Monday, June 09, 2008

A Question of Genre

I receive a lot of questions about genres, like how you define a certain genre or what is going on with certain genres. I’m going to try to address some of the questions I receive, as briefly as I can, and ask that you feel free to ask and discuss genres in the comments.

Genre is an interesting thing because to some degree it’s fluid. Sure a romance is a romance and a mystery a mystery, but when does a SF romance become SF rather than romance and when does a thriller become suspense or vice versa. When is fantasy really paranormal and when did all of these genres cross over? It’s enough to give anyone and everyone a headache. Ultimately, though, when in doubt, go with your gut. Who do you like to read and what author would you compare your writing to? Where would you put it on the bookshelf and who are your readers? To me that’s the best way to define genre.

Recently I submitted what I was calling a paranormal mystery. To some houses I sent it to mystery editors I knew were looking for just that type of book. To other houses I sent it to fantasy editors because I knew it suited their lines better. A tricky business this. I’ve seen paranormal romances published as fantasy and fantasy morph into romance. It’s an ever-changing world so don’t get too caught up in a name.

So on to some of the questions . . .

Are there any publishers out there besides Harlequin, Dorchester, and Kensington looking for historical western romance books? Why do those houses seem to have a corner on these types of books?

Interesting question because in fact I just had lunch last week with an editor at a house that was not Harlequin, Dorchester, or Kensington who would love to see more historical western romances. The trick is rising above what has traditionally been called historical western. To do this I think you have to make your book stronger and different and bigger. There are a lot of editors out there who love this genre and would love to buy in it, but to break in you really need to write something that transcends everything else. Because that’s an easy task [she says sarcastically].

Just wondering about the world of graphic novels. What's the submission process? Are these things that most publishers of children's & YA books are looking at? Assuming a writer has an idea, a complete script & a graphic artist, how much is enough for a solid submission?

I wish I could better answer this for you, but I haven’t represented any graphic novels, and if I did or do, at least at this point, they would most likely be reprints of books I’ve already sold and not new titles. Although I’m not so sure about that either. My understanding, of which I have very little, is that the publisher often hires the author and artist separately, although I’m going to open this up to the readers and ask anyone who might know better than I what the procedure is. I can tell you that graphic novels are big and something that I can see us doing in the future if current clients have interest.

I have two manuscripts ready to be fine tuned: A mystery with chick lit voice, and a romantic suspense. I really like both stories, but I keep hearing chick lit is dead. Should I concentrate on the romantic suspense?

Yes, chick lit is dead. I would advise anyone who has a desire to write in the category formerly known as chick lit to wipe that terminology from your dictionary. Now that you’ve done that, let me tell you what you are writing. Funny women’s fiction, light women’s fiction, or fun women’s fiction. And after all that is said I am here to tell you that there is actually an audience for chick lit mysteries. Not just a readership, but an audience of editors. I think in this case you’ve got a light, funny mystery and should feel free to continue with both.

I was wondering if you could address the difference between women’s fiction and chick lit. Most of the definitions I’ve seen for these two genres are very similar, so what characteristics would tip a book one way or the other?

Besides that chick lit is dead? Just kidding. Keep in mind that chick lit is technically women’s fiction, it’s just a sub-genre, in the same way paranormal romance is still romance. That said, there is a difference between books defined strictly as women’s fiction and those that have historically been defined as chick lit, and it’s voice. You can easily write a book about a 20-year-old women and have it categorized as women’s fiction. However, if the voice is chick lit it’s going to be called chick lit. Unfortunately, unless I’m quoting passages of books here, I can’t clearly show you what the voice is, but if you go pick up a few books that were defined as chick lit in their day, I think you’ll quickly see what I mean. Chick lit tends to be a little snarky and sarcastic, while women’s fiction doesn’t. If you are writing chick lit, be careful of that voice as much as you can. Even a book not labeled as chick lit can quickly get rejected if editors feel the voice is too chick lit.

These are great questions and might very well cause some good discussion. And this post helped me answer multiple questions at once, which is really wonderful. As an aside, I have so many great questions from readers that have come through the blog email, and I want to thank you all. If I haven’t gotten to yours yet, I apologize. I’m trying to get through them because many are really useful, so please keep them coming.



Anonymous said...

The trick is rising above what has traditionally been called historical western. To do this I think you have to make your book stronger and different and bigger

Can you address this a bit more, perhaps give an example of such a book?

Anonymous said...

Can I just say how refreshing the BookEnds blog is? Not to be a kiss-ass this early in the morning, but heck, I'm contemplating firing my agent -- he/she doesn't follow through on submissions, doesn't return emails, doesn't seem to have a plan for my work or future works... and yet I come here and not only is there a new, complete, organized post everyday (and this isn't even you job) but it's always done with a sense of respect and equality.

Every time I read a post here, I think, yeah, I really need a new agent. There's got to be an agent (in the category I write in) that is on par with this agency in terms of professinalism and respect for writers. Right?

But dang, the thought of having to agent hunt again makes me soooo sad.Why are there more bad/inept/uncaring/noncommunicativeagents than there are good ones?

Jordan said...

I'd really like to know more about the graphic novel process, specifically the part about publishers hiring the artist separately, if anyone out there has any insights. That would make me a very happy Jordan indeed...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jessica, for opening this subject. At least I'm not the only one out here who finds genre definitions nebulous.

If I understand you correctly, you're saying that as an author submitting to an agent, you give it your best shot, and perhaps being a bit off target is not fatal. The agent then submits it to a publisher, or several publishers, sometimes as different genres.

Regardless of where the author or agent thinks it belongs, the ultimate decision lies with the publisher.

Ultimate success or failure still depends on stellar writing, not genre definition.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

anon 8:27

I'm afraid I can't think of something specific right off the top of my head. Maybe other authors will be able to though. I think the trick, besides making sure the writing is really amazing, is to look outside traditional Western romances.

When BookEnds first opened nearly ten years ago the talk was that historical romances "are dead" in recent years that has changed a great deal and now I'm selling a number of historicals and we're seeing a rise. Why? Well for one thing I think that authors decided to throw out the traditional conventions of what a historical was once thought of. They were willing to take risks and even throw in elements that were once thought of as taboo. Historicals are now sexier and many are written with a more contemporary flair. The truth is that I can't tell you how to write them to make them sell, but I can tell you not to be afraid to try new things that you might have though would never work before.

anon 8:28 Thank you.

anon 9:04 that's exactly true


Wilfred Bereswill said...


I think (or thought) I knew the difference in Suspense and Thriller. Can you elaborate?

Karen Duvall said...

Genre is a conundrum sometimes. Before I got my agent, I found that some of the agents I queried had firm ideas about what urban fantasy was. If it didn't have vampires and werewolves, it wasn't an urban fantasy. I even had one reject my full because there wasn't enough romance in it. I don't write romance. I write contemporary fantasy that takes place in an urban setting.

Anonymous said...

To piggyback on Wilfred's question: I'd love to know the difference between mystery and suspense. I tend to think of mysteries more as whodunnits, while suspense is a lot broader.

And to Anon 8:28: my condolences. I terminated my contract with my agent early this year. After the 10th editor rejection, she stopped responding to my very occasional emails, asking about the status of the ms. (And this was a top-notch agent at one of the big NY lit agencies.) The whole thing gave me a stomach ache.

Taylor K. said...

On the topic of graphic novels I've actually been doing research into both graphic novels and comic books (the short version of graphic novels) for many many years. Comics were what I was originally interested in writing, and I've thus been researching the hows and whys of getting published for quite a long time.

That said, the answer to if a writer needs an artist to send in a proposal isn't clear cut. Some companies want a proposal to have both writing and art, but many will accept just the writing. When it's just the writing, however, you have to make a REALLY REALLY excellent proposal. It is much much easier to break into either the comic or graphic novel industry if you have the art to prove that your stuff is good. It's much easier for artists then writers to break in. Writers often need the artists help.

For more useful information on this, I'd recommend checking out who, despite being the industry leaders, actually accepts unsolicited proposals. Marvel's Editor in Chief, Joe Quesada, also has a Myspace page where he answers such questions. is another site I'd recommend because they actually have a "talent search" section where you can find people (usually artists but not always) who are actively looking for writers to do a comic or graphic novel with. Some jobs pay. Others don't.

Another usueful thing is that many comic and graphic novel writers actually frequent comic book message boards. They are very friendly and very open to questions so long as you don't act like a jerk. I know specifically that Brian Michael Bendis (writer of SECRET INVASION, ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, AVENGERS, and so much more) does this very thing.

Hope that all helped, and that I didn't ramble on too long.

Robena Grant said...

I have a couple of ms. that have a bit of everything in them. They're light on everything. The paranormal aspects are either ghost, psychic, light stuff. The suspense is also lighter. The romance is solid but nowhere near erotica. I never wrote to the market, just figured I was telling a story. Probably not the best approach.

In contests I entered them in single title category. I've had everything from almost perfect scores to being marked down for entering the wrong category (where based on first chapter it was assumed I was writing paranormal). It's frustrating. In my WIP I'm trying to write straight RS.

It wasn't until I started reading a few friends newly-released cozy mysteries that I've begun to suspect I might really be a mystery author. Hah. I grew up reading those so it makes good sense.

Anonymous said...

I try not to get hung up on the labels. The ms I'm currently marketing has elements of suspense, paranormal, and romance. If the agent wants paranormal romance, it's a paranormal romance with elements of suspense. Could also call it romantic suspense with paranormal elements. The query is a marketing tool to get my big toe in the door. Hopefully, the writing will take it from there.

The agent is free to call my ms whatever she thinks will sell it.

dernjg said...

On writing graphic novels:
This is something I’ve got some experience in. While a lot of publishers leave open the possibility that a writer’s proposal will be taken without an artist attached, this is rarely, and really almost never the case.
To “break” into the graphic novel scene as a writer, you’re going to have to look into getting an artist collaborator on your own. There’s a lot of searching, promoting and selling of your project that you’ll have to do on your own. And even if you finish up the comic, it’s still a matter of getting it published, which is extremely difficult.
The two key differences between the comic book industry and the book industry are the matters of self-publishing and agents. In comics, it’s not frowned upon to self publish. In fact, it’s more or less expected, as it shows the comic book companies a track record, and makes them more likely to listen to your pitches. As for agents, very few comic writers have agents, and this is usually because said writer is already writing books (Neil Gaiman, Brad Meltzer, Greg Rucka, et cetera).

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Regarding mysteries v. thrillers v. suspense...

I've done a couple of posts on this and in all of them there seems to be some controversy on what they are. I think in general mysteries tend not to be quite as scary as thrillers or suspense and, yes, more of a whodunnit. Rather then define them what I'm going to tell you is not to worry about it. When in doubt mystery is fine. If you prefer suspense call it that. Again, sometimes this is going to depend on where you end up (which publisher) and what the agent decides. I wouldn't worry about it.


Kristin Laughtin said...

I do the same as Anon 1:04. I'll classify my current MS as science fiction when I try to get an agent, because it's set in the future and revolves around genetic engineering, but it's got elements of fantasy, romance, and literary novels in there as well. Most of the stuff I write blends elements of different genres, especially when I write fantasy. If it's easier to sell in some other genre for some reason, that's fine with me.

Jordan said...

Thanks, taylor k and dernjg. Your advice has been helpful. I'm still unsure as to what to do with my project, since it combines elements of a graphic novel with a traditional prose novel. Half of it wants to be sent to YA agents, the other half needs an artist. And while I'm actively looking for one (and had a couple that didn't work out), it doesn't look like the artist is going to come from my end...

I shall keep digging.

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't it only last year that "chick-lit" was the biggest thing in publishing? And now it's "dead." (So, what's happening with all those chick-lit books that agents signed up and which are just beginning to hit the market, now that the genre is dead?)

I'm sorry, but isn't all this trend-chasing a little ridiculous?

Julie Weathers said...

Diana Gabaldon is in the middle of a graphic novel and has posted some interesting thoughts on her site. It's a fascinating process.

I really wish I wasn't hip deep in fantasy. I would dig out my historical western romance.

Diana said...

Thanks for such a great post! I don't know *why* I didn't realize that chick-lit is a part of women's fiction...