On genre, sort of.

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I know, I know, everyone’s at the beach, I’m talking to myself, here. I’m too tired from the move to even think about going to the beach, so I will just type quietly to myself, which does not even require getting out of bed, by me or the cats, who don’t look too inclined to get out of bed, either. (I think half the stress of moving is seeing how much it traumatizes your animals, no matter how much you try to explain what is happening and that it will be all right, eventually…).

I did a post on my own blog this week on editing that apparently surprised some people because my rewriting advice was less about punctuation and a lot more about doing “genre passes” – that is, doing several rewrites that focus specifically on heightening genre elements in your book: a comic pass for comedy, a suspense pass for a thriller, a sex pass for a romance (all right, emotional pass, if you will…)

And then some of the comments on that post sparked a whole discussion on another website in which someone who had read my blog was fuming about the idea of having to know the genre of your story while you are still in the process of writing it.

I don’t know, it seems kind of important to me.

I understand the reluctance to be pigeonholed. I think it’s a symptom of the new writer, mostly, because anyone who has written professionally has long ago come to terms with pigeonholing (Did they send a check? Then they can call it anything they want).

But I don’t understand the reluctance to be associated with the great books that are your story’s antecedents. I really don’t understand the seeming reluctance to even KNOW what books are your story’s antecedents. We all stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before us – which is why I went into such raptures about meeting Richard Matheson last month. But then, so did F. Paul Wilson, whose shoulders I also stand on, who specifically gave tribute to Matheson as one of the greats whose shoulders Paul is standing on…

You have to know what you’re aspiring to.

The challenge of genre is delivering something unique and compelling within a proscribed form.

Now, I happen to be grateful for a proscribed form, because it gives a shape to a story from the very beginning, and let’s face it, when you first embark on a project, story is a vast and amorphous mass, or maybe that’s mess. Any signposts in that chaos are lifesaving.

But also, the form is proscribed because genre fans are paying their money to get a certain kind of experience, which your publisher (or the film studio) will have promised through the advertising of the story – the jacket design, the flap copy, the one-sheet, the trailer.

Does that make those readers lemmings? Because they’re expecting and wanting a certain experience?

I don’t think so. It’s just personal taste and preference, and a consumer’s desire to know what you’re paying for up front. When I have time to go to the movies I don’t want to be forced to sit through bubbly (well, perhaps I mean airheaded) romantic comedies when I could be watching a good thriller. I know myself, and I know thrillers (horror, mystery) consistently hit my pleasure buttons, and I don’t have that much free time to gamble two hours on a movie or eight to ten hours on a book that may not give me the basic escapist pleasure that I’ll get out of a well-written or well-produced thriller.

But the danger of genre – or perhaps what I mean is, what I am finding unnerving about it – is the lengths to which storytellers seem to feel they have to go to stand out in the field.

Yesterday I did something I do periodically: I took about a dozen books – thrillers – from my TBR pile and read the first few chapters of one after another, not letting myself go beyond three chapters (or four, if they were very short chapters). Just seeing what caught me and why. (Great exercise for people getting ready to send out queries and chapters, right? Do yours stack up?)

Some really well-written things there, and some not so much, and no, I’m not about to name names.

But I have to say I was unnerved – and maybe I mean something stronger – maybe I mean revolted or repulsed – by the level of violence that these books started out with. Not just rape, but multiple rapes, brutal slaughter, torture, mutilation.

These were not horror novels, mind you. They are new thrillers. (And the word “rape”, much less “serial rape”, does not appear in the jacket copy of any of them, otherwise they would not have been on my TBR pile to begin with).

And yes, I did flip through the books to see if that level of violence continued. It not only continued, it escalated.

Now, I know that the success of SAW started a bad, bad trend in horror movies. I remember one very strong impetus for me to write my first novel was when I had a film executive in a meeting turn to me and say: “And then let’s have him rip her face off.”

That was when I realized I’d better make other career plans, at least until that trend mercifully died.

But can someone tell me when thrillers turned into torture porn?

I write dark stuff myself. But do serial killer novels really have to have body counts in the dozens these days? Do we need to be subjected to whole chapters of real-time torture or rape?

I wish I WERE going to the beach today, actually, because I feel like I need to be washed out, and like maybe I need a whole ocean to do it.

Rape and child abuse are horrific things. Maybe these authors feel they need to escalate to the extreme to fully convey the horror of the experience.

Or maybe they are distancing themselves from the real-life horror of the by making the violence over-the-top to the point of absurdity.

Or maybe they’re scared that they can’t write well enough to stand out without butchering dozens of characters at a time.

Or maybe that’s what the reading public wants these days and I’m just in denial about it.

I don’t know – what do you think? Does “dark” these days mean continual mayhem and slaughter?

Maybe I’ll go see a couple of bubble-headed comedies. Because suddenly, it looks like there’s not a whole lot around the house that I’m interested in reading.

– Alex


It’s July 4, and I really should say something relevant, right?

When I was sixteen years old, I was an exchange student in Instanbul. There were a lot of hard things about that experience, but one of the hardest was being out of the country on the 4th of July. That was surprising to me, because as people around here have probably figured out, I’m one of those subversive radicals.

It’s a terrible irony – and tragedy – that the Declaration of Independence was written in a time of legal slavery, when women were considered property as well, and written by a man who “owned” slaves. But that summer out of the country I realized what a profound concept drove the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

It’s that Pursuit of Happiness that really sunk in for me that summer.

It was a violent time – students had been shot in political protests on college campuses, and as a blond American teenager I was sexually harrassed constantly and sometimes in fear for my life.

But that summer is when it clicked for me – that life is short and precious and I decided if I ever made it back to the U.S.  I was going to live my birthright as an American and pursue my happiness.

And when I came back to college I majored in theater instead of law or psychology or anything else practical I’d been thinking about.   Because life is short, and we have the right to happiness.

Happy Independence Day to all, whatever that is for you.

29 thoughts on “On genre, sort of.

  1. Brett Battes

    You’re not alone here, Alex…I’m reading, and, in fact, am doing a "genre"-type pass on my manuscript for pub next year this very morning!

    Happy 4th!

  2. Melanie

    I’m here too. 🙂 I don’t understand why some people are so resistant to the basics in genres. It just makes good sense to me.

    As a blond gringa living in a small Mexican town, I can sympathize with both the harassment and the nostalgia for the US on the 4th. I learned to love my country more as soon as I left.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Hey girl – I’ll be sitting in a cafe writing for eight hours today. I have to do ten pages a day from here on out to make my deadline. Goodbye vacation.

    Excellent post. I had never intended to be a "genre" writer, but thank God I read over a thousand thriller screenplays when I was in the film business, because the thriller structure is what came naturally to me when I sat down to write my first novel. It’s a good thing I hadn’t been reading philosophy all that time. Also, I hadn’t really intended to write a "dark" novel – I simply wrote the world in which my protagonist lived. As an LAPD homicide detective he would have to have very thick skin. And yet, in the book, he was shocked by the kinds of things he saw. Therefore, the things he saw had to be quite shocking, otherwise it wouldn’t read true.

    As far as genre authors are concerned, I stood on the shoulders of Jim Thompson while I was writing. He’s a great crime novelist – and yet he certainly wasn’t "by the book" – he broke convention regularly.

    I love what you said about reading three or four chapters – I’ve got a collection called "First Four Pages" that has the first four pages of about twenty great screenplays, which used to be passed around from development exec to development exec. It was a great tool for learning.

    I’ll be thinking about you as I sit in the hard wooden chair today.

  4. J.D. Rhoades

    I’m here, too. And I’m happy and proud to be an American, because while we’ve had some spectacular failures, eventually, we recover and start acting like the people I know we can be, people who want to live the dream of freedom and peace.

    As for the blood and gore…the latest WIP is something of a departure for me. Only three bodies so far, and two die "off-camera" as it were. For me that’s practically a cozy. Partially it’s a function of having a very different protagonist than I’ve had before, and it’s partly because I think I might have been getting lazy…every time I felt the plot was slowing down, I killed somebody. }:-) > It works for a while, but you’ve got to be careful it doesn’t become a crutch.

    I do think the line between crime fiction and horror is getting blurred…I think it was you that commented one time that a vampire novel is actually a serial killer novel in disguise. And as horror often goes for the gore at the expense of the creepiness, so does crime fiction.

  5. R.J. Mangahas

    Good post Alex. Starting out I guess I am worried about what genre I’ll be put in, but the more I think on it, the first thing I should be worried about is telling a compelling story.

    As far as shoulder standing, Ira Levin comes to mind, simply because of the versatility he had as a writer. Just look at his range: You take a good old-fashioned horror story like Rosemary’s Baby to great thrillers like Deathtrap and A Kiss Before Dying.

    And I agree with you on the gratuitous violence thing. I think people want to try to capture the readers attention right away, but it doesn’t have to involve such full and brutal actions.

    Okay, so there’s violence in my WIP. but it’s hardly of "Saw" proportions.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ooh, look at all these people working on the holiday. I’m NOT alone!!!

    Although I am leaving soon to find a quieter place to work.

    Happy 4th to you, too, Brett, and good luck on the "genre pass"!

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Stephen, wish I could join you in that cafe. Sometimes just being able to look up at someone at another table and say "Fuck" and know that they know what you mean is lifesaving.

  8. Louise Ure

    So many things to reply to in this post, Alex. Hope the move went okay. I helped a 77-year old friend move this week and her’s was only a one-bedroom apartment but I am destroyed.

    As for the gore? I sense a need for one-upsmanship in thriller writing these days. ""Can’t pluck out his eyeball; that’s already been done. I have to take both eyes and then eat them!"

    And here’s to the Pursuit of Happiness, in all its guises!

  9. JT Ellison

    Alex, bravo! Someone really needed to say this. I thought it was just me getting turned off by the latest books. There seems to be a disconnect between darkness and gratuitous slaughter. It’s a line I try desperately not to cross, so much so that my 3rd book has a single murder, and my 4th I wrote with a single goal in mind – no blood. None. It was a challenge, but the book is richer for it. I’ll let y’all make of that what you will.

    As for genre definitions, the one I hear from new writers most often is, "It’s a suspense." Suspense isn’t a genre. Suspense is something all good books should have to keep your interest. When a new author defines their book as suspense (which, by the way, I spent some time doing myself before I learned the true difference) I try to steer them to a real genre, and find them quite resistant.

    So, on this 4th of July, I keep myself in suspense about whether this new laptop (MacBook Pro, yes, I’ve come to the dark side) will work out for me. I spent hours looking for the word processor until a friend pointed out the Macs don’t have one. Sigh.

    Happy 4th!

  10. Lance C.

    I recently watched some classic ’50s Hitchcock — Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much — and was struck by how slowly they start by modern standards, and by how tame the "bad stuff" seems now. Psycho, considered almost pornographically violent back in 1960, now plays like Miss Marple. Yet all were cutting-edge thriller-suspense when they were made.

    Write a suspense/intrigue novel now with a similar loping, slow-burn opening, and agents will tell you "too slow," "not enough to grab a reader," "needs more action." Alan Furst (one of my genre heroes) must have an incredibly forgiving agent or a very indulgent editor. Can you imagine anyone publishing The Looking Glass War or Smiley’s People today? With all that talking, no action, a body count of near zero, and nobody trying to save the world?

    A question in search of an answer: do readers really need an evisceration and two child rapes in the first five pages to get them going, or did a couple of writers do really well with that tactic in the past and the publishers have been chasing after them ever since?

    Another question, possibly better left unanswered: twenty years from now, will Silence of the Lambs be considered YA?

  11. Tom

    X, thank you very, very much for the idea of the genre pass. This could help a lot. If we’re going to sell to a business, we have to write like it’s a business.

    I’m here, too. We had a blow-up at the day job on Thursday night. It’s my job to document the recovery process, then write and distribute the internal information releases.

    JT, congrats on your MBP. I loved mine (stolen in February). You are now in the sunlight, not on the dark side.

    As for a word processor, download a trial copy of Nisus Writer. Its native format is .rtf. It exports and imports flawlessly. And they give you an actual 30 days of usage time, not 30 calendar days, for the trial period.

  12. jim duncan

    Have to agree on the extreme violence aspect of thrillers. I don’t need to see it live to get the impression of someone’s pathology. I’d much rather see it through the eyes of the protaganist anyway. It’s more compelling that way. It’s kind of like the whole turn of horror films toward glorifying the bad guy and showing in excruciating detail what they are capable of doing to someone. I much prefer the creep factor. I enjoy the ‘suspense’ factor of thrillers far more than the ‘violence’ factor. It makes for a more enjoyable read, and it’s also far more challenging to write suspenseful action than to gross people out with extreme violence.

  13. Pari

    I’m here too!

    The idea of a genre pass is wonderful. Thank you.

    Last night we watched The Trouble with Harry with our girls and I was struck by the storytelling of it. I also loved the speed, the long stretches of silence and just emptiness — or at least the non-action — of it. And yet the story was great fun, my kids "got it" and we all felt completely satisfied w/o feeling brutalized or breathless.

    I wonder if some of the thriller/serial killer/violence stuff has to do with a general societal desensitization?

  14. karen from mentor

    My day started out with me waking up and then posting the most beautiful dream that I have ever had.

    Your day started out in bed with the cats…which sounds like fun until you factor in the exhaustion factor …..writing to what you thought was thin air… but apparently we were all listening. :0)

    I was shocked earlier this year when I first went into the "romance" section to look at some of the books on the shelves. Violence and sex mixed together are not my cup of tea. I think that a lot of writers were influenced by movies in the seventies where there was nudity/titilation/violence and gore all mixed together. I know for a fact that it warped some of the people around me, and I don’t think that anyone should be exposed to someone else’s JADED idea of what makes sex exciting before they have an idea of what they like themselves.Let alone mixing violence and FEAR into it. That’s why I favor stronger movie ratings. And as far as gore? Some of the commercials are so nightmarish that I don’t know how people go to see the movie.
    I’m with Pari…give me a fresh faced Shirley MacClaine in There’s something about Harry any day.I’d rather think my way through a movie than be bombarded by nightmarish images. I want to be entertained, not bludgeoned.
    Hope you get some rest (finally) you must be running on fumes.
    Karen 🙂

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Yup, hard at work, too! Interesting post, and I think you’re right – I’ve read some stuff lately where the writer clearly set out simply to shock and go, "Look how clever and avant-garde I am!"

    I’ve always felt there is a huge difference between graphic and gratuitous about sex or violence in novels. Quite a low level of violence, if it’s unnecessary, can be much more gratuitous than a more graphic scene, that does something for the story that could not be achieved by other means.

    I’ve been exploring the inherent violence in my main protagonist almost since the start of the Charlie Fox series. Women who have the ability to act violently – to kill when required – are often portrayed as cold-blooded assassins or complete psychos, and Charlie is neither. Where a male protag might shoot the bad guy and go for a beer afterwards, Charlie has a harder time coming to terms with that side of her nature.

    And yes, in ONE book (and one book only) I had a torture scene, but I certainly would not put it in the ‘torture porn’ category. I think I’m with you on the extended/serial/gang rape subject though. It’s something Charlie went through years before the first book, and although there are ongoing consequences from that event, I don’t go into any detail.

    Remembered you suggesting passes for emotion/tension etc before, so I’ve just done that on the latest rewrites before they went off. I paid particular attention to chapter breaks. Thanks, Alex ;-]

  16. BCB

    Hey Alex, I’m here too, writing like crazy. Taking advantage of three days off from the day job and both kids out of town.

    I’ve noticed that both sex and violence in fiction have become more explicit — I’m tempted to say crass, but that’s not always the case. I compare it to what happened to movies when people figured out how to blow stuff up and use special effects. Much of the storytelling suffered when the focus shifted to, "Wow, look what we can do here!" and the story seemed to be written around the effects, with them as the showpiece, rather than the effects taking place as a natural and integral part of the story. Perhaps the novelty will wear off or the pendulum will swing back — who knows?

    And I loved your post about editing! Some of the best advice I’ve heard on that topic. Sure, writers can decide to break the rules of genre, but they’d better know first what they are and have a damn good reason — and the necessary skill — for breaking them.

    Enjoy the remainder of your holiday! You fail to exercise your right to happiness, you risk losing it. 😉

  17. Jake Nantz

    Who wants to be on the beach when there’s such good conversation on here? 😀

    Alex, I actually start my story with a post-mortem mutilation, but it’s calculated (and not explained until you get to the ME, so the mind fills in the horror), and the killer is doing it to hide his true motive. I’ll admit, I loved the concept of SAW, because it terrified me that someone would randomly put people in a no-win situation as some kind of judgment day. That scared me simply because someone, somewhere, might watch that movie and go, "Now THAT’S an idea…"

    As for people not wanting to be pigeonholed…how many of them are published? I’m not (novelistically, at least), but I can tell you if/when I ever am, I’ll be thanking writers who’ve never heard of me, just because what they wrote made it possible for me to write what I write.

    Oh and Alex, if I haven’t said so before, thank you for what you wrote in my copy of THE UNSEEN (shameless plug here: Buy this book people…NOW!!). It really made my week and was a great confidence boost.

  18. billie

    I’m not at the beach either but I got off my regular routine this a.m. and completely forgot to check blogs!

    I’m just finishing the last of the "editing passes" I do. It is entirely possible I have finally written my way into "commercial fiction." LOL!

    Hope your day has been good – moving is not my favorite thing to do, although my family often embarrass me at extended family functions by making me count up how many places I’ve lived since I left home for college.

    My books are dark, but the darkness is more psychological – the main characters generally processing violence they have witnessed or experienced versus the actual violence being in the story.

    I always think mine are extremely dark until I read a sample of what’s out there – much of the graphic stuff is just too much for me. Not in that I can’t read it, but that I don’t want to. I’m more interested in reading about how characters process the darkness and whether they find a way to come out of it or not.

    Happy July 4th! I am celebrating my independence and freedom from the neighbors with the ATVs and their constant noise/trespassing (they finally moved out) – and hoping the rest of the neighborhood sticks to their "no fireworks" this year. I always end up staying home, sitting in the field with my horses and donkeys, just in case.

  19. Neil Nyren

    Even editors aren’t necessarily at the beach. I entirely agree with the genre-editing discussion. If you don’t know what you’re writing, then you don’t know what you’re selling — and neither does your agent or publisher.

  20. Joanne Owens

    Post today is excellent…I’m reading Lee Childs at this time and just finished Plum Spooky. Both not graphic in nature. I like the mental creation of the hero/heroine. S. Plum and her boyfriends.love life, friends crack me up. Crime, yes; entertaining, yes. I am a strictly mystery book lover and sometimes just go to that section in the library and pick a book by size or cover graphics. Have found a few gems with that formula. Keep up the good work.

  21. Rob Gregory Browne

    RJ, you had me at A KISS BEFORE DYING. One of the great thrillers with one of the great jump out of your chair twists of all time.

    Alex, you stopped me cold when you said someone on another blog got upset about having to know what genre you’re writing in when you write your book.

    I’m sorry, but —


    How can someone not have a FUNDAMENTAL understanding of what they’re writing? It’s fine to cross genres, put a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but to not want to commit yourself to genre when you’re writing that first pass is prettydangerous.


    But hey, whatever works, right?

  22. Sara J. Henry

    People may resist the whole genre thing because they think "genre" implies "lowbrow." And certainly some writers have successfully crossed genres – Mary Stewart did it brilliantly with her romantic suspense novels of the 1950s and early ’60s; Janet Evanovich in a sense does it now (excellent article here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/evanovich-inc/article1199067/).

    So Mary Stewart may have had to make multiple editing passes – one for romantic elements, one for suspense – but she was undoubtedly cognizant of the need for her novels to work on both levels.

    Re the level of gore in horror writing: with you all the way. I read a recent new horror title with no idea what I was getting into – methinks it should have been labeled slasher porn.

  23. Gretchen Jones

    I confess to referring to my ms as suspense, but it’s more because I hesitate to call it a thriller. Until it’s finished, It feels a bit presumptive to declare it will "thrill" anyone.

  24. Allison Brennan

    Hey, great minds think alike, Alex! Amazing . . .

    I added a comment to my post for today, then deleted it, but essentially . . . I said I loved your blog but wasn’t going to comment on violence since in SUDDEN DEATH the prologue is a torture scene and in FATAL SECRETS a character gets raped and killed. But I decided to expand, hence taking it from my post and commenting here. I like to think that I "close the door" at the right moment to avoid gratuitous violence. I think it’s important to show the major important turning points, especially in a character’s life. In FATAL SECRETS my heroine kills the rapist (she wasn’t raped) and everything from there changes her life. But that event is never discussed in detail in the book even though it’s a life-changing event for her, because that’s not the type of person she is. And, in fact, there is a chain of events that are all crucial to where she is today. Fortunately, I know (and all authors should know this) that you can’t please all readers. That’s why genre fiction is so important–we want to find our readers, as well as tell those who wouldn’t like us that they wouldn’t like us.

  25. Denise McClain

    I’m with Allison that you can’t please all readers all the time.
    I’ve been on a dark kick for a while. It’s not that I enjoy the rape or torture or violence. I don’t enjoy it per se. But I enjoy delving into the psyches of people, whether they be victims or the hero/heroine. In romance I enjoy dark internal conflict and intense, tortured heroes (and by tortured I don’t mean waterboarding).

    For so long there was so much chick lit out there that the hilarity and high jinks became too over the top, too inane. I wanted to scream ‘just shoot me now!’.

    I’m glad that more books that are darker, more intense are taking center stage.

    Some would disagree. Some would say that during the last 4 years the general public read more darkness and now they’re wanting books full of hope and cute little bunnies. And for some that are phase readers that might be the case. My phases go back and forth between romance and thrillers. But every single book (fiction) in my TBR and on my keeper shelves are … well let’s just say they’re not lighthearted romantic comedies.


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