Have you ever read a book in which everything seems like a normal high school romance-- with teenage angst, awkward conversations, the whole shebang-- and near the end, a UFO crashes into the school and takes out the love interest? 'Cause I haven't.
That sort of story can't get published, because it plays with the reader's expectations in a nasty way. Everyone who's read this far expects a neat romantic ending-- everyone who wanted aliens crashing in has already left. It's not the best of both worlds, but rather the perfect way to estrange everyone.
And yet, this is what happens when I get bored with a story. I'm originally a pantser, so when I'm feeling stuck, I add something really interesting. For me, that usually involves something unbelievable that I can explore. This gets to be a huge problem when I'm trying to write contemporary fiction, or nonfiction historical approach essays. (Nothing says Anglo-Saxon culture like a kraken that cancels the Norman Conquest. It's historical, honestly.)
When I'm writing a first draft, I have a couple options to keep myself in line. I can think really hard about what I'm going to write and outline, or I can select a genre for myself. Usually, it's the latter.
Picking a genre has its upsides and downsides, as with anything. The upsides are excellent-- I don't find myself writing the beginning of a Victorian murder mystery when all I really want is a pirate adventure. Brainstorming is a breeze, since I automatically tie every idea I get into my chosen genre, instead of running in all directions as I get different plot bunnies. Writing itself is more straightforward, with no errant plot twists.
Unfortunately, picking a genre beforehand is restrictive. Stories are multifaceted-- never meant to be classified very strictly. A good story can have several elements combining into a very different whole. A murder, a romance, and a rather large bunny can either be animal fiction for middle grade, psychological horror for adults, or futuristic dystopian for young adults. The possibilities are endless, and any idea can lend itself to any genre. Perhaps, then, to pick one genre for the entire story is useless.
If good stories are really just conglomerations of other styles of stories, what about genre-mixing? Steampunk, a glorious mixture of historical fiction and sci-fi. Dystopian, a slightly darker concoction of sci-fi and cultural philosophy. Paranormal, a cloying syrup of love and fantasy. The genre classification system has far more than 31 flavors, and you can mix as many as you want... as long as you plan it from the start. If not, it gets to be a jumble that confuses everyone.
Here's the thing. You can pick a single genre to stick with, or you can decide not to. You can decide to mix and meld genres into your own personal style, but if you experiment with that, it must be done intentionally. That means choosing beforehand what you want to do. You don't have to outline your plot, or dig into all your characters, or create a story bible for your setting. But if you decide which genres you're going to bend and blend, you can come out with a unique story that doesn't throw in UFOs unannounced.
Or you can do what I do and write paranormal, dystopian, sci-fi, horror, thrillers, mysteries, romance, and lots and lots of pirates, and call it all fantasy. It's never steered me wrong yet.
Another item on the subject of genre is age group. Target ages aren't important to some, but if you've decided to write a book for little cousin Johnny's birthday, you can't include some of your usual items. For instance, an adult book could easily have friends betraying each other, the love interest dying (with or without UFOs), and a bittersweet ending. For children, however, friends tend to stay friends, even if they make mistakes once in a while. All the good guys come out okay, unless they're really old and had served their purpose. And everything has to turn out happily, or else you have a mob of angry kids on your hand, and even I in my spangly outfit can't handle one of those on a good day.
On the flip side, there aren't many adults who will be completely satisfied with a no-sharp-edges story-- especially not young adults. As teens grow up, they seek to distance themselves from the silliness of their childhood, which makes them eschew the yippy-skippy middle grade fiction and turn toward dark, angsty things that reflect their dark, angsty souls. Okay, I'm stereotyping, but still-- what works for one age group, while it can work for another, isn't always the best.
Solution? Simple. Pick yourself an age to shoot for. Start reading around that age's section of the library, find out the conventions and the rules. Trust me, it's easier to write for an age group intentionally than to go back and edit out all the betrayal and death and cursing. While it's true that kids can handle a surprising amount of dark topics, they aren't ready for anything, so this is something to bear in mind.
This post was meant to promote genre- and age-group-awareness. If you prefer to stick to a single genre and a single age group, that's fine-- you probably don't need this post. But if you're like me and you want to try every single flavor of entertainment, it might help you to keep things narrowed down as to genre and target age. At the very least, it'll keep you from crashing your UFO in the wrong genre.