Michaeline: What fresh genre is this?

Choosing a genre can be heartwrenching if your story doesn't quite fit.

Choosing a genre can be heartwrenching if your story doesn’t quite fit.

I’m deeply suspicious of the writing tool called “genre”. My favorite book in the universe combines romance with gender politics, politics in general, mystery, thrills, and both science fiction and SFnal realism . . . and I might be missing a few genre-type areas. If Lois McMaster Bujold had tried to pare her fiction down to some sleek genre archetype, I think she would have quickly gotten bored and stopped writing. And from a purely selfish viewpoint, that would have been a tragedy.

Genre is a tool, though, and can be useful in shaping your story. But more importantly, there’s a point where you will want to send your story out into the wide world. Genre can help you find a good home for that story, with kind and loving readers who will treat your book with respect.

Anyway, allow me to present a slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to choosing a fiction genre. Imagine your ideal reader, finishing the last page of your book. She closes the book, and what’s her reaction?

Reaction: What a great story! Genre: All of them. Let’s take this as given and narrow the field.
Reaction: I know this couple is going to live happily ever after! Genre: Romance
Reaction: I know these couples are going to live happily ever after! Musical Theater
Reaction: I came six times: Porn
Reaction: I almost came six times: erotica.
Reaction: Justice prevailed thanks to a clever detective! Mystery
Reaction: Justice prevailed thanks to superior ass-kicking! Superhero comics.
Reaction: Oh, I felt just like that when I was a teenager! Probably YA.
Reaction: Magic! Squee! Fantasy
Reaction: Isn’t science cool? It saved the day! (I want to live on Mars.) Old School Science Fiction
Reaction: People are just like that, aren’t they? I think I want to go live in a cave. Literary.

Of course, that doesn’t begin to cover the topic as broad and deep and treacherous as “Genre”. But it’s worth thinking about: when you reader finishes your book, what do you want him to take away? What do you want her to tell her friends?

25 thoughts on “Michaeline: What fresh genre is this?

        • And in fact my ‘make up your own genre’ is even more convoluted because what I’m trying to do is to take typical Regency tropes and set them in the 1950s (because, why not!). So, the first story takes the ideas of what happens to the heiress who elopes with the wrong man (answer: in the fifties, she doesn’t rely on her rotten husband but sets up her own advertising agency) and what happens to the rake who loses his estate (answer: he becomes a police detective). And most of all, of course, what happens when they meet…..so, as you said Michaeline, both LOL and no pressure!

        • This sounds *amazing*! I wish there was an Amazon pre-order button for books that aren’t yet complete.

        • I’ve been following the Lizzie Bennet Diaries with a lot of interest, and that seems to be a big trend — adapting Austen tropes to the modern day. Heck, adapting Doyle tropes to the modern day is also big (witness Sherlock and Elementary). Your story, Rachel, puts a fresh twist on that because it is 1) original, and 2) set in a different era, not the modern day. (-: The world is ready and waiting!

      • What everyone else said, Rachel – your story sounds great. I’d buy that. Hope you’ll keep us posted on your progress as you work through the re-write.

        • I too wish there was an Amazon pre-pre-pre-pre-order button, then we could all buy each others books and feel good that we have made sales. Thanks so much for positive feedback – you’re the first people I’ve given it an airing to, so it means a lot.

    • Me too! I also think that it’s easy to worry about fitting into a genre (or perhaps I should say that I have spent too much time worrying about this). My story is probably best described as a historical romcom mystery – but I don’t think that genre exists and it sounds much too confused. So I think I would just go with romance (because that is the primary genre) and not worry about the rest. And, I say historical, but some contests/publishers categorise my time period (1950s) as contemporary, which just shows you that worrying about which box it fits into is pointless, because not everybody means that same thing by the category/box/label/genre (whatever you want to call it).

      • Everyone uses their tool set differently, and I have a major problem with genre because 1) I hate pigeonholing, and 2) I tend to bring elements of various genres into my writing, and 3) as a reader, I like cross-genre stories the best.

        A lot of really good writers wind up being their own genres — readers don’t buy it because it’s a romance, they buy it because it’s a Crusie (or a Pratchett, or an Alice Hoffman).

        If a story sits nicely within a genre, then I think it can be a great tool for making that story more genre-like (NOT formulaic!). But if your story has a lot of elements, it can still be a great story if you can make those elements play nicely together.

        I am not quite sure when thinking about your audience is a good idea. Some writers imagine their audience from the beginning, and the imaginary feedback is a great spur to writing. Other writers write purely to entertain themselves, and the audience reaction factor is considered in the middle of the process to refine ideas rather than generate ideas.

    • (-: Just meant to be a starting point for discussion and thought. I know it’s not quite fair to some of the genres (or readers!) — but comedy isn’t supposed to be fair. Glad you enjoyed it!

  1. I think genre is a useful starting point. It helps writers to connect with their most likely audience and also helps to cut down on mismatches of expectation (which leads to frustrated readers, angry reviews and one-star ratings). If I’m looking for a love story with a happy ending then I appreciate being pointed gently in the direction of romance rather than blundering my way into women’s or literary fiction.

    It’s just the beginning though, a useful filter, an entry point. Every author is as individual as a fingerprint, and I think ultimately each writer is a sub-genre. Lois McMaster Bujold’s personal mixture is especially rich and complex, but I don’t think you can create engaging characters and a compelling plot without branching out in one direction or another, whether it’s fashion, workplace politics, sibling rivalry or whatever. I have to comb through a lot of romance reviews to find the kind of writing I think is likely to appeal to me. I’m not choosy about world – it can be historical, contemporary, suspenseful, urban fantasy, sci-fi – but I do care about the kind of characters a writer creates, the kind of story choices she makes, and her facility with words.

    I’d like my readers to know they’re in for a contemporary love story, so of course there will be a HEA. My flavor of contemporary romance has larger-than-life characters, plenty of smart remarks, a lot of heart and and a strong sense of community. I’d like my readers to smile a lot, maybe cry a little, enjoy the journey as well as the resolution, and then look for more stories about the community I’ve created. Easy peasy (not).

      • More than a third, less than half-way, Rachel, though there are plenty of scenes in the rest of the manuscript that I’ll use at least part of. I’ve been feeling really frustrated because it’s been such slow going, but yesterday while I was driving home down the M1 in the pouring rain I finally figured out the problem with my heroine that’s been eluding me for more than a year, since I started discussing her with Jenny C. Rose had been the fly in the ointment of my rewrite – and now I’m finally feeling good about her. Made me SO happy. I think/hope I should be able to make some better progress now. Fingers crossed 🙂

        • Oh, I’m not far behind you. I spent ages completely rewriting about the first 15,000 words but am now moving a bit more quickly (still more rewrite than edit, but actually using some of the scenes rather than just chucking out wholesale). I really liked the sound of your antagonist Sasha, so brilliant news that you’ve worked out what was bothering you about Rose. Do you have a deadline to finish?

    • I agree that genre is an important consideration at some point, but I tend to think of it more as a refining rather than a defining tool for the story. But everybody writes differently.

      I suspect in these days of internet bookstores, genre will start becoming less important — it’ll be a mere tag. When I was researching this, I popped into Amazon.com, and saw that genre was listed on a sidebar, and was pretty limited. Far more important for them was my buying history. I am sure their algorithm includes genre, but I think there are a lot of other tags involved — for example, they have a lot of “customers who bought XX also bought YY” — which isn’t always in the same genre group.

      That makes a lot of sense, from a marketing viewpoint. If Customer A likes XX, which was a woman’s journey book, s/he may also like YY, a self-help book about something in XX. If Customer B likes XX which was SF which centered on the struggle to grow food in outerspace, s/he may also like YY, a pop science book about biological food regeneration. It can also be a win for the reader.

      I’m afraid genre sometimes becomes a trap for writers. They aren’t “allowed” to write outside the genre that gave them their success. Of course, that’s all just a false mind-game. A wild card that’s written with love will probably do better than the book that is written half-heartedly — it will definitely do better than the book that is never written at all because the Girls in the Basement go on strike for funner working conditions. But perhaps, that’s more a “paycheck” trap than a genre trap . . . . Very real, in any case.

  2. Love your guide to genres Michaeline!

    What do I want my readers’ reactions to be? “OMG I needed that- I laughed a lot and now I feel relaxed and cheerful! When does the next one come out?”

    What do I want them to tell their friends? “I loved this book. You should totally go buy it!” 🙂

    • (-: And I think you are also writing in the “cozy” genre too — I love humor, too, but only a certain type of humor. I don’t really like biting, making-people-look-like-idiots humor (although the dinner party scene in *A Civil Campaign* is very much slapstick, it’s not biting slapstick — it’s natural-progression-slapstick).

      Thanks to you, I know about cozy mysteries. Are there other genres of cozy out there? (I would love to try writing cozy SF . . . I have a couple of short stories that have girlfriends-of-the-future taking on DIY projects like making popcorn on a space station. Maybe someday I can revisit those ideas.)

  3. I wish I could say I am writing in the cozy genre, but I’m not. Cozies have a very rigid set of expectations (a murder is required, the sleuth is female, the community is small and closed, etc.) that are not what my story is about. My story is cozy-ish only in that I am trying to build the same type of community full of quirky characters found in cozy series’ and to imbue it with a similar homey warmth. Not sure I am succeeding in this, but no matter. I’m sure whatever final product I end up with will be better if I let it have it’s own life rather than try to force it to stick to my original plan.

    Not sure there are other cozy genres. I would love that, though!

    • (-: I want to say something corny like, “Preach, sister.” But it’d be clearer to say, I love a good community in a story, and yes, the story needs room to breathe. I’m by turns completely frustrated and utterly delighted by what twists the Girls put on the page.

      Cozy books just sound so, so, cozy. The kind of book you dive into while wrapped in an afghan and sipping a hot beverage. Preferrably with a cold rain beating on the windows. I’m probably using the word in a way that the Cozy Mystery people don’t exactly mean, then.

      (-: But still, there oughta be a genre for that!

  4. I think that is exactly the way the cozy mystery people mean. It’s just that they’ve gotten cozy with a certain type of book for so long that now they want exactly that experience when they’re looking for snuggle-up comfort reading.

    But yeah, a genre to label all the books that are happy, cozy, snuggle-up stories would make my book shopping considerably less time consuming!

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