What genre am I? No, that’s not the latest pickup line in singles bars, like “what’s your sign?” used to be; it’s the question authors have to ask themselves when they are preparing a manuscript to send off to either a publisher or agent. It sounds like a simple question doesn’t it? One that any author should be able to answer about their own work.
Well either I’m really so simple that even simple questions defeat me, or this is a whole lot trickier a proposition than I thought it would be. I had just assumed because I had elements of magic and mysticism in the novel I’ve written that it would fit into the Fantasy category.
Sure, it’s based on a reality that actually happened, but I’ve taken huge liberties with historical fact; in that I’ve just made it up as I went along with no reference to what actually happened. To me that’s Fantasy; according to the publishing world, however, it’s not.
It seems a Fantasy novel has to be right out there; in a reality that has no discernible relation to ours. No matter how fantastical elements of my story might be, it’s still set on earth in a context that is familiar to most people. All along I thought I was writing a Fantasy novel and I was writing something else.
What that something else is remains a bit of a mystery to me now. I guess you could call it historical fiction because it’s based on an actual event that happened in our world’s past, but doesn’t that usually involve real places and accurate recreations of happenings? It’s also probably not normal for historical fiction to incorporate magic, astral projection, and divination into the story line.
How many genres and sub-genres now exist in the world of fiction writing anyway? Off the top of my head I come up with the following list: Mystery, murder mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, espionage, science fiction, fantasy, sword & sorcery, historical fiction, romantic historical fiction, romance, hard science – science fiction, and we haven’t even begun serious cross-pollination yet. I’m sure you could have something called a romantic sword & sorcery historical fiction novel without even trying that hard.
That’s not even beginning to consider all the different sub-categories for non-fiction, which is a different kettle of fish all together. (That would be under cookbooks, fish stews) The thing is you have to be able to answer that question if you want anyone to even consider taking your manuscript seriously.
It’s all about marketing the product. Which bookshelf will it end up on in the bookstore, where will it blend in the best with the rest of the product? I know it sounds naïve to complain about things like this, but it feels like the blood, sweat and tears that have been shed by authors into making their work unique is a waste of time.
You don’t want to be so unique that you can’t fit into a nice safe category now, do you? Try and stay within the parameters we’ve set like a good little author and we might even try and promote your work.
Just like everywhere else in the world now, nobody likes it if you deviate too far from expected norms. But what does that say about the creative process? If all of a sudden, you’re writing along and you have to start worrying about whether or not you fit into one of the ready to wear categories?
To me it says that your freedom to create is being co-opted by the necessity of having to make a piece fit. Maybe there are some authors who can sit down and say I’m going to write a hard science – science fiction novel. But what about those who have an idea for a story and just want to write it?
Why should it matter so much which bookshelf it’s going to end up on? Shouldn’t what matters be the quality of the story? I would think that publishers would be more concerned about characters, plot and style than genre. If it’s a good piece of writing can’t they market it even if there is an ambiguity about its genre?
It’s all fiction after all. It’s all telling a story about something no matter if you have a secret agent hurrying to prevent an atomic bomb from blowing New York off the face of the earth, or werewolves discussing dinner plans.
Here I was thinking, foolish me, that what would matter most to a publisher or an agent was the quality of the work they were being sent. But certain agents only deal with certain genres, and if your peg doesn’t fit into their slot, then you’re out of luck.
Thankfully, publishers have a little more latitude than agents initially, and with the exception of a few imprints will accept almost any genre. But even than you need to be able to tell them in your query letter which category you fit into.
Maybe I’m making a bigger deal out of this than it deserves, but it just came as such a shock to me to discover that definitions were so important and so exact. More and more, I’m beginning to realize that writing the books is the easy part of being a novelist. It’s what comes after you’re finished that’s difficult.
It’s like a friend said to me the other day in an email, enjoy this time (the writing and editing) for all it’s worth, because it will never be this good again.