When Voice Doesn’t Match

Have you ever gotten feedback that your book is too literary?

Have you ever been told your protagonist is too old for his or her voice?

But my book is is full of sex and violence! How could you say it sounds middle grade?

Even if your content matches your age category and genre, your voice needs to match, too.

How do you make your voice match genre and age category?

First, determine whether you are using enough Anglo-Saxon or Latinate English.

See my post on the difference between the two by clicking here or on the image below.

diction anglo-saxon latinate-01

Second, make sure your tone and subtext reflect the outlook of your protagonist’s age.

Here are a few observations for three age categories:

A Middle Grade protagonist is concerned about her abilities. She will observe what others are doing and how she fits in—because she does not want to be perceived as babyish or unable—but she still has fun without much effort. A MG voice uses more “can,” “could” and “will” language, probably because preteens think about what they can do currently and what they’ll be able to do in the future.

A Young Adult protagonist is concerned with his identity. What kind of person is he? Who influences the way he thinks? What circles is he in, and how does he act within each? How can he still have fun without wrecking relationships? Others’ perceptions might be more important than self awareness. Writing a YA voice isn’t about injecting slang, which is too easy to do wrong—it’s about implications and subtext that imply tone and feelings. It’s about generating emotional reactions. A teen is also thinking about the physical world in a relational context, so he/she is more likely to talk about body parts than MG or non-romance adult literature.

An Adult protagonist is concerned with purpose and priorities. She’s also going to be more concerned with practicality since she’s got to take care of herself (and possibly others). Work is important, her relationships are important, and she’s still learning more about herself. She’ll be more concerned about consequences than teens or children, so when figuring out personal pursuits, she’s more likely to question whether she’s shirking responsibilities. An adult is more likely to be nostalgic about his or her childhood, looking to the past to inform the future. He or she might also have more regret. Words like “would” and “could” are more likely to creep in.

See Kyra Nelson’s post on her linguistic studies of YA literature and how it differs from children’s and adult lit. It’s fascinating!

Do you agree with these observations? Disagree?

Still from cafeteria scene in film NEVER BEEN KISSED, of protagonist Julia dressed in outrageous clothes, wondering with whom she should sit at lunch.

Literary? Mainstream? Commercial? What Genre Is This Anyway?

What’s the difference between commercial and literary and mainstream fiction? What do those words mean, anyway? What about “upmarket”? Where does my book fit in?

Sometimes it’s really obvious where your novel fits in with others.

Other times, you show up querying your book and have no idea where to put it. It’s awkwardly similar to high school (at least the movie version of high school). Everybody else seems so neatly sorted into groups.

A group of skater-pothead high schoolers from the film CLUELESS.

And then there’s you…

Still from cafeteria scene in film NEVER BEEN KISSED, of protagonist Julia dressed in outrageous clothes, wondering with whom she should sit at lunch.

But you want your book to find readers, which means your book needs to find something in common with other books (ones that have readers). Hey, you know which books have the most readers? Commercial fiction. Let’s start there.

Commercial Fiction

Commercial fiction is any fiction that has ONE of the following characteristics:

  • It sells a lot of copies, OR
  • It has a tight, fresh premise that’s easy to pitch (like a logline), OR
  • It has a very specific, established audience.

So genre fiction is considered commercial fiction, because genres can sell a lot of books to their target readers. Children’s books can often be considered commercial because all kids are encouraged to read, but children’s books are categorized by age first, genre second. Commercial writers are often prolific ones, churning out book after book after book for their very happy fan base, regardless of their genre.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t call your own work “commercial fiction”—that’s a term defined by sales. Know the difference between age categories (adult, young adult, middle grade, etc.) and genres (what this post is about).

Genre Fiction

Genre fiction adheres to specific tropes. For example, if you’re writing a romance, your story must have a happily ever after. If it doesn’t, it’s not a romance.

Read heavily in your genre. What do you expect when reading that genre? That’s what readers will expect from your book if it’s put on that shelf.

Established genre families, often with their own shelves in stores or libraries:

  • Mystery
  • Romance
  • Suspense / Thriller
  • Speculative Fiction (includes fantasy, science fiction, horror)
  • Western
  • Adventure (sometimes grouped with thrillers)

Did you write speculative fiction? Read about my guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Sub-Genres.

Cross-Genre

A cross-genre novel or story is one that borrows tropes from two or more genres. If your book is about an elf and an ogre falling in love and living happily ever after, you’re borrowing from the Romance and Fantasy families.

take-on-me

But do you call it Fantasy Romance or Romantic Fantasy? The first word in a genre pairing is the adjective qualifying the second, more prominent genre. In other words, a fantasy romance is primarily a romance with some fantasy elements. A romantic fantasy borrows more from the fantasy genre than the romance genre, but it still should have a happily ever after, or you can’t call it “romantic.”

Many stories have romantic elements. That doesn’t mean they are romances.

If your story has romantic elements, then say it’s “______ with romantic elements” if you must. But the romantic elements should be evident from your pitch.

A lot of colors have blue in them, but when we add a bit of it to yellow and mix it throughout, we call the result “green,” or maybe “yellow-green,” not “yellow with blue elements.”

BOTTOM LINE: If you think your book fits in one or more genres, look up the tropes for each genre. Read multiple authors of those genres to see where your book fits best. 

mean-girls

Your book doesn’t fit in with any of those genres? Don’t give up yet.

Mainstream or General Fiction

If your book wouldn’t sit on one of the five “shelves” listed above, it will likely be placed in a section called “General Fiction” or simply “Fiction.”

Historical fiction will likely be shelved here, along with contemporary fiction. Women’s fiction is general fiction promoted mainly to female readers. If your book is one of these genres, call it by one of those names. It’s better to be specific than vague, and it shows that you know your audience.

Mainstream fiction might appeal to a broader audience, but it can be more difficult to market. Marketers need to know where to direct their efforts.

Without a specified audience, your book will be a much harder sell.

GIF from The Princess Diaries: "My expectation in life is to be invisible, and I'm good at it."

Literary Fiction

Literary fiction has its own audience—one who has high expectations for prose and subtext.

If literary fiction gets its own shelf, that shelf is often called “literature,” though many readers are rightly annoyed at the suggestion that genre fiction can’t be considered literature. We won’t get into what constitutes a work of fiction being considered “literature” here. As far as I’m considered, that’s the same as debating the definition or worth of “art.”

What we will talk about is what constitutes literary fiction.

Elements of literary fiction:

  • The language is vivid and fresh. Frequently in literary fiction, how an element is presented is more important than what is presented. The words are like visible brushstrokes in a painting.
  • It might be more concerned with subtext, theme, or atmosphere than action.
  • It’s more likely to subvert tropes than genre fiction, which upholds tropes (to the satisfaction of its expectant readers).
  • Literary fiction is more likely to allude or respond to other forms of art, especially classical poetry and literature.
  • The structure might be experimental, playing with timelines, points of view, or different forms (incorporating poetry or illustrations or other forms of media).
  • It might be more concerned with a character’s internal struggle than external conflict.
  • It might play with what defines a “novel” or “story” or “literature” (see Metafiction)
  • It might be delivered to a select few (like the first collection from Facsimile Press, which publishes fiction only via fax).
  • Some readers might not consider it accessible because it attempts the unexpected.

Read more: Literary and Commercial Fiction as Paintings

Like “commercial,” the term “literary” is subjective and is doubted by readers when self-applied. Some readers might not agree with your label.

GIF of a man throwing a book out the window in frustration

If you’ve studied or discussed literature at length, or if your writing has been recognized or published by a literary community, then you might be fine calling your work literary. Show that you understand what literary means in a query letter by including a statement in your bio paragraph, like “I majored in literature at Such-and-Such University” or “my fiction has won [recognizable literary accolades not based on commercial genre].”

BOTTOM LINE: Err on the side of calling your work contemporary or historical (whichever fits) until an authority in the literary sphere—an agent, reviewer, award-winning author, or publisher—assigns the “Literary” qualifier to your work. 

Upmarket Fiction or “Book Club Books”

Upmarket Fiction is mainstream fiction with both literary and commercial elements. These are often books read by book clubs, because not only are the books entertaining and accessible, but they also have finely crafted prose, universal themes, or head-scratching concepts that beg to be discussed with other readers.

You can call your work upmarket, but there’s no shelf for upmarket books. “Upmarket” is an adjective. Use it paired with another genre or category label, for example, “upmarket fantasy” or “upmarket contemporary novel.”

BOTTOM LINE: Upmarket fiction is approachable, but beneath its fresh, commercial premise lie layers of subtext.

pretty-in-pink

Conclusion

When pitching your book, you need to show how it’s both different from and similar to books on the market.

From The Breakfast Club: a popular boy makes a really weird sandwich, eliciting looks from his peers.

To be a success, your book needs to fit in with others while having unique qualities of its own.

In a query letter, the main content of the pitch should show how your story is unique. The informational paragraph with word count, genre, and age category should show where it fits in. This is where you can include comp titles: books or related media that might share a specific audience with your readership. “[MY TITLE IN ALL CAPS] would appeal to fans of [two or three recently published books, still-writing authors, or related media].”

What's the difference between literary, mainstream, commercial, and upmarket fiction?Click to save on Pinterest

15 New Books I Want to Read in 2015, Part One

15 New Books in 2015 (January–June) | Write Lara Write

These are fifteen books coming out the first half of 2015 that I’d love to read! It’s a weird mix of adult literary and YA of all sorts of genres. Later I’ll post my top 15 of the second half of 2015, but I’m waiting on some cover reveals, first 🙂

Quotes either come from the Goodreads summary of the book or the recommendation from The Millions’ Most Anticipated: The Great 2015 Book Preview

Debut Authors

The Conspiracy of Us by Maggie Hall, 1/13/15

“Forbidden love and code-breaking, masked balls and explosions, destiny and dark secrets collide in this romantic thriller, in the vein of a YA Da Vinci Code.”

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm, 1/22/15

“A major debut novel of psychological suspense about a daring art heist, a cat-and-mouse waiting game, and a small-town girl’s mesmerizing transformation.”

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, 2/10/15

“In the aftermath of a devastating plague, a fearless young heroine embarks on a dangerous and surprising journey to save her world in this brilliantly inventive dystopian thriller, told in bold and fierce language, from a remarkable literary talent.”

Mosquitoland by David Arnold, 3/3/15

“Told in an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic voice, “Mosquitoland” is a modern American odyssey, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.”

Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley, 4/28/15

“Maria Dahvana Headley is a firecracker: she’s whip smart with a heart, and she writes like a dream.” —Neil Gaiman

The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman, 5/12/15

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets We Were Liars in this thought-provoking and brilliantly written debut that is part love story, part mystery, part high-stakes drama.”

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, 5/19/15

“Nimona is an impulsive young shape-shifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are.”

Fiction

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, 3/3/15

“The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years. Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in nearly a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge, and war.”

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison, 4/21/15

“Spare and unsparing, God Help the Child is a searing tale about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult.”

The Trouble with Destiny by Lauren Morrill, TBD

Pitch Perfect meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a cruise ship”

Nonfiction

The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Lexicon of Life Hacks for the Modern Lady Geek by Sam Maggs, 5/12/15

The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is the ultimate handbook for ladies living the nerdy life, a fun and feminist take on the often male-dominated world of geekdom.”

Short Stories

Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce, 1/8/15

“[The stories] take place at the confluence of the commonplace and the cosmic, the intimate and the infinite.”

Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem, 2/24/15

“From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos.”

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman, 2/3/15

“[It] should be no surprise that [Gaiman’s] third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction.”

Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser, 4/15/15

Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — ‘culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor’ – that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty.”

What new books are you looking forward to in 2015?

WATCH, or: Where to Start and End your Novel

This post explains the acronym WATCH, asks what kind of novel you’re writing, and then teaches you where/how to begin and end your novel. Short fiction writers—don’t fret. You can learn about beginning and ending your stories effectively, too.

I’ve been reading Characters and Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card and learning so much about point of view and types of novels that I’ve not read anywhere else. So of course I’m going to share what I’m learning with all of you!

One thing that really interested me was Card’s “MICE Quotient.” He says there are four types of stories. Each story has all four elements, but stories will emphasize one more than the others. MICE stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event.

I hope Mr. Card will forgive me, but I think his use of “Idea” is a bit misleading, and I’d probably have to look up “milieu” again every time I saw it in the future. So I’m creating my own mnemonic device that works well in the context of my time-traveling historical fantasy.

W.A.T.CH.: Which will you focus on in your writing?

WATCH

  1. World
  2. Answer
  3. Time
  4. CHaracter

Okay, I know the H in “character” is silent. Nobody’s perfect.

World

This is Card’s “Milieu,” but “world” is far less pretentious and more memorable, in my humble opinion. You’ve probably heard of “world building” if you are familiar with Sci-Fi and fantasy, or the broader term “universe.” World concerns itself with setting, place, time, culture, customs, manners, and the like. Every novel has some degree of its own world. In some stories, though, the world-building is so central to the book, it almost becomes a character itself.

Westerns, epic fantasy, and historical fiction tend to focus on World.

Answer

This is what Card refers to as “idea,” but I think “Idea” has connotations of “theme” and not much else. An Answer story poses a question or a problem that needs to be answered or solved by the end. The question could be obvious—”Who murdered Mr. Boddy?”—or it could be figurative. If it’s figurative, the answer might very well be the theme of the story. Take The Great Gatsby, for example. While the World (1920s), Time (events), and Characters (Gatsby, Carraway, Tom, Daisy, etc.) are all important and well-developed, they are all used to illustrate the themes (money, power, time, etc.). An allegorical story like Pilgrim’s Progress has universal, and thereby flat, characters, but it can get away with it, because the story is about finding answers. What is Christian’s purpose? To get to the Celestial City.

Mysteries, capers, allegory, and some sci-fi and classical fiction focus on Answers or theme.

Examples: Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Ocean’s Eleven, Pilgrim’s Progress, The Great Gatsby

Time

Time deals with events. Cause and effect. The plot. What happens. If you’re trying to get a writing degree at a respectable university, they will tell you that Character must always trump plot. And while that’s true for literary fiction, it’s not true for all fiction. Anne Lamott, whom many of us regard as one of the finest writing instructors alive, urges writers to think about characters and their motivations, hang the plot. But in Bird by Bird, she confesses that she had to rewrite one of her novels countless times, because the plot made no sense, and her editor kept telling her it didn’t work. So she learned how to do a plot treatment, and she fixed it. Plot gets thrown under the bus by respectable writers, but it’s definitely important.

I really enjoy character-driven short fiction, but if I pick up a novel in which nothing actually happens, I’ll throw it across the room and rage about it to my poor, unsuspecting husband. Popular fiction, the kind that is nearly impossible to put down, focuses on Time and what happens in the book. Hopefully the characters will change by the end of the book, but that isn’t always the case. Katniss Everdeen isn’t the deepest character on the shelf, but she sure does a lot.

Time novels start with something amiss that needs to be fixed. They right a wrong; they “save” women from spinsterhood. Or at least they try to fix the problem. They primarily try to change what happens, though the people in the story are usually changed, too.

Because they deal with problems, the line between Time stories and Answer stories can be a blurry one. The difference is that in an Answer story, something is learned or realized, resulting in an understood truth. But in a Time story, something happens, resulting in a shift in circumstance. Answer stories have an intellectual conclusion, whereas Time stories have a physical one.

Dystopian, disaster, justice/revenge, thriller, horror, sci-fi and romance are generally Time- or event-focused.

Examples: The Hunger Games, Jurassic Park, The Count of Monte Christo, The Da Vinci Code, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Doctor Who, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Character

A character-driven novel is one in which the most important factor isn’t what happens, when and where it happens, or the author’s intent. The important thing in a character-driven story is growth. The character should change for the better or for the worse. If the character doesn’t change, the reader grows in understanding of why that character will never change.

Contemporary literary fiction concerns itself primarily with character. American readers especially want to know who a character is and why he or she acts the way he/she does. Motivation, motivation, motivation.

General fiction, literary fiction, and the bildungsroman (that’s fancy talk for a coming-of-age story) depend primarily on character.

Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Things They Carried, Huckleberry Finn

How to begin and end the story

Bilbos-Birthday-Party

World

When the world in your story is the focus, you begin by introducing the world. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien created a gigantic universe that is Middle Earth. His stories begin by showing what life is like. Then things begin to shake that world up a bit. Orson Scott Card gave the example of The Lord of the Rings. Why does the story not end when the One Ring is destroyed? Because the story isn’t just about Frodo Baggins and his Fellowship; it’s about how Middle-Earth completely changed. So the story ends not at Mount Doom, or at Aragorn’s coronation, or after the scouring of the Shire. It ends when the last of the elves leave Middle Earth. The world has changed. It’s changed for Frodo, too, so he leaves with the elves.

Grey Havens

Where are my tissues?

Answer

If you’ve read or watched many mysteries, you know they all start the same. They might have a couple of lines or minutes introducing the protagonist as a person capable of solving a mystery, but they really start when someone’s been murdered or another crime has been committed. They start with a mystery or a question. Why do you think some people call mysteries “Whodunits”? The story ends when you find out who did it.

study-in-pink

In theme stories, the story begins with theme and ends with theme. The Great Gatsby begins with advice (given in the past) about considering someone else’s history against your own, and how those histories have affected your presents:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”

It ends with the message that even though we make effort to change our futures, we will always be pulled back to our past:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

You end the story once the characters or the reader has a new understanding.

In a series of Answers stories, they might end on a new question. Readers read the next book to have the new question answered. That’s usually how seasons of Castle end. And if you watch Sherlock, you really know what I mean about ending on a question!

Time

Time stories begin by showing you what’s wrong. There might be a quick introduction of characters, but then we see what sort of circumstance the characters are in, and they realize they’ve got to do something about it. Or they reject it but end up doing something anyway.

Lizzie Bennet Diaries

My mom gave me this shirt.

The Hunger Games begins with the Reaping. Pride and Prejudice begins with a woman who, according to her mother, needs a husband (preferably a rich one). Doctor Who episodes usually begin with the discovery of aliens bent on the destruction of the universe.

Time stories end when circumstances change. The woman gets married; the world is saved. Justice is had; someone is avenged. They basically end when there’s nothing else to tell—nothing else happens to change the circumstance of the world or of the protagonist. At least not until the sequel. If a time story is part of a series, one story might end when the circumstances change in order to create a new story. The Hunger Games ends after circumstances change for Katniss and Peeta. They’ve hit a new normal. But Haymitch assures them that more change is to come. Catching Fire is notorious for its cliffhanger ending.

Pride & Prejudice wedding

The story ends here when it’s one about finding romance. Achievement unlocked.

Character

Character stories begin with the character living a normal life.

500 Days of Summer Todd Hanson

Everything that happens in the story affects the character somehow, and by the end of the story, the character has grown. Character stories end with the change or growth in character. A new life for the character has begun.

(500) Days of Summer is not a love story, it’s a character story. It doesn’t end with a relationship, it ends when Tom finally gets a life. (I adore this movie.)

Chris Oatley has a great post on “How to Write Great Character Introductions” over at Paper Wings Podcast. If you’re writing a character-driven story (and even if you aren’t), be sure to read it.

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Take some time and think about your favorite books and movies. What kinds of stories are they? Where do they begin? How do they end?

Be sure to check out WATCH Part Two—a quiz on where you should begin and end YOUR novel.

Once I get through my notes and finish Characters and Viewpoint, I’ll be starting a new series on Point of View. Subscribe or follow me on Facebook to stay in the loop!

beginning & ending your novel: a lesson in genre