People often ask me how to characterize their own works, and are also stymied by submission guidelines that stipulate certain genres. If you have a YA fantasy novel and an agency accepts young adult queries but not fantasy, can you still query them?
Here’s a rough and quick rule of thumb when you’re confused: go by the sections in a bookstore.
Where would your book be stocked in the bookstore? If it’s YA fantasy, it would probably go in the YA section, not the fantasy section, so it’s YA first, YA fantasy second. If it’s dark urban fantasy with paranormal horror elements, where do you think it would go?
Pretend you’re a bookstore employee. Don those black glasses, squint knowingly when people are talking to you, and make your best guess about where your book should go. Then write a little card recommending it.
So if an agency accepts YA but doesn’t list fantasy as a genre they represent, I would feel free to send them that YA fantasy query — the section of the bookstore is the most important distinction. This isn’t a perfect way of breaking things down, but it will do in a pinch.
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Art: The painting collection of Johann Noë Gogel by Christian Stoecklin
Sophie W. says
I like how this post addresses my genre exactly. 🙂
We were talking about California flooding in my environmental science class, but it was supposed to be purely hypothetical. I’ll have to tell my teacher that he has psychic powers.
Sleepy Writer Ada says
The weather is nothing to you guys. I was thinking about a friend who moved to Cali from here in Canada just last month and if she was shocked at all by the weather.
Personally, I’m decidedly a Young Adult. I make no mistake about it, I know what my area is, and I think everyone should too.
It doesn’t matter what elements you have in your story, you have to think of who you’re targeting, how you are writing it, who it is about. All this tells you what
your material is don’t you think Nathan?
Ps: I think quick is best. Leaves no room for confusion if you ask me.
Melanie Avila says
I was in a bookstore in November and asked an employee to point out the memoir section. He replied there isn’t one, the books are spread out wherever they fit best, but after wandering the aisles I stumbled upon the Biography section. Full of memoirs!
Hopefully while donning our pretend glasses we can be smarter than that guy.
Sleepy Writer Ada says
If he quacks like a duck…
You can bet on the inside he was muttering to himself “just a day job…just a stepping stone until I work at my dream literary agency!”
Picture the interview love:
Interviewer: “And what section would this book be in?”
Prospective Associate/Agent: “I dunno, wherever they keep Paris Hilton and Nicole Richies memoirs…or are they kept at other ends of the store?”
When talking to other writers, especially less experienced writers, it always seems like they invent some some pretty bizarre genre-bending descriptions for their novels. Like maybe they’re writing a “young adult historical paranormal fantasy mystery thriller romance series set on the Planet Zrgyx in the year 3098.”
I’m betting you see that kind of thing a lot in queries. What kinds of reflexes does that sort of thing trigger in an agent?
How do you deal with a writer who thinks his book will appeal to everybody because it touches every imaginable genre?
Sleepy Writer Ada says
Scott I don’t think it is so much a lack of understanding as it’s they want to (being an unpublished writer who is eager to get out there), put their best foot forward. They aren’t aware that less is sometimes more…they figure if I make it sound as interesting as possible – squeeze as much in, he or she will be interested. I should know. I’m a young, unpublished writer as well, and I’ve done it before too. Thanks to agents like Nathan who put themselves out there, say clearly what they want, we are less likely to make fools of ourselves.
“Like maybe they’re writing a “young adult historical paranormal fantasy mystery thriller romance series set on the Planet Zrgyx in the year 3098.””
LOL, Scott! I went through that phase, but am now brave enough to just say, YA!
Heh. I wish I’d heard this when I was shopping my YA fantasy/horror. Anyone who didn’t like fantasy or horror–off the list. That explains why all these blogs were going, “Oh, there are tons of agents out there, you should query a hundred of them before giving up” and I couldn’t find more than a few dozen.
i hate category management. blech.
This is very useful 🙂 That’s what I do, anyway. I’ve been adding people who say “Young Adult” on my list of prospective agents.
Though, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to query an agent who says Young Adult but also makes it explicitly clear that they do not rep fantasy with a YA Fantasy project, would it?
Friday was ugly in downtown SF, for sure. I was watching rain falling up quite frequently from my Market Street office.
Still, it’s all relative, right? When I was in LA in December, they had a severe weather warning because they were expecting some showers. I guess it’s “severe” when you have to put the top up on your convertible?
My favorite scene (from a craft POV):
When the editor gave the reporter credit for finding the story in the meeting agenda, even though it was he who had found it. Told us so much about the character in the span of about three seconds.
My least favorite:
When Herc “explained” to the scummy lawyer guy why he’s so popular among the cops. Sort of an “As you know, Bob…” moment for me, which The Wire always seems so adept at avoiding. But, even so, they did do it a lot more subtly than most shows.
My husband and I just watched Episode 2. Lots of great humor in that one!
A Paperback Writer says
Thanks, Nathan. I’d sort of been hoping this was indeed the case, but I feel much better after hearing it from you.
Heidi the Hick says
Okay I’ve got my specs on.
This is a timely post for me, because my husband and I were wandering a Chapters this weekend, checking out the fiction shelves to see where my book would go. We are dangerous optimists…
A little voice has been nagging me for months that my little YA book is not YA. I wrote it for a teen audience, but always worried that it’s too much. Too gritty and harsh. I vowed I wouldn’t back it off though, because the story needed it, and teenagers are tough enough to handle it.
The teens who have read it enjoyed it.
BUT. There was the big guy asking me what books in the teen fiction rack resembled mine. I was stumped. My book doesn’t belong there. It could end up there, but it won’t start off there. It just hit me on Saturday night.
Nathan, is an agent more likely to take on a writer who can keep going in that genre and build up a following? I get the feeling from studying in blogiversity here that you sign up for a career, not a one hit wonder.
Michael Reynolds says
I wouldn’t sweat it. The YA landscape is getting darker. At least I hope it is. If not my publisher and I will be very disappointed.
Finally, someone addressed this issue. As I’ve begun my Great Agent Search, it’s been difficult to decide exactly what agencies would accept my genre. 🙂
And we’ve had a bit of stormy weather up here in Oregon, too! Lots of wind.
I say: science fiction.
My publisher says: mystery.
I say: I’m glad I didn’t try for an agent first.
The storm was wild. We live in the mountains, and we didn’t fare TOO badly, but our property was pretty well decorated with flying pieces of eucalyptus bark!
Good info on the genre stuff, thanks!
So, here is a question:
How would anyone classify “The Life of Pi”
or CS Lewis novels?
Weather? What’s weather?
I ran across this, also, and wanted to post for comments:
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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See Mythopoeia (poem) for Tolkien’s poem.
Mythopoeia (also mythopoesis, after Hellenistic Greek μυθοποιία, μυθοποίησις “myth-making”) is a narrative genre in modern literature and film where a fictional mythology was created by the author or director. The word mythopoeia and description was coined and developed by J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1930s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes, into fiction. Mythopoeia is also the act of making (creating) such mythologies. Notable mythopoeic authors are J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Robert W. Chambers, H. P. Lovecraft, and George MacDonald, among others. While many literary works carry mythic themes, only a few approach the dense self-referentiality and purpose of mythopoeia. It is invented mythology that, rather than arising out of centuries of oral tradition, are penned over a short period of time by a single author or small group of collaborators.
As opposed to fantasy worlds or fictional universe aimed at the evocation of detailed worlds with well-ordered histories, geographies, and laws of nature, mythopoeia aims at imitating and including real-world mythology, specifically created to bring mythology to modern readers, and/or to add credibility and literary depth to fictional worlds in fantasy or science fiction books and movies.
Mythopoeia can be created entirely by an individual, like the world of Middle-earth, or can be formed as a result of an amalgam of writings, like the Cthulhu Mythos.”
The term mythopoeia (virtually Greek μυθο-ποιία “myth-making”) was adopted and used by Tolkien as a title of one of his poems, written about 1931 and published in the Tree and Leaf. The poem essentially defined and popularized the word mythopoeia as a literary and artistic endeavor and genre.
 The place in society
Works of mythopoeia are often categorized with fantasy or science fiction but fill a niche for mythology in the modern world, according to Joseph Campbell, a famous student of world mythology. Campbell spoke of a Nietzschean world which has today outlived much of the mythology of the past. He claimed that new myths must be created, but he believed that present culture is changing too rapidly for society to be completely described by any such mythological framework until a later age. He did, however, use Star Wars as an example of the creation of such fantasy worlds by which civilization will one day describe itself. Without relevant mythology, Campbell claimed, society cannot function.”
*Walks into Borders*
“Can you direct me to the mythopoeia section please?”
I’ve asked for the ‘mythology’ section before in Waterstones and been directed to the self-help shelves. I eventually found one book on mythology in the history section – Robert Graves’s Greek Myths.
Aimless Writer says
Good post. Now can you answer the question of what the heck genre is my story? What if it seems to fit more then one?
End of world- Action? Drama?
Religious aspects- Religious?
Throw in some zombies- Horror?
I have an action/religious/horror book…but it really isn’t horror, its more like “a child shall lead them” genre. So, how the heck do I label this one? And if I can’t label this, who do I sent it to? I’ve actually finished and shelved this book. When I figure out what it is I’ll drag it back out and send it somewhere.
I have a question as well. I work with wordperfect on my writing. I do the writing with it already formatted correctly, as in double spaced, one inch margin all around, and a half-inch indention for new paragraphs. When I paste it on an email form, it takes out all the formatting and double spaces in between paragraphs only. Like:
aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa aaaa
bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb bbbb
Would an agent be annoyed if I sent a sample with my query like this? I really don’t know what I can do to make the formatting stick.
Steph: When you send pages in the body of an e-mail, use e-mail formatting. Single space, justify to the left (no indentation), and double space between paragraphs.
This is acceptable because, as you say, no other format sticks!
Josephine Damian says
Move to Florida and then talk to me about weather. Worst drought in 75 years and brush fires, or hurricanes and tornadoes – choose your poison.
Seems to me that first novels by newbies should stick to, and be queried as a single, simple genre – a writer should not make it harder to sell themself and their book than it already is, IMO.
Mary: Yeah, I was about to say, how the hell am I supposed to go about this? Plus, it’s a lot clearer to read it that way, I think. Indented and double-spaced on an email client would look bizarre. 🙂
Jason Cook says
Hi Nathan, I’ve been enjoying your blog since late December. You’re doing a lot of good for both prospective writers and agents alike out there. Keep it up.
My question comes from publishers or agencies who list an interest in “action/adventure” without necessarily listing individual genres. The confusion comes in when the agency listing says this, but occasionally those agencies will have (concerning my interests) “science fiction” listed next to a specific agent. Obviously in that case I know they accept science fiction and better yet who I should personalize the query to. But what about agencies who don’t list out their member agents, and only put down “action/adventure.”
If it’s an action/adventure driven science fiction novel, does this count as a fair submission (even though the novel would most likely file under science fiction on the book shelf)?
Colorado Writer says
I’m middle grade, no matter how hard I try to get edgy, it doesn’t work for me.
And is “humorous, contemporary boy-centric middle grade” a real genre? Or did I make it up?
Like Sophie said, this post addresses my exact genre of YA fantasy, and is something I’ve wondered about in the past. Thanks Mr. Bransford!
On another note, I was actually on vacation in San Francisco this previous Friday and I can vouch for the craziness. Half the places in China Town must have been closed due to the weather keeping most tourists indoors. Still had a blast though (hard not to in that city).
Christine H says
I’m wondering about the whole literary fiction thing – which seems to encompass many other genres. Googling “literary fiction” didn’t help much, other than to say that it’s difficult to define, but tends to be novels that focus more on character development than a genre-driven structure.
I’m writing a fantasy novel, but my aim is depth of character and plot, not number and variety of monsters. I went to the bookstore yesterday and browsed the Fantasy section. The ONLY book that looked even REMOTELY like mine was Lord of the Rings, which is considered literary.
So, is my book literary, or fantasy? Or both?
my book is adult fiction. can i just call it that?
Very confused about the distinction between "travel", "narrative non fiction" and "memoir". A true story by someone writing about their own travels around the world, (not a guide, but a story), would be classified as travel? or as narrative non fiction? If it involves romance, is it included in another list? What would Eat Pray Love is classified as?
Also what is an acceptable word length range for this kind of book? Will my 70,000 words be considered ok or too short, without the agents knowing before they've read anything that it is written in a fast paced, punchy and snappy style, so its not a long ruminating autobiographical tome. Any clarification would be much appreciated!