time to write is a luxury and pleasure. We often feel that every hour we take to write, we could be working a job that would guarantee a reliable paycheck. If we write novels for years without selling anything, we can become plagued with guilt, which puts even more pressure upon us (and maybe our family members are pressuring us as well).

Regardless of the reason, writers often, at some point in their writing career, choose to tailor their writing to fit a specific genre in order to try to get a piece of the sales pie for that genre. I talked last week about this, and how there is no shame in writing to sell. In fact, it can be a whole lot of fun, fulfill one’s need to be creative, and put that desired money in the bank as well.

No Guarantees but There Is Help

There is no guarantee, of course, that if a writer targets a specific popular genre he will sell well. But there are some things authors can do that will help them find a measure of success. And, as I always emphasize, the most important thing a writer needs to keep in mind is they should never compromise and write garbage just to make a buck.

Okay, some of you out there might be fine with doing that. But I’m not. I feel that if a writer wants to take pride in her craft, she should do her best to produce the best work she possibly can. Just as those companies that manufacture inferior products with faulty materials with only dollar signs in mind and not customer satisfaction, writers who hack and publish novels that are carelessly thrown together and sold with hype just to make a buck are lacking integrity. And, to me, in the end, all a writer has left is her reputation and integrity.

Integrity Is Important

That’s why I also put such a strong emphasis on having your work professionally critiqued, edited, and proofread before publishing. Why writers should not rush to put out work that is flawed and weak. Once you put out shabby work, it is hard to repair your stained reputation. Sure, you can move forward with a pen name, but wouldn’t it be better if you could say that every novel you wrote and published is one you are proud of?

With that said, let’s say you have decided you want to target a specific genre/market in order to aim for some good sales (which also results in more readers and fans who will buy your future novels). I mentioned in these last two posts how a smart writer will study other authors in his genre and tear apart those authors’ best-selling novels—not to plagiarize but to get a feel for the tone, pacing, story structure, scene structure, proportion of dialog to narrative to action, premise, and depth of character development.

What is “Nailing Your Genre”?

I often encourage my clients who are struggling with nailing their genre to highlight or underline (in the novels they “deconstruct”) elements they are struggling with, like the way backstory is infused into present action, the way emotion is revealed by showing rather than telling, how dialog is distilled and compressed.

I find myself giving this kind of instruction so much that I realized I needed to blog about this. I assumed aspiring writers did this kind of homework, but it appears few actually do. Sure, they’ve read some books in their targeted genre, but they haven’t studied hard. For writers who take their careers seriously, it is essential to take a lot of time to break down others’ novels and pick them apart to understand why they work. Not plagiarize—analyze.

By drawing from a number of different best-selling authors in the genre you want to nail, you will see some similarities and some differences. It’s important to note both, for every author should have her own unique voice and writing style, and showcase original ideas. By taking notes as you go through each novel carefully, you can compare these books and see what they share in common.

Here’s one way to nail your genre by working on an opening scene:

  1. Make a chart listing ten best-selling novels in the genre you want to write in. Using a huge piece of tag board and writing small will allow you to see the big picture once you are done. List the titles down the left side and make a grid: a row for each title, and vertical lines separating all the elements you want to make observations about.
  2. Across the top of the columns, list the elements you want to compare. How extensive the chart is your call. You may only want to analyze a few things. Maybe many. Some might be chapter length, number of POV characters (or what POV the novel is written in, such as first person present tense or shifting third person), balance of dialog to narrative, what happens in the opening chapter (or you could choose the first three scenes, one column for each), how quickly and in what manner conflict is introduced, the sophistication or simplicity of the writing itself, sentence length, type of scene ending (hanging, thoughtful, etc.)
  3. Once you have filled in your chart, spend some time studying it. See what similarities there are, what differences. See what screams “genre” to you. Readers of genres expect a certain type of writing style, pacing, tone, and plot concept. For instance, some murder mysteries always begin with a dead body in the opening scene. If you are targeting those readers, you better have a dead body too.
  4. Even if you’ve already written some or all of your novel, pretend you haven’t. Think about your premise and story concept. Come up with a scene to open your novel with that will match the type you read in those ten best sellers. If they jump right into a high-action scene with the protagonist in danger, make sure your scene is similar. If the romance novels you read begin with showing the heroine in trouble and introduce the hero by the end of the first scene, consider doing likewise.
  5. Now write your scene, and make it nail the genre. Go back through when you are done and trim and tweak to match the tone, pacing, sentence length, amount of dialog to narrative, the way and amount that emotion is shown (body language, facial expressions).

Just an Exercise, Not a Magic Formula

This exercise is not a cure-all for a weak plot and concept, but it’s meant to help you get a feel for nailing your genre. Yet, all we’re talking about here is the first scene. By taking time to deconstruct a number of other novels all the way from the opening scene to the end, you will start to see the range of variety within your genre. When looking at the entire novel, you would also pay close attention to the premise as well as the character and plot arcs.

Publishers look for novels to fit certain “slots” they need to fill. I like envisioning genres as slots: narrow, confined, and defined types of stories that meet certain reader expectations.

The Objective Is to Meet Readers’ Expectations

When you write and publish a novel, you are producing a commodity, a product. You are targeting a specific consumer that has certain expectations. Your book cover and description are a promise to your reader that your story is going to meet their expectations. The closer you can get to meeting those expectations, the happier your readers are going to be. If you are not honest with your “sales pitch,” readers will feel cheated and disappointed. Will they buy your next novel? I think not.

I hope this lengthy exploration about targeting and nailing genre has been helpful to you. If you want to be successful at any vocation, the best way is to do your homework. Study hard and apply what you learn. Learn from the experts and create your own style. Be original, not derivative. And don’t be remiss by assuming that by just reading some novels in a genre that will make you an expert. Nailing a genre takes work, but it can pay off: in both sales and satisfaction.

Need help on finding a big-selling genre? This is the tool I use! 

Any thoughts you’d like to share on this topic?

Photo Credit: squidtestes via Compfight cc


Want to learn how to target genre to sell big?

flaming arrows and target 1000 wideWith 4,000+ ebooks published every day, you need every advantage to get discovered. Instead of writing a book and hoping it will somehow come up in the search results when a potential customer types in words in the search bar on Amazon, you’ll have the best chance at topping those lists if you write to genre.

What does that mean? It means identifying a very specific audience for a specific type of book. If you write a mystery and only list it as “mystery” in your description and keywords, you are competing against hundreds of thousands of other novels. But if you search out a niche genre that sells well and doesn’t have as much competition, you have an edge.

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.

There’s a lot to know to do this well, but it’s not hard.

I floundered for decades trying to sell my many novels that didn’t specifically fit a niche genre. Then, when I decided to write to genre, I went from selling a few copies a month to thousands. With hardly any marketing and using a pen name no one heard of.

You can do it too!

But there’s a strategy to this. And steps you need to take to ensure your novel will have the best chance at discoverability.

I’ve made it easy for you!

It’s all here in my online course: Targeting Genre for Big Sales!

Don’t waste time trying to get your novels to sell. Be smart and treat your novels as products designed for specific consumers with specific needs. Once you learn to write to genre and target genre, it will be a game changer!

Enroll now and start gearing up to sell big. Isn’t it time you experienced the success you dream of? Your audience is waiting to discover your books!

6 Responses to “Nailing Your Novel’s Genre in Your Opening Scene”

  1. Raquel Byrnes August 26, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    That was incredibly helpful!Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Stacey Campbell August 30, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

    Great post, so important being able to recognize what is working for a genre and working out why this, and what this looks like. Thank you!

  3. Karen MacDougall September 3, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Golly, I thought writing a novel was hard enough! You have certainly upped the level of work involved 10 fold. Something to think about for sure. Thanks for this mini series. I think I better understand why I have gotten good reviews from agents on my first novel followed by the inevitable BUT … My style is definitely not genre based and thus a more difficult sell to a publisher.

  4. Danielle de Valera October 2, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

    I found your blog through Joel F. Great post, thank you. Dani

  5. Kristen Steele October 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    If you’re not writing in a genre that you enjoy or even appreciate just to make some money, it’s probably going to show in the work. Readers will catch on to this and it will negatively impact your reputation.

    • cslakin October 31, 2014 at 8:47 am #

      It can and it may. My advice, though, is for writers (who want to earn a living writing fiction) to consider expanding their purview a bit. I was told years ago my novels were “too literary.” An acquisitions editor for one of the big publishing houses told me I needed to tweak my writing to be upmarket. Meaning, to make it a little more commercial (more show than tell, less narrative). I didn’t feel I compromised my writing or my stories, but my books went on to sell well. Plenty of writers write articles and essays and would rather be writing best-selling novels. But, like many other careers, writing can require some compromise in order to earn a living. And there is nothing wrong with that. I think it’s all about attitude.

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