Monday, August 5, 2019

The Problem with Avoiding Genre Formula

One of the pluses mentioned by authors who self-publish is that the author isn’t trapped by the formula insisted upon by the big publishers.  

Unfortunately, many don’t realize that this formula is more related to what the reader wants than what the publisher demands.

I’ve been reading a bunch of self-published books, and I’m seeing this problem with surprising frequency.

For example, I started a paranormal cozy mystery series.  The heroine sees ghosts and solves their murders so they can rest in peace.  A cozy mystery tends to be laid back with an amateur sleuth who uses nosiness and intelligence to figure out the murder.  Violence and the gross elements (the dead body, blood, etc.) are usually off page until the very end when the amateur sleuth faces the killer but prevails.  

In one book in this series, the amateur sleuth is heading to a Western ghost town which is now a restored tourist destination.  She falls asleep and dreams about a ghost taking her to the local town where she meets the sheriff and discovers that a little girl and her family have disappeared, probably trapped in a mine or lost in the desert, and the little girl is in deadly danger.

After the amateur sleuth wakes up, she arrives in town and discovers her dream was accurate.  The hotel is exactly as she dreamed, and the sheriff is the person she dreamed about.  People know the family she dreamed about were there, but no one realizes that the family is in trouble.  

At this point, you’d expect the amateur sleuth to tell the sheriff about the little girl in danger and to do everything in her power to find her.  She does not.  Instead, she acts like this is her standard cozy mystery and begins a very slow and casual investigation while enjoying her vacation. 

Later, she meets the owner of the hotel who knew the family had expressed interest in exploring dangerous mines in search of treasure.  The hotel owner finally realizes the family may be in trouble but won’t tell the sheriff.  The amateur sleuth then gives her three days to tell the sheriff or she will.  All this while the young family may be trapped in a gold mine or the desert without food or water.  

I was screaming at the main character at this point as well as the writer who took a suspense plot and inserted it into a cozy then failed to follow through with the changes.  Needless to say, I haven’t bought any of her other books.  

Another novel with a weird mix of amateur sleuth and suspense had the amateur sleuth trying to solve a crime while the police and FBI were attacking it from another angle so its plot resembled a regular deck of cards with a UNO deck shuffled in.  The frustrating mix not only destroyed whatever tension and mystery existed by giving away too much information, but it alienated readers who prefer suspense or amateur sleuth mysteries.  

My recent favorite disaster is a series about a new private investigator who is accidentally dubbed a paranormal investigator.  He doesn’t believe in the paranormal, but he’s more than willing to take clients to prove the answer isn’t paranormal at all. The author has branded this series urban fantasy despite having no magic/paranormal elements.  This is essentially like selling someone an Oreo milkshake that doesn’t have any Oreos in it, and the author then make fun of the reader for enjoying Oreos.  So, readers who enjoy vanilla shakes won’t buy it, readers who want the Oreos won’t buy the next.  

Romances with other elements like a mystery or the paranormal often lose sight of the romance and let the other genre drive the plot.  Part of this problem is poor branding or a misunderstanding of what a romance is.  

If you want to break the rules of a genre, you must understand them first as well as the audience’s expectations and then, very carefully, make your changes so that they make sense within the genre or genres.  Then you must brand the book as the correct genre or genre cross-mix so you find the right readers for your book.  

Those rules about formula are there for a very good reason.

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