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Monday, February 13

Know Before You Go: Should You Know Your Genre First?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Maybe it's because I write genre that I find the idea not knowing what genre you're writing in a bit bewildering. But the number of "what genre is this?" questions I see on writing forums clearly show this is a not-uncommon problem for a lot of writers. And with more and more genre mash-ups and crossovers happening, it's not getting any easier. Knowing where your book fits is important, because there are elements to any genre that readers expect, and if you don't give them that, they'll be disappointed. Disappointed readers are very bad for a writer's career.

I suspect that all the focus on genre writing can leave general fiction folks a bit confused. Many writers think they must have a genre, and never consider "fiction" a legitimate category. So they look for things in their story that will place them in a traditional genre category: science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, western, horror. Even if they don't really belong there. (I see this most often with romance. Just because there's romance in a story doesn't make it a romance novel, for example. )

Should you know what genre you're writing before you start a novel?

No, you don't have to, but I think your life will be made considerably easier if you do understand what genre you're writing for going in, because the category gives you a lot of information on how to write that novel. (especially if your goal is to sell this particular book) You'll know general word count range, what else has been published in that genre that's similar, what's popular, what's been done to death. You'll know what agents represent what books in that same genre. You'll be able to avoid problems that folks who wing a story and see where it lands won't have.

If you're unsure, the core conflict of a story almost always defines what that type of story is. As stories can be universal, look for the details to help you there. Strong fantasy elements? Science fiction elements? Horror? Western? Thriller elements? If your conflict is, for example, saving a sister from kidnappers, it's fantasy if it involves magic, science fiction if it involves aliens and science, a western if it involves cowboys during the Old West, a thriller if it involves terrorist or spies. (rough generalities here, but hopefully you see my point). The setting and details surrounding the problem help determine the genre. As does the path the protagonist takes to solve the problem.

Do they solve it through magic? Technology? Calling in favors down at the saloon? Go through the proper authorities? Go vigilante? These details are all based on your genre. The hero might fall in love during the story, but that's not the focus and core conflict of the novel. (if it is, then you probably do have a romance novel)

If you think, "Well, I'm just writing a story" that's fine. You're writing general fiction. Not every book is genre (probably only about half, actually). If the story develops into a genre, great, if not, that's okay too. Stories change. They even turn into things that cross over boundaries and defy categorization. (I'm talking genre here, not markets. That's a whole other post)

Problem is, novels that defy categorization are harder to sell, because agents and editors can't show a defined audience for that book. Sales and marketing folks don't like books that don't have a defined audience. Booksellers don't know where to put it in the stores. The book has to work that much harder to win publishing folks over. It's not impossible for a book like this to sell, but it is more challenging.

If that is what the story wants, then it's what the story wants and there's not always much you can do about that. There are great books out there that defy categorization (Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series is a good example, though it's usually shelved in romance), but like anything else, these are the exceptions, not the rule. The ones you think about are almost always mega-sellers, and they got that way because they were great books, not because they broke rules. They succeeded in spite of more times than because of.

Books are a product. Like any product, knowing who is going to buy that product helps in creating it. Knowing what kind of book you're writing before you start can go a long way toward creating a product people want to buy. Which means readers who want to read your book.

And eventually, you are going to have to categorize it when your start querying. It makes sense to figure that out before you spend a year or two writing it.

Do you think you should know your genre before you start? What genre do you write in? Do you know before you start a book or does it happen as you write? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Anonymous3:19 PM EDT

    I'm in the 'know your genre' camp, at least as far as genre fiction is concerned. If you're writing to get published, and if that's the dream you've been sitting on for the past ten or fifteen years, then I don't see anything wrong with tailoring a story to suit its genre. Now, obviously you shouldn't do this to the story's detriment (that would be counter-productive), but I personally wouldn't throw a lot of abstract philosophical naval gazing that cleverly references the modern schools of thought on aesthetics into a story about lesbian vampire detectives. For example.

    Seriously though, knowing your genre seems like a good way to get published. Push that genre's boundaries, certainly, but first figure out where and what those boundaries are.

  2. Yeah, I definitely agree. I guess I'm biased cos I've usually written fantasy; but on the odd occasion I've written outside the fantasy genre, I usually know what I'm writing. Doesn't the core plot/style of writing/etc define that anyway? And I assume /most/ people would know at least a vague outline of their plot before starting to write their story....

    I could be alllll wrong here, though.

  3. I think the problem is there's so many genres today that are really just under the umbrella of the ones we all know and love. Urban fantasy. Paranormal. Dystopian. The lines can be blurry sometimes, and that's when I think it's okay to plow through and write the story you want, knowing generally what it is, then figure out the exact genre later.

    I called my first book urban sci-fi. An agent called it a high-tech thriller. Different genres...but really kind of the same, right? I like the thriller description- it fits really well with the book I wrote.

    I thought of it as a sci-fi, not a thriller, when I wrote the first draft, but in the end it works either way.

    However, writing a book about, say, magic and witches and different worlds, and not knowing you're writing a fantasy of some sort, is going to be a problem.

  4. I don't think you have to know exactly what sub-genre before you write, and I agree, it can be pretty blurry for a lot of books. And depending how marketing decides to sell it, they can shift it one way or the other. But you did start as a genre, even if that could vary later. Of course, I could be wrong here too, LOL.

  5. I didn't think about a genre before writing my book. I just knew it would be for young adults. Should I be terrified? lol

  6. LOL nah. There's nothing wrong with not knowing, (and not every book has a genre) it was just one of those things that made me think and wonder about.

  7. Since I write fantasy I know my genre. I think it's helpful to fit in a category when you ared trying to find an agent.

  8. I've always been drawn to quirky-don't-necessarily-fit-a-genre books, and unfortunately, that's what I seem to write as well.

  9. Another way to gauge is to find a novel similar to yours and see which genre it's written in. A database that most public libraries carry is called Novelist, and it usually has accurate genre listings (though some, like Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver are listed under "character-driven" which isn't a traditional genre type). But Novelist can help set some parameters at the very least.

  10. Perhaps because my background is business rather than writing, my answer is a resounding, "yes!"

    If I were writing for my own private enjoyment, the answer would be different. Then I would write whatever I pleased. But I'm writing books to sell them, to make a living, to help put 2 kids through college. Spending 4-6 months working on a novel without a defined goal and market would give me hives.

    Readers have expectations, particularly when they browse the shelves of their favorite genre. For example, if a romance reader pulls your book from the romance shelves, it damned well better end with a happily-ever-after.

  11. I may be struggling with making mine an MG length novel but I know it's adventure/fantasy. That's a start lol. Thanks!

  12. I'd have to say familiarity with your genre is a big plus, though not a must.

    As you mentioned in your post, you at least have the beginnings to some direction even if you're going to pants the stuffing out of the story.

    The works I have in progress can all be defined as sci-fi/fantasy, though it gets interesting in defining the subgenre of paranormal, urban fantasy or dystopian

  13. In my case, genre comes naturally to me with the story idea, so I can't really say.

  14. To me, it sure makes a lot of sense to know this before starting. And reading in that genre also helps a lot.Thanks for the great points!

  15. I often hear writers say that genre isn't so important in these days of ebooks and self-publishing -- selling novels in the 21st century is supposedly all about author platform now, not bookshop shelves. Just wondering...

  16. I think it's very important to know what genre you're writing. It's all about the guidelines that keep you on course while your writing your story.

  17. Natalie, I agree. And a fun, unrelated note, I typed in your name as "Nataline" at first and thought, "what a cool name for a character." So if you ever see a Nataline from me, you inspired it :)

    1000th Monkey, challenging, but since you read them as well, you probably have a better idea of how they fit into the market. That's a plus!

    The Writer Librarian, oh wow, great tip, thanks! I didn't even know they had that.

    Melinda, absolutely :) Summed it up perfectly.

    Catherine, I don't think you need to know sub-gerne to start out with, as that can change as the story develops. And they'll still be on the same shelf most likely.

    C0, that's how it is with me.

    Julie, anytime!

    Wendy, that's a great observation actually. I think you just gave me Monday's post! Thanks :) This is worth a discussion.

    Traci, I agree :)

  18. what genre would you categorize a story about paranormal enemy beings who eventually fall in love with each other while fighting together against an evil force (haven't decide whether it's human or paranormal yet) in? i call it a paranormal romance but have been told suspense is part of it. i really want to keep a balance between the love story & the save-the-world story if i can.

    ps. just wanted to tell you how much i appreciate you taking the time to make everything understandable! there's been quite a few "aha!" moments :)

    1. I'm so glad the blog's been helpful. That's exactly why I do it!

      Your story sounds like paranormal romance to me. Suspense can be part of that (suspense is good for almost any novel, any genre) but the focus looks like it's on the paranormal plot with romance subplot/secondary plot. You might try looking for books that you feel are in the same ballpark as yours and see how they're categorized as well.

  19. Since I'm not writing to sell, I'm not necessarily thinking about what I'm writing in this way. My stories generally cross over.

    How do you explain to someone a story where it seems like magic, but it's really ancient technology. I've contemplated just going under the Historical Speculative fiction label.

    Yet its set on a map that's not Earth. There is no epic quest in the traditional sense (anyone who still thinks mentors like Obi-wan are necessarily, needs to get up to date.) And doesn't follow a typical seven point structure.

    Rather it's more episodic. So lots of problem in that regard.

  20. Anonymous2:44 PM EDT

    As a new writer, it's hard to categorize mine. I can only go by what it's NOT. No magic or made-up creatures, so not a fantasy. There are deputies & robbers but they are today, so not a western. There's love story, but it's not a romance. There are surprises & um ;) secrets, but it's not a thriller. There are children, but it's not a children's book. My main characters range in age from mid teens to mid 80s, so not really a young adult. I wonder if it ends up in the general pot of "adult fiction".

    1. Anonymous2:46 PM EDT

      I forgot to add, modern technology is mentioned, but it's not science fiction.

    2. Anonymous2:50 PM EDT

      One more I forgot: One of the secrets are a 6th sense, but it's not a paranormal.

    3. Sounds like basic mainstream fiction to me. Not every novel is genre.