Monday, February 13
Know Before You Go: Should You Know Your Genre First?
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?