10 Huge Mistakes You’re Making with Genre Conventions
Taking the Road Frequently Traveled
As an editor who works primarily with self-published authors, I encounter works of every genre and subject imaginable. The variety is one of my favorite aspects of my job. But regardless of genre or subject, I find many authors make common mistakes that prevent their books from gaining a larger audience.
One of the most common? The desire to break all conventions.
The reason is understandable: The author is eager to stand out from any release currently on the market. But by breaking all the rules and veering so far from comparable titles, the author releases a book unrecognizable to the very readers the author is hoping to attract.
Conventions—for example, common settings, characters, plotlines, and themes that appear in certain fiction genres, or common layouts, practices, or subject matters found in certain pieces of nonfiction—have a significant purpose: they allow readers to draw a certain set of expectations of how the story is likely to unfold.
Think of it this way: if you begin reading a romance, or go to see a feel-good rom-com, you know the end result already: the two romantic leads are going to have a happy ending.
The joy in reading, then, comes not from wondering how the book will end, but from watching the story unfold: How will the plotlines weave together to reach that happy ending?
And if there’s no happy ending? You’re unlikely to have a satisfied reader.
1. Unusual Formatting Choices
An unconventional format—for example, a novel formatted like a screenplay or without conventional punctuation, or a self-help book without subheadings and text boxes to break down the information—will give buyers pause.
An unusually formatted manuscript says to buyers that the author spent more time deviating from the norms than developing the story. Moreover, the less confident the reader is of what type of book they’re holding, the less likely they are to buy a copy.
If you’re determined to use an unconventional formatting or style choice, be sure you have a reason that benefits the story.
2. Unconventional Word Count and Trim Size
No, there’s not a specific word count I’d tell you to aim for if you’re writing this kind of book versus that kind. But if your finished manuscript is the length of a brochure or the size of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, I’d encourage you to step back and ask yourself whether readers will be willing to pay X number of dollars for your short or lengthy release.
Likewise, keep in mind that if you select a trim size for your novel beyond 6x9, readers are going to dismiss your novel as a workbook or textbook before they’ve even had a chance to take a closer look.
3. The Lack—or Abundance—of Conflict
Too much too soon, and you’ll overwhelm your reader. This is true of novels that try to cram several plot points into the first chapter, of memoirs that attempt to fit all backstories into the prologue, and of business books that open by focusing only on the negative aspects of the problem that the author is hoping to solve.
On the other hand, wait too long to present the conflict or problem at the heart of your work, and the reader won’t have any sense of what the narrative is working towards.
A great resource as you’re deciding when and where to place conflict? Screenwriting classes, blogs, and books. Films are about as formulaic as you can get, but to their advantage—screenwriters know how best to manipulate conflict and tension in order to grab the attention of their audience.
4. An Onslaught of Personal Details
Personal photos scattered throughout memoirs and poetry collections. A book packaged as self-help that contains the detailed account of the author’s own journey rather than a reader-centric guide to success. A novel that contains long digressions away from the storyline because the author wants to include a biographical component and/or issues important to the author rather than representative of the character.
I see examples of these every day, and my response is always the same: ditch them.
Okay, okay, some personal snapshots can add value to a memoir. But keep in mind who you’re hoping will buy the book. If you’re envisioning a large commercial audience, will this reader necessarily want to comb through family photos of a writer they don’t know? If your target market is hoping to learn how to advance in their faith or career or relationship, will they necessarily want to learn about your own journey if that content comes at the expense of advice for the reader?
5. Blended Genres
Whether blending fiction with nonfiction or memoir with self-help, the result is often the same: a book that doesn’t feel cohesive, as though half was meant for one set of readers and the other half meant for an entirely different market.
By making the book as cohesive as possible, you’re giving yourself the best chances of appealing to a larger market of readers, and your marketing efforts will be exponentially more efficient.
6. Mismatched Worlds of the Story
Pop culture references in sci-fi? A horror novel set in a sunny, happy place? An historical novel with modern dialect?
Stray from the conventional tone and phrasing choices of your genre, and the reader will feel as though the world of the story is at odds with its execution.
Writing nonfiction? Keep in mind that a work intended for an academic audience will have a different tone and feel than a work intended for laymen.
7. Misplaced Humor
While humor can be used in thrillers and suspense to balance out the high-tension plotlines, keep in mind that if our protagonist seems more focused on humor than on suspense, the reader will be, too.
8. Haphazard Points of View
Giving readers access to every character’s internal thoughts in a thriller can ruin the fun; limited access, comparatively, allows the reader to make predictions of who will find out pivotal information and when.
Similarly, remember that even if your memoir is written in a literary style, we don’t want to assume the internal thoughts of anyone other than ourselves.
9. Ignoring the Question “So What?”
The “so what?” factor is pivotal in keeping your work on track. You want to spend a chapter of your memoir describing a minor plot point surrounding a long-lost relative that the reader never meets again? You want to include bullet points in your book on Christian faith for non-Christians who aren’t likely to pick up the book in the first place?
If your average reader is likely to read a passage and wonder “So what?” consider revisions so that the answer can be found in the text.
Nonfiction works often feature a foreword, a list of the author’s previous publications, and endorsements from notable figures who can speak to the validity of the release. Fiction, too, often includes endorsements and a mention of the author’s backlist titles. Books of any kind traditionally include an About the Author page detailing the author’s personal and professional accomplishments.
Yes, it can be difficult to secure endorsements, and not every author will have backlist titles to promote. But if you don’t yet have the credibility of an established author, avoid advertising the fact.
I frequently see nonfiction authors use the book’s introduction to establish the fact that they don’t have a platform. Similarly, I encounter novelists who argue that they can’t join a writer’s group because they worry about claims of unintentional plagiarism.
Competition out there is fierce. If you lack a substantial platform, connect with those who can help you build yours.
Conventions are not the enemy. The more recognizable the genre, the more efficient and effective your marketing campaign will be—and the more satisfied your readers.
Not sure what step to take next? Here’s my advice: Read what you love and dissect why it works.
Kate Ankofski edits, bikes, and reads in Minneapolis, MN.