Whose genre is it anyway?

Or how to stop prevaricating and get published (part 1).

We’re odd people, writers, aren’t we. We spend years writing a book, tearing it up, sticking it back together, and once it’s finally finished and we could send it out to agents, we start thinking up a whole list of spurious reasons not to show it to anyone. Tying ourselves in knots, coming up with ridiculous questions and worries. Anything to put off having to get the work out there, being judged, being read.

Last year I spent a lot of time doing this myself. Worrying about questions like, but what if my family get upset? I don’t know what other books to compare it to in my covering letter!  It’s twenty thousand words too long/ too short! And the real kicker, but I don’t know what genre it is!

The good news is that you can get over this stage of spurious-questioning, or prevaricating, as my mother would call it. After all, as the great Anne Enright says, only bad writers think their work is really good. A good place to start is reading this book by Harry Bingham, a writer who also runs the Writers’ Workshop consultancy. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Writers-Artists-Yearbook-Getting-Published/dp/1408128950 Although I read it after I signed with Headline, it does a brilliant job of applying solid common sense to those pre-submission jitters. I’ll also write some blog posts which I hope will help with the trickiest of these ridiculous questions.

First up, genre. This is indeed a difficult one, especially as most new writers don’t seem to consider it at all, instead starting somewhere round the general-literaturey-fictiony mark. Many of us are in fact a little resistant to having to categorise our books. Snobby, even. What, pigeon-hole my staggeringly original work of unalloyed genius? How dare you!

But hold your pretentious horses there. Deciding on a genre could be the key you’re looking for, that will lift your book from a pseudo-literary collection of ramblings, to the honed and gripping MS that will have agents and editors screaming ‘Yes! Yes! I must have you at once!’  But how do you work out what genre it is? Try asking yourself these questions and it might become clearer.

Does something a bit sinister happen?

My book has been bought as crime, but this came as a surprise to me, I suppose because I thought I’d written something a bit general-literaturey-fictiony. Little did I know how wrong I was. I assumed crime was about dead bodies, emotionally limited detectives, and crazed killers who narrate in tortured italics. Of course, it is about these things, but crime is a very broad genre encompassing thrillers, mystery, procedurals, psychological, etc. Basically if anything a bit sinister happens, you’re in. And being in crime is good, because it’s hugely popular, and many agents and editors are looking to take on more in this genre. So don’t shy away from placing yourself right at the crime scene (sorry).

What’s the difference between a thriller and a crime? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but I’ve heard it said that a crime novel is more ‘who did this awful crime’ and a thriller is more ‘will the character escape from the awful crime’. Either way, don’t worry too much.

Are there sex scenes?

Now, of course many books have sex scenes. But if a large part of the book features significant looks and breathless, lingering bedroom action (or stable action, if you’re Jilly Cooper), it’s probably a romance. Modern romances can include fairly graphic stuff, it seems, without getting to full-on erotica. Or perhaps a better thing to ask yourself is: is the sex scene (or the chaste cliff-top snog, depending on your style) a key part of the plot, or more for atmosphere? Again, the term romance is very broad nowadays.

I would say chick-lit is a subsection of romance. The distinction seems to be if you’re meant to laugh while reading, and not just at all the sex in barns and helicopters and on tennis courts and in orchestra pits and… (must stop reading Jilly Cooper).  Check out the Romantic Novelists’ Association to see how broad romance is nowadays, and be sure to ask someone who knows more about it than I do (like the lovely Julie Cohen, over at her blog http://www.julie-cohen.com/).

Can you imagine your book will mainly be read by women?

Of course, most books in general are read by women, but ‘women’s fiction’ is a sort of category that seems to include bestselling issue-led books like Jodi Picoult, The Lovely Bones, The Memory-Keeper’s Daughter, etc. Think angst, families, hidden secrets. The cover is probably a woman standing beside a lake with her back to the camera, looking angsty. These books often feature crimes, but more as a catalyst for all that page-turning angst and drama. May also include many sex scenes, but probably with less focus on the actual mechanics of it. Think heaving emotions, not bosoms.

Is it set in the past?

How far back counts as historical? Someone asked me this during the week but I actually have no idea (I hope you realise I’m just making this up as I go along) I would guess maybe anything out of your own lifetime could count (the seventies, for me? I don’t know). Answers on a postcard, please (or blog comment). There’s also categories of historical crime and historical romance. Stories which move between past and present, with separate narratives, are often called timeslip novels. These are quite hot at the moment so maybe have a read of a few if you’re writing in this area (for example, those by the equally lovely Tom Harper, who switched to these from more straightforward historical adventures http://www.tom-harper.co.uk/).

Is it set in a galaxy far far away?

I don’t know much about sci-fi or fantasy, I’ll admit. (Or any of this. Making it up as I go along, like I said) but I’m sure if you’re writing in this genre you know more than I do anyway. There’s also steampunk, a new sort of historical-fantasy genre, so check that out if you’re interested in this area. Always good to be writing the next hot thing. Additionally, a genre called ‘dark fantasy’ seems to have cropped up in my local Waterstone’s. As far as I can tell this involves falling in love with vampires/werewolves/otherworldly beings with fangs and hot bods.

Is it for teenagers or children?

There are quite defined age-ranges for children’s and Young Adult fiction, which again I know nothing about (what do I know? A good question. Not much). I mention it because you may not realise that what you’re writing is not actually an adult novel, but instead Young Adult (for example, do you have a teenage narrator?); or conversely, that you haven’t as you thought written a book for teens at all, but in fact an adult book featuring young characters. Always worth considering if you’re having trouble finding a genre.

Are you massively clever and intellectual? Do you actually genuinely enjoy reading the London Review of Books, or do you just let it pile up in your house while you read Heat magazine instead? (see blog posts to come…)

If this is the case, your work is most likely literary fiction. Ironically this is probably the hardest to get right, but it’s also the genre most new writers seem to be working in (or think they are). What’s a literary novel? I suppose it means a very good book that defies genre and category, but is simply very well-written and significant. Think hard about this. Is your book amazing and beautifully written? Are you staggeringly clever and talented? Are you sure? If not, have a think about genre and it might get your submissions back on track.


Good luck! There’s a fun wizard here which may also help:


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