Genre therapy is the art and science of finding the sweet intersection between what you were born to write, and what’s most likely to reach the widest possible audience.
You’ve probably never heard of genre therapy, but those two words might change your writing life. If you let them.
In short, genre therapy helps an artist be more creative with less effort.
Our story studio, Sterling & Stone, was born when three storytellers decided we wanted to tell (and sell) as many stories as we possibly could, and thought it would be much faster to do that together. My first partner, David Wright, loves science fiction and horror. We both love mystery box style storytelling and our work reads like the literary love child of Stephen King and JJ Abrams. My other partner, Johnny B. Truant, trends toward the philosophical. Thanks to his background in genetics, our work is more like Jonathan Nolan, Michael Crichton, or Alex Garland.
In other words, we’re all over the place.
This works for us, creatively. And always has. But commercially, it’s been hit and miss. As a business plan, it’s a targeted disaster.
We learned the hard way that the straightforward path to building a profitable writing business is to know your genre. That’s the advice we give to the authors who listen to our podcast, and in our book, Write. Publish. Repeat..
That guidance is simple: Know your genre, connect with your readers, and keep doing it, getting better as you go.
Done well, it’s a very profitable formula. The most lucrative one in publishing.
What is genre therapy?
Genre therapy is the art and science of finding the sweet intersection between what you were born to write, and what’s most likely to reach the widest possible audience.
This doesn’t mean writing the equivalent of a popcorn flick if you’re not that kind of artist, nor does it mean settling for anything you don’t actually want to write. Illuminate some of the erroneous assumptions that might be controlling your creative development, and you can give yourself the fresh start you probably didn’t even know that you needed.
We were operating under many such assumptions ourselves. Not for us, but for our newest authors. When someone assigned themselves a genre, we believed them.
Because, of course, every individual should know themselves best.
The problem is, that assumption is a lie.
Your creative perspective is the same as your life perspective.
There are times when someone else can see things with much more clarity than you can. So getting an outside view is paramount.
We started out by segmenting our new projects into genres. Every writer knows what a juggernaut the romance genre is, and always will be. Trafficking in love, sex, and desire, those stories are like crack to those who consume them. Some readers plow through a book every day ending in Y.
Because romance is so ostensibly profitable, and there is an abundance of writers in our network who specialize in the genre, it seemed like a great place to start, even if we wouldn’t be writing them ourselves.
We’d ghosted several profitable titles ourselves, and understood the market well enough to produce a few new series from afar. We just needed writers who were familiar with romance, and excited to write in the genre.
Our studio is filled with excellent writers, and one of the strongest came aboard specifically to write romance. This wasn’t the genre she settled into because she didn’t know where else to start — this was her self-selecting from every available option. She’d worked in romance for years, and it was the place she felt most at home.
We worked to develop a highly commercial series that could last for many books. And as with everything currently in production, we wanted to keep a side eye on film or television potential.
The ingredients were all there. A strong concept, a commercial title, and an exceptional writer with a fantastic ear for dialogue. Soon, we had a finished draft for what would be our first highly commercial and long-running romance series from the production wing of our company.
But there was a problem.
We like to start with a Book One that acts as a pilot. Same as in television, the pilot either works or it doesn’t. We can greenlight the project and get started on the rest of the series, order “re-shoots,” or start over. A few times, we’ve had to cut bait and cancel the project altogether.
Quality and sustainability are everything. We need books readers will love, that our authors can’t wait to write. The quality was there. Again, a natural storyteller, and gifted with dialogue.
But something was off, and none of us knew precisely why.
After writing millions of words, you tend to know when a story isn’t right So we scheduled a meeting with our new writer to figure out a way to fix our pilot and proceed with the series.
We had no idea what was about to happen.
After talking for around twenty minutes we began to realize that the genre itself might be the problem. But that didn’t seem possible. She’d been writing romance for more than a decade. This was her genre. She had written several series already. It’s what she knew best, and was most comfortable with.
Or so she thought.
In reality, it didn’t take long before we were scratching at a new and interesting truth.
“What do you like about the romance genre?” I asked.
“I love dialogue!” The words flew out of her mouth.
“What is it you enjoy about writing dialogue?”
“I love the banter between characters, especially male and female.”
I considered this for a second, then replied, “So, like Mulder and Scully?”
An eager nod, then, “Yes! I love the X-Files.”
“What don’t you like about romance?”
Her face changed. Everything about it. In front of our eyes, she became someone else.
“Well,” she said. “I hate writing sex scenes.”
Wait … stop … say that again?
Because although there are exceptions, by and large, romance books are supposed to have sex.
“Forget about the books you are writing with us,” I continued. “In previous books, in the series you’ve already written, do your characters have sex?”
“Well, yeah, I just hate writing it.”
I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t. Instead I asked, “What else don’t you like?”
“I really don’t like happy endings!”
I finally lost it, laughed right out loud. I couldn’t help it. Because the only thing more important to a romance reader than sex — and therefore of core importance to the writer — is the HEA, or happily ever after.
“If you could write any kind of romance, without having to worry about the market, simply writing directly to your muse, what kind of romance would you write?
She thought about it. Appeared to deeply consider, not wanting to answer too fast or say anything wrong. Then, without so much as a drop of irony, humor, or mischief, she said:
Is there any such thing as a Jack the Ripper romance?
And genre therapy was born.
We started working on a dark thriller project for her immediately.
Within a few weeks she was blazing through the new story, and was deliriously happy. Writing had never been easier, or so much fun. She’d never felt an outline like that before.
It was a crazy revelation that infiltrated every part of our company.
Johnny and I had been narrowing in on our genre for years. At first, we were willing to write anything. We’re born storytellers, but when writing is your business, then the bottom line matters. It’s important to know your genre as an artist, and as a marketer.
Figuring out who you are will help you find your ideal audience, because the heavy lifting of your marketing is in the art itself.
We told ourselves and the world that we wrote “inquisitive fiction,” because that sums up the kind of stories Johnny and I like writing together. Regardless of the genre, or size of the idea, our primary objective beyond entertaining our readers and telling an engaging story, is to shake the universe and see what might tumble out.
But it wasn’t until we saw how the other authors in our studio were benefitting from this concept when we finally realized we could benefit from a similar line of questioning. So even after many years and millions of words, we needed it to.
So, how do you know if you need genre therapy?
Trust me, everyone does, at least a little.
A hundred percent of the writers we’ve done this with have had a transformative experience. It’s changed the way they write, given them a better identity, and helped them to see the sorts of story threads they were missing before.
There’s a difference between creative and commercially creative. You can be brilliant, or you can sell brilliantly. It’s extremely difficult to do both, especially in the beginning. So, before starting any project, ask yourself what you really want.
Then, before building your author career, take the time to discover who you are.
If that’s not reason enough to try it, how about this?
Genre therapy cures writer’s block.
We’ve all spent time staring at the blank page.
But writer’s block what most of us assume it is. I’m not saying that to dismiss the millions of writers suffering from not knowing what to say.
After working with hundreds of writers, and dealing with thousands, I can say with 100% certainty that even if there are days when you don’t feel like writing, or have trouble conjuring the words, that’s no different than any other dude or dudette in the universe.
Even Mr. Rogers didn’t want to go to work some days. But that other thing, the one the world refers to as writer’s block, that’s a case of either not being excited about what you’re writing about, or writing the wrong thing altogether.
Figuring out your genre means figuring out yourself, and once you’ve got that nailed, everything you want to create becomes easier to make.
Genre therapy also helps you master your art faster.
You’re probably aware of the 10,000-hour rule, so there’s no need to go in-depth here, but the law essentially states, Demonstrate raw talent, practice your gift with intention, and after a ton of time, you’ll be one of the best in the world.
We write fast because the math makes sense. The old way is dead. Books no longer need to be printed on paper, shipped to bookstores, or occupy space on a shelf. Inventory is bottomless. Even if people as a whole aren’t reading books like they used to, people still read, and whale readers can swallow an ocean of words.
We are here to serve them.
But there’s another, far more important reason. At least for us, it trumps sales every time.
The more books we write, the better we get. One of the questions we are asked most often is, “how can you possibly produce quality content at the quantity you produce?”
The answer’s deceptively simple. We can produce at such quality, because of our quantity. All of our drafts get at least four passes before they are published, and have the same editing standards as any traditionally published book.
The key is in getting that draft out fast.
You don’t edit yourself when you talk, so the same should go for your writing, at least in the first draft. We learn to second guess ourselves, but the faster you write, the closer you come to your most natural voice.
Genre therapy changes all of that.
There are, of course, signs you might be writing in the wrong genre.
One or two, if not all, might even sound familiar.
If you are unsure of the tropes and conventions expected in your story, there’s an excellent chance you’re writing in the wrong genre. This is a big one, and we see it a lot with new authors, who aren’t necessarily dying to write, but are nonetheless starving for a hit.
A typical scenario sees them heading to Amazon, checking which genres and subgenres are killing it at any given moment, then attempting to write a book in that genre.
But when you’re a tourist instead of a citizen to the genre, it shows. And even if you can launch your book and sell a significant number of copies in the first thirty days, that’s a far cry from reaping the scads of mavens who will devour your book, and buy everything you write for the foreseeable future.
Lit RPG is the best, most current example of this. Right now, the genre is a quiet juggernaut. If you’re not familiar with it, the most famous example is Ready Player One. Books in this genre have one thing in common: their main characters spend a significant amount of time within the confines of a video game or artificial reality.
There are a lot of pretenders here, and their books all tank. Even if the writers themselves know how to throw down the words.
The conventions of the genre are more important than the quality of your writing.
That hurts the purists among you, but it’s the truth. Lit RPG authors need experience playing video games if they want to see the meteoric success a fat handful of their peers have already had in this genre.
Of course, readers want an engaging story, well-drawn characters, plot points that make sense, and preferably without any holes. But nothing is more important to a Lit RPG reader than a believable Lit RPG experience. That means hit points, side quests, money systems, and anything else one would expect to find in the genre.
I write well and fast, but I would never attempt to write Lit RPG, because no matter how fast or well I write, it isn’t the genre for me. Readers would smell it, and the book wouldn’t be nearly as much fun for me to write. That’s important.
When I’m working on the right project, I fly.
You’re probably writing in the wrong genre if you’re spending too much time staring at the blank page, have your characters doing things that don’t quite make sense, or are unable to depict a believable world.
There’s an excellent reason for that last one, and we’ll get to it in just a moment.
People end up writing in the wrong genre for many reasons, but the one I just mentioned is the biggest. Writing for a paycheck will almost always put you in the wrong genre.
You cannot necessarily create what you like to consume.
That’s another big reason we see people writing in the wrong direction. They are attempting to mimic some of their favorite things, without having the skillset to do so.
Let me explain that, because it would be natural to assume that if you enjoy reading a particular type of book, or watching a particular type of television, you would be qualified to replicate that experience on the page.
But this isn’t true.
Sometimes there’s overlap, but we can’t automatically create what we consume, and believing we can will often boil us into frustration.
Come on in, the water’s warm, the idea says.
So you do, but every chapter’s another degree, until the water’s too hot and you finally can’t stand it. You either have to toss the project, or gut your way through it, wondering why you even started it in the first place.
We had another author who came aboard to write sci-fi with us. She was in love with her project, and the world it came from. Man vs. Machine. A tale as old as time, or at least as old as The Terminator.
But she was having an extremely difficult time with her book. Bogged down in the middle, same as every science fiction project she’d tried to write before this one.
Fortunately, we’d already come face-to-face with genre therapy, and knew how to start thinking around this problem. We gave her the same sort of interview. But as with any therapy, there isn’t a standard set of questions, so much as many things to pay attention to.
“What’s your favorite TV show of all time?” I asked.
No hesitation: “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
I nodded. That made sense, and was in full alignment with the style of story she was trying to write. But there was an obvious stray thread, begging to be pulled.
“If they were rebooting Star Trek: The Next Generation right now, and you got a call from Paramount inviting you to be in the writer’s room, would you take the job?”
“No way,” she shook her head.
“And why not?”
“Because I’m not qualified. I would get bogged down in all the sciencey stuff.”
“You mean like the stuff that’s bogging you down now?”
A timid nod, then, “Yeah.”
“What if Netflix was bringing Ella Enchanted to their streaming service, and they invited you into that writer’s room — would you take the job?”
I’m glad I knew her well enough to ask that question. It was like a unicorn had galloped into her room the second I did.
After that conversation we had the clarity needed to move her off the project and onto another — one much more suited to her. As with our previous author, her second book was the easiest, most fluid, draft she’d ever worked on.
And the most fun.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that what you enjoy reading or watching is what you’ll be best at writing. Instead, focus on who you are, what you know, and the type of story you’re most designed to articulate.
When it comes to genre, you don’t have to be monogamous.
I’ve been with my wife over 20 years, and couldn’t imagine ever being with anyone else, even for a night.
But when it comes to genre, I’m shameless. There are plenty of stories I’m not qualified to touch, or interested in trying, but I understand the elements of my writing that transfer from genre to genre, because I understand those elements within myself.
Remember our first author? The one who wanted to write a Jack the Ripper romance? Besides that dark thriller we talked about earlier, she’s now working on a series I’m even more excited about. It’s sci-fi, with aliens, and nothing like her first series. Still, it’s 100% her.
You can be great in more than one genre, but proceed with caution.
More often than not, it’s your writer’s desire to scurry around on the playground. I sympathize; I’m the same way. I still love to experiment, but after millions of words, I’m no longer willing to conduct them blind. Know who you are as a storyteller, and you can nestle deeper into your identity with every new project. If you already have your genre figured out, believe me, there’s still plenty to glean from exploring your creative psyche.
And if at some point while reading this you’ve come to realize that you’re writing in the wrong genre, don’t panic.
I wrote millions of words before I finally figured most of this out. Same for several of our writers. One of our authors — whom we met at our one and only Genre Therapy workshop — is in her seventies. She posted in our company Slack channel last week that she had a day with well over 10,000 words, her personal best.
It isn’t too late, and despite what you’ve probably heard, we’re still in the early adoption phase of indie publishing. It might not seem that way, with millions of new books each year clamoring for slivers of finite attention, but it’s a market correction that the truest storytellers will survive.
The antidote to the glut lies in becoming a more fluid, organic storyteller. And that starts — not to beat a dead unicorn — with going deeper into yourself.
Know the person inside the creator, and the creator inside the person. Often, that’s the inner space where you’ll find profit dancing with your muse.