Fresh Formulas


Some have a hard time appreciating the talent involved in writing genre fiction. By genre fiction, I mean novels that fall into a defined category such as contemporary romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, or cozy mystery. Many of these novels are published by mass market publishers (like Harlequin) and fit in lines they have formed for the sole purpose of selling the genre.

These are distinguished from Trade fiction where there isn’t necessarily a specific line that has been formed to sell a genre, although there are exceptions to that “rule” like the “Love Finds You” series from Summerside Press. In publisher’s lingo “trade” means a 5 1/2″ by 8 1/2″ trim size and is probably between 80,000 and 100,000 words in length. “Genre” or “category” fiction can mean the 4″ by 6″ trim size (also known as mass market) and between 50,000 words and 70,000 words.

Critics think genre writers churn out story after story with little variation…following a proscribed formula. And while opportunities to be published in genre fiction are more plentiful than trade simply because genre lines publish a greater number of titles (see the statistics incorporated into this blog post), editors are nevertheless highly selective. They must be, because readers are right to be demanding, and genre authors must be dedicated to the craft.


To be successful with a line, stay fresh and new while following the genre’s rules. When thinking of genre fiction, I like to visualize a box that needs to be filled with a story. The rules of the box include a strict word count. If you’re writing for a genre line, be sure to stay with the word count.

Guidelines for plot are concrete. For instance, with romance, the story of the hero and heroine must take precedence over anything else. The romance cannot be overshadowed, for example, by a murder mystery, a setting becoming a character in its own right, or a subplot involving secondary characters. Because of these guidelines, readers can rely on certain types of books to provide them with the stories they expect. In an uncertain world — and the world is always an uncertain place except for God’s enduring love — seeking genre books again and again offers readers comfort along with entertainment.

Twists and Turns

Once the writer learns the rules within the box, then what? Know that editors are looking for fresh ideas within the parameters of the genres they edit. To get an idea of what might work, read books from the line you are targeting. See what themes work. Concentrate on those that capture your imagination.

Interested in history? Consider researching real events that can launch a novel. For contemporary or historical, find a unique obstacle that will confront your characters so the reader has no idea how they can overcome it, and wrap a romance or mystery around it. Then plot and write. The author who stays within the rules of the line, yet comes up with a variation or twist on a beloved theme, is likely to find success and avid readers.

Your turn:

Do you read genre fiction? What are some fresh ideas you have enjoyed seeing in recent books?

10 Responses to Fresh Formulas

  1. Avatar
    Debby Mayne February 2, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    Great information, Tamela! I read quite a bit of genre fiction – mostly romance and cozy mysteries.

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      Tamela Hancock Murray February 2, 2012 at 4:49 am #

      Debby, my mother-in-law loves cozy mysteries. 🙂

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        Ginny Aiken February 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

        Tamela, great stuff. And I’m with your mother-in-law. I love cozies, and looooove writing them!

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    Timothy Fish February 2, 2012 at 4:39 am #

    I do read genre fiction. When I can’t seem to find anything else I want to read, I often turn to the Star Trek books. Their limitations are primarily that they have to stay true to the original show their book is based on and they have to use the same characters, but there are enough imaginary planets out that for writers to create nearly any story they can imagine.

    But at the same time, I’ve been somewhat critical of genre romance. It isn’t so much that I see the prescribed formula to be a problem. My issue is with the bits of silliness that so many are peppered with. I suspect this is partly due to the publisher treating novels like magazines, with a life of about a month and then no more. That’s not to say they aren’t edited, but it seems that more thought needs to be given to making the words mean what the author actually intended.

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    Renee Andrews February 2, 2012 at 6:52 am #

    I love reading genre fiction almost as much as I love writing genre fiction! Readers are extremely devoted to their favorite category lines and authors. They know what they are getting, they love it and they want more 🙂 The fact that the books aren’t all cookie-cutter stories makes the appeal even better. I’d say most genre writers provide those twists and turns you mention, because that’s what make their stories unique. And I’d even go one better to say that the unique stories are what the editors look for in a category author.

    Great topic 🙂

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      Ginny Aiken February 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

      Renee, you make a very good point. The books aren’t all cookie-cutter stories, and the authors’ individual voices do come through. For example, while two of my very close friends, Lynette Eason and Margaret Daley, and I all write category for Love Inspired, our books are completely distinct. I don’t need to see their name on the cover of a book to know who wrote it.

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    Patti Jo Moore February 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    Great post, Tamela! 🙂 I love genre fiction–and mostly read historical and contemporary romance.

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    Marji Laine February 3, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    I enjoy genre fiction. More romantic suspense than anything although I like a good historical. And I agree with Ginny! The variety of authors and their new story ideas keep the lines fresh.

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    Jennifer Major April 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    One of the reasons I’m writing a historical piece is that words, actions and choices take precedence over bells, whistles and all manner of gizmos. Loss and gain are in such large parameters. Saying goodbye and boarding a ship or train meant that *this* goodbye was all the character had. Relationships stopped and started, no Skype to fill the gaps. There is so much more to say and do when time and distance were the enemy of longing hearts.

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