Genre Fiction

Hello, readers —

Okay, take a deep breath, boys and girls: we’re going to tackle the rest of the fiction book categories today. For the past couple of days, I’ve been going over these essential labels, both because you will need to designate what kind of book yours is when you query about it, and because most literary contests (including the PNWA’s, whose deadline is next week!) request that you specify your book’s category on the title page of your entry.

Agency standards and contest rules do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; 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.

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

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. 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. And an agent interested in psychological thrillers will not even sniff at a book labeled LITERARY 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. We could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish, but as long-time readers of this blog know, I am a great believer in trying to turn these conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So I listened to what he had to say about my first chapter.

What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that 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, 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?”

I could understand his annoyance: actually, if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven. As would his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists. But ultimately, all I really learned from this exchange was the startling truth that specialists in the publishing biz are extremely myopic: to them, books outside their area of expertise might as well be poorly written.

(A brief plug for the value of being charming to everyone you meet in the biz, though: that near-sighted editor ended up being a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that’s currently handling my memoir. Isn’t it lucky that I was nice to him back in the day?)

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. 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. Think of it as a professional courtesy: hyper-specific category labels are 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 — or, even more practically, to be a last-minute consultation resource for those of you rushing a PNWA contest entry out the door.

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.) You can, of course, simply list SCIENCE FICTION or FANTASY, if your work does not fall into any of the subcategories, but here the more tightly-focused headings:

SCIENCE FICTION ACTION/ADVENTURE: The protagonist must fight incredible odds or impressive beasties to attain his (or, less frequently, her) goals. Jungian archetypes (and that ubiquitous heroic journey structure that screenwriters have so favored since STAR WARS hit the big screen) abound. 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 factor X was different from now?) are often mistakenly conflated into a single category. Here’s how to tell the difference: if your protagonist thinks, “Wait — is this a government plot?” now, it’s the former; if it’s a long time from now, and society has substantially changed in many ways in the interim, it’s futuristic. MINORITY REPORT vs. A CANTICLE FOR LEBOWITZ, essentially.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: What if X had changed in the past? What would the present be like? 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 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, 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: Fairly self-explanatory, no?

COZY: An amateur sleuth is solving the crimes. (Can anyone say NANCY DREW?) 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. Very often (and I hope I am not giving away to much here), the police officer in question is tough, nay, hard-boiled…

LEGAL: A lawyer misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with sleuthing his or her way through a case, as in the practically never-ending PERRY MASON series.

PROFESSIONAL: A doctor, professor, reporter, etc. misreads his or her job description, and gets involved with solving a case. If you’ve never seen a movie with a PROFESSIONAL MYSTERY premise, my guess is that you harbor some deep-seated aversion to both movie theatres and television.

PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: A PI reads his or her job description correctly, and gets involved with solving a case. There was this MALTESE FALCON, see…

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?


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 and smoke in her voice. 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. His past is shady, and so is his cheerless hotel room; there is some doubt whether he owns a razor, as stubble tends to accumulate on his rugged cheeks — signifying, no doubt, the absence of a wife and/or gainful employment. 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? Something tells me they will.

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 be done for the moment with book categories. Hurray!

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini
P.S.: For those of you who have been following the saga of my memoir’s path to publication, I am sad to report that once again, A FAMILY DARKLY has relapsed into the LEGAL THRILLER stage of its development; even as I write this, lawyers are scratching their learned heads over it. 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 offbeat 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. More news as it develops.

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