5 Things About Genre Writing that No Publishing Company Tells You
You’ve already read all the how-to articles. As in, how to get an agent. How to get a publishing contract. How to write a page-turner.
And one of things that they all emphasize is that you have to know what genre you’re writing and make that genre clear. Are you writing a romance? Murder mystery? Thriller? Fantasy? Spell it out and highlight it in bold.
And there are good reasons for this. At the –duh– level of obvious, the publishing company wants to know what genre you’ve written if they publish this genre. And if they are getting any more books in this genre. They might be trying out a new genre or subgenre and put the word through the system. They get sent works that fit. But neither the agent nor the publishing company will know whether or not your book fits that genre unless you make it easy for them to know.
The second reason is that some genres are more popular than others.
Here are some truths about genre writing that you should know before you choose a genre.
1. It’s the market. For the past five years, fantasy has been flying high thanks to the world discovering the genre through Game of Thrones. Publishing companies are businesses like any other business and they want to offer what people want to buy. So if you’ve written a romantic love story set in a mystical land with fabulous beasts, call it a fantasy not a romance. Right now, horror is the ascendant fiction genre.
How do you know what’s the hot new genre? Look at what’s on TV. Sad but true. Or get an agent. That’s the agent’s job. In other words, blind luck has a lot to do with it. Are you in the right place at the right time? I hope so because it matters.
2. Genre blending is fine. I just read the Handmaid’s Tale for the first time in decades. I read it when it first came out (as a Canadian you have to read CanLit or they take away your passport). What struck me after finishing it, besides how extraordinary it is, is that it isn’t remotely clear what genre it belongs to. Science Fiction, obviously. But also horror. And thriller. And literary fiction. Publishers love this because they can then market it to multiple fan bases.
3. Genre can be completely meaningless. What does it actually mean that a book is designated YA Crossover (the only market segment with robust growth)? It means that young people will read and so too will people over the age of 25. Here are 3 YA Crossovers. Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games (fair enough) to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carry, about soldiers in the Vietnam War (not really) to Naomi Klein’s No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, a political manifesto (not at all). Not that young people can’t read political manifestos or books on the Vietnam War. But rather, thirteen year olds were not the authors’ targeted audience. But who cares. Younger people started reading and commenting on these books and so they were rebranded as YA Crossover.
4.The best books transcend genre. Obviously. Lord of the Rings is such a seminal work of Englishness that it is not even considered fantasy. Agatha Christie had such a superb understanding of human nature that her mysteries haven’t just stood the test of time, they have become manuals of human behavior. And anyone who thinks that Pride and Prejudice is nothing but a romance needs their head examined. Technically, John Le Carre writes spy thrillers. But his work is closely read by people in the intelligence community as almost non-fiction. Like, genre schmenre.
5. To get published, you need to break the rules of genre writing – making genre a pointless term. By that, I mean that genre writing has rules. These rules are so clear and so evident that you can chart them in a how-to book. It’s an adventure story so you start with a fight. By chapter 3, that’s out of the way and you meet the key bad guy – although you may not know he’s the key bad guy except that you’ve met him in chapter 3 and therefore must be. By chapter 5 you’ve got to be emotionally involved in the love story and chapter 6 you should realise that actually it’s a love triangle. By chapter 8 or 9, there’s a growing horror of that the world is going to end if our hero and his love interest cannot overcome the key bad guy. And so on. It’s just so predictable. And dull. And so it doesn’t get published.
The best genre writing combines some of the elements of the genre but throws most of them out the window.