From Literary to Genre: 3 techniques for writing a bestseller

Hello writers! Whitney here with another amazing post from one of our talented guest contributors.

Meet Genna Gazelka, a fiction writer who I had the pleasure of getting to know while I worked on my Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee. We worked in the writing center together where we talked about books and writing and life.

Genna received the very first MFA from UTK, is well-traveled, and has been writing since 8 years old. As Genna noted to me in a recent conversation, that’s 20 years of dedication!

Today she shares her experiences as a writer of both literary and genre fiction and suggests how we can use techniques from the former to improve our writing in the latter. Enjoy, writers!


By Genna Gazelka

I spent the first year of my graduate program trying to pitch my young adult novel to my thesis committee as a project worthy of literary merit. My thesis chair had written an excellent work of literary fiction, which focuses on young adult protagonists, and as her student, I understood the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. I thought my proposed YA novel demonstrated both YA and literary merit, and would get me the degree I sought.

I came to realize later that no matter how you phrase it, a book intended for young adult audiences will have a taste of genre to it, and that something as basic as where I had set my novel had relegated me to the less-exalted world of genre writing.

I could hardly complain about my young adult novel being relegated to genre when, in recent years, Harry Potter is the only series out of this entire genre that has been given serious thought as deserving of literary praise and canonization. No great work of literary fiction has been set in an “urban fantasy” world, notwithstanding Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and the countless other great literary classics we consider canonical.

It was disheartening. I put aside the project I really believed in, my baby, as it were, to work on something more “literary,” so that my committee would accept it. Then I finished out my graduate program’s requirements, delivering and defending a literary fiction novel that my committee said set the bar way high for the incoming graduate students to their MFA program.

Now, as I return to my young adult novel, my baby, memories of the bitter disagreements in creative writing workshops over what is considered literary and what is considered genre return too.

Here are three literary techniques that will help you improve the quality of your fiction, regardless of what genre you’re writing in:

1. write character-driven stories

In the literary world, writers differentiate between literary writing and genre writing. We define this difference by how the pace of the narrative is set or driven. Most often, in genre writing, plot takes the priority–takes up the most space on the page–over character. A character done right, though, is how the narrative and plot function together most effectively.

As any good writer knows, character development is one of the most quintessential elements in crafting a believable story. Readers must be able to suspend their sense of reality in order to enter your world. Every little “miss” in your narrative breaks the reader away from your world. A missing word and suddenly: time? What time is it?

Time for us to discuss characters.

A character that does not evolve or change as a response to the sequence of events within the plot is unbelievable, and without some consistency in these responses, the reader will be arguing with your narrative that your character would never do that.

So discard your outlines for awhile. Forget about plot. How much do you know about your characters? At what point are we entering the timeline of their lives? Is this point the most ideal for their introduction in a narrative? Are you able to transport them from one story to a different story with a different narrative or narrator and a different plot and retain a quality of consistency in their personalities?

2. join the literary tradition

An allusion is a technique where a writer makes a subtle “nod” or a direct reference to another writer’s work. What allusions do is establish us within certain traditions that are familiar to the reader. These allusions are embedded in every great literary work and are very much the material from which worlds are built to be as believable as possible to a reader regardless of familiarity. Thus, it is important to be aware of which authors are considered greats within your genre.

An easy step in identifying the greats is to look to the literary criticism surrounding your genre as well as the topics that arise in conversation from your genre. You can browse bestseller lists and reviews by searching for key phrases. Also, find out which books are winning awards in different categories, such as the Newberry Prize for children’s fiction. From there, you can make a list or diagram the commonalities among these top-performing novels. Predict the trends and decide if you conform to a genre and what’s currently popular, like Twilight did several years ago, or if you are writing something that has a longer shelf-life and that could be considered a “classic” decades from now, like The Giver.

3. connect to social themes

To some extent, genres are artificial labels often used only for marketing purposes, so write something great! That being said, a final technique, which I hope you will all employ while writing, is relating  your novel to a social context or larger social theme. Most literary novels use the setting, often environmental or political, to establish this element. Good genre fiction is no different.

Think, for example, of J.K. Rowling’s complex use of “mudbloods.”

Harry Potter’s use of conflicting worlds became a catalyst for conversations on everything from race and ethnicity to gender and class. So much so, the United Nations thought the actress who played a character in the movies a suitable candidate for ambassador. This fact alone should tell you a little something about what connecting to larger social themes does for a book.

Need I say more?

Tell us about your experiences with both genre and literary fiction in the comments. AND, let us know if you are interested in being a guest contributor for FromNothingToNovel!


And, if you liked Genna’s post, check out this one by another of our contributing authors, Luis Marin, who talks about how fiction can help the nonfiction writer!


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