Break these Genre Rules at Your Own Risk
How important is identifying your genre? Authors who are ambiguous in identifying their genre, or don’t do it correctly, can run into problems when pitching their manuscript to an agent or publisher. We’re here to nip that in the bud and keep you from breaking genre rules. Or, if you do break them, at least you will understand the risk you take.
Now, you’re probably asking why you should care about genre. After all, that’s something your agent or publisher, or the bookstores, or Amazon, or your audience will surely figure out on their own. You have all these glorious ideas and a horror/space opera/western/mermaid-romance is going to appeal to so many audiences, you don’t have to follow genre rules.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, most agents and publishers want to know exactly what type of manuscript you’re offering. It may seem like a creative buzzkill, but there are reasons for following genre rules. And while many brave writers have broken the rules, only a few do it successfully.
If you can’t figure out why agents aren’t devouring your manuscript pitch like a ravenous shark along the beach on the 4th of July, then maybe you need to take a hard look at your genre and sub genres of your manuscript. If you still want to break the genre rules, then jump right in. You can do so at your own risk.
What Is Genre Fiction?
So, what is genre fiction? Genres are the categories that fiction is divided into; it is the place your story fits. Science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, romance, and historical fiction are some of the main genres that usually come to mind. Think about where your book will fit both on a shelf in a bookstore or library, and where it will be categorized online.
The official definition according to LiteraryTerms.net, is:
A genre is a category of literature identified by form, content, and style. Genres allow literary critics and students to classify compositions within the larger canon of literature. Genre (pronounced ˈzhän-rə) is derived from the French phrase genre meaning “kind” or “type.”
Genres give you, as a writer, rules to work within. It gives your reader security in knowing what they will get out of a particular story. It gives an agent a firm grasp of your manuscript and how it will fit into the marketplace for potential publishers.
What Are the Dos and Don’ts of Identifying Your Genre?
There are rules about writing within a genre, so we have some dos and don’ts for you. This should help you think about genre and help you identify it.
- The first thing to do is look at other books that are similar to yours. Read as much as you can, and take notes on patterns, setting and character styles. Every genre has a basic structure and “notes” you should hit. Reading other books in the genre will give you an idea of what to include and what to avoid.
- Do think about who would love this story. If you feel your manuscript is Young Adult, or YA, then make sure you hit those notes. A manuscript that is too adult, or not mature enough, may not appeal to this audience.
- Do pick the keywords that might describe your book. Is it horror? Is it mystery? What keywords would you use on your website when optimizing the copy and content so those readers can find you? It’s okay if you have several words. After all, there are many books that fall under the mystery and thriller categories, or are YA romance. Select three or four words that most succinctly describe your book’s genre.
- Think of a few descriptive categories, too. Agents and publishers are often looking for stories that have “a strong female protagonist” or is a “coming of age story”.
- Do your research, many genre-based organizations define their genres for their writer members. There are plenty of books and online resources. Even Wikipedia has a good list and links to all kinds of genres, sub-genres, and their definitions.
- Keep word count limits in mind, too. Different genres have different word count minimums and maximums. Read more about why word counts are like speed limits in this article to get a good idea where yours fits in.
If you get stuck, consider taking your first draft (or the first quarter or half of your draft) to a development editor. They can help you refine your work to fit within a marketable genre. If you give a development editor even the beginning of your book, they can often help you avoid straying too far outside of reader expectations.
Why Is It Important to Adhere to Genres?
In the end, you want people to read or listen to the story you’re telling. You want the people who love the genre you’re writing, to find and identify your book as one they want to read. You also want to be compensated for your work. That makes this a business as well as an art. Knowing your genre will help you get your book to an agent, and help your publisher know how to market the book. More on that in a bit.
It can also help you craft your story. Even when you’re early in the process, it’s helpful to know the rules of the genre as you write. One tool that is really an essential for you is a writer’s group. Knowing your genre might even help you find the right one.
Editor and ghostwriter Elaine Ash has a great example of how this can help your process. She explains that the first writer’s group she joined wasn’t in her genre. “I didn’t know anything about genre,” she says. “So, I took feedback from people who didn’t like my story. It was only afterward, a few years later, that I realized I was writing hard boiled crime. They were very soft lovey dovey romance, and I was never, ever going to please them. I learned the hard way that you only take feedback from people in your genre, who are readers of your genre, lovers of your genre. I have very few hard and fast rules, but that is one of them.”
What Do Readers of Certain Genres Expect and Why?
You know how it feels when you finish a great book, and you want the experience to continue? Finding your next book within the same genre can keep that feeing going. Readers have expectations when they visit a certain section of the bookstore. They’ll have read enough from that section to expect certain things. For instance, they know they’re probably not going to see grisly crime scenes in that romance novel they just picked up. There is a comfort in knowing the framework of your next read.
Many new authors believe they are being bold and distinctive in breaking the rules of their genre. For example, while there are a few romance novels that defy the “happily ever after” genre rule, or HEA as it is known among romance authors, doing so will likely result in the author upsetting dedicated romance readers.
A romance reader might be reading to escape, they might be reaching for literary comfort food to help them overcome a nagging boss, crying kids, bills in the mail and all of life’s hardships. Shove a sad ending in their face unexpectedly and you’ve done a disservice to your reader. They won’t be delightfully surprised or profoundly moved by your cavalier decision to break genre rules, they’ll just be mad and disappointed.
There is also something satisfying in knowing the way a certain story might go. There is a pattern to things that readers go in expecting, and it can be jarring when it strays from that pattern. Ash explains, “You can have a murder mystery with a romantic subplot. You [just] can’t mash up the crime scene with the kissing scene. You can’t match them up side-by-side. You can sort of weave this through.”
Why Is It Vital to Know Your Own Genre Before Pitching It to an Agent or Publisher?
When you’re pitching to an agent, knowing where your work sits on the shelf is vital. They want to fit your book into the market, find the right publisher, and know exactly what kind of author they will be working with.
The more precise you are in identifying your genre, the better. At least have an idea of the large genre category your manuscript fits into. Ash explains, “It doesn’t have to be boiled right down to the exact sub-genre. It’s enough that it’s romance or paranormal romance, which means there’s something supernatural or ghosts in there. Or is it a murder mystery, or is it a hard-boiled crime noir, or science fiction or fantasy?”
You also want to make sure the agent and/or publisher feels confident that you know your own work and where it will sell. There are genre trends and at any given time publishers are looking for specific genres and types of stories. Their job is to match manuscripts with what publishers are seeking for the current market. Help that agent do just that, and you help yourself to get that agent.
Ash tells us that you can be unique, but within reason. “I’m all for pushing the envelope, which is what I do in my own writing. I always pushed it. What flat out doesn’t work, for example, is a mashup such as a slasher/romance. Now why wouldn’t that work? It’s because once the body has been carved up and we’ve ingested all this gore — this wonderful gore for those who love it — we don’t want to go into a romantic lovey dovey scene where people are kissing each other. You can’t juxtapose those two.”
Knowing the Audience of Your Genre Helps in Marketing Your Book
Who is your target audience? Your audience, or in marketing terms your demographic, has key indicators that matter when marketing your book. The YA audience is huge, while the mermaid romance audience is smaller (but trust us, it is there). Agents and publishers know how big the demographics are for the genres they work in. They know the market. They can see the sales and calculate profits on the horizon by knowing the genre from the get-go.
By defining your genre, you define your audience, and that has marketing implications far down the road. Romance readers tend to be voracious. An average reader can consume several novels in a week. While the hard science fiction reader will take weeks, if not months, to read an intricate tome with complex world-building, military tactics, and technical writing woven into a storyline.
This touches on the importance of word count. More on that here. A fantasy novel can exceed a hundred thousand words and the agent won’t bat an eye. Do that with romance novel, and you’ve turned that beach-book into a slog that the average romance reader won’t even want to pick up.
Your future agent will appreciate knowing that you are connected with your audience. You don’t want to leave all the marketing to the publisher. Knowing your genre audience, being a part of that community, shows them you are going to be a rock star when it comes time to promote your book.
Even before you begin pitching your manuscript, connect with your audience where and when you can. Social media is a great place to meet future readers. Join Facebook groups dedicated to your genre. Follow appropriate hashtags on Instagram and TikTok. Go to events that your readers will likely attend. Connect with your target audience and let your agent know you understand that community so they know you will appeal to that demographic’s likes and dislikes.
What Is the Difference Between Genre and Literary Fiction?
Literary fiction can be much harder to market than genre fiction because the audience isn’t as large nor as specific. Sometimes it seems easier to call a novel literary rather than follow genre rules. In some cases, writers feel superior to writing genre fiction and don’t want their writing to be commercial because they see that as in insult to their skills.
As a writer, you have that prerogative to write what you like. Write what moves you. Pen the novel you feel you must. However, then be prepared for the consequences of having a book that is harder to market and more difficult to sell. Agents and publishers are much less likely to want to take a chance on literary fiction and you may have a tougher time finding an agent — if you are able to find one at all. Be realistic in your expectations when choosing to write literary fiction over genre fiction.
Ash says, “Literary novels tend to be slower, and they tend to — not all, of course — but they tend to appeal to more of an intellectual audience…literary is for a certain market, unless, of course, you’re looking at something like Where the Crawdads Sing which was a crossover which was accessible to just about everybody and everybody loved it. But striking that balance is rare.
“So literary — the poetic rhythm of the words on the page, that takes a long time to craft. You’re not just throwing a story down here. You’re actually creating poetry on the page, and there’s only a certain amount of people who appreciate that,” she explains. “It’s narrowing your market, and a wide market is what you need when you’re starting out.”
Your Next Steps
In the end, write in the genre and voice that makes the most sense for your goals as a writer. Just remember, if you desire commercial success, and want to find an agent and publisher, then knowing and following rules of genre will likely help immensely. Plus, there are many genre fiction authors who were able to branch out and break the rules, but they did it after achieving commercial success. Don’t be afraid to plan a long-term strategy that includes a pivot later in your writing career. For more practical advice about your writing goals, check out the My Precious panel discussion from The BookFest.
A special thank you to Elaine Ash for her insights in this topic. Find out more about Elaine and her book doctoring and editing services if you need help in identifying your genre or editing your opus.