Tag Archives: genre lessons

Genre Lessons: Women’s Fiction

Woman reading.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading women’s fiction. If you asked me what genre I read the least, it would be women’s fiction. There are a lot of excellent women’s fiction writers out there (a few of my friends among them), but it’s not the type of story I typically look for. Women’s fiction and romance tend to be predictable — you may not be able to guess every turn the plot takes, but you always know the couple will end up together. I don’t see this is a fault; in these genres, it’s intentional. It’s what the reader wants. They may want to be surprised by a twist, but they expect a Happily Ever After.

But here’s the thing: having a predictable plot gave me ample room to explore the different beats of the plot. There were conflicts in each protagonist’s work life. There was a secret that threatened to ruin everything. There was an antagonist ex-fiance, a climax, a dark moment when it looked like the relationship was over, and an engagement at the end. If, like me, beat sheets make you cringe, women’s fiction is a good genre to work on breaking down the plot of a story.

Another thing about great women’s fiction: setting. The book I read was basically a love letter to Milwaukee, where it’s set. I’ve never been to Milwaukee, but now I have a loose map of the city in my head, and I’d love to visit for one of their cultural festivals! Perhaps in part because there’s less room for the plot to meander, women’s fiction has ample opportunities to develop rich settings. And the way the characters describe their settings speaks volumes about who they are.

Have you read any women’s fiction recently? What writing lessons did you learn?

Genre Lessons: Horror Revisited

Haunted house.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month, as we did last October, we’re discussing horror. The first thing I learned from this is that the teens in my community are really into horror right now. Every time I do book talks, I start out by asking students what they’re reading and telling them what I’m reading. Many of them were interested in the horror novel I mentioned, in some cases more so than the books I brought with me. I’m definitely going to add more horror for the books I talk about next spring.

But I digress. As far as writing lessons learned from reading horror, this month reaffirmed just how important word choice can be. When describing a scary place, the right words and tone can make all the difference. “Snow white” conjures a different image than “bone white,” and an unpleasant smell described as “rank” isn’t as gut-churning as one described as “like rotting corpses.” If you want to scare your readers, you can use descriptions that evoke creepy images even if you’re talking about a sunny afternoon at the park.

Pacing is also key to increasing the tension, and the creepiness. If the characters are exploring a house we’ve been told is haunted, don’t have the ghost appear right away. Let the characters take their time going from room to room, finding slightly creepy/off-putting things, our dread slowly growing until finally we see the ghost. The more you draw out the tension, letting it rise slowly, the scarier the scene will be.

Genre Lessons: Humor

Laughing face.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

Since Summer Reading is in full swing, librarian book club is taking two months to prepare for our next meeting, where, like more traditional book clubs, we’ll all discuss the same title. Since starting a new job and scrambling to put together the entire teen Summer Reading Program at the last minute mean a crazy amount of stress, I thought I’d balance that out with some comic relief. Here’s what reading humor has taught me about writing.

1. Specificity creates humor. A big, broad-shouldered security guard driving a VW bug, hunched over the steering wheel so they don’t hit their head, may be funny. But that same guard driving that same bug with lashes on the headlights and a “DIVA” glamour plate is even funnier. You don’t want to bog your prose down with description, but the right detail at the right time can take a sentence from one that makes a reader smile to one that makes them laugh out loud.

2. Surprise creates humor. The guard driving the bug in the example above is funny because it’s unexpected. You can lighten a tense scene and develop richer characters by giving them an unexpected hobby, like a football player with a collection of My Little Ponies or a ballet dancer who does taxidermy. I’m not a fan of stereotypes, but they can be used — and subverted — to great effect in situations like these.

3. Humor and depth are not mutually exclusive. You can explore really heavy, really dark topics and still sprinkle humor judiciously throughout. Sometimes humor can even help you delve deeper into a topic by providing pockets of relief for readers, so they don’t get overwhelmed.

Those are my takeaways from reading humor. Do you read or write humor? What would you add to this list?

Genre Lessons: Poetry

Poetry (1)I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re discussing poetry. I have a weird relationship with poetry. There are lots of poets and collections that are considered lofty, literary works — Poetry with a capital “P” — that I just don’t get. I recognize that these are great works, but they do nothing for me. But at the same time, I love music, and the sound of words, and clever turns of phrase (bonus points if there’s some kind of rhyme, either internal or at the end of a line). I will spend hours turning over a gorgeous line/sentence/paragraph/stanza in my mind. And I am so in awe of some spoken word poets, I can’t even articulate their genius.

So, poetry. It simultaneously delights and confuses me, intrigues and bores me, depending on the poem. Which I guess is true of any format, any medium. But people often speak of poetry as a single thing (genre?), so I sometimes feel like I should be able to form a single opinion on it. Either it’s for me, or it’s not, right?

Wrong. The first lesson I learned when reading poetry for this month’s book club is:

1. No single work is representative of any genre, category, format, medium, etc. Just like there are some mysteries I love and others I couldn’t finish, some romances that make me swoon and others that make me cringe, the label a work is given does not automatically determine who will like or dislike it. Sure, knowing the genre helps, but you might surprise yourself when you try something in a genre you don’t normally read. I find that time and time again with poetry. Also,

2. A piece can read like poetry even if it’s written as prose, in paragraphs rather than stanzas. Some of the most gorgeous, poetic things I’ve read have come from novels by the likes of Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Jandy Nelson, and Maggie Stiefvater. Those lines that make you catch your breath, that you go back and re-read again and again — whether they’re hidden in prose or not, I consider them poetry. Finally,

3. Whether you’re writing poetry or prose, there has to be an overall arc, a theme or story connecting the entire work. In a novel, that’s your story. In a collection of poems, maybe that’s a story (as we see with novels in verse), or maybe it’s a theme that links every poem in that collection. Whatever it is, there has to be a common thread.

Now, I’m off to read some more gorgeous writing. I finally got my hands on the audiobook The Raven King, and I believe Maggie Stiefvater’s prose is so musical it’s even better read aloud.

What has poetry taught you about writing? Any poets or collections you’d recommend?

Genre Lessons: Inspirational Fiction

Forest with light shining through.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading inspirational fiction. I’ll admit, I have very little interest in this genre, though I know a lot of the big name writers because it’s extremely popular among patrons at my library. I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed my book for this month, which was Christian fiction but didn’t feel preachy or specific to Christianity. Yes, bible verses were quoted, but they were universal quotes about struggles and overcoming difficulties. And I learned a few writing lessons along the way.

First, when crafting characters, you should know what their religious/spiritual beliefs are. The fact that your protagonist is Catholic or Buddhist or Pastafarian may never be directly stated in the narrative, but it will influence the way they see and interact with the world. And if your character isn’t religious, that’s still an important part of their identity. As an agnostic Jew living where the Church of God is based, my lack of religion is a huge part of who I am. I’m the “token Jew,” but I don’t go to temple, even on the high holidays, which leaves me feeling guilty and a little fraudulent when I explain Jewish traditions to the Christians I interact with. For me, Judaism is more of a cultural identity than a religious one. But at the same time, I was raised Jewish, so I know what religious beliefs are Jewish even if I don’t share all of those beliefs, and I feel a duty to answer questions and correct misunderstandings about Judaism. So, I’m not religious, but religion is always a part of my life. Perhaps I’m a more extreme example, but my point is religion, or lack thereof, should be a part of your characters’ identities.

That said, religion should be just one part of your characters’ identities. Even if your main character is a priest, they may also be a sibling, a painter, a sports fan, etc. Though the protagonist of my book club read was Catholic, I found common ground with her and all the main characters of this month’s book club read. The protagonist was a musician, and I understood the pressure she felt as she prepared to audition for a spot at a conservatory. And while I couldn’t directly relate to her frustrations when she struggled to hear god and feel his/her/their presence, I could relate to her fear that something she had thought would always be the same was changing. I think readers should be able to say the same thing about the conflicts in all good books — they may never have experienced the exact situation your characters are in, but they’ve been in situations that have elicited comparable emotional responses. If I can connect with a character on an emotional level, I’ll go a long way with them. Have I mentioned how much I loved Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Conviction or Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King? Both have characters whose strong beliefs are very different from my own, but I was invested in those characters and their struggles, and I wanted them to win.

So, those were my takeaways from reading inspirational fiction. What have you learned from this genre? Any books you’d recommend?

Genre Lessons: Contemporary YA and Open Endings

Open door.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re discussing YA, and I’ve decided to focus on contemporary YA. Several of the contemporary novels I’ve read recently have had open or ambiguous endings. Sometimes I thought this was done really well, while others I felt cheated as a reader. Every reader is different, but here’s what I’ve learned about what works and doesn’t work for me when it comes to open endings.

Not everything has to be 100% resolved in the end. Characters should feel like they had lives before the start of the novel, and they should feel like their lives will continue beyond the last page. As a reader, I like imagining what will come next. A couple great examples I read recently both involved the main characters navigating the uncertainty of their senior year of high school, worrying about where/whether to go to college, what would happen to their relationships after graduation, and so on. In both cases, we saw most of that uncertainty resolved as the characters made their choices for the next year and all went their separate ways. There was still the question of what happens next, will these friends stay together or drift apart, will this long-distance romance last. But the main sources of the characters’ frustrations — their insecurities about their plans for the next year, and their conflicts with their parents — were resolved.

That said, all the major plot threads should be resolved at the end. Not everything has to be tied up in a neat bow, but the narrative can’t just stop after something big happens that results in a change in the character(s) or their circumstances. Good stories start with a question — will John survive the zombie apocalypse? Will Gabi convince her boss to give her that promotion? Will the Goldberg children be all right after losing their mother (and the financial stability her income provided)? — and that question should be answered by the end of the novel. We don’t need to see all the Goldberg kids in successful careers/marriages at the end of the book, but we need to see them on a path to success at the very least. (Or on a path to total destruction, if that’s the kind of book you’re writing.) If John has a fling with Raul while battling zombies, it’s okay to leave their romance in limbo, but we need to know whether John will survive the zombies. Readers will feel cheated if they reach the end of a novel and the story question isn’t answered.

How do you feel about open endings? What works or doesn’t work for you? What stories would you recommend that do this well?

Reading like a writer: Recommended reads

I like to wear my writer hat while reading, because it lets me appreciate the story on a different level. When I really like a book, I look at what the author did to bring the story to life and keep me invested. I think you can learn something about writing from every book, but I want to highlight a few books/series I’ve read recently that gave me great craft lessons as well as great stories.

A Darker Shade of Magic.The Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab (first book is A Darker Shade of Magic)

I love so much about this series (and Schwab’s other books) that I can’t choose just one element of craft to talk about with these books. Schwab is a master world builder, and clearly knows the rich history of all four of the magical worlds she’s created. But what makes the world building so good is that we only learn what we need to know as we need to know it. The setting is expanded in the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, as the politics of Red London become more prominent. The setting is integral to the plot, and the characters. And the characters themselves are all fully-fleshed, with goals and agendas of their own. Their actions drive the fast-paced plot. (I don’t usually pair “fast-paced” with fantasy, but if fantasy thrillers are a thing, these books sit squarely on that shelf.)

Cinder.The Lunar Chronicals series by Marissa Meyer (first book is Cinder)

This is one of the most well-plotted series I’ve ever read. Each book has its own story arc, but there are also arcs that span the entire series. In Cinder, Meyer sets up everything that will happen in the next three books, without it feeling forced or info-dumpy. We meet all the major characters, but Meyer introduces the stars of the next three books casually, so their appearance later in the series feels natural. If you’re writing something with multiple viewpoint characters who spend a lot of time apart, or whose stories don’t intersect until well into the book, I highly recommend reading ScarletCress, and Winter (books two, three, and four in the series).

Room.Room by Emma Donoghue

For those who aren’t familiar with Room, this is the story of a woman and her five-year-old son who are held captive in a sound-proofed shed converted into a one-room living space. Told from the five-year-old’s perspective. The viewpoint is so unique, and so well done. If you’re struggling to decide on a POV, or are having trouble staying in your viewpoint character’s head, this is a great example of a case where viewpoint makes the story. Room is also a good study of using viewpoint to build a setting, or to hide information from the reader.

What books would you recommend to study craft?