You know the saying, “You are what you eat.” *shivers* (Makes me think of Patricia Briggs’ vampire in Silver Borne, who took that very literally). Sorry..I digress…my brain does that, but I think it would be appropriate to describe most writers as “you write what you read.” I started out reading mysteries…lots of them. So, when I wanted to write my first book, that’s what I wrote. That’s the form that I intuitively felt comfortable with. My friends who devoured one romance after another write romances. One of them reads romances and watches tons of horror movies…and she writes both. Odd combo, right? Write a romance with a happy ending. Write a horror novel and go dark. Might balance things out. Sci/fi readers tend to write sci/fi. It makes sense. We write what we love/what draws our minds and imaginations to it.
Another reason I advocate to write what you read is that each genre (and I include literary novels in this category–they have their own rules and structure too) has its own rhythms and intricacies. We “learn” them while we read one book after another. They become an internal compass that guides us from page to page. We can feel when a red herring should appear or a twist in plot should occur.
Years ago, when I was trying to find a “home” for a mystery I wrote, I sent the manuscript to Tor, and the wonderful editor who worked there at the time, wrote me back and told me that she loved my writing, loved my characters, but she’d just been moved to head up the paranormal romance line for the company. Did I have one? Now, I had lots of spare mystery manuscripts stuffed in file drawers, but I had no idea what a paranormal romance even was, so I wrote and told her so. And bless her, she said, “Here’s a list of the things that make a paranormal romance.” There were no books on shelves for me to look at, nothing to go by but her list, but hey–I have lots of creativity, right?
I’m a writer. I read the list and said to myself, “This doesn’t look too hard. I can do this.” And I tried. Needless to say, my first attempt was maybe a good book, but it sure wasn’t a paranormal romance. So she sent me another list and a few titles to look at. I stuck the ideas on a solid mystery plot (something I knew), and she liked that one–wanted to buy it, actually–but she got shot down because the sales department had just pedaled a book with Tarot cards in it and didn’t want another one. Such is the world of publishing. And then she left Tor, and her type of paranormal romances morphed into the type I read today. And I was behind the transition again.
The thing is, once more paranormal romances reached the market, I discovered I’d never be good at them. I’m not romantic. Have a heck of a time writing it. But urban fantasy–now that I not only loved, but got hooked on. And it took lots and lots of reading until I felt comfortable there. Now, I never want to go back to writing mysteries.
My point is, even with a list of “this is what’s in an urban fantasy,” you won’t get it right. There are lots and lots of small, key elements, rhythms, nuances that you only learn by reading…and reading more. How you label your book or story matters, because readers come to your work with set expectations. I learned that on Goodreads. If you say your book is a paranormal romance, the romance has to be the key ingredient that turns your story. If you label it as urban fantasy, romance is a subplot and a battle between a good paranormal and a bad paranormal drives the plot. So my advice? Once you decide what you want to write, read as many books in that genre as you can. And then read some more.