Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 19, 2022

How Much Does Genre Matter?

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Genre is often a hot topic of discussion in the writing world, and new writers particularly wonder how much does genre matter?

For some writers, genre is an integral part of their craft.

  • “All I’ve ever done are thrillers, but someday I might like to branch out.”
  • “They couldn’t pay me enough to write anything but Regency romance.”
  • “Lately she’s been thinking about switching from MG to YA mysteries.”
  • “Police procedural fans will snap up whatever he writes next.”

For other writers, not so much.

  • “I couldn’t pin down a genre; my book doesn’t fit any specific niche.”
  • “Well, maybe you could call this a cozy LGBTQ historical fantasy..."
  • “Why should a book have to fit within one very limited set of rules?”
  • “My story is mainstream, literary -- it’s meant for readers who think.”

So that leads to the question of how much (if at all) genre actually matters.

What IS genre?

It’s a quick way of defining what kind of reading experience someone can expect from a particular book. Fans of certain genres have definite expectations of what they do and don’t want to see in the kind of story they love.

“That’s so LIMITING!” someone might protest. “That’s like saying you can build whatever style of house you want as long as it’s exactly 1357 square feet and has three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen and living room. Where’s the creative freedom?”

“That’s so FREEING!” someone else might exult. “As long as I plant enough clues that readers could solve the mystery, and show the good guys hauling the bad guys off to face justice in the final chapter, I can do anything I want with this story.”

Both points are valid. And a lot of writers’ feelings about genre are based on their reason for writing in the first place.

Why ARE we writing?

There’s sure no One Right Answer to that question – although, since genre is only an issue for writers who intend to publish, let’s change the question to “Why are we writing for publication?”

Some possibilities might be:

  • Validation (to prove I can write books people want to read)
  • Money (to at least cover my expenses, or even earn a living)
  • Accomplishment (to take pride in achieving a difficult goal)
  • Expression (to share my thoughts and ideas with the world)
  • Recognition (to gain credibility, honors, sense of fulfillment)
  • Recreation (to have fun making up stories people will enjoy)

For some of those desires, writing within a specific genre will make life easier. For others, harder. Which makes it important to consider the question...

How can genre help you?

Genre fiction is, by and large, easier to sell. Romance has been the top-selling genre for decades, with readers loyally buying every single book their favorite authors release. Mystery is the next highest, and science fiction/fantasy does extremely well, too. While any of those categories could easily contain truly innovative themes, they’re still considered genre fiction because, by and large, readers appreciate knowing:

They can count on the kind of story they want.

  • When someone picks up a book labeled “romance,” they’re going to see by the end that love conquers all.
  • When someone picks up a book labeled “mystery,” they’re going to see by the end that justice triumphs.
  • When someone picks up a book labeled “fantasy” or “science fiction,” they’re going to see a fascinating other world.

And so on.

That holds true for literary fiction, as well. When readers pick up a book reviewed by The New York Times, they can feel pretty certain that their thinking will be challenged or deepened. If the book simply offers the same kind of traditional satisfaction they expect from a romance or mystery or SFF, they’re going to feel cheated.

And it’s the other way around for genre readers. If the romantic couple doesn’t live happily ever after, or if the murderer kills not only the hostages but the entire police force, THEY’RE going to feel cheated.

Does your book fit a genre?

It might. If you want quicker, easier sales and likely higher profits, it probably should. But if that’s not part of your aim in writing, there’s no reason you need to fit into any genre -- you can tell any kind of story you feel like telling, and feel satisfied with having expressed yourself in a book that readers who love it will remember fondly for a long time. (And, heck, you never know: you could also wind up on the NYT bestseller list!)

But let’s say that for now, you’re more interested in delivering a story that readers will feel confident about buying because they know what kind of experience they can expect.

How do you satisfy the demands of genre fiction, while also making it work for you?

Genre highlights can be a powerful tool. So can plot and character, which are the other two elements of your Story Braid. In fact, someone who answers the question below will win free registration to a class on that very topic.

Your Plot Character Genre Braid will be taught via email from September 5-30, going over how to integrate all three elements (plot, character, and genre) for a story that stays strong from beginning to end.

Which leads to our prize-drawing question...

What genre(s) do you most like to write and/or read?

Are they the same? Are they different? Of course they’ve changed since you first started reading children’s books way-back-when, but what’s your latest favorite for reading and/or writing?

Mention either or both -- it’s fine to use conventional labels like “cozy mystery” or “erotic fantasy” and it’s also fine to mention something more specialized. Just think about what you love to (at least sometimes) write and/or read!

Other Offer: if you’d like a Zoom class on “Keeping the Writing Fire Lit,” that’s free for anyone who makes ANY size donation of time or money to ANY charity (not their usual) they feel like God has in mind. It’ll be held next Saturday, August 27, from 12-1pm Eastern Time and you can register here.

* * * * * *

About Laurie

Laurie Schnebly Campbell (BookLaurie.com) always loves creating a class, so when a writer asked about “braiding” she was delighted at the chance to explore an untouched subject. Although she enjoyed braiding her own books, including one that beat out Nora Roberts for “Best Special Edition of the Year,” she enjoys teaching even more. That’s why she now has 52 first-sale novels on her bookshelf from authors inspired by her classes.

Top Photo by Daniel on Unsplash

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64 comments on “How Much Does Genre Matter?”

  1. Loved this post, Laurie, and I can't speak highly enough of your Braiding class. I loved that, too and still refer to my notes from it.

    My favorite genre is romantic suspense, it's what I most enjoy reading and writing. The level of suspense doesn't matter to me. As long as there's a taste of it, a hint of danger that hero and heroine must use honed OR untapped wits and strength to conquer, I'm happy.

    My least favorite genres to read are fantasy and sci-fi. I prefer to watch movies in those genres so I can see those worlds come to life rather than try to imagine, for myself, what the author intended.

    I'm looking forward to your zoom class: Keeping the Writing Fire Lit! See you on the 27th.

    1. Debbie, I'm so glad you still use the class notes -- that's wonderful to hear; thank you! And your description of characters using "honed or untapped wits and strength" is gorgeous; what an empowering way to look at ANY people.

  2. The explanations of how a book ends in each genre was fascinating; it boiled down what had always felt too ephemeral and abstract. Now I understand that any can have elements that are present in others: it's the core goal or purpose that defines it. Thank you!

    1. Lisa, having a birds-eye view of all the genres sure can make it easier to see what belongs where...and also what doesn't quite fit any of 'em, which is also a perfectly valid style of book. It all depends on the reader's (and writer's) taste!

  3. Hi Laurie!
    I love reading fantasy along the lines of Chris Evans, Brandon Sanderson and Brian Staveley. I like the YA offerings of Sebastien De Castell.

    I like to write high fantasy with a strong dose of religion/faith elements. For a while I considered pitching to a Christian market, but much of what I’ve found there is pretty whitewashed (no cussing, protagonist’s faith seems two dimensional). I’m also not a fan of grim dark the way most fantasy authors are trending (Joe Abercrombie - looking at you!) So in pitching to agents I emphasize high fantasy and hope they can see the content in the query.

    I think I really need your class. . .😁

    1. Hermina, I've gotta check out those authors you mentioned -- Brandon Sanderson is the only one I've heard of (my son follows him), and it's always fun finding more. Good job on identifying what you're writing; even though it's less common it's VERY clear. 🙂

  4. Your writing is inspirational as always. My fav genre to read is contemporary fiction for the MG audience. If there is a mystery, which leads to the solving of a conflict, I am doubly satisfied.
    Can't wait to see you on Zoom next.
    Beth Schmelzer

    1. Beth, I like your observation about being "doubly satisfied" when there's a mystery -- that's a good illustration of how readers can enjoy a genre like MG while at the same time enjoying a genre like Mystery. It doesn't have to be limited to either alone!

  5. Both my reading and my writing tends to wander around in Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction (often with elements of all three). Give me strange new worlds, give me mysterious and terrifying creatures, give me sword fights and sorcery and narrow escapes. Throw in a little humor, and I'm there! (Currently re-reading Gideon the Ninth, if you want an example of a book that shamelessly combines all three genres and makes it work smoothly.)

    (For non-fiction I tend to read history or technical stuff, but that wasn't really the question.)

    1. Michael, your line about "Give me...and I'm there" is a perfect description of your own books -- you're one of those writers who synthesizes every beloved element into a story that'll win over identical fans. (And beyond.) What a lot of great roads to follow!

    1. Jennifer, how cool about the timing -- don't you just love when that happens? And liking fantasies AND mysteries best gives you so much to enjoy...between the two of 'em, probably 75% of books published today involve one or both. 🙂

  6. I really love all of the genres, which is why I think braiding can be so important, because it helps stick the plot with a genre instead of bouncing all over the place. My favorites are probably mystery and romance, but fantasy is always fun!

    1. Amanda, good observation about the risk of "bouncing all over then place." And you're wonderfully well covered by enjoying each of the top three genre...tthere sure won't be many books out there that leave you thinking "ew, nothing good HERE."

  7. I read many genres and also non-fiction. Can’t pin down a favorite.

    Oh, genre! In writing a time-travel, I discovered how important it was to refer to it as a “romantic” time-travel. It is not paranormal-like, fantasy-like, or sci-fi-like. “Realistic time-travel” isn’t a genre. Time-travel isn’t real—or is it? Ha! Yes, I might have put my baby in a corner! My next project is contemporary women’s fiction, through and through. I’ve needed to get the time-travel out of my system.

    1. Nancy, even though it's not a happy discovery I laughed at your "put my baby in a corner" -- what a dead-on summary! And you DID find a good identifier for it, even if that's not quite as well-known as your upcoming contemporary women's fiction. 🙂

  8. Hi Laurie,
    I’ve never put much thought into genres as a whole. I think it’s because I know way too many genre snobs that refuse to read anything outside their preferred genre. I mean imagine how few books James Patterson would’ve written if he’d only kept to the Alex Cross mystery genres and not branched out into YA and romance (ok there would still be A LOT of book but you get my drift lol). I like to think of genre more as a idea and not a rule. I mean you can’t have a mystery without a few good viable suspects, just like you can’t have a romance with a single character. So maybe this is just me, but knowing which genre you’re writing is like knowing what to pack for the journey.

    Once again Laurie I’ve enjoyed reading your post and can’t wait for the next one. Keep creating everyone, there’s a story out there awaiting you!

    ~Margie

    1. Margie, what a great phrase about "knowing what to pack for the journey" -- I'd never thought of that as an image for choosing a genre, but it works beautifully! And for those who prefer to avoid genres, it can be fun packing for an Unknown Destination.

  9. I love to write and read Women's Fiction. When I began my writing journey I was so ignorant about genre, I was submitting my work into Romance contests and receiving horrible scores! I didn't know anything about genres. Well, I soon found out, I was writing Women's Fiction. And that's where my heart stayed. Never got an agent, though I tried for years. However, now I self-publish my books which is a journey I just began last year. We'll see how it goes from here.

    1. Patti, it's so convenient when you love to write the same thing you love to read...it's like you're immersed in a world where everything ties in together. While some people prefer distinguishing Work from Play, "living above the store" is sure handy!

    1. Sam, it HAS been a long time...I love your new ID; that's right on target. 🙂 And how nice of you to mention where you're donating...I never ask for receipts because I know writers are good people, but it's always fun to get glimpses of who's being helped!

  10. Great post, Laurie! And I have to say, I always learn a lot from your classes! Although I read across most genres and non-fiction, I write romance because I crave that happy ending. I'm still recovering from reading Gone With the Wind some 50+ years ago. LOL!

    I don't find writing category romance confining--most of the time. But that could be because the stories I love to write fit into a particular category line. I love reading billionaires, princes, and glitz and glamor but when it comes to storytelling my characters refuse to fit into that mold.

    1. Carrie, I'm right there with you in still thinking of Gone With The Wind as THE very first romance! And your returning veterans and adorable kids / pets are every bit as strong a category as billionaire princes.,,who doesn't love home & family?

  11. Love your classes, Laurie. I'm a die-hard romance fan. I write them, I read them, and I'll defend them with my dying breath. If one of the couples dies, then it's not a romance. Might be any number of things, but it's not a romance. The couple need to go off into the sunset and have their happily ever after. I do, however, write in several subgenres under several pen names. Have to keep things interesting. I'm happily donating to a new charity and will see you next Saturday morning.

    1. Erryn, good point about how subgenera keep romance interesting...you're right, there are SO many options that it makes what our grandparents had available seem appallingly limited. And how cool that I'll get to see you a week from tomorrow!

  12. I read just about everything, with a hard lean toward romance or family stories, but I write mostly women's fiction or non-fiction. All my fiction has a touch of romance, but it's rare for me to write a story that is romance-driven.

    I loved your Braid class - I actually need to take it again when I've got a less crowded September/October.

    1. Jenny, isn't it great how romance/family and women's fiction tend to overlap in the areas that a whole lot of us love to read (AND write)? Reading one and writing the other lets you enjoy variety right along with living-above-the-shop convenience!

  13. This is always an interesting debate, genre, literary, other but a good story is a good story. I try to read across many genres but write mystery and historical women's fiction. I like a good romance but I'm not sure I could write a compelling romantic story or even fantasy.

    Knowing the genre helps me as a writer begin to know my audience, reader. If I'm 'browsing' through the store for a good read, knowing the genre helps me focus on connecting my 'mood' with the story I'm compelled to read. Always a fun discussion.

    1. Laurel, you're so right about a good story being a good story regardless of its genre (or lack thereof) -- I like your strategy of suiting your mood to read whatever screamed "buy me" at the bookstore; you're creating an even more enjoyable read. 🙂

  14. Great post, Laurie.
    I'm an eclectic reader and writer, although I find it difficult to go back to young children's fiction after writing YA.
    I look forward to your September class!

    1. Ellen, with your eclectic writing it's gonna be even MORE interesting to see what you'll be working on next month -- with some writers, I know exactly what to look forward to and with you, there'll be the fun of a grab-bag surprise: "ooh, what'll it be?"

  15. Hmm. My very favorite kind of story to read is speculative fiction that involves created languages. (Glad you asked?!) Also, any other science fiction that includes well-thought-out world building. My next-favorite reading category is fact-based fiction about World War Two in Europe. Again, really specific. I do read lots of other stuff too, though. Favorite to write is nonfiction, or very short stories, because I can't always keep my plot lines separated. I have a friend whose novel involves a whole wall of post-it notes for each of his characters and their motivations, actions, backstories, etc. I'm not that devoted to it!

    1. Meg, talk about a good example of a genre that's not top-of-mind for most readers or writers...but that the diehard fans totally LOVE when one of the writers in that area comes out with a new title. (Even if it did involve, ahem, sticky notes. 🙂 )

  16. Great post as usual, Laurie. I love reading romantic comedies and writing them too. But usually mine have a bit of drama as well. Having grown up on a diet of Bollywood films, which used to be (not so much now) a mix of several genres, my writing is influenced by that. BTW,you should watch Wedding Season. It's a great rom-com that you will love (streaming on Netflix).

    1. Adite, thanks for the Wedding Season recommendation...I was just about to the end of my must-watch list, so it's nice having a new one. And romantic comedy/drama is a perfect summary of your books...heck, even parts of the screenwriting!

  17. Hi Laurie,
    My favourite type of book to read science fiction and I still have the Arthur C Clark and Isaac Asimov books I bought years and years ago (plus a few other great SF stories of that era,) I couldn't write one though--I don't have the scientific knowledge. I love to write sweet romance, but when it comes to reading romance novels I tend to stick to a small list of authors whose writng I really admire, as I'm often disppointed when I stray away from the list. Many times I've bought a book because the first few chapters were great, only to find that everything went downhill from there and I couldn't finish the story.

    1. Janet, you're making such a great case for sticking to tried-and-true writers who provide a satisfying read every single time...both the SF authors you mentioned, and the current romance authors who never let you down, are perfect examples!

  18. Shoot, I'm off to the annual Office Party we hold every summer, and will be gone for about six hours with no wifi...but I can't wait to see what other readers/writers mention about their favorite books as soon as I get back!

      1. Aw, thanks, Jenny, it was lovely! We divided our 60 employees into six teams, each of which was supposed to pick a profession and come in costume for it...my team was The Park Rangers, and we won first place. 🙂

  19. Excellent post, Laurie! I prefer genre for the exact reasons you specified -- I like knowing what I'm in for. I write contemporary inspirational romance, which I also enjoy reading. I also really enjoy a good mystery and romantic suspense. I've also read some western historical inspirational romance lately and really enjoyed them. So there are are several genres I bounce around to.

    See you next week at the Zoom webinar!

    1. Lori, I like your "bounce around" description of the favorite genres...it's nice to know you're NEVER going to be thinking there's nothing good to read out there; it's just a question of finding whichever one best suits your mood at the time!

  20. Hi Laurie,

    I love to write inspirational and wholesome romance, whereas, I’ve been on a months’-long kick of reading psychological suspense (romance not necessary). And something cool has taken place over the past few weeks: I’ve been brainstorming an idea for an inspirational romantic suspense. So I’m thinking that the months (and probably years) of reading suspense have been exactly what I needed to propel me to this point.

    As far as when I first started reading books, I was always a Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Alfred Hitchcock & the Three Investigators (hmmm, I sense a theme here). I eventually morphed into my mom’s Harlequin romances. So merging the two—romance and suspense—sounds like a magical combination in my book 😊

    As far as my least favorite for reading and/or writing I would say a tie between fantasy/science fiction.

    Thanks for the insightful post and I look forward to keeping the creative fires lit!

    ~ Chris

    1. Chris, isn't it a treat when things come together that you had no idea (at the time) were leading to such a discovery? Your love of suspense and romance combined with your faith were the perfect preparation for your new genre of writing.

  21. Laurie,

    I love reading romance, romantic suspense, historical romance, (a theme is happening) and mystery, cozy mystery and true crime.

    I don't enjoy horror or thrillers.

    Looking forward to your Braid class and hope to jump on Zoom from my vacation in Sri Lanka (Yes, I was there for the last week of Fatal Flaw, which was truly amazing and a game changer for me)

    Megan

    1. Megan, how COOL that you got to visit Sri Lanka! I hope that winds up in a book; you could fit it into absolutely any of your favorite genres. And while I'm sorry you didn't get in on the end of Fatal Flaw, those posts will stay up through 8/31. 🙂

  22. Love this, Laurie! Most of my favorite books are fantasy and science fiction. That's what I love to write as well.

    1. Lisa, it's sure handy to enjoy reading what you enjoy writing...never any worries about switching gears between genres. Well, between specific books, sure, but that even happens to non-writing readers -- unless they get into a 50-book series!

  23. Thank you for your deep dive into genre, it was a good read! I love historical fiction and enjoy reading outside my comfort zone and being surprised at how much I can become engrossed in non-fiction when the writing is good.

    1. Melissa, it IS a nice surprise when non-fiction is every bit as engrossing as fiction. Seems like most people tend to prefer one or the other, but you can sure get the same kind of engagement with a real-life story as with a made-up one. 🙂

  24. As a new fiction writer this is such a helpful post! I tend to enjoy reading literary fiction the most. If I haven't been contemplating life and all of its challenges while reading, I feel unfulfilled at the end. The best books I've read keep me thinking about who I am and what I'm made of long after I've finished them.

    My least favorite genre is science fiction. I don't enjoy the long descriptions of other worlds/planets. I find it tedious to read. That being said I loved The Martian. However, that was much more about survival and mental toughness which fits right into my love for literary fiction.

    Great post Laurie! Thanks for guiding us to greatness.

    1. Tricia, thanks for a good summary of the feeling readers get when a book that DOESN'T live up to its genre promise..."unfulfilled" is a better description than "unsatisfied." Here's hoping your upcoming books will leave LOTS of readers fulfilled.

  25. I really enjoy reading Magical Realism. I love the tiny touch of magic especially time travel. I also read quite a bit of fictional literature.

    My least favorite genre is mystery. With this type the book seems to me more about “who done it” than character development.

    1. Susan, you're the first person to mention Magical Realism and what a great description of its most appealing qualities...you're right, it's hard to resist a touch of magic mixed in with exciting (and yet conceivably realistic) things like time travel!

  26. Great post, Laurie. I love a good mystery (old school / PD James. But also love female literary fiction. And you’re overview has made me want to check out a few others. Thanks so much, Laurie. Your posts are always thought provoking!

    1. Nan, it's hard to think of a better combination of female literary fiction and classic mystery than P.D. James...isn't she amazing? (Now immediately everyone else who loves both genres will be saying "oh, but don't forget about ____ and ____," 🙂 )

  27. I have to say I’m curious as to your choice of the word “braiding” instead of the normal term “branding.” At first, I thought it was a typo, but then saw you repeated it even in the links. Qué pasa¿

    1. Jerold, I can sure see how those terms could be confusing -- good braiding (of the three key elements of plot, character and genre) DOES lead to good branding! In fact, that'd be a cool logo if we had a Story Braid class T-shirt...anyone know any artists?

  28. Thanks to everybody who shared their thoughts on favorite genres for reading and/or writing -- I always love hearing about books!

    And as the weekend winds down, I fed virtual drawing slips for each commenter into random-dot-org to see who'd win free registration to the Braid class next month...and it came up with #3, which means congratulations go to Hermina! Just contact me at the address on my website in the bio way up top. 🙂

  29. Well done, Laurie! Your braiding class gave me material for rewriting the YA I did it for.

    I most love to read contemporary fantasy, fantasy, or urban fantasy. I write contemporary fantasy, mostly. Add in that, for both, I lean towards young adult.

    Thanks for offering the free class. I couldn't remember if I signed up, so I just did. Forgive me if that makes a double registration. THIS time I created the document I'm supposed to prep for said classes after I register. Now, to figure out which charity gets a bonus donation!

    1. Shari, way to go on confirming your registration -- today WAS your first time, so now you're all set! And it's sure handy to like so many different types of fantasy because with a range like that, you'll NEVER run out of stories to enjoy writing...and reading.

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