… what’s the big deal?
When do I need to know my book’s genre, if ever? Do I decide the genre or does someone else read my story and decide genre for me? What genres could my story fall into? Does it really matter?
These are the questions I had in mind while writing Monday’s post. Genre is so easy that it’s almost too easy to overthink everything–and so easy that it can be difficult to find answers to these questions.
Let’s go in order.
When do I need to know my book’s genre, if ever?
You don’t need to know your story’s genre before you start writing. In fact, I would recommend (you know, with my years of uncredentialed experience) that you don’t decide before you start! Maybe about halfway through, when you have the whole story planned out, you can shape it to the tropes and elements typically found in your story’s genre. Setting your genre in stone might limit your story in a way you didn’t expect as it biases you against making changes or adding things that might be out of genre.
The good Star Wars movies are fantasy (space fantasy is still fantasy) enriched with elements of science fiction, Westerns, and epic adventure. What would a story that has captivated generations look like if it were only fantasy because George Lucas had decided it would be a fantasy-genre story.
The world would be just a little bit darker, that’s what.
The bottom line is that you will have to know your story’s genre to get it published, but I wouldn’t sweat the category before you’re even done.
Do I decide the genre or does someone else read my story and decide genre for me?
I’m lucky, I had someone just straight up tell me that my novel was YA fantasy when I was struggling with whether or not it was young adult, if it was more sci-fi than fantasy, etc.
Turns out the inclusion of magical powers pretty much puts it in fantasy, even though there are sci-fi and dystopian future elements.
Still, from what I’ve read online, you pretty much have to make that decision yourself. People might disagree with you for whatever reason, but you have to know the genre of your story to shop around for journals, publishers, agents, and maybe even critique partners. You don’t want someone reviewing your book if they’re not at all familiar with your genre.
I reviewed a friend’s romance story a few years ago, having read exactly one romance book in my life, and it was awkward for everybody.
Honestly, I think I’d prefer being the one who decides the genre. After all, I’m the writer! I want to have as much control over my baby as possible, including labeling it. We don’t need to go crazy and call it a YA dystopian fantasy sci-fi rainbow quintology with elements of dragon’s tears and jelly from an arsenic-eating bacteria. It’s YA fantasy because those are the primary elements.
Check out this cool map at Genre Map for a simple visual representation of the three (commonly-agreed-upon) major categories and their sub-categories (hover over a land to see the sub-categories). http://www.bookcountry.com/readandreview/books/genremap/
Fun fact: I used to work in a library and we usually had a few genres for adult fiction: Fiction, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and classics. If you’re curious about where your book might end up on the shelf, check out your local library or bookstore to see how people are classifying books these days (anyone remember chick lit?).
What genres could my story fall into?
What a GOOD QUESTION! That depends. This is another reason I don’t decide on a genre until I’m either halfway through or I’ve finished the first draft and will go back to edit. While the genre is certainly important to the writing, what your story is ultimately classified as is equally, if not more important. If you write a heartfelt, compelling and amazing story in a genre with a small audience (looking at you, westerns), then you may or may not be happy with the results. But if you can tweak your story and market it toward a larger audience (hello, YA dystopian future AKA movies-in-waiting), then you’re more likely to reach that larger result.
But that’s not what this question was meant to ask. What I mean is more like: What genres are there that I might be unwittingly writing in?
Again, it depends. It depends where you look, when you look, and how that source interprets each genre. I’ve seen sources that use “epic adventure” and “fantasy” instead of “epic fantasy,” to describe J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
That genre map is great, and you can find hours of reading online about book genres, but I really like just going to a commercial bookstore and checking out the signs. You ever notice how the nonfiction section sort of takes over the store? Fiction is now just fiction, YA has become “teen fiction,” and supernatural/urban fantasy/paranormal romance might just become “paranormal.” Sure, the science fiction and fantasy sections hold their ground, but they might be combined into one “sci-fi/fantasy” genre, mixing pure sci-fi and fantasy in with books that really do blend the two together.
Bookstores are the windows to the marketing soul. They will tell you how people categorize books to be sold, how they are advertised. For example, in my local Barnes & Noble, there are two separate “New Teen Fiction” sections, one of which is on those tables where they put the new books. It gets its own table! I remember when teen fiction was stuck in the corner of the children’s section and you had to maneuver around infants and make-believe catastrophes and such to get to them.
Back then, I might have pushed my novel to be more adult fiction. Now, teen fic is incredibly hot and I’m happy to write it.
Does it really matter?
YES. Did you like “The Hunger Games” for its commentary on society? You’ll probably like other dystopian fiction, then. Do you appreciate Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files” like I do (having just finished the first book)? Or almost anything by Kelley Armstrong or Patricia Briggs? You will likely enjoy other urban fantasy. Genre helps your readers find you, it helps you write your story, and it helps you sell your story.
So yes, I would say genre matters. You don’t have to pigeon-hole yourself into one or two, but be mindful of it so you can write the best story you possibly can.
The above is my own interpretation of what I have read online, learned in discussions with other writers, and my own original thoughts.