Thursday, May 19, 2011

Where Does My Book Fit? Figuring Out Your Genre

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I was speaking at a book festival once, and one common question among the presenters as we mingled was “what do you write?” For me it’s easy since I write fantasy, but I was shocked at the number of folks who said “fiction.” It seemed so general to me. It wasn’t until later that I realized non-genre folks don’t have a tidy little label to describe what they write, but fiction is a “genre” just like any other. It defines the type of story a reader will find in that book.

I’ve written about the different genres before, so I won’t go into that again (the list has also been updated). But I will answer some common questions about genre and what to know before you begin your story that will hopefully start you off on the right foot.

Do you need to know the genre before you start writing? 

No. You can just start writing and see where it leads you. This is especially true if you’re writing fiction, because there are no identifiable traits for it. It’s just a story.

I do, however, feel that knowing your genre will help you in the long run because a genre provides the framework for the type of story you’re writing. You can’t sell a 130,000 word cozy mystery. That’s twice the average size for that genre. I also think that knowing you genre helps to clarify what it is you’re writing. If it’s a romance, the romance plot takes center stage. A mystery, the puzzle. A thriller, stopping the big bad. Certain genres have specific expected elements, and without those elements the novel can be hard to sell.

Of course, if you’re writing to learn or for fun, do whatever you want. The genre distinction is more important for novels you intend to try and sell, since genre is a marketing tool designed to help readers find the types of book they’re looking for.

Where do you start? 

For me, it starts with knowing the type of book I want to write. It’s that general one-line description (even if no one gets it but you) that sums up the book concept. The Shifter was “a girl who can shift pain” and the new novel is “a spy thriller in a fantasy setting.” The second one here is an interesting example, because although it’s a spy thriller, it’s totally for the fantasy genre. I’d never try to market it as a spy thriller.

Why not? What makes a book one genre over the other? 

What readers expect. Fantasy is all about other worlds that can’t exist, mixed with magic, mysticism, or supernatural elements. These are the defining characteristics of the fantasy genre. Just like spy thrillers have their own characteristics and reader expectation. There were aspects of the spy thriller I wanted to incorporate into my fantasy story, but at its heart, it’s all about the magic and the fantastical world.

When a reader picks up a book in a genre, they want certain traits. Picture your favorite band. Now imagine going to their concert and hearing them play a totally different type of music. Country instead of rock, rap instead of jazz. Even if you like the new type of music, odds are you’d be pretty unhappy at the bait and switch. Genre helps readers find the types of books they want to read. It also helps bookstores know where to shelve books, and what to suggest to their customers. Ditto for libraries.

So how do you pick a genre? 

What are the defining characteristics of your novel? Does it have elements of a genre that place it soundly in that genre? Look at the core conflict and problem of the novel. That’s what the book is about and often determines the genre. Lots of books have a romance subplot, but if the goal of the novel isn’t girl and boy live happily ever after, then it’s not a romance novel.

An easy test is to ask where it would be shelved in the bookstore. If it would go in the mystery aisle, it’s mystery. General fiction, it’s fiction. Another tip: look at how online bookstores break down their titles. That’s a pretty good overview of the different genres and subgenres available.

What about subgenres? 

This is where it gets harder. Most genres have subgenres that further breakdown the types of stories. Sometimes those subgenres cross over into others, confusing things even more. Paranormal romance – where does it go? It has romance, yet it has supernatural elements like a fantasy. What about urban fantasy? It takes place in the real world, but has fantasy elements as well. The titles give you clues here. The type of romance is paranormal. The type of fantasy is urban. If you use a major category to describe your story, it’s a safe bet that’s the genre it belongs to.

Do you need a subgenre? 

No, though if you’re writing for a particular subgenre (cozy mystery, urban fantasy, category romance) you will need to know the specifics for that genre. You can’t write a Regency romance without setting it in the Regency period, for example. But a subgenre might be something you figure out after you’ve written the novel. You might know you’re writing generally in a genre, but discover later it fits into a niche of that genre. And unless the subgenre is big enough to warrant its own category, you're often safe just calling it the general genre.

Quick Questions for Determining Your Genre:

  • Where do you see this book on the shelves?
  • What is the one defining characteristic of the novel?
  • What is the core conflict of the novel?
  • What other books are similar to it?
  • What do you think you’re writing?
  • What are the key elements you use to describe the novel to people?
  • What genre are those elements?
And remember, fiction is an acceptable genre. If it’s a story about people doing normal people things, it might just be fiction.

Genre is a great tool to help guide your story as you write, but don’t let it become something that bogs you down trying to label it. Don’t look for weird sub-sub-genres to perfectly define your story. (or use too many genres to define it) Plenty of books have elements of plenty of genres. Don’t try to be all things to all people and spread your story too thin. Look at what’s at the heart of your story and then see where it fits. Or, decide where you want it to fit, and make sure you have those fundamental elements in your story. Beyond that, do what the story needs you to do and don’t worry so much about the label on it.

ETA: Commenter Atombaby shared a great link with a genre chart that covers things pretty well.

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, 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, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I thought I was just writing a fantasy but I wasn't happy with that definition. Now I realise it's actually an urban fantasy. Thank you :)

  2. Oh such madness! At one point I thought my book was Urban fantasy, but no. Then I thought sci/fi, but still no. Then I thought yes, I've got it... speculative fiction. But no. Do you know how many genres come up that umbrella? so I went for the newest genre, Steampunk, but now I'm not so sure. Maybe I'm just writing a timeslip novel that has elements of crime, love and a mystery in it.

  3. I think your advice to simplify is great. My story has a supernatural element, but it is at its core a psychological phenom, so I'm labeling the story simply contemporary YA. The main conflict is interpersonal, not supernatural.

  4. Ohhh great post! I love how you talked about subgenres! That's harder to find information for, so it was very helpful.

  5. This is a wonderful post--determining your genre is SO important and I think it gets overlooked way too often as something minor, especially by newer writers. You've done a great job guiding them on how to start thinking about genre--thanks for sharing :)

    @Elizabeth Poole - I actually know of (and work for haha) a great new resource for info on subgenre--an online community called Book Country. Check out our genre map and you can learn a lot about some of the major subgenres there -->

  6. I tend to genre-straddle. A half police-procedural/half cozy was the story I wanted to tell (although I wasn't consciously thinking of it in those terms.) I got a lot of "great writing, but don't know where we'd sell this" comments upon submission.

    Likewise, my romantic suspense books have that tag on them, put there by the industry. But they're mystery with relationships, not suspense, by my definition. Yet reviewers have called them everything from romance to suspense to mystery to thriller.

    I think the surge in e-book and indie publishing lets readers find books they like, regardless of the label applied.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. Great advice! I've really struggled with this because all of my stories have one common element - a strong science base - but some are more science fiction while some are more thriller/suspense.

  8. Categorization can be a real pain in the butt when the competing elements in the story are nearly on par. Like a Supernatural thriller, it can also be straight fiction a la S King, or it can be horror. Sure there are elements that one can prescribe to define the genre but when looking at something like these it's easy to blur the lines so much that you can have a mess of a time placing it. Great post though!

  9. Jamara: If you're writing timeslip, that sounds like sci fi to me. Lots of books deal with crime, love and mysteries. But you could also say spec fic if you wanted. You don't have to be dead on perfect in what you call it as long as it gives someone a basic idea of where it belongs.

    Laurel: Sounds like a plan :) One nice thing about YA is that "YA" covers all genres. If someone reps YA they'll often take anything in the market.

    Elizabeth: Most welcome. I did some web surfing to hunt some of those down.

    Danille: Oo, thanks for the link! Might have to add that to the overall genre breakdown post.

    Terry: That can make it tough, but I think you're right about e-books, and online stones in general. If you like one book, you often get recommendations for others like it. And online can have more categories and include books in multiple genres, unlike a brick and mortal store with limited shelf space.

    Sierra: On the bright side, that gives you two solid markets to submit too :) And some decent crossover in readers.

    PW: Thanks! I've found that when there are multiple elements of equal value, it comes down to which element is more trope worthy. Like, fantasy is a pretty strong element and people who don't like fantasy won't read something with fantasy elements, even though fantasy readers will pick up books with other elements. Does that make sense? Horror fans will read a scary thriller, but thriller fans won't read books with monsters in them. (very generally speaking here)

  10. I'm very firmly in the Urban Fantasy camp with my work at the moment. I just love seeing how the modern world interacts with things that science and logic tell us can't exist.

    I do have an idea for a more usual fantasy novel which I may work on at some point, but it's very rough.

  11. I spent ages trying to describe my book, until I realized there wasn't a known genre for it, so I created one. Gothic SF!

  12. "Keeping abreast of the business seems pretty imperative for writers in this day and age."

    So Janice,

    As someone who's told me this very thing many times, as did many others that all that really matters is a well told story, how does what atombaby said here does not contradict what you've said here-

  13. Paul: Sound fun. It's a very popular genre at the moment. I think it's that mix of real and fantasy.

    Authorguy: Gothic SF? That could be really cool. :)

    Atombaby: That's so cool! Thanks for the link. Gonna put that into the post. Really nice breakdown there.

    Taurean: I'm not sure how it does contradict. And you have to remember that post was written in answer to a specific question that doesn't apply to everyone. Writers do need to be aware of the business side to stand the best chance at getting published, but we have a variety of subgenres now for a reason. Sometimes books break boundaries and wow everyone. Someone does something in a new way and that catches on. Odds are we're not the ones who are going to do that, (it's a rare thing to launch a sub genre) but it does happen with a really well written book hitting the shelves at the right time.

    I do believe that focusing on writing the best story you can is the right way to go. You stand the best chance of getting published that way. But the truth is a great, well written story STILL might not sell. Markets change, editors are fickle and you never know what readers will want. Publishing tries to anticipate their needs and buys what they think readers will buy. Writing for the market doesn't really work unless you write incredibly fast and can spot trends in the sales announcements, and it happens to be something you can and enjoy writing. By the times books are out the trend is over and editors are buying new books (the shelf and the buying are two years apart).

    So yes, a well told story is what really matters. But that's not ALL that matters. Publishing isn't so cut and dry. And advice is offered to help the greatest number of people, and for most writers, writing the best story and book they can is their best option. I can talk about specific possible exceptions (like that post) but this isn't the norm. All you can do is the best you can do and hope there's a market for it. Sadly, sometimes there isn't.

  14. These are definitely some great tips. I tend to stick to Contemporary Fiction, and go with that. :)

  15. That covers a wide range :) Sometimes casting a wide net is best. Once you have an agent you can fine tune if need be.

  16. I. guess I can understand that.

    But how can rearchng the market help you if following trends is pointlees?

    Sometimes I feel the only way I'll publish anything (for pay, even if it's pennies a word, is to wrute for readers I don't natually feel comfortable in, which for me is YA or readers below Middle Grade where being short and simplistic is more impotant than a well told story.

    But I never feel I.belonged in YA as a reader let alone a writer, evenwhen I was still a teen myself. Is that wierd or snobby of me?

    I just wish thaf one day I'll have a story I can sell and still has my voice in it. No mafter who it's for.

    I hope the same thing for you, Janice, and everyone commented here. Sometimes hope is all we have to hold on to. For writers especially
    lIt's as vital as breathing.


  17. Because there's lots of useful information in the market. You know the general word count of the genre you want to write in, what's been published so you can see what tropes exist for that market. You can see how a taboo or risky topic in handled, like sex in YA. You can see what's been done and what has become over saturated. And you can even do some trend guessing if you want. When vampires were hitting big, it wasn't a stretch to think other supernatural creatures would become popular. So along came the werewolves and the zombies, the angels and demons. Then it was faeries. Now mermaids are starting to pop up. This is a trend that someone with a book in these areas could have capitalized on. If they had an idea for a book along the same lines or one that was nearly ready, they can finish it up and get it submitted.

    If you watch the sales, you can see what editors are buying and some folks probably have seen where something might be going and written a book for that. It's probably rare, and I wouldn't recommended it, but I'm sure it happens.

    If you try to write for readers you aren't comfortable with, the odds of you getting published are slim. You won't be able to connect with them or create characters and stories that connect with them. You're better off writing the stuff you love to read and write for people like you. (as regards to the love of the same kind of story, not you personally) I love reading YA and MG, so I write that. I love sci fi and fantasy, so I write that. I'd suck as a cozy mystery writer because I don't read those very often. I don't know the market.

    You might try just writing a story that you feel passionate about and not worrying about where it goes. Find what works for you first, then start thinking about the publishing side of it. maybe that book will have a market for it, maybe not, but at least you'll know what you love and where your strengths are, and then you can start looking for genres and markets where that meshes.

  18. Picking the genre has been something I've struggled with, but now I realize it's only the sub-genre I'm having trouble deciding. It's firmly fantasy... with a little sci-fi and romance mixed in.

  19. Madison: If it's just a subgenre, don't worry about it so much. The big ones would probably be obvious (like if you were steampunk or alternate history). The more specialized things get, the more pressure I think it puts on writers to classify their work. But there's nothing wrong with "fantasy." You don't have to have a subgenre unless that subgenre classifies your work to a specific group of readers.

  20. Janice, you said-

    "You might try just writing a story that you feel passionate about and not worrying about where it goes. Find what works for you first, then start thinking about the publishing side of it. maybe that book will have a market for it, maybe not, but at least you'll know what you love and where your strengths are, and then you can start looking for genres and markets where that meshes."

    Thing is, I really thought I was doing that, but given your last response, and what some of my e-pen pals have told me, it doesn't change the fact that I just seem to be stuck at a certain level I'm not having much success rising above.

    I don't know why anymore than you or anyone else, but that seems to be the case here.

    I'm sorry I sound so defeatist, and I've tried really hard to kill the grouchy pessimist that I hate dealing with more than anyone, but maybe as much as I don't want this to be true, I might be more burnout from from my past and present failures (Would setbacks sound less negative?) than I thought or wished I was.

    But Janice, I've ALWAYS written what I love, what I'm most passionate about, and I know that never changed.

    But you of all people should know that passion alone does not improve your skills.

    Maybe this example will help-

    I love fried chicken, but as good a home cook I've gotten since I was 12, I still can't make decent fried chicken at home. That said, I learned how to make really great French Fries now, I'll never have to buy them from Ore-Ida or Mickey D/s ever again!

    I try to limit how many deep fried foods I eat, both for general health reasons, but also to aid in my weight loss, but if I'm going to have something over 500 calories, they need to be nothing short of irresistibly delicious.

    I just make two simple rules for myself that aren't nightmarish to follow-

    Limit how many fried or fat heavy foods you eat on a weekly basis. I wouldn't drink chocolate milkshakes every day, but two or three times a month isn't so bad.

    That way when you indulge in something fatty, you can at least know it doesn't have weird dyes and additives, and you can tailor it to suit your tastes.

    I've had to make at least 25 if not 50 pizzas that were inedible or not as good as I knew they could be, but once I found the right dough recipe, and got better at working with bread dough in general, I make way better homemade pizza now.

    Troubleshooting one's writing isn't as straightforward as if you used too many eggs in your cake batter, or you didn't knead the bread dough enough, or overworked your shortbread.

    But they do have one thing in common, they required time and much trial an error, but at least with baking, I don't have to deal with a comittee telling me all the reasons why this is wrong.

    Like one's taste in books, we have them in food, but it's not the same, not everyone loves chocolate like I do, but that doesn't mean I'm the only die-hard chocolate lover.

    It's same with books too, but as I said before, readers who aren't writers themselves don't look at books the same way, and I really think you dance around that far too often.

    That said, I'll grant you that I can be my own worst enemy, but how can you be honest with yourself without coming off more negative than you really are?

    It's not like I don't have positive dreams for the future anymore, but dreaming it and actually achieving it are not always hand in hand for a lot of reasons. I don't know a more positive way to say that.

  21. Taurean: Perhaps try not getting upset at your own honesty? Knowing you need work and striving to improve in that area takes guts and dedication. It's not easy to look at your work objectively. Getting upset with yourself for not being at a pro level yet only puts undue pressure on yourself.

    Maybe celebrate the successes more. Focus on the things you are doing well, be happy about figuring out where you need to improve and revel in the fact that you improved enough to know you needed to fix something. Developing your writer's ear is just as important as the writing itself.

  22. My husband just wrote a book and now we are trying to decide how to edit it and just what it is / should be. It is ostensibly a children's book about a chicken who is trying to find a way to be something other than food and the farm animals he interacts with. But there are a lot of references to things only an adult would understand (the french poodle who smokes gaulois and quotes Sartre) and the animals curse and fart and meditate etc. It is about 150 pages long. The question is what genre it is and if it should be watered down (at least the cursing) and shortened up and made into a couple of kids books instead. And we don't know what age of kids. It is somewhat sophisticated and subtle in its concepts and characters, but it is about a bunch of funny farm animals. Older kids/adults would probably think it is a kid's book and parents would probably think it is too adult / complicated. Might it be a middle grade book? Should we try to rework it to hit a specific market? It is really funny and clever and has adult references but sounds juvenile.

  23. Susan, animal stories tend to be middle grade or chapter books (and picture books, though yours sounds older) I'd suggest finding the market for it and adapting the story to that. There's no swearing and usually no smoking in MG (middle grade). Anything too adult is also going to be lost on the kids. The story has to be something they can relate to.

    You might try reading other animals stories in the MG age group. Some popular ones off the top of my head: The Warrior series, The Seekers series (Erin Hunter is probably the leading animal story author out there right now) The One and Only Ivan, Neversink, Nightshade Chronicles.

    You'll want to make sure your book fit within this market (or whatever market you choose) with regards to content, page count, story, etc. 150 pages sounds like a younger MG or chapter book size. The older MG tends to run more closer to the 200-300 page range (40-60,000 words. Figure 250 words per page for a rough estimate)

    I will warn you though, animal stories are a very hard sell. A lot of agents and editors specifically say they don't want them, so an animal story really has to stand out to get attention in today's market. It's just a hard niche to sell in sadly.

  24. This was helpful to me! I originally had no idea what genre my novel should be, but then I realized it's most likely a thriller because it's about war and has a lot of fight scenes.

  25. Glad I was able to help you find your spot.

  26. Excellent points here, especially about the word count for certain genres. That matters to agents and editors much more than a lot of writers realize.

    1. It's an easy way to get a quick feel for "do they know the genre?" for sure.