Genre is a funny thing. Ask most writers what they HATE and they will tell you ‘generic fiction’. Just the word ‘generic’ will strike fear in the heart of a creative being. It sounds so cardboard cutout. It feels as if it is the antithesis of creativity - as if you are writing off a template and simply have to fill in the details. But I am a genre FANATIC and I have to impress that this is your very first choice when you start to write 'a book'.
It is the start of every thing. Your very first choice is a simple one... but one of genre: Are you writing a fiction or a non-fiction?
Remember those charts of the classification of living things you did in science. Now imagine a publisher or bookseller has a similar chart. Where does your story fit?
Genre is critical on two very important levels.
On the most basic level it is your single greatest tool as a writer to focus your story and keep you on track. In fact, your very first step in starting a book is to choose your genre. Are you writing a romance, a vampire thriller or a chic-lit? Genres have some conventions and it's your job as a writer to know them.
The first novel I wrote was The Ticking Shed and that was a disaster of genre. I have always loved romantic fiction, but I knew that the bestselling genre was crime. So I planned a crime novel. But I was taken with the steamy romance brooding between the two leads. Half way into the book the trail of clues was all but forgotten as the taut romance took centre stage. That would have worked, but I doggedly kept going with forensics and clues and piecing together a murder.
An agent in LA did my first MS appraisal. It was short and sweet.
“Good writing but not good enough yet. You are confusing your genres. This is neither a romance, nor a crime novel. Chose one and stick to it. The romance is the strongest.”
So that is how genre keeps you as a writer on track. Steven King didn’t start Carrie as a drama and end it as a freak-your-brains-out horror. Nope, he was clear from the start. Even his cover (now in its 100th reprint) simply screams HORROR NOVELS.
JK Rowling didn’t start off with Harry Potter as wizard and then switch by book three into a romance. (Hint Harry Potter fits into the young adult YA > fantasy genre). No, they were consistent and clear. King promised his readers a horror, and he delivered.
The second critical aspect of genre is all about your reader. Readers like to buy books that deliver precisely the read they enjoy. Especially as they get older.
When you are in your teens and 20s you will dabble in lots of literary styles. But, for most readers, by the time you hit your 30s you are pretty clear about the kinds of books you like. It may be an author (Nora Roberts, Terry Prachett, Janet Evanovitch, Dan Simmons, John Grisham) or simply genre (crime, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, memoir, non-fiction). You may also go through phases (two years of detective crime novels and then you are onto reading forensic crime novels for the next three years.)
Yes, it is sort of sad. Getting older makes you far less experimental on many levels. It’s like your taste buds know they like Lindt (but not Cadbury’s). As we get older we become creatures of habit. But this is great for booksellers and publishers. Repeat readers mean a sure sell.
So this idea that ‘generic fiction’ is the death of creativity is somewhat misplaced, but not entirely.
Genre fiction does have a level of formula attached to it. Naturally a romance is going to involve two people, falling in love and having to fight to be together.
Sure a crime novel is going to involve a body, a serial killer, a detective (and probably his partner) in a race against time to find the killer before another body turns up.
But that’s why readers buy them.
Ask any writer who has completed a full length MS and they will tell you that, no matter how ‘paint by numbers’ your plotting may be when you start, the reality is when you sit down and write that book you are out there doing your very best. And what happens is a mix of planning and art.
Do you need to find your book's genre? Please read the next post Find Your Genre and Subgenre
Sarah Bullen is a writing coach, literary agent and book editor. She coaches writers on how to become authors and how to write to get published.