Genre. It’s a tricky business. Important, but super tricky, because every now and again you find yourself with a plot that doesn’t quite slide nicely into one of those boxes.
If it doesn’t fit in the box, make the box bigger. Redesign the box.
Sell it back to the people who made it in the first place. EVERYBODY WINS.
For example (to use one of Pepper’s novels), what do you with a novel where the characters are college students but they’re also knights? The setting plonks it in contemporary, although the YA/NA debate is ongoing, but knights would suggest something like adventure, even if it’s not tipping over into fantasy. But then the knights themselves are actually run by MI5, so that kind of puts it in the same realm as other espionage stories, or perhaps a crime novel.
Where does it go? Pepper calls it ‘contemporary adventure’, and that’s the closest she can get to describing it. It’s effective enough, but when you’re trying to market a book, sometimes it’s useful to have a genre that’s, well, more traditional.
Genre serves a handful of purposes. It means your reader knows what they’re picking up, at least approximately. It means the bookstore and library know where on the shelves to put it. It means Amazon can list it on certain charts but not others. And when you’re pursuing the kind of publishing route that takes you via an agent, it’s something you need to be aware of when you’re querying.
Describing a book as a “YA urban fantasy” shows the agent that you’ve thought about your audience and you know where your novel fits into the market.
But it’s not always that easy.
I know someone (I know everyone, but this is a specific someone) who is working on a trilogy where arguably, each of the books is a different genre. They each have the characteristics of different categories, and don’t quite fit clearly into any of them. Even more complicated is the audience problem: while the first book could safely be described as YA, by the time the third book comes around we’re looking much more at a thriller with some serious adult content.
So what are you meant to do in that situation? It’s easy to think that it’s not working and give up on the books, or try and squash the life out of them to make them fit into a box, and occasionally it’s important to make changes to what you’re writing. Thinking about genre will ensure that you have a clear idea of the kind of story you’re writing, and you’ll probably write it better, so if you have no idea what you’re doing, then you may need to rethink.
But if you’ve got a genre but that genre doesn’t quite work, like a contemporary adventure or a three-book story arc that takes us on a journey through genres, I want to say to you: don’t give up.
It’s hard, in the writing business, to tread the line between marketing and commercial potential, and telling the story you want to tell. Occasionally yeah, you do have to make changes to something before it can sell. But that’s not what you should be thinking about from the very beginning.
You’re writing a book? Write it how you want to write it, the genre you want it to be, and worry about whether it’s marketable later. Maybe you’ll get to book five of your cross-genre series and realise that there’s no way in the world that a traditional publisher will ever pick it up because it’s ridiculous, but that’s okay. Do you have faith in that series? Then keep going. Keep working on it. In the end, you can always indie publish. That’s the benefit of self-publishing: you can take risks and write things that don’t fit into traditional boxes, because the overhead costs are so much lower that you don’t have much to lose.
When Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett wrote Good Omens, they wrote it purely for fun, with no idea if anybody would ever want to publish it because it was weird and potentially blasphemous and they had a great time working on it. More than twenty years later that book is still selling, still popular, and has just been adapted into a radio series.
So write without thinking about whether it’s too weird for publishing. Write without worrying about marketability. Write for your own entertainment, to tell the story that means something to you, and worry about that sort of thing at the end.
If everything fits neatly into a genre box, great. But don’t panic if it doesn’t, because not all stories can. Genre’s generally a fairly arbitrary descriptor of books, especially when it’s as broad as an audience category like “YA”. (Though the advantage of this is that you don’t have to worry quite so much about specific genres within that category.) It’s not the be-all and end-all of whether you’ve written a good book.
Go forth and smash down those genre boundaries.
I just typoed that as a ‘gender’ (not for the first time in this post). Smash those as well. Pepper and Nat will help you, if you ask them nicely. Or even if you don’t. They’re probably already doing it right now. Following in Carter’s footsteps and all that. Anyway, go write. It’s what you’re meant to be doing, isn’t it?
-- Iron Man