You hear a lot about genre when you get into writing novels.
In this post I’ll provide a thumbnail overview of two books on genre that I’ve found enormously helpful in my writing.
First, some background:
What is genre?
According to a quick google search “genre” is:
a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.
Even if you couldn’t define ‘genre’ you have run across it in bookstores or online at Amazon, Goodreads, or, indeed, at any number of thousands of sites devoted to the craft of writing.
Western, romance, thrillers, horror, science fiction, epic fantasy, murder-mystery, young adult — these are all examples of writing genres. Genre is, in effect, a categorization system that allows a potential reader to immediately gain a broad idea of what to expect of a particular novel.
Each genre has certain expectations, conventions, and obligatory scenes that pertain to fiction within it. Some are obvious, some are not. For example, a murder mystery requires (almost always) at least one dead body. A romance story almost always has a “first kiss” scene between the major characters. Westerns are usually expected to involve horses and the American west.
Genres are not rigid. You can have a romantic western, a horror-science fiction, or historical thriller. Combinations can be seemingly endless.
Why genre matters
There are two reasons genre matters:
First, book stores use this is as convenient method of categorizing fiction so that potential customers may easily locate similar book types. You find this both online (Amazon) and offline (Indigo Books, Barnes & Noble, etc).
Second, genres each have conventions and obligatory scenes (Shawn Coyne’s ‘The Story Grid’ has much, much more on obligatory scenes). I gave a couple of examples of these above. If a genre novel is missing obligatory scenes and/or conventions, it can lead to an unsatisfying experience for the reader, even if they are unable to precisely put their finger on why.
Having a firm understanding of your book’s genre helps you sell because it:
- enables easier identification of your potential customers
- allows your distribution channels (online or offline) to categorize your book so your potential customers can more easily locate it
What’s wrong with genre?
Those would appear to be two pretty strong arguments in favour of understanding genre. Yet there is a certain distaste for genre writing. Many novelists disdain genre for a number of reasons.
In her book, Fiction Genres (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 11), Marcy Kennedy provides a list of reasons why some writers disdain genre. Here are three she identifies:
- I don’t want to be pigeon-holed
- I want to write beautiful prose
- It takes too much work to pinpoint a genre for my book
I’ve heard variations of all three while chatting with writers (and those who claim they want to write).
Marcy ably debunks all three reasons and a few more as well.
Getting started with genre — two books
if you are pretty sure you’re writing genre but have only a hazy grasp of the concept there are two books I strong recommend picking up:
I mentioned Marcy Kennedy’s Fiction Genres (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 11) above.
This book is a short primer on genres. It will provide two things:
A list of the reasons writers give for not liking genre and a counter-argument to each
A introductory description of six major genres and their sub-genres
- Science Fiction
- Thrillers and Suspense
It’s a quick read and provides a pretty good foundation for understanding genre. Marcy touches upon some of the expectations and conventions of each genre but does not provide a lot of detail.
Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid is a deep examination of genre, including genre types and sub-types, expectations, conventions, obligatory scenes, plot structures, characters arcs, and more. He even contrasts genre writing with literary writing.
I use this as a reference book. I am still working my way through it and it is a wealth of information. Moreover, Shawn provides several analysis tools you can use either before or after you have written your novel. These tools can help you plan your genre novel or identify holes and weak points in a finished draft.
The only criticism I have that some genres are treated in a little more depth than others, but the depth of information provided makes this a must-read for any genre writer.
That’s it for this week.
What about it, writers and readers? Do you prefer one genre over another? Can you describe the differences between each genre?
Thanks for reading, and I will see you again next week.