I know this sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t. For a couple reasons. Which I shall go over now.
First and foremost thing to remember—I shouldn’t worry about genre while I’m writing. Genre’s really a marketing tool more than anything else, so it doesn’t have a lot of use on the creative/ artistic side of things. In fact, if I’m worrying a lot about the guidelines of a given genre while I’m writing, I may want to take a step back and make sure I’m not just trying to jump on a trend. In my experience… that doesn’t work out most of the time.
With that in mind… what even is genre? A great way to think of it is a compass (many thanks to Pierce Brown for this analogy). Genre points you in the general direction of things you’re looking for. You want to head south-west? Just keep going that way. You want to find horror novels? They’re all over there.
And that leads us to another good way to think of it, maybe an even more relatable one. Where would my book get stocked in the bookstore? Don’t think about getting misshelved or getting featured on that best-sellers endcap. No excuses, no avoiding the question. Picture your favorite store and decide where would it be shelved in that store.
If I can’t answer this… I have a problem. Because this is how an agent’s going to try to sell my book. “It’s something new to go here.” Even if I’m just planning on self-publishing an ebook, Amazon’s going to want to know how to categorize it.
Let me tell you one last little story. My first published book was Ex-Heroes, which ended up becoming a series of books set in that world and all involving the same basic theme—superheroes fighting zombies in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. When the series originally came out, it was through a small press that specialized in apocalyptic fiction, specifically zombie fiction. That was their niche, and they filled it perfectly. So they heavily emphasized the zombie/ post-apocalyptic aspects of the book in their publicity for it. That’s the direction their compass pointed.
But… by book three the series had moved to Broadway Paperbacks at Random House, and they wanted something that would promote well at comic conventions. So… the superheroes became the new focus. And so the compass needle for the books swung from the horror section (in the few stores the small press had gotten them into) to the sci-fi section.
My point being… life finds a way.
No, sorry, my point is that in both cases, the genre gave people a good idea what they’d find when they opened the book. Post-apocalyptic zombies. Superheroes.
So, that said… let’s talk very rough guidelines for a few basic genres. I won’t be able to touch on every genre (and may not even do a fantastic job with these), but I figure if you’re here looking for advice from me, there’s a semi-decent chance you’re writing the same kind of stuff you read. Which is me arrogantly assuming you ended up here because you read a couple of my books and liked them.
Science-Fiction—this is when my fictional elements have a rational, scientific explanation behind them. They don’t need to be explained(although hard science fans love it when you can), but they need to fall within a range of believability.
Science-Fantasy—This is when my story elements are hypothetically grounded in science, but (to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke) they’re so far advanced they’re beyond all possible understanding and essentially magic.
Urban Fantasy—A subgenre I thought was worth mentioning. Here we’re still tossing some of the reality-rules out the window, but we’re specifically doing it in a modern (or near-modern), real-world setting, often with more modern technology alongside it.
Horror—Might sound obvious, but many aspects of these stories involve fear for both the characters and the reader. Depending on my exact subgenre, that fear can have many different causes and intensities.
Mystery—This is when the main thrust is trying to find answers to a problem—very often (but not always) involving a crime of some sorts. Another good rule of thumb for mysteries—they tend to center around something that already happened. The mystery is past tense.
Thriller—Somewhat similar to mysteries, this is when the plot elements involve a current, ongoing problem. Because of this, thrillers also tend to have a strong action component and fast pacing. The rule of thumb—thrillers are happening right now.
That’s not all possible genres (not even close), and there are sooo many sub-genres, but it’s enough to get you started.
One last thing to tag onto this. You’ve probably heard of terms like young adult or middle grade. It’s worth noting these aren’t actually genres in and of themselves, but additional guidelines that get applied to a given story. It’s not about my story as much as it is about how I’m choosing to tell that story.
All of this leads me to my final bit of advice, which kind of ties back to that earlier post. If I had to give a one or two sentence elevator pitch about my story, what would be in that pitch? What would I be focusing on? Would I be talking about space elevators and moon colonies, or would I be emphasizing the zombie hordes rising from their graves? Remember—I’ve only got two sentences, and they can’t be run-ons. Elevator pitch. Very fast, very clear.
Consider Twilight. It has vampires and werewolves and more than a few deaths… but it’s not a horror story. It barely counts as urban fantasy. The thing we’d emphasize in our elevator pitch is the high schooler who falls in love with a vampire. It’s a romance novel. Supernatural romance if we want to start focusing down.
And remember—there may be elements to my story that’d normally be immediate signs of one genre, but they don’t come up in that elevator pitch. That’s okay. I shouldn’t try to cram them in. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth has lots of raunchy jokes and a few spaceships, but I’d bet 99% of the people who’ve read it don’t think of it as a comedy or a sci-fi novel–their minds jump right to the necromancy and the murder mystery.
And that’s all I’ve got to say about genre. Unless anyone has any specific questions?
Well, in some beautiful, alternate world we all sheltered in place all through March and April, wore our masks for May, and now it’s perfectly safe for all of us to attend San Diego Comic Con next week! YAY!
But in this world, alas, SDCC was cancelled because of folks who refused to do those things. There are still going to be some virtual events, though. I’m doing a panel on sci-fi writing next Friday at . I’m hoping to have a new Coffeehouse video up by then. And I’m also going to be doing a special Saturday Geekery, live-tweeting a few B-movie classics with some friends. You should come join us.
And all this means that next time, I may revisit and revise my list of top B-movie mistakes.
Okay, I did the Cyber-Monday marketing thing the other day. Now let me tell you about a bunch of other amazing books you could—nay, should pick up as gifts for your loved ones.
These are all some things I read this year (or I read earlier, but they came out this year). Nobody pushed for these, they’re in no particular order or anything, they’re just books I really enjoyed. And I’m betting you’ll enjoy some of them too.
Well, I’m starting this list with a lie, which isn’t great. I read this book before it came out, and it was so freakin’ good I put it on last year’s list anyway, even though it didn’t come out until this year. Imagine if your strange mutant ability was bringing out the absolute best, self-actualized version of people, and you activated this gift with… sex. It’s thought-provoking, a bit naughty, and does some wonderful things with the ideas of what it means to be your best and the responsibility of having such a gift.
This story about two new workers at the local distribution center of a *cough* large internet merchant has tons to say about relationships, technology, business practices, and just morality in general. I guess it’s technically sci-fi because it’s in the not-too-distant-future, and some of the tech is slightly advanced, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a far-out, stretching-things-too-much element. It’s a fast, easy, and wonderfully disturbing read.
Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara How have you not heard about his book already? It’s fantastic. It’s the true story of the woman who designed the legendary Creature from the Black Lagoon and then got pretty much erased from history by her jealous boss. It’s a brutally honest look inside Hollywoodthen and now that still manages to be upbeat and positive.
The Fat Lady Sings by Sean Patrick Traver Okay, this one’s more of a novella but it’s part of Traver’s absolutely wonderful Temple, Tree, and Tower universe (world?) that’s appeared on lists here in the past. A centuries old wizard, currently inhabiting the body of a black cat, takes on a new apprentice to help him protect Los Angeles. It’s ridiculous fun with just the right amount of creepy.
This book has one of the creepiest beginnings I’ve read in a while (serious Event Horizon vibes) and then it brings in… okay, I don’t want to ruin it. But this is a wonderful story of guilt and love and it’s kind of a gothic romance in space but with more infectious spores.
I’ve pushed the Eric Carter books on some of you before, about a necromancer in modern, Aztec-magic-influenced Los Angeles. With this latest one, book four in the series, Stephen moves his noir urban fantasy into a whole new level of amazing. These books have always been really good but this one was just fantastic. I think I shrieked with glee three or four times while reading it. Seriously.
Trail of Lightningby Rebecca Roanhorse Okay, look. To be shamefully honest, I picked this up because I saw it on a couple lists and I thought the cover was pretty cool. And y’know what? Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover because this book is freakin’ magnificent. It’s about Maggie, a professional monster hunter on a post-apocalyptic Navajo reservation. And if that doesn’t get you excited, I really don’t know why we’re even friends. Seriously. Stop texting me.
Our War by Craig diLouie Full disclosure, I’ve known Craig years longer than any other author on this list, but he honestly still astounds me with the level of emotional gut-punching he manages to bring to everything he writes. This is the story of an all-too plausible second American civil war and the brother and sister child soldiers who find themselves on opposite sides.
Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey Odds are this one’s crossed your radar screen sometime this year. A fantastic story about what it’s like to be the sister who isn’t chosen to go to Hogwarts (so to speak). There’s a lot of emotions in this book, and that’s without the murder mystery aspect of it.
Goddamm I loved this book. It has so many things I love. Fantastic characters. A good mystery. Some great twists. Cutting edge science. And considering how long he spent writing it (it’s a monster of a book) it’s ended up being eerily prescient in a lot of political/societal ways.
Holy sweet craptacular jeebus. A bunch of people told me I would love this book but I really didn’t expect to LOVE this book as much as I did. In a super-simplified nutshell, the foundling squire of a royal household of necromancers has to pose as their most decorated knight and serve as bodyguard to the adopted “sister” who’s made her life hell for years. Plus there’s some murders, tons of skeletons, and some wonderfully filthy humor. It’s just so much fun.
It’s been a looooong time since I’ve enjoyed a straight fantasy series this much. Although I guess this is technically a steampunk fantasy? The Sacred Throne series is the story of (again, quick version) Heloise a peasant girl who hides in a suit of steampunk armor, ends up fighting a demon, and is now lauded as a saint by all her fellow villagers and expected to lead them against the tyrannical church that rules over them. The characters are fantastic. The battle scenes are amazing.
And as a last note, I’m only about thirty pages into Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James but holy crap. If the whole book’s this good it might just be my favorite of the year.
There you have it. Some of my favorite reads of the year. If you check back in a week, there maybe more added to this list. And I think you can find almost all of them at your favorite local bookstore so… get going. You’re going to have to mail stuff next week if you want it to get there in time for the holidays.
Also, please please please let me know if you’re someone who might benefit from my Black Friday offer. I’ve been there and I know what it’s like. It’s not much, but if you need a hand, just say so.