Hello, and happy Monday!
This week, we're going to talk about the three major book genres and what writers and readers want from each one, in order to help you, as a writer, get clear on your intention and goal as you work on your book.
(You can watch an expanded Facebook Live video on this topic—including visual aids, where we look at and learn from several published books in each genre!—here.)
First up, here are the three major book genres:
- General nonfiction
- Creative nonfiction
All books, no matter their audience (adults, children, or young adults), fit into one of these three genres. Let's break them down.
Fiction is any kind of story created from your imagination. While some of the events or characters may originate in real life (like a story that unfolds in the days following 9/11 or an imagined unfolding of some real-life mystery that was never solved), the story itself is intended to be the pure creation of the author. It's something you've made up.
When you're writing in this genre, what you care about is the story. You're thinking about the characters, the plot points, the setting, the conflict. You're wondering whose voice tells the story, what motivates the characters, and how the story will resolve. You're inside the intention to tell a great story.
The good news is, that's what your reader cares about, too. When she picks up a novel, it's because she wants to read a good story. She may not know anything about literary devices, but she knows she's looking for something intrinsic to the book—be it characters she cares about, a premise that intrigues her—that will keep her reading to the end.
Your goal, when writing fiction, then, is to focus on the story.
General nonfiction is any book that teaches on a subject. When you walk into a bookstore, it's what you'll find in the business section, the self-help section, the reference section, even the computer programming section.
If you're writing a general nonfiction book, you're thinking of the knowledge you have to share. What do you know, given your experience, that you want to share with other people?
When you're writing this kind of book, you're making sure to hit all the big ideas that make up your particular knowledge base. It can be helpful to start with some kind of outline or mind map of those big ideas, and then to think of stories or examples or situations that substantiate those ideas and make them easier for someone to understand and digest.
The good news for you is that your reader is looking to learn from the knowledge you have to share. When she goes hunting through the business or self-help section, she's looking for answers to a question or solutions to a problem or information about a subject. She wants to find a guide. You are that guide. Your knowledge is vital to her.
It's important to keep in mind when writing general nonfiction that knowledge abounds. For any subset of a major category—like the "how to run your own small business" subset of the business category or the "how to overcome an addiction" subset of the self-help category—a reader will find loads of books at her disposal.
What makes yours different? The answer is: your particular point of view and personality. What does your book offer that other books in that same subset don't? Is it new research, an avant-garde approach, a gentler perspective? Your unique flavor will speak to a particular kind of reader, and that's great. It ensures your book has a clearly defined audience.
Additionally, don't underestimate the allure of personality. Are you witty? A humorist? An encyclopedic mind? Let your personality shine through. This also helps you stand out from the crowd in your category.
The last genre in our review is creative nonfiction. These books tell real-life stories in story form. The genre chiefly includes memoir but can also include stories of historical events or interesting people.
When you're writing creative nonfiction, you're focused on both story and truth.
Creative nonfiction, just like regular fiction, tells a story. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It includes characters, setting, conflict, and resolution. It makes use of dialogue and scenes.
But additionally, it is concerned with truth. This is where writers of creative nonfiction face the greatest challenge, in my opinion, because I would posit their concern for the truth is much higher than their reader's. The reader does care about reading something true—it's why she chose to read creative nonfiction instead of a novel, after all—but the writer of this kind of book is more personally invested in all the details of the true story than the reader is.
This is because, for a memoirist, it is content taken from the writer's own life. For writers of other creative nonfiction projects, it is because they've often invested years in their research of the subject.
Because of this, writers of creative nonfiction have to work harder than writers of other genres to reach a place of objectivity with their work. Remember that the writer's goal and the reader's goal in fiction and general nonfiction are basically the same. But in creative nonfiction, there's some disparity. The writer of creative nonfiction has to overcome this disparity to make her book one her readers absolutely love because it not only offers them a good story but also helps them feel they've learned something meaningful along the way.