How I Stub My Toe on Genre

During this season of rest, I’ve been experimenting writing various genres, hoping something will incite my passion for writing once more. This exercise revealed a few truths; the first: genre is a rock bent on stubbing my writing muscles.

I already knew this. I learned it in various ways:

  • Creating a brand for my website
  • Finding a target audience
  • Discussing a manuscript written on spec for a publisher

Each time, I tripped over the truth that I don’t write stories that fit neatly into any genre. And I think the reason is that I read in many genres and enjoy the various aspects of them. As a creator, I wonder, “What if you threw some high fantasy characters into a dystopian setting and sent them on a quest with teenagers?”

This is actually a question that perpetuated the novel that I wrote on spec for Month9Books after they published my story “The Demon Was Me” in their In the Beginning anthology.

The answer, evidently, is that you can do whatever you want, but if the publisher doesn’t know how to classify the story, they won’t buy it. Or that’s what I was told.

What is Genre?

Literature has four genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. The definition for genre as seen in this example is “a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, or technique.”

Within each of these literary genres, there are sub-genres, or classifications and sub-types. For example, in nonfiction there are self-help books and memoirs. If I picked up a self-help book, I wouldn’t expect to read about someone’s life. Although some anecdotes that exemplify the steps taken to get from where I am to the goal promised by the book would make the reading more interesting.

In fiction, there is what publishers call “genre fiction” as opposed to “literary fiction” or “mainstream fiction.” In genre fiction there is more emphasis on plot and less exploration of theme. Most of us prefer genre fiction because of its fast pace.

According to this informative (albeit lengthy) article, there are eleven main genres in fiction:

  • Mystery
  • Crime
  • Suspense/Thriller
  • Horror
  • Romance
  • Western
  • Historical
  • Science Fiction
  • Fantasy
  • Action and Adventure
  • Children’s and Young Adult

Clearly, there are sub-genres in each of these main genres. Like cozy mysteries and fantasy romances and young adult fantasy (my personal favorite).

Why Expectations Matter

Within each of these genres, there are publisher and reader expectations. Folks, expectations matter.

If you pick up a mystery and there is no crime committed within the first chapter or two or no sleuth trying to solve it, you toss the book aside. It’s not a mystery!

The same is true if you pick up any genre. You expect to fall in love if you read a romance and you expect there to be horses if you read a western.

Placing a book in a genre tells readers, “You can expect this.”

So if there isn’t a happy ending where the hero and heroine end up together, the story isn’t a romance. Simple as that. Romance readers expect the girl to end up with her guy at the end.

This matters because readers want a guarantee. They have learned that there’s a formula in books of a certain genre. That’s what they’re paying for when they pick up a book.

If you bill it as a romantic comedy and they don’t smile or burst into laughter while reading, you can bet there won’t be a positive review coming. Because you didn’t meet their expectations.

In genre fiction, you have to pay obeisance to the genre’s requirements. Otherwise, you’ll tick of readers and the negative reviews will skyrocket.

How This Trips Me Up

Many novels span several genres. The key to being successful with this is choosing a principal focus of the novel. If it’s a romance between a human and an elf, it’s obviously a fantasy romance. Except if it’s set in a dystopian setting and one of the characters dies at the end.

But that’s not my issue. My problem is more about not meeting genre conventions because I don’t like them. I’ll be specific:

Romances that happen too quickly feel fake to me. All my romances are novellas and therefore, there are not enough words to take my character from meet cute to “so in love” and because of that, I’ve gotten a few negative reviews.

That’s one way the romance genre trips me up.

But another thing is that I don’t really write the romance as the “A” story. It’s more like a B story-line, while the main problem of the book is something else. For instance, in Love’s Lingering Doubts, Jaz is trying to figure out what to do after leaving the Army and happens to end up helping Bailey save his ranch. This book is about saving the ranch (for both of them) and they start to fall in love along the way.

Thankfully, I was able to explore both of their problems deeper in the rest of the trilogy, so Love’s Texas Homecoming gives the complete story of their romance AND their character journey. Many authors can accomplish a full character journey with the romance as the driving force behind it, but I don’t. Mostly because…

Well, more on that next week.

What’s your favorite genre? What expectations do you have when you pick up a book in it? Have you ever tossed aside a book because it didn’t meet your expectations?

3 thoughts on “How I Stub My Toe on Genre”

  1. I like classic mysteries, where All Is Explained at the end. There’s nothing that’ll put me off faster than a couple of opening chapters all about the main character’s love life, and how no one understands them, and… urgh.

    Also annoying: mysteries that carry it too far, leaving it as a ‘guess we’ll never know’ at the end, because ‘life is like that’. My view: this isn’t life. This is a novel. Expectations vary accordingly.

    As a writer, I don’t seem to be able to manage romance as anything other than a subplot. Why limit yourself to goo-goo eyes when you could have explosions and narrow escapes from death as well?

    1. I’m all for genre expectations as a reader as long as the books don’t become predictable (which most romances are and that’s why I don’t read straight romance very often). A romantic B story sound perfect to me! Bring it, girlfriend😍

      1. My first book Restoration Day made it onto a Goodreads List of Romances That Aren’t Bodice-Rippers. Happy to be there!

        Which reminds me of the genre conventions of historical fiction. If there’s one thing that puts me off historical novels it’s the characters acting like modern people in a historical setting. Bodice-ripping for example – all but a tiny number of people would have so few items of clothing that a ripped bodice would be more likely to inspire feminine rage than (cough) any other feeling.

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