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Know Your Genre

We don’t like to think of categories for our writing. We write from the heart, giving our perspective of the world and the human heart. So what’s with this pesky concept called genre? Well, allow me to tell you that you can’t ignore it. It’s a marketplace consideration you’ll be dealing with throughout your career.

Best Foot Forward

When people tell me they’re writing a novel (I don’t know why, but I am constantly the recipient of this personal information) I always ask what genre they’re writing in. To me, it’s the quickest way to a meaningful conversation. I know what books to talk about, and if the conversation veers to publication, I may know more or less about the topic. Sadly, I am often told that the writer is “not sure” what genre it is. It might be sort of a romance, or a bit of fantasy although with a cynical detective and a monster called Hades. It is a quick-paced thriller with a science fiction premise, but totally character-based. It is, I am thinking, a hopeless mishmash. I smile. What else have you read that is like the book you’re writing? The author assures me with some pride that it is like nothing else. Either that, or they just don’t know.

This, my friends, is the #1 indicator of an amateur writer (and one who is likely to remain an amateur.) It means that the writer has launched into his story without giving much thought to the world of fiction and the publishing industry. They are writing their first idea. They are writing what they know and what’s in their heart. They are writing a dead-end book. Equally shocking, they do not seem to have read widely enough to make a comparison of their work to other authors’ work. (More on that later.)

As I have had occasion to preach in this blog before, you must read widely. If you suspect your work will fall within a specific genre, you must know that genre in some depth. Really. No, you are not an exception. I understand why you might find this concept troubling, because I once felt that way, too. But it is just a fact of the trade you hope to break into. And, you know, it’s not all bad.

What Good are Categories?

Publishing is a business, of course. It may be a chaotic and out-dated one, but it operates on at least a few solid principles. If a publisher can’t figure out how to position your book, you have little chance of selling it. Publishers want to be certain of how to design the cover, sell to bookstores and market a book. Though publishers might contribute to a certain unfortunate “hardening off” of categories by slavishly following genre expectations, it does make some sense for them to do so. Categories begin with readers who know what they like and seldom stray from it. Given these tough facts, it’s important for writers–particularly novelists–to know what the categories are. Look them up online: thrillers, historicals, fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, mystery, crime novels, and more.

So You Want to Go Mainstream

Do you think mainstream will allow you more creativity? Perhaps so. But what is mainstream fiction, really? I don’t have a good definition for it. The best might be: whatever’s left if it isn’t genre. If you end up in this category, your novel will be shelved in “general fiction” in the bookstore. While there are a lot more readers in general fiction than for most category fiction, it’s also true that with more titles shelved here, potential readers can easily overlook you. You will then have to build your readership, and if that takes longer than three months or so, your book will disappear. I’m not saying the general books category is the kiss of death, not at all. Only that it isn’t without its own annoyances.

Categorize Yourself

Categories are not about formulas, but about conventions that appeal to a loyal readership. In crime novels, a crime must be committed. Don’t assume because you have a romance in the story that it is a romance. Instead, the standard will be how well you have met reader expectations of that category. The best place to learn about the conventions of a genre is a bookstore. Go into your section. Look at the covers. Note the conventions of the titles. Read the publisher blurbs. Intimidated? I don’t blame you. This is the competition, and they are pretty good, sometimes brilliant. They didn’t get there by remaining comfortably in the dark about the business end of publishing. Your reward for this research? You get to pick five of the most interesting sounding books and read them.

It’s astonishing to me how many people tell me they want to write science fiction and fantasy but have only seen the movies; or have only read Isaac Asimov or some other long dead writer. If you tell me that’s your goal, I’ll always ask, “What authors do you like?” If I hear Heinlein, Asimov, Tolkien, I’ll suspect you’re not ready to publish. There’s no easy way to get smart about the marketplace. You must read, read, read in the genre you hope to be welcomed into.

Then go online and look at discussions of micro-genres and burgeoning movements in your genre–not to follow them unless they inspire you, but to know what’s going on.

Distinguish Yourself

For those of you who’ve been bristling under this crassly commercial talk, I have some good news. Once you’ve read widely in your genre, you’ll be able to spot blank spaces. Unexplored territory. Then you can do something new. Not utterly new–you’ll still need those conventions–but you can twist and weave them into a startling riff. Like Michael Swanwick did with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, when he created a new kind of hip-industrial fantasy.

Finally, what if you have in mind a truly uncategorizable story that you love? This is the stuff of break-out books, where innovation and strong convictions can push you rapidly to the top. Forgive me for a moment if I doubt this is where your concept will take you. Are you sure this is not creative self-indulgence or a stubborn refusal to look clearly at the industry? Yes? Well then, having looked that possibility straight in the eye, and remaining unmoved, you must write your story and never look back.

Categories. A pesky fact of life. A portal to your readers.


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