What's Your Genre? Riddle me this
By Anne R. Allen
If you’re a fledgling novelist marketing your first book, you may be stymied when asked to pigeonhole your work into a genre. Unless you set out to write a category romance or mystery according to specific guidelines, your book probably has elements of several genres. But don’t offer up a laundry list. Calling your opus a “dark literary urban paranormal romantic comedy thriller” is like stamping “amateur” on your query letter.
Unfortunately, assigning your book an all-purpose mainstream or literary label can be a liability too.
But don’t despair. To start, you can go to Amazon’s entries for books similar to yours and scroll down to "Look for Similar Items by Category." You’ll usually find several categories—like Romance, Historical, Women’s Fiction. Some categories are traditionally paired on bookstore shelves, like Mystery/Crime or SF/Fantasy. You can blend a couple of genres and sub-genres, like Chick Lit/Urban Fantasy, as long as you don’t go overboard.
Note: Never call it a "fiction novel." (All novels are fiction. Some memoirs are too, but that’s another story…)
You can even claim to write in different genres depending on where you query. Your vampire love story might interest publishers of erotic fantasy, supernatural mystery, paranormal thrillers — or maybe horror. If you use a sassy voice, it might work as chick lit; or if the protagonist is young, try Y/A. The now-retired (sob!) Miss Snark said she assigned genres to clients’ books depending on what editor she was talking to.
Chick Lit (Hen Lit, Mommy Lit, etc.) The Rodney Dangerfield of genres — we get no respect: Light, funny women’s stories with a distinctive, can-we-talk voice. Originally aimed at twenty-somethings, now branching into all women’s markets.
Commercial: Traditionally, any plot-driven fiction, but now, according to AgentQuery, this means "high concept" projects with a unique subject and potential audience of zillions: stories that can be summarized in one wow-inducing sentence.
Crime Fiction: Stories centering on the physical aspects of a crime. Subgenre True Crime focuses on the criminal mind (grifters, Mafiosi, etc.) and Detective Fiction on just-the-facts-ma’am details of bringing a criminal to justice. The original D**k Lit.
Fantasy: Not just about elves, dragons, and talking badgers any more. Dark Fantasy (vampires, were-persons) Urban Fantasy (spawn of Buffy) and Erotic Fantasy (Were-persons hooking up) are big.
Historical Fiction: A story set fifty or more years in the past that uses the time period as an element of the story.
Horror: Scare the pants off your reader — á la King.
Literary: Language and character trump story. The agent’s assistant who blogs as The Rejector says publishers won’t look at literary authors unless their short stories appear regularly “in huge magazines like Atlantic Monthly, Michigan Quarterly Review, or The New Yorker.” So keep grinding out those stories.
Mainstream: This once-basic category is on the wane. As Patrick Anderson details in his new book, The Triumph Of The Thriller, former mainstream staples like family chronicles, historical epics, and sweeping Micheneresque sagas are no longer big sellers.
Multi-Cultural: Anything NOT about middle-class characters of northern European heritage.
Mystery: Crime-solving puzzles. Classic Whodunits, Cozies, Private Eye, Noir, and Police Procedurals are still going strong, and Historical, Supernatural, and Literary mysteries are hot.
Romance: Must follow specific publisher guidelines and provide happy endings. (One agent blogs bitterly about love stories submitted as romance.) Popular subgenres are Paranormal, Christian, Multi-Culti, and Time-Travel. Traditional categories like Regency and Historical still do well and Gothic is back. Plus there’s a growing market for explicitly erotic romance.
Science Fiction: The line between branches of speculative fiction is blurring, but the plot should be based on science rather than myth or make-believe. Subgenres include Social, Cyberpunk, New Wave, Alternate History, Military, and Apocalyptic.
Satire: If you’re in the US and write for a sophisticated audience that gets irony, emigrate. Or sneak it in as another genre.
Thriller/Suspense: Fast-paced adventure, with a protagonist in constant peril. Flavours include: Spy, Political, Military, Conspiracy, Techno-, Eco-, Legal, Medical, and Futuristic. Psychological thrillers are hot — with erotic, romantic, and/or supernatural suspense.
Westerns: Horses, guns, and stoic agricultural workers in the late 19th/early 20th century American West.
Women’s Fiction: A woman struggles against adversity. Can be literary, gritty, or weepy — and usually, but not always, includes a realistic love story.
Young Adult: Any of the above categories written for teens. Literary novels with teen protagonists sometimes sneak into print as Y/A to avoid the hasn’t-published-in-The New Yorker police.
Mix and match as you hone your query, and with luck, you’ll find a genre label to reach your potential readers.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and freelance writer. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as email@example.com