3 Keys to Writing the Cross-Genre Novel

My own cross-genre success happened almost by accident, but only after the trial and error of my first novel. I’ve since learned that a more focused approach is the most direct route to crafting the kind of manuscript that will draw the attention of agents, publishers and readers.

You don’t have to look far to find authors having wild success with focused cross-genre approaches. Take Charlaine Harris’ bestselling Southern Vampire Mysteries featuring telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse. The series, which from the outset featured a well-defined and consistent blend of paranormal elements, romance and mystery, was so marketable it transcended book form and spawned the popular HBO series “True Blood.”

Then there’s bestseller list staple Sandra Brown, author of dozens of romantic suspense novels, including The AlibiThe Crush and, most recently, Low Pressure. Her titles are so equally successful in both genres that Brown has received both the Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award and the International Thriller Writers’ top designation of ThrillerMaster.

Successful novels that have done what you’d like your own work to accomplish can be wonderful learning tools. Here are some other strategies to keep in mind as you shape your cross-genre story:

• Recognize your primary genre—and use it as your compass. Examine the fundamental core of any cross-genre story, and you’ll likely find that it has one primary genre driving the plot. It’s important to recognize this in your own work and pay homage to that genre’s time-honored traditions: A murder mystery should have red herrings, a romance heroine should face obstacles to true love, a political thriller needs a villain who stands in the way of your protagonist’s search for justice.

Let that genre guide you, from Page 1. Brown’s romantic thriller Lethal begins with a mother and her young daughter being held at gunpoint in their home; from the first chapter, the reader is confronted with the sense of imminent danger that propels the novel forward.

Let your primary genre give your story structure, and you’ll have a strong foundation upon which to build. From there, layer on fundamental aspects of at least two (but no more than three) genres in a way that gives fair, if not equal, time to each.

• Draw on your strengths as a writer, regardless of genre. Julianna Baggott is the bestselling author of 19 books running the gamut from young adult fiction to poetry. Her most recent novels, Pure and Fuse, are part of a futuristic YA trilogy that has also drawn a devoted following among adult science-fiction fans—not surprising, given that she began her career writing fiction for adult readers. Baggott encourages writers to take what they know from the genre in which they feel most comfortable, and find a way to use it to their advantage in anything they write. “Each genre has its own demands,” she says, “[but] the lessons learned in one are often transferable to another.”

By relying on what comes naturally to you even as you venture into something new, you’ll be more likely to find a cross-section of genres that is inherent to the story at hand rather than forced by any preconceived ideas of what the story should be. “I find it a huge advantage to take what the world hands you—that raw material—and ask what form it most desires,” Baggott says.

Pomada agrees. “Write what you love, and write it with an eye toward entertaining your reader,” she says. “The essential virtue of salable prose is that it keeps readers turning the pages. If writers can do that, they can write anything.”

• Create characters that defy genre conventions. Genre fiction is often criticized for being formulaic and short on character. As you write, keep asking yourself: If you were to extract your main character from the novel and set her down in an entirely different situation, would the reader still care what happens to her? If not, you have more work to do.

Holly Goddard Jones’ debut novel, The Next Time You See Me, is literary suspense that opens with a time-honored mystery setup: the discovery of a body. But as the story progresses, the way in which each character reacts to his own suffering—an emotion-driven hallmark of literary fiction—turns out to be every bit as important to the story as uncovering the identity of the killer. Ryan McNear, the believably flawed protagonist of Ransom Stephens’ scientific legal thriller The God Patent, isn’t just a physicist who has patented man’s soul; he is also a man on the run who is reeling from the loss of his family.

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