It often pains authors to have to shoehorn themselves into a genre. It seems like an unfair constraint cooked up in some foreboding tower by a cackling publisher, who maniacally decreed one day that authors everywhere must sort themselves into categories before being allowed to enter the gates.
And sure, if you’ve let your original idea guide you rather than setting out to write in a particular genre, you may end up with a book that combines a little of this and a little of that until you find yourself with a vampiric unicorn novel set in a technologically advanced future, leaving you with absolutely no idea whether it’s fantasy, paranormal, science fiction, or horror. I saw many projects when I was an agent that felt like genre alphabet soup.
But it’s very important to know where either a novel or a nonfiction book will sit on the shelf (or virtual shelf), and it’s helpful to figure this out relatively early in both the traditional and self-publishing process.
Literary agents and publishers specialize
If you plan to pursue traditional publishing, you’ll need to know your genre at least in part because literary agents and publishers tend to specialize in particular genres. When you are researching literary agents, knowing your genre will help narrow down the agents who might be a fit for you.
As you move through the publishing process, agents will then target editors at particular publishing houses, who in turn have sales and marketing teams that are all oriented around knowing their area of specialty. And those tend to be highly calibrated to particular genres.
The bookstore test
But it’s not just agents and publishers who care about genre. Who else cares?
Walk into a bookstore. You’ll see that sections are arranged by genre. Go to Amazon or BN.com. The sections are arranged by genre.
These sections don’t exist as a means to torture authors. They exist because readers often know what they are looking for ahead of time and are browsing for something in particular. They are looking for genres.
(This is why knowing your genre is helpful if you’re self-publishing too, though one of the benefits of self-publishing is that you have a bit more freedom in this regard.)
It’s important to understand the expectations of your genre
Some genre readers have expectations for length and subject matter that you may want to take into account in the beginning stages of your novel lest you end up with a novel that is too short, too long, or otherwise offends the “rules” of its genre. If you are writing a novel with particular standards for length and plot contrivances (such as those in science fiction and romance), it is rather helpful to know these ahead of time. Romance in particular has a whole slew of subcategories and organizational rules that you should research heavily before you start.
Even if you’re planning to bend some genre rules and break new ground, it helps to know the genre conventions, and thus your reader’s expectations, ahead of time, so that you can break these rules to maximum effect.
Perhaps the greatest example of convention breaking is George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Martin knew the fantasy genre backwards and forwards, which for decades had been dominated by hero stories and redemptive plotlines, such as a dishonored knight who saves his realm or a young boy who finds out he has secret powers and defeats the evil bad guy. Martin took those conventions, upended them, shocked his readers, and then he did it again. And again. And again. It was quite thrilling. But you have to know these conventions in order to break them.
Even if you mix genres, be firmly planted in one
It’s totally fine to blur genres, and many successful novels do this, but even if you do some mixing, it’s extremely helpful to have a base. You can have a fantasy novel with science fiction elements or a literary novel that utilizes a horror plot, but whatever approach you choose should fit squarely in one genre even if it branches into another. This way, it will not only rest comfortably on the right shelf in the bookstore, but it will also be easier to market the book to the hard-core readers of a particular genre. These readers will be the evangelists who will help spread the word to a broader audience.
So yes, it’s not romantic to be forced to think about genres and genre conventions before you’ve really gotten going, but a bit of thought and preparation will help save you from the heartache and the time-consuming revisions that stem from writing a book without a category.
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Art: The Virgin with the Unicorn by Domenichino