Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 15, 2016

Does Genre Dumb it Down or Make it Rain?

author-photo.jpgKate Moretti

We writers spend a lot of time online. Facebook, twitter, forums, groups, message boards, I could go on. We debate. We talk about craft and commas and grammar and agents and publishers and eventually someone will bring up genre and everyone will silently groan because the only conversation that rivals genre is “Plotting vs. Pantsing”. Then someone will say “Why do we need genre? Why can’t we just write fiction? Why are there all these rules to my ART?” and he will adjust his monocle and twirl his cane,… oh wait, no….

And then there’s this other guy who inevitably jumps in and declares that his work is much too lit-rah-rary and even though his book has dragons AND spaceships, NO PUBLISHER WILL PUT HIM IN A BOX, DAGNABBIT.

The thing is, I sort of, kind of, totally get it. It’s constricting to say, well if you’re writing suspense you can’t spend ten pages on the description of a kitchen cabinet and all it’s contents, you just can’t (never do this anyway). It seems silly, all these little arbitrary rules that have no bearing on what we are writing, on the worlds we itch to create.

Here’s the thing, though. These rules don’t exist because of the writing. They exist because of the READING. Ultimately, we want our work to be read, not just written. To be read, it must be sold. To be sold, it must be readable to readers, NOT WRITERS.

We’re creating a product for someone.

I’ll give you a minute. I know this feels uncomfortable.

It’s so commercial! You say.

Yes. I’m sorry.

Genre is your friend, I promise. It’s here to help you. Let me explain.

  1. Genre gives your story a framework. The very thing you loathe can be the thing that saves you (if you let it). Don’t know how to end the book? If it’s a romance, don’t even think about not getting the couple together. Make sure the hero accomplishes most of their goal. Make sure there is justice for the antagonist. In a fantasy, the world must be saved or at least saved for now (sequels sure to follow). You want to break the norms? That’s fine, but be smart and creative. Find a way to break the mold, while still maintaining reader satisfaction. Have the couple break up, but hint at a sequel. Leave the heart pounding for the next book. Make the genre work for you. You will stand out like a sunflower in a wheat field.
  2. Genre gives you a built in audience. Whether we like it or not, readers come with preferences. Many people (non-writers) read only one kind of book. I know this because my grandmother would ONLY read Danielle Steele or Fern Michaels and, as a teenager, I would steal them. This feels foreign to writers, who are told almost daily to “read widely”. If you write high fantasy, you can market your work to “fans of Tolkien” and even George R.R. Martin. Is there anything hotter than GOT right now? You can hashtag your tweets, Instas, Facebook posts and use these popular phenomenons to your advantage.
  3. Genre is less constricting than you think. Most people who lament genre do it because they revere the written word. They love a long winding sentence, bordering on the purple side. They enjoy a wide and colorful vocabulary and don’t want to keep their sentences short and sweet, even though their MC is being chased down a dark alley by a serial killer alien. I’m here to tell you that’s ok. I like a good sentence. I enjoy psychological depth, a clever use of language and some unique vocabulary. I also think I write suspense. The skill is in knowing how, and when, to use it. To use language to bolster a mood, or deepen a character, not to describe a fight scene or a chase sequence.
  4. Genre sells a book. This is the biggest reason to embrace genre. It goes back to that thing you hate. We are creating a product for someone else. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you’ll find commercial “success” (whatever this means to you, but that’s a post for another day). Agents and editors pursue books of a certain genre ALL. THE. TIME. No exceptions. Is literary a genre? I think so (dodges tomatoes). They have a list that has x number of fantasy books, x number of women’s fiction, y number of domestic suspense. Domestic suspense is hot right now, they’ll float it out there: I want a DS pitch, stat. If you’re book is a wishy-washy middle ground, a romantic-urban fantasy-women’s fiction-horror-suspense hybrid, your manuscript will not get pitched. It’s that simple. Your agent (provided you get that far) will send in the sure thing because MONEY.

This is what your agent WANTS to do. Ahem, LET THEM.

So, tell me what you think. Do you agree? Does genre help or hurt the industry?


2347337.jpgKate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of the women’s fiction novel, Thought I Knew You. Her second novel Binds That Tie  was released in March 2014. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life. Her latest book, The Vanishing Year is available for pre-order and will be out September 27.

She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like. Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.






45 comments on “Does Genre Dumb it Down or Make it Rain?”

  1. Definitely, I agree. I read widely these days, but have not always done so. I can tell with a glance at the cover if the 'genre' is one I'll enjoy—at least maybe I'll give it a look-in-side. Interesting article, thanks! 🙂

  2. Great post. I think the industry is constantly and speedily evolving all the time and because of the explosion of books since self-publishing the market is saturated in every genre. Sub-genres have sprung up for all sorts of slight and obscure points and authors can now say my book is, for extreme example, #1 on the Martian paranormal, green people murder mystery, with a twisted romance genre.
    To just class your work as "literary" when marketing is one huge uphill slope, how will you get a reader to spend their money on your work when "literary" gives them little clue to the storyline?
    Main stream genres are extremely marketable, grab your audience, then peel them off with a sub-genre and let your storyline take them away, ultimately they'll make up their own minds, but give yourself a chance of reaching a reading audience in the first place.

    1. Great point, Rosie! I think sub-genre is becoming more important, too. Readers are able to say I want to read about pink aliens and they can be that specific now! It's kind of amazing.

  3. I agree, Kate, and I chafe against the edges at the same time. You're right though - when I first sold, my agent told me the same thing - genre is for readers, so they can find what they like to read.

    Hard to argue against that!

    1. It's hard not to want to break out of the box, right, Laura? I get it. I do it too! The trick is to flex your creativity within the confines of that box. It's a different kind of creative muscle, I think!!

  4. An excellent post. Thank you. Genre is definitely a writer's friend, not an enemy. I understand the "I'm an artist; I want to do my art my way" impulse, but genre writing offers plenty of room for creative freedom. The conventions of a genre are like a recipe for meatloaf. Once I've learned the basics of making a meatloaf, I can use the recipe as a foundation but change the type of meat (maybe using a combination of beef and pork rather than all beef), get creative with the seasonings, top the meatloaf with a red wine and shallots sauce rather than with ketchup, and make the dish distinctly MY meatloaf. Will the dish satisfy all meatloaf lovers? No. You can never make everyone happy, but many of the meatloaf lovers will be excited to eat something that's different from the ordinary yet still recognizably a meatloaf.

    I completely agree that we writers need to remember we are writing for a specific audience. If we promise something, we need to deliver it. My YA fantasy needs to be just that, not an adult pseudo-philosophical treatise / post-modern poetry fusion with a teenage fairy as the protagonist. (Of course the only way that's getting published if I pay for it myself. But I would be disappointed in the sales figures.)

    Last comment: yes, literary fiction IS a genre. It is a type of fiction which can be defined by its essential elements and people who write it must adhere to certain rules. Sorry, but that sounds like a genre to me.

  5. Every person DOES have something unique about them, but all the rest of the "something" about every person fits recognizable patterns. It is called human nature. So when we read books with patterns (what others call rules) we can recognize the characters and their circumstances and feel at home with the story. Those patterns relate to the rules in genres. A genre isn't just a method of writing fiction--it is a way to connect to readers. Which is--or usually is!--every writers goal.

    1. Absolutely! After I read these comments, I always find things I wish I'd said. Yes, I agree, connection with readers is the goal. I mean money is a good goal, too, but hopefully one leads to the other!

  6. When I stopped thinking of 'rules' which pushed my rebellious streak buttons, and instead thought of 'reader expectations', things got easier. If the cop doesn't solve the crime, if the hero and heroine don't fall in love, if the hero of a thriller doesn't save the world, readers won't be happy. They know what they want when they pick up a book, and violating that trust doesn't do anyone any good.

    When my 4th covert ops romantic suspense came out, Amazon created a new subgenre in romance -- action adventure--and sales skyrocketed. (Based on my own history; a best-selling author would have scoffed at my numbers.)

    And being able to hit readers with what they want via indie publishing is also a huge help. Publishers want to sell, so they publish books in genres that are selling, but pretty soon vampire books are selling only because there's nothing else out there, because that's what the publishers are pushing, so of course they're selling.

    1. And sometimes it's hard to really know the genre "rules". If you read widely and diversely, you might not be intimately familiar with what you're trying to write! Thanks for commenting, Susan!

  7. I am firmly on the side of genre for the simple reason that it gives you a way to talk about your book. Even if you straddle genres, everything about the phrase "Gone Girl meets Harry Potter" capitalizes on genre in a way that raises reader expectation and facilitates marketing to your target audience. Off to tweet—great post, with a lot to think about!

    1. YES! Again, things I wish I'd included from the comments section :). Incidentally, I might like to read Gone Girl meets Harry Potter. You should write it! xo, K

  8. There's no further proof needed that agents seek genres, except maybe to those who haven't educated themselves about the pub biz. As for indies, though I'm not one, I can tell you that as a reader I want to know something about a book before I buy it, borrow it or even download it for free--because it's my valuable time and/or money and why would I waste either? Understanding a book's genre is a way to help me understand what it will be about, and thus, whether I want to read it. To take that a step further, its cover art and design will then give me a further clue.

    The only genre that ever seems to provoke writers, in my experience, is women's fiction. Many (including me) see it as a demeaning concept. On the other hand, many (including me) see it as a defining concept. When I think of women's fiction, I exclude romance, though many authors overreach their romance novels into the women's fiction genre, probably out of ignorance, or to get more sales, or both. I wish women's fiction had a name that better described it: domestic drama, family drama, family fiction, fiction about real people, fiction about people and what matters to them.

  9. Such a great post, Kate--we definitely ARE writing for an audience (or should be). Nice reminder here that, no matter how much we fall in love with our sentences, ultimately our books have to be in a shape that makes it possible for agents and publishers to market them to readers.

  10. I'm an indie, and there is absolutely no way to market your book if the genre is not screaming through both cover and blurb. And in the case of romance, the sub-genre also has to be very obvious. Nowadays bad boys sell a lot, but what type of bad boy? An MMA fighter? An ex-SEAL? A mafia bad boy? To help readers even more indie authors spell out the sub-genre in the title: "Blitzed: a secret baby sports romance" is the title of Lauren Landish's latest release. So not only genres and sub-genres but themes as well.

    At this point, I should make a distinction between writers who see writing as an art, refusing or being reluctant to make concessions, and writers who "write to market", aiming at making a living through writing, jumping in and serving market trends. To those of the second category super specific genre is a must.

    1. Yes, totally agree! I frequently come into contact with two different "types" of Indies: those who see this as a creative business and those who see it solely as art. I'm of the former, obviously, A more specific genre category is definitely gaining in popularity, especially due to the glut of books. Thanks for commenting!

  11. As a genre-straddler, I've found it tough to land on one side of that fence because, to me, my stories are exactly 50% of each. An agent once asked me which section of the bookstore would my book be shelved. I wasn't sure. Then she asked, "If you take out the science fiction will you still have a story?" No. But it you take out the romance, the science fiction wouldn't work alone.

    Now my writing is more on the science fiction side, but it took some "attitude adjustment" to get there.

    1. That's tough, Fae! On one hand, I get that you have to follow your muse. Gawd, sometimes she's so fleeting, right? At least for me. Fortunately, my muse has not led me to a Middle Ages Space Invasion as of yet. She might, though, who knows?

  12. I honestly don't understand the resentment toward genre. As this post points out, and if you stop and think about it, readers gravitate toward a certain genre or genres for a reason. That's not a bad thing at all. We writers are also readers and like what we like.

    Personally I want to see more authors take chances with genre fiction and do something different and break the genre rules. When I've read books that do this and do it well, it gets me energized and wanting more. When it comes to my own writing I do try to this and I think the biggest key is to make sure you have some elements of a primary genre in the story in order to sell it.

    Of course if what you've written doesn't quite fit the mold there's the option to self-publish. Let the reader decide if it's working or not.

    1. I think people really rail against being boxed in when writing is such a creative endeavor. I get it! But to sell to readers, you need to set up expectations and then live up to them. Yes, those who break the mold a bit (and do it well) definitely have my admiration but if you'll notice, the biggest sellers deliver on genre promises, even if they break the little rules. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  13. I wish "genre fiction" wasn't perceived as being something less. Kind of like "women's fiction," which gets a double whammy—it's genre and it (mainly) written by and for women.

    1. Well, if you want to be in the literati, then yes, genre is "less". I'm not saying I wouldn't LOVE a NYT Book Review, but there's a club I don't try very hard to elbow into. Now, as for "women's fiction", yes topic for another blog post! Or just go read any page of Jennifer Weiner's website! Ha!

  14. While often disliked, labels are as needed in our world as they are in the canned fruit section of the grocery store. You want peaches, in light syrup? Not pineapple swimming in liquid sugar? Without a picture and a headline, we'd be lost ... if not really irritated at how long it would take to shop. Genres are like verbal and visual shorthand. The faster we get our stuff in the right hands, the better. Happy shoppers. Happy readers.

  15. The essence of every book embraces a genre, whether it's a thriller, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, or romance. An author should be able to stretch a genre, not be confined by definitive rules. Carlos Fuentes said: "Don't classify me, read me. I'm a writer, not a genre." Some authors may agree; some may not.

    A thought-provoking post, Kate. Pinned & shared. 🙂

  16. I've never had an issue with genre myself. I've always read widely and both as a reader and a writer I appreciate the sign posts in a work that give it a sense of familiarity (but not predictability).

    My problem is I don't always know what genre I'm writing in. I didn't know I had written a suspense novel until the publisher I was pitching to said, "This is great. It's difficult to find YA suspense."

    1. Good point, I also think it can change from one book to the next. I started out WF with mystery elements and I'm straight crime/suspense now. Your interests as a writer change I think! Thanks for the comments! Kate

  17. I'm in total agreement with you - genre is helpful for writing, but it's primary use is as a marketing tool, so readers know where to look for their favorite books when they enter a bookshop/go online. The majority of books (IMHO) are a mixture of genres - romance has suspense - till the couple in question get together; Tolkien's fantasy trilogy. 'Lord of the Rings' is full of thrilling suspense. As an indie writer,(aka an authorpreneur) it's taken a couple of years to develop any kind of business/marketing sense, but without it, your books (whatever genre) will sink to the bottom of the ebook ocean - and for that exercise, genre is essential. Great post - thoroughly enjoyed reading it. 🙂

  18. I have happily expanded my repertoire of genre, to my surprise, because of Facebook, and other social media that brings recommendations that lure me in. I too, love the analogy above about genre's being like a recipe for meatloaf. Creativity is what I always find in your writing Kate...and oh my the suspense is compelling,

  19. I definitely agree that genre is a writer's friend, as well as a reader's friend. I read across several genres and the classifications aide me in choosing great books. As a writer, the guidelines also assist in targeting my audience and in seeking out specific publishers, agents, etc. That's not to say we can't blur the lines a bit...for instance, several MG and YA books I've read would be perfectly suitable for both those ages and adults and might prove to be relegated to fantasy mainly, BUT can also eek over the lines into other genres. I think the method that works best for me as a writer is to first just write the story, then as I revise, I use the guidelines from specific genres to determine what the best FINISHED fit might be. Those guidelines are most helpful in "placing" my stories. Thanks for a great article!. Sandy

  20. Great post! Personally, I like the confines of genre, maybe need them. I haven't yet felt as if it held me back. The challenge to write something really good within some parameters is something I love.

  21. Quite an interesting post. I search first for a favorite genre, but I will read other genres if the description sounds good. As for my own writing--a book critic told me I should use the genre "Mainstream" for a couple of my books. I've never really seen that genre anywhere.

    Loved this post. Thank you.

  22. I love this post, Kate!
    The first draft is mine. Subsequent drafts are for selling. I never looked at the fact that I write genre fiction as a negative. I know who my target audience is.

  23. Carole, there are multiple descriptions for "mainstream fiction." Essentially, the story does not strictly adhere to the rules of a particular genre. I'd classify my novels that way--romance with a paranormal twist. The term mainstream fiction also applies to bestselling novels in any category. Hope that helps!

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