When I first decided to write a book, I didn’t give much thought to genre. In blissful ignorance, I rejected the idea of ‘writing to a formula’ and merrily scribed whatever took my fancy. In various permutations and combinations, I dabbled in women’s fiction, memoir, crime and fantasy. Years later, I see this has been my biggest mistake on the road to traditional publication.
My job in editorial services for NAC (New Authors Collective) has given me invaluable insight to what makes a novel stand out from the slush pile. In particular, I welcome books that fit a clear genre. Why? Because publishing is all about book sales, which comes down to the psychology of setting and exceeding reader expectations. Readers don’t usually pick books at random, they browse the bookshop shelf (either real or virtual) that stocks their preference, be it mystery, romance or literary fiction. So if I can identify which shelf a book fits on, ie. its genre, I know it has one of the keystones of a solid marketing strategy.
What is genre fiction versus literary fiction?
Genre fiction includes crime, romance, science fiction, fantasy, historical, horror, inspirational and more. These can be further broken down into sub genres, for example crime includes mystery, thriller or even literary. Thriller can be spy, psychological, political, or more. If you search for genre on Goodreads, you’ll find a five-page list. Most ‘popular fiction’ is genre fiction of some sort.
Literary fiction is also a genre, but has fewer fixed expectations than genre fiction. It’s usually more character driven versus plot driven, and the writing tends to be poetic and descriptive. Snob value is associated with literary fiction, as it garners most of the literature awards, yet typically genre fiction earns more.
Do I have to choose a single genre?
No. Books often combine genres, although usually one is dominant. For example you might have a romance or mystery set in the past, or a fantasy that involves a mystery. These cross genres can be expressed as double barrel names, eg. historical romance, or as one genre with elements of another, eg. women’s fiction with mystery elements.
What is women’s fiction?
This term is used to describe books with a female protagonist who undergoes substantial character growth. It’s a controversial term, as there’s no equivalent for men’s fiction, and the label suggests that men won’t read it. ‘Chick lit’, another unpopular term, is sometimes seen as synonymous with women’s fiction, but it tends to refer to light reads, or ‘beach reads’ while women’s fiction can carry more weight.
What are genre conventions?
Each genre creates specific reader expectations, or genre conventions – the specific elements of a book that make it fit the genre. Simply calling a book a mystery, does not a mystery make. It needs a crime (usually a murder), suspects, a ‘detective’ character, red herrings and so on. A romance needs a couple to meet, fall in love, be separated by some misunderstanding or event and eventually end up back together.
If you don’t meet genre conventions, you will likely disappoint your reader. The book may be passed over by a publisher because the wrong acquisitions editor reads it. To use a simple analogy, if a customer asks for an apple and you give them an orange, most likely, they won’t be happy. It doesn’t matter how good the orange is, they wanted an apple. So understand and meet your genre conventions.
How do I determine genre conventions?
Information about genre conventions is readily available on the internet. You will find a wealth of information, even down to genre ‘beat sheets’ (more on these below). Many books have been written about the craft of writing. Read them. And for homework? Read prolifically in your genre to see how the pros do it. Usually we write in the genre we like to read, so this should be a pleasure.
What is a beat sheet?
A beat sheet is a planning tool that outlines the key moments or turning points in a story. For example, in romance, the moment when one partner meets the other is a beat; it even has a special name, a ‘meet cute’. A beat sheet typically follows the three-act structure – a beginning which includes a problem or ‘inciting event’, a middle leading to a climax, and an end or resolution. There could be around fifteen beats in a typical novel.
What if I don’t want to write to a formula?
I used to think that following a ‘formula’ such as a beat sheet was a form of cheating, that it undermined the creative process. But there is plenty of room for individuality within a novel – the choice of characters, setting, plot, dialogue and every one of approximately 80,000 words. Give ten authors the same beat sheet, say horror, and you will get ten completely different horror novels. But if done right, they will all meet the expectations for horror readers .
Of course you don’t want to blindly follow a formula, so as Picasso said, ‘Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.’
Some writers, like me, spend years finding their voice and choosing a genre. I have finally settled on writing thrillers. Imagine how much further I would have progressed if I’d been clear about that from the outset. If you are a writer, I urge you to give genre due consideration. It could save you years.
Next time: Adrift, a few words and a picture about the Covid-19 crisis.