Choose the right genre for your unique story. It can shorten your path to publication, improve distribution and make your work more discoverable in the vast sea of publishing. Familiarize yourself with the way bookstores group their departments and shelves, to see where your work would best fit in. Then decide how your work can stand out as a new addition or a worthwhile variation on he choices currently available.
What genre (JON’-rah) that is, what kind of writing, do you want to create? In my own case, It was easy to identify my genre. I have to admit I stumbled into this writing world as the son of two writers. My father was an advertising man and World War II Marine, who created promotional concepts and advertising copy for a living and scooped the big news of Japan’s surrender from his Guam radio station outpost. My mother, a news press agent and feature writer, wrote heartfelt and humorous newspaper columns on interesting musical personalities. You might say I was born into my second career, that of a writer. Each of them attempted creative writing in their day and left hundreds of wartime letters, essays and humorous commentary on their lives. These formed a natural entrée for me into writing their humorous biographies: Ben’s War with the U. S. Marines and Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces.
Many nonfiction genres
If you’re a psychologist and want to share your knowledge to help people improve their lives, you might want to write a nonfiction, self-help book. You may have professional status, such as an advanced degree, a professional license or recognition by a professional society, which qualifies you to write about it . This professional standing in your field is called a “platform,” which can develop into recognition by the general public as an expert. Such status can lead to a public following, another aspect of your author platform.
Nonfiction genres vary widely and account for the largest overall sales in the book industry. They include all the liberal arts and sciences: history, with its many eras and specialized aspects (military, social and regional history), biography and autobiography, science, music art, philosophy, psychology, humor, social commentary, grade-level course books and college textbooks. In addition to these core subjects, nonfiction books also do-it-yourself manuals, self-help books and technical works on hundreds of topics, ranging from auto repair to computer software for dummies
Ask why you’re writing the story
There are many reasons for writing down family stories. Your immediate family and their descendants will want to know what has gone before, especially any funny experiences, honors and life achievements you wish to pass on. Or perhaps a dear friend and war hero has asked you to write his story, or you have fallen heir to an invaluable trove of letters from historic times. But why should anyone beyond the immediate family care? Can you make it more universal, by depicting a moral dilemma the person faced, a struggle against great odds during a crucial time in history? What societal forces, settings and conditions did they help to change during their lifetime? How have great biographers like Tim Russert (Big Russ and Me), St. Louis-born Marguerite Johnson, Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and John F. Kennedy (Profiles in Courage) managed to universalize their life stories to give the larger population a stake in their strivings and reasons to read and learn from them?
Find the best genre for your story
It may not be readily apparent, but you do have a choice. If you’ve got a great story based on your own life, a fascinating character, or several individuals you’ve come to know well, what are your options for telling it? Which form would be better—a first-person memoir, a straight non-fiction biographical account, a creative dramatization of real-life events, or a historical novel with totally fictionalized characters? There are compelling reasons for choosing each one of these genres for your story.
Much biography today is written as creative nonfiction, also called narrative nonfiction or, as Sean Penn has tagged it, “immersive journalism.” Using this technique, historical characters can be treated fictionally. You can create scenes with setting, mood and dialogue. For example, I could bring potentially boring war and radio history material to life through my characters’ own personal experiences with it.
My rule is to create scene you know happened, but which were never written down. In the case of persons still living, you can either corroborate the quoted dialog with them, or refer to what he or she said by avoiding direct quotations. You’ll be communicating truth, but not necessarily documented fact. While writing my first biography I remembered times when I had met Mike Wallace, Dad’s colleague and good friend, who was still living at the time of writing. About then, I happened to meet Garrison Keillor when he was in town lecturing. I asked him whether I could include scenes I recalled when Mike was visiting our family. He told me, “Yes. You have the right to memories of your own life,” he said. “If you describe interactions with famous persons in a respectful manner, without slander or personal attacks, you are entitled to use them in your memoirs.”
Examples: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, a World War II story. When a flight crew survives ocean crash of their American B-29 bomber, they then must endure Japanese captivity. This and her first book, Seabiscuit, recreated scenes which must have happened but which more properly represented truth than documented facts, for example, in developing the character of a skeptical and obnoxious sportscaster.
You may have noticed that the best contemporary writers, such as Laura Hillenbrand an Eric Larson, jump right into the action, perhaps a turning point in their subject’s life, to rivet the reader’s attention. In re-crafting my mother’s biographical memoir, I began the drama by presenting her when Dad went into the service.
When Ben went off to war, I was left with everything else: running the household, juggling the budget and maintaining the car. So it fell to me to figure out how to do all this on Ben’s hundred-dollar-a-month allotment check, plus whatever else he could scrape together and send home from working in off-duty hours and winning at craps. It was obvious I had to go to work. But, with all these new duties and two small children under my wing, what could I do? There was a labor shortage. Sure. But was it so bad that some desperate employer would pay handsomely for two hours of a frazzled female’s time after a hard day? At say, fifty dollars a week?
—Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces, by Alice H. Green and Peter H. Green, 2016, Chapter 1
Multiple fiction genres
In fiction, there are many genres: fantasy, romance, historical novels, middle grade or young adult adventure, coming of age stories, mystery and crime, science fiction, suspense, horror and thrillers.The special categories of poetry and literary fiction depend, not so much on plot, but on imagery, character development, beautiful language, apt emotional expression and other less tangible factors.
Stories best suited for fiction
There are many stories in a writer’s experience which are so edgy, so personal and so potentially damaging to persons still living, fiction is the right genre. They cannot be told without crashing and burning the author’s fragile aircraft with him in it. And yet, because they are so poignant, so outrageous or so important, they cry out to be told. But to fictionalize them, you may have to choose different locales, make the characters thin if they really are fat, Chinese if they are really American and change the names to protect the guilty. Then mix up the events in time and place, add the personality traits of other people, and stir well. When you do this, people almost never recognize themselves. But really, who says this stuff is just “made up?” Authors put their heart and soul into these tales and call them fiction. While they are not factual, they are very real to the reader, and, yes, this is how a great novel is born.
A genre so popular it has branched off into various genres, is historical fiction. Its various branches include: military, mystery and romance. Elliott Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. and Eleanor, wrote historical fiction, a series about his mother as a detective. Eileen Dreyer, St. Louis New York Times best-selling historical romance author has this genre with eight3eenthc century romance set during wars and has now branched into the steam-punk era(late 19th-century) series.
Gather, Evaluate and Research your Source Material
Before she died, Mom gave me a cardboard carton containing all the letters Dad had sent home from the Pacific war. They were both writers, and during their separation of a year-and-a half, they wrote each other almost every day, carrying on an almost casual conversation across 8,000 miles, as if they were back home, reviewing the day’s happenings and world events over their evening cocktail. Since Mom preserved Dad’s letters in their original postmarked envelopes I could arrange them chronologically in archival plastic sleeves in six huge notebooks, enabling me to place his whereabouts precisely on any day during the Pacific war.
This research and the wealth of original sophistical letters and stories both Mom and Dad left to me resulted in two books, Ben’s War with the U. S. Marines and Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces, for which biographical memoir turned to be the right genre,
Research into World War II was the next necessary element in placing Dad’s role in the war into its historical context. I read a dozen books about World War II: including several personal histories of the war in the Pacific. They ranged from Coral and Brass, the autobiography of General Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, the stubborn founding commandant of a newly minted branch of the Navy, the U. S. Marine Corps; to an Atlas of the Pacific War showing the location and scope of key naval battles, and finally to Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener, which inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific, one of my parents’ favorite shows.
This background enabled me to place Dad’s activities and his comments on events in the context of history, as day-to-day events were being reported: the day Roosevelt died, the battle of Iwo Jima and the tension building up to Japan’s surrender and the end of the Pacific war.
In recent decades, writers have successfully combined genres. The day is long past when you could start a biography with the day your subject was born and develop the story as she grows up. In such cases, I seldom stay awake past her graduation from grammar school. The most successful modern biographies and histories start in medias res, in the middle of things: during the key battle of a war, or at a critical turning point in the person’s life. This gives the reader a stake in the outcome immediately and keeps him turning the pages. A good mystery may also integrate emotional obstacles or romantic resolution leading to the main character’s transformation. Historical novels combine history with fiction in fascinating ways. You can probably think of many more instances of combined genres.
Position in the marketplace
It’s important to find the section and shelves in a bookstore with right genre for your book . Let’s say your expertise is in helping disturbed children. When you find other books on this topic, look at them and see whether you have something to offer that hasn’t already been written. Or perhaps you can’t find your specialty at all. This may offer an opportunity to provide new information in your field. Or perhaps you’ve written a thriller in a scientific field that the public knows little about, such as gene therapy. This would set your book apart from all the other thrillers on the shelves. For example in my mother’s autobiography, I discovered that while there are many books about war, battles and even humorous stories such as Mac Hyman’s World War II classic, No Time for Sergeants. But there are few social histories of The Golden Years of Radio and very few humorous takes on the home front during World War II. These facts help my story stand out. In this case, humorous World War II biographical memoir was the right genre.
Once you identify the right genre and understand where your book fits within the vast canon of literature, you’ll find writing easier, identify your audience more easily and maybe even discover a quicker path to publication. I’d be delighted to learn your stories on these issues and share them and your comments with the other readers of this column.