Saturday, June 3, 2023

Dragons, Vampires, or Aliens? Genre Expectations and How to Analyze Them


Why do you need to care?

You want people to read your book, right? In the indie book publishing world, there are over 2 million books being published every year, according to Berrett-Koehler Publishing. Readers won't just stumble onto your book on Kindle and buy it in droves, you need to work at it. If you're traditionally published, your agent and publisher will need you to identify comparative titles and tropes to help them market your book.

You can write your book for yourself, the way you want it. But when you put it out into the world and you're looking for readers, you need to fit your book into current trends and ideas. 

Readers expect certain things when they pick up a book. Think of how writers pitch a tv show or movie: "I read this book series, Game of Thrones. It's like The Tudors mixed with LOTR." "How about a High School Drama, but with Vampires? She's Buffy the Vampire Slayer." 

If you're J.R.R. Tolkien or Tamora Pierce or Octavia Butler, you can be a pioneer, but even then they are building on what has come before. Although the belief in a tortured genius who is misunderstood in their own time is a powerful dream, it disregards the hard work authors put in to understand their craft and to communicate through their work with their audience. It's also elitist patriarchal malarkey.

What can you do?

So how do you find your genre expectations and incorporate them into your work?

Read, read, read

All the posts this week reiterate the most important point. Kristine focuses on reading in your genre and adjacent ones, reading reviews, finding reader comments online. Alexia puts it succinctly: "Don't forget to read." 

“Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.” – Neil Gaiman 

The more you read, the more you will learn, and the better you will write.

What are the bestsellers in your genre? Search Amazon and Goodreads if you don't know and read them. Read as much as you can and start to notice the similarities. Is there always a Gandalf or Dumbledore who helps along the way? Does a mysterious warrior save the day? Are the aliens misunderstood? How is the coming-of-age character described as insufficient (or shy or unaware of their power) at the start and how do they develop throughout the story? Ask questions and be observant.

Study, study, study

 I am an obsessive plotter and pre-writer. The longer I can sit with the ideas and imagine my story before I write a first draft, the more confident I feel about the characters and narrative. 

Jeffe, in her post, reminds us that writers start as readers--and we can't take shortcuts in learning our craft.

As part of my pre-writing, I love reading about plot frameworks and researching craft advice by more experienced authors. Find the big writing books in your field, read them, and take notes. Inspire yourself by reading blogs and reviewing story beat templates. 
Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Story Grid is such a helpful framework, if overwhelming for beginning writers. You don't need to follow it slavishly, but their studies of major novels and movies helps you to see the patterns at work.
  • The Hero's Journey and Save the Cat are two helpful outlining/beat tools. There are many others out there--look around and see which ones appeal to you.
  • Wonderbook is a feast for the eyes and a great way to push your thinking about setting and creating world outside of the box.
  • KM Weiland is one of many bloggers and writers who are worth following.

Look at tropes lists

When I first started writing, I thought I only needed to have some good characters and a solid sense of the beats. Tropes were too cliche. Now I see that tropes are a short-hand to help readers find SFF stories they like. Some fantasy romance readers love enemies-to-lovers, while others champion friends-to-lovers. In YA dystopian fiction and Urban Fantasy, the bad-ass female warrior never seems to go out of style, but her appearance and personality change with time. Alien relationships have changed forever thanks to Ice Planet Barbarians--and readers can't get enough of them.

As a writer, you will have your favourites, so lean into those and have fun with them. Do you like the Archie-Veronica-Betty triangle? Gender swap and put them in a world governed by strict class and geographical boundaries and make it life or death (aka The Hunger Games). Do you love a good seduction and abandonment story? Make it vampires and set it in New Orleans (aka The Vampire Lestat). There are so many possibilities!

You can find some fun tropes lists here:

And everyone should listen to this podcast to be responsible in their representations of indigenous peoples in SFF:

Join reader groups

In her post this week, Marcella describes her experiences listening to fandom readers talk about what matters to them. Writers have amazing opportunities to hear from readers today and to learn what expectations they have. Scroll through Goodreads, join some Facebook groups or watch videos from Booktok. This research will help you understand your audience and what they want.

Remember that everything you read, study, and hear goes into the simmering pot of your story. You have to find the sweet spot between genre expectations and the book inside of you. But ignore genre expectations at your peril!

“Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.” – Lisa See 

Until next time, Mimi

Friday, June 2, 2023

Figuring Out What Readers Expect When They Don't Know They Expect Anything


I must learn to stop suggesting topics I want the answer to. I should keep in mind that at some point, I'm going to have to pretend to know some version of an answer.

So yes. Analyzing genre reader expectations is something I'm interested in understanding. I have a friend who speaks in terms of hitting reader buttons. One of her examples is that somewhere in the first third of a romance, the heroine sees through the hero's BS. She sees who he could have been (and could still be) if only he hadn't been forced to develop callouses and scars on his heart and seeing that dichotomy makes her MAD. Now, I would never have ID'ed that particular point, but thinking it through, I see it. So it got me thinking about what other hot buttons I'm reading right over the top of unseeing.

I know what *I* want to see in a story. I'm not entirely certain I'm the best benchmark, however.  Then I got involved in a fandom for a show (a rom com). The fandom skews younger than my typical audience and I do a lot of listening. The fan analysis of the show has been DEEP and I'm soaking it up because I'm getting glimpses into what lights these young people up. One of them made a great observation that they aren't like the generations before them who all want to be comforted and made to feel content and happy. She said, "We don't want any of that. We *want* you to rip out our hearts and squeeze them dry." There were many pile-on comments affirming this, though I won't take it as The Truth for an entire generation - but for this rabid and insanely loyal fan base, I will take it as gospel.

I'm still trying to process it and see if somewhere in my own work I can pull some angst into the mix. My take away: Read. Yes, absolutely. But don't stop there. Seek out stories in every format and look at the beats. What happens where? When? Why? What sticks with you? In my case, having this totally over the top fandom picking apart every scene, every nuance, and every breath the characters take has been an amazing master class in understanding what touched the most people in the biggest way. Spoiler: It was tiny detail in the developing relationship - not the big gestures. The smallest touch at the point of greatest danger ruined the Twitter feed for that fandom for months. Months. That's the kind of genre reader expectation I'm looking for - an expectation readers might not be able to name, yet crave all the same without knowing. Then, if I'm clever, I turn that expectation on its head a bit and leave my readers in puddles on the floor. But no pressure.

Consuming stories is a good start if you're analyzing expectations but I feel like it's possible to consume passively - to just take in and experience. The real power comes from a sense of curiosity around what makes something affect you, how it affects you, and why it affects you. Only then can you parse out the pieces and rearrange them to your own purpose. Finding a group of people who are impacted by the same story you are and who are willing to obsess about it at length with you helps enormously. But it's 100% optional.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Don't Forget to Read

an open book on a wood grain table with a large magnifying glass held over it so the center of the words are large.

When you pick up a mystery book you’d be disappointed if it ended up being a portal fantasy—even if it’s an excellent portal fantasy. So, as an author, how do you analyze genre expectations for the genre you’re writing in?


Yes, KAK and Jeffe said this already this week, but it’s worth saying again. When you’re ready to put your book out in the world, be it querying an agent, submitting to a publisher directly, or self publishing, you need to understand your story in order to sell it. And if you describe something other than what you wrote, your reader will be disappointed.

What have you read recently? Was it in the same genre as your current WIP?

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Analyzing Genre Expectations

I just returned from WisCon, which was a delightful, warm, sort-of summer-camp version of a con. I had a great time. I also got to visit the farmer's market and get a wonderful jump start on spring. 

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is: How to analyze genre expectations for your genre.

You know, I have one answer to this question, which is pretty much the same as what KAK said yesterday: READ.

I feel like people are often looking for the shortcuts in this business. And certainly there are the shovel-salesmen eager to sell the gold-miners the newest-fangled device that will make their job SO MUCH EASIER. So, sure - there are tools and surveys out there that purport to analyze trends and bullet-point the expectations of the hot genres. 

But nothing substitutes for reading. And reading what's current, as well as the canon the new stuff builds upon. Genre and the expectations readers bring to their reading are fluid and ever changing. I once advised an aspiring author - a woman who'd been very well published 20 years before, had a life-lull, and was looking to get back into it - who hadn't read anything published in her genre in the last couple of decades. She couldn't understand the feedback she was getting from agents and editors because her reading lens was calibrated to what amounted to ancient history genre-wise.

Also, reading refills the creative well. All writers begin as readers first. (At least, I hope so. A writer who doesn't love reading seems to me like a fish who swims but doesn't like water.) If you don't have time to read, make the time. Replace watching shows or scrolling on your phone with READING. You don't have to finish everything you read (I certainly don't), but you should read at least some of what's popular and what your readers are reading.

Did I mention read? Yeah: do that. 


Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Great (Genre) Expectations

 This Week's Topic: How to Analyze Genre Expectations of Your Genre

Pithy answer? Read in your genre. Then read in the adjacent genres. Then read the genre/authors that frequently get lumped into your genre by salesmen and gatekeepers only to wind up flamed by readers. What are the similarities? Differences? What themes, tropes, and archetypes have endured? Which ones have changed? 

Think you've got a handle on it? Great. Go read a dozen or so review sites for your genre (or watch Booktube reviews, or both). Make it a mix of review styles. Find those that have one reviewer and those that have multiple contributors. The reviews of value can pinpoint what works and what doesn't for the reviewer. Lots of times it's a plot issue, poor pacing, or flat characters that leave a reviewer feeling less than love for a book. But if an author hasn't delivered on the genre expectation, the reviewer will notice and decry it. It'll be a reoccurring objection in assorted reviews about the book.  

Feeling like you've got a clue now? Wonderful. At this point, you should be able to sort reader expectations from reader entitlement. Test yourself. Do a web search, and make sure Reddit results are in there too (opinionated avid readers abound there). Can you spot personal preferences over genre expectations? Group-think and trends versus genre expectations? 

Have you noticed it yet?
Genre expectations aren't that numerous.
Regardless of genre.

You're confident at this point, aren't you? Excellent. Now, be bold and ask the question on your socials. Once you get through quality-control expectations, you could find some succinctly-worded gems. 

Of course, asking for opinions could cause you to rue the day you ever followed my advice. 😇

Friday, May 26, 2023

Who Reads Me

I've gone and done it again - forgotten what day it is, what my name is, all the things. New day job started on Monday and the transition has been -- transitiony. Apparently, I don't handle that as well as I'd like to. So once again, my apology. Technically, in my time zone is still Friday. Barely. So let's go. 

What's my demographic.

SFR has a small but dedicated audience. It's a rare reader who wants me to get scifi in their romance and romance in their scifi, but like Reese's Peanut butter Cups, the two things are better together. When I contemplate where to find readers, I start with the obvious: I market to readers of other SFR writers and SF writers who write with romantic elements. Cant I say that the great bulk of my readers identify as female? Yes. But in no way do I want to say that's who my books are for - that's not for me to decide. I will claim gamers as potential audience but only RPG gamers and probably only RPG gamers who identify as female who are between 20 and dead. When I'm buying ads, I'll probably split my audience by age and do A/B testing to see what kind of click through I get from each so I can then laser in my targeting.

The great thing about science fiction and fantasy readers is that most of us will cross the streams. We usually read both. So while I might focus most of my advertising efforts on self-identified scifi readers, I won't hesitate to enter fantasy spaces in a limited way to do a little cross pollenization. I'm not spending money on ads at the moment. As I finish up a WIP, I begin working my author FB page and Instagram page and Tik Tok (if I'm going to commit to doing that) to develop engagement. No selling. Just engagement. Generate page views. Generate interaction. Start conversation if I can. That way, when I finish a book and begin promoting, my ad buys will be served to people who have already seen, heard, chatted with me. If I want to tap a PNR or fantasy audience, I tap the author coop I belong to. Newsletter swaps, blog swaps - there are plenty of options that aren't going to chew up a lot of money. 

It's not a great marketing plan yet. In part because I don't have production nailed down yet. I need something flexible but scalable over the long haul. I do still firmly believe that the best advertisement for your current book is your next book. But a plan for helping people find your books is a good and necessary thing.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Fantasy: Marketing and Demographics

 This Week's Topic: What Are Your Target Demographics? How Do You Advertise To Them?

I write High, Contemporary, and Urban Fantasies that are not intended for children. For the sake of marketing, that makes my target demographic "adults." But, beyond the vaguery of "adults," who are the readers I'm trying to reach? 

According to the Fantastic Insights Survey, there are two camps: Dudes in their 20s and women in their 60s. 

  • The Dudes: like to read paperbacks or on smartphones
    • will pirate works if he thinks the author/publisher is being greedy 
      • aka if he deems the book is priced too high
  • The Women: like to read paperbacks or on e-readers

In 2018, Sage Publication* surveyed SFF readers. One fascinating takeaway was that most SFF readers (87%)  developed their love of the genre before the age of 15. According to the survey, SFF readers:

  • Read an average of 5 books a month and 2 magazines
  • Come from a family of readers
  • Fans of SFF TV and films (plus games and fandoms)
  • Believe experience holds more value than education
  • Consider themselves open to new and/or contrasting opinions
So, with this glimpse of the two primary audiences, where and how do I advertise to them? My advertising dollars go further when I focus on the audience of women. Not only do women have greater purchasing power (true across most industries), but also they're also more receptive to small businesses. In author-speak that means they're more receptive to indie/self-pubbed authors. They're also more likely to subscribe to newsletters from trusted sources, be those sources industry-based (like BookBub) or favorite authors.

Where and how do I advertise? My primary goal in advertising is driving series awareness. I don't have enough of a backlist to push my brand (aka my author name) to generate a profitable ROI from building brand awareness. Until I do, getting readers to buy a complete series is my marketing goal. (Remember, a basic marketing principle is to be clear with yourself about the goal of your marketing plan. It prevents you from wasting $$ and getting distracted by new/unproven sales-services pitches.) I spend my advertising efforts in the following places:
  • Amazon: There's not a lot of creativity or flexibility behind the ad campaigns there. However, I do run both Brand and Sponsored Product campaigns. 
    • I wish other major retailers to allow us to do the same. Even better if we could coordinate it via an aggregator like D2D.
    • My works are sold "wide" (aka across multiple retailers), therefore, I'm excluded from the Kindle Unlimited programs and exposure. 
  • BookBub: Yes, of late, getting a featured deal in the US is akin to drinking from the Holy Grail (and often just as elusive), but rarely is there a loss on investment. Because my marketing goal is series awareness, I accept non-US/Int'l featured deals when they're offered. I run the discount in the US and Int'l even if the BBFD isn't sent to those markets. Why? Because friends share info and there is no benefit in excluding a geographic market when my goal is building awareness.
    • I do not, however, pay for BookBub Ads--that little graphic at the foot of their newsletter--because both CTR and ROI are abysmal. Not at all worth the money.
  • My Newsletter: I only drop a newsletter when I release a book, which goes against the Best Practice of regular monthly communication. I just don't have that much to share with a reader nor do I have a robust backlist to fill the BUY ME slots. I much rather the reader be pleasantly surprised when they hear from me rather than have them despise seeing my email addy show up in their box because I've become a nonsense pest. 
    • My New-Release-Only practice does exclude me from newsletter swaps, which are an excellent resource for raising awareness (as long as you do your due diligence beforehand).
  • Special Interest Promotions / Group Campaigns: Periodically, a group of authors will band together to run a group promotion where certain books are discounted to either free or $0.99 (or some other enticing discount). Whether it's a book bundle or a first-in-series, these are great opportunities to get your book in front of readers of authors of the same or similar sub-genre for minimal effort and usually no cost (beyond the loss of selling your book at a discount). 
Now, I ought to advertise on Facebook, but...sigh...I have personal issues with Meta and their lack of security (and integrity) surrounding financial data. There are smaller deal-based newsletter-blast companies who are happy to take my money, but the ROI isn't there to justify the ad spend. They work better for romance audiences than other genres. 

While I'm intentionally targeting female-identifying readers because I want that 85% of purchasing power to sweep my works up in their tide, my graphics and content draw a line when it comes to sexual allure. The primary reason for that isn't advertiser restrictions, it's genre confusion. Because fantasy romance is a growing sub-genre of romance and female-identifying readers dominate Romancelandia, I don't want to deceive the readers who are buying in the same spaces I'm running ads. Don't get me wrong, I love Romancelandia and because I do, I don't want the reader to feel like I've pulled a fast one on them. If my marketing message alludes to an HEA--even if it's not explicitly stated--I'd merit the rancor of a reader feeling deceived. So, while sex sells, I'm very conscious of threading the line between eye-catching fantasy and faux romance adverts. After all, I want to attract readers and keep them

*Menadue, C. B., & Jacups, S. (2018). Who Reads Science Fiction and Fantasy, and How Do They Feel About Science? Preliminary Findings From an Online Survey. SAGE Open.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Now Serving Number . . . Writing What's Next

Most of us who've been writing for awhile operate under this sneaking suspicion that there's some deep, insider secret to publishing. If only we could suss it out, we'd finally, FINALLY, be set. We'd know what to write and when to write it. We'd write best sellers and we'd finally get to sit with the cool kids.

I don't want to alarm anyone but I think I found that secret. One of them anyway. It's this: There are no right answers. Not to any question about writing.

There are answers that might be better than others but even that word 'better' is up for debate. Better for whom? And why? Who gets to decide that? Maybe now you have some insight into how and why I overthink everything ever. It's a gift and a real pain in the ass. It turns the whole question of what to write next into a whirlwind of second guessing and analysis paralysis. There's very little fun involved. Given all of that, I had to come up with a system. Two systems actually.

1. Orders of precedence - write first anything constrained by contract or owed to another entity you do not wish to disappoint. If no contract, write first anything that is already underway and write it to completion. If nothing is currently in the works or contracted, write whatever will feed the fire of whichever audience burns brightest. If there's no obvious audience salivating for a book from you, write what you please.

2. Bright, shiny new ideas that popcorn up while I'm in the middle of a WIP must take a number and stand in line.

In practice, this means I have a way to direct myself toward completing a project. I have a few checks to weigh story ideas against. Most of the time, there's a clear answer to what I should write. The second system - the one about new ideas is a defense mechanism. There's nothing like hitting the sagging middle of a WIP to generate bright, shiny, compelling, BETTER story ideas. The big secret about that, though, is that those stories, too, have saggy, boring middles to be muddled through. Ask my pile of half finished projects how I know this. I had to come up with a redirect that worked for me. When a new idea comes courting, I stop what I'm doing and jot down notes about the idea - bare bones. I want just enough to scratch the itch of capturing this flash of seeming brilliance </sarcasm> so I can follow the thought later when I come back to the idea to flesh it out. If I can. By dignifying the idea with a page of summary and a named file folder in Dropbox, my brain lets me get back to what I had been writing without the tugs and pulls of needing to chase the new thing.

However. I'm finding I need a new system to handle what I should write next and that's because there comes a time in most every life where writing fails. Or we fail. Or imagination fails. Or physical or mental illness claims all the space and the spoons we had to write. Sometimes the 'should' part of 'what should I write next' is the worst and most self-sabotaging question we can pose to ourselves. Some days you can't answer that 'should' question. Then it might help to default to asking 'what can I write?'

Just because we sit or stand at computers all day and make stuff up doesn't mean we aren't working our hearts out. We're spinning some of these stories out of the essence of ourselves and yes, it's likely that we get energy back from what we do, or else why do it? But the rest of our lives might not be quite so generous about returning dividends on spent energy and we overspend ourselves. Writing can be a refuge, it's just a good practice to treat a refuge gently, with respect. It can be freeing to throw off expectation for a little while and plunge into a story that doesn't have a logical place in your catalogue and nothing to recommend it other than it might be fun to try to write.