Genre categories – and more of my saga

Okay, take a deep breath, boys and girls: we’re going to tackle the rest of the fiction book categories today. (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that jolly interesting stuff about my memoir being the target for an ill-conceived lawsuit threat at the end of the post. I just didn’t want to leave all of you anxious queriers out there in the lurch, category-less.)

Yesterday, for those of you who missed it (I posted considerably later than usual), I went through the standard general fiction categories. Picking a category for your work is important, because (a) you only get to pick one, no matter how badly you would like to form hyphenate composites like Erotica-Western (and who wouldn’t want to read THAT?), and (b) the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work. Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their chosen categories.

Furthermore, you cannot dodge this kind of negative snap judgment by avoiding making a choice at all amongst the dozens of available categories, or by hiding your choice in the middle of your query letter. Oh, no: agents expect to see a straightforward statement of your category in the first paragraph of your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (I’ll show you how to format a title page next week, legal difficulties permitting), and in your pitch.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates into writing less polished than other fiction in professional minds. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are markers of where a book will sit in a bookstore, not value judgments. Naturally, agents and editors expect a book to reflect the conventions of books within the stated genre, but believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER, rather than just FICTION.

Case in point: I once had the misfortune to be assigned at a writers’ conference to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle mainstream or literary fiction, which is what I was writing. Since he had been good enough to read my first chapter and synopsis, I sat politely and listened to what he had to say. What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, but he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two thirds of the way through the book, concerning the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He looked at me as though I had just told him that the sky was bright orange. “Then why are you talking to me?”

The rumor that genre carries a stigma has resulted in a lot of good manuscripts that would have stood out in their proper genres being pitched as mainstream or even literary fiction. Thus, queries and pitches have been aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your query landing on the desk of someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity. Many first-time genre authors make the completely understandable mistake of simply labeling their work with the overarching genre: MYSTERY, ROMANCE, SCIENCE FICTION, etc. However, did you know that each of these categories has many, many subcategories?

The more specific you can be, the more likely your work is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up your book. (Or so the professionals claim. Really, it’s a shortcut that enables them to weed out queries outside their area with a minimum of letter-reading; that’s why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can weed it out almost instantly.)

Let me state outright that the major genres all have wonderful writers’ associations which can undoubtedly give you more specific information than I can here. This list is intended to guide people’s first forays into picking a category.

Let’s start with SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, because it is the genre closest to my heart. My first writing teacher was an extremely well-known science fiction writer, so my first efforts at short stories were naturally in that genre. It may amuse those of you who write SF (the professionals NEVER call it Sci Fi, incidentally) that Philip, arguably one of the best-selling SF writers of all time, told me from the very beginning that he thought I should not write in his genre, no matter how well I did it: it was, he said, too hard for any good writer to make a living at it.

But times have changes substantially since Philip was writing, and if you write SF or Fantasy, you have many options within the genre. You can, of course, simply list SCIENCE FICTION or FANTASY, if your work does not fall into any of the subcategories.

SCIENCE FICTION ACTION/ADVENTURE: The protagonist must fight incredible odds or impressive beasties to attain his (or, less frequently, her) goals. Eek – is that an Ewok behind that tree?

SPECULATIVE SCIENCE FICTION (what if X were changed?) and FUTURISTIC SCIENCE FICTION (what if my characters lived in a future society where X was different from now?) are often mistakenly conflated into a single category. Wait – is this a government plot?/>
ALTERNATE HISTORY: What if X had changed in the past? What would the present be like? Philip’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, predicated on the premise that the other side won World War II, is the usual example given for this subgenre.

CYBERPUNK: I have heard a lot of definitions for this subgenre, ranging from THE MATRIX to NEUROMANCER. Think technology-enhanced alternate realities with a dark twist.

DARK FANTASY: Fear skillfully woven into a what-if scenario. Until CYBERPUNK got its own following, its books tended to be marketed as DARK FANTASY.

COMIC FANTASY: Elves on ecstasy.

EPIC FANTASY: Wait – my friends the centaur, the half-human, half-canary, and a centipede have to save the universe AGAIN? If Tolkein were writing today, his LORD OF THE RINGS series would probably be marketed under this category.

If you are in serious doubt over where your SF/FANTASY book falls, go to any bookstore with a good SF/fantasy section and start pulling books off the shelves. Find a book similar to yours, and check the spine and back cover: the subgenre is often printed there.

VAMPIRE FICTION is sometimes categorized as fantasy, sometimes as horror. But there is something hypnotic…about your eyes…

HORROR is its own distinct genre, and should be labeled accordingly. Never get into a car without checking the back seat, and for heaven’s sake, if you are a teenager, don’t run into the woods.

Okay, take another deep breath, because we are now going to delve into the many, many ROMANCE subcategories.

EROTICA is not your grandmother’s idea of pornography anymore. (Well, I guess it might be, depending upon what your grandmother was into.) Sexually-explicit writing where arousal is the point.

HISTORICAL ROMANCE has a zillion subcategories, primarily because its subcategories are often specific to period and locale. A few of the biggies: REGENCY, SCOTTISH, MEDIEVAL, TEXAS, WESTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN. ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND.

TIME TRAVEL: You have given up on the opposite sex in your own timeframe.

INSPIRATIONAL: If your romance novel is informed by spirituality, it belongs here.

CONTEMPORARY: Having a current-affairs issue at its core OR a protagonist who is a woman deeply devoted to her career.

FANTASY and CHICK LIT are hyphenates within the genre: basically, the conventions of these categories are grafted onto the ROMANCE genre. Natural choices, I think.

MULTICULTURAL: Not all of the people falling in love are white. Seriously, that’s what this means. I don’t quite understand this euphemism, since generally books labeled MULTICULTURAL are about a single culture, but hey, I don’t make the rules.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: this used to be called Women in Jeopardy or, more colloquially, Bodice Rippers. No comment.

PARANORMAL and GHOST ROMANCE are divided by a distinction I do not understand. Sorry. Check with Romance Writers of America.

CATEGORY ROMANCE: This is actually what many people think of automatically as a romance novel – the Harlequin type, written according to a very rigid structure.

Okay, hang in there, because here comes the last of the many subcategoried genres: MYSTERY. Again, I would urge you to consult the excellent resources provided by the Mystery Writers of America, if you are in serious doubt about which subgenre to select.

HISTORICAL: Again, self-explanatory?

COZY: An amateur sleuth is solving the crimes. VERY popular: about a quarter of the mysteries sold in North America fall into this category.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: The people who are supposed to be solving the crimes are solving the crimes.

LEGAL: A lawyer misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PROFESSIONAL: A doctor, professor, reporter, etc. misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case.

PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: A PI reads his or her job description correctly, and gets involved with solving a case.

PSYCHOLOGICAL or FORENSIC: A psychologist or forensic scientist plays around with his or her job description, refusing to leave the rest of the crime-solving to the police.

SUSPENSE: Wait, is ANYBODY going to solve the crime here? Hello? Is anybody else in the house? Hello?

THRILLER: AAAAH!

HARDBOILED: There’s this guy, see, who lives by his own rules. He ain’t takin’ no guff, see – except maybe from a beautiful dame with a shady past. Often, she has legs that won’t quit AND go all the way to the ground. (A genre with surprising longevity: in 2003, hardboiled mysteries were 5% of the mysteries sold.)

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE: This time, the beautiful dame with a past and the legs IS the protagonist.

COPS AND KILLERS: What it says on the box.

SERIAL KILLER: Baaad people.

CHICK LIT: With how much time the protagonist spends in bed, it’s AMAZING that she finds the time to solve the case AND coordinate her shoes with her Prada handbag.

BRITISH: You may be wondering why I asked you all here.

SPY THRILLER: You may be wondering why I have you tied to that chair, Mr. Bond.

NOIR: This loner drifts into town, where he collides romantically with someone else’s wife under magnificently moody lighting conditions. What’s the probability that he’ll get fingered for a murder he didn’t commit?

CAPER: The protagonists are non-career criminals, often with wacky tendencies. Can they pull it off? Can they?

The remaining genre categories, WESTERN and ACTION/ADVENTURE, speak for themselves. Or, more precisely, I don’t have anything smart alecky to say about them.

And that’s it. In my next posting, I’ll cover the nonfiction categories – and we’ll finally be done. Hurray!

To put my own adventures into perspective, the threat to my book, A FAMILY DARKLY, has now entered the LEGAL THRILLER stage of its development. Even as I write this, lawyers are scratching their learned heads over the puzzling allegations made about my memoir. Of particular interest is the issue of whether my telling the truth about a relationship that has been hush-hush since, oh, before the Bicentennial (yes, one of my claims to fame is that Philip K. Dick laughed like hell when I told him about having to dress up as a miniature colonial wife and wield a mean flatiron in an elementary school diorama on Housework Before Modern Technology) should seriously bother anyone now.

Also at issue: since the woman who, ahem, borrowed my mother’s first husband on a semi-permanent basis has written her own book about the break-up of one marriage and the establishment of the next, and Philip has written a fictionalized account of it, is there any logical or ethical reason that my mother’s side of things (as seen through my vision, darkly) should not see print? Can you, in fact, be a public figure and be selective about what is divulged about you after your death?

On the bright side, though, everyone concerned seems rather eager to get these issues resolved before A FAMILY DARKLY comes out, or to be more precise, before the marketing blitz for A SCANNER DARKLY begins. A big-budget film, I’m told, based upon Philip’s 1979 novel. Sort of the end of an era for me, to see concepts and characters I pictured in my head while Philip so much about during revisions, translated into big-screen images. Let no one say that the creative process isn’t often pretty surreal.

It may surprise you to learn – it surprised me, I’ll confess — that the author actually has very little to do with a lawsuit of this nature: it’s all handled by the publishing house and, at the moment, a wildfire of argument about whether my book should be censored amongst habitués of the many PKD fan sites. It’s actually rather maddening, to be stuck on the sidelines while discussion rages over what is after all my baby.

I shall keep you posted, of course, on what happens. And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *