The Same, but Different

If you’ve ever read an interview with an agent or editor, and someone asks “what are you looking for?” you’ll notice they often say things like “we’re always looking for a good story” or “I want to see more stories like (whatever’s popular).”

They may say they want something new and groundbreaking, but the form rejection letters you’re getting seem to belie that point.

So what is it they want?

To put it bluntly: they’re looking for stuff that sells. That’s their job, after all. As much as they may love literature, they’re not in this for art.

Your goal as an author: give them something sellable and different.

That’s the trick, isn’t it?

What makes a novel sellable?  There isn’t a defined formula. It’s more alchemy than physics. That said, there are a few tips and tricks that you need to be aware of to at least get your foot in the door.

The same… but different.

You’ve probably heard this old chestnut, too. “Publishers are looking for the same… but different.”

What the heck does that mean?

Is it just the usual double-speak, so editors don’t have to say “listen, I have no idea what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it?”

Is it an agent’s dodge?

Actually, no. At least, not exactly.

The same: GENRE.

Knowing what genre you’re writing in is an enormous step towards making your novel sellable. Why? Because categories help readers find authors. They also establish reader expectations.

If you’re writing a mystery, there had better be a dead body or two in there and a puzzle to solve.

If you’re writing a romance, there had better be a love story with a happy ending. Even if it’s only happy-for-now.

If you’re writing science fiction, but it takes place on present day earth with no extra-terrestrials, no strange or supernatural phenomenon, and not a lot of sci-fi accoutrement… well. You get the idea.

If you’re writing a Western, but it takes place in Paris? Good luck with that.

The different: VOICE.

Voice is what you bring to the table.

It’s when you take the established reader expectations of genre, and bring your own spin to the story.

This can either be through your writing style, or through your interpretation of how to build the story itself. 

For example, think of the thousands of different re-tellings of the Cinderella story. Or Romeo and Juliet. There are a million variations… as Shakespeare says, there’s nothing new under the sun.

If you think of some of the most unique reads out there, you can break it down into expected elements and then identify the twist.

Example #1: romance.

One of my favorite reads last year was Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. It’s a classic romance, in a lot of ways: uses the enemies to lovers trope, has royalty, has a happy ending.  The twist? The son of the President of the United States falls in love… with the Prince of Wales. (It is adorable. I highly recommend it.) The writing is fresh, the dialogue and description pop, the characters are well delineated and unique. It’s the same, but different.

Example #2: mystery.

Nothing exemplifies “the same, but different” as well as cozy mysteries. They literally follow the same playbook, over and over.  Sleuth is established, crime is committed, suspects are lined up. Another body may enter the mix, usually a primary suspect cleared off the board. All evidence is presented for reader delectation. Sleuth then reveals the solution, and justice is served.

If you haven’t watched the movie Knives Out, it is a masterclass in mystery construction, with a few true twists (as well as an absolutely banana-pants set of characters.) To talk too much about the plot would be to spoil it, and it’s truly something that shouldn’t be spoiled. But it turns the genre on its head. There’s murder, there are suspects, there’s a “gentleman sleuth” that is so scenery-chewing over-the-top he’s hilarious, there are tweaks and winks and callbacks to the mystery genre itself. Best of all, every single detail that is referenced in terms of mystery is tied up by the end, no simple red herrings or throwaway clues. It is the same, but very, very different.

What about cross-genre?

Ah, cross-genre. The problem with cross-genre is determining who it would most appeal to, and how to sell it. Saying that something will “appeal to a variety of audiences” doesn’t actually mean it’s so. You’re going to have to work twice as hard to get it to seamless, so it fulfills the expectations of more than one genre.

What if I don’t know my story’s genre?

Admittedly, it’s easier to come up with a “same but different” story in the premise stage, building it right into the foundation. But what if you’ve written a story of your heart, and now you’re trying to think of how to market it?

Your first step is probably figuring out your book’s genre (and I’ve written a whole blog post to help you do that, just follow the link. Or, you can purchase my ebook on this whole subject, Genre & Voice.) Once you’ve got that pinned down, it will be easier to categorize, especially if you’re pursuing traditional publishing. It will also make it easier to find comparable titles.

Keep the faith.

It’s easy to get demoralized by the ambiguity in our business. Whether something is “too similar” or “too divergent” is going to be a judgment call on the part of both readers and publishing professionals. The trick is to keep moving, keep striving – and keep writing.

Why Genre Blends “Don’t Sell”

I’ve been reading a lot about “genre-blending” lately.

Agents & editors have often shied away from things that can’t be cleanly categorized, simply because it’s “hard to sell.”

Many authors say they don’t want to be pigeon-holed.  Their work is complex, layered, and incorporates elements from lots of different genres.

In a world where you no longer need to worry about where a bookstore clerk is going to shelve your novel (because, alas, physical bookstores seem to be going the way of the dodo) why worry about what “genre” your book should be categorized as?

Broccoli brownies.  That’s why.

When I want a brownie, I want something luscious, decadent, and dessert-y.  I want something that tastes so criminally delicious that I wonder if I’m going to be arrested for consuming it.

Now, if someone handed me what I’ve lamely pictured here — well, at best I’m pulling away in revulsion.  At worst, I’m gonna slap that someone stupid.

“But it’s good for you!” the person might say defensively.  “Broccoli is a superfood!”

I don’t care if it’s going to make me five foot ten and give me the ability to fly.

I wanted a brownie, damn it.  My mouth was set for a brownie.

This is not what I had in mind.

It’s about expectations.

Granted, I’m a bit obsessed with chocolate.  But I’m fairly obsessed with fiction, too.

When I’m tired and I want a light beach read, I get irritated when I see a candy-colored cover slapped on a “message” novel — where the author has a Big Point to make, and they want to prove that a light beach read can be highbrow.

When I want a steamy, fun romance, I get annoyed when I have to wade through a bunch of action and mystery, and the hero and heroine are barely in the same room for two-thirds of the book.

I want what I expected… and they go putting something extra, something they think will be spectacular.  And it just doesn’t work.

Genre blends are difficult to write.

Some people might say that I’m too narrow a reader — their audience, certainly, would be more open minded.

The thing is, when cross-genre work is done well, I’m all over it, a very loyal reader.  Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series is a mash up of classic noir mystery, mainstream suspense thriller in a home base of urban fantasy.  J.D. Robb’s In Death series is a police procedural with plenty of steamy romance and futuristic sci-fi thrown in.  And Marian Keyes can write books about death, cancer, domestic abuse, and addiction, and still be the queen of Chick Lit.  I love every single one of these authors’ work.

That said — they are doing it well.  Incredibly well. Even then, their series have gained momentum over time.

Genre blends are difficult to sell.

Granted, these are all traditionally published authors, with big New York distribution machines behind them.  Still, they targeted the most likely audience for each.

Dresden Files novels are marketed as Sci-fi/Fantasy — targeted at the burgeoning Urban Fantasy market.

In Death, despite being set in the future with neat stuff like flying cars, is marketed as mystery/thriller.  Since the author is also Nora Roberts, goddess of romance writing, they also market it as romance, focusing on the continuing love story of the heroine and her husband.  Of course, technically, it isn’t a romance — often, there’s no conflict as far as their love for each other (although sometimes there is, as a subplot.)  But the real reason you read them is for the procedural: solving the crime.

If it was Joe Schmonsky instead of Nora Roberts, ten bucks says it would never be marketed as “romance.”

Marian Keyes is still pushed as a beach read.  Re-hab has never been as funny as it is in Rachel’s Holiday.  And while the horror of domestic violence in This Charming Man is truly harrowing, I still laugh with Lola, whose escape to the Irish countryside turns into a “tranny ley line” misadventure.

She’s always marketed as Chick Lit.  Hell.. she invented it.

Nurture your art.  Handle your business.

I will always say swing for the fences.  Want to make a genre mash-up?  Feel like creating a romantic comedy of manners set in a dystopian Poughkeepsie?  Knock yourself out.

Just do it well.

And when you market it — pick a genre as your home base, one whose expectations make them the most likely to be open to your story.  Don’t try to be all things to all people.  You’ve only got so many resources.  Narrow your scope.

A final food analogy.

I have made the most crazy sugar-free black bean chocolate cupcakes.   They are surprisingly good.  My husband, discerning foodie that he is, didn’t know what they were when he ate one.

He liked them. And ate quite a few, even after I told him.

If you’re going to genre blend, this is what you’re going for.  Fulfill expectations, throw in something even more unexpected… but make it seamless.

If they want a brownie, make it a delicious brownie first… because if it isn’t, they won’t care what else is involved.

Your “receptive” readers will see what you’re capable of.  The good news: they don’t just eat brownies every day — or read just one genre.  Neither do their friends.  So your “core” readers will share the amazing thing they’ve just discovered with every reader they know.

That’s how you capture the other markets.


How to Profile Your Target Audience, Part 2: Hedgehog Hunting

A lot of people seemed to respond to my initial post on how to profile your target audience, so today we’re going to continue in that vein.

Missing: One Hedgehog.

The stumbling block seemed to largely be figuring out what’s special about your story, or what I call your Hedgehog.

I remember working with an author who, when I asked “what’s special about your story? What makes it unique?” then answered:

“It’s a category romance. How unique does it need to be?”

Make no mistake: she loved category romance, and it wasn’t an intentional insult. In fact, if anything, it was a recognition of the sort of mental trap writing genre fiction can do for promotion.

You think “hell, I write Regency Romance/cozy mystery/vampire urban fiction.  I love my stories, but there are a billion of them out there.  I’m just going to put it out there, hope readers realize that they love my voice, and tell their friends.”

It’s more than your voice.

Yes, your voice is going to set you apart. But it can’t be the only thing.

Let’s look at the current everybody’s-writing-one genre: vampire fiction.

You’ve got your Twilight, your True Blood, your J.R. Ward Black Dagger Brotherhood.  Hot and sparkling and the whole damned gamut.  All of them deal with the same thing: vampires.  But you’ll notice each of them have their own signature.

Twilight is young adult, to start.  Then again, so is P.C. Cast’s House of Night series.  Different settings: different mythologies.  Definitely a different feel and different treatment.

Charlaine Harris has written a series of vampire mysteries, basically.  J.R. Ward has written an urban fantasy romance series with plenty o’ steam and a wild mix of aristocracy and ghetto fabulousness.  (If you read her, give me a “true dat!”)

My point is:  there is always something different. It’s never just “voice.”

Start with your genre/sub-genre.

What story are you writing?  If you were only allowed to shelve it in one section of a bookstore, where do you think it would most likely sell?

This will at least give you an idea of what you’re differentiating from, and where your Right Reader most often hangs out.  Granted, your Right Reader probably wanders around a bookstore or browses through online store categories, but there’s one place that’s going to be a comfort read.  You want your book to live there.

Also, you want to be able to use the shorthand of genre to describe what you’ve written, then add your twist.  “I’ve written an Urban Fantasy about demons (the genre/subgenre), where a spunky secretary discovers she’s just signed on to help her boss kill thirteen people to get back his soul (the hook/differentiator.)”

Don’t worry — we’ll talk about hooks, twists and differentiators in a second.

What book or series is it most similar to?

Unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk, do not tell me “it’s different than everything.” (If you are Chuck Palahniuk… well, then. Do whatever the hell you want, obviously. <g>)

If you’re writing genre fiction, you’ve got certain conventions that you have to maintain simply to provide the reader with a satisfactory experience.  When I read a romance, I want a happy ending, damn it.  When I read a mystery, I want a corpse, not a misunderstanding.

I don’t care how brilliant a writer someone is, if she sets me up and then plays me, that book’s hitting the wall, then the donation box.

Once you know who you’re similar to as far as voice and subject matter, you’ve again got a frame of reference.

One of these things is not like the others…

I’d say, read a lot of things in your genre/subgenre.  Especially look at the bestsellers… they’re there for a reason, and odds are good your Right Reader has read them.

What are the conventions and stereotypes of the genre?

Vampires — blood sucking, sexy sophisticates,  sleep-all-day-party-all-night.  Dracula.

Fantasy — sword & sorcery, wizards, powerful person somehow in disguise, band of companions, quest.

Cozy mystery — small towns, amateur sleuth, gossipy communities, kitschy gimmick

Now look at what you’re doing.  You’re going to want similarities — again, don’t want to completely spin out of genre orbit — but you’re looking for what makes you different.

Let’s take my original one:  category romance.  You’re writing not only for a fairly standard genre, but you’re writing for a very narrow niche where there are strict interpretations.  You may not even think you need to come up with an angle — the books sell themselves.

They might — but they don’t sell you.  And the most important reason for finding your Right Reader, and emphasizing your differences?

To get them to notice your writing.  And, you know, want more of it.

So you look at what’s standard, what’s expected.  Let’s say you’re writing for a “hot” series line.  Looking it over, you see lots of Alpha males, high-powered professions perhaps, or conversely heroic ones (firefighter, Navy seal, etc.)  You see sassy women.  Since heat is a key, the scenarios tend towards couples thrown together, or agreeing to brief flings only to discover they’re stuck for whatever reason for an entire novel.

Ideally, you’re going to twist one element. You’re going to take one stereotypical standard, and tweak it so the reader is surprised… and intrigued.

Most important: focus on what you love. Why you wrote the story.

If you’re writing more of a conventional story, don’t despair.  Instead, pour even more love into what you originally wrote the story about.

If you wrote a story because you love the idea of a wounded hero, perhaps a veteran returned from the war who falls in love with his at-home nurse… you go with that.  Yes, it’s a familiar trope.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, and shouldn’t be emphasized. And that’s definitely what you want your Right Reader to appreciate.  So how better to connect with him or her than to put that out front?

Hopefully, in all these questions, your Hedgehog is going to amble out and say hello.

Trust that there’s something unique in your work.  If you don’t believe it, no one else will.

In the next post in this series…

The final part of the series, next week, will show you some ways to piggyback on greatness when it comes to profiling your target audience.

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