I’m staking my claim on the blog today and talking about a subject that does not get enough attention in the early stages of writing – genre. Genre defines your work for others, sets expectations for your readers, and helps define plotting and character choices. Too often, writers think of genre after they finish the story, instead of as a tool while writing to stay the course. I am not saying that every plot point is predictable based on genre, but there are overarching themes and conventions you would do well to remember.
Genre is a way to define your work for others—
I think this is especially difficult for the aspiring writer- how do you define your book? Is it hubris to say “my book is like Outlander with robots?” Often, writer’s workshops and conferences will sagely advise aspiring writers to know your genre. As a writer you need to comprehend the trends in your space, but you also need to know if five other books are published with your same plot twist. In addition, if you decide to pursue an agent and representation, then one of the first questions any editor or agent will want answered is “what genre is your book?” This is more than a way to categorize your book- genre is marketing and marketing is how you communicate with consumers. I hear aspiring writers quibble over this question ALL THE TIME. Don’t be a quibbler- know your genre and feel proud that you write Swedish noir detective stories where all the characters are trapped in an IKEA store pursued by a murderous monkey…
Genre sets expectations for your readers—
If I am in the romance section, and I pick up your book, it has to fulfill my idea of what a romance novel is– the development of a romantic relationship between the main characters as the central element of the story, with a satisfying romantic end. If your book is shelved in mysteries and thrillers, then there can be romantic elements, but the main element of the story is to solve a crime. Give the readers what they want when they pick up your book. Disappointed readers lead to weak sales.
Genre helps inform plotting and characterization
Aspiring writers don’t pay enough attention to genre in regards to plotting, IMO. I think it can often be the reason one book is selected for publication versus another that is passed over. When you plot your book, or think of character motivations, genre needs to inform some of these choices. If I am writing a spy novel, my two main characters can have a romantic relationship, but in the climactic scene, they better behave in a way that a spy thriller wants them to behave- and that is not to let the world explode while they lay on a beach together. If I am writing a romance set in the KGB- you better believe those characters should turn their backs on their responsibilities as government agents to make choices that further their romantic relationship. Understand how genre expectations need to play in your work- not to make it predictable, but to make it satisfying for the reader.
Blended genre needs to be 60/40
Just like a good martini is more gin than vermouth, when you write blended genre books, one MUST be more prevalent than the other. There are a LOT of blended genre choices out there, and at times the nuances seem overwhelming. But you have to make a choice, and keeping your book solidly between two genres makes it easier to market and meet reader expectations. Urban fantasy is one of the few blended genres that stands alone- everything else needs to file under.. another broader category. In Outlander, a book often shelved in the romance section, its a LOT romance, a LOT history, and a fair amount fantasy. In Made to Kill by Adam Christopher, the book feels like a Dashiell Hammett noir mystery set in 1940 Los Angeles, but with killer robots. The book is marketed as a science fiction book. Know the balance of your book, and market it effectively- I was thrilled to find Mr. Christopher’s little gem as I was looking for a science fiction story, but if it was shelved under noir detective mystery, then I would be a disappointed reader.
If you write blended genre, keep stuff simple and familiar
In Outlander, we are talking about time travel, but to places that feel familiar. In Made to Kill, there may be killer robots roaming around, but they roam around Los Angeles. Familiar tone, setting, or mood helps ground the reader for the more fantastical elements of your story.
Whether you are a pantser or an outliner, remember genre and how it impacts your story choices, your characters and their decisions as the story unfolds. If there are places where you are up against the wall, question if you are going “off-genre”. Remember the movie Scream, and how it satirized typical horror movies? Think “What would Wes Craven do?” and if you are writing horror, then pull out the knives:)
Until next time-