Analyzing the Competition: Set Up for Success

Analyzing the competition sounds like a strange topic to have tagged as a writing post. Seems like it should be a publishing post. The problem is, if you wait until you’re done with the book, you may end up with something that doesn’t “fit.” Is that a problem? It is if you want to traditionally publish. It’s less of an issue if your goal is self publishing, but even this is good info to have.

Each genre has requirements. Audience expectations. Required tropes. Expected word count. Expected structure. The more you know as you craft your book, the more likely the finished product will resonate with your target audience.

Read Widely in Your Genre!

ALL writers, no matter how experienced, should read widely in their target genre. Why? Because that helps them understand the required tropes, what’s selling now, what is overdone — or under-represented.

I worked with a writer once who claimed that he was writing his story because there was nothing out there like it. A little more questioning, and he admitted that he didn’t read the genre. I sent him on a hunt, and he was shocked to find that his story wasn’t unique, and there were lots of books in the genre that he was interested in reading.

Read. Your. Genre.

Some writers complain that they don’t like to read (especially in their genre) while they’re writing, because other author’s styles seep into their own. I think that’s all right. That means you’re still developing your own style and voice — and being influenced by others will help you do that. You can smooth out the writing during the rewriting and editing process.

Analyzing the Competition is Different Than Reading

Analyzing the competition is most crucial for those who are relatively new to writing and new to writing in a specific genre. Analyzing the competition means analyzing other books in your genre to understand how they’re crafted in order to discover the commonalities. Those commonalities are likely genre requirements.

Some steps for analyzing the competition:

First, go to a bookstore, and select a variety of books in your genre that were published in the last year.

  • How many? 10-20. If you’re planning to write picture books, go for the full 20. If you want to write fantasy or historical sagas, aim for the lower end.
  • Ask the people who work at the bookstore for help. They know what was published recently, and they know what’s typical for the genre.
  • And yes, selecting books published in the last year is important. Styles change. You want to know what agents and publishers are looking for now, not what they were looking for five years ago. If you can find debut authors, that’s even better, because then you’ll know what they’re buying from NEW writers.

Read them. Enjoy them.

  • If you don’t enjoy reading the genre, you sure don’t want to spend a year writing and rewriting it.

Google conventions for your chosen genre. (For example, Romance-with-a-capital-R almost always follows a fairy tale model and ends with a Happily Ever After.)

  • TV Tropes is a great place to start.
  • Make a list of the conventions, and then compare the list to the books you read. For each convention, figure out the percentage of books that included that convention (i.e., the number of romances that had a Happy Ever After ending).
  • A high percentage tells you that agents and publishers (and readers) are *expecting* that convention. I understand how you may want to deviate. I understand how the idea of a formula drives you insane. I understand that your idea is so much better than any of the drivel you read. *cough* *glare*
  • But if you are an unpublished writer who wants to be published through a traditional publisher, then you need to give the agents and publishers what they want. If you plan to self publish, you have to give readers what they want.

Figure out the expected word count in your genre.

  • This is a good list. It’s a hell of a lot easier to work to this word count from the beginning, instead of overwriting and having to cut (or pad) like crazy.

Now: Analyze the books

Exactly what analysis you should do will vary according to genre. I list some suggestions below. Some suggestions will apply to certain genres more than others.

  • Approximate number of words per page (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Specific rhythm to text? Describe. (picture books and beginning reader)
  • Are there techniques such as onomatopoeia or alliteration to make the verbal reading more appealing to youngsters? (picture books and beginning reader)
  • How “advanced” is the vocabulary?
  • Number of main characters / Number of supporting characters
  • POV / Number of POV characters
  • Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is there a climax? (picture books only)
  • Key plot events and when they occur (10% point, halfway point, etc.)
  • Can the book be divided into clear “acts”?
  • Theme / How is theme handled relative to story?
  • Is the story funny or serious or ?

Clearly that’s a LOT of information. The less you know going in, the more important this step is. This step doesn’t write the book for you, but it provides some guidelines specific to your genre.

Rule of thumb: the more consistent the books were, the more indicative that is that you should follow that guideline.

In my next post, I’ll give an overview of the critical parts of a story.

Analyzing the competition separates the professionals from the wannabes.