The Genre Box

Boxman just loves being in a box.
Boxman just loves being in a box.

I’m just back from attending the Festival of Writing in York (should be essential for every aspiring writer!), where I was teaching, panelling, and book-doctoring. I really wish I had a stethoscope I could apply to people’s manuscripts. ‘Hmmm….sounds like a bad case of Excessive Exposition.’ One thing I heard come up a lot was the question of genre. I noticed the phrase ‘being put in a box’. Often, it was from people who’d just been told their book might be crime, or romance, or women’s fiction, or YA. And usually, they weren’t thrilled about it. They were perplexed. Worried. And even….a bit miffed?

I understand this. I was the same. When I met with the editor who wanted to buy my first book, The Fall (a meeting I was on my way to when my dress split all the way up,the back, because FML), he said they’d publish it as crime. I was perplexed, worried, and yes, even a little miffed. I didn’t think I’d even read any crime since the Agatha Christie binges of my childhood. (This was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how broad the crime genre now is. I definitely read it.) And I’d written a book with a murder and a detective POV character but thought I’d written women’s fiction (I am dumb) or more likely, a work of searing literary genius.

Don’t be dumb like me. Be aware that genre exists, and has a built-in architecture you can hang your unique story around. Walls are kind of useful things to have, you know. If I’d known my story might fit into crime, I’d have used more of its conventions. The whodunnit element, the suspense, the puzzles, the twists – all tried and tested load-bearing walls for your novel-building.

And what’s so bad about a box anyway? They can be useful too, for example when you want to send aomething, or present something. Wouldn’t it be nice to receive a package in a snazzy sparkly box? Genre is just that- a way of presenting something. A label, like a 3 for 2 sticker or a ‘for fans of’ blurb, that helps market a new and unknown thing. And genre has built-in readers, communities, events, blogs, fans. Don’t you want to be inside that nice cosy box?

There’s no need to feel constrained by genre, even if you familiarise yourself with the rules. And it’s fine to write first, find the box after. But to summarise:

  1. Genre doesn’t have to be generic.
  2. Boxes can be sturdy, useful, and also snazzy.
  3. The box is your friend. Do not fear the box.
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