Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Genre

There’s often a lot of angst from authors about which genre their books might fall into and how to categorize a book when pitching to agents and editors. Let me tell you a little secret. This is not critical to the rejection or acceptance of your book. In fact, it barely matters. The reason agents ask your genre is because it gives us perspective on the vision you have for your book. Think of it this way: if someone tells you about a new author and starts to describe the book, it helps you to know ahead of time whether this is a thriller, mystery, romance, fantasy, or young adult. It helps put the story into perspective and gives you a sense of place (for lack of a better word).

Far too often I’ve discussed a book with an author either over the phone, via email, or at a pitch session, and after explaining why the book didn’t work for me the author’s response was that in the future she was going to be sure to tell agents it was a different genre than what she first described. I hate to say it, but that’s not the problem. I did not reject the book because you told me it was a cozy mystery when in fact it would have better fit in the just plain mystery category. If the book was working I could have figured that out and simply recategorized it myself. In fact, recategorizing happens all the time. I wish I could count the number of times a mystery turned into a romance, a romantic suspense turned into contemporary romance, or women’s fiction turned into romance, all after the publisher bought the book. Okay, you’ll spot a trend there, but I swear the change to romance was coincidental in my writing.

So when all else fails simply pick a general genre—fiction, women’s fiction, romance, fantasy, etc. There’s no need to spend months agonizing over how to categorize your book. If it’s the right book it will find its home no matter which shelf it lands on.

Jessica

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. Finally, someone who is willing to tell the truth about genre. So many agent blogs and submission guidlelines demand the assignment of "the" genre. Many advise the writer to go to your local big box book store and do your "research" to make certain you know what shelf and what authors your book would be setting next to.
I agree Jessica, it should be pretty simple. Keep the categories general and the agent/publisher certainly knows (or should know) the best genre placement for the book. You know, either romance 1 or romance 2 or romance 3...

Anonymous said...

Aaahhh...thank you.

Fawn Neun said...

How incredibly liberating--thank you.

Aimless Writer said...

That's good to know. I just wrote book that involves angels and wasn't sure what to call it. Most paranormal stuff is vampires and werewolves. I guess angels are paranormal too? So I ended up calling it a Paranormal (angel) romance.
This stuff gets so confusing.

Anonymous said...

"...gives you a sense of place (for lack of a better word)."

The word is 'space': intellectual/dramatic/virtual...space.

ClothDragon said...

The most confusing part is which agent to submit it to. If it's urban fantasy, but few agents list urban fantasy, do you fall back to those interested in 'fantasy'? But it's so very different! And my sister, when she finishes hers will have an even harder time. One step beyond urban, she's put herself in the middle of a scifi fantasy. (futuristic urban?)

Mira said...

This is great! I agree, what a relief to not have to worry so much about category, but more about the work itself.

Thanks!

lynnrush said...

Very nice.

Anonymous said...

How can you write a whole book without knowing its genre?
I say just be general about it and let the pros pinpoint the exact category.

DOT said...

Too late I learn after I and two of the critical readers of my MS spent yesterday afternoon trying to decide the genre that best characterises it.

Weronika said...

This, of course, makes so much sense, Jessica. The one thing that I worry about is that, once I categorize my novel in a particular genre, I tend to focus my attention on the elements of that genre in my query.

Oftentimes, my novels deal with so many different possible genre markups that it becomes almost a relationship that I have to balance.

This gave me something to think about.

Thank you! Cheers!

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

I was debating whether to call my novel "literary fiction/coming of age novel" in query letters and it's been driving me crazy. so this is a good helpful post.

thanks.

Meg Spencer said...

"How can you write a whole book without knowing its genre?
I say just be general about it and let the pros pinpoint the exact category."

Ha! So much of my current rewriting issues comes from the fact that my fantasy keeps trying to drift over into sci-fi. Some books fit very neatly into one box or another. Some don't.

That's not to say I don't agree with the original point, because I definitely do. Something I've seen from a lot of blogs is that agents don't like seeing a query that says a book is urban fantasy/suspense/romance/women's fiction. Pick one and run with it!

@Anon 8:32 - It doesn't seem like the two bits of advice are inconsistent at all. The big boxes don't usually have sections for urban fantasy, for example. They have fantasy/sci-fi and they have YA. If you're writing urban fantasy, you're going to end up in one or the other. You can say it's urban fantasy/suspense/romance/women's fiction until your face turns blue, but you're still going in fantasy/sci-fi.

Bontemps said...

Phew! thanks for this, Jessica.
I've been agonising over what on earth my novel is as I've been developing it. Glad to know its not all-important.

Kristen Torres-Toro @ Write in the Way said...

This is really good to know!!! I've often wondered if that was a "make or break" point, so thank you for clearing that up!

Becke Davis said...

Genre only becomes important if the genre isn't selling well. I have friends who wrote contemporary romances that used to be called chick lit. They would NEVER use that term anymore. Women's fiction can be iffy today, too, so few authors I know use that term. And EVERYONE wants to write YA, it seems.

It can be tricky when your story has touches of two genres. A friend of mine wrote a great story -- statues speak to her heroine. She's had nasty comments from contest judges who said, "anyone knows that statues don't talk" when she entered the story as a straight single-title. But there are no vampires or shape-shifters, so it's not a paranormal in the usual sense. All of my stories are contemporary romance with magic of some kind. I wouldn't call them paranormal, but in contests I've had similar comments to my friend's.

Now, I know contests are subjective and it doesn't bother me much, except when it comes to pitching the story. I think it's only important because readers don't like to think they are reading one genre and find out they are reading something altogether different.

I won't mention names, but an author a really like stopped writing because she was so upset at a negative firestorm about her book. It took place in a historical period but was written in a style edging toward erotica, and it broke a lot of "rules" for historicals. It was all about reader expectations -- the cover led them to believe the book was a traditional historical, and it wasn't.

As a writer, the genre doesn't concern me and I know it's not of critical importance, for the most part. But I would hate to set up expectations that it's one thing when it's really something else.

Becke Davis said...

Should say an author "I" really like. Grrr.

MzzLily said...

You really took a load off my mind!

Bane of Anubis said...

This has been my problem w/ my most recent one. I'm not sure how to market it -- the protag is YA; a secondary protag is MG and the length is definitely in the MG/YA range, but the tone/nature of the writing is dark/literary fantasy.

And I've gotten requests for it marketing it as each (MG, YA, & Dark lit fantasy) -- so I'm glad to hear that the agent won't be too put-off even if I can't pinpoint the genre.

Thanks

Dara said...

Very liberating indeed! Thanks! :)

Andrew said...

Meg Spencer - I know the feeling, almost....my Sci-fi dips into fantasy....hehe....That's what the term 'Science Fantasy' is there for I hope...hehe

My problem with genre isn't the selling, its the buying. For ages now I've been trying to find novels that are similar to mine so I can see how it stacks up - you are advised to read as much of your genre after all. Can I find anything Sci-fant?...well, I picked up "keeping it real" over the weekend so I'm hoping that cracks it, but thats about the first one I've found that really hits the bill

Anonymous said...

This is SOOO helpful. I have always written amateur sleuth mysteries, and I don't believe they fall into the cozy category, but I was told by a publisher who read my first novel that that is what I'd written, and so I've called them cozies ever since. But they are so unlike all the cozies I've read. I will, from now on, refer to them as amateur sleuth mysteries and stop agonizing over the consequences of getting this wrong. Jessica, you must think we're all nuts, but I really have agonized over this.

Anonymous said...

Anon--sounds good! Mine is a cross between a cozy and hard-boiled so I'm calling it a soft-boiled mystery, but amateur sleuth seems like a good description.

Charlie said...

Believe it or not, deciding which genre my book falls under was difficult. Thank you for easing the pressure a bit.

anniegirl1138 said...

Thank you for this post. Labeling my work actually gives me a headache and makes my palms sweaty when I think about submitting.

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. That's rather reassuring as I can end up agonizing over whether what I'm writing fits any particular genre box.

Kim Bullock said...

Thank you so much for the clarification, Jessica.

Stephanie said...

What about "upmarket?" I know what it is/means; I'm just curious if it's something to mention in a query or if it's determined later.

I've never seen this addressed in an agent blog & it crossed my mind as I read this entry.

Anonymous said...

ClothDragon:

If agents doesn't list "urban fantasy" as one they cover and you are interested in knowing if they do, try to find out what books the person agented, what type of genre the books fall into. That'll give you some idea, as well as an idea of the agent's tastes.

Hope that helps.

Jodi

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