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Before You Write: Analyze the Competition

This step is most crucial for those who are relatively new to writing and new to writing in a specific genre. Although I would always recommend that a writer keep reading and stay current on what’s being published in his genre, the more “inside and out” you know your genre, the less crucial this step is at the beginning of a new project.

All genres — including literary and mainstream — have certain expectations, from word count to reading level and sentence complexity to reader expectations of plot structure. Someone who can write a great thriller may not be able to write a great romance and likely doesn’t have a clue about writing picture books for toddlers.

1. Go to the bookstore, and select a variety of books in your genre that were published in the last year.

How many? 10-20. If you’re planning to write picture books, go for the full 20. If you want to write fantasy or historical sagas, aim for the lower end.

Ask the people who work at the bookstore for help. They know what was published recently, and they know what’s typical for the genre.

And yes, selecting books published in the last year is important. Styles change. You want to know what agents and publishers are looking for now, not what they were looking for five years ago. If you can find debut authors, that’s even better, because then you’ll know what they’re buying from NEW writers.

2. Read them. Enjoy them.

If you don’t enjoy reading the genre, you sure don’t want to spend a year writing and rewriting it.

3. Google conventions for your chosen genre. (For example, romance almost always follows a fairly tale model and ends with a Happily Ever After.)

Make a list of the conventions, and then compare the list to the books you read. For each convention, figure out the percentage of books that included that convention (i.e., the number of romances that had a Happy Ever After ending).

A high percentage tells you that agents and publishers (and readers) are *expecting* that convention. I understand how you may want to deviate. I understand how the idea of a formula drives you insane. I understand that your idea is so much better than any of the drivel you read. *cough* *glare*

But if you are an unpublished writer who wants to be published through a traditional publisher, then you need to give the agents and publishers what they want. Once you’re an agented, published author, you can push the envelope and bend the genre rules.

4. Figure out the expected word count in your genre.

This is a good list. It’s a hell of a lot easier to work to this word count from the beginning, instead of overwriting and having to cut (or pad) like crazy.

5. Analyze the books you read for word choice, sentence structure, plot structure, theme, etc.

Exactly what analysis you should do will vary according to genre. I listed some suggestions below. Some suggestions will apply to certain genres more than others.

  • Approximate number of words per page (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Specific rhythm to text? Describe. (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Are there techniques such as onomatopoeia or alliteration to make the verbal reading more appealing to youngsters? (picture books and beginning reader)
  • How “advanced” is the vocabulary?
  • Number of main characters / Number of supporting characters
  • POV / Number of POV characters
  • Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is there a climax? (picture books only)
  • Key plot events and when they occur (10% point, halfway point, etc.)
  • Can the book be divided into clear “acts”?
  • Theme / How is theme handled relative to story?
  • Is the story funny or serious or ?

Clearly that’s a LOT of information. The less you know going in, the more important this step is. This step doesn’t write the book for you, but it provides some guidelines specific to your genre. Rule of thumb: the more consistent the books were, the more indicative that is that you should follow that guideline.

In my next post, I’ll give an overview of the critical parts of a story.

Personal update…

This week my husband and I did something I’ve wanted to do for years: We bought a bed for the dogs. You might have noticed that my dogs are large. Sadly, my husband and I aren’t small potatoes. Put us all together and, well, it’s crowded.

The sleigh bed in the picture is a king-sized bed. The new bed is the extra-long twin there to the side of it, between my side of the bed and the wall. I put pillows on it, so it would be more comfy. I put a black comforter on it, so I could pretend I didn’t see the dirt and fur.

The most difficult thing so far, other than putting the bottom sheet on our bed, has been getting in and out of my side of the bed. Particularly when there are dogs on the other bed. I woke up and needed to pee last night and had to just hold it, because all three dogs had penned me in on that side. (I’m really not agile enough to climb over the footboard or to stand up and walk over them or my husband.) But when the dogs sleep there, I have leg room on my side, so it’s a trade off I’m willing to make.

My husband thinks the whole thing is silly. His plan was just to kick the dogs out of the bedroom. I told him he’d be lonely when they and I moved to the guest room. So he capitulated. 🙂

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