Writer, Know Thyself!

I recently spent four days with a wonderful group of writers. We meet every year to pray together, brainstorm each other’s books, and laugh uproariously. I always come home feeling like I’ve had a major ab workout from all the laughter!

In the course of our discussions, I realized that with publishing changing in so many ways, writers can sometimes lose their focus on what they’re really writing. For example, a writer I know is crafting a novel that’s a departure from what she usually writes. It has a romance thread, but romance isn’t the primary focus of the story. She was calling it a romance, but the more I read it the more I saw it wasn’t really a romance. Romance readers have very specific expectations of romance novels, and her book didn’t meet those expectations. What she’s writing is, in fact, a supernatural, medical thriller with a strong romance thread.

So why was it important for her to know that? Because what you’re writing—the genre and reader expectations—affect everything about the book. Plot, pacing, character development and interaction, chapter hooks, title, cover focus, proposal information, what the readers expect of that story…it’s all impacted by the kind of story you’re writing. Had my friend put a romance title and cover on this book, the readers who bought it may well have been disappointed—or even frustrated—when they discovered it wasn’t at all what they expected.

So how do you know what you’re writing? Here are a few tips:

  1. Ask yourself:
    1. What is the primary message of this book?
    2. What is the primary plot of the story?
  2. Ask others:
    1. Give it to a group of those who love to read and ask them when they’re done, without giving any clues, what category they think it fits in.
    2. Do some research online. There are a number of places you can find good descriptions of genres to help you position your book correctly.

So for your sake, the editor’s sake, and your reader’s sake, be sure you know your genre and focus. You’ll all benefit!



12 Responses to Writer, Know Thyself!

  1. Avatar
    Joe Plemon August 13, 2014 at 6:31 am #


    Thanks for this timely post. The primary message of my completed manuscript is that forgiveness is always possible, and the story question is “Can/will this marriage be saved?” In probing the struggles of a married couple in their late thirties, there is a strong thread of romance in that this couple may or may not save their marriage, but the book is not romantic in the sense of two people meeting and working through their differences until they discover they are meant for each other.

    My wife tells me not to call it a romance novel and I think she’s right. Still not sure exactly what genre it fits in, other than Christian fiction. Is that too broad or should I try to find a more specific genre?

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    Jeanne Takenaka August 13, 2014 at 7:13 am #

    Great post, Karen! I can definitely see the necessity of knowing genre expectations for marketing my novel accurately. I’m thinking through my current WIP. I loved the idea of having someone else read my book and tell me what genre they think it fits into. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Jennifer Johnson August 13, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    This was a wonderful post. It seems that discovering your specific genre has become exceedingly more difficult, with the rise of countless sub-genres. Thank you, for the reminder to do our homework.

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    Jim Lupis August 13, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    What a writer believes their genre to be, to how a reader sees it, is a great point. One mistake that I have been known to make is assuming the reader clearly understands what I have written.

    I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but sometimes I don’t understand what I have written. 🙂

    Thanks, Karen, for strengthening my focus.

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    Rachel Leigh Smith August 13, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Preach it, Karen!

    I’m in a romance sub-genre author group, and there’s one member who constantly seems to think one can change the definition of romance and romance readers won’t notice. Sometimes I want to bang this person’s head into the wall. Romance readers know what we want, and if we don’t get it the so-called “romance” author is blacklisted.

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    Karen Ball August 13, 2014 at 10:34 am #

    Joe, I’d call it contemporary women’s fiction.

    Rachel, don’t bang the writer’s head, just point out that most publishing pros will tell you there are three golden rules for romance:

    1. Hero and heroine meet on the first page, if possible. If not, as close to it as they can.
    2. The primary focus of the story is the working out of their relationship.
    3. And they lived happily ever after.

    If you want to write a romance, do NOT stray from those rules. Your readers won’t appreciate it.

    • Avatar
      Rachel Leigh Smith August 13, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

      This person has been told the golden rules of romance over and over and over and over. Never seems to stick. This person always wants to call things romance that have no HEA, and not even a HFN.

      At times she comes across as very condescending toward us romance writers and readers, so I have no idea why she even hangs around and continues to be part of the group.

      I write romance. I read romance. I adhere to the rules of romance, and find them to be a wealth of fertile ground to play in. Well, except for the meeting on the first page. Sometimes the story doesn’t allow for it, but I still get them together as quickly as I can. I’m also going the indie route right now so I have a bit more flexibility.

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    Susan Jennings August 13, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    Karen, thank you for a great article. I am struggling to place my novel. I call it historical romance but i am not sure it is the correct genre. It is historical in the sense that the story starts in 1913 and there are two love stories that are pivotal to the story but the story is really about her journey. I don’t want to mislead the reader. I would be interested in how other authors defined romance. I tend to think of romance novels as Harlequin Romances and my novel doesn’t fit that image.

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    Nick Kording August 13, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    Great post. I struggle with the concept of romance when your main theme is something else… I feel like almost every story can have a romantic element but not be romance. I like that we can now call a story a romantic suspense… but, really, if it’s a suspense and there happens to be romance, I think it’s a suspense.

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    Ane Mulligan August 13, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    What surprises me is how many contest judges don’t understand that. I’ve had friends who write women’s fiction with a romantic thread and had judges tell them they heroine HAD to meet the hero it he first chapter. Hello? Anybody home there? She was judging WF not romance! LOL No wonder new writers get frustrated!

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    Karen Ball August 13, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    Susan, sounds like you can just call it historical fiction. As Nick points out, most good fiction has a romance thread in it. The way to know if your story is a romance is if the focus is getting the hero and heroine together. If that isn’t the main plot line, then just call it historical fiction with a romance thread.

    And Ane, I’ve heard that quite a bit from folks who submit for contest–that the judges don’t seem to understand what’s being written. But I will say that if someone reads it and feels the story is primarily a romance, then maybe the writer needs to take another look to be sure they haven’t given the romance center stage.

    Thanks for your comments, all!

  11. Avatar
    Amber Schamel August 14, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    Good info here, Karen. Thanks for sharing. You make a really great point. The theme does affect everything else, and we don’t want to disappoint our readers.

    Amber Schamel
    Bringing HIStory to Life

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