Tuesday, September 20

The Importance of Genre Specific, Part Two

By Susan Brooks, @oosuzieq 

Part of the How They Do It Series

Editor Susan Brooks returns to the lecture hall today to continue discussing genre and market, and how they help you pitch your novel to editors, agents, and publishers.

Since 2009, Susan has served on the board of directors for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, a non-profit educational organization supporting both published and aspiring writers of commercial fiction. She holds a master’s degree in publishing from George Washington University and is Editor in Chief at Literary Wanderlust, a new, small traditional press located in Denver, Colorado.

She tweets once in a while and you can follow her as @oosuzieq on Twitter. She also writes a weekly blog on writing craft and other writing topics which you can find at The Writer's Bag of Tricks.

Take it away Susan...

Last time, we discussed the need for authors to know the marketing category and genre of their work, and the importance of using this information when pitching the book to an editor, agent, or publisher. This information is also important when writing cover copy and working on marketing materials aimed at readers. Fiction marketing is difficult, and knowing where to start is necessary. Of utmost importance is writing a great book. Second is using the right marketing category and genre to reach potential readers.

So what are the fiction marketing categories? There are many more than are listed below, but the below tends to be the most popular genre categories for commercial fiction writers.

Crime Fiction

Crime fiction revolves around crimes, and the solving of crimes, and includes the genres of Mystery, Spy / Espionage, and Thriller / Suspense. The general plot of a Crime Fiction novel is propelled by a significant crime which motivates the characters. Usually the hero(ine) who solves the crime is the protagonist, and usually the hero(ine) is a detective, agent, or lay detective of some sort. The hero does not have to be likeable but does have to be interesting and intelligent.

The Murder Mystery or Whodunnit is primarily focused on the puzzle of the murder rather than the characters involved with the murder. Whodunnits tend to be plot driven stories rather than character driven stories.

The basic Whodunnit plot usually goes like this:
  • There is a murder
  • There is a short list of suspects, each with motive and opportunity to commit the murder
  • The detective (either amateur or professional) comes to investigate the murder, and with the help of clues and a strong power of deduction, discovers the real perpetrator.

The Thriller novel is characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, providing readers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation, and anxiety. Thrille rnovels generally divide characters into very clear sides of good and evil.

The basic Thriller plot goes like this:
  • The hero(ine) discovers a secret conspiracy of enemies
  • The villain discovers the hero(ine)’s weakness and plays mind games with them, which the hero(ine) must overcome to stop the villain
  • The crime is about to happen and only the hero(ine) can stop it.

The Spy novel must include some form of espionage and usually includes rivalries and intrigues of major political powers.

The basic Spy novel plot goes like this:
  • The hero(ine) is given a mission which is important to national security, and the hero(ine) makes a plan to complete the mission.
  • The antagonist works to foil the hero(ine)’s attempts to complete the mission, or tries to beat the hero(ine) to the mission, thereby causing the hero(ine) to fail.
  • The hero(ine) narrowly avoids capture (or escapes after being captures) by the antagonist, and then has a final confrontation with the antagonist to complete the mission and save the world.

These basic plots are over simplified, but you get the idea. Readers expect Mystery novels to solve puzzles, Thriller novels to illicit strong emotions, and Spy novels to save the world through intrigue. If you don’t meet those reader expectations you risk alienating your readers.


The primary focus of the Romance novel, and all the subgenres of Romance, is the relationship between two characters with central conflict based around the obstacles keeping these characters apart. Romance novels generally need a happy ever after (HEA) or a happy for now (HFN) ending.

Romance has a significant number of tropes (story patterns) which readers expect, so it is a good idea to review them before you begin writing. Granted the tropes are tried and true storytelling devices, so it is up to the writer to come up with a fresh twist. If you follow the guidelines that your primary character is someone readers can identify with, the love interest is charming, and the relationship seems impossible until the two characters fall in love, and the book ends happily, you can write just about anything else you want.

The list of romance tropes is extensive, too extensive to list here, so do an internet search for romance tropes and research which trope best describes your story idea. Remember that the goal is to meet reader expectation, and make them happy, and sell more books. The trope may also determine the subgenre so do take into account how you plan to market or pitch your book with regard to the subgenre.

Speculative Fiction

Speculative Fiction is a very broad marketing category of books where the author explores “What if.” Story ideas, characters, and settings are crafted from the imagination and are not necessarily based on real life. The genres included in Speculative Fiction are Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Alternative History. There is some argument whether or not Magical Realism is considered a genre of Speculative Fiction. I have not included it here because of this argument.

Horror fiction’s intent is to startle, frighten, scare, and sometimes disgust the reader. The goal is inducing feelings of horror and terror. The focus tends to be on death, the afterlife, evil, and the demonic, but can also include fantasy elements such as vampires, and werewolves. The determining factor (per HWA)is that there must be an atmosphere and sense of emotional dread.

Like all genre fiction, readers have expectations, so do you research on your Horror subgenres and tropes for each, which include everything from Gothic fiction to Zombie comedy. There are even more tropes for Horror than there are for Romance.

Science Fiction can sometimes be lumped in with fantasy but they are two distinct genres. Science Fiction is about a relationship with futuristic science and technology, and the human species as it encounters change. Science Fiction includes the topics space travel, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life, but the premise should always be believable and realistic in that it could happen one day.

There are several subgenres of science fiction including Apocalyptic, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, and Space Opera, to name only a few. There are also tropes which readers expect when they read specific subgenres of Science Fiction, so be sure to research those. The most used tropes involve robots and/or interstellar travel. It is best not to mix Fantasy in with your Science Fiction. Keep your Science Fiction realistic in that it could possibly, one day, really happen.

Fantasy uses magic and supernatural elements and is set in imaginary worlds. The characters may be from mythology, or possess the ability to perform magic, or have some supernatural talents. But Fantasy is not just about the created world, or about the magic. It’s also about the plot and characters. Readers of Fantasy expect the created world, great characters, and a dynamic plot regardless of the subgenre. Don’t disappoint them.

Fantasy has many subgenres (60 ish last time I counted) including urban fantasy (real world plus supernatural element), Epic Fantasy (parallel worlds, warfare, and sword battles), and Celtic Fantasy (inspired by folklore and culture from the Celtic region). Each of the Fantasy subgenres also has their own tropes, but most of the story patterns include good vs. evil, and/or a quest of some kind.

Alternative History is fiction where historical events unfold differently than they did in the real world. That difference is called the point of divergence and the time periods that authors seem to focus on are the Revolutionary War, WWII, Civil War, and the JFK or Lincoln assassinations, though those are not the only topics by any means.

YA/MG is a marketing category where books are written for and marketed to young adults. YA includes all the above genres and marketing categories, plus Action/Adventure, Graphic Novels, and Scary Stories to name a few.

The general breakout for YA/MG is:
  • Board books (BB) are books for children aged 0 to 3
  • Picture books (PB) are books for children aged 4 to 7
  • Early readers (ER) are books for children aged 5 to 7
  • Chapter books (CB) are books for children aged 6+
  • Middle grade books (MG) are books for children aged 12+ and are 25,000 to 45,000 words
  • Young Adult books (YA) are books for young adults aged 14+ and are 40,000 to 60,000 words
  • New Adult books (NA) are books for college aged (18 to 30) people and are 60,000 to 85,000 words
Some people confuse YA and MG, but it breaks down something like this:
  • Is the main character a child at the end of the book? If yes, then the book is MG. If no, then the book is YA.
  • The inclusion of sex or the topic of sex makes the book YA.
  • The age of our protagonist also determines the category of your book. The protagonist should be approximately two years older than your targeted readers.

Each YA/MG genre will have expected tropes. Again, the goal is to meet reader expectations. You want happy readers.

I hope you’ve found this discussion on marketing categories and genres informative and helpful. Remember that the most important thing is to write a great story, but do consider the whole package. Publishing is a business and the goal is to sell books. Knowing your marketing category and genre, and genre tropes before you write, will make your author experience a more positive one.

(Here's more on the various genres and subgenres of these novel categories)