Why Genre Matters

One of the most popular pieces of writing advice that published authors, editors, agents, and basically anyone involved in the field gives to aspiring authors is to read a lot. Read the classics. Read the new releases. Read the bestsellers and the books being turned into movies. Read the obscure fiction written by your next-door neighbor. And your little sister.

There is a lot you can learn from reading a lot of books. Most of it is subconscious. That can't-put-it-into-words "good" that everyone is striving to achieve. Sometimes you learn what is being overdone. Or what is popular and could always use a new spin. And, hopefully, reading tons of books helps you figure out why you write and what you want to write.

But one thing that a lot of people forget to pay attention to during all this reading is genre. Genre is one of those passwords that separates a writer from an author. It's like a secret code. NA, YA, MG, SFF, Spec fic, the list could go on for a while. And each book has age ranges and subcategories and themes and a million other pieces to sort through to figure out where it fits into the realm of published books.

Some writers think that genre is something marketing slaps onto a finished book in order to make it sell. But that is nowhere near how it works.

Publishing is a business. So obviously marketing and numbers and predictions and all of that is part of the process. But readers use genres too. I bet when you walk into a bookstore, you can tell pretty easily which section you are most interested in. The photography books with beautiful pictures, the travel books with insider information, the biographies that dig into the gritty details of historical people, the romance novels with the shirtless men on the covers. When you pick up a book, you are looking for something. And a good author makes sure to fulfill that promise to their readers.

I once picked up a book from the library in the science fiction and fantasy section (which I could rant about for days. Not the same thing!) that was a sleeping beauty retelling. It started out in a fantasy kingdom with medieval society and some hints of romance. This was all exactly what I was expecting from a fairy tale retelling with a purple watercolor cover. So when the main character accidentally tripped through a time portal and ended up in some gritty, dystopian no-clean-air-left overcrowded apartment building, I had a really hard time turning the next page. Because…what the heck?! Gritty? Depressing? Modern day technology? That was not what I had been promised. I wanted a magical, poetic, ridiculous, pleasant, happy ending fairy tale. Now, that's not to say that I can't enjoy a gritty modern day story. Those are great too. But I like to know that's what I'm going to be reading before page 182.

That's what a genre is for.

A genre is a category for readers and writer to agree on so everyone knows what to expect. There are rules and patterns and themes for each genre and subgenre that help readers find exactly what they are looking for. Which is why the marketing team at a publisher spends so much time making sure that cover screams "clean historical romance" or "academic economics theory." But they can only work with what your story gives them.

Publishers, agents, and editors all spend a lot of time trying to figure out which box a story goes in. They need to know which set of rules apply so they can make sure the reader feels like they got what they came for and leave happy (and ready to buy your second, third, and fourth books.)

I should be able to tell what genre the book is (to a reasonable extent) by the first page. The tone, the word choice, the style, all should build together to tell me what kind of a book this is going to be. This is a promise to the readers that they will expect you to keep.

That isn't to say that you have to follow all the rules. Writing is all about breaking the rules. But you have to know the rules are there. Otherwise everyone just sits around lost, confused, and—potentially—angry.

Most authors don't accidentally switch to a dystopian novel in the middle of their fairy tale retelling. The way most writers get genre wrong is a lot less suddenly-ripping-the-rug-out-from-under-you and a lot more trying-to-sit-on-multiple-fences. I've gotten pitches for plenty of science fiction contemporary romance series. Or fantasy books from the point of views of both a 5 year-old and an 85 year old, with dual main characters and two completely separate plotlines. (See my posts about point of view and main characters here.) And until the author is willing to admit that they have no idea who they expect to read this book, there's not a lot I can do as an editor to help them.

So, you first have to pick an audience. Usually you're going to write to readers of whatever style you like best. Or second best. Or third best. But something you're familiar with. And you've probably read a lot of. You probably know all the rules. You just have to pay attention.

For example, in a sci-fi novel you are expected to go into great detail about the technology or the history of the world that led from modern days to this extrapolated future. Science fiction readers will happily sit through pages of exposition to learn this sort of thing because that's what they're there for: cool science and insightful plot twists on history that may or may not have happened yet. But if you write a contemporary fiction novel and you spend three pages on the toaster, no one is going to make it to the heart of your book.

There is always a time and a place for these things and your genre will help you know what details readers are looking for and which parts they'll probably skim over.

There are also rules about plotlines. If you make a rom com and the love interest gets unexpectedly hit by a bus, life sucks, the end, people will hate you. People watch romantic comedies to feel good and laugh. Not for unhappy endings.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a genre about tragic romances. If you're writing a story about a cancer patient falling in love, then people want some punch to that story. Tug at their emotions. Make them cry. And if you want to make them laugh too, that's great. But don't gloss over the depressing bits or everyone is going to feel cheated.

So while you're doing all of that reading, make sure to read the type of book you want to write, and then the stuff that's almost the type of book you want to write, and then some things that are definitely not the type of book you want to write. What do they all have in common? What differences do you see between what you write and you don't? And, most importantly, what things on this list do you like? Knowing what you personally like about the genre is a great guide to what your readers are going to like about your book. Once you know that, it will be much easier for you to write a book that you love, that you know who its for, that either yourself (if you self-pub) or your marketing team (if you go traditional) can clearly brand, and that readers will pick up and find exactly what they’re looking for.

So what about the parts of your chosen genre that you don’t like? This is still your book. Genre isn't a check list. Not every book needs to have all of the things. But you can’t just ignore them either.

Don’t worry I got you covered. My next genre post will go over how to deal with the bits of your genre you want to rebel against.

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