Genre therapy: the art and science of finding the sweet intersection between what you were born to write, and what’s most likely to reach the widest possible audience.
Genre therapy is a new way to think about creating your art.
If you’re a commercial author, committed to making money from your writing without sacrificing the quality of your work (if you want to sell big, without selling out), it’s a creative hack that can dramatically improve both how fast you write and how well you write.
Genre therapy can be incredibly powerful, but it isn’t necessarily easy.
It requires that you understand yourself well enough to know what your best genre or genres might be. That takes a lot of self reflection, and it isn’t necessarily easy to know where you should start. Figuring out which questions you must ask yourself in order to figure out if you’re working in the best possible environment is paramount to getting it right.
There are no right or wrong answers.
As with traditional talk therapy, genre therapy is a matter of adaptation more than anything. There isn’t a master list of questions, or a form to fill out. Your creative brain is a big ball of yarn, and there are plenty of places to start pulling at that thread.
At just under a year old, genre therapy is still a new idea for us. But after publishing around fifteen million words, we know how life-changing this insight has been for our studio. And even though it’s new, we’ve already developed some standard practices and strong starting points that I would like to share with you now.
Here are 17 questions you can ask yourself, to start writing better for the rest of your life:
1. What are my strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to their writing, and a bit of honest self-reflection as to what those are can give you deep insight into what you should actually be writing.
That isn’t necessarily the same as what you want to write, and more often than not, there is a gap between the two, even if it’s narrow.
My strengths include strong, colorful description, rich vocabulary, zippy dialogue, human psychology, and a lot of heart.
But I like writing fast, and don’t want to get bogged down in the research. I’m never going to be Tom Clancy, nor do I want to be. If you’ve been following the Sterling & Stone story for any length of time, then you probably already know the story of Unicorn Western. If not, a brief recap here.
Our partner, Dave, told me that I’d never do the research required to write a believable western. I argued that I could absolutely write a western if I wanted to, and that it was all about knowing who I am as a writer. I wouldn’t ever attempt to write something like Lonesome Dove, regardless of how much I love that book — I’ve read it three times, despite reading even books that I love only once. My western would be a lot closer to Django Unchained, The Magnificent Seven, or Unforgiven.
Dave said, “Fine then. Go ahead and write your Western. I bet you’ll put a f*#@&^g unicorn in it.”
So we did. The first book I ever wrote with my other partner, Johnny, is the 250,000 word epic, Unicorn Western.
As much as I love that book, and as thrilled that I wrote it with Johnny as I am, it didn’t sell well, because it is neither a fantasy nor a western. It breaks both genres. And even though it does that well, it confuses the marketplace, thus making the book more difficult to sell than it should be.
Knowing my strengths and weaknesses as a writer would have kept me away from that project, knowing what I know now, and assuming profit was my priority. (In full disclosure, it rarely is.)
2. What are my favorite books, TV shows, and movies?
Make a list of your favorite books and movies.
This list can be short or long, but it must be honest. This isn’t a rundown of stories you’ve enjoyed from the last few months, but rather, true favorites. The ones that have endured over time. Stories you enjoy now as much as you ever did. The ones that have helped to define your tastes. Those stories that you’re always excited to talk about, no matter what.
Any conversation I ever have about my favorite movies will include films like Memento, Magnolia, and The Matrix; Fight Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Requiem for a Dream. Anything from Pixar, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Spielberg. I saw Good Will Hunting in the theater four times, and if it were re-released right now I’d totally go again.
What do all of these stories have in common?
There might not be one common denominator to bind them all, but there are recurring themes.
I love complicated narratives, deep emotion, and characters I can relate to. Broken is always better. I love twist endings and fearless ambition. I’m deeply drawn to stories that have never been told before. One-of-a-kind narrative, or at least the first of a breed. Endings that feel inevitable yet surprising.
My creative output reflects my tastes. David Fincher made me fall in love with the unreliable narrator, Pixar taught me to put character above all else, and Charlie Kaufman proved that there is no idea too strange, so long as it’s tightly threaded with compassion for the craft.
While you should never try to duplicate your favorite stories or styles, your preferences are part of your creative DNA, and should play a major role in influencing your art.
3. What do I have the most fun writing?
A lot of writers do this weird thing where they think that the work must be difficult. If something is fun and we’d do it for free, then perhaps it isn’t worthy of our serious attention. If the story was a joy to write from start to finish, then its inherent value becomes easy to dismiss.
But this isn’t true at all. It isn’t even counterintuitive, if we ignore many of the idiotic lessons society and culture have taught us, and pay attention to the ones life is constantly offering instead.
Think about the days before you asked yourself how you can make the greatest amount of money as an author. What were you writing in your free time? What were you writing just because?
Have you ever written fan fiction, where you know the characters and scenarios so well that the stories practically write themselves?
Fifty Shades of Gray is the most profitable book in decades, and it started its life as Twilight fan fiction. Say whatever you want about the quality of that story, but there’s zero doubt that E.L. James had a ton of fun both writing those books and cashing her checks.
Never underestimate the power of fun in your writing, or the positive impact it can have on the quality of your work.
4. What do my reviews say about my writing?
This doesn’t help if you’re a brand-new author.
But if you’ve been at it for a while, yet can’t seem to make your stories resonate with readers enough to build a big list of regulars who are eager to buy all your new releases during their launch window, this is an excellent place to study your work through a buyer’s eyes.
But you must be honest with yourself.
In general, people don’t like negative reviews. And worse, they don’t appreciate their value. As long as my awful reviews are honest, I happen to love them.
There are a couple of caveats, of course. Reviews can’t come from haters with an ax to grind. If your reviewers are saying things like, this book sux!, then there’s little there to help you.
But if those reviews are detailing problems with your characters or their motivations, your ability to draw a realistic setting or show an understanding of the time period, you might very well be writing in the wrong genre.
We see this all the time in historical fiction.
If an author isn’t willing to do a copious amount of research, they should stay far away from this genre. Find any historical fiction book with marginal reviews, and you’ll see that common complaint. The story isn’t believable.
Those reviewers don’t actually mean that the story itself is unbelievable, so much that because the environmental details were off, they were yanked out of the story.
Hearing how awesome you are will not improve the quality of your work. Assume that your bad reviews aren’t personal, and take what you can to improve all you do.
5. What is my voice?
Voice is hard to define. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to home in on and improve.
In general, it’s the individual style a writer uses to communicate, how they navigate syntax, vocabulary, diction, and punctuation. Beyond the words themselves, voice touches character and dialogue across a body of work.
Voice is the way a story is told, in addition to the construction itself. The Beatles show their voice in both the construction and execution of With a Little Help From My Friends, but Joe Cocker uses an entirely different voice — thereby making it sound like an entirely different tune — when covering that song.
You don’t need to settle for one voice. As a ghostwriter, I was responsible for developing more than I could keep track of. But you do have one that feels most natural, and leaning into that voice will help you to tell better stories faster.
Think about the last long email you wrote, the one where you started typing and barely stopped before you were staring at hundreds of words. You went over the email, and it hardly needed an edit. That might be too conversational for a book (though with some genres it would be great), but there are still elements of that email that will help you to understand your voice.
The mistake most authors make is in asking, What’s the most commercial voice?, rather than taking the time to discover their most natural one.
6. What is my preferred mood or atmosphere?
As with most of these answers, I’m a bit of a unicorn. That’s a function of spending so much time reading and writing all over the place, making a living as a ghostwriter, and working with many collaborators.
When writing with Dave, the mood is always dark. That’s his vibe, and it’s my job as his partner to adapt. I enjoy getting to dabble, and appreciate our collaboration. But this is not my natural state, nor anywhere close to my preferred mood. While writing our second serial, I watched a lot of AMC’s The Killing, because the show was set in a dark version of Seattle, with unrelenting rain, and the heartache to harmonize with it. That was perfect to lubricate my mood.
Johnny’s the opposite. Much closer to my natural aesthetic, he prefers a brighter, more optimistic tone. Even our dystopias have moments of pure wonder.
If left entirely to my own devices, I want an optimistic mood with a bit of darkness. And that makes perfect sense, since it’s how I see the world. The novella I finished earlier this morning reads like an episode of Black Mirror. Very dark, but also funny. It met my natural aesthetic almost perfectly, and parts of the novella felt like they were writing themselves. Part of that was was due to working from an exceptional outline, but the ease of production and quality of the story also came from aligning the atmosphere with my personal creative aesthetic.
Understand the timbre of your general mood to nail the tone of your ideal atmosphere, then use that knowledge to craft the writing environment that’s most unique to you.
7. What story types or tropes do I lean on the most?
We all have stories we like to tell over and over. For romance writers this is easy, but most of the ones I know get bored if they can’t stretch it after it while. Boy meets girl usually isn’t enough.
Do you like the one where the hero is told that they can’t trust anyone, then of course they do, and they get betrayed at the end?
How about the assassin in exile?
Or the boy who pretends he doesn’t love the girl, but really does?
We have a line of books we are working on now to publish later this year. Stand-alone novels instead of a series. Each book is essentially the same story, even though they are also totally different. The pen name is based around a unifying trope, or foundational belief — that there are broken parts in all of us, and that every relationship has cracks that leave us vulnerable to exploitation.
While you should never allow your favorite movies or television shows to be a primary driver dictating the type of story you create, it can and should be an influencing source.
Writers get into trouble when they try to copy wholesale, without understanding why something works, or how it applies to them. You may love the show Westworld more than anything else on TV, but if you don’t have an AI or robotics background and you aren’t gifted with the ability to craft complicated narratives with severely fractured timelines, you probably don’t want to write that style of story yourself. But if you’re looking at Westworld as a piece of pop entertainment, you can see that ultimately, the show is asking a universal question: What exactly makes us human?
There are countless stories you can tell addressing that question.
I watch an episode of television, or a movie almost every day. Sometimes more than one. Everything I see influences me in some way, but not because I’m copying environments, characters, themes, or anything else.
Instead, I’m always asking myself why I liked or didn’t like what I just finished watching. Even the awful stuff can sometimes lead to a glittering mine of storytelling opportunities. If I liked the premise of a show enough to watch it, and yet the narrative fell flat for me, there’s always a reason.
The next time you see or read something that misses the mark, ask yourself:
How would I have done that differently?
How would I have improved that story?
What can I say, that this artist did not?
Next, let’s talk about the actual writing process itself.
8. How do I feel when writing my story?
If the answer is stilted, frustrated, or hesitant, there’s an excellent chance that you’re writing in the wrong place.
Johnny and I went to the Robert McKee conference a few years ago. Three days of nothing but McKee talking about story. You can get most of the conference by buying and digesting his two books, Story and Dialogue. Both are excellent. I agree with most of what he says. But there is one thing I couldn’t disagree with more.
McKee claims that writing is the hardest job in the world. “More difficult than brain surgery.”
Yes, those were his exact words.
And that is ridiculous.
Writing might not be easy, but it should never be harder than brain surgery. If it is, you’re definitely doing it wrong. McKee knows the principles of a good story, but he isn’t a working writer. His two books are all about the craft. The only stories inside them are about Story itself.
The formula for writing that’s fun, rather than the kind that makes you want to tear your hair out by the handful, is knowing your story well enough that you’re transcribing more than writing, and feeling so excited about the project that you’re thinking about it even when far away from the page.
Frustration comes when you have no idea what to write, and are wrestling all that white space, on a project that makes you feel lukewarm at best.
Never forget, no matter what your chosen genre might be, if you want to be a commercial writer, and hope to make a living with your words, then you are in the business of reader acquisition.
How you feel when working on your story will make those goals more achievable, and your writing easier to sustain.
9. What kind of scenes do I like to write?
Do you like writing action scenes, dialogue-focused scenes, or reflection-heavy scenes?
Your answer might be, all of them, but that won’t help you here.
Yes, you want to have all of these tools in your box. And yes, keeping them sharp will help you to become the strongest possible author. But knowing what you’re best at, and what’s therefore easiest for you to execute and maintain, is yet another piece of a very big puzzle which, once assembled, will help you to highlight your most potentially profitable genre.
When Dave and I first started writing together, he mercilessly made fun of my action scenes. They were stupid, terrible, ill-conceived, and altogether hard to understand.
But, whatever. I worked hard on them. These days, I write fantastic action scenes. The last draft I passed to Dave blew him away. Writing scripts help a lot with that. The visual economy required in a script compared to prose is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. If you can make action work in a script, the novel part becomes suddenly easy.
Know that your preference in scene construction will help you to choose the right projects, and keep those projects on track.
10. What kind of pacing do I prefer in my storytelling?
Pace is a bit like voice, and a bit like knowing what types of scenes you like to write.
Ask yourself how fast you want your story to move. Think about your favorite stories. Are there a lot of shorter scenes, or fewer longer ones? Do you prefer a James Patterson style, where there are typically more than a hundred chapters, but some are only a handful of words, with a pace that’s designed to shove a reader through the book?
Or do you like longer sentences and lingering prose, the kind of writing that asks you to stick around, take your time, and sink deeper into the words?
This is a harder one for me, and it might be for you too.
I actually prefer to write longer, more lingering sentences. I like a lot of description, and for a reader to take her time with my work. But if I’m trying to make money on a project, I know the other way is much, much better.
The majority of readers want to be entertained a lot more than they want to think. Consider that when designing your writer’s cocktail.
A few years ago Johnny and I set out to write our most commercial book yet. We hit a home run by making sure the book moved faster than anything we’d ever written before. Each page was filled with short paragraphs, about half the length of our regular work. Same for our sentences.
That book, and its eventual series, made five figures a month for a long time.
By contrast, the book we are most proud of, with passages beautiful enough to frame and hang on a wall, sold less in a month than our commercial series did in any given hour.
This is an especially important place to know your why? Every year Johnny and I write a book without any commercial considerations whatsoever. We need a place where we can write how we want to, to push our art over commerce.
But if we build our entire business around books like that, we would be broke, and so would all of our writers. Understand the pacing you prefer, so you can fit it into the commercial stories you are most capable of writing.
11. How many sensory details do I naturally include?
Sensory details can be one of the most powerful elements of well-told story. It can also be unnecessary clutter, bruising your best intentions with unnecessary color — most of it purple.
You want readers to remember your words.
A great way to do this is by nudging them into using their senses. When reading regular narrative prose, your brain processes text. Add sensory details and you’re lighting up different parts of the brain.
Tasting a donut, feeling sand between your toes, smelling a sudden whiff of sulfur, staring up at the Sistine Chapel and seeing something beautiful enough to break your heart, hearing the whistle of a bitter winter wind.
Sensation stokes memory and desire. It makes your reader an active participant in your writing.
When it comes to writing the senses, you’re probably best at whatever you’re most comfortable with. I constantly have to remind myself to get deeper into feeling senses more than sight senses, which are more natural for me. Motion is also easy. Active words to describe movement.
If it’s easy for you to picture or feel, that’s your sweet spot when it comes to sensory details. Lean into that preference as hard as you can.
12. What types of conflict do I like to write about?
Do you prefer interpersonal conflict between individuals? Man and wife, two siblings, mother and daughter?
Or would you rather write conflict with gargantuan stakes, like between a government and its people, a man and his machine, or Heaven and Hell?
Of course, no matter how big the stakes, you’ll also need smaller conflicts embedded among them, but gauge your overall level of interest before choosing your genre.
No military sci-fi book can be truly great if it’s missing conflict among its characters, but the author must also tap into a larger canvas of global or local conflict. An entire galaxy might be at stake.
Conflict is core to every story.
Take the time to understand the kind of friction you like. Intimate arguments are different than meteors on the way. What you prefer might have something to do with this next question:
13. What kind of personality traits do I like writing about?
I love writing strong women.
I grew up in a family flower shop, ran a preschool for several years, and have spent a lifetime surrounded by strong women. Their roles are generally not round enough in fiction, and often relegated to secondary or cursory roles.
Some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing was with book about a girl from the Midwest who moves to a trendy beachside town in Southern California. She’s a sweetheart, and all she wants is to open a flower shop. She never asked for a war with the harpy who owns the furniture store across the courtyard. From the bakery owner to our heroine’s best friend and confidant, the women in this book jump off the page. And that’s because they bled out of our fingers.
Genres have personality types.
If you don’t want to write dialogue for the crusty old sergeant, you probably shouldn’t be writing military sci-fi. If you don’t want to write an aggressive, arrogant asshole, you should probably steer clear of billionaire romances.
The more you can mimic various personality types, the more well-rounded your writing will be. But knowing the types of characters or traits you most like to write about will help you to craft stories that interest you without boring your reader.
14. How can my unique experiences and background as a human being influence the stories I’m going to tell?
The story about the woman who wants to open a flower shop was only possible because I grew up in one. Without that background, I would’ve never chosen that particular story, and I’m sure Johnny would not have wanted to co-write it with me.
I just finished a story about product placement in memory. My years as a copywriter made that a breeze to write and a total joy.
Dave had a miserable childhood, so all of his stories are always tormented, with children forever in jeopardy.
Treat yourself as a character.
Write a thousand words detailing who you are well enough that you could easily add yourself to one of your stories. Then ask yourself what types of stories that character would most like to write.
15. Am I a plotter or a pantser?
There is a spectrum, and you don’t ever have to be one or the other, but you should absolutely know how you lean.
Plotters have it all mapped out ahead of time. They know what’s going to happen before they write it, and are thus very rarely ever staring at a blank page. Pantsers start with the empty space and keep writing until the story is finished, giving them nothing but open road and infinite flexibility, which can sometimes crash them right into a wall.
When I first started writing, I was a pantser all the way.
I didn’t like homework in school, I sure wasn’t assigning any to myself. But not having a plan makes it easy to get stuck. And worse, it makes it harder to have the sort of books that fly with intention and therefore keep the reader glued to the page. That’s why a lot of pantsers hopscotch from project to project, while the planners are better at seeing things through.
There isn’t a right or a wrong. King is pantser, Patterson not so much.
You can evolve over time, all of us have, but know where you stand before starting your next project.
16. What kind of protagonists do I like to write about?
Do you prefer heroes that are more like Walter White or Dudley Do Right?
Many actors agree that it’s always more fun to play the villain than it is to play the good guy. Even actors known for being pure souls like Henry Fonda or Tom Hanks found tremendous joy when finally getting their chance to go dark (Once Upon a Time in the West and Road to Perdition, respectively).
I don’t like my heroes to be pure of heart, nor my villains to be pure evil. I believe that most of us exist in the spectrum in between, and prefer my stories to have that perspective.
Know out where you are on the line. If you want to write a dark antihero, pick a genre that supports the decision. If you prefer a knight in shining armor, stay miles away from horror.
And that takes us into our final, directly related question.
17. What kinds of subjects do I want to explore?
Johnny and I are always asking ourselves what makes the world tick; why people behave the way they do; what is the true nature of good versus evil, and how are they dependent on each other?
My stories with Dave explore the darkness of humanity, and the depths it will go, alongside the glimmers of hope that keep us going in even the most dire of circumstances.
With my third writing partner, Bonnie, we’re always exploring the nature of story itself.
The better you know which themes resonate with you, the more emotionally evocative and memorable your stories have the potential to be. Finding yourself as a writer is a process, not an event. It isn’t easy, and if you’re doing it well you’ll probably make at least a few mistakes before you get to the place where you’re better forever.
But the worst thing you can do is be careless with your career.
Refuse to consider that you might be doing it all wrong. And continue to make those same mistakes with only marginal improvement at best.
Ask yourself the hard questions, answer them honestly, and use your work over time to refine your responses.
Good luck writing, and finding the genre that’s right for you.
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