Writers in the Storm

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March 16, 2015

Genres Explained: Insights, Tips and Definitions From Literary Agents

Chuck Sambuchino

This column excerpted from Chuck's book, GET A LITERARY AGENT (2015, Writer's Digest Books)


Concerning the definitions of high fantasy vs. urban fantasy:

“In high fantasy, an entire world is created; it doesn’t take place in what we recognize as the world as we currently know it. It usually has magic or magical creatures of some sort, though there are some exceptions. Urban fantasy also takes place in what is recognizably our world and has vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, etc. The stories involve characters that are human, or were once human, but have evolved into something else.”

—Tamar Rydzinski (Laura Dail Literary Agency)


On the confusion between urban fantasy and paranormal romance:

“Urban fantasy versus paranormal romance is always a fine line. I think urban fantasy lingers a tad longer on the wider plot, and paranormal romance lingers a tad longer on the chemistry between the two main characters.”

—Robin Rue (Writers House)

“There is a lot of overlap in these two genres, but at its core, paranormal romance cannot exist without a romance. Urban fantasy can.”

—Sarah LaPolla (Bradford Literary Agency)


On mystery vs. thriller:

“The way I see it, a pure mystery is where the crime has already happened and the protagonist must solve it. In a thriller, the protagonist is often waiting for the crime to occur or working to prevent it. Mysteries can be more introspective, with a focus on the protagonist’s mental powers of deduction, where thrillers are known for more action and physicality. In mysteries, a key element of the plot is hidden from the reader, such as (most traditionally) who the villain is. In a thriller, you often know who the villain is fairly early on, and the plot is centered around a game of cat and mouse.”

—Cameron McClure (Donald Maass Literary Agency)


On an agent’s willingness to work with a book that straddles two, three, or even four genres: 

“If you are unable to tell me what it is you’re writing (and do not say you ‘really can’t’ because ‘it has never been done before,’ because every time an author says that, a kitten explodes), then how am I going to frame it and sell it? There are of course subgenres within genres, but an author straddling too many genres is akin to Shark-Octopus-Bear lurching out of the ocean, growling and biting and thrashing its eight arms hither and thither. And no one wants to approach that—not an agent, not a publisher, and not Greenpeace.”

—Barbara Poelle (Irene Goodman Literary Agency)

 (Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)

On what constitutes crime fiction:

“I would say that crime fiction is less about the whodunit than about the protagonist’s dilemma in a criminal milieu. The protagonist may not have all the information—so there is a mystery in that he is trying to find something out—but the story is really about how he solves his problems, which are often as much about his lifestyle as about the particular crime that spurs the plot. For instance, in Ray Banks’s brilliant Saturday’s Child, Cal Innes is forced by a local mob boss to find a former employee and the money he stole, but in many ways the story is about Cal trying to find a place for himself and form an adult life within a socioeconomic stratum that offers very few options.”

—Stacia Decker (Donald Maass Literary Agency)


On the categories of children’s fiction:

“In a nutshell: Early Readers = Frog and Toad, and Elephant and Piggie. Chapter books = Judy Moody, and Ivy and Bean. Think of the stages of development in this order: picture books lead to early readers, which lead to chapter books, which lead to middle grade, which lead to young adult.”

—Jen Rofe (Andrea Brown Literary Agency)

“Early readers are for young kids just beginning to learn to read and are more heavily illustrated. Their language is restricted to basic words and concepts that help kids ages 4-6 learn to read. An example would be The Berenstain Bears. Chapter books are for intermediate readers ages 7-10. Chapter books are for kids that are not quite ready for Harry Potter, but The Very Hungry Caterpillar isn’t going to hold their attention either. Chapter books have illustrations but are primarily about the prose, and they have a bit more narrative complexity. Early readers can be indistinguishable from picture books and often have color illustrations on every page, whereas chapter books usually (though there are plenty of exceptions) have only black and white line illustrations sporadically interspersed. Early readers aren’t usually more than 1,000 words, whereas chapter books are usually over 10,000 words. Both types of books are targeted at the school and library markets, so there are a lot of considerations when it comes to the vocabulary you should use. I would recommend doing a lot of research before attempting to write either sort of book.”

—Evan Gregory (Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency)

“A middle grade book is generally intended for eight- to twelve-year-olds, and the protagonist should be in that age range as well. YA is geared toward ages 13 and up, although sometimes a YA book is classified as younger or older YA. Obviously subject matter must be appropriate for the intended age group, but equally as important is the voice. Too often the voice strikes me as too old or too young for the character’s age. If the protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy, then the reader must feel like an eleven-year-old boy is speaking to them. An authentic voice makes the reader want to accompany that boy on his journey, whatever it may be.”

—Ann Behar (Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency)


On classifying erotica, romance, erotic romance, and women’s fiction:

“The book crosses the line into erotica when the sexual journey is more important than the romantic journey. And that’s not a bad thing, just a different market.”

—Michelle Johnson (Inklings Literary Agency)

“To me, erotic romance is primarily between a couple (or sometimes a threesome) that will have a happily ever after. At its heart, it’s the story of people finding their soul mates and exploring the connection via sex. Straight-up erotica doesn’t have to end in a committed coupling. The focus (to me, and I’m sure others’ [tastes] will vary) is more on the voyage of self-discovery … a character or characters learning what it is that makes him or her happy and comfortable and finding the courage to accept whatever might be revealed.”

—Lucienne Diver (The Knight Agency)

“A contemporary romance’s plot revolves around the love/romantic element, whereas women’s fiction tends to revolve around women’s issues and the growth and empowerment of the female protagonist. Women’s fiction can have romance, but it’s not the driving force of the plot.”

—Kathleen Ortiz (New Leaf Literary and Media)

“Women’s fiction novels are not simply stories with female characters, but stories that tell us the female journey. Women’s fiction is a way for women to learn and grow, and to relate to others what it is to be a woman.”

—Scott Eagan (Greyhaus Literary Agency)


On writing an LGBTQ novel/memoir:

“It drives me crazy that I get so many queer memoirs and coming-of-age novels where the author assumes that it’s enough to just be gay, and nothing much else is going on in their stories other than this identity crisis. I don’t mean to trivialize that experience, but at the same time, many coming out stories don’t make for a riveting read or can sustain the scope of a novel on their own. This only works if you’re writing at the level of someone like David Sedaris or Alison Smith.”

—Cameron McClure (Donald Maass Literary Agency)

“If the protagonist’s sexuality isn’t an issue in the story line—if the protagonist just happens to be gay—I don’t think that book would be pigeonholed [as LGBTQ fiction]. But if the book is about the protagonist’s gay lifestyle, then it would be categorized as such.”

—Jennifer De Chiara (Jennifer De Chiara Literary)

 So, what do you think? Any surprises here? Did you learn anything you didn't know?

About Chuck

Chuck FW head shotChuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures.  Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

31 comments on “Genres Explained: Insights, Tips and Definitions From Literary Agents”

  1. Good to read these with the agent comments too. I've recently learnt about Lad Lit a book like chick lit but written by a man about a man, the book I'm thinking of has a newly divorced father of two in a contemporary drama facing domestic dilemmas, dating again and giving himself six months to turn his life around.

  2. Thanks for this. I'll count "Lad Lit" as progress, Rosie. I'm still irritated by the existence of the genre "women's fiction" when there's no equivalent for "men's fiction," except, of course, the entire categories of contemporary or literary fiction. "Women's fiction" may be a useful marketing tool, but -- as wonderful as the neighbors are -- it's also a kind of ghetto.

  3. I'm wondering who is reading Lad Lit? Anyway, thanks for the genre clarifications. As a romance contest coordinator, I've had first hand experience trying to decipher what definitions to use for all the genres. I'll be keeping this blog and referring it to my crit group.

  4. Loved the descriptions, thanks Chuck. Since women's fiction often includes sex - or at least a deep relationship center - many people confuse it with either romance or erotica. I was unsure of the difference between young readers and chapter books, so I am glad to see those so I can shop for my grand kids better.

  5. Spot on descriptions, thank you Chuck. In romance, what causes quite the gripe is the distinction between "clean" and "sweet". As I have published a contemporary romance in both a clean and a spicy version, I had to delve into that matter and have also blogged about it.

    Of course, in both cases no explicit sex scenes should be included, but what my research has shown is that "clean" is a broader category that includes "sweet". "Sweet" can be "inspirational" or "christian" but what really defines it is that any sensuality (kissing, touching) focuses on the mental connection between the protagonists not their physical reaction to it. On the other hand, "clean" can be more forward with a high(er) degree of sexual tension, and body parts and sex vocabulary can be mentioned but only euphemistically. What's interesting is the emergence of a "sweet gay" sub-genre.

    I find all this utterly fascinating.

    Greetings from Greece!

  6. I did learn something! My last project was hard for me to identify under the traditional genres of suspense, thriller or mystery. And voila - here it is - crime fiction. Yay!

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and the comments as well. Sometimes the lines are clear and distinct and sometimes they are clouded for me! This helps a lot! Thanks to all for the info and comments!

  8. Just when you think you have a category down agents are making up new ones: Uptown Fiction, Upmarket Romance, Commercial Fiction, Commercial Romance, Contemporary Fiction, Contemporary Romance with Time Travel Elements and with LGBTQ Paranormal...okay, so that isn't a category. But in all honesty, if you are going to make up a new category, you all should come up with a consensus of what that category entails. I mean really, shouldn't every fiction strive for commercial appeal???? I am being very a sarcastic of course, but when appealing to each agent it is rather "funny" that each one can have so many different labels of what they are looking for! I'll say it keeps me on my toes....and on the internet to do research!!!!!

  9. Chuck I retired from the restaurant industry where we classified all types (genres) of restaurants - family segment, mid-scale category, etc and lumped our research into these groupings. But the customer doesn't decide "I want to go to a mid-scale restaurant." They want to go to a Chili's or Friday's. Industry categories are irrelevant.

    I also don't think readers minutely breakdown genres as selection criteria. They want a certain type of story. The industry pigeon holes a story into a genre for their own convenience. I understand that trying to straddle too many genres is the literary version of trying to be all things to all people and thus meaning nothing to no one. And that a genre can help target an audience for a story, but it seems to me the industry's first question is "What genre is the story?" and judges it accordingly, rather than evaluating the story and determining if there is an audience.

    Now this may be pure rationalization on my part since my stories are Thrillers with Romance and to the genre police that is a cross dressing "no-no". But I see no reason these two premises have to be mutually exclusive.

    As an aside, I love reading Barbara Poelle's articles in Writer's Digest. With her sense of humor and the slants she takes on writer's questions I would much rather have heard her comment on erotica versus erotic romance, etc than this genre flap.

    1. It is true I don't look for a mid-scale restaurant, but Chili's had to determine their target market before they ever drew a floor plan. I believe the author has the responsibility to determine the genre, either before they write (such as children's books) or after, when they discover what course the story took. There is a difference between erotica and erotic romance, and we need to help determine our 'target market'. You write Thrillers with Romance. There you go. That is your genre. The "genre police" will just have to keep an open mind.

  10. Thank you for this. As an aspiring children's author I vacillate between genres because of age group. But your information cleared things up for me. Good Job!

  11. I still think the first consideration when writing or reading a book is the story. A good story, well told, not the genre or genre bending, should be the criteria. Do writers now have to make their work fit into near little boxes with near little labels? That said, the article answered a lot of questions. Thank you.

  12. I still don't know whether I'm, writing cozies or mysteries. The setting is a small town. Everyone knows everyone else. There are murders. But no kittens or crocheting or cooking or stuff. What are the guide lines?

  13. Great questions and great answers. It can get murky. I'm very curious about the new buzz word genre of NEW ADULT FICTION. Curious as to anyone's take on that. Are agents really looking for this? Is it wise to use this genre in queries?


    ~ Tam Francis~

  14. As a writer, I need to know what an agent is looking for, before I push my manuscript to her. If she specializes in supernatural, she may not have the resources to sell erotica (just as an example). As a reader, I do search for a genre, depending on my mood. However, crime fiction, mystery, and thriller are all the same to me, although crime fiction may seem 'grittier'. To me, Sandford and Childs both satisfy, if that is the mood I'm in. I do appreciate the distinction between High Fiction and Urban Fiction. I knew there was a difference, I just didn't know what to call it.

  15. samwise ...Spot on about the need to match the genre with the appropriate agent. I still say the first responsibility of the author is not to find the genre for the story, but rather the target market and then identify the corresponding pre-set genre. I think we're on the same page, different mindsets. I also like Ann's "little box" analogy.

  16. The paranormal in itself is a mystery and the parnormal can indeed be thrilling in a heart-pounding manner. The shark-octopus-bear may not be lurching out of the ocean, but spewing forth from the portals of hell. Add to that a hot romance lacing through my story and I guess my work of fiction is ready to explode!

  17. My novel has crimes, racial issues, fundamentalist religion and political intrigue but it's about the psychological issues of, and impact on, the P and A. It takes place over 40 years, so is it a mainstream psychological saga?

  18. Thanks for this great article. I still meet aspiring writers who have no idea what their genre is. And David, I'd say yes, but if you have crimes in your novel, it might be more dramatic and enticing to the potential reader to say it's a "contemporary psychological crime saga." I think "mainstream" sounds... well... too "mainstream" in the sense of common.

  19. Surely one can have great stories that ARE mystery thrillers? Based on the definition of both, they can be successfully combined without it landing on some agent's slush pile? I have also come across many romantic stories that have a good dose of mystery in it.
    There have also been a few Sci-Fi thrillers, fantasy horrors -I could go on. I do think the success of combining two genres is author dependent. Some get it right and some don't.

  20. Great article Chuck, & interesting responses from bloggers. But I still have trouble with some of the genre chategorising. I have written a novel about a man who struggles to come to terms with his rekindled friendship. It is about two people who were childhood friends. They meet again as adults to find they now live opposing lifestyles. The story involves romance, but I have been told it does not fit the romance guidelines. It involves music, but it is not about the music. The characters travel through Europe, but it is not a story about travel. There is a homecoming which is the outcome of the journey, but it is only the last part of the story. All I have tried to do is write a story about a man who wants to rekindle a friendship and is confronted with many hurdles. It is basically a story of how he deals with the dilemna.

    I admit I didn't try to place it into a genre when I started writing. It was only a story I wanted to present to readers. Now I find I need a genre for the story to fit in. All my simple mind can offer is, Romance tinged with music and travel. Alas that is my problem when submitting to agents. I wonder how many good stories go unread because their writers cannot find the appropriate genre for them?

  21. Too bad we all have to be limited by the demands of the public, and then the publishing industry, into boxes. I haven't written mine with a formula as you suggest. The story couldn't be told in that fashion anyway. The closest I can come is the new category of 'Visionary Fiction'. Finding an agent ought to be interesting with this one.

  22. This was educational for me. I don't normally give the specifics much thought, since I hate the notion of pigeon-holing my work. But if I'm trying to sell my work, it's good to know what publishers are looking for, so that I submit to the right people.

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