I know. I broke my own rules. I’m posting an article about writing on a reader’s website. Forgive me, dear reader.
Humans are obsessed with labeling things. It’s part of our psychological makeup. Choke berry? Fatal. Blue berry? Safe. Fuzzy little rabbit? Safe. Saber tooth tiger with ferocious growl? Fatal. Sadly, this primitive need to label things as a means to protect ourselves and survive has found its way into every aspect of life. Don’t believe me? Just ask a biologist. The moment an author puts pen to paper, they prove to be no exception. But this means of labeling is more than just knowing where you fit in. For the writer, knowing what genre they write determines their whole marketing angle. Is it YA? Should I sprinkle my website and ads targeted for 12-year-old girls? Is my book historical war fiction? Should I design my website for the 50+ year old retired vet? Clearly, genre is far more than just knowing where you fit in. It’s about marketing. But how do you determine what you write?
Here are some basic rules to help you decide just where you and your book belong.
1 – Think about the readers.
Really. Your readers are key. Have a romance reader, a science fiction reader, a fantasy reader all sit down and read your book. Which one hated it? Which one loved it? No one knows genre better than readers. No one can look at your book with more of an unbiased eye than a reader.
2 – Think broad.
Stop with all the sub-genres. There is nothing I hate more than sub-genres. They distract from the genre and the focus. Most stories have romance in them, but that hardly makes them a romance. Sub genres are designed for online retailers only. Unless you are an online retailer, drop the sub-genres. If you walk into a brick and mortar store and you ask for Self Help > Psychological > Pathology > Personality Disorders they will point you to the self help section. The end. Go back to the mentality of a brick and mortar store. Stop stressing over the options.
Simple rule to follow: Subgenres are for readers of the genres. Primary genres are for non-readers of the genre. I don’t read romance. Sorry romance readers, but historical, contemporary, sweetheart, erotica? For me, it’s all the same. It’s about person “A” hooking up with person “B” and how their love trumped all their mental issues…or didn’t. Maybe its all about the sex. I don’t care. It’s still about person “A” hooking up with person “B.” 50 Shades of Grey? Twilight? The second Star Wars movie, Attack of the Clones? It’s all the same. Icky kissy crap.
3 – Know the primary genres.
I am amazed at how many authors truly can not sit down and name the top genres. Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Historical Fiction, YA, Horror/Thriller, Mystery/Suspense, General Fiction. The end. A graphic novel, a poem, a manga will still fall under one of these categories. Classic Literature will still fall under any one of these categories. Literary Fiction is not a genre. Not one that an author should bestow upon their own book. A poem, an anthology, a short story, it doesn’t matter. Each one of these will still fall under these categories.
- Atlas Shrugged: General Fiction
- Jane Eyre: Romance
- Tom Sawyer: YA
- Harry Potter: Fantasy
- Romeo and Juliet: Romance
- War of the Worlds: Science Fiction
- Heart of Darkness: Horror/Thriller
4 – Commit.
The moment you pass your book on to beta readers, the first thing you should ask them is, what genre is this? You should have selected your beta readers based on genre. I was there once. I wasn’t sure if my epic fantasy was a romance (fantasy) or a fantasy (romance). Strip the sub-genre. I didn’t know if I had written a romance or a fantasy. I handed the book to a science fiction reader, a fantasy reader, a romance reader…Fantasy won. When selling my book, it is fantasy. If they ask for more detail, okay, well it is an epic fantasy with romance, adventure, history, it doesn’t matter. It is a fantasy. Save the sub genres for conversation. Settle on a genre and don’t stray from that decision. You’ll come off as indecisive. “What? You don’t know your own book? You wrote it!” If you truly don’t know your own genre, look at your reviews, call up your beta readers. Decide what it is with their help and commit to that decision.
5 – Find a book that matches yours.
The pros know best. They mastered this business long before you thought to write. What book reminds you of yours? Don’t be afraid to say Tolkien or Harry Potter. That doesn’t mean you should sell your book the same as Tolkien or HP, and certainly don’t go around telling people “it’s like Harry Potter” unless it truly is. Matching your book to one that is already published is a great place to start with finding your book’s genre.
6 – Stop labeling your book as what you meant it to be. Label the book as it is.
I will be blunt. I wrote my book for 40+ year old male readers, but female romance readers who often cross into Urban Fantasy are loving my book. Clearly, they are not the same demographic. The hardest thing I had to do was accept the fact that my book was pleasing far more women than middle-aged men. I started pulling on the reviews. I started accepting what the readers claim the book is and not what I want it to be. When I first wrote Dolor and Shadow, it was a romance meant for romance readers. I stripped a lot of the romance and turned the attention to the magic. Boom! Fantasy.
7 – Pick one.
I know this sounds weird, but at the core, emotion is how we create a genre. Are we evoking joy, sadness, and love? Are we evoking thought and pushing the boundaries of science? Are we evoking fear and anxiety from our readers? An easy rule to remember. Look at the emotions. Look at your options. Focus. Force yourself to pick one.
BREAKING IT DOWN
If you still don’t know, here are some basic guidelines to follow:
Love vs. Hate
- Romance: Is the primary focus revolving around a hook up? Is the primary story all about the hook up? Stop splitting hairs between erotica, contemporary, historical…Save those sub-genres for Amazon. If it’s about two people hooking up, whether it’s long term, short term, homosexual, heterosexual, clean, dirty, healthy or destructive, it doesn’t matter. If its all about a hook up, it’s a romance.
The Laws of Physics
Fantasy and Science Fiction are all about the laws of physics. Either you’ve made up your own laws, or you’ve followed the laws of this realm. Perhaps you’ve advanced those laws far into the future. Perhaps you have defied the laws of physics and your characters can not explain the happenings around them. Maybe they have an explanation, but it is unlike anything scientists of our day can measure. If the heart of your book revolves around the laws of physics, fictional or non, you’re looking at fantasy or science fiction.
- Science Fiction: Does it take place in the future or in space? Is there advanced tech of any kind? Don’t confuse unexplained advance science with magic. If you are providing the science behind the “magic,” it’s Science Fiction. (Notice how romance never came into question despite the love between Han and Leia? You want to know what went wrong with Star Wars Episodes 1, 2, and 3 (aside from Jar Jar Binx)? They took our epicly awesome science fiction saga and made it a romance. Blech!)
- Fantasy: Magic. Nothing else matters. Is there magic? It’s fantasy. Can you explain your magic with science? No? It’s Fantasy. So here’s the question: is The Force in Star Wars magic? No matter your opinion, we’re still only toggling between two genres.
Anxiety vs. Fear
There is clearly a difference between anxiety and fear. I do not watch horror or thriller movies. I adore suspense films. I love watching suspense movies. I detest horror/thriller films. I do not read suspense or mystery (I hate feeling anxious when I read).
I don’t care if you’re scaring me through blood and gore (It by Stephen King) or through an idea left to my imagination (Destination or The Blare Witch Project). Fear is fear. I’ve had enough in my life to last five lifetimes. I hate feeling afraid. Suspense is so not the same thing as Fear. Alfred Hitchcock. What that man could do with a set of stairs…No one mastered suspense better. His movies get my heart pumping with tension and anxiety, but he never crosses that line into fear. He never once made me afraid. He did horrify me once—ONCE—with that last minute of Psycho. More like a sickening psychological horror at a thought. He horrified me. Horrify. Still not a horror. He still didn’t cross into fear. While Norman Bates freaked me out, I wasn’t afraid of him. Shock. Not fear. Stunned disbelief. Not fear. It. The Stand. Now those films scared the CRAP out of me! I couldn’t walk to the bathroom after dark for a month. I made my husband carry me because of the “rats in the toilet.” Hitchcock never evoked fear from me. Steven King? Holy Hell! The Man Who Knew Too Much is so not Cujo. (Oh my god! I just Googled “Cujo” to confirm spelling and saw a picture of Cujo for the first time. Instant fear! See? Horror!)
- Horror/Thriller: If your book makes people afraid, it’s horror or thriller. Stop splitting hairs over which kind of fear you evoke. Horror and Thriller are the same for a non-reader.
- Mystery/Suspense: Mystery and Suspense evoke the same emotion: anxiety. One with more intensity than the other. For a non-reader suspense and mystery are the same thing. Crime? I would place Crime here. CSI? Bones? Law and Order? Monk…and I love Monk, mind you. I would place them here under Mystery. Mystery? Crime? Broadly speaking, they’re the same thing. Crime requires mystery. Now Silence of the Lambs? Crime? Yes. But now we’re back to fear so it’s Horror/Thriller.
Fact vs. Imagination
- Memoir: Did you write a book about yourself reflecting on a single event or topic in your life? This is not the same thing as “inspired by” or “writing what you know.” Is the focus of the book solely on a topic that did happen, best to your knowledge? Or did you fictionalize your telling into a whole new story? I would base this decision on how the author would market their book. Here is why. I wrote a memoir. Heidi Angell wrote a memoir. While mine was written like a psychological thriller, to call it fiction would be to offend me deeply and devalue my traumas and emotions. It is real. Every last bit of it. And we’re now confronting my mental disorders to call it anything but non-fiction. It did happen. It is real. And it happened exactly as I remember it happening. Even the parts when I spoke to my other personalities.
Now Ms. Angell’s book is very much a memoir. It very much did happen. But she markets her memoir as fiction. For whatever reason, while Ms. Angell knows her story is true and very real, it’s fiction because she is content marketing it as such. She defaulted to the ten primary genres.
You have not written an auto-biography. A biography or auto-biography is only a memoir written by or about a celebrity. Unless you’re a celebrity, you wrote a memoir.
- Non-Fiction: Zero fiction. None. If the book isn’t a documentary, a cook book, a nature book, or a self-help book, it does not belong here.
- Historical Fiction: This one is straight forward. It’s fiction, but it focuses on historical events. Oh, and it can not contain any primary focus from any other genre. No magic. No tech or future dates. No revolving around a hook-up. Think of the movies. Titanic? Romance. Pompeii? Romance. Pearl Harbor? Romance. Tora! Tora! Tora!? Historical Fiction. Gone With the Wind? Romance. Dances With Wolves? Romance. Gettysburg? Historical Fiction. See the difference?
- YA: If your book is written for anyone 16 and under, it’s YA. Stop with the MG/NA. Mark those as a sub-genres and save it for your conversations. If any primary genre has rights to a sub-genre its YA. I have three children all with different reading preferences. Clearly, YA Fantasy (My daughters, 9 and 13) is not the same as YA Science Fiction (My 12 year old son). We’ve been through the Children’s section. Magic Tree House? YA. Roald Dahl? YA. Junie B. Jones? YA. Picture Books? Children’s. The Hungry Caterpillar? Children’s. Doctor Seuss? Children’s. Series of Unfortunate Events? YA. Warriors? YA. Mind you. Keep those sub-genres limited to the ten primary genres.
- General Fiction: If your book is NOT a romance, science fiction, fantasy, memoir, non-fiction, historical, horror/thriller, mystery/suspense, then it belongs here.
What about Literary Fiction?
Now hold on just a moment! Literary Fiction? Really?
Literary fiction comprises fictional works that hold literary merit; that is, they involve social commentary, or political criticism, or focus on the human condition. – Wikipedia
Unless you have the Pulitzer Award slapped on that book, refrain from calling it literary fiction. Its General Fiction unless Columbia University tells you otherwise.
What about Christian Lit?
Granted. Christian Literature is pretty straight forward. Would an atheist enjoy a book that sings the praises and influences of a 1st century deity still worshiped today? No? It’s Christian/spiritual no matter the primary genre. Christian Fantasy, Christian Romance, Christian YA…It’s Christian.
What about Woman’s Fiction?
Woman’s Fiction is a bit harder to place. While it is a primary genre, in the undiscovered author world, it is a minority. If given no other option, I recommend placing this in General Fiction. Be sure it is not a romance.
What about Children’s?
Yes! Clearly Children’s is not YA. If you don’t know the difference, Harry Potter is YA (Fantasy) vs. Guess How Much I Love You (Children’s Board Book). Children’s books are downright difficult— borderline impossible—to digitally market. Children young enough to enjoy Children’s books require the tactile sensation of books to aid their development and seed their passion for books. If you are selling a digital version of a children’s book, seriously reconsider your marketing plan. As a mother, I would never buy a digital book for my two year old. Turning pages is an excellent tool for developing motor skills.
What about Paranormal?
Paranormal is definitely on the rise and partnering beautifully with Urban Fantasy. Here’s one for you. Place Twilight. Werewolves, vampires, romance, special skills that push the laws of physics? It’s a romance. It’s all about that hook-up. Oh, but wait! It’s written for YA. The main characters are in high school for three of the four books. Yes, technically it’s NA, but that is a sub-genre, remember? Let’s call it YA (Romance) or YA (Paranormal). No. YA (Paranormal) just does not sit well with me where Twilight is concerned. YA (Romance) or Romance (Paranormal). Remember. I don’t read romance. I hate the majority of romance novels. For me, Twilight was disgustingly all about the romance. I think she should have cut books 1, 2, and 3 and skipped to 4. Book 4 was good…almost no romance an it stopped being about the hook-up—thank god!—until she flubbed the ending. But notice in both cases, the word “romance” makes an appearance. Ergo, Twilight is a romance (sorry). Not paranormal.
Here is a simple rule to follow with Paranormal, if you are crossing into ghosts, werewolves, and vampires, take great notice that you haven’t crossed into either Urban Fantasy or Low Fantasy. Chances are, you have. Either way, Urban Fantasy or Low Fantasy are still fantasy. Harry Potter had werewolves and ghosts. Voldemort drank blood in The Sorcerer’s Stone. Technically he’s a vampire. Anne Rice. Now those are books I enjoyed. I would call them Urban Fantasy (Fantasy). Especially The Body Thief.
Now, I write Fantasy. I’ll be the first to puff up my chest and get angry if you dare compare Tolkien’s Frodo to Ann Rice’s Lestat. “The Hobbit is sooooo not Interview With A Vampire! They are NOT the same thing!” I would scream. Yeah? Ask any non-reader of fantasy *whispers* They’re the same thing.
Did I miss a genre? Ask. I’d love to hear what you think!