Monday, March 12, 2007

What flavor am I?

In keeping with Murphy’s Law, I’ve had a very busy teaching schedule the past two months. This, of course, happening when I’m late on book deadline and creating lessons, printing handouts, driving to Hither and Yon In Florida for in-person workshops or sifting through dozens of emails for my on-line workshops are things that make me wish for thirty hour days. Hell, forty hours might not even be enough.
But be that as it may, when one does dang near back to back workshops with all levels of writers, one tends to—at times—come upon similarities in the questions students ask.

This season’s flavor seems to be students who want to write in [fill in the blank] genre and yet haven’t read the genre or—if they have—aren’t conversant enough to know where their manuscript would fit in.

Essentially, when a student catches me after class or via email and tells me about his or her work in progress, one of my first questions invariably is: What author(s) do you write like? What’s a read-alike list for your work?

And I’m invariably treated to a blank stare.

“My books aren’t like anyone else’s,” I’m told.

Oh. So you invented a new genre?

No, they haven’t. But the reality is they haven’t done their homework, either.
Is it important for a yet-to-be-published writer to know their read-alikes? Hell, yes. For one thing, it keeps you from reinventing a wheel that’s been around for a long time. (Hey, I wrote this great story about a guy named Romeo and a gal named Juliet and they’re in love but their families hate each other…Oh, it’s been written?) For another, it immensely helps you market yourself to an agent or a publisher.

“People who read Susan Grant, Colby Hodge, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Susan Kearney, Rowena Cherry and Margaret Carter will love Linnea Sinclair’s books.”

Having that little fact in your query or on the tip of your tongue at a writer conference will indicate to the agent/editor that you’re a professional—even before you are. You’ve done your homework. You’ve researched the genre and the market. You know your audience. You know WHAT AUDIENCE YOU’RE WRITING FOR. You know you’re not wasting your time creating a story that’s already been done to death.

Yes, you are writing your own unique story but you know what shelf you belong on, what review column you’d be placed in, what kind of costume you’d wear if you had to represent your book at the next Romantic Times BOOKlover’s Conference masquerade party.

It also means you know the conventions (not as in conference but as in rules and regs) and tenets of the genre. Romance has to have an HEA. In fantasy/spec fic, magic must have a price. In a mystery there has to be, well, a mystery. A puzzle. It means you know the difference between hard science fiction, soft science fiction and space opera. And so on and so forth.

Does that mean if you’re Linnea Sinclair that you write EXACTLY like Sue Grant or Jacqueline Lichtenberg? Of course not. Each author is unique. But there are similarities. Think of it like ice cream: if you like chocolate ice cream, you more than likely will enjoy double fudge ripple or mocha java or brownie fudge ice cream. If you like cocoanut ice cream (my personal fave) you’d most likely enjoy a scoop of Pina Colada flavored ice cream.

You can make those kinds of decision at Baskin Robbins. Learn to make them as well at Barnes & Noble.

Hugs all and happy writing! ~ Linnea


  1. Anonymous2:36 PM EDT

    Great column, Linnea! Succinct and to the point.
    And as a librarian who buys for my library and reviews with the goal of convincing other librarians to buy, too, I have to say that when the author knows where s/he fits in the genre, it really helps him or her to market effectively to that audience, by having well-known examples to point to and say, "if your readers like x's work, they may also enjoy mine."
    Lynne W.
    ps why does this blogger software always make me verify 3 times before posting my message?

  2. This is a hot topic! I've seen it on a couple of agents' blogs too. I feel their pain. Been there, done that, didn't get a t-shirt. I've related the story of how I finally figured out my sub-genre when I read your interview on Sequintial Tart, Linnea. I second the advise to read widely and a lot.

  3. Lynne, it makes me verify multi times, too. I think it does that just to annoy us. :-) ~ Linnea

  4. Kimber, generally people write like the same authors they like to read. I'm a huge Cherryh fan (no news, that) and there are ELEMENTS of my writing that are similar to hers. I'd never be so bold as to say I write like the (amazing, wonderful) CJ Cherryh. But there are similarities--enough that we share a number of the same readers. So one way I figured out which authors I write "like" was to look at which authors sat on my keeper shelf.

    BTW I think it's fair for a writer to say they plot like author X but do characterization like author Y. You can also identify your writing via media tie ins. I use "Star Trek with sex" as my tag line. :-) Basically, if you're a Trekker and the romance element doesn't give you the yips, you'll like my books.

    It's a hot topic with agents because of the explosion of sub-genres, IMHO. I think this explosion is a huge boon for readers. No more plain chocolate! Now we have chocolate mocha java fudge ripple. Yippee! ~Linnea

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  6. Thank you for mentioning "soft science fiction". It was a distinction made when I first started reading the genre, but recently, I've been "corrected" on forums for using the terms soft science fiction or sociological science fiction.

    Times change. Frankly, I like reading the mixed genre work over "focused?" stuff, but then I always preferred character development over gadgets.

  7. Grump, I've heard soft science fiction as interchangable with socialogical, too. And then as an author I have to deal with futuristics, science fiction romance and romantic science fiction.

    These are all "industry" labels. Most readers are blissfully ignorant--and should be. Read what you like, critics be damned.

    But writers need to know the flavors.

    One thing I do not want to get in to is the science fiction vs sci fi vs skiffy debate. THAT has nothing to do with marketing but simply with egos, IMHO. It's like Trekker or Trekkie. People who debate such things have far too much time on their hands... ;-)