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Why Reading Outside Your Genre Makes You a Better Writer

The most successful published authors out there tend to stick to one genre.

If you look at people like James Patterson (thrillers), Dean Koontz (supernatural thrillers), Nicholas Sparks (romance), Stephen King (horror) and George R.R Martin (fantasy), you’ll see that the genre in which these writer become successful is the one that continues to define them, and as a result, they rarely stray from the conventions of that genre. There’s a reason for this.

Writing novels for mass consumption is in many ways like turning your business into a franchise. Walk into any McDonald’s or Starbucks and you’ll be treated to the same atmosphere, menu, and aesthetic scheme that you encountered the last time you entered one of these stores. Authors do something similar when they produce novels in the same genre; after a few books, readers know what to expect and they continue to buy the author’s books in hopes of experiencing the same thrill. A good “genre” author gives them that thrill again and again just as a good franchise offers the same quality of taste and experience customers have come to expect regardless of the store’s physical location.

Because they’re a pretty safe bet for readers, genre authors sell thousands, if not millions, more copies of their books than “literary” novelists who choose to structure each novel according to a different theme or method. When a literary writer chooses to structure her latest novel around the exploration of narcissism in daily suburban life, most people won’t know what to expect story-wise and therefore won’t always take the risk or pay the money to find out. But literary authors also enjoy a special level of prestige and acclaim that can make their path worthwhile, regardless of the hit they take financially.

Ultimately, successful authors–whether their success is financial or critical–tend to stick to the field/genre they’ve chosen. And that’s usually a good thing. It lets them grow better over time and lets you, the reader, feel comfortable buying anything they write as long as you’ve already enjoyed their work in the past.

But regardless of whether you write literary or genre fiction, there’s one mistake all authors should avoid: it’s the mistake of only reading books in your genre. (more…)

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StoryCrafting Tip #1: It doesn’t matter what the goal is, as long as there is one.

One of my favorite short stories of all time is The Swimmer by John Cheever. In it, a man living in the suburbs decides, on a hot and pleasant day, to return to his house across town. Only thing is, he doesn’t want to walk or drive–he wants to swim across his neighbors’ swimming pools.

How’s that for a simple goal? It doesn’t even sound all that interesting, until you read the story. Then you find yourself riveted to this character’s journey, which spans one of the creepiest and most fulfilling story arcs in modern literature.

My point in using this example is that it doesn’t matter what your main character’s goal is in a story. People don’t read novels and comic books and watch movies because they think the hero’s goal is unique and interesting. (more…)

Hannibal Lecter and Buffallo Bill: Three Qualities of Great Villains

I read Silence of the Lambs for the first time and finished it last week. I went on to watch the movie, noted all the differences, disappointments and improvements (like a good writer) and then continued on with my life.

And yet something stuck with me.

Both the movie and book versions–and from this point onward, I won’t differentiate–did something that is incredibly difficult to do.

They created not one, but TWO of the most memorable villains in modern entertainment. (more…)

Where do writers get their ideas?

For most creative writers, the most frequent question you’ll hear is: “Where do you get your ideas?” This is especially true of prolific writers who can dash off an article or a blog post, or even a novel, with the rapidity of a Seth Godin or a Stephen King.

People ask this question for two reasons. First, the answer can say a lot of interesting things about the writer being asked. And second, non-writers don’t seem to understand the nature of the writer’s most important tool, and therefore feel compelled to solve the mystery.

(more…)

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